Monday, November 28, 2011

THE BIG CUBE (1969) - Lana Turner and the Unscrupulous Doser


Acid has long been considered a safe, healthy, happy, spiritually freeing drug  --at least by me in the late 1980s. But even then, as a mere sprat, I was conscientious and careful, ever aware of the mind-bending, never-ending roller coaster of terror that results from taking even a quarter-tab too much. This is not to mention the left-out feeling of boredom and missed opportunity that results from taking too little, which can lead to taking more before the first ones have kicked all the way in, bringing you from an enervating semi-glow to a terrifying descent in a flash.

A very, very powerful substance is our friend LSD: one drop can set your soul free to caper through inter-dimensional levels beyond time and space; two can make you god-like. Five drops and you better get sloppy drunk... fast --or, if no one can spare a Valium, you can always chug some Nyquil before the demons get you.

Imagine then, the danger, when sending someone to heaven or hell all depends on the whims of an unscrupulous doser! The difference between 1-3 or 4-6 drops from a dropper, dispensed at a crowded beatnik bar, when the person with the dropper is drunk, malicious, and mad at you for stealing his girl and knocking over his bong! He could send you to the psych ward just by squeezing a hair harder than usual.

Chakris advises his ant client on proper dosage
The CIA did some notorious experiments in that regard, and much clawing out of eyes and off of faces ensued. Even if you know what you're getting into (which the CIA test subject did not) you're liable to claw your way through your face before you make it to the ER and its waiting drip of sweet, sweet Thorazine.

Still, even the face-clawing demons can be 'an experience.' The equivalent of cutting or anorexia in my crowd, was, I remember, taking like half a sheet of blotter in a last ditch effort to break through the veil before the depression made you do something even more desperate (this being long before Prozac's popularity). Most who did this wound up hospitalized. Not me, though! I ended up watching Nightline on a goddamned crappy TV all night, no other channel tune-innable (we didn't have cable), trapped in a black and white nightmare hell.. oh god, I can't even think about it. Save me, Pamela Rogers!

Pamela Rogers (left) almost saves Lisa from being a stone drag 
A similar thing occurs with the maligned Roper, i.e. Rohipynol. Today it's stigmatized as 'the date rape drug,' in the context of--as assumed by the average anxious suburban parent--vicious frat boy parties. Yes, with too high a dosage it can knock you out and leave you to the mercy of horny misogynists, but if the dose is right it merely removes all inhibitions and hang-ups, while only mildly impairing memory and motor coordination. Starting an orgy without some in this day and age is all but unheard of.

At the same time, spiking anyone's drink with it (or anything else) without their consent should be a crime in and of itself. However, in small doses, taken intentionally, with a consensual partner, it can be rather liberating. A half a pill makes for a dynamite Halloween party; a whole pill, however, makes it suddenly three days later, and you check your phone - there's 30 angry messages from your boss.

All of which is a preface to the candy-colored opus of bargain basement glitz and 'now generation' posing known as THE BIG CUBE. An underrated camp classic from '69, year of Manson, and starring Lana Turner as a former Broadway star living the high life in a Mexico-L.A. hybrid with her new wealthy industrialist husband (Dan O'Herlihy) and his sheltered 'pure' stepdaughter Lisa (Karin Mossberg), who dresses like she's still 12 and heading to her first church social.

Lisa reacts not well to the new step-mom, and in a passive-aggressive moment of naivete even takes up with a smooth-talking med student played by George 'you came with your mouth / open' Chakris and his gang of former lovers, hairy clowns, and hipster pallies, including Bibi (Pamela Rogers). The blog by Captive Wild Woman (from whom I cribbed many of these screenshots) loves Pamela Rogers in this film, and I totally dig she digs it:
Saving it all from becoming a big snore-fest is Pamela Rodgers as Bibi... I could never convey the fantastic bubble-brained delivery she strives to deliver so expertly. I LOVE all scenes featuring Bibi and only wish the entire movie revolved around her. (more)
 Alas, Bibi is only on the periphery, as the story has places to go, and people to drive crazy. Chakris' med student status apparently means he has unlimited access to commercial grade LSD and, since he uses it for evil, he's a dangerous mix of Manson and a SHAMPOO-style gigolo. LSD wasn't even officially illegal until around '68 and was used all over for psychiatric treatments (with great effect, making its banning the true crime), so at the time of the film it was no harder to get than, say, 4-Loco. And when the dad conveniently dies in an off-camera yachting accident the stage is set for the unscrupulous doser and Lisa to drive the already shaken Lana over the edge via a massive LSD infusion into her bedside Valium bottle.


An interesting comparison can be made between this film and the AIP title ANGEL, ANGEL DOWN WE GO! (1968), which also concerns a sheltered heiress getting too involved with the now generation and letting a charismatic young cult leader type convince her to arrange the death of her rich parents (Jennifer Jones fills the fading trophy / absentee mom role in ANGEL) and let his gang move into her mansion. ANGEL kind of loses momentum by the time it decides to critique materialism; CUBE ends up going the self-reflexive meta-epiphany Freud route (the only way to 'cure' Lana of her "strange affliction" is to write a play about her boating accident so she can make peace with her drowned husband).



