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.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Veronica Lake Effect

What is it about Veronica Lake that makes her so completely unlike all other 1940's blonde femme fatales? Something in her gaze reflects a sweet tender concern; something in her voice casts a gossamer warmth--the cinematic equivalent of a warm shoulder to weep yourself to sleep into-- even as her aura, face and beautiful blonde hair freeze you where you sit like a blast of Arctic air.

So many of her directors seemed determined to hide her beautiful hair in strict buns, or pulled under stupid hats and turbans. Perhaps her hairstyles reflected the tenseness and repression of the times. Veronica Lake's long blonde hair shone like a moon that could turn the tides, and so was kept locked up tight in buns of steel and bizarre hats. Repression hates changing tides. When Lake's hair was free it could wash all the sins of the depression and the war away, as in the amazing bathrobe scene of Sullivan's Travels (which is so aptly captured in Starlet Showcase). But when her hair was hidden, Alan Ladd sulked and Brian Donlevy and Joel MaCrea shot pained glances.

If my text is incoherent, forgive me. I've got a bad cold and am delirious... which I don't mind a bit with the cinematic ghost of Veronica Lake hovering above me on the TV screen. But what is it about her? Her voice always seems distant and far away, as if it was dubbed in later by the ghost of a flower. Rene Clair must have tried to access this supernatural power in I Married a Witch, because the film seems primed to take off into some alternate dimension. It never succeeds totally, but it spawned that TV show, Bewitched. Goddamn Dick York for his part in emasculating the male ego ideal of this great nation! Frederic March is at least a stronger force than Jimmy Stewart in Bell Book and Candle. Kim Novak has some of this weird Veronica Lake magic, but it's not the same brand.

Do you, dear reader, dare assume there are no such things as witches? Veronica Lake was a witch!!!! Maybe that's why she's such perfect company in the fires of a late November fever!

P.S. Here's a true fact about me: Some of my relatives (on my father's side) were tried and hung as witches in Salem, Mass, back in the day (Mary Easty was hung; Mary Edwards escaped). My great grandmother, who recently died at 107, and my grandmother, now 94, both have inherited some of this weird magical daemonic power that Veronica Lake had. Is this why we like some stars over others? Genetics? We feel emotions through cinema's stars as if they were vessels, proxies; stand-ins for our dream selves. Now let's presume that, on an unconscious level, you can connect yourself through the past to these moving images of people long dead... is that not itself a form of black magic? To connect your soul with that of Veronica Lake is to merge with the past, facilitating not just the common shallow depth unconscious drive of returning to the womb, but the deep end unconscious drive of merging with the womb behind your mom's womb, back further still, behind you great grandmother's womb, to all-seeing I am Womb, from which all beings come, and from which comes birth, thought, expression, action, life, death, retention, release, all just facets of the same ever-sparkling tinsel-toed diamond?

Imagine your own ancient ancestors who lived before telephones and electricity -- what would they think if they could see you now? They couldn't see you if they tried, and oh how they tried. They tried with crystal balls but they couldn't look that far ahead. But we can see them, all the way back when they were young and pretty. Just as I can connect to the gossamer image of Veronica Lake through my fevered viewing of This Gun for Hire, so we can see our own ancestors, and marvel at the pre-digital age. And if this is true, it is also and obviously true that future generations of ourselves are right now looking back at us, peering through the silvery veils of screening room time to marvel at the age of tools and celluloid and pixelated flesh; a time before all was pure thought; a time when man and machine were separate entities; a time before the cleansing hand of 2012 came and washed it all away until there was nothing, just the eternal blazing brilliance of her blond and wavy hair, the peaceful calm stillness of a Veronica Lake.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Miss Moneypenney and her Big Bond Phallus

An example of a character having innate understanding of Lacan's "impossibility of desire" can be found in the James Bond series' Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) and her office flirtations with James Bond (various). Come along with me on this structural adventure as we see just how and why.

Note that the regular flirtation of Bond and Moneypenny begins with her feigned anger at him for arriving "late." No matter when Bond arrives, she makes it seem as if he is late and that M is angry at him. But this anger is "pretend" for her and for M - for Bond, the locus of their combined desire, can never be anything but "on" time. M will usually berate him on some minor point before laying out the details of his case. Q also pretends to be annoyed with Bond's childishness, but at the same time, entrusts him with millions of dollars of high-falootin' gadgetry.

