Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Now bleed for me... THE WRESTLER (2008)

True story: one of my lifetime college friends, John "Fattie"--and his thug brother "Chug"--went to grade school in Brooklyn with Darren Aronofsky. According to John, they used to beat him up, but can't remember why. Sounds right. Every time I come out of an Aronofsky film I feel like Darren has got his proxy revenge by beating up on me. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM was like being raped in the eye and now, in THE WRESTLER (2008), he pummels our rib cage. There are uncomfortable scenes here of Mickey Rourke getting punched with a staple gun, slicing his own forehead with a razor, skin-popping steroids, having a heart attack, being told he'll die if he keeps this up, sticking his thumb on purpose into a meat slicer, doing pile drivers (both the coke and wrestling kinds), and waking up in the tawdry, beefcake firefighter poster-covered rooms of grotty coke whores. The effect is rather like bullying in effigy. I remember coming out of the theater after DREAM back in 1998, shaken to the core--angry and traumatized-- I told John I was glad he and Chug had thrown that a priori payback for the beating Mr. A. had just given me, cinematically speaking. But with THE WRESTLER, maybe Darren, Fattie, Chug and myself can all finally bury our grudges and just enjoy the fight... to the death... for what it is: muscle-headed spectacle in a world of aging meat products with bleached hair. 

And that's okay. As the Joker, Bronson, and Tyler Durden all taught us, a punch in the face can set you free. Forget about Spielberg's meaningless urge to "pursue your dreams." Punching is much more cathartic. It clears the cobwebs. Our brains are hard-wired to react to slaps and punches, they wake us up, snap us out of hysterics, get our adrenalin and rage flowing. They can be exhilarating, I made some great friends in school by fighting them. If you don't hold a grudge it's like you both earned the respect of the school and yourselves. Or--if you choose--you can not fight back and just let the punch or slap make you ashamed and withdrawn. If that happens, you got no one to blame but yourself, bro.

Though THE WRESTLER's fly-on-the-wall grainy video style of the film leaves little room for his usual hallucinatory detail, Aronofsky more than makes up for  the sound editing. This is the most creatively sound edited film I've ever heard--seeing it on the big screen with a good sound system made all the difference. There's a great scene of Randy walking to his day job at a supermarket meat counter, going through the back entrance storage area where the echoes of forklifts and workmen chatter starts so quiet in the sound mix as to be subliminal, as if happening outside by the snack bar. Growing slowly louder, we hear a low sound of cheering of fans--as if a sport's game is on TV somewhere in the reception guy's office, but also in Randy's head as if he's making a big entrance to the ring-- the audience cheering blurs imperceptibly with the whoosh of exhaust and backing up of forklifts to create a dizzying mix of what it's like inside a doped-up wrestler's cranium.

Ultimately there is no more triumphant spectacle than that of a man charging, grinning, into the maw of death, whether it be in the world of blood and muscle spectacle as in THE WRESTLER, or putting on a show like the big "Bye, Bye Life" number in ALL THAT JAZZ. At such moments death and mortality seem to be happening to you, the viewer, and your protagonist in another dimension as you watch, vaguely aware that while the fight or musical finale is going on down on the ground, up there, somewhere, just out of sight, but still audible, doctors and nurses are standing over your lifeless body. It's all in the oceanic surging of blood through ears as captured in the roar of the Aronofsky universe of compromised physicality.

Daved Cronenberg also explores this idea of "creative body trauma" cinema, but I think, perhaps, Cronenberg didn't get enough beatings up in Canadian grade school (are there bullies up there at all?). He can't put you in the thick of metatextual thick of it, where your heartbeat entrains to the rhythms of the film until you begin to breathe in how the only difference between a theater seat and a hospital bed is the quality of the drugs. Oresumably you're less anxious to escape the one, but which one? It's tough to know now that Aronofsky's pain has split the difference between gut-bucket materialist atheism and the sublimely transcendental. You can hear it in the subliminal heart monitor "beep beep" that follows Randy the Ram wherever he goes, like a squad of patient mechanical valkyries, animated by Ray Harryhausen and choreographed by Bob Fosse. "Bye Bye Life..." All that's missing is Ben Vereen, in tights, and THE WRESTLER and ALL THAT JAZZ are the same movie. 

Before the grunge wave in the early 90s, it was all about long hair, Billy Squier doing "The Stroke" and Twisted Sister's Slade covers. It was the pride that goeth before the pre-Cobained fall into frat boy irony and aggressively couched indifference. Cobain taught us that even when raging against the machine we could feel like phonies. Before the dawn of that awareness though, we hung onto adolescent cheeseball revelry like a life vest mantra in a roiling sea of homogenized homophobic sameness. Blazing down to the mall in our mom's ratty red hatchbacks--battery-powered boombox taking up the whole back seat, playing ratty little tapes, the smell of cigarettes, naugahyde, and gasoline--THE WRESTLER is flash frozen in that world. Randy he Ram still plays his cassette tapes and his old 1980s Nintendo wrestling game (the royalties for which have long stopped). He still digs the bright-colored spandex and the Guns N Roses, Randy's sort of 80's has-been some of us worried we'd become if we didn't move to NYC. Randy knows he missed the train, but screw running. He just takes it all in stride. Stride could be the name of the band he played in back in '87, if he'd played in a band, instead of wrasslin', which is twice as narcissistic in ways he can't quite fathom.

It all works in favor of Aronofsky's withering vision, and since Rourke's heyday too was the 1980s, wherein he started out too pretty for his own liking, and finished uglied beyond repair, not unlike the decade itself. When he says "I hated the 90s" to a haggard Marissa Tomei, you can feel their world-weary pain, both as actors, and characters (she plays a stripper getting too old for the pole just as he's getting too old for the ropes). In the rest of the world getting old is certainly a pretty major drag but in show business it's worse than death. Fame is an addictive drug. When you fall from stardom, even on a minor level, it's a hard way down, and both characters are bruised from the descent. So when Randy gives a big climactic speech at a small wrestling gig he's headlining--about burning the candle at both ends--you know he's not looking for sympathy, just preparing the crowd for what may result, He's just letting them know in advance why to him it matters more than life itself that he give his fans one of his signature pile drivers. It may be his last speech, so it's important you know he's cool with it. 

