Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Friday, August 03, 2018

Angels of Death Special Edition VI: FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!

Welcome to violence, wrapped up in the flesh of woman, a deep raspy voice grabs us right from the get-go with this terrifying forward, the soundwaves of his voice on the tape measured out for us in some macabre dance of manly depth. He mentions dancers in a go-go club and the music explodes. Three uninhibited dancers enflame male lust, while grooving out to wailing garage band grind on a tiny stage in darkened room. A crew of bloated middle-aged male faces crowd around in the audience, puffy with drink and desire, the kind of mugs not even a mother could love, frenzied with cigars and darkness, shouting: 'Go baby go! Go! Go!" The girls wail and rock in their bikini ensembles (no stripping), the music builds, the shouts intensify. Everything builds until it all explodes into sunshine with a maniacal laugh and the title credits come rolling up as the dance continues into a sunny race down the open American highway; the girls are out of that darkened cesspool, speeding forward into the wasteland (the open planes of the American Southwest - in this instance the areas in and around the Mojave Desert). Each woman is in her own little souped-up roadster, leap-frogging each other and blasting their way freer and freer. The theme by some garage outfit called the Bostweeds roars under them like a souped up engine: "Pussycat is living reckless / pussycat is riding high / if you think you can tame her / well, just you try!"

Already we're in love, we'd never dream of trying to tame any of them, or this film - all we can do is hang on. It's Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! a 1965 drive-in aimed by Russ Meyer, the master of movies featuring big-breasted, sexually voracious, tough-talking women burning through men with uninhibited carnality, and, hitherto this film, 'nudie cuties' and southern-fried gothics (like Mudhoney, and Lorna) made in pursuit of the long green accorded trash hits like Poor White Trash that had been playing the tail end of drive-ins for decades, and, also in 1965, Motor Psycho (a kind of The Searchers, but with bikers instead of Apaches). Pussycat was something else altogether-- there was no precedent for it, no antecedent. Cinema had never seen women like the three wild go-go dancing, off-road dragging thrill-seeking maniacs, nor would it, sadly, ever again, a few random female characters aside).

The threesome are now the stuff of grindhouse legend: Varla (the terrifying Tura Satana), the tough butch sadistic leader, in the black Porsche, who shouts her lines in a haughty monotone; Rosie (Haji), her right hand underling/lover, who speaks in a low-key Chico Marx accent; and the wild card/joker, Billie (Lori Williams), the curvy fun-loving sexually carnivorous blonde who tags along with this due for the wild kicks they provide. (Hell, we would too).  Wild stuff happens wherever they go. And besides, if Billie's antics get her into trouble with--say--go-go patrons stalking her, she can rely on Varla to beat the shit out of them.

There is never any mention of they're being in any gang. They have no matching jackets or tattoos, not even weapons; Varla doesn't even bust out her knife until the climax (Rosa carries it for her, like a nurse.) There is no posing or growling or trying to act tough for these three girls - they're the real deal. We learn this pretty early on, when--and some might say he deserved it for hitting her when she was already letting him walk away--she breaks a young All American boy Tommy's (Ray Barlow) entitled little neck.  For thrilled first time viewers we're in brand new territory. We have no idea what's going to happen, all we know is, any man who crosses them better watch out.

Susan Bernard worries she might be hogging all the oxygen. 


The girls' destination is a Mohave flatland, replete with tire markers for boundaries, that car nuts like themselves use for racing and timing trials; truck tires are laid out as boundaries for a race track loop. It's the kind of place that is usually deserted for miles and miles in all directions and, well, if you've never been way out alone in the middle of a desert before, then you know how eerie and ominous it gets, how long you can go without seeing another living soul, and yet how far you can see in all directions. It feels dangerous; if a bunch of rapey bikers showed up, you'd have to rely on their kindness or your courage. It's an eerie feeling, how quickly the law and order of the country can be left far behind, and horrible crimes could occur on you and your friends right there in the open, for hours and hours, and no one would know - and even if you tried to escape, there's nowhere to hide, and even if you get in your car and drive away, they have miles and miles in which to catch up and run you off the road. We see this 'sudden lawlessness brought on by the assurance of distance in films by Peckinpah (Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West), George Miller (Mad Max, the Road Warrior), Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes), among others. There's a deeply troubled understanding that, even in a country with laws and police, if you go too far off road, into the wasteland, either to homestead or just to run some timing trials, you have to be ready to defend yourself, and you should never be dumb enough to let yourself be led to far away from your trailer or homestead leaving your children and/or hot wife unprotected so a bunch of guys on bikes (or horses) can just ride up and run riot while you're off chasing a decoy. And unless you're going to kill them yourself there's not a damned thing you can do about it all.

"you don't have to believe it --just act it."
Into this wasteland, LA's own Mojave, came the hot rods. Teenagers were souping up dad's hand-me down Studebakers and drag racing out there, taking advantage of there not being a cop for miles to drive like maniacs. It's a distinctly American, distinctly mid-60s, pre-summer of love / post-big studio system phenomenon, when southern California car culture was all the rage (ala American Graffiti) and drive-ins the perfect place to see violence, sex, and speed and submarine races while getting it on in the back seat. Don't forget too that the mid-60s marked the time when the bikini--long a staple of French beaches--finally gained acceptance in the States. It was new-ish, so just having the word 'bikini' in your title, could guarantee box office interest. This was coupling up with teenager mobility and customized hot rods, as seen in AIP pics from the same era, like Velvet Vampire with its flashy yellow dune buggy, or climactic car chase scenes in Dr. GoldfootBikini Beach, etc. It was also the dawn of the transistor radio, so not only would we now the voluptuous young bodies in all their splendor on the beaches, but they could bring their garage band radio stations and dance the frug or whatever and hula hoop until the sun went down. Old duffers like Buster Keaton scrambled for fishing-related excuses to get out there and discreetly ogle.

Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) - Bonehead dates a Mermaid
But over away from the relative safety of AIP's beach movies and The Horror of Party Beach, was the adults-only tail end drive-in entree. A nice-looking All-American boy, a "safety-first Clyde"  and his groovy obedient chick come roaring up to where the girls are., 'the best measured strip of land around' for timing trials ("It felt fast.... real fast!" - what a tool). Were headed for trouble from the moment Tommy gets out and stretches a little too patriarchally before them, as if to say, I'm the only man here so naturally I'll be in charge starting now." His girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard) comes out when Varla notes of his bomb "you could time that heap with an hourglass" ("did someone mention my figure," she says all cute. Then adds "shall I set up shop here, Tommy?" and already you can't wait to see him get roughed up). Soon squabbling and chicken runs will give way to something darker.

They race, he wipes out when Varla cuts a corner just to chicky run him out of control with a sadistic laugh. Humiliated, he comes running up after parking far away, like he's just been violated. Linda screams as if he's already dead.  Tommy's tiny enough the towering Satana could break him with her bare hands. So she does. It's still morning, presumably. Later, at the local gas station, they spot a a giant hulk of young man and his crippled father peeling away in a pick-up; the leering attendant mentions the pile of loot they're sitting on... Billie meanwhile is bowled clear away by the sex appeal of the hulk. They realize now where they'll be heading to unload the body and maybe even create a few more.

With each trip to the well, my cup to fill, I come away with no admiration for what may well be the Big Sleep of 60s drive-in exploitation - a favorite that makes me feel just a little cooler every time I watch it, no matter how many times that is. I know I'm not alone in cherishing this film, one my all-time favorite movies. I love it so much I almost hate to talk about it even here. Luminaries of the trash arts like John Waters (who first turned me onto it through his book Shock Value), and feminist film critics like B. Ruby Rich alike, recognize its genius and can convey it more cogently perhaps. I can only vouch from my dozens of viewings that, as Waters says, "it ages like fine wine." Even now, elements are coming out in that bouquet. From the sound mixing to the framing, the gutsy brawling saxophone of club jazz combo score -- always somewhere between a tough TV cop show and a strip club, and editing, everything is surprisingly professional and opened up -- there's no canned audio dubs; as in John Waters, there's nothing primitive in its execution. Sure they shout all their lines when outdoors, to make sure they're heard - but they never sound muffled and sloppy, like they would in, say, an Al Adamson movie, or all canned and overdubbed, like in a Doris Wishman (or combo, like HG Lewis) and -oh! oh! What delicious lines! Jackie Moran's gonzo script roars by like half beatnik version  of Ben Hecht and half punch-drunk George Axelrod. You can feel and hear the air between the actors and the cars, the voices, that blowsy wailing saxophone it's Hollywood studio level professional. The acting may be flat, mostly (only Haji and Stuart Lancaster seem born for this weird style of dialogue, almost like Samuel Jackson was born for Tarantino's), but the dialogue is hilarious so it works perfectly.

Haji as the right hand woman / lover of the tough gang deb leader Varla, is someone I never really paid much attention to her before, being too enthralled by the statuesque curves of Lori Williams, and the evil of Tura Satana. But then, Marx Brothers fans like myself don't really appreciate Chico Marx, either --he's not as anarchic as Harpo or as intellectual as Groucho -- but as he holds it all together, his presence makes them 'the brothers', the way Haji makes it a girl gang even with just three people. It's Haji's Rosie who defines what they are and aren't, who never seems too be hamming, but deadpan cool - and always in that weird accent. She sticks with Varla, but she's also very aware of the danger they're in, that this time she may have gone too far. She's not as freaked out as Billie, but she's also clearly got some kind of moral conscience. And she makes the best use of any line she's thrown. While Tura and Lori both shout their lines like they're yelling over a lawn mower. Haji purrs, low, almost halfway to herself, comments like "his car's okay.... only the color needs changing.. maybe yellow?" and my favorite line of all, when Linda offers them a soft drink. "Soft drink, she asks?" notes Rosie, incredulously, "we don't a-like nothing soft --Everything we touch is hard."

But while Rosie is to be fathomed for her middle child subtlety, Varla is one of the most amazing and badass characters in all of exploitation cinema, a force to be reckoned with. Tura Satana's a giant, beautiful in a weird almost alien way - half-Japanese yet towering, pale skin dark hair fierce eyes, flattish face, a sneer that seems to melt into the fourth dimension. We wouldn't see a smile that scary again until the alien smiles down a Harry Dean Stanton in the Nostromo docking bay. Yet Tura is never not all woman, even belting out hammy jujitsu moves or swinging her head around in a crazy kamikaze driving style - it's clear early on she'll go to any lengths to get her fierce kicks. We never learn why she's such a crazy bitch, but who cares? She doesn't seem to have got that way by suffering past male abuse, but just by being a true Woman, stripped of all phony decency.

Then there's Lori Williams' Rosie, who gets all the best lines and looks the sexiest in her white go-go buts and hip-hugging white shorts. Her lust after 'the Vegetable' the brain damaged body builder who the old man (Stuart Lancaster) uses like, as he puts it, "a piece of mutton", is truly hilarious ("I don't know what you're training for, but as far as I'm concerned, you're ready." What Williams lacks in subtlety she more than makes up for in giddy oomph. When she's getting drunk at lunch with Stuart Lancaster (as 'the Old Man') she sounds like she really is drinking (there ain't iced tea in that Cutty Sark bottle), noting it's "it's been known to be passin' out time." With Varla out back seducing Kirk to get the loot location and Varla jealously spying, and the Vegetable taking Stuart up to his room for a nap, it's time for Linda to make a dash for it, but this is still the desert, and walking anywhere on foot without a day-long head start, you just wont outrun a jeep, especially if driven by a pro like Varla.

For those who aren't familiar with it (and it can become hard to track down since the Meyer estate keeps the rights notoriously close to the vest) Pussycat is slightly easier to find than the rest of his films (aside from the studio-made Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) though they're sold on the Russ Meyer website, the DVDs aren't the best - they look like merely remastered from old tapes rather than source prints. So why someone like Arrow doesn't do a deal with them is a lingering mystery. I hear there's been a Blu-ray thing in the works for years now, but who knows why it's taking forever? (Apparently the original negatives are long lost and video masters are all that are left, which is too horrible to contemplate).