The moments with Lana on acid are freaky enough, but the really scary moment is when Chakris spikes the drink of a guy he's annoyed with at the club--a big brawling bearded guy--who freaks out, starts tearing up the joint and is thrown out on the street raving like a foam-mouthed, face-clawing lunatic. As someone whose been there I had a lot of sympathy for this clown, though he was awfully annoying he didn't deserve that. No one does. If you've been there, good lord, you know what I mean. As I said earlier, taking the right dosage can be like being lifted up the ladder of your own evolution, while too much is like having the ladder shoved down your throat while Hell's full roster of demons climb up from it and peel your skin off and every kid who ever hurt you in grade school materializes like accusatory ghosts to laugh at your extreme skinless nakedness.


Acid in CUBE is, unfortunately, employed almost purely as a weapon, but like firearms maybe these drugs are too dangerous to be left to criminals. Legal, it could be diluted to the point where overdose would prove a difficult task. In the twilight world of schedule-one substances, however, it's a risk in the best of times. So... know your dealer, stay away from sleazy gigolo med students, and err on the side of prudence til your batch's strength is tested. Or you could just say no, but don't you want to see what Hell looks like before, you know... you have to move there?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Men Who Are Frozen: FOREVER YOUNG, CAPTAIN AMERICA, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

Top to Bottom: Forever Young; Captain America; Matter of Life and Death
Is FOREVER YOUNG (1992, top) in its blessed ignorance of the 9/11 to come, a sequel out-of-time to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)? Taken together they form a Moebius strip: AMERICA begins with a psychedelic steampunk abstract version of WW2--replete with octopus swastikas--and ends with a de-thawing in 2011;  FOREVER YOUNG begins in 1939 and ends in the then-current moment, now our own past: 1992. Both film's stars death defy (Mel Gibson in YOUNG is a test pilot, Captain America is a commando) and both are deeply frozen in their (and our nation's) prime. One is motivated by grief, one by game self-sacrifice, but either way a part of what's best in the American mythic male is flash-frozen with them.


In this way there's also an echoes in both of Powell and Pressburger's A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946). bombadier David Niven isn't deep-frozen in that one, but he does hang suspended between life and death in a frozen ice courtroom after he has to jump from his burning plane without a parachute. He falls in love with June (Kim Hunter), a radio operator with Bomber Command, trying to guide him in through the fog. Their chemistry in their scene is terrific. They aren't really in the same scene at all, or even the same altitude. But they fall in love just the same. In wartime there is no room for waffling and being coy. When love strikes, the victims don't wait to give it their whole selves, confessing their love in great spasms of each-breath-may-be-your-last intensity. The thought of having to die and not be with June is too much for Niven to bear, though his angelic summons bearer consoles him he may get to meet her again... when she's 97. If he had managed to get a different operator at BC, he might not mind dying at all. But 97... she won't even be the same person.

So the age thing comes up again. Men are forever young, but the women age. The man keeps himself on ice, avoiding the long-term wear and tear that erases the youthful bloom from the woman. And what happened to the lady Captain America (Chris Evans) left behind in the 1940s, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell)? I appreciate her hot Brit sass but unless I missed something in the credits, by the time 2011 rolls around, she's presumably wicked old, or dead.

In1992, meanwhile, Mel Gibson lives the geriatric-romantic fantasia. He races against time to find his old bitty. What was romantic in the early 90s becomes in 2011 not even worth asking about --a mere regret. Captain A. notes to Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D (though Fury too, presumably was frozen since he fought WW2 as Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos), "I had a date." According to the Comicvine, Peggy Carter is "residing at the Larkmoore Clinic due to old age and possibly Alzheimer's disease."

You think Mel would have let that stop him?


Luckily for Mel's lovelorn pilot he starts to rapidly age soon after he's thawed from his (co-invented with George Wendt) cryogenic prototype. Thawing him, by accident, is a plucky young boy (Elijah Wood) who helps Mel reach his eighties right as he reunites with his lost love, who just happens to have a landing strip-sized front lawn. For Captain A., however, there can be no such strip and no such Wood. Seventy years is just too damned long to pick up the pieces. The next time a WW2 'greatest generation' member awakens from the ice, there will be so much distance between his waking date and WW2 that his lover will be long since turned to dust. And so it is on this past Thanksgiving I celebrated via CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER a country built on the urge to escape... from religious oppression, from time, from the ice (or into it) and, most importantly, from girls our own age.


But as Americans we don't stop there. Even in our new safe escaped-to haven we know that to be free and safe and cozy we must go deeper still, up the tinsel-and-celluloid palm trees, into the pulp novel of the cocoanuts and comics, into 3-D and Cinemascope, ever searching for a new way to get away over the holiday from prying parents, screeching spouses, needy, nagging children, loud neighbors, lack of air conditioning. The theater is where we escape on those horrid summer days when our AC gives out. Is it not so? Freezing ourselves, as Americans, in film, becomes the new sky-diving, the new crack, the new coke, better than a quart of bourbon and a W.C. Fields tape. You just drink and watch until Fields' double vision quadruples, and when you wake up technology and changing tastes and inflation have altered the landscape so drastically you may as well be on Mars.... hangover averted.


