Friday, February 27, 2009

Four Flies on Grey Velvet: Cinebolically Dario

The long-awaited decent DVD release of Four Flies on Gray Velvet is a late-inning coup for anyone trying to lose their moral compass, and you should be trying, because it's harder than you think. Luckily, Argento's films--even at their worst or 'confused'--are never safe, and always rich in moral ambiguity: Good guys are hipster artists driven to risk their friends' lives in finding the killer, more out of perverse fascination than genuine empathy for the victims; we're expected to laugh when the hapless noir fall guy throttles an innocent mailman just for looking suspicious in the rain; the killer/s have their reasons and the victims have theirs; homosexual stereotypes (limp-wristed, palm-tickling, mincing) are trotted out for pre-PC revulsion (but at least visible, and generally capable); murders are situated with almost unbearable intensity, which--more than gore--is what sharpens us up as viewers, like hard slap to the face; we're expected to drop our horror and laugh when a "hallelujah!" snippet plays with the arrival of someone nicknamed "God" (short for Godfrey -played by ubiquitous bear  Bud Spencer) who takes our hero to a coffin convention (to keep things in perspective), and police hardly matter except as deadpan symbols of a laggard but inexorable law and order, their tape computer banks, autopsies and fancy procedures  where lasers project the retinal image at the moment of death, coupled to their ability to let nearly anyone past them (coming in and going out) when guarding endangered witnesses.

In Four Flies, the third in Argento's 'animal trilogy' and the most comedic and uneven. Aside from the disparate list I just mentioned there's an ongoing gag with the mailman delivering pornography by mistake to an uptight old lady neighbor; there's some great psychedelic wallpaper, chic 70s menswear, and fantasias of being a working prog drummer married --in a kind of pre-Lynchian fugue--to rich girl Mimsy Farmer, with her hot cousin (Francine Racette) always trying to get you into bed (and succeeding when the wife leaves for London to get away from all the death). Everything's a double-edged sword of entendre and labyrinthine cinebolism. No matter who it is, we hate to see them killed, especially the gay but capable detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle) whose managed to win us over despite his mincing and slovenly eating.

If you're a big lover of Bird with Crystal Plumage you might long for another one of Morricone's children's music box leitmotifs to run through his score for Flies but like Exorcist 2: The Heretic, Ennio patiently waits until the film's half over to make his move: a discordant melange of nerve-jangling percussion, mashed piano keys, heartbeat bass and luggage dropped on harp strings all swirl in like a dust storm once the pin-drop quiet stretches and generic lounge psych jams are finis. The main theme has a tinny little pizzicato string echo bouncing off an eerie but playful "cheep"-style female vocal, a ceremonious Bach refrain and a faint jangle of... jingle bells? Maybe car keys? Either way, it's so slight as to be almost inaudible, but audible it nonetheless is, because the whole confection is so slight, so minimal we can hear pins drop, if Ennio so deigned to drop them. He could make a world class score out of nothing but a rubber band, a single note, and a broken harmonium. And here he just about proves it, which perfectly serves Argento's plan for long silences, with scared girls hiding in closets and hearing faint footsteps getting louder up the stairs all the time louder, until the 'didn't I have a nightmare just like this as a child?' deja vu creeps up on us. Alas, Argento and Morricone fought over some of these aspects (supposedly Dario wanted Deep Purple to do the score originally, heaven forfend) and Dario moved on to using Goblin for most of his subsequent films, which worked out well, though some of his latter musical choices (bits from Iron Maiden and Rick Wakemen especially) haven't aged at all well, while Ennio's scores--all 500 or so of them--are almost all like fine wine. Regardless, it's all the past, we're moving on. We can't just wish the awful Rick Wakeman score for Argento's Suspiria follow-up Inferno away and ask Ennio to step in an re-score it. This isn't AIP in the 60s, and Ennio is not Les Baxter.

 In addition to quietude, darkness: pitch blackness stretches sometimes over 3/4 of the frame, evoking in its shadowy stillness the brilliance of Val Lewton and Jacquest Tourneur, especially their 1943 masterpiece, The Leopard Man

All this dark and stillness may have been too dark and still on a cropped blurry dupe, but with the widescreen DVD from Blue Underground we can luxuriate in every darkened corner and realize that this movie predates and prefigures Lynch's Lost Highway in its poetic use of hipster musicians standing blankly around in the darkness of their retro chic decadent apartments, waiting... thinking... standing... As Roberto, Michael Brandon is like a handsomer version of Roger Waters but Waters could act, or at least occasionally move a facial muscle. Brandon is so out of it he thinks he's still sitting in the make-up chair (since he's had a long career I presume this was Argento's directorial note). And, as always, there's a hot frail androgynous girlfriend (American giallo star expat Mimsy Riot on Sunset Strip Farmer! Is it redundant to mention her short blonde hair?). In Rome then, as well as in America, the pretty people are so privileged they become emotionally arrested post-Antonioni zombies, frozen in place lest a camera catch their bad angle, revealing them to be just as ugly as everyone else.