The film's been compared in more ways than one to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and indeed there's a kind of bent similarity but it's one with a feminist throttle all the way open, for the buzzing isn't Leatherface's chainsaw but Varla's wheels driving a car against 'the Vegetable' smashing him against the wall until he's a crinkled mess. They'll have to send him away "from a lot of things" and we imagine suddenly that Carmen Sternwood would be a great candidate for this gang, to take Billie's place, as would Claudia Jennings from Truck Stop Women (1974). Well, we can't have everything, unless we want to make a movie ourselves. I'm not trying to put any ideas into anyone's heads, but it seems to me a badass girl gang crashing a lot of different genres would be just the thing. A lot of folks have tried and they end up being the usual overwrought nonsense with one too many well-scrubbed thugs locking girls in trunks, strippers with sun-damaged silicone lugging bags of cash in and out of hotel lobbies, sunglassed douchebags smirking into rearview mirrors, abusive backstory, flashy meaningless over-editing, in other words missing the whole point. The only film of late I can see even coming close is the 2010 low budget Aussie pic, El Monstro Del Mar (which is kind of like the Faster Pussycats vs. the Sea Monster).


Faster is so good it's natural to want to explore more Meyer films. Alas, while the quality of the filmmaking is always superb, the films aren't well restored -- the negatives may have been lost over time, with Meyer's iconoclastic insistence on handling all the video recording and distribution leading to a current state of stasis as far as Blu-rays, restoration, etc. Even so, there's no film quite as perfect as Pussycat in the Meyer canon. Changes in distributor demand led Russ from black-and-white to color for the rest of his films. Off-road mayhem changes to bedroom farce, and his earlier backwoods lustful Erskine on the Half-shell insanity tempered down into historical epics (Blacksnake) and generally insane softcore farmer's daughter style rutting (Up!, Beneath the Valley of the UltraVixens)

These days I have a whole new appreciation for Haji's Rosie, The co-star of Motor Psycho, her gorgeous breasts ever hanging out of a torn blouse as she bounces around in Rocco's truck through the desert on their quest for vengeance. 
Even his vehicular homicide film from the same year (1965) wasn't in the same league as Faster - by keeping the bad guys men, it becomes a 'roughie,' part of a short rape/revenge trend in mid-60s exploitation. Now it's notable mainly for a chance to see Haji in a more prominent role, as an aid to bereaved vengeance seeking vet played by Alex Rocco (!) Motor Psycho chronicles a trio of rapey male bikers who happen across a lot of gorgeous ladies lolling around in revealing outfits, guarded only by their furious middle-aged husbands. After they gang has left enough destruction in their wake, Haji and veterinarian and Alex Rocco take revenge, but for my money it's too little too late. Plus, there's a very uncomfortable feeling afoot, with a deep encouraging of the Mulveyan male sadistic gaze as well as the Studlar masochistic spectator position, as our eyes all but molest these gorgeous women, and then must watch in horror as the bikers act on our eye's desires, almost like they're our own monster of the Id (from Forbidden Planet). Very Clockwork Orange in that respect - as all our libidinal leering comes back to haunt us. We'd never get that uncomfortable today, when Hollywood films sexual assaults in such a way as to leave us feeling personally violated, traumatized, but never uncomfortably complicit through our own ogling desires

we may not approve of their methods- Motor Psycho

From thenceforth the style changed. Drive-ins no longer wanted black-and-white, so- Meyer moved into color and relaxing censorship let him drift ever closer into hardcore. One film of his I do have, SuperVixens (1975) has scenes like the one with mail order bride Uschi Digard running around the farm naked but for feathers in her hair and waving ears of Indian corn outstretched as if auditioning for some X-rated margarine box cover, while Stuart Lancaster naked but for a chicken over his groin runs in an intersecting direction - breaking up a montage of them screwing in all sorts of farm locations, enough material if the shots were dragged out as long as they'd be in lesser hands, to make some shaggy farmer's wife story as Uschi doesn't get enough from Stu (I'd love to read his thoughts on all this - he's a fine, grounded actor whose gravitas imbues the second half of Faster Pussycat with such relief pitcher oomph, and who also appears in nearly every other Meyer film, as well as other sexploiters like Mantis in Lace --for a balding old dude with a cigarette voice, he gets around). Everywhere he goes 'Super'-sized glamazons throw themselves at him and he seldom wants to reciprocate, either trying to fight them off and arousing the ire of their kinky boyfriends (who like to watch, like John LaZar) or angering the farmer or hotelier into chasing thim with a shotgun. Violence explodes from the wild cartoon fury of nymphomaniacal Super Lorna (who takes an axe to her man's car in a jealous rage and then is later killed in the bathtub by Charles Napier as the investigating cop after she taunts him for not getting it up). This becomes the norm for Meyer, when death is just a joke that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, an extension of sexual frenzy wherein everyone loses- all the girls in Motor Psycho wind up dead or traumatized. And even in Meyer's big budget Beneath the Valley of the Dolls two women get a pistol shoved in their mouths for being lesbians. You can call that homophobic, or misogynist (I do), but more than that, it's misandric, viewing men as a bunch of easily bested slobs chasing cleavage over any cliff handy and resorting to violence like a temper tantrum.

Uschi Digard in SUPER VIXENS - the Mail order Milk Maid Fantasy cranked to cartoonish extremes
enough to make Jayne Mansfield blush; (but we see the problem with color film vs.
black and white as far as preservation - it's all muddy, especially without the negatives to strike a restored
print from for  a good DVD or Blu-ray
Our hero is very rude not to indulge the weird come-ons of Super Cherry while her boyfriend
(John Lazar) watches excitedly from the driver's seat.
It's violence but the wrong kind, not the badass liberated gangland karate of Varla, but a kind of extension of pent up sexual madness -- it's not 'constructive' as a machination for kicks as is the violence is in Faster Pussycat. We don't 'feel' the violence in Pussycat. We're not meant to share Linda's frustrated terror at the macabre luncheon ("she's a sick girl, pops"), or Tommy's  humiliation after the race around the track. We're meant to view this pair of clean-cut normies with a kind of savage's eye; their small world has been enlarged, their sense of middle class entitlement blown clear and loose, by this experience. We're not rooting for them and it's liberating. We wouldn't be in a similar position until Alberto Di Iglesia's Perdita Durango (Aka Dance with the Devil), a film a highly recommend