Moneypenny sets herself up as an upper-middle class spinster, pining for a secret agent who prefers more exotic (richer), younger women. Moneypenny is his "fall back" gal; he professes to love only her, implying he's sleeping with everyone but her! And if she pushes the issue, he instantly propositions her: "Drinks, my place. Tonight." But she ignores his request; sure that he is not being serious. Between the two of them is an implicit understanding regarding the parameters of their pretend courtship. If she took him seriously, bad blood would instantly erupt. Alas, in our post-PC era, no such parameters can really be established, so the fine art of fake flirting is all but gone. Too bad, because it's great practice... the pair switch role from pursuer to pursued on a regular basis, each claiming they pine for the other, and so forth.

Thus, Moneypenny's desire for James is innately dependent on his withholding of that desire's gratification. Such examples occur throughout cinema as well as in life, but this one is worth noting since it occurs in such ubiquitous regularity. This regularity itself makes it a fine example of the Lacanian phallus. Bond "owns" the phallus, as the ultimate "one who enjoys"-- but Moneypenny is the one who truly owns its lack - as in understanding that having access to the phallus will not prevent its lack, but will in fact destroy the position from within which that lack originates.

Part of this essential dance belongs to M, and his presence on the intercom - he is always listening in... and interjects his "Will you please skip the customary interplay, Miss Moneypenny?" M is the perfect momentary definition of the Big Other, the ultimate signifier for whom the dance is performed.

A telling acknowledgment that her buffering is no accident can be found in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, when Bond dictates his resignation before leaving her office. Moneypenny, instead of typing what he tells her, types that he has requested two weeks leave instead. Thus, she saves the entire triad of her, M and Bond. M even acknowledges this (after Bond has gone of course) by saying (over the intercom of course) "what would I do without you, Miss Moneypenny?"M understands her immaculate mediating between the phallus and its locus of imaginary enjoyment with the Non du pere or "no of the father" represented by the Big Other m.

Indeed, what would any of us do without the Miss Moneypennys of the world, gamely keeping the ball in play by "pretending" to want the phallus, even as they realize they can never have it? The world would resign, and no one would ever get laid. Moneypenny may or may not want to get laid, but her true lay, Bond, would be a disappointment, so she is better off enjoying the wanting of him. If they let themselves, if we let ourselves, we could grow obsessional and mad about it. Don't we all have some secret hidden love? If we don't keep vigilant, this unrequited love could grow to a full-blown obsession, drug addiction, stalking, restraining orders, assault, all follows. By pretending to like that which we actually do like, we save ourselves from having to actually have it. Maybe if we have it, we would just be... disappointed. Isn't that the fate of so many stars with their groupies? No matter how earth-shattering the anonymous sex might or might not be, it can't beat the image. Imagine if they hooked up and Bond had to slink past Moneypenny everytime, in guilty silence, on his way to M's office?

If you can embrace this secret you will be a James Bond yourself! By pretending to be "the one who enjoys" you become an authority on enjoyment itself. Sounds simple, doesn't it? We're all conditioned to act on our wants and desires without thinking, to consider them some kind of holy writ. But be not fooled! Desire is nothing more than the death drive with a fancy dress on. Follow anything too far and you won't find your way back. Lou Reed said it best "You know some people don't have a voice with / that they can even call their own. / So the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be, they follow it. / You know, it's called 'bad luck.'"

And which Bond girl is the one who gets to stay in the picture after the babe du jour has come and gone? Even after Bond himself is replaced, several times over? Lois Maxwell! Moneypenny! This is of course stating the obvious, but if you use your realization of this in yourself as a tool for conscious awakening, you will have the last laugh, every time, just like her.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Elektra King Hair Complex

Now it can be told: My favorite Bond girl is Sophie Marceau in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. I'm so glad it's finally out there.

Man, it's her hair. I love her hair in this film, beyond words. After seeing it in the theater back in 1999, I almost broke up with my girlfriend because I knew I could never love any woman other than Marceau's delectably evil oil baroness, Elektra King. My real-life girl's hair was too curly; it made me sneeze at night in spoon position. This is what comes from years of falling in love with the backs of girls' heads instead of paying attention in class.