There's a lot left undone that would have made this movie hum with the brilliance of its 'animal trilogy' predecessors, it lacks the eerie spinal cord drilling of Plumage or the B-mystery-homage kinetics of Cat O'Nine Tails but there's no doubt it's Argento at the helm--in full control--so even if it doesn't add up to much, it's always "in the moment," i.e. more termite art than white elephant. And, for the psychotronic scholar, it's fun to connect this 1971 film to all that came before (Leopard Man, Peeping Tom, Psycho) and all that came after (Death Proof, Blade Runner, Eyes of Laura Mars). Who knows why it's so important for people like Dario, Ennio, and Lucio Fulci that someone's slow decapitation or eye-gouging should be accompanied by languid orchestral pop balladry?! Maybe it's some anti-Catholic thing, but goddamn it, those are the moments one lives for. Here in the States if we get a headcrushing, John Williams mickey mouses intense strings so we know we're supposed to think this is wrong! Bad! Bad killer! But in Italy they don't give you a moral compass. You're on your own, and if you're afraid not having your emotional reactions pre-ordained might activate your latent sociopathy, well, you need to grow up sometime, Raymond. Why not play a little solitaire?

Special shout to the new DVD's restoration of the full climactic killer monologue, which adds sickly minutes to an already tense situation. The restored footage is only available in Italian, while the rest is in English, and the suddenly eruption of this 'new' footage into the classic text is a great example of the trilogy's unheimliche conjuring power. In the Argentoverse scenes collapse and disappear only to return, decades later, in Italian with English subtitles.

I'm not getting Blue Underground kickbacks by saying this, but Argento's films are always worth owning instead of renting. They can be re-watched repeatedly without ever seeming like the same movie. They're as faceted as one's own inner romantic torment or open wound. Part of it, I think, is that our mind instinctively buries trauma, even imaginary ones (if the vicarious dread is intense enough) so we "block out" all traces of the pain as it happens, leaving just a jewel-like shimmer in our retinae. We remember it as tense or thrilling or scary but not what exactly scared or unnerved us. As long as we don't play it all over and over in a conscious mind like a repetition convulsion obsessesion we can delve back in a year or so later and find ourselves wondering "is this the same version?" as if the sneaky Blue Underground replaced the disc in the dead of night... while we slept.

What was it Caligula said? "Oh, If all of Rome had just one neck..." he said that because he was itchy for something that only a genius like Argento could provide, and he kept breaking necks to find it. Dario breaks the necks so we don't have to. Dario, the cinebolical Caligula of post-modern Rome!

Read my less worshipful piece on Dario's Mother of Tears here, and more worshipful piece on daughter Asia's Scarlet Diva here

Thursday, February 26, 2009

WANTED & the Kramer Finger Trap

WANTED (2008) is to urban dwelling white guys what MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION is to young black men, and it's a fascinating "gotcha" dichotomy: the African American ideal is to be a church-going family man; white guy's ideal is to be a sociopathic sniper. Not that you can't be both, of course, like in THE STEPFATHER. Perhaps you don't get Angelina Jolie for arm candy if you go that route, but then again, maybe you actually get to have sex with someone.

As the lead "Young King Arthur"-type. WANTED's James McAvoy is pretty soft. Keanu Reeves had it much better in the exact same role (McAvoy even gets a few winks at the audience when he eschews Reeves' Matrix glasses) but McAvoy's a non-Neo Neo; he may get a drab cubicle and the black 'second' father and the hot 'mentor' chick in leather with the slow mo guns thing, but he's an accountant, not a programmer, and he's too much of a schmuck to even be a good frat boy, let alone a good alterna-rocker bassist. Another problem: he takes forever to wise up. He's still shouting "Are you guys really assassins?!?" over the sound of whirring Kinko's copiers and the movie's half over already. In V FOR VENDETTA, Natalie Portman passed the time in prison reading lesbian love letters. MacAvoy just flails and goes "dude!" like the guy on the acid trip whose actually serious about writing all this shit down because it's so brilliant or seems genuinely afraid when everyone jokes they should kill him cuz he's so annoying. At least he learns to take a lot of punches. That was some comfort.