In all three of the films it's hard to scrape together even one bad guy, for time itself is the real enemy. Hugo Weaving's Red Skull works towards RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK meets WILD WILD WEST/JONAH HEX-style world archeological domination but since he kills his own Nazi overseers how bad can he be? He's more into world domination than genocide, so is he any worse than, say, Stalin? Captain America of course can't understand that kind of high end politics. His very name and uniform color was always a throw-back to the dawn of comic books, the 40s, when nearly every superhero tangled regularly with the Axis, including Captain Marvel, Captain Midnight, Captain Blackhawk, and so forth, and the colors of their uniforms needed to be bright and distinct from the backgrounds for the crude 4-color newsprint process. The primary colors of red white blue and black are all embodied in the Red Skull-Captain America squabble - he's not the purple skull for a reason - and the frozen element is so he can magically do battle alongside the Avengers. But it's a cop-out. He froze because he couldn't develop a sophisticated approach to relationships, political and personal.


And seriously, does anyone really love Captain America? No. He seems like he was created by some drab civics committee to deflect flak about juvenile delinquency. Comic book fans in the 1980s loved, as I did, the Fantastic Four when drawn by Kirby or John Byrne. We loved the X-Men as written by Chris Clarendon. We loved Frank Miller's stint with Daredevil, but Captain America (I presume since I never read them even though I had a complete run of The Invaders) could never get too dark. He stood for something, and thus seemed wooden, like a support rod for a tomato plant --and here the baroque steampunk version of WW2 is, in retrospect, vaguely disrespectful. In the 1940s comics it was okay to give Nazis gigantic death rays, but it seems now to diminish the true heroism of the men and women who fought and/or died in that war. And when I see villains wasting time staring at glowing green or blue power sources I begin to think of RED SONJA (1985). Man, I really wanted that movie to be good. But it wasn't. Each bad scene and haircut stretched time to tedium where freezing oneself to get to the end credits faster seemed to be already happening, but in a botched version where we're conscious the whole time. Red Skull fares only moderately better in that regard. Red does not mean hot in these cases. Like Captain America, Red Sonja even as a comic character seemed exist solely to indulge some base instinct (patriotism as the last refuge of the sexually frustrated).


On that note, a little background: In the summer, in the early 80s, I'd put my feet up on both sides of the central air vent, letting my crotch cool from the blasts of arctic frost while reading all the above comics, as well as all the DC war titles like The Unknown Soldier, Sgt. Rock, All-Out War, Weird War Tales, and Enemy Ace. What I mean is, I never had time to have a child thanks to permafrost sterility. And all my old real life crushes and lost loves now since aged into dreadful moms and withered forty year-olds. It's enough to make me wear a beard, and a mask of a younger man to cover my too-late completely blushless mummy skin. If I freeze myself until their grandchildren are over 18 is it skeevy to hit on them when I am woken? These are no longer just the concerns of 140 year-old hunk vampires, but of cryogenic America, a country built on the freedom to defy authority, natural aging processes, time, space, heat, humidity, and the lessons of history. 

Freeze me, then, Big Red Sonja Skull, so I can miss Christmas and airport anxiety and just magically get to the time when that AVENGERS movie is finally released... as an eyedrop of digitally encoded biotechnology that lets me dream it in 4-D. Freeze me, December, and let me remember a time when I, too, felt human... and 22.

When I was 22, I had a very good year.

Prepare the blue ray and let's pull this spinning planet to a stop. But.... wait... Lois Lane crawls through the bushes, looking for her Indiana Jones blue pill but there is no blue pill. That's what no one told Neo - the blue pill was a sugar placebo. There never was a choice of not burning in blushing idiot reject hell. Every decade spent hiding in the cold, reading comics while we slowly froze our sperm just postponed our initiation, and now the girl we wanted to ask to the prom is now too old to dance, and long since crumbled to dust or worse, become a mom.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving with the Matriarchy: THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME (TVM-1978)


This rare and delightfully strange TV movie, based on the Thomas Tyron novel, makes fine post-autumnal equinox-style viewing. It's all in the name: harvest, home, and it's about family, and agrarian matriarchal cults that bring back the old ways but.... I've said too much already. They may be listening, the cornucopia held up to the door to hear my whispered clacking.

Anyway, iis a strange feminist-phobic film starring a young Rosanna Arquette, a Bette Davis-eyed matron, and TV vets like Linda Marsh and Michael O'Keefe. I haven't seen it since I was a kid, and I never saw the end. Parents made me go to bed. I missed the ends of countless movies in those hard years. But I heard the end from the kids at school, and I never forgot THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME.

The story involves the typical suburban family settling in a strange New England town. A blind man listens to books-on-tape there. How did he get blinded? What does he know too much about? Why do women run everything like some Neil LaBute nightmare come to life?

Would Camille Paglia dig this movie? She would. Is it the perfect family film to see on youtube in 13 chapters while your dad watches football, or your grandparents aw gee over the family fare that chokes TCM on holidays? It would. Long live the sisterhood of the scythe!