World is Not Enough is the film that came out after Tomorrow Never Dies, which I also rewatched recently. I find it has lost a lot of its once gossamer shimmer through the discerning new filter of post-King 2008. TV's Lois and Clark star Terri Hatcher is the first babe--the one who always dies early--is the way-too-fussed-over lavender trophy wife of Jonathan Pryce's hissy media mogul villain. She's sexy if you think Modern Bride magazine is sexy, where all the beautiful hair is hidden behind gossamer white veils, or pulled back into sharp buns, or in her case cut to shoulder length in a moussed-up tussle. Sometimes being on a show popular with moms who used to watch it on upstairs TV is not enough!

Michelle Yeoh makes up for the damage as the second babe, but she's an action star, not a buxom love machine; when she rubs noses with Pierce Brosnan there's no question who spent the longest time in hair and makeup.

Upping Never's "this one's for the boys" ante is its perfume shop dependence on 90s blue neon and of course Pryce's Calvin Kleinesche uber-henchmen, played by Gotz Otto. With his posh nightclub bouncer physique and tight black T-shirt attire, Otto's actually the prettiest young thing in the cast. When Pryce orders him around it's in the same endearing faux-angry tone older rich gay men use when giving their young buck arm candy just enough public chastising to warrant their 'personal assistant' paycheck. A marked step up from the raging homophobia in Diamonds Are Forever, but this is James Bond and they're the bad guys in both instances. Aren't they, Mr. Wind?

It's all okay, the 90s was a forgiving time. The dawn of the metrosexual, when even straight boys read Details and kissed each other hello on their 3 day-stubble. Looking back at how far we've come from even then, (we don't kiss each other hello anymore, and grew our beards out - cuz we proved our points), the hissy fits of the villains are cute, and it's their need to seem straight by slapping around broads to expensively coiffed to actually desire that seems offensive.

Back in the late 1990s, the whole chillbient-loungecore ennui trip hop aesthetic was only beginning its downtempo slide into ecstasy-warped history. I had been right in the thick of it and thought Never was just marvelous. Of course you couldn't find loads of better Michelle Yeoh action films on DVD back then... or DVDs at all for that matter. Now it's strange to see Tomorrow Never Dies appearing so dated. It's like coming home for Christmas to find your mom rocking out to the Sneaker Pimps. Which wouldn't surprise me.

Then recently, Casino Royale showed us what we'd been missing after spending decades with a Roger Moore smirk keeping real life at arm's length. It seems we'd been giving away our gritty maturity by the bucketful since back in 1971, when Sean Connery first endured the strident yammering of Jill St. John in Diamonds. We'd been losing our way and taking the abuse of our backseat driver spouses until we emerged eunuchs in the flames of Tomorrow Never Dies, the first Bond film shot entirely inside a product placement-enriched Vogue spread. Not only were all the designer hotel products lovingly displayed (and presumably available for purchase while on board the aircraft) but we were supposed to believe that OUR Bond would actually get misty-eyed with regret over losing a flagrantly materialistic trollop like Hatcher. I've nothing against her as an actress in general, but her thing is that small screen comedic drama acting, not the vacantly larger than life horniness required by Bond.

Thus we see the sad result of our collective capitulation to the ever-shifting desires of third wave feminism: even Bond believes he should apologize for being a man. No woman wants to see that, not really. What Never needs more than Michelle Yeoh is Camille Paglia. Yeoh's got the high kicks, but Paglia could have trounced Jonathan Pryce's media pundit with a single trenchant pop culture essay.

Which brings me back around to Sophie Marceau in The World is Not Enough. Sweet... sweet Sophie. She's got the sense of nymphonic entitlement we need for a Bond girl, down pat, but then she widens the aperture even farther, becoming more complex than the rest of the cast combined all without breaking the stride of the film or becoming a bore. When Marceau lounges in her gold-trimmed oil rich Turkish-Persian-Uzbekistanian finery and palatial luxuriance, she not only fits the Vogue fantasia mold, she transcends it. Being French surely helps; she acts like she grew up with this sort of stuff. By contrast, Hatcher looks like she'll start stealing the designer shot glasses as soon as Bond steps into the bathroom.