But it all ultimately matters little: McAvoy ends the film babeless and unbroken, lecturing the audience for their sloth after tastefully dispatching his boss from a Rear Window style sniper scope rifle right from his living room. Take a note, you high school nerds so trampled underfoot: long range firearms make vengeance easier for those who faint at the sight of blood.

I don't care about copycats so much as the ever-increasing amount of time it takes in these films to get our average guy to actually wise up and shake off his civilized Clark Kentish stupor. In the old westerns, you'd just throw a guy a gun and he'd be ready. Stanley Kramer came along and made that guy a coward, and yea, we believed Stanley Kramer, and yea, we became soft and cowardly and "we d-d-d-don't want n-no trouble" instead of "you name it, I'll throw rocks at it, sheriff." As a result, each new Neo takes progressively longer to to shucker loose from the Kramer/liberal finger trap.

And what about the slasher movies, the horror movies with the girl cowering in fear and dropping the knife right by the body, etc., screaming and yelling for the sheriff even when the sheriff is a maniac and she knows this? How long before she's suffered enough and there's that "snap" signifying her nervous system flip to adrenalin-spiked savagery? Wes Craven seemed to think that this "snap/flip" was a bad thing, showing how we're all killers inside as if it's something to be ashamed of (as in the final chilling freeze frame of the original HILLS HAVE EYES) even while rubbing our noses in it. Damn you, Wes Craven! We know we got it, there's no need to be made ashamed of it! A Kramer at the Oscars is bad enough, now we have to one at the drive-in, too? We need to celebrate that savagery when it shuckers free from that finger trap and pokes the sweet spots! What's the difference between a harried-by-bikers suburban dad finding his inner DEATH WISH drive vs. a soldier winning a medal on the field of battle?


Liberals bemoan it, but the dehumanizing tactics of R. Lee Emery in FULL METAL JACKET are there to help the boys survive on the field. For God's sakes, Stanley, R. Lee is trying to snap them out of their unconscious first world consumerist stupor! They come to boot camp oblivious and soft. Where they come from, danger is easily avoided: just look both ways before crossing the street and don't drive drunk. Here they have to learn how to not step off of a mine or get shot in the neck by a sniper. Emery wants them to learn to love the smell of mud as if they're lives depended on it. Outside of boot, a civilized man needs a biker siege on his camping trip to rip forth from that suburban schmuck veneer!

In WANTED, our dumb hero learns to kill but he never really learns to love... killing. He does learn to boast about what a bid widdle boy he is as he issues Columbine-positive declarations to the fourth wall, but in my mind he'll never be more than a little pisher with good reflexes.

It's all interesting in thinking about that savagery switchpoint shift though, a shift that no one even really had the guts to talk about before Sam Fuller or Vietnam. And now that book The Killer Inside Me, that Jim Thompson novel, is becoming a movie. And you know whose starring in it? Corey Haim! I mean Casey Affleck. Nothing against little boy Casey, per se, but is there be a better emblem of how fucked up our country is? Back in 1977, would we have tolerated Ron Howard as Darth Vader? Would we have believed Ricky Nelson as Captain Quint in JAWS? To reverse the line from SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, pick the whip up and maybe we'll respect what you're saying!

Friday, February 20, 2009

EXTREME SPORTZ OVERVIEW: The Good, the Ill and the Whack

Thanks to a lengthy stint as a second tier film critic for Muze I've come to know a lot about "EXTREME Sports" movies. I've covered everything from the FAST AND THE FURIOUS "original" remake to the sequel, to TORQUE, BIKER BOYZ and even some weird thing where evil Yugosalvian spies chase kids down a mountain.

While the critical eyes of the cinematic blogosphere (at least the ones I read) tend to focus on the yucky trends in teen horror remakes, the extreme sports movies have quietly inherited the Roger Corman mantle of "Hey, bro, the producers aren't even here, let's you know, actually make something good before the suits realize it, want to attach their names to the screenwriting credits and thus stagnate every creative decision via memo-exchanging consensus!" So while the horror films just pile on cliches and editing flash and scrape out every last drop of unique insight, the sports movies have evolved into some quietly cool shit (asides from the commercial editing tricks, product placement and bad writing, I mean). The zenith of which I would say is the DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS remake (that is, the Catherine Hardwicke feature version of the documentary). Awesome!

Find what you want to do in life and keep doing it, that's the moral of these crazy flicks. We can get all sweaty-palmed over the neck risking, but it comes down to something beyond winning, it's about how when people let go of fear they can do badass stunts. I hear that bro; I had to give up my real ambition, which was to quietly drink myself to death while watching THE THING (1951) over and over again. So now I just cheer these kids from the sidelines, and then run to an AA meeting. Whoops!