One of the unusual aspects too of  Faster -- there is no sex in it whatsoever, yet there's implied lesbian pair bonding and -- in the house of the three men, some implied rape/abductions done by the Vegetable with the Old Man as instigator/spectator (revenge for a past slight done - when he crippled himself rescuing a girl off the tracks, who didn't even stop to see if he was all right but just caught the next train). According to interview, Haji didn't even know she was playing a lesbian until the shoot was almost over, but that's okay- this is 1965, after all, that they don't wear it on their sleeve is quite realistic for its time. We wouldn't really think of it if not for Billie's pronouncement that 'I can turn myself on a dozen different ways while you only got one channel, and your channel is busy tuning in outside," adding "you really should be AM and FM... you one channel chicks are a drag." There's a moment where Varla tells Billie, "Rosie and I are going to take a walk..." and somehow we imagine there might have been a softcore lesbian moment if this was 1969 instead of 65, or if Meyer had time, and the girls were down. But who cares in the end? There's no time for such stillness.

It all moves too fast to find out just where and what goes on between them, there's no time for sex, even implied in this film -- the few times (straight) sex is tried it's interrupted either by either a train (which throws vegetable off his rhythm since his dad doesn't like them) or a scream from the escaped girl (which interrupts Varla and Kirk), and at the end, a rape the Vegetable is too upset to perform despite his lecherous old man's shouts. This lack of sex mark a key turning point for the Meye canon, as sex will become the obsession in all Meyer's films from this point forward. Feminism and amok 'super'-sizing will all be in service of sexual fulfillment - it being no idle job choice that gas stations with their big phallic pumps figure so prominently in the Meyer utopia of desert flats and homemade California hot rods. The cars will still zip by, but our heroes will be settled in cabins ant tract homes, at least until their horny broad burns the apartment down or he comes home to find her making it with the milkman, unless that sort of thing turns him on.

Still, the women of all Meyer's films are, mostly, still celebrated for being strong and aggressive, and the men, for the most part, are shown to be insecure idiots who talk a big game but when a woman comes for their zipper like a piranha, they freak out and make some excuse. Their macho shit talk is exposed as little boy bravado, the masculine house of cards comes caving in with a cold feminine laugh.

"You girls nudists, or just short of clothes?"
As for the rapey duo of Vegetable and old ma, we never really get the details of one ominous pronouncement that they have "all the land to hide those pretty ribbons in when we're done with 'em" but we wonder how the good brother, who doesn't seem to have any kind of a job except nursemaid to the pair of them, can stand back and let these kind of atrocities go on. It's fine that the script doesn't bother explaining that, it's too busy tossing out one great line after the other, and perfect to drink to as there's copious opportunities and justifications, such as when the old man grabs the Scotch bottle out of the grocery box Kirk is bringing in, "it's a little early for that, old man!" notes Kirk. "The train is late!" / "nothing's on schedule today!" When I watched this over and over in a drunken euphoric bender haze on a 6-hour tape with Mesa of the Lost Women, Cat People of the Moon, and Spider Baby. Can you imagine how perfect?
Linda realizes her 'rescuer' is taking
her back to where she just escaped from

 In the end it doesn't matter what the old man instigated or not SPOILER ALRT -- he will be dead before nightfall, his wheelchair overturned, his long greenbacks fluttering in the wind. Something else is gone forever, too. Movies will never feature this much crazy thrills packed into Hawksian 'enhanced' real time again. There'll never be a character as unhinged and gleefully butch mercenary as Varla, not in the Meyer canon, not anywhere.  This is the steep price of civilization. Nowadays producers would be too worried about arousing feminist / lesbian film scholar ire, actresses too worried about their image. When there are badass females, they're too prettified, too cartoonish or torture porn-ish, they 'got that way' because of child abuse or some other male thing.

But not Varla. When she snaps the neck of the All-American Safety First Clyde Tommy we're not meant to care. As Varla told him right before "you can still walk away, buster!" and he agreed. Hitting her from behind after he taps out is a real no-no. It's super shady, showing for all his good boy shorts-wearing yacht club squareness, he's no gentlemen - clearly considering a woman as hardly worth Queensberry rules, and needs to be put in her place before he leaves, like taking out the trash, or closing the front gate. Big mistake, Eight-ball!

Welcome to violence, the word and the deed, that narrator said back at the start (and is never heard again). But the stay is short, like a delicious lap dance to a short song, the film ends much too quickly, leaving us with the only two 'other' boring characters in the film: Linda and the 'good' brother (Paul Trinka), who buys lots of big hardcover books over mail order -"and they're ain't a picture in one of them " - a sure sign he's "growin' away from us, boy." But irregardless, the others are all dead now (or 'destroyed' in the biceps) and it's not even dark yet. The film is over so fast we need, want to keep the electric thrill of it going with another film. But what comes close, if, as I said above, the Meyer films tend to drift off into rape and bedroom farce rather than badass bitches tearing up the swinging' miles.

That's the saddest part of Faster, the realization there's almost nothing else like it, anywhere. And there should be. It's a damned conspiracy. Women are becoming more equal, but for my money that's missing the point. Equal to what? The point is of no return, we're reaching it.

There's a great line in John Waters' Female Trouble, wherein--praying her son is gay, and ever-trying to hook him up with dudes from the block--Edith Massey worries being straight will mean her son will have to "work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries" and that "the world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life."

Oh man, like Female TroubleFaster should be taught in schools, shown on the very last day, to promote rioting. We need rioting and destruction, fast. This one-channel world is a drag.  Is it really so bad to want to see some strong women set the whole damned world on fire? It's only a damned movie! I think gender relations will survive.


Actually -For some Meyeresque thrills, make sure to get the DVD set of Honey West starring Ann Francis. Lori Williams has a poolside cameo in the first episode (left)! Francis plays detective Honey as a capable swinger, both Emma Peele and John Steed rolled into one -- her handsome boy Friday may do the heavy stunts, but she's the lead and never lets him forget it (and there's no romance of male dominance - she calls all the shots). Each episode is only a half hour, so no time for filler either, though there is a rather repetitive reliance on the usual spy gadget gaggery - there's still feminist sex appeal and capable sleuthing. And of course:  Julie Newmar as Catwoman


Monday, July 16, 2018

Criterion's Dietrich Box's Masochist Supplement (Verboten!)