Don't we all do the same thing, latch onto the pop culture trappings of a bygone era as a way to dig our heels in the sands of time's sunny beach, as mother time packs our towels and shovels, telling us it's time to go? Just keep facing inland, towards the parking lot, and maybe you wont notice the scythe-swipe tsunami rolling towards you. Aronofsky's cinema is all about turning your head back around, popping your bubblegum, letting the full horror of the wave hit our wide Marilyn Burns CHAINSAW eye, and letting death 'bring it.' We can't avoid aging, or dying, but we can avoid being a wuss about it. That's the core of the masochistic viewer cinema response -- in moving towards inevitable death instead of away from it, we finally experience the full glory of choice, of raising our hands and whooping our war cry as the roller coaster plunges, rather than clutching the safety bar and closing our eyes.

And the big question people have about pro wrestling itself: "How can we care about the big final fight when it's all staged?" Well let me tell you, it's easy to keep your blinders on, but take them off and you will come away as I did, feeling like the prearranged "show" fights are where the real action is, not the other way around. Anyone can fight if they're emotionally invested in bashing an enemy's head in, but it takes real transcendental masochism, capital M, to fight someone you're buddies with, to have him inform you in advance he wishes to staple your body with a staple gun at some point in the fight, and you being able to shrug and say, "Bring it!" Whatever lesson in toughness Aronofsky learned being beaten up in school by John Fattie and Chugg, he has since imparted to the rest of the world. I think here of those lyrics from Jane's Addiction:

"When I was a boy
My big brother held onto my hands
and he made me slap my own face
I looked up to him then and still do --
he was trying to teach me something.

and now I know what it was
And now I know what it is." -- ("Of Course" - Ritual De Habitual)

What was it Perry Farrell and Aronofsky and Rourke and maybe you have learned? Don't go back to Rockville, or Marisa Tomei and your deli job (his in-store rampage will forever be one of my favorite scenes in movies, and I'm sure every 16 year-old suffering through his first soul-crushing after-school job who ever watches this will feel the same), just say 'bring it, death!' and stand your ground. 

One of the reasons I love this movie so much is that it rejects the sacramental "family" life that the Spielbergs brainwashed us to revere without question. Instead, THE WRESTLER validates the choices made by Jesus to get up on the cross and moan for the masses, even though he could have split before the Romans came for him, since he was tipped off in advance. Or there's the fable where the scorpion stings the frog halfway across the river and they both die, because "it's his nature." In THE WRESTLER, it's all a making sure that sting is in front of a big an audience as possible, so that it's on record, and so you don't have to ever go back to scuttling around looking for flies to eat; just go ahead and drown, just ride that dead frog to the bottom, whooping as you plunge, breathe in the water and let the fishy mermaids swim to you, algae-covered Oscars in their ancient coral hands.

Addendums here

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Kuersten Family Xmas Cinema Diary 2008

At the Kuersten house over the holidays we had, as usual, just the four of us -- my similarly childless brother (and hulking gun nut) Fred, my Orson Wellsian dad and Hitchcokian ice queen blonde mom. We're always celebrating the lack of rugrats with salty language and there's always lots of movies to keep the focus away from our own shock at how each other is turning out. Our choices are always unusual and worth documenting, especially now that dad has Tivo and is more likely to not subject us to endless rounds of college and NFL football.

AMAZONS (dir. Alejandro Sessa )
Made with the same cast and on the same day as BARBARIAN QUEEN! For Roger Corman! In Argentina! Crappy old horror/sci fi/fantassy movies have been a Kuersten staple since I was a child, and I cut my wit's teeth doing MSTK3-style quip-a-thons with dad over afternoon creature features, as I'm sure did a lot of current horror fans. I was grateful that there were so many hot naked blonde chicks in this movie, because my panic attacks at being stranded in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina, were very bad and cute Nordic blonde chicks in furs really ease the pain. This was the first and last "bad" movie of the entire trip though, as my dad declared a moratorium (AMAZONS was actually my DVD gift to him from the previous Xmas, along with ASTRO-ZOMBIES, as yet unopened). Despite the general air of amateur theater, I dug AMAZONS and tried to convince my family that something this profound needed to be seen twice.

BIGGER THAN LIFE (dir. Nicholas Ray)
When you come from a lineage with Swedish, German and old school Colonial-American genes, you can bet there's going to be streaks of chemical addiction a mile wide and what better family fun film to celebrate the holidays can there be than the realization that there's a lot of violence and megalomania that we missed out on, making us a pretty cool family after all? James Mason is great as the dad who shouldn't, as my dad explained several times during the film, have had to pay for his steroids since he's taking them as part of a clinical trial. Also, he doesn't regulate his own dosage and is soon torturing his family through various self-aggrandizing educational schemes as the drugs catch his ego unawares and launch him into full-blown psychosis, eventually even trying to sacrifice his boy via scissors and a bible. We all loved squirming under the lash of Mason's "too close to home" insanity, but we didn't like squirming over the happy cop-out ending. Angry and disgruntled, we gave it three stars, same as Leonard Maltin, our patron saint.

EL DORADO (dir. Howard Hawks)
Westerns are a big favorite with the family Kuersten, and Howard Hawks always goes down smooth. This one starts out being a rowdy and rousing story of Wayne's hired gun getting caught up in a range war, with Robert Mitchum as his old pal the sheriff and Ed Asner (!) as the bad guy. Somewhere along the line, Hawks turns it into a Rio Bravo remake, but so what? Hawks was always stealing from himself. It's part of his auteur-ness, I don't know why I'm even defending him! There's no need. Plus, our family can certainly relate, with me ten years sober in AA, and my dad and brother already on their third brace of martinis. Mom kept talking over some of the best dialogue, but at least dad was quiet and reverent.