Part 1 of 13

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Twilo When I was Young: TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN Part I

"Sexuality is a murky realm of contradiction and ambivalence. It cannot always be understood by social models, which feminism, as an heir of nineteenth-century utilitarianism, insists on imposing on it... It cannot be "fixed" by codes of social or moral convenience, whether from the political left or right. For nature's fascism is greater than that of any society." - Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae
"I can't help it / if you might think I am odd
If I say I'm not loving you for what you are
but for what you're not." -- Bob Dylan, "I'll Keep it with Mine"
 Haters love to dismiss the Twilight films, sight unseen, but they do so at their own peril. The New Sincerity, you can't escape it, any more than my parents' collective rattletrap beachfront condo can escape the wrath of 2012's rising tides. Will you be drowned in the pool of tweenage tears, or stand up and be counted, neck seared by the puncturing flames of angst along the water's edge? I have my answer. I am walking on air.

When I flew down to visit my mom and grieve my late father this weekend, pictures of all white jogging outfit-clad Kristen Stewart rubbing her flat white belly were all over the USA Todays and NY Times papers floating around the airport. In the rush of pressurized cabins and the endless boarding calls, these pictures took on an unheimliche aura that I found irresistible.  Then, watching ECLIPSE and NEW MOON on my mom's huge flat screen in our off-hours, I could appreciate the films' sublime mix of gorgeous scenery, operatic brooding, and mythic family dynamics. The latter in particular is so strong --the sense of belonging or wanting to be belong, or about to be initiated into a pack of cool older kids--and so central to any alienated youth fantasy's success you'd think it would be a regular feature of teen movies, but you'd be wrong, and that in itself shows what idiots most filmmakers are. Like overpaid hack Joe Ezterhaz's Catherine Trammel, who is given Lecter-like powers of manipulation thanks to her 'Bachelor's in Psychology', Mormon author Stephanie Meyers wins by default, because her fantasy world is genuinely Jungian, not Freudian, not smarmian, not dickheadian. It never snickers or leers, and even when confronted with a bunch of muscled Native American males, there's never a wolf call. Just as the douche bags and dillweeds never make it past the chicken wire fence of our psyches, so too is the Pacific Northwest of Meyers' imagination a perfect mirror of a genuine dreamworld. That it's a 15 year old girl's dreamworld and not mine matters not. In dreams we are all ageless, and gender is as flexible as set and setting, we all dream Tiresias. All that matters for true myth to function is that the chivalry of Camelot meet the wild woods of Hans Christen Andersen; that the nightmare projections of lonely girls making out with their tear-stained pillows in the dead of night sometimes come to life in white-as-a-sheet complexioned animae; that cool music by Bon Iver and Mazzy Star-studded chanteuses find ultimate visuals in the misty mountain hops of the Pacific NW.



As an older viewer I identify neither with the Edwards nor the Jacobs, but with the moldy old-growth forest bearing witness to their duels; the Merlin-Green Man bearing fathomlessly patient witness to the unfurling events from the vantage point of the fern camera. And since most straight guys in their 40s like me wouldn't give the Twilight films a viewing even if they were forced to on a plane, I take it as a duty to flaunt my championing, even as I question the 'rightness' of it. I'm not sure I'll ever actually pay to go see Breaking Dawn in the theater, but I salute its existence eventually on DVD rental. And when I'm old and enfeebled like T.S. Eliot I'll probably buy the complete set on blu-ray to watch all alone in long sittings when I'm emotionally disturbed and afraid to leave the house. But until then, come with me into my past writings on this great series. First, ECLIPSE:
"...the realization of modern myth requires teenagers to resonate, as all fairy tales involve the very young. Never forget that in the days of King Arthur, the oldest person–Merlin–was probably in his early 30s...  Considering the sexist neoconservative consumerism-product placed orgasm-oriented flicks that predominate so-called ‘women’s pictures’ or rom-coms, TWILIGHT alone understands the supernatural power that can be had in rejecting bland hand-me-down values. The pro-virginity aspect is the 21st century Antigone move, the way not being a virgin was in the 1920s. I know very well the way a woman you haven’t had sex with can inspire like no other muse, and the way a 100-year old lecher in a teen idol’s body can wreak merry havoc on pouty-lipped teenager brain stems, and I know these things to be true, and that as an artist or writer, that kind of inspiration should always trump the pitiful and misleading call of the proprietary orgasm. Edward knows it too…. sigh (Bright Lights, 1/11)
Then, on the first two films and the general 'concerned mom' backlash over the second film I wrote the feature length (for Bright Lights Film Journal)

"Eternal virginity via sacrifice in the Twilight-verse thus equals the preservation of youth, of sparing a beautiful creature the passage into the world of cruel, devouring nature. This is essentially what Edward works towards in refusing to punk Bella out to the vampire way of life, to prevent her from having any traumatic or otherwise significant experiences, to keep her isolated from "the real." Yet the imaginary level he exists in hinges on promises of danger, sex, and being turned into a vampire for it to hold any interest at all. For Edward to, in a sense, "exist" in Bella's life, she must stay virginal; the blood he drinks is supposedly from animals or something, but it's clear his spiritual power is derived from keeping Bella sustained in perpetual adolescence." - "Someone to Fight Over Me." (Bright Lights #68, May 2010)


I bring in this Neil Diamond song as 'Shilo' is an excellent anima example, Shilo as the Edward to Neil Diamond's Bella: "When no one else would come / Shilo, you always came."And of course, Twilo (left) was a once very popular, now closed, mostly gay but extremely hetero friendly all-night dance club - the place to go when the rest of New York was finally closed, and the pink dawn was breaking, and you were still too high on ecstasy and/or cocaine and/or acid and/or shrooms to consider going to sleep.