So, in case you are inexperienced, let me turn you onto what to netflix and what to flick aside in the colorful sub-genre known as "Extreme Sports" movies. A few things y'all need to know first off:

1) In this universe, there's very little racism (aside from having the lead be snowy white, even if he's black) and everyone talks in Cali surfer lingo, even if it's set in Waukeegan, Illinois.

2) The straight boring lead guy would never dream of doing drugs, though he may have one beer, if he's not driving (but he won't finish it)

3) The character to watch isn't the bland leading man but the "other" dude headlining the cast, the Vin Diesel, the morally ambiguous brute with the most muscles, the best dialogue and maybe real tattoos. He's allowed more than one beer.

4) While none of the leads is likely to get drunk, half the film is taken up with party footage, ideally there's an array of locales at which these events take place: the skater/surfer crash pad with its hammocks and spliffs, the MTV Cribs style bling palaces with their indoor/outdoor pools and acres of bimbage, parking lots, speedway bleachers, etc.

5) Lots of great pumping alternative music on the soundtracks, all right!!!! Sometimes, even if the movie sucks, it's worth getting the CD (BIKER BOYZ especially).

First, THE GOOD:

LORDS OF DOGTOWN (2005): Damn, I loved this movie! Thanks go to Kim Morgan for turning me onto it. I'll write more on this film sometime later, but first let me just say two words: Heath Ledger. And not only that, but he's playing Val Kilmer! That's two incredibly brilliant fucked up dudes for the price of one.. and they're both playing Mitch Hedberg! The kid who plays Stacy might be the prettiest boy I've ever seen; his name is John Robinson and he was also in ELEPHANT and he reminds me of Scarlett Johansson, and it's okay because he's a sensitive, good actor. How ever id he avoid the narcissist trap which enslaves even less pretty actors than himself? And there's great party scenes. And no bad guy (if you don't count Kid Rock, I mean Johnny Knoxville). The soundtrack is pretty good too, especially with Sparklehorse singing "Wish You Were Here." Heath, it's you we're still singing for.

BLUE CRUSH (2002): I already wrote about this but here's some paste: "If you can look past the surface colloquialisms and girlishness, this is practically a Howard Hawks film: overlapping dialogue; strong camaraderie, good sense of continuity and pace; issues of courage, maturity and nobility... and best of all, the film explores the issue of how romance can get in the way of your dreams--yeah you heard me: romance getting in the way of your dreams... since when has Hollywood ever addressed that?"

THE ILL (by which I mean "so bad it's good... if you're drunk")

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2002): Vin Diesel creates an instant icon out of his bald ass self in this sleek little roadster of a picture, a remake of a very obscure Roger Corman race flick from the mid-50's. The drawbacks are Paul Walker sniveling his way through the role of a speed junky narc. This was a huge hit in 1999, singlehandedly reviving the race car genre, paving the way for Diesel's rise and fall, and the inevitable sequel(s).

2FAST 2FURIOUS (2003): Hey man, great title! John Singleton directs. What? Didn't this guy do BOYZ IN THE HOOD? Hate to break it to you, but that movie is the granddaddy of all this shit. Even if it aint got no Cuba, it's got Fishburne and Cube and, hey, what, oh yeah... they aint in this. what did I say about it for Muze back in the day? "O'Connor (Walker's character) recruits his bickering childhood pal (model/singer Tyrese), now a nitro-burning ex-con from the Diesel school of toughness, to help him pull the bad guys to the curb with a tire-spinning vengeance." Shaza-what now?

TORQUE (2004): As generic as he is, Martin (RING) Henderson is leagues better (which is to say micro-notches less narcissistic) than Paul Walker as the bland lead. And helige scheisse, who is this chick Monet Mazur, pictured above? I was kind of in love there, just for a second and she has her own bad girl double to fight. Then we got Ice Cube in the Diesel role (he's head of a group of black bikers who get tricked into thinking our hero murdered one of their own, etc.) Great editing, flashy colors and product placement. As I wrote for Muze in 2004: "It acknowledges its junky exploitation roots proudly, and at times seems to achieve some sort of twisted new level of pop art with its well-paced, colorful, giddy, gritty forward momentum." I was shillin' but I wasn't lyin'! Just stop watching before the ridiculous CGI "climax" bike chase.