THE MAGIC FLUTE (dir. Ingmar Bergman)
I sprung this on pops as a late night surprise, knowing he'd dig that I dug Mozart, (my ex-Swiss mistress turned me onto this back at an old Film Forum screening). Ulrich Kold (pictured at top) reminds me a lot of my dad too, so I was into it, except my dad fell into his late night "suffused with transcendental love and reverence" phase and you couldn't hear the music since he was so busy waxing rhapsodic over it. Whatever, I love the man, and Ulrich Kold too!

M*A*S*H (dir. Robert Altman)
This was a last minute gift from me to pops, who is a former market research analyst for a reputable pharmaceutical corporation and never lets you forget it! Having only seen this on pan and scan video, usually with drunken townies in the room, I was pleased to find my dad providing me a new angle through which to percieve and enjoy the film, not only as a great example of 1970's sexually liberated earthiness and un-PC good-natured anarchy, but the spiritual overtones that place doctors and nurses as the atheistic equivalent of angels and Christ figures.

OUT OF THE PAST (dir. Jacues Tourneur)
Too much talking to really sink into this one, but we've all seen it before. Being stuck in NC, where the only pretty girl for miles around is my mom, I really fell in love with Rhonda Fleming, as the "good" girl who competes with Jane Greer's puffy-lipped double crosser. She's sooo gorgeous! Why, I wondered, why can't she see that Mitchum is no good for her and she should reach across the sea of time and take my hand? My dad actually started waxing on about the amazing time machine effect of old movies, that these actors are all old or dead yet here they are, younger than we are, and we're aging while they stay young, as if we are their Doiran Gray oil paintings in reverse. I told him, "I've been blogging about that idea for years," but he couldn't hear me, through the veils of time... and highballs.. and all the other tricks by which fathers outpace their sons.

CASINO ROYALE (dir. Martin Campbell )
THis was the third time I'd seen this, and this time I really hated Vesper (Eva Green, pictured below), the British double crosser who won't give Bond the other five million pounds to bet with. What a bitch! What did Bond see in her? My dad blamed her lack of appeal on her lack of cleavage, and it was up to me to labor (in vain) to convince him this was not the case, as evinced in THE DREAMERS. Why were her breasts then not made more prominent in the film? He had me there. At any rate, we all loved Daniel Craig and I made sure to point out to my NRA-card-carrying brother that seeing Craig rise out of the blue waves with his hairless muscly body dripping slow motion drops was a fascinating subtextual gender-reversal mirror to Halle Berry doing the same in the previous Bond film (which in turn mirrored Ursula Andress in DR. NO).

That Vesper, how dare she snow Bond so thoroughly? I can't believe how in love with her I was after seeing ROYALE for the first time. Xmas, for me, is a time to look back on all the relationships I've had over the decades, the girls I brought home for the holidays, and so forth, and to shudder in my alienated lonesome doveliness, knowing the warmth of my family creates a "safe place" for such torturous self-examination and moping to occur. Oh Vesper, all is forgiven! Come on home!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Top 20 Favorite Actresses

(UPDATED 4/16) I picked my favorite actresses, as in actresses I personally love or fell in love with--at some point--which does not necessarily mean they are great actresses - though most are. (I love Liz Taylor and Kate Hepburn, for example, but I'm not "in" love with them like I am with Bibi Anderson or was as a child with Kate Jackson or Marcia Brady (though I've excluded the last two since I'm all grown). Also I've included the two films I love them for. If they didn't have at least two, they're not in this list (i.e. Linda Fiorentino).

PS 1/9/19 - In the interest of keeping this current, I keep updating it - and also struggling with the crush vs. awe thing - actresses whom I admire for their brilliance vs. am just a-swoon over. How can they be separated? Also some, over the years, have fallen away. Vera Farmiga no longer needs me, she's become ubiquitous, therefore I've moved on to cherish lesser lionized super-stars like Karen Morely. She rawks! Other new additions: Kristen Stewart (who I've long championed as the best of her generation), Carole Lombard (whose full measure of comedic brilliance runs so deep it took me dozens of viewings of My Man Godfrey to fully appreciate) and Ella Raines, for those eyes.

1. Marlene Dietrich - Morocco, Shanghai Express
2. Veronica Lake -This Gun for Hire, I Married a Witch
3. Myrna Loy - The Thin Man, Mask of Fu Manchu
4. Lauren Bacall - The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not 

6. Carole Lombard - Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred

7. Barabara Stanwyck - Night Nurse, The Lady Eve

8. Karen Morley - Scarface, Arsene Lupin

9 - Ella Raines - Phantom Lady, Hail the Conquering Hero 

15. Naomi Watts - The RingMulholland Drive
16. Bibi Andersson - Persona, Passion of Anna

17. Famke Janssen - Goldeneye, Deep Rising
18. Kim Novak - Bell, Book and Candle, Strangers When We Meet
19. Susan Cabot - Wasp Woman, Machine-Gun Kelly, Sorority Girl

Liz Taylor - Suddenly Last Summer, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Damn, you see a trend emerging here? I'm seeing a trend emerging here.