The arrival this month of Criterion's Dietrich-Von Sternberg Blu-ray boxed set (all six of their pre-code Paramount collaborations) answers an unspoken prayer I made a few years ago. I envisioned a different cover to the box, and some different extras, and MOROCCO looking slightly less faded, but only a Herbert Marshall-style ingrate squawks when prayers get answered. God--it seems--really is on speaking terms with everybody. BUT - what it really needed, or I would have loved to see, was an extra via Gaylyn Studlar. Let this humble post at least fire a salvo towards redressing that wrong.


The excellent liner notes and extras explore all sorts of great elements, both thematic and texural, except for a glaring omission. There is no exploration of the very obvious masochistic subtext running through these films like a hot river. The extras are guilty of shamefully ignoring the work of progressive film theorists like Steven Shaviro and--especially--Gaylyn Studlar. Her book In the Realm of Pleasure (left) deconstructs the Dietrich Sternberg films' kinky symbolism via a theory of the cinematic spectatorial gaze as inherently masochistic. This is a theory far different from, say, that of the sadistic gaze postulated by feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey. It's Mulvey's theory that has been not only utilized but rigidly enforced in feminist film studies the last few years, to the point the masochistic gaze is almost heresy. In fact, feminist film theory has been under such brutal siege by the Mulveyan male gazers that--like ISIS in ancient Babylon--all the great old edifices are in danger of being torn down. Even Mulvey herself is like, whoa, chill, it's just a talking point, a theory, not some buzzkill holy writ. (I paraphrase).

Studlar's book, alas, is rare enough that even the more open-minded academics don't often know about it. But they should, for--read along with revisiting the Dietrich-Von Sternberg collection,  is like opening a magic window into these films that makes them glow and resonate far beyond the--admittedly true and enticing--consensus of the historians, critics and academes on hand in the chosen melange of extras. Was Criterion scared it was too academic, or too kinky? Or were they worried Camille Paglia wouldn't be roused from her blood slumber in time to rescue them from third wave feminist reactionary clawing?

As it is, I heard Studlar's name mentioned only once in the extras. Homay King's excellent extra accompanying Shanghai Express mentions her concept of the 'heterocosm' i.e. an enclosed dream world outside space and time in which the film exists (i.e. it's not the 'China' of reality, but a kind of dream repository centered around the mystique of the 'Other').

Rather than just try and sum up the deep points Studlar makes in The Realm of Pleasure, I'll suggest you watch the films first then I'll point you back towards some of my previous posts exploring cinematic masochism, the voyeur as masochist - subject to having no control of the events in his experience, and how that relates to infancy and fear of abandonment by the mother and the embrace of death as pleasure being the ultimate act of pure control, of conquering death and moving past the pain-pleasure rim of the wheel right to the center. Yeah, man!

50 SHADES OF GREY, 9 1/2 WEEKS, EXIT TO EDEN, SECRETARY + SHE DEMONS, Franco, Bunuel, Josef von Sternberg, Alain Robbe-Grillet (7/31/14)

According to Gaylyn Studlar (4), true masochism can only exist in dreams, conjured more out of a need to safely experience the abyss, to trick out the satisfactory endorphin rush that surges to accommodate sudden pain (as in the heroic measure of wasabi or hot sauce); it must be done in person or in the mind where we can imagine a transformational ecstasy that ordinary movie watching doesn't accommodate. The shocking Times Square marquee, coming attraction, or the film capsule review might enflame or awaken these latent desires, but the actual film will never measure up; it's the difference between remembering your own crazy, erotic dream and hearing about someone else's. It's the difference between seeing the covers for films like Kitten with a Whip or Naked Under Leather vs. the actual--inevitably disappointing--movies.

As per Studlar:
"The fatalism of Von Sternberg's films is not simply an acceptance of death as an externally imposed inevitability but the expression of the masochistic urge toward death as a self-willed liberation. In choosing death, an illusionary triumph is created: the illusion of choice... (48) 
"...masochism's obsession with death may be interpreted either as the expression of a universal instinctual urge or as the result of the masochistic wish for complete symbiosis with the mother and a return to nothingness,.... Eros is desexualized and resexualized; death becomes the ultimate fetish that fascinates with the promise of a mystical unity." (p. 123)
Only Bunuel and Von Sternberg ever seemed to grasp this concept, and it's interesting that both adapted the same masochistic text, Pierre Louÿs "La femme et le pantin." For Bunuel, two different actresses play the Dietrich character, Conchita, in That Obscure Object of Desire: the sweet girl who entices him and the cold calculator who continually manipulates him into bankrolling her mercenary mother (and then bailing). Presumably teasingly withholding sex, but always promising it, she instinctively understands he needs and appreciates this long-term unfulfilled longing (he's rich and respected, she may be the only objet petit a he has. He might have some sexual liasons with her but we don't see them and they're never long enough to make him feel 'satisfied.' Some lovers are 'done' as soon as they climax. Well, some characters never want to be 'done' - it spoils the game, turns a long elaborate twisted ritual into a disappointingly short-lived gratification followed by shame and emptiness (be that due to impotence, premature ejaculation, or other). Similar to the two-faces of Concha in Bunuel's film, Marlene's Concha wears two outfits for separate seductions - pure white to lull the guards into letting her see the prisoner; a black mourning outfit to sway the prefect.