THE WHACK (that means bad bad, but still these aren't that bad, how can they be?):

BIKER BOYZ (2003) - Thing is with this flick, it's got Larry Fishburne as the dad figure who lords over a big black motorcycle gang, but he does so without much mirth. Head of a gang you'd think the man could lighten up and get drunk and piss on the fire or something, but he's got to set an example for his dumbass son. What... Ever. The best part about it is the awesome soundtrack, which I entirely recommend. Hearing it in a nearly empty Brooklyn theater with the bass pumped to shake the walls was a religious experience; I basically transcended space and time: there's Mos Def and yo, is that The dude from the Spinners, Ron Isely, singing "Big Business" with Jadakiss? I was flippin' - too bad the film itself was such butt, but I still had a few good things to say in my Muze report: "Bronx-born director Reggie Rock Blythewood keeps the action flowing from drag race to party and back again, steeping the audience in the ritual of the subculture, allowing it to serve as more than a mere backdrop to the coming-of-age mythos and adrenaline pumping, kinetically edited race and stunt sequences." Jesus Christ, that's just one sentence, Playa!!

EXTREME OPS (2003) - I saw this totally alone in a big top floor theater one weeknight at the at the edge of Prospect Park; a surreal experience. Not a very good film but I was glad to be able to make cell phone calls throughout the running time without bothering anyone. Of course I glass half-fulled it for  Muze: "There are sturdy performances from the attractive cast, and a script mercifully free of corny dialogue and groan-inducing one-liners. Hamlet on ice this ain't, but potential viewers cruising for a no-frills adrenaline-rush will do well to take the plunge."

So that's it, oh and PS, you can find almost all these gems on for 75 centavos. Such a deal! And they also use the search engine for whom I wrote the reviews quoted above, so you can dig both the film and the closure of reading the whole breathless, byline-less shebangi.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Yea though I walk through The Uncanny Valley

The proliferation of CGI has always scared me: a simulacratic nightmare waiting to happen, it's Thanatos manifested in the Geeks of Hollywood (i.e. George Lucas), reflected in their determination to "cross" the Uncanny Valley and thus liberate themselves from actually having to, you know, "talk" to real girl actors. Do I judge them? I do, your honor. Rather than play with Elizabeth at Castle Frankenstein, they hole up in their nerdy towers with Fritz (Dwight Frye) and labor long into the night in order to complete experiments that will only rain doom upon us all.

Films like THE POLAR EXPRESS, BEOWULF and FINAL FANTASY IV have tried different tricks to cross this uncanny valley, as have video games, and occasionally a gamer or graphic artist gets close (as in Max Kor's elf below) but as of "now" at any rate, there is still a border between the simulacrum and the real, some innate border patrol of revulsion sends us running when we see a human avatar's eyes. It all has to do with deep reptilian brainstem stuff - programming so deep it goes back farther than even the most gifted programmers can reach... yet.

BUT, the scary thing is--in the parlance of the Terminator films--the CGI-frenzied Hollywood "will not... stop" trying to cross this valley, or trying to "pass" fake humans for real ones on their intended audience. So there will be more, much more of that creepy feeling of "recognition of the repressed" which is the "uncanny" part of the valley. But they... will... not... stop! They're as sure this is the future of film as Doctors Moreau and Frankenstein were sure about their monsters, or how Bush was about Iraq, or Pandora about her box. And who can blame them? Even if it's a monster, at least it's something. They'd rather go out in an atomic bomb finale than wait around to grow old as Elizabeth pours them endless rounds of watery tea, day after day, decade after decade...

With that grim idea in mind and the immanent arrival of TERMINATOR: SALVATION on the horizon (May 09), it's worth sharing this panic attack-inducing dread I had last night: It's inevitable that the uncanny valley will be crossed. And when it does, we will be terminated as a (unique) species.

Gaze at he planetarium ceiling with me now and just imagine, really closely and vividly, about what that would look like-- the CGI avatar that was completely indistinguishable from an onscreen living human, what no longer being able to tell the difference between real and fake human would mean to the movies, to us, to humanity, to long dead stars who would never shill for corporate interests in their own lifetime. They joke about it in movies with Al Pacino that I haven't seen, and William Gibson's novel, All Tomorrow's Parties, deals with a similar issue, but neither I think takes the idea to its full James Cameron-esque extreme.

Why must and will this happen? Because it is humanity's destiny. Even in blowing up Skynet and trashing THE POLAR EXPRESS, we only slowed it down. We were never meant to stop it.

While a malevolent military computer like Skynet may be far-fetched at this point--as such actual, physical destruction occurs in "the real" --I can all too vividly imagine it occurring in the simulacrum, which is where most of us are living now anyway. Once that happens, once we are unable to immediately distinguish a dead-eyed avatar from a live human being, then that lonesome and uncanny valley shall be crossed forever. We'll think we're making a new friend but we won't realize that this friend has friends of his own--Sorcerer's Apprentice-style--and these new friends are going to keep coming, until they take over our house and steal our water rights. We will be as the Native Americans were when they signed over Manhattan for a few shiny silicon beads.