Runners up (with one beloved role for which I adore them) would be: Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses, Klute), Michelle Pfeiffer (White Oleander), Carroll Baker (Baby Doll, The Carpetbaggers), Cathy O'Donnell (They Live by Night), Darryl Hannah (Kill Bill), Linda Fiorentino (Last Seduction), Linda Darnell (Letter to 3 Wives), Martha Vickers (Big Sleep), Gail Patrick (My Man Godfrey), Anna Karina (Pierrot Le Fou), Kay Francis (One-Way Ticket), Mae Clarke (Frankenstein), Fay Wray (King Kong), Nastassja Kinski (Cat People), Linda Hamilton (Terminator), Patricia Arquette (True Romance), Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice). Kiera Knightley (Domino), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Valerie Leon (Blood from the Mummy's Tomb), Julie Newmar (Cat Woman), Jean Gillie (Decoy), Anita Pallenberg (Performance), Rita Hayworth (Only Angels Have Wings), 

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Plan 9X-Mas

There's something timelessly relevant about Ed Wood's Plan Nine From Outer Space, which makes it perfect holiday viewing for the entire family (once the eggnog has worked its late night magic). I've seen this film all my life in one form or another, my first big memory of it being on UHF TV at around six in the morning when I was probably six years old. You couldn't argue with a movie like Plan Nine if you were that young, and if any film was meant to be tuned on via the weird UHF TV antenna that used to sit on top of the TVs before cable, this was it, wavering in and out of reception, the white noise obscuring the cheapness of the production. It had everything I loved in one film: science fiction mixed with vampires, zombies, Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson, Criswell, all perfectly entwined in a plot so outlandish only a kid in his pajamas, up before his parents on a Sunday morning, could ever possibly hope to truly understand it.

Over the years, Plan Nine has only grown in stature, thanks to the efforts of Tim Burton (Ed Wood), horror magazines, and maverick film critics like Michael Medved and John Stanley (though they both seem to despise Ed Wood for "mocking" Lugosi's legend via the "can" of old posthumous footage). Much has been written about the Plan, much has been celebrated. But we've still got a long way to go before we get it right. That's what we're here for, to learn.

For one thing, there's a great pace and focus on the "good stuff" in Plan Nine. Unlike Wood's other films, there's no long pointless police station scenes and annoying comic relief. Sure, there's Wood mainstay Paul Marco's bumpling Kelton the cop, but even he is relatively under control. And anyway, we all love him (Marco, if you're reading this, your signed photo is on my wall) And if you are both a fan of movie monsters, and a fan of Godard or Brecht, you can revel in the lovingly mismatched day-for-night shots, the ridiculously sparse sets (the space ship interiors are empty sets with old ham radio junk on top of card tables, like some popular mechanics flea market of the damned) and that just makes you appreciate it all the more. It's like a present that comes to you already opened and played with--one of the arms may even be broken off--but for some reason that doesn't negate its value. Since it's no longer hermetically sealed it's connected to the vast panoply of other things under the tree. In receiving an opened present you essentially receive all of the world. Is this not, in the end, the fullest realization of Brecht's post-modern aesthetic? In accenting rather than concealing the theatricality, the narrative is mysteriously deepened in importance rather than lessened. What better gift for a six year old Prometheus than such precious alchemical irony?

You could argue that the hubcap spaceships are cheesy, for example. But why would you do that? They look cheesy in real life, as the recently declassified photos make evident. And the most amazing, topical aspect is still that what you have seen in heard not only has happened, but has yet to happen but will in fact happen in the future. As the Obscurantist rightly notes:
"That Plan 9 uses the most B of movie tropes to convey its message adds a layer of self-performative complexity which puts much high artistic output to shame. Looking back, we realize that the questions posed by the worst movie ever made”have resounded with sinister power across the socio-political landscape of the last half century."
Back in 1959 Ed Wood was the first to declare that the government was suppressing UFO knowledge, and that craft had been shot down by the government in battles over Hollywood and Washington DC. Would this horrifying truth be withstandable in any other format but Wood's midnight claptrap Hollywood spookshow? It would not. I lost this great book I used to have (by Bruce Rux) that postulated the government clandestinely employed Ed Wood to make this film intentionally bad while telling the truth, as part of a campaign of disinformation. It's totally crazy. But I believe it. So should you, and when pressed for the perfect late-night drunk-on-eggnog family film, may I recommend you should reach for Plan Nine from Outer Space? There may be no better way to prepare your family for the coming calamities. As Criswell once said:
"We once laughed at the horseless carriage, the aeroplane, the telephone, the electric light, vitamins, radio, and even television! And now some of us laugh at outer space. God help us… in the future..."
My pharmacist dad STILL laughs at vitamins, but aside from that, it's all good, all true and yes, Virginia, as long as that truth is told in spookshow basement B-movie form, the Plato's cave shadow, Perseus's Medusa mirror format, then yes, your heart can stand the horrible truths about... graverobbers from outer space.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Born to be Childless

(Note: Spoiler Alerts)
Oh what a difference sobriety (and age) makes. Seeing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf on the big screen while not drunk (for the first time) has helped me see that beneath the film's boozy bravado is the terror of living life as a childless couple, growing old without children to block the vanishing point on the Grim Reaper's scythe swipe horizon. Taylor and George Segal have the 'animal magnetism' - the drive to claw your way up the orgasm-dancing spasm ladder - while Dennis and Burton play solo games of "peel the label" as the drunken dreamers (Dennis is already deeply sunk into the game before Segal catches on). Dennis' hysterical pregnancy mirrors Burton's murderous telegram (examples of 'kill your darlings' editorial ruthlessness-essential for good writer, terrible for a social animal trying to get ahead). Taylor is ferocious, Segal smug and bewildered, but Dennis is irrepressible, her innocent, booze-fueld bulimic-alcoholic (bucolic) mania the upward flip side of Burton's booze-fueled depression. I'd love to see a two-handed gender neutral version where the same actor plays both Burton and Dennis' parts, and the other Taylor and Segal's. Think about it, Wooster Gruppe!

I'm childless myself, and feel blessed I've never let myself get misty about it. One regrets either decision, as Socrates would say. If we regret now (young parents unable to get any sleep, peace or privacy while childless couples run wild and free), we don't regret it later (dying alone, undiscovered 'til the neighbors smell the corpse, like poor Yvette Vickers) but that's show biz. Divorced, better, best and bested, I know lots of other childless folks and we all struggle with it as we pass "the point of no return" Of course it's different for guys, but still... It's a little more acceptable now, but still... for dear old George and Martha, having no doubt married in the conservative 1950s, it has to be a bit of a sore spot, hence the creation of their imaginary child, the little bugger (though they keep it to themselves). And yet, just as the bugger is imaginary, so too is the ominous specter of the furred and fanged Woolf (pictured left) who looms over the film like an ominous towering menace.