Representing the Americans in World is the much more age-inappropriate Denise Richards (left) as an atomic physicist named Christmas Jones --one of the best pieces of stunt casting in the history of cinema. One look at the way she goes marching around the abandoned Russian missile silo in sexy khaki shorts and all rudderless qualms slip their hoses. Richard's not a great actress, barely even good, but she doesn't need to be, maybe even shouldn't be. Like all the best Bond beauties she acts from her hips, sexual in her every gesture without ever trying to be sexy. She's the archetypal transcendental, slightly-blank, uber-babe - she's the fantasy while King is the fantastic. Together in one film? Mon dieu!

Richards' kind of sexiness wouldn't last though. Just as it did in the Connery to Moore transition, genuine sexual heat lost ground to double entendre smirking, that's why the very 90s capsule-ish THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH has always been unusual. Its villain, Elektra King is one of only a few femme fatale villains of the series, beginning as an innocent victim of a maniac and becoming a ruthless evil manipulator of a miscast Scotsman. Ah there's the rub: clearly hired because he was so good at being a terrifying Glasgow hooligan in TRAINSPOTTING, another quintessential 90s curio, alongside drum and bass star Goldie as a thug baring his gold teeth in a stoner Bristol patois.

But King's seduction of Bond is so brilliant it redeems the lame dudes around her as well as contextualizes Bond's overall trite condescensions, i.e. where every woman in the world is supposed to fall for him, give up her life for his, and forgive him while he wanders off with nary a word of thanks. In this case, all Elektra has to do is shed a tear and Bond gets all bossy and concerned, even provincial. She can barely refrain from laughing the harder he tries to look paternal.

He deserves all he gets and for her; it must suck to be the only mature one in a world run through of stock stereotype snickering and the naive idea guys have where they can sleep with you and still think you'll look up to them. In fact, if anything Bond here reminds me of Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder's DOUBLE IDEMNITY, that same kind louche overly confident swine vibe.

Next up in the series was Die Another Day, with Halle Berry one of my least favorite of all Bond actresses (I'm not even going to post a pic of her!). When are audiences going to wise up to this little tyro? She's hot, she can act... sometimes,  with the right director to really guide her, but she's got no "presence." She's a wisp with a little mouse voice -- she can be vulnerable and sexy and smart but she's even less believable as a super spy than she is as Storm in X-Men. Granted it's not always easy to mouth the immature dialogue of Bond films, but Berry seems uncomfortable and nervous every step of the way. She's like the girl who accepts the invitation to the Playboy mansion only to stand alone in the corner by the shelves, sneering in contempt at the Hef's collection of X-rated figurines and telling every man who approaches to get lost.

And let's not even mention her 'hair' - which is nonexistent.

Far better is Rosamund Pike as the tricky British double agent Miranda Frost. I always root for Miranda in Die's climactic cat fight.

But she never wins.

Meanwhile, Judi Dench is all well and good as M, but the scenes of high level meetings and board rooms all lack the camaraderie of the old Connery days wherein fraternal English upper class types smoked cigars and knocked back tumblers of whiskey as they clued Bond in. When men are alone they can deal with big issues without losing their cool, like it's all in a day's work. Once M shows up, everyone has to act serious and freaked out as she utters tired stiff upper lip oaths like "This will not stand!" Far more effective would be if she just knocked back a shot of whiskey and said "I'd like you to mosey over there and convince him of our seriousness," when Bond knows she means kill him. What women in the workplace (as seen in movies)  so often fail to grasp is the importance of underplaying. 

Speaking of which, when will there be another decent Bond supervillain? The last good one was Christopher Walken in the otherwise tiresome A View to a Kill! And that one also had Tanya Roberts, sigh, talk about great hair...  for the 80s.

MY OTHER BOND WRITINGS (From Film Experience and Bright Lights):
The Amnesiac Bond
Bond Rides the Moebius Strip
Olga Kurylenko's House of Pain
Miss Taro

Taking it Bond by Bond
Delusion of Competence: Complete Acidemic Review Guide

Friday, November 14, 2008

Happy Birthday, Sandahl Bergman

November 14 marks the xxth birthday of the sinuous and sweet Sandahl Bergman, the perfect time to genuflect on her perfection in at least two roles: as sexy uberfraulein Fosse dancer in All That Jazz and war-paint wearing, barbarian-loving, Cult of Thoth Amonn decimator Valeria in the original film version of Conan the Barbarian (1982). She's done other work since but these are the roles that endure, that make her the graceful warrior woman in cinema's gallery of archetypes, for my generation at least.