In order for this valley to be crossed the avatar's eyes will have to reflect the madness of total identification, beyond even what one human sees looking at another; because we will need to provide "more" to achieve the effect of "sameness": "more human than human" as the Rydell Corporation puts it in BLADERUNNER... that is the only way it can successfully work. The riddle of the uncanny valley is this: one cannot cross it without becoming something else. The 2001: SPACE ODYSSEY big black obelisk stands in the middle of that lonesome valley, the obsidian blackness is the blackness of your dilated pupils when you stare into the mirror. Cross it and you wind up hiding from your older self in some inner hotel bathroom, and then you become old, and die and are reborn... Dave... Davey... happy birth... day.

The uncanny valley is the Nagasaki of the Self through which no stranger passes - for all becomes familiar as it exits itself, and William Wilson-like, begins again at the end as the other guy - the American GIs become the Nazis, the shirts become the skins, an undercover cop forgets his real identity and becomes a crook, the film begins before it's even shot, or becomes, as wikipedia notes in their entry on TERMINATOR SALVATION: "...simultaneously a sequel and prequel" of itself.

It's all written out beautifully at the end of T3: RISE OF THE MACHINES, where the "future" dreamt by Reese and Sarah in the first two films becomes the present, the machines rise and, with a little scotch tape speed bump, the Moebius strip flips around. Safe in their presidential mountain stronghold, all decked out like the 1970s parent's rec room basement of our primal fantasies, Nick and Norah can spend the rest of their lives on that infinite Thin Man playlist. Didn't Angela Chase herself sum it up in MY SO-CALLED LIFE, when she was reading the Diary of Anne Frank? That happiness is being walled in with a boy you like? This is the sub zero basement dream palace described by Dr. STRANGELOVE, ("where animals could be bred and slaughtered!). It's the Anne Frank-enstein mythic tower-cum-basement, the prison cell where Bill Pullman becomes Balthazar Ghetty in LOST HIGHWAY.

But that's not all that's post-modern sleazy/great about T3: there's also Kristanna Loken, the latest and greatest cyberdine systems model, who just may be the first crossover human/avatar.

What I mean by crossover here is that she's human, but able to "pass" as an avatar, able to traverse the uncanny valley in the opposite direction. They make her up as if she's airbrushed by one of those trichophobic Japanese graphic designers: her blond hair gelled back into one solid, easy to animate sheet, her skin slathered in make-up, her eyes so blue they're metallic. She's great because she shows the true nature of that covergirl chick we all eye: she's indiscriminately homicidal.

And then there's Nick Stahl. Sorry, but I like Nick Stahl as John Conner. Do we really need our currently overexposed friend Christian Bale up there taking his place? Could the nerds not forgive Stahl for being innately mangy looking? Just look at him off to the right (pictured): all pale and hung over with eyes that have an actual glimmer of intellect and sexual maturity. Is he too "debauched" for fandom's "virgin majority" voting bloc? Apparently in the preview for SALVATION, Bale's still doing the "hoarse whisperer" routine from DARK KNIGHT. Oh man, why does he do that? The virgin fans of Generation Z get what they deserve: the straining voice of pre-preparation H.

What's worse is that Bale's been there and done the John Conner bit already, in that British dragon movie, REIGN OF FIRE (2002), which operates on basically the same future du jour premise as SALVATION: you know, flying dragons/machines of the night hunting the last few humans as they hide amidst the wrecked cars, like mice in the grass hiding from owls? The scenes of coughing humans hiding underground by candlelight, amidst dirty-nosed children with hungry eyes? It was all there in REIGN, and it was all pretty bad, until gonzo Matthew McConaughey showed up. And in SALVATION I don't think he's showing up.

I shouldn't bash Bale though, since he was so great in AMERICAN PSYCHO, and at least, as of now, John Connor--savior of mankind--is still being played by an actual human. How long is that going to last.... in the future?!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

A Val Lewton-style Nancy Davis (Reagan), M.D. in SHADOW ON THE WALL

Nancy Davis (pre-Reagan) is superbly understated as Dr. Canford, child psychologist, in SHADOW ON THE WALL (1950), a B-movie psychodrama with a progressive feminist center and a weird Edgar Ulmer / Val Lewton-style whispery coating.