If this blog entry seems a little whacked, forgive me. It's soggy and warm outside and after a stretch of biting cold, my body is reeling in a cosmic puppy dance of uncertainty and emotional ping-pong. Such spontaneous, seemingly off the cuff--even cheeky--ramblings seems only too pertinent when attempting to discuss such a sprawling masterpiece as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, wherein great gobs of mythopoetically psychohistorical insight come ripping across the screen in torrents, braying and guzzling, melons bobbling, trailing clouds of booze exhaust. In the newest DVD transfer, things are so sharp and clear you can see the spittle in her mouth. Wait, did I say that already? You can see Blonde on Blonde hanging on the wall in their house and Another Side of Bob Dylan hanging at the inn. Was that a thing or did the set decorator have a Dylan crush? It was the season. Have I been repeating myself again? Hannah? Hannah? Oh yeah, Hannah is in Night of Iguana! (pictured at right). Life's a half-familiar song a drunken fiddler plays / staggering merrily along / crooked alleyways.

I wish there were more films with dialogue by Albee or Williams - playwrights, y'know? These were men who knew how to find the nuggets of truth and wisdom amidst the leavings of their rampaging drunken demons. Writers can't get that high anymore thanks to smoking bans and, I hate to say it, the fact that most such drunk playwrights are now British and they've done too much ecstasy in the 90s to think as clearly --they shall be nameless, the bobbleheads ('hic').

But even if we only had this one work, no matter how much tripe the Taylor-Burton pair bond may have served up in their onscreen time together, they'd always be forgiven, and rightly. Even if Woolf was the only film they ever made, they would deserve the undying reverence of the true king; not bourgeois grant-bestowing style reverence, m'lord, but mud in the grindstone gears earth mother reverence, the kind that lasts long after the last piece of bourgeois grant-funded piece of highbrow conceptual PC abstract environmentally conscious inert 'art' has faded into nothing but a tiny line on a very long and 'safe' CV.

Liz and Dick made one more film based on a great battle-of-the-drunk-sexes plays-Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, and they should have done many more. Instead they did some serious crap (The Comedians, The VIPs) decent camp (Dr. Faustus, Boom! and The Sandpiper) and called it a day. Surely that's better than nothing Films are immortal and sometimes anamorphic, kids just get uglier, and then morph blurrily into teenagers. What if you have a son and it grows up... you know, drinking bergen? Hazmat crew, take me away!

PS - Liz and Dick did have a kid in real life, Liz Todd Burton, born 1957 - but we're not talking about them-them, you know what I mean - we're talking George and Martha, and the eternal Liz/Dick archetype of battling boozers - I shudder to think if there really was a 'little bugger' - what a mess s/he'd be. 

Monday, December 08, 2008

Snap, went the dragon! THE SANDPIPER (1965)

I've finished off the last two films in the Taylor Burton set: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which I realized last night that I'd never seen before sober (I've seen it 10-20 times but never knew how it ended) and The Sandpiper - which I'd never seen at all, except in a Mad magazine parody collection I had as a kid, but had prejudged as being exquisitely dull as I couldn't even understand what was going on in the satire, except that it was a dull movie I should spend my adult life avoiding.

Turns out Mad needn't have bothered warning me off, because Sandpiper is pure hilarity - a camp masterpiece that could only have come out right before the summer of love, when beatniks were in vogue (as opposed to 'hippies'). And  it is beautiful to look at. I can imagine being bored by it on pan and scan TV in faded colors, but the DVD is amazing - full widescreen anamorphic with eye-popping colors and plenty of time and space to use them. If, like me, you consider driving through the winding treacherous cliff highway (101) curves or Big Sur to be the pinnacle of California dreaming, then you can finally unpack your duffel and book a room with the Piper. Director Vincente Minnelli makes fine poetic use of every crashing wave but adds other 'percs' as well, including the most highbrow camp dialogue I've personally ever heard. And I've heard (the) Boom!

Co-scripted by the great Dalton Trumbo, the story puts single free-spirit beatnik painter Taylor against married-repressed parochial school reverend Burton for the soul of Taylor's young wild child boy. Taylor wants to keep the lad pure and unsullied by the system, i.e. illiterate and antisocial, but Burton and the authorities know that at some point every boy needs to get away from his mother and go to school, lest he wind up like Norman Bates, or worse.  Of course, Dick and Liz fall in love in between their child pop psychology-themed, surf crescendo-timed, Big Conversations. That's a given, but what most straight dudes won't get is that with a gorgeous wife like Eva Marie Saint--trying here to seem sexless --as if she ever could--so we can better understand why a 'good' man like priest Burton would prefer this unkempt (even slovenly) 'broad' of the sea. Maybe I'm prejudiced (Eva looks like my Swedish mom did back in the 70s) but damn!

Taylor, for her part, already has a lover in the form of sculpted sculptor Charles Bronson, who wears very thin shirts and beach pants in order for you to better see all the sinews in his amazing body, and smell the peak animal magnetism. Is Taylor out of her mind to prefer some self-hating dissolute   man-of-cloth, even if Burton's voice is more mellifluous?

Personally I'd rather see Eva Marie Saint and Bronson hook up and leave the Burton-Taylor trainwreck to its 'social' drinking.

Ah, but back to the colors! There's a huge vase of flowers dead center in Taylor's cliff-side beatnik bungalow overlooking the sea that's to die for. Minnelli, and DP Milton Krasner, and whomever authored the DVD, really make the colors on that bouquet POP. And though the Burton-Taylor chemistry isn't at its full battling bacchanal beauty, it's still pretty amazing. They know not to get all diva difficult for a major player like Minnelli. And if you want an idea of what constitutes giftedness with actors, compare the work Taylor and Burton do for Minnelli's Sandpiper and Mike Nichols' Woolf vs. their rather tepid, disinterested efforts in the other films of the set - The VIPs and The Comedians. It's the difference between night and day, or night and later that night, after the booze has made them repetitive and bleary-eyed.