Of course by now you've guessed it: after seeing Conan at the local multiplex in 1982, I fell madly in love with Sandahl Bergman. I was an avid fantasy novel reader and a huge fan of Conan author Robert E. Howard, and my buddy Alan and I pronounced it "Con-an, like Con Air) so we were indignant the film used the long 'o' pronunciation. We came to the film ready to be affirmed in our disdain (after needing to get my mom to buy us tickets - as it was 'R') and instead immediately swooned, first with joy over the solid battle scenes and atmosphere, then over Sandahl. She had accessible 'real' beauty (no garish make-up), physical grace and amazing swordsmanship-- everything a 15 year old comic book collecting boy trapped in the sterile hell of suburban central New Jersey pined for in a dream girl. Her fighting prowess and selfless devotion to big brutish Schwarzenegger were larger than life: mythic yet down-to-earth, tender yet ferocious/ In a 1982 Sneak Previews episode, both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave Conan a thumbs up, based almost entirely on their romance. I was all misty over it.

Bergman was a dancer and Arnold a weight lifter so they did most of their own stunts and all their own fights but in love scenes were clearly virgins (as actors) and their relative inexperience and sweet tender trust in each other as actors fits perfectly with their characters' wounded bird-style discovery. ; We feel the wonderment and joy of these two hard knock lifers, so used to stealing and fighting every step of the way without fear, suddenly having something to lose. Chuckle in disbelief if you will but Bergman and Schwarzenegger in Conan have the same fragile first-love sweetness that James Dean and Natalie Wood had in Rebel Without a Cause or any of the best Nicholas Ray or Frank Borzage couples, or even Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in Cronenberg's Fly remake.

Sexy as she is while gyrating and grinding and having her pilot clothes torn off in All that Jazz there's still no topping the amount of hotness that is Bergman charging into battle in her black full body war paint in Conan. And there's no cutting away to a stunt double, which makes her battles look markedly different--and worlds better--than most in say Buffy or Xena, much as I love stuntwoman Zoë Bell. And you want reckless realism? She almost lost a finger in one of those fights!

Such healthy Nordic recklessness gained her the loyal devotion of millions of socially maladjusted young cinema goers like myself. I was so loyal that it took awhile for me to warm up to her scene in All that Jazz, actually, because I felt she was being exploited! I didn't want these dancers all pawing at her just to fulfill some titillation quota for the Fosse backers. Whoa! Easy there, killer! It's art. I dated a girl (as an adult) because she looked like her (same aquiline profile) and as a kid I had the posters of her as represented in the left two images for years; I fell in love with her quizzical look while holding her scimitar in the pic below, as if she wasn't sure whether to kiss you or kill you. I tell you she made my own German-Scandinavian blood rise up like an anguished tide.

Alas, Ms. Bergman became caught up in a different tide, the post-Conan gold rush, wherein every two bit Italian outfit that could scrounge a few old peplum props out of Cinecittà's
dumpsters was pumping our drive-ins full of romps like The Beastmaster, Sword and Sorcery, Hearts and Armour, Krull, Dragonslayer and Deathstalker. Looking for a change of pace, Bergman opted to play the evil queen instead of the lead in Red Sonja, but regardless of this twist, the film is a major endurance test-- more Supergirl than Conan, with endlessly dragged out scenes of bad special effects and way too many ceremonial robes. So Bergman went back to the stage, TV, etc., and there you have it, another great screen presence spat through the star maker machinery and dumped in the wastelands of late-night cable before her wings could all the way extend. Nothing to be ashamed of in that. Nothing for her to be ashamed of anyway. The rest of us should all be ashamed for not creating a universe wherein a whole series of cool Valeria sequels utilizing her natural grace and charm might have thrived. O John Milius, why did Valeria have to die?!?!?! She hung around for whole mythic arcs in the comics (where she was a pirate captain).