Maybe the whole trick to getting what you want is to deliberately want to want it rather than to have it (and so want your old wanting back, which is a double negative). Most magic tricks are part sleight-of-hand and part misdirection, but in masochism, misdirection is the trick. The slighted hands of the clock are frozen at bedtime, right before mom comes in to kiss you goodnight and turn out the lights. If you never get the kiss, the lights stay on and the demons under the bed can't get you. (2014)

If you know Marlene’s history you know she liked to sleep with a lot of different people, and broke the hearts of adoring males (and females) all the time when they realized they would never “own” her totally had to learn to share (which her husband well knew, as he archived all her various love letters for her), and that’s where masochism and sublimation comes in. Imagine being JVS and you’re basically living at Marlene’s estate, painting a picture out on the lawn and here comes Gary Cooper’s car and you know that you wont be sleeping with Marlene all weekend, and will just have to wait til she gets bored of Cooper, who is taller and younger than you, etc. Do you throw your canvas to the ground and have a fit? Get a gun and run around the estate like the thuggish gamekeeper in Rules of the Game? Neither one will get you anywhere but in jail or laughed at. The artist Von Sternberg on the other hand lives for that moment, that flush of Oedipal rage and shame, harnessing its power, converting the emotional energy via artistic sublimation, Sternberg’s painting merely becomes darker and more twisted… better, in short. (full - 2009 - Bright Lights)

From: (Butterfly Moanin: DUKE OF BURGUNDY and Faerie Bower Cinema)

And so it is that these films show us a variation of sex we are, as single perspective organisms, forever denied in real life: we get to find out what our moms were like before we were born. It's something we'll just never know in real life, except through keyholes, screens (projections, paintings, pictures) dreams, and rebirth. In these films we finally understand, perhaps, why the patriarchy, the male gaze as per Mulvey, is so terrified of the female orgasm. I don't mean the little 'sneeze' girls get, or even the cherished involuntary vaginal contraction versions, but the one--eternal female orgasm--that comes later, and last forever, and increases and increases, feeding its own orgone energy flame until the alchemical awakening of the Kali destroyer / creator goddess, a withering force as devastating to the phallic tower as a great flood, is achieved, and even then... When this occurs, the male gaze is blinded in the flash, and not even Oedipus' stiff braille guide rope can help him find the door, let alone the keyhole. (More)


Cinema's Naughtiest Germans:
Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child: THE RING, SHERLOCK JR., VIDEODROME (2004)
Death Driving Ms. Henstridge: GHOST OF MARS, RIO BRAVO (2003)
Naomi Watts: Cinema’s Post-Modern Mother of Mirrors
Hope vs. the Scandanivian Svengalis: THEY CALL HER ONE-EYE; I'LL TAKE SWEDEN

ANGELS OF DEATH - II: Great Women of Horror
ANGELD OF DEATH III: Badass Brunette Edition
ANGELS OF DEATH IV: Lynn Lowry Special Edition 
ANGELS OF DEATH V: Magic Slut Split/Subject Maenad Edition

Friday, July 06, 2018

Wild Wild Wuxia: Amazon Prime Streams the Shaw Brothers

It's July --perfect time to cozy up in the AC with a seemingly limitless stream of cool Hong Kong fantasy cinema from the late 70s-early 80s streaming free on Amazon Prime. Thanks to the popularity of Star Wars and its HK vairants like Zu, Warriors of Magic Mountain, this period was rife with wild weird wuxia films dozens of steps more fantastic and unhinged than the usual kung fu plots and storylines (all those intergenerational wars between marital artists ever vying to be number one in the martial arts world). But these were a solid step away and/or above, with sweeping romance, monsters, myths, dangerous challenges, pursuits of ancient magical weapons and kung fu skills, etc. Way more fun. And above all - there are women in them. Not just accessories or damsels needing rescuing, fair princesses and dutiful moms, but warrior women - snake girls, expert in the handling and throwing of deadly serpents, or spiders, and even clans of martial arts nuns, the Er Mei, often led by a deadly ruthless leader with a strict 'no men' policy. These women are all granted respect, and the guys have no trouble fighting with them out of some misplaced chivalry.

from Bat Without Wings (Battle Wizard, top)
In general the classical wuxia output of this period, especially the work of director Chu Yuan, displays loads of atmosphere in vast ornate, gorgeous sets in which indoors and outdoors cease to be relative terms, as restaurants lead out to cliffs and small pond oases lie like ledges halfway down steep drop-offs. The films I mention here have a few things in common, recurring characters, directors, fight coordinators and above all atmosphere, strong female characters and roots in Chinese mythology. Chu Yuan's stress of atmospherics and focus on the novels of Gu Long, thus the Jungian resonance and horror atmospherics, the approach of Bava level-lighting on ornate mist-enshrouded sets to the point it's like Black Sabbath spilled over onto a Chinatown train set. Since the Shaws clearly reused, expanding and adjusting, their beautiful sets ceaselessly, each film is able to generate ornate vast sets of perfect beauty and just wiz through them as characters pursue clues and each other all around mystical landscapes.

To my eyes it makes a huge difference. In largely outdoor photography of many productions (as in King Hu film like Dragon Inn) the imagery often comes across as washed out and drab on DVD while the indoor studio bound world of the Shaws gives the impression of a vast perfectly modulated miniature world full of lush waterfalls, cliffs, mist, cherry and plum blossoms, and ever-setting suns, where huge beautiful restaurants stand ever ready to become scenes of crazy group fighting, or secret passages lead to huge beautiful caves filled with glistening skulls, coffins and spiderwebs and where the forests at night are dappled with cornflake snow amidst the cherry and plum blossoms. The effect is like an alternate reality dreamscape - a vast roofed ancient China-themed miniature golf course-style paradise. In other words, my kinda escape from summer heat. So blast the AC and move your chair so the vent is blowing right on your face, and get ready for weirdness, Hong Kong-style.

Special Note: People watching Prime through Sony Blu-ray players--at least the older models--won't be able to access closed captions on these for the English subtitles (they're in Cantonese); it's just a discordant note between Prime and Sony still unresolved. However, you should just invest in Apple TV or a stick or something, as it's worth the upgrade. I know I'm glad I did, especially since we moved to Crown Heights where the cable doesn't get El Rey - which is the great channel that used to show all these. A thousand curses on the inferior and out-of-touch Optimum! 