Clearly Minnelli and Nichols both took the time to access and cajole the best from their stars, while the other directors no doubt let their star couple's titanic alcoholic ego-romance dive detours tank their films' momentum as thoroughly as it tanked Cleopatra.

Piper doesn't even have to be good when the chemistry between this pair is in full flow: there's a great scene where the two are gazing into each others' eyes, emoting and talking in the bungalow around that giant vase, when the wounded sandpiper (symbolism!) that Liz saved earlier in the film comes fluttering in for a landing right on Liz's head!  You'd think someone would yell cut or break character, but Liz doesn't even flinch! She just keeps staring into Dick's eyes, and-- for his part, even with that sandpiper there--maybe about to shit on her head, who knows?-- he doesn't freak out, just stays in the scene, lost in her eyes like a hypnotist. It's a magical moment, not even a ripple of shock or discomfort is noticeable.

Then after they kiss, Liz reaches up and cups the bird in her hand without even looking at it, and then lets it loose, saying in that languid half-to-herself Taylor style: "fly away, baby." Was this something they shot twenty takes of, just to get that damned bird to land on her head, or was it just a lucky accident that they seized on? I spent the whole rest of the film just admiring the perfect nonchalant stillness with which these two lovers acted out their scene with this bird standing in Liz's wild hair. Then, later, when she chases ex-sugar daddy-cum-rapist Robert Webber out of the house with a hatchet, my heart was sealed. This movie rocks!

Nonetheless I love what old Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central has to say:
it could've been an early and sharp indictment of the hippie culture instead of this relic of its brief vogue. (It's Myra Breckinridge in every way that matters--and if it's better, that's only because Rex Reed isn't in it.) When Laura goes off on an extended rant about the goodness of "The Natural," you cast a critical eye over her inch of pancake makeup and mascara, her endlessly-teased perm, and her carefully-organized collection of poly-blends, and wonder what anyone could've been thinking. Neutering Burton's force-of-nature virility (see how Burton-as-holy-man/rebel burns in Becket and especially Night of the Iguana) doesn't help the cause of Romanticist physical frankness--they would've done better switching the casting, putting Burton in the wild and Taylor in a straitjacket.
Mr. Chaw, that shit is stone cold hilarious and on point, but please don't dis a lady's lip rouge; chicks can espouse naturalism while smeared in make-up all they want - it's called third-wave feminism and it's a stone gas. Of course, I love Myra Breckenridge too. And Reed becomes Raquel fast enough that he's never too much of a dead weight (though a thousand curses on the director for not letting Welch play Myron, which was the whole reason she signed on) and it's got Mae West singing "Hard to Handle" in front of greased-down muscle boys. It's so nearly good you're almost tempted to rent Sextette afterwards, but don't. Dear God, please don't. Boom! will do just as well, or if you're really brave, Dr. Faustus. 

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Case of the Disappearing Accent: THE COMEDIANS (1967)

One thing I love about Elizabeth Taylor is how she can both coast and transcend her craft in a single scene. I've been watching the "other" films that come in the Taylor/Burton boxed set (the ones that aren't Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and, man, what a generally tepid lot they are. Liz and Dick seem to saving their sparks for offscreen, if they had any left at the time. Sometimes there are still blazing brilliant flashes of the Liz we all love from Woolf, Suddenly Last Summer, and Giant. Sometimes she just seems zonked halfway to Hell. And Burton fares even worse: there's just sputtering fumes. Was he saving his energy for Doctor Faustus (also '67), his big directorial debut (and directorial swan song)? If so he coasted there too, acting-wise, though that film is nicely lurid and atmospheric, and colorful like a Bava AIP horror film.

Hell, it's not just for Faust and hangovers anymore. Heaven neither - I've seen Woolf a zillion times and--along with their version of Taming of the Shrew--have come to see it as the "true life" story of Dick and Liz, the snapshot from the drunken heights of that dynamic duo of titanic love. Taming isn't in the set, and with the exception of The Sandpiper, all the others, Comedians and VIPS, are the bleary morning-after versions from Woolf's wild drunken glorious night. They're the blearily hung-over Dick and Liz who collapsed the bloated studio system with their initial bloated collaboration, Cleopatra (1963) and were now rampaging through Europe. Europe doesn't know what hit them. That's some bloating power.

What was left, after all that? In The VIPS (also 1963), aka Grand Hotel while waiting for delayed flights in at the VIP lounge at Heathrow International Airport, not a lot. In fact it seems like the film hasn't even happened. It seems like the screenwriter snuck off to look for a different career and forgot to tell the actors. Alone or in pairs they wander through the actual air terminal and cavernous sets in search of love, directorial cues, and highballs... What they find is themselves, and obsequious airport receptionists.

A couple as openly debauched as Dick and Liz could probably not exist in films of our age anyway. The power-suit and baseball cap-wearing "industry" people would probably have a hard time getting either actor to agree to product positioning and/or not smoking. Plus, these days it's tough getting insurance for any film starring notorious drunks, and audiences are far less indulgent, and have quit smoking and drinking and telling lewd stories or at any rate laughing at them and enjoying feel dominant. Liz and Dick made apparently dozens of Giglis and Shanghai Surprises but people dutifully came (anything, maybe, to get away from the kids for a few hours). The equivalent to the Dick and Liz pair bond today would probably be Courtney Love and Nick Nolte if they were a couple, and maybe they should be. Can you imagine it? And to have them in not just one disastrous film but dozens, with maybe one or two hits amongst the dross? That would be so great.

Alas, poor Nick and Courtney wouldn't have a Chinaman's chance finding roles together in our less enlightened times. The 'bond' wouldn't go through. Recall that Courtney had to give daily urine tests to the insurance company stooges to play Woody Harrelson's junky wife in People Vs. Larry Flynt. Which yes, makes no sense. Here the author sighed heavily, as some PC thug immediately called him to task for saying Chinaman.