But that's show biz, big boy, you got to be cruel to be kind, and even if she really only appears in two enduring classics (and a slew of future cult items like Hell Comes to Frog Town and Xanadu), Bergman's effortlessly sexy screen presence, catlike grace and natural warmth are enough to ensure she'll never be just a mere cinematic footnote... especially not as long as guys who were awkward teenagers in 1982 continue to age into blog-writing pedagogues. So, Sandahl, happy birthday from one of the many boys you helped along the demon and serpent-bestrewn road out of suburban dullness. May you stay forever hot, forever sweet, forever warm, forever young... and forever ferociously lithe!

PS - since writing this I finally saw Hell Comes to Frogtown and She and they are both awesome. Bergman never lets us down. She's so sexy and cool in both you want to follow her off a cliff. (4/20)

See these other Bergman links

SHE (1982)

and also my in depth review of CONAN (1982) here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Kill all Jonesers

There's a scourge upon the land of DVD documentaries.

When I was in a band there were always scroungy dudes hanging around we called "wannabes" or "jonesers." Dudes who had nothing to do with our band at all in the beginning would see the attention we were getting and want "in" - so suddenly they would be standing right off stage (or on stage if we didn't kick them off), arms crossed, trying to absorb the "glory" anyway they could, appointing themselves the royal beer procurer, bong hit packer, roadie, manager, PR person, whatever... usually we'd never see them again after that one night, but sometimes they clung on for months, sometimes they just stayed and it took us years to figure out no one invited them.

There are people who write biographies of celebrities after three or four biographies have already been written, who can only like an artist once said artist is dead and safely canonized. They may be writing about a star who was on heroin half the time, and they worship this star and glamorize the drug use, but if they were to meet the star, on drugs, without knowing who the star was, these writers would recoil in horror; they would judge and condemn anyone they met in person who did heroin (and would never do it themselves, god forbid) but the star they worship, oh he's a different story...

Take the case of outsider artist Henry Darger. Here is a guy who died alone and unloved in his hovel and was only discovered after he was dead for a spell and they found tens of thousands of hand-written hand-drawn pages of really weird shit in his room. There's since been a movie and several books and bios... and they keep coming. These writers wouldn't dream of championing some other outsider artist, maybe even someone living, who wasn't famous yet. They'd never risk it! If they met Darger in person without knowing who he was they would run the other way. Outsider really means 'they make good art having never been to school for it, but they smell like stale urine and mothballs so don't invite them to the gallery show.'

I'm sure some of this rant reflects my own frustration that my brain can't sit still long enough to finish my own book, or that no one wants to write a book about me. Awww! But damnit, this is a legit frustration. These hangers-on can't even be called groupies because groupies are cool folk who just want to hang with the band. The jonesers don't want to just hang, they want their name linked. We see their ugly heads all over DVD extras, blathering on in tones of turgid self-importance or putting their "signature style" on docs via editing tricks, assuming the reigns of someone else's artistic output in a case of glory by association... and the network of studio production nerds behind them nod approvingly, all locked in the sad ring around the rosie of believing each other's bullshit. As the rest of us writers and artists are out there actually living and breathing, these jonesers hide indoors and wait for us to die, so they can safely approach our corpses, dab a handkerchief in our blood and tell the story to their grandchildren.

Let this humble blog entry serve to stand against this tide of pathetic wannabe-ism. I am all for biographies and read them all the time and most of them are great, but just because you write a biography doesn't make you an authority, a spokesperson for the estate, an expert, nor a cousin. It just makes you a person with some time on his hands, and maybe not even that... maybe you're just an empty shell looking for a new hermit crab. In short, DIE! DIE! DIE!!! Or else live... live your own life, and don't presume to know about a subject until you actually inhale it for yourself.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

When bad scores happen to good movies

Watching WHITE OLEANDER for my fix of degenerate runaway Nordic blondeness I can't help but feel it would be a great movie without that sappy "American Beauty-lite" piano music by Thomas Newman.... come to think of it, so would GIRL, INTERRUPTED.

The Halloween season with its ample horror movies provides insight into this phenomena: when the soundtrack is good--as in Argento's films, Carpenter's films, some of Jess Franco's films-- the movie itself is boosted from mere eye candy-ish nonsense into jazzy poetry. When the soundtrack is trite or tacky, John Williams-grandiose or those minor key steel drum and piano indie accents, the film is revealed for what it is, an empty calorie sugar high.