That breaking dawn vibe of your heart beating like mad at the thought of bedding one of the three girls still up with you and how to sneak away from the others, and where the hell your keys are but you're so high you don't care, that's what the Twilight films conjure up for me, that and the aching soul vibe that my mom's LP of Neil Diamond's 12 Greatest Hits gave me as a six year old in the 1970s, where Kate Jackson was my Shiloh, and she always came, after I had to go to sleep though (Charlie's Angels came on past my bedtime)

And, from 1/7/08 (The Beautiful and the Darned) after the first film came out:
"TWILIGHT it must be remembered, has nothing to do with "real" high school or "real" horror films - it's a fantasia of maturity deferment; a snapshot of how pregnant with dangerous, giddy possibility the world seems before one gets their first "bite." It's permanently frozen at the moment of rapture/rupture, right before the disillusionment of the first sexual experience (see also: THE VIRGIN SUICIDES) with a guy who promises you the world, then splits. The idea of an ageless vampire here becomes an excuse for the eternal virgin prepubescence; an eternity dwelling at the edge of the cliff that all your friends are now beginning to dive off of (and looking kind of busted when they resurface, if they ever do).

"Aren't movies primarily vehicles for escape? In the case of TWILIGHT, what the girl demographic is escaping from is their own wooden stake penetration, the pink dawn of the mighty crowing cock. Who can blame them? I remember my revulsion at seeing hairy 1970s nudist magazines being circulated in elementary school. Could people really be doing these things with their... ? It seemed unsanitary, violent and most of all, painfully humiliating. The giddy night of the prom starts out flowers and anticipation, it ends up pig's blood and Trip Fontaine splitting before you wake up in the wet grass of the football field.

"What eased the fear of this sullied maturation when I was of TWILIGHT age? Pamela Sue Martin as TV's NANCY DREW, Kate Jackson in CHARLIE'S ANGELS...much of TV at the time fostered a dependable sexlessness, the promise of an eternity of hand-holding and chaste confessions of love and adoration, as opposed to a humiliating orifice merger."
  Finally, from 1/20/09, Tortured Longing is the New Coke:
"TWILIGHT fuels the fire of sadomasochistic alchemy wherein torture becomes pleasure, denial becomes acceptance, submission becomes freedom. Through recognition and release of the associated fear, not having becomes having it all. The girls of TWILIGHT ween themselves off desire through recognition of its impossibility. They’ve been set free, like Jonathan Pryce at the end of BRAZIL, looking out at the clouds while one of his torturers (Michael Palin) sadly realizes, “he’s gotten away from us, Jack!” These TWILIGHT girls have gotten away from us, Jack. They’ve found a streak of neo-Victorian repression that leads them clear away from Big Brother and his sublimation dream wheel."

And PS - there's nothing gay about... THE IMMORTALS!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pre-Code Capsules 9: BEHIND THE MASK, DR. X, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, BLESSED EVENT, THE BLUE ANGEL

BEHIND THE MASK
1932 - ***
The great forgotten Jack Holt plays the worst federal agent in the world  in this pulpy thriller, endangering his witnesses and letting himself be snowed over by any old disguise or pretense. His saving trait is a masochistic yen for weird undercover work; he's not afraid to go to jail and pose as a convict so he can win the trust of nervous flunky Boris Karloff, so he can hit him up later for a job in a racket that hides dope in caskets and is masterminded by a shadowy doctor. Edward Everett-Sloan is around and there's a vast spy network full of dark-eyed bit players.  Meanwhile Holt's girl, Constance Cummings, tries to save her dad, a doctor in 'a lot of trouble' and a little romance bloometh 'twixt her and Holt. And she's even remarkably capable with a .45, which is a switch for these things.

It all climaxes in a scene where the masked evil doctor makes a great show of refusing to give the tied-down Holt anesthetic for a planned vivisection, because he wants him to experience the magic moment when excruciating pain becomes ecstasy. Batailles-esque philosophy and dimestore pulp come together with the Universal horror stock company! But it's not until the last five minutes that it approaches the cock-eyed madness of any five minutes of DR. X (1933).