I've seen two of the films in this set in a row this week, The VIPS and 'love in the time of Haitian Revolution' romantic potboiler, The Comedians (1967), and I've grown unfathomably weary. In their romantic scenes together in Comedians--which apparently are the "meat of things" as far as box office allure--Dick and Liz have all the burning chemistry of two gin-soaked carpets (a low enough proof they are not flammable). Burton usually sways or stands still and glowers under baggy Welshman's eyes; Liz angles her good side, emotes, sucks it in, flashes her cleavage and its all very adult, in the way that made adult synonymous with boring. One waits, in vain, for some of the fierce gutsy braying and brawling that makes Woolf and Shrew so endlessly rewarding. Instead it feels like Dick and Liz are right there with you, too, standing in line in front of you as you wait to go into the 9 PM show, bickering and making up and keeping you entertained while you wait to be seated. But it's not the show itself, and after an hour of waiting and hearing Dick and Liz bicker in front of you, you grow so suffused with world-weary ennui you give up and just go home, too jaded and bummed to even ask for a refund at the box office. Hey, that's okay with them. The Haitians are only too happy to escort you to the airport, and Liz and Dick can't wait to creep off to their air-conditioned hotel where, there's a working ice machine and stocked bar.

But, I almost forgot: what IS rare and precious in The Comedians is that Liz is working a German accent! It sounds more French than German, but Liz... with an accent! My ears perked up when I first realized she wasn't just doing a "character doing an accent" like the mannered way Martha might say "What a dump!" in Woolf.  It's subtle, and legit, and it's unmistakable. The first scene with Dick, meeting after he gets off the flight to Haiti-- her accent is sensational, mein Herr! Later, it falls off a bit. She forgets she's doing one, then she picks it up where it left off, like a good book. But by then it's long been apparent that whatever fun Dick and Liz are having has moved off-screen, and the accent went with them. Did Burton forget he was allowed to smile? He cloaks his hangover in a smoke-yellowed veil of adult gravitas, like any 60s dad who's given up trying to be a good husband and parent and resigned himself to his easy chair, his Larks, and his highballs, like me dear old dad... once he realized the 80s wasn't going away.

Ah, but 1967 - year of my own birth and this film's release, that was a time. Easy Rider hadn't yet wiped the frozen martini smirk off Hollywood's stupid face. The last breath out of the pre-Easy star-studio system was still on inhale. Never knowing it's air was limited.

Films like Comedians weren't a gasp at all, as it turns out, but a long drunken smoker's wheeze. And for all that, Liz and Dick still got more class than all of New Hollywood put together. Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Those industry dorks in their baseball caps and crew jackets, that's who, or they ought to be. If Burton were alive today, there'd be some "Get the Guests" games playing, and no mistake.

Alas, he's not, and the best part of the Comedians turns out to be Lililan Gish, who has a few great scenes going ballistic on the sunglassed thugs of Papa Doc. God bless little children. They abide. And they are not hung


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Blocked by the Belle

I've been in a deep post-thanksgiving malaise, unable to write and everytime I turn around I'm remembering this weird scene from Luis Bunuel's BELLE DU JOUR (1967).

In it, our frigid would-be masochistic love slave, Severine (Catherine Deneuve) has been trying to warm up to the clients at the brothel where she's working during the afternoon, but so far no luck. She responds when they get rough, but then they back up and can't figure her out. So she can't quite get past her frigidity until the arrival of a strange, portly Asian man, played by Iska Kahn. This guy first shows her some weird box, that buzzes, and we never see what's in it. Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats has some keen insight about it being a device imagined by the Marquis de Sade... but it's a pretty disturbing concept (Kimberly is more comfortable discussing it probably because she's not a guy).

Then he starts ringing a small bell, extending his arm out far from his ear, but intently listening to the chiming, his ear cocked comically to one side. Is he chasing the evil spirits out of the room? What's that bell about? All we know is, it amuses Severine. We actually see her smile, trying not to laugh, for the first time in the film. She brushes the bell away and puts her arms around this strange Asian man, in a mix of comradeship and affection.

The next time we see her, she's looking quite ravished. the maid comes in and offers her some solace, she sees blood on the sheets.  Severine doesn't want to hear it; she's lolling in debased contentment. "What do you know about it?" she asks.  She's found her delirious "Severine, your servant, comes in bells please don't forsake him" surrender.

Perhaps the bell is part of the De Sade canon of toys as well, hence the aforementioned line from the Velvet Underground's Venus in Furs, my all-time favorite song. Velvet Underground & Nico came out in 1967. Belle du Jour came out in 1967, and I came out in 1967. Together, the three of us were a dark counter-offer to the dawning hippy free love establishment. But even so, why does this scene stick in my mind in particular? The mixture of goofiness and sexuality? There might be some S/M connotation to all the weird boxes and bells, but if so, Severine is not afraid, only amused, her smile as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa's.

It would fit one of my theories about people with sexual hang ups being more "comfortable" with lovers of different races... the same way any repressed national culture is more open to radical ideas if they come from a foreigner (Hendrix in London, Picasso in Paris, Jane Campion in Australia, for example). This is all based on repression and our universal self-hatred, as when a parent is more likely to trust a complete stranger than their own child. Is that it? So is this a sign I should move to Berlin, where I imagine an artist of my unique stature might be respected instead of reviled? Who knows, maybe it's just the ringing of that infernal bell... Belle du jour!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Leo, oh Leo...

"Only the fearful mistake asceticism for misery."