The plot and mood keep you guessing whether WALL is one of those dreary post-code screwball-with-kids concoctions, a shadow-bestrewn film noir, or a minor-key divorce drama. Plot centers hinges on gun is brought into the house as a WW2 souvenir on the same day daddy finds out mom's been cheating on him with her sister's fiancee. The kid is the only witness of who really shot who, but it's buried deep in her subconscious. Enter cool-headed child psychiatrist Nancy Davis, who rules her roost (a children's hospital) absolutely and without losing any feminine charm in the process.

Whoa, Nancy! Right here in the middle of some half-forgotten MGM B-picture we've got a fascinating early example of a fully developed female mental health professional, one who isn't bogged down in cliche'd male attention. There's no smug, bitchy fellow doctor trying to smarm his captive co-worker into marital submission ala SPELLBOUND, no condescending pretty boy rogue or square-jawed intern who expects her to stop working once they're married.

Perhaps this unique character slipped by the censors because having an adult male doctor playing dolly games with a child would be creepy, but it's even rare today to see an unencumbered professional female character like this in a Hollywood film (compare her with, say, the insecure, sex-starved female shrinks in THE DEPARTED, TOP GUN, and BASIC INSTINCT) and Nancy Davis pulls it off very well: she's sexy and uninhibited without ever being unprofessional, nor does she say or do anything that's not somehow related to her sincere desire to help her patient. She's allowed to take over important medical duties from men without them squawking or belittling her, and she even educates older men lawyer friends of the family on the latest breaks in the developing field of child psychology, without the men having to 'put her in her place' with smug passive aggressive code-instilled put-downs. While it's great this film exists, it makes Hollywood's long history of sexist inequality that much more glaring by contrast.

But even chiller: the accidental Brechtianism in the drably painted cityscapes outside the windows of the children's hospital.  In their closed-off theatricality they mirror the dollhouse maze in which Davis plays with her young patient. It would all be kind of rote in lesser hands, but director Pat Jackson has the right touch. He's in the moment, giving each scene it's own charge and mood --you never know where it's gonna go. It's off the rails in a quiet, whispering SEVENTH VICTIM sort of way.

The end is very satisfying with Dr. Canford waving good-bye and a "we'll be seeing this character again" vibe in the air as adult and daughter ride down into the elevator sunset. The children's hospital setting, with its endless playtime and flat city backgrounds has such a low rent yet comfortingly post-modern charm that you want to just lounge around there as a troubled child yourself and let Nancy run the country for awhile. While the character of Dr. Canford disappears back into the obsidian ooze of the collective unconsciousness, Nancy Davis the woman moves forward, inch by inch, through the patriarchal darkness, until it's far too late to just say no.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Who Raped HOUNDDOG? You Did

With the final, beat-down low arrival of HOUNDDOG (2007) onto DVD, we can finally see what all the fuss is about a, and b, actually enjoy a "wild girls coming of age in the swamp" film that's a great showcase for Fanning, and helps cement the face of a micro-genre that includes films as recent as BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007) and PLAIN DIRTY (AKA BRIAR PATCH, 2003) and as early as THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933) and SPARROWS (1928, starring Mary Pickford). Is there a point to it - other than to show girls in bare feet tramping on bugs and muddy banks? Someone, somewhere, read a bunch of Faulkner - and movies been echoing that readin' fool's feelings about the dirty swampy South ever since

Shot in beautiful golden hues, with obvious care, there's poetry of one sort or another to be found in near every frame of Hounddog. Dakota's wise old soul aura casts extra heaviness and light wherever those big eyes look. She's proving to be the Warren Oates of blond girl actors and this is her Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a disjointed series of scenes--all brilliant in and of themselves--more elegiac than momentum-driven; inspired while being hopelessly contrived.

Hounddog's problems begin with its reliance on overly familiar tropes: there's the wizened old black man (AKA "The Magical Negro" [1]); the dour Christian mom (Piper Laurie stuck in CARRIE autopilot); the Faulknerian idiot manchild (papa was struck dumb by a bolt of lightning while riding his beloved tractor); the symbolic "postponed arrival" of some never-seen icon--ala Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean (or Birdy, Godot, Fred) -- I could go on and on.... until its rote familiarity becomes nigh fit to cringe a man a mite--but the film gets one detail shockingly unsullied: the girl is real... real young.

All good swamp fiction involves underage girls, running wild and without schooling, married off when they reach the age of 12 and none too keen about who they been married to. Adult women usually play these parts in movies (Erskine Cauldwell adaptations like TOBACCO ROAD and GOD'S LITTLE ACRE for example). But here all the beauty and horror of the environment is filtered through Dakota Fanning's big, haunted eyes, and HOUNDDOG takes off like a fucked-up kite. She's too damned young to know how cliche the movie's she's in is, as a result, through her eyes, it's born anew.