BLESSED EVENT
1932 - ***1/2
If you've been always a bit cold on Lee Tracy this is the film that will make you warm up. He's like Jimmy Cagney crossed with the adenoidal scarecrow as the quintessential fast-talking gossip columnist, ushering in a new low in journalism via the ratting out of 'blessed events' - i.e. children born less than nine months after the couple's been married, or outside of wedlock, or etc. Remember when that was a scandal? Me neither. Highlight: Tracy bluffs Allen Jenkins' mob hitman via a monologue about an electric chair execution he witnessed that brings Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY-worthy manic pantomime to some balls-out ghastly places, such as his imitation of the wobbly walk to the chamber, his voice cracking with hysteria, body spazzing sharp and jerky like a Zulawski hero as he describes the anguish of waiting in hopes of  a reprieve, the shaky steps of the last mile, puking up the last meal, the rigor mortis and hair burning. It's the sort of thing that only the pre-codes could delve into, and this delves so deep you're quaking along with Jenkins by the end, and all traces of your dislike of Tracy have been obliterated.

Roy Del Ruth directed and the rapid patter pace is awesome except when Dick Powell's lame songs slow things down. Edwin Maxwell, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Jack La Rue, and Rita Cunningham all come over to the table, adding plenty of moxy. Add references to Jews, ("Do you know many Jews there are in New York?" - "Oh, dozens!"), Amos and Andy, and a wild-eyed girl 'in trouble' begging for a reprieve herself, played with deranged ferocity and desperation by a ragged-looking creature named Isabell Jewell (left), and you have a whipsmack pre-code that makes your scalp stand on end. PS - You will also come out of this film learning what 'nadir' means.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE
1932 - ****
It took awhile for this pre-code Paramount to resonate with me, but now I dig that it doesn't 'Americanize' the dialogue like so many lazier Hollywood films, instead playing up the linguistic difficulties where everyone in Europe is constantly searching for the one language each of them knows just a little bit of, as in the excited way the Italian hotelier translates EE Horton's story of how he got robbed in his room.

Many viewings later I love the elaborate conveyance of gossip, so that Miriam Hopkins is getting verification requests from duchesses mere minutes after being spotted in the lobby of her lover by a nosy count. (and it's all rot, of course). While Herbert Marshall isn't Cary Grant, or Melvyn Douglas, or even Ronald Coleman, he swoons well and convinces you through two layers of subterfuge that he's genuinely confident in his sexuality, in love with the moon (he wants to see it reflected in champagne) and the women around him, each more beautiful than that moon.

And who wouldn't be in love with both Hopkins and rich perfumier Kay Francis? Hopkins displays her wide, loose midsection proudly in some tight-clinging dresses, giving you the vibe she moves from the center of her c-nt. I love the way their first kiss on the couch seems to make them slowly dissolve until the couch is empty--and Francis is at her most glamorous and poised, even while maintaining some of her flat-chested androgyne aura earlier films like THE COCOANUTS (1929). As always, Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles are effete, bitchy suitors; Gustav Von Seffeyritz  humbugs with gusto as the chairman of the board who suspects Marshall is a crook, just as he is. But who would be able to resist robbing Kay Francis?

"I'm a saaad panda..."
THE BLUE ANGEL
1930 - ***
BLUE ANGEL might best be understood as the chrysalis between the caterpillar of the silent era's 'deformed circus freak loves pretty trapeze artist' plot boilerplate which Acidemic contributor Budd Wilkins has termed the "masochistic melodrama" genre (See his fine Chaney reviews here)  and the sound era pre-code butterfly of the Hollywood Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations. As such it's neither here nor there, like watching Wallace Beery get stuck in the doghouse door trying to sneak out of the cast of MGM's FREAKS so he can defect to Paramount (though in truth, he went the reverse direction).

Either way, Emil Jannings is a damn unsightly kind of creepy crawler, way uglier and uncharismatic than Beery, and it's clear Sternberg can't stand him so rather than stir our sympathy, Jannings' out-maneuvered Herr Professor inspires nothing but disdain. His smug judgment of Lola and her postcards (which he finds in his student's schoolbooks) makes his downward spiral far less interesting, his slow motion expressionist pantomime reaching for grand tragedy in a way that makes you think Chaney is down to his last few faces. With his bug-eyed outraged head facing the camera from the same angle, round glasses and Satanic facial hair swirling, Jannings works very hard at keeping his head always in the center of the frame while his body twists and turns like a big old bug caught in a spider web. But to what effect? Nevah vanted doo.

 

Shot in Weimar Germany just before her Paramount-ordered nose job, molar removal, and strict diet, the Dietrich we see here could be her own sister, one who stayed in Berlin mit die schwarzwaldkuchen und bier. But Von Sternberg is in fine form; he lights the Blue Angel club like a crazy expressionist side show and if you focus in on the lighting and shadows as opposed to Jannings, it definitely does become the masterpiece so many claim.

Still, more than in any subsequent films, Sternberg's masochism in DER BLAU ENGEL is a downer. Always portraying the suitors of his lovely star Dietrich as buffoons, bug-eyed blowhards, shameless masochists, or authoritarian bullies (or else they rarely speak at all and operate as sex objects themselves, like Gary Cooper in MOROCCO), Von Sternberg's obsessions can sometimes seem the cinematic equivalent of a jealous, angry lover defacing pictures of his rivals even as his studio bosses insist he cast them. One would normally say of a Paramount pre-code that it's fun and sleazy but is it art? But in DER BLAU ENGEL we know it's art, and it's sleazy, but is it any fun?  Nein!