The minor key piano melancholia and punchy steel drum accented montage and driving music is all over indie cinema. It especially grossed me out when playing underneath POLLOCK, as when Ed Harris is first learning to go nuts with big canvasses. The music should have, could have been wild squalls of bebop and whatever else Pollock was digging at the time. Instead we've got that crisp mournful indie music, Sundance music... recycled emotional responses in the key of C, from a string of films all snaking out of AMERICAN BEAUTY and SIX FEET UNDER.

What others? Man, I even have to keep the sound off for parts of Oleander. But I love it - Michelle of course, Alison Lohman, Robin Wright, all so good. I even like Renee Zelwegger in this movie. And Cole Hauser! But oh, the woebegone piano. Oh Lord deliver thine holy blonde killer footage unto someone like Stars of the Lid, Ornette Coleman or Ennio or the amazing and under appreciated David Julyan!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

New Bright Lights issue posted

Bright Lights Film Journal # 62 now online
It looks swell, and there are two pieces by me. The first is my tongue through cheek look at Dario Argento's Mother of Tears: An Argento Family Reunion Special: Crying over the Spilled Mother of Tears

The other is my very first book review, on Todd McGowan's The Impossible David Lynch.

All the articles look great! Read zem!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Lusty Men & Cockfighter

Was it mere chance or some higher intuitive cosmic thing that my Monday double bill is Cockfighter and The Lusty Men, the latter because it was on TCM today, Cock cause I finally bought it at the soon-to-move Kim's ($7). I could go on for paragraphs about the self destructive but poetic and essential male traits of competition, animal languages, gambling, booze, womanizing, slouchiness, and adrenalin addiction. But no, I'd rather talk about how LAME it is that neither of these have been restored for beautiful DVD releases. I'm glad Alpha Video put out Cock, and the print aint too bad. But I imagine it would look extra pretty shined up. The Lusty Men aint been out since some old VHS tape you can get on Amazon for $40. What the hell is up with that? Both these films should be taught in men's therapy groups and shown before fight club competitions, at the same time, what the hell's the difference?

How much do you want to bet that it's because the overpaid and therefore cowardly executives at some of these big labels want to shy away from "controversy" with the sexually connotative names? Can you hear them saying "Uh, we're not comfortable being associated with titles that have words like lusty and cock in them?" In that question mark at the end of every statement sort of way? Like they're paid to not take any chances? None? Not one chance that their label might be guilty by association?

And of course there's cruelty to animal issues. Those cocks are really fighting. And those bulls are really chasing and the broncos are really bucking. Ray is deep up in the nostrils of those bulls, and Hellman's colorful cocks look beautiful fighting in slow motion.

The result of all this big league timidity is that two classics of iconoclastic male cinema by two of the great iconoclastic male artists of their day, Nicholas Ray and Monte Hellman, are coasting around the dusty shelves while the parent companies play it safe with tepid tripe. Why isn't there a Nicholas Ray boxed set? What are they afraid of? Are they afraid that men in America might reclaim the poetic warrior beauty and love that is theirs by right and not let it continue to be sluiced into blandness by lowest common denominator CGI patronizing? Or is it just that they prefer to polish films that suck rather than having to listen to jokes about cocks and lusty men? At any rate, Lusty Men would have been perfect to piggy back on Brokeback awhile back and would look extra fine with a Criterion imprint tomorrow, and ditto for Cock, on all counts.

Don't Let a few bad apples stop you from accessing the Ungodly Power of Transdimensional Entities: THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970)

Ask some dour passerby on the street: "Should I feel safe in accessing daemonic realms for personal power?" And they'll probably say no. But don't let that stop you. The Elder Gods are waiting for your call!