(1980) Dir. Chu Yuan
*** 1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

Even if they have no familiarity with the wuxia genre, Fans of the colorful atmosphere-drenched 60s horror of Mario Bava, those classic horror fans like me who swoon over the beautiful the colors of his Black Sabbath and Kill Baby Kill, should seek out Bat Without Wings, for the patience and creativity with colored gel spots to create rich atmosphere is very similar, with vast caverns of cobwebs and (terrible) statues made by a crackpot mad artist--a former mad rapist-murderer--who's allegedly being held on a remote island full of elaborate traps after being apprehended or supposedly killed years ago by a barrage of martial arts masters in a wild, confusing prologue. If you don't mind occasionally losing the threads of the elaborate tapestry plot as it zips around from place to place, you can just soak up the atmosphere and bizarre horror touches like the ghost of one of the Bat's victims appearing at the gate of her homestead, all bathed in green and holding her severed head. Not only that, but the titular bad guy (Feng Ku), made up like an Asian Gene Simmons, storms in and out of ladies' chambers with the heavy lightness of a roadshow barnstorming evil villain come for his rent. He's delightful! A round little maniac who flies around slaughtering whole parties of trained security guards just because a girl in their party looks like another girl. Mwahahah. With Chen Shan as the leader of the easily slain Hell Gang. The inescapable Derek Yee is the master swordsman endlessly tested for skill and sent on wild missions to find out what the hell is going on -- is the Bat really dead or what? There's something far more complex and sinister, naturally involving a missing 'Bat' blade that can render its user ultra-powerful. Some want it found and destroyed, others have secret agendas for power. Mwah hahha!

 I kept trying to take some decent screenshots to show how gorgeous this all looks on the right size HD TV, but it doesn't translate as well to small screen snapshots - still you can get the idea.

 Special note for sensitive viewers: there's talk about the Bat being a serial rapist-murderer, but we never see him actually rape anyone. We do find his early victim sent home in parts and as a mysterious green ghost, but that's just wuxia, and the limbs look so fake you can all but see the mannequin serial numbers. The actual plot turns out to have a whole mess of Scooby Doo-style turns and tricks and all ends in a giant, beautifully-lit cavern, full of magic and the clanging of swords, no subjugation and misogyny. It's way cooler than that. In fact, in the right mood, in the right environment (like home in the AC during a sweltering heat wave) sheer gonzo heaven, just don't worry if the plot gets away from you. In a Chu Yuan production you can always just trip out on the swirling mist and gorgeous landscapes, eerie caverns and ghostly green figures in the distance...

(1981) Dir. Chu Yuan
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

It's pretty to look at, with some funny and strange characters and complex machinations so over-the-top they're like every old dark house mystery from the 30s pureed together with Wilkie Collins frosting, but the greens glow valiantly and Bava fans should rejoice - once again director Chu Yuan keeps the fog machines and colored gel lights on, enriching nearly every frame with mood, as a man in a dark red cloak and lizard skin keeps carting a coffin around with a talking wooden effigy of swordman Lung Fei's fiancee inside. The indefatigable Derek Yee is a detective swordsman swept up in an intergenerational mystery having to do with an ancient curse by a black lizard demon living in a misty lake -- has he emerged and possessed a young son (in a flashback he looks like a giant black lizard with green eyes but--- well, anything is possible). There's also another mysterious woman, this one all dressed in white, who disappears and appears with dire pronouncements. The lizard zips around, women become wooden statues and back and forth; people are buried alive in wooden effigies of themselves by a madman. A man wearing lipstick, sheathed in fog, warns our hero his fiancee is going to die; there are secret panels and an array of disguises and intrigue, and--jeeze--don't even worry about the byzantine inter-family paranoia that evidently underwrites the weirdness. Just do like Kim Newman tells you in his Mark of the Vampire DVD commentary, just soak in the ample atmosphere and savor the horror elements and don't let the Scooby Doo denouement sour it with a lot of twists and reveals. It may not all add up, but does it need to? If you said yes then I'd suggest an hour of deep meditation on the transience of all things. Even the web, in its full entirety, shall pass in time.... I think. 

(1979) Dir. Chu Yuan 
***  / Amazon Image - A

The love between a fox spirit and a martial artist, carrying a parallel to one gone on in the previous generation without either of their knowledge - the scenes taking place in the spectral world are so gorgeous and ethereal that you'll want to find your way there more than you would Shangri La (I love that it's always night and the ornate soundstage indoor/outdoor magic of it all. And the spooky comeuppance against earth's rival - this just makes it all the more heartbreaking when our hero becomes a dick obsessed with fame, but such is the way of men). Derek Yee stars as Ding Peng who gets hoodwinked on his way to a big duel for mastery of martial arts when his rival's wife seduces him and steals his martial arts manual in the middle of the night -thus informing the treacherous Ruo Song (Wong Yung) of how to counter the chumps' moves, and to imply then that the martial arts manual was his etc. It all sets poor egotistical Ding into a suicidal despair but--as so often in these things--he's prevented at the last minute by ghostly intervention, in this case, a green-lit fox spirit (in the Chu Yuan universe, the realms of the dead are always bathed in a haunting green light) named Qing Qing (Lisa Wong). She takes him to her mysterious land between the living and the dead, a kind of secret Shangri La paradise all shot on those marvelous expansive soundstage landscapes of cherry blossom and lantern lit night -- who would ever want to leave? Well, once he starts practicing with Qing Qing's magical scimitar, Ding Peng does wants to leave - he convinces his now-wife to come with him and help arrange revenge on Ruo Song, and for some reason she takes the upper hand, posing as her own treacherous sister (?) and betraying Song with supernatural trickery that ensures an easy victory. But naturally old Ding isn't satisfied. He wants to keep going and be the best in the martial arts world, little knowing how much damage he's doing to his home life in the pursuit of wealth and fame and just how truly treacherous Ruo Song really is. Naturally it all ends in a big grievance-airing international duel.

Love that setting sun spotlight
And though that's kind of inevitable for a Shaw Brothers movie, once again it's the mist-enshrouded magical ancient landscapes, like gorgeous life-size dioramas, that haunt the mind and make these so worth seeing on a big HD screen with deep blacks. On my 60" Sony Bravia they're impeccably haunting. And his dick moves to Qing Qing (he even remarries claiming he can't be with a fox forever) carry a rough sting but you know it will end happily. Alas, like all the Shaw Brothers films, the ending is--for my money--way too abrupt. They should have a groovy party afterwards, but Shaw Brothers movies tend to end within seconds of the final bad guy dying. Such is the way of the Tao.