DR. X
1933 - ***1/2
Time and digital re-colorization has been kind to the early technicolor hues of DR. X. What used to look blurry and muddy and depressing now glitters with glowing emeralds, murky pinks and streaks of deep, bloody reds that make it like a candy fountain of shadowy death. Fay Wray is the daughter of Lionel Atwill, who gets lots of ham time as the titular Dr. Xavier, out to trap the "full moon killer" amongst his atmospherically-lighted collection of scientific colleagues, each of whom grows more indignant and suspicious the longer we hang out in their labs: Dr. Welles has made a 'study' of cannibalism and keeps a heart alive in an 'electrolysis solution' but his missing arm preempts further suspicion; Dr. Haines on the other hand was shipwrecked for years on a desert island and his tasty, plump colleague was never found; Dr. Rowen studies lunar rays' effects on criminal minds but notes that "the lunar rays will never effect you and me, sir, because we are 'normal' people." Mmm...hm.


And dig the post-modern self-reflexivity of the the climax, with the doctors all chained to their chairs, their pulses linked to vials of blood that overflow like a buzzer at the top of a Coney Island strength tester when they're aroused by the murder tableaux staged before them, just like you in the audience! Scream ladies and gentlemen! The Tingler is in this theater! In the subtext, the duality inherent in language gets a lot of subliminal attention too: Xavier's outrage over each of the new accusations of his colleague belies its antithesis: "Dr. Rowen could never never be the guilty one," means the opposite, while Lee Tracy regularly promises not to do something while then turning around and doing it, as expected by the morgue attendants and security guards he bribes to look the other way. Meanwhile, Xavier's grave pronouncements of things like "There can be no doubt about it, gentlemen - this is cannibalism!" are allowed no argument since they carry his medical weight. And now that you're not annoyed by Lee Tracy anymore (see BLESSED EVENT) maybe you wont want to tear his picture apart with your bare hands when you learn he gets Fay Wray in the end. Chained for your own amusement, indeed.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Screams within Screens within SCREAM 4


O Courtney Cox, you were my favorite Friend, but now with lip all Howardly and skin glowing like a radioactive-luminous mask, and your Gail Weathers character still yoked to David Arquette's perma-wincing sheriff Dewey, yours truly is a SCREAM 4 for the Munch. Just as the ghostface killa mask is frozen in a 'Scream' so your once gorgeous face is now frozen in a world you never made, and which you haunt in a shadow state like that other memorable Munch painting, Madonna.


The rest of the original cast is also back, with changes reflecting the relatively longer stretch since the last installment. Sidney's a glum memoirist, Gail a struggling fiction writer stay-at-home wife to Dewey the sheriff, whose bewildered, pleading look lets you know he can't even find his cell phone yet remains determined to do all the decision-making for the community with no help from his shrewd wife. He's the sheriff! Yet in a way he's almost an accessory to the crime through his sheer idiocy. Upping the ante of hot mess women in Dewey's wife lurks a cute but also clueless deputy with DSM-IV-darkened teeth. This woman is so asking for death she doesn't even think to unsnap her gun out of its holster as she's stalking a mass murderer whom she knows in the next room!

"I love incompetent sheriffs!"
The last time a sheriff and deputy were this outmaneuvered was in Monogram's 1944 classic, VOODOO MAN (above, my praise here). As happens there and in SCREAM 4, the characters eventually learn to not even bother calling the cops, who would likely just shoot them by mistake. Still, since Dewey's refusal to accept any help even from his far more competent wife endangers everyone in town, it can't even be called well-meaning! Just lazy scripting.


But that's just annoying logic issues, what marks SCREAM 4 as the logical extension of the first three: media desensitizing, is in full swing. Obsessively watched by the local townsfolk on their iPhones or sMartPadZ, the film-within-a-film about the events in the last film/s, Stab, has led to an inexhaustible slew of sequels in which to provide a refracted meta chorus to the ongoing events, locking the future and the past in an endless trope lasso. Thank God, for this refraction is all the film has going for it, a post-modern edge used like a knife, for like few others Craven understands that self-reflexivity heightens scariness rather than detracts from it. And in that sense the films get scarier as the self-referential sequels accrue. The first SCREAM had just itself  to bounce off of in relation to other horror films, namely the 80s slasher cycle; SCREAM 2 was centered around the premiere of a film-within-the-film based on events from the first film, called Stab; 3 brought the cast to Hollywood for the making of the Stab sequel. Now that we've come back from a needed break for SCREAM 4, we find the Stab sequels have continued unchecked on direct-to-video and are up to SCREAM 7, and everyone is watching them on youtube, even while they're being stalked and stabbed in 'real' life. And now the 'ghostface' voice is actually available (within the film's diegesis) as an iPhone app, so now you never know if it's the 'real' killer and not a prank.

Focus, please.... focus
It's all meta only in the way that the characters say the word meta and pretend to be empowered even as they tastelessly prank call each other mere hours after learning their friends have been gutted. In this, strangely, they are less like slasher characters and more like the eloi in The Time Machine. No one thinks about arming themselves with a gun or a knife, or staying indoors at night, or not answering the door when the person on the other side refuses to identify themselves, or yelling for help, or calling the cops, or looking in closets in advance of dropping their guard and popping on earbuds. The film would have benefited from someone who doesn't wait before she is the final girl to pull one of the ever-present butcher knives from out its tasteful wooden counter top knife block, or gouge her assailant's eyes when being strangled instead of just overacting with the bugged-out eyes and the gasping.