My own usual weekend solstice debaucheries were put on hold in favor of taping a mess of AIP 1960s Lovecraft-adaptations off TCM, many of which--in the bizarre ironic sort of way which the Elder Gods adore--depicted the exact sort of arcane six dimensional ceremonies I was shamefully avoiding. It's okay though, since that fits the Zizek-cum-Lacanian idea of the Other (the TV conducts ancient pagan ceremonies so I don't have to)

THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970) is the only one of of the whole bleedin' lot I've actually watched so far. It's a grand curio from the time when AIP was the leader in hybridized hippy-horror, i.e. the EAP/LSD (Edgar Allen Poe meets Lysergic Acid Diethylamide) genre... the two blending well along a bad trip mortality arc (Roderick Usher's morbid acuteness of the senses being another word for 'bum trippin'")

Ostensibly a horror film, strip away the beginning and the end and it's more like a chemically-altered love story; a sweet tale of romance and drugged tea between a budding hippy warlock Wilbur Whately (Dean Stockwell rocking a terrible Donald Sutherland 'do-stache ensemble) and Nancy (Sandra Dee), the niece or daughter of Necronomicon lecturer and the extremely fuddy-duddy buzzkill, Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley). All-too-wisely, Dr. Armitage disapproves of Wilbur, especially the whole date rapey hypnogogic drugging / mind manipulation-seduction thing. He suspects it's all leading up to would-be mating with extra-dimensional being thing (here doubling as Wilbur's 'bad' twin). That, and Wilbur stole the Necronomicon from the hidden vaults of the Miskatonic library! Armitage thinks he should be the only one allowed to read it. What a complete bastard, even if he is right.

Alas, there's a clear-cut pruning of Lovecraft's source material in order to better clone ROSEMARY'S BABY,  definitely a last minute choice you can tell; Polanski's film was re-settting the bar, and as always AIP was quick to walk under it; Stockwell was against the change, rightly believing Lovecraft was timeless. According to TCM: "Quarreling with his director, Stockwell (a self-professed Lovecraft fan) adapted a winking attitude toward the material, playing Wilbur Whateley with tongue planted firmly in cheek… and the approach serves the film surprisingly well." Playing all his cards so close to the vest does work to the film's advantage, giving him a vaguely intriguing air, as if he's got a private joke we'll be let in on as soon as the squares leave. Whether he's arguing with an incredibly hammy Sam Jaffe, socking Miskatonic library guards, or gently laying Dee down on the altar of the elder gods, Stockwell's self-mocking hipsterism helps us endure the dull stretches with Begley, clearly swaying our vote so we want to see just what Wilbur's dredging. Plus, there's lots of beautiful Bava-esque colored gel lights employed throughout his hippy mansion, and some cool set dressing such as some big hypnotist-aide crystals in a tangent that goes nowhere (unless you're looking for continuity with old Corman Poe films--that prop's been in at least three).

One cheek that doesn't turn well is the clashing, wildly inappropriate music from Les Baxter who offers a spy movie-ready "leitmotif" that repeats in various forms throughout the film. Reminiscent of Wings' "Live and Let Die," it robs the already poverty-stricken atmosphere of any accumulating ominousness. When old Dean is doing his chants and having magic fights with Armitage, Baxter scores it like punch card computers should be blowing up, and extras in blazing hazmat suits running around on fire. I like a lot of Baxter's stuff but he could really miss the mark, overdoing the comedic mickey mousing in films like Comedy of Terrors, for example, or re-scoring Italian horror imports so all their atmosphere evaporates, replaced by the feeling of being at a tacky Tiki lounge in 70s Belgrade. Similarly, the climactic monster eye view as the beast flies around the house, is rendered via quick cuts, epileptic with psychedelic colors and quick edits when anyone who's actually tripped would know some dissolves and overlays would have been nicer on the neurons and druggier too.

Highlights include: a wild orgy dream sequence hallucination that's one of the better ones in AIP's vast orgy canon (way trippier than the similar one in the same year's ZABRISKIE POINT), with the naked (white) hippies all painted up to look like Aborigines and having a wild, crazy time; Corman regulars like Barbara Mouris and Beach Dickerson bit-parting around the edges; a really good psychedelic credits sequence (an AIP color horror tradition); Lloyd Bochner as a local doctor, and Talia "Shire" Coppola as his assistant! What?! You can feel the engines of THE GODFATHER already starting to hum somewhere deep in the unborn belly of the elder gods, snaking up from the Lovecraftian depths of the Corman-AIP bullpen.

For more on the many good and not so good Lovecraft films over the years, check out the potent and poetic article from writer and film historian David Del Valle over on Acidemic's main page. And remember, the Ancient Ones are always waiting... for your call.
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