A girl and her snakes

(1977) Dir. Hsueh Li Pao
*** Amazon Image: A

It's so insane it has to be based on some old legend - Dan Lee plays a young scholar son of a respected general runs away to avoid learning kung fu (he'd rather read books). On the road, naive and even a trifle thick-headed, he meets a pretty young girl named Lin (Chen Che Lin) who uses snakes as weapons/couriers, and after some antagonistic bickering they team up, and then promptly run afoul of 'the poison gang.' There's much back and forth of poisonous attacks (she launches a venomous sneak into the leader's body) the scholar must find her ninja sister (Ni Tien) to rescue her and then well, he winds up gaining super powers through drinking the blood of a giant red snake while hiding out on one of those mysterious hidden cliffside oases. You got to respect a guy who--when a girl tells him to drink the blood of a giant red snake that's trying to suffocate him in the middle of a pond, he promptly bites down on its neck like a vampire, and then, later, when he tells him to swallow a  poisonous toad whole--he does too! No questions asked! Dude, drinking snake blood is one thing, shooting a live, venomous (glowing) toad like it it's a cold oyster, that's crazy courage. Other foes include a gorilla (a hilarious ape-costumed dude in a pit), the titular battlesome wizard (friends of Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China will recognize he's got a lot of the same skills, including fire breathing), a crazy rapist bald green fanged monster with a detachable claw arm who can outrun horses, and a complicated tale of brothers and sisters across two family dynasties that--through some uncool philandering 20 years earlier--led to the original confrontation and all the bad blood that must out in the children, etc. Based on a fantasy novel by Jin Yong.

(1982) Dir Taylor Wong
***1/2 / Amazon Image - B+

With a great 80s synth score, lots of animated fire and magic effects, this is a fine companion piece to THE BATTLE WIZARD. Like that film, our callow lead-Lung (Tung Shing Yee) starts out a churlish heartbroken brat but the dopey dragon that rescues him from a plunge off the cliff looks like a kind of mix of a parade Chinese dragon and a muppet, and on a mysterious outcropping halfway down a cliff (Asia must be full of these little magic oases you can only access by jumping off a cliff) he meets the fallen hero Flaming Cloud Devil (Alex Man) who wants to teach him the unbeatable Buddha's Palm precisely because he doesn't want to learn it (churlish brat that he is). Here's a film that's clearly got some Star Wars influence to it, but Lucas would never have so many strong female characters, nor an evil henchmen kid with a huge acid pus-spraying facial tumor, or a villain with a super extendable giant killer foot, of course I mean Heavenly Foot of the 10,000 Swords Clan (Shih Kien)! Other foes are named: Flying Bells (Chen Szu-chia), Flying Loops (Yum Yum Shaw), and The Thunderbolt Devil (as he uses sound wave combat). Now that he knows the Palm, and has partially restored Flaming Cloud Devil's sight (via a magic dragon egg), he must help bring them all down in spectacular laser, sound wave, and spinning kick-filled brawls.

Special shout out to the great Lieh Lo -- a joy as the mysterious, ever-clowning (but never obnoxious) martial artist who tends to arrive at just the right time, proclaiming "Bi Gu of East Island is here!" as in now the party can start. Far too much crazy stuff happens to tell, and there's even the old all-girl Er Mei school again, but a standout is the sight of Heavenly Foot using his percussion set up to drive his daughter crazy (turns out he controls her via a poisonous internal centipede). Just watching him in sped up motion playing with his foot and hands, dopey grin on his face, is a priceless privilege. He's so evil! And that crazy foot! Flaming Cloud Devil ends up converting a few of her cast-out girl students (they help Lung after he helps them steal a relic for their master to fix her acne). And eventually they all even patch up their differences without fighting - and have a big celebration - but there's still trouble a Foot!

(1983) Dir. Chin-Ku Lu
*** / Amazon Image - A-

American critics of HK fantasy films often note that they seem to be on fast forward, and to make that argument here's exhibit A, a film that zips along like it's running a well-practiced relay race, making us all wonder what kind of coffee they serve at the Shaw Studios. (My viewing strategy: just presume your first guess on what's going on is correct--it usually is). At any rate, even those who can handle the dizzying narrative progression of Battle Wizard and Buddha's Palm might be in trouble for Holy Flame of the Martial World but if you catch it in just the right frame of mind it's a pretty wild time. The flame of the title is a weird looking weapon with a gem in the center so better believe it's got magical powers; naturally the hero is a pretty young orphan whose parents died protecting the secret of the flame's hiding place from a wittily-subtitled gang of greedy kung fu clan leaders. The secret is hidden somewhere in the mind of skin or something of the boy guarded by a hilarious old master named the Phantom (Phillip Kwok) with his devastating sound wave attack 'ghost laughter' - the sight of him making weird gestures and rolling around on his lotus position legs roaring with 'ghost laughter' is pretty edifying, right up there in hilarious oddness with Heavenly Foot's magic percussion attacks in Buddha's Palm. One of the nicest of all kung fu teachers, nothing fazes or annoys the Phantom. He never has a single negative thing to say, and his good-natured laughter is infectious.

Best of all, one of the main villains is a white-haired woman Tsing Yin (Leanne Lau), the master of the Er Mei school -- as seen in Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre --they're an all-woman kung fu school whose first rule is no congress with men. (Naturally that law gets broken a bit). One of the Er Mei students is helped out of a jam by our hero and soon it's clear she's being trained for a very special purpose; there's a similar student (Siu Chung Mok) with the other villain, a golden haired lion man  Monster Yu (Jaso Pal Piao). The big climactic battle is full of dizzying spins, lasers (by then the girl rescued from the Blood Sucking Clan has aquired a magic laser-shooting finger thanks to touching a magic snake bladder.) as young yin/yang brother sister duo square off against the pair of sorcerers who killed their parents, a kind of negative shadow parent set - Monster Yu and Tsing Yin, each using their magic yin/yang skills in an effort to destroy each other. There's nothing remotely like it in the US, except maybe the sorcerer duel in Corman's The Raven, but that was old man walking around the park feeding pigeon stuff next to this wild wild madness. Same goes for, well, almost everything. Western filmmakers, find out what kind of tea these cats were drinking and bring it to your feeble sets! Praise be to merciful Buddha, The Shaw Brothers may have been as ethical as some would like, but they've left us some beautiful, and truly weird, things just waiting for more of the wicked west to discover, for free on Prime. So long as they can read, and don't watch it through a Sony Blu-ray
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