Another saving grace is the metatextual terror of aging going on across the original cast, all now long in the tooth, in one way or another. And the real killer's voice sounds less scary and more just old--a Stuntman Mike from beyond the grave--hackneyed from the ax of over-familiarity. More could have been made of him sounding older, ala Hamlet's father's ghost or Charlie on Charlie's Angels. We never see ANY old people in the film so G-face's voice becomes--even though we know the voice isn't 'his' but some phone app--the film's sole representation of age and decay, and therefore more sad than scary. Meanwhile there's this smearing the lens with Vaseline and deep color washing that makes all the girl's faces glow in a CGI airbrushed blur. It can only be some stipulation in the Cox contract--she wants to be filmed in layers of digital airbrushing, therefore all the girls must do likewise--but it works since no one knows the difference between movie, anime, digital, analog, and real life anymore; the color-style gloss underwrites a miraculous disconnect that helps actors and characters hide from their own aging or sense of self-preservation. They even cheer bloody movies based on their own future deaths, like a man cheerfully devouring his own foot and working his way along the digestive ouroboros centipede until all that's left is a desert snifter of credits and end theme crunk.


The only one who sees past it all is the mighty Sidney (Neve Campbell, au natural) who, like all chastened lovers in films finds herself on a book tour for her self-help memoir. With her self-serious pout and moistened eyes she's well-aware that the only one who survives these events is the one who takes them super seriously, but even she doesn't bother to employ standard dirty fighting tricks until all of her friends are dead. The rest of the cast lives only for their death scenes and have all the survival instincts of Yvette Mimieux and company when la morlocks come calling. Suspense is ratcheted to a point but once these kids are stabbed and bubbling blood out their mouths there's no longer pain or tragedy --they become merely actors game for a throe, even tossing off bon mots before their death rattles.


The sad thing about survival is this: If you're lucky you get old. If... you're lucky! And that's a very sad, sad joke. In Hollywood it's double the pain. And is it perhaps better for your legend's longevity to not get this lucky. Marlene Dietrich and Garbo both retreated into exile to spare their fans the shocking Baby Jane-in-the-mirror moment.. Marilyn Monroe perhaps knew that if she took her life at least her fans would have what they always wanted--an immortal Aphrodite for the icon-stellation--and she could finally get some real sleep far from the flashbulb stings of gossip arrows.

The alternative to death or hermitage is not always good: Hollywood is cruel to those over 30, like that game of 'carousel' in LOGAN'S RUN! Man, is SCREAM 4 really science fiction? Imagining a future where screens and streaming have so overtaken us that we don't even have to worry about a Japanese ghost girl getting us through the screen like THE RING because we're already inside, hoping just to get as much face time with the camera as we can before we get stabbed, and to have the bloodiest, best death scene, because in the simulacrum life is measured not in heartbeats but in hit counts (I'm paraphrasing the killer here, though shan't reveal its name). 


In the end, that ducky overbite on Ms. Cox and the Streisand-ish Vaseline fog over all spells out that mummification on the altar of the image is the answer. It's pretty squirmy when Cox makes wry references to her hit sitcom, COUGAR TOWN, by coming on to nerdy film geeks but it's nothing new in Hollywood, just a scary look at the pyramid inversal created by the web, that great arbiter of eloi equality. The nerds were never meant to have this much power, or get hit on by this kind of weird, desperate onabotulinumtoxin A Mrs. Robinson. They don't know how to handle it. But handle it they shall for suddenly they run the world, like a box cutter battering ram right through the screen, with a ripping sound.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pauline Kael, Wonder Woman, Bright Lights #74


The latest issue of the awesome BL is up, and in it I salute Pauline Kael, the voice of madness in an age of damned dull sanity. And there's William Leung's How to Play a Superhero: Lynda Carter, Popular Culture Feminism, and the Search for Wonder Woman

"As long as popular culture has a place for a woman hero, Wonder Woman is relevant; as long as Wonder Woman is relevant, Lynda Carter is relevant." -

The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael

Reviewed by Erich Kuersten


"We miss her and need her today — someone with enough literary clout that her praise can define and refine the response to a movie the way she helped define and refine the responses to Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and Carrie. There are recent movies that have gone panned and forgotten but would surely have been embraced by Kael, like Observe and Report (she would have saved it from getting lumped with Paul Blart, Mall Cop), Enter the Void, and the Twilight series (panned by adults who haven't seen it or are ashamed to admit they have — she would no doubt recognize that they fill a too-long-ignored, underserved demographic). She was confident enough to get wise to Fellini's and Woody Allen's essential shallowness... she was wary of film critics who prized themselves for elitist judgments. "I don't trust critics who care only for the highest and the best, it's an inhuman position, and I don't believe them. I think it's simply their method of exalting themselves" (265)

We need her! Luckily there are some great critical voices still out there, in the Village Voice, in fact, and on websites like Bright Lights Film Journal!