After reading that cheeky slam-down of Leo diCaprio in the Guardian last week, I've been musing on the effect of having "grown up boys" as men in our movies. I was trying to watch Eyes Wide Shut the other night, and I was really in the mood for it, but that god-damned Tom Cruise, his cocky snotty poise and posin' - he's just the sort of self-satisfied, over-compensating for his height, alpha male I may want doing my taxes but not at my birthday party. So why would I want to "identify" with him as a man lost in a world of privilege and ritual, where all the girls are beautiful and giddy from apparently rohibinal-spiked champagne, and the men stand very still and leer? Well, I wouldn't. And as in Xan Brooks article in the Guardian put it, I would also not want to identify with Leo as the undercover op in Body of Lies, as he races madly around some Middle Eastern neighborhood with his gun and his wispy beard and sunglasses, a righteous scowl on his baby face as he goes sidestepping the inner bully, the inner torturer and all the other, natural antithetical choices that would make his character's sulky masochist Oscar-worthy instead of just yawn-worthy. Like Tom, he's stuck in the banal post-PC haze of white male guilt. Sulk too long and you forget there are "mysterious powers" that come once you are too old to give a shit, and the most important rule - audiences don't trust a man who shows the world a naive earnest face - a real man always acts tougher than he is, a scam artist only goes vice versa. Hollywood being so skin-deep, forgets there's many layers and even children know how to relate past the surface.

Leo in person at least knows how to have fun on a bender. I used to love to read about his drunken exploits in the Upper West Side, howling outside the swanky brownstone high rises and singing and otherwise venting his spleen upon the trying-to-sleep so they can wake up and enjoy their Sunday Times couples of privilege. Why does he have to be so fucking sober in his film roles, then?

One of the many beautiful things Mad Men does is wise you up to ways in which media manipulates and creates your tastes, the way it leads you astray from who you truly are until you're so deep in the woods you foolishly think you have no choice but to keep following their will-o-wisp cigarette tip. Take that concept and apply it to the pretty boy actors who hit paydirt around their early twenties because they can still pass for teenagers. They're adenoidal; they don't have deep voices. Maybe they had sinister stage moms who purposely stunted their growth with drugs and starvation to keep them child stars as long as possible? Or maybe that's just they way they are: eternally boyish. But as they approach their thirties, somethings got to give. Either our conception of a mature male has to change or they have to step down of the pedestal and let deep-voiced guys take over, guys like Vin Diesel. Naturally these boy actors don't want to be removed from the dining car of the gravy train! We can't blame them, so much as urge them to not rig the passenger list unfairly to the extent that they warp future generations of men whose circumstance demands they look in movies for their role models. These men are standing in the Leo car looking across The Departed at the Jack Nicholson car, and they're afraid to make the jump.

Meanwhile, bring us new Lee Marvins! New William Holdens and Robert Ryans, George C. Scotts and Robert De Niros, Gene Hackmans and so forth.

There are of course actors with great beauty who are also powerhouse actors, fearless explorers of their own freaked out souls, dudes able to method act the roof off and yet not fall into the pit of camp, never make the mistake of thinking they need to "send a message" rather than just digging so deep into the character that the message shines directly into people's unconscious minds where it gestates and shapes their conception of self long into the future, as in good literature.

What kind of roles should Leo be playing? Villains! Or "complex" characters. How about a CIA operative who is a sado-masochistic guy who giggles and burns his money? See, that's why Heath Ledger was where Leo wants to be. Leo's still looking for his lionizing. Ledger learned the golden rule of lionization: you gots to lionize your own damn self.

Jared Leto even tried it for Number 23. Brad Pitt had his Kalifornia. Johnny Depp has always had it but it strutted it most astutely in Ed Wood and Before Night Falls. Imagine our Leo trying to do something like that? Tom Cruise tried to be "bad" as a hitman (Collateral) or the deluded Bob Mackey (Magnolia), but each time could only do variations of his golden overachieving narcissist. Leo hasn't even gone that far, unless you think the stealth self-love of The Aviator counts, or his self-caricaturizing in Woody Allen's Celebrity.

Leo could access it when he was young playing young, as in the Basketball Diaries. Now we need the real Jim Carroll, the real Howard Hughes, even the real Leo would be good, but who is he? Why do all his heroes have to be so adverse to the violence they commit? Why can't he be like Gene Hackman in The French Connection, this tightly wound sadistic freak who loves to fuck up bad guys? What's wrong with that? You can see how it is when a real man like Russell Crowe enters the Leo-verse, he just makes fun of it. My favorite part of Body of Lies is the way Leo's two "adult" mentors, Crowe and the Syrian intelligence official (Mark Strong) both call Leo's character by pet names like "Buddy" and "Darling." They treat him like a little brother who they want to make cool. Maybe I read that in the films because I have that same disease? What is that disease called when you're the older brother? The perennially trying to make your little brother cooler or at least get him to stop following you around all the time and cramping your style disease? I got that disease, so maybe it warps my perceptions of Leo, as he is blonde and younger then me, like my little brother. Just warning you... it is thanksgiving.

I dig Leo, though. In that photo up there you can dig that he's not afraid to hold his drink and Kate Winslet and beam at the camera in drunken good humor. He and Kate are clearly great friends and he has a contented look on his face like a man should have when he's drinking good gin and Kate Winslet is in his arms (read that last sentence in a Hemingway voice). I know Leo can play something else other than these tortured insiders with the wispy beards, he's a helluva decent actor... how about playing some giggling hood ala Richard Widmark? Or a psychotic narcissistic Wall Street bully like Christian Bale? Look at how Matt Damon did a number on our expectations of Matt Damon in The Talented Mister Ripley? If Leo did that role he'd have his writers crank the "tortured soul" part up to eleven, edit out the Chet Baker and amp up the scenes of being alone in the bathroom, crying and changing clothes. Last I heard Leo was optioning the rights to the Ian Fleming biography and I guess the point is, I want Leo to let his love light shine and to do that right you got to go into the valley of death we all gotta cross! He needs to take a year off to wander the wilderness and work on his beard, to surrender to the dark side. He needs to let himself drown in a world of pain, travel not into his character's heart of darkness but his own heart of darkness. Until then his heart of darkness gonna be a little brother heart, a second-hand aping of a true heart kids' mannerisms. Of course I haven't seen Blood Diamond yet, and my therapist just told me I should see it before I go shooting my mouth off about Leo. Then again, who am I hurting? Leo? He'll never read this. He'll never even hear about it... anyway, even if you tell him he won't ever believe I don't love him.
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