Great sound editing, with huge beds of rustling leaves and subliminally rattling snakes in all channels, helps along the ominous mood created by apprehension towards an upcoming scene which we already read about but dread, casting its shadow over the whole first half of the movie like an ominous cloud on beach day. Nothing quite like trying to enjoy the bucolic splendor of a girl's coming-of-age story knowing there's a controversial rape scene coming... the appearance of every new male in the cast carries a queasy charge, and we doubt she'll pick up a shotgun and get her backwoods revenge. Would it were that kind of movie....

But the main problem isn't the rape, but the wizened old black man philosopher. His tan shirt unstained as if he just wandered off from central casting, he seems to know he's too late by several years, and now even the middle class soccer mom became aware he's was an overdone cliche, a kind of living apology sidestep that absolves the white writer of having to actually delve into black culture (just give him a flying bumbershoot and he'll sail right over the quagmire). As said 'magical negro,' Afemo Omilami and his character are just way too "safe" and unassuming to captivate us with such self-help book-level wisdom ("snake medicine men" turn poison to healing medicine, which is "what ya gotta do in your heart" he gives as an example of how the blues transmutes post-rape sadness into wailing art) Rather than add some genuine voodoo bluesman menace which would make his later liking of Dakota have some weight, he's so harmless he might as well be filling in for Wilfred Brimley in a Country Time Lemonade ad). His type was turned on its ear and booted out the door by the might of Samuel Jackson in Black Snake Moan, and director Deborah Kampmeier should know--based on the controversy of the actress/material--that all eyes are watching her - both supportive and hostile-- and none of them seem to be meddling with the script, so why not go for broke? Why rely on tired conventions that only work in fifth grade English classes?

But again, Dakota saves it. There's a haunted look in her eyes; her past life genius has leaked over thanks to evolutionary genetics. Carrying that much "awake" presence through the gauntlet of soul crushing that is childhood--whether as a child actress or as a swamp girl--must be tough. We want to rush into the narrative and spirit her past the dirty men and bitey bugs and into the safety of a more enlightened (blue state) future. Fanning navigates the terrain here and meta-textually we pray that fierce light in her eyes won't go out when she finally starts dating and shopping and putting on too much make-up and doing drugs and all those other clouds that block out a young girls' inner light when they hit their teenage years.

Even when she's stuck with dreary lines in trite scenes--like asking the wise black man if god strikes us dead for our sins-- she's adding haunting layers of depth, playing as it lays, with all the gravity and playful ease of Brando playing with that kitten in the opening scenes of the THE GODFATHER. She is in short, a titan - the Rolling Stones to Shirley Temple's Beatles. She's so far ahead of everyone in the cast--acting-wise and character-wise--that it's terrifying. Her intensity even slithers into the script, as when Robin Wright Penn's 'mystery lady' exclaims: "Her eyes are so big they scare me!`

Other films that get marginalized and condemned due to the sensitive nature of pre-adolescent sexuality and trauma: TIDELAND, BLUE CAR, LOLITA, THIRTEEN, BABY DOLL. They make "adults"--the popular press, audience members and church groups--nervous and in that "suppress-and-shelf" sort of mood. They're not against the film you understand, just it's not the kind of thing they feel the world needs right now (i.e. ever). A girl's budding sexuality poses a threat--it seems--not only to herself but to the entire patriarchal system. She's Dorothy but everyone treats her like she's the tornado. It's sad, for example, that HOUNDDOG is known only as "the Dakota Fanning rape movie." It should be known as Dakota on the half-shell. She floats into maturity on a stale swamp of cliches, and before almost dragged under man but she floats resplendent.

The loudest complaints about HOUNDDOG's rape scene (it's short but still scary) will probably be from folks who want their sleazy bayou movies to be trauma-free. If there's gonna be an "under-age swamp girl" ala MUDHONEY, GATOR BAIT, TOBACCO ROAD (with Gene Tierney, pictured right, playing 14-year old Ellie May) SHANTY TRAMP or POOR WHITE TRASH that's fine, but the girl should be played by someone clearly at least 18... so all the leering is somehow made "safe." With Dakota on the screen there shall be no safe leering, and that is the danger of her genius: she reverses the polarity and makes you blush and look away even if you're alone watching this on TV in the dead of night. You want to censor and bury this film too, because for all its faults you know Dakota is a real, inarguable, chthonic force of feminine nature that will destroy all in its path. Even if you suppress all her films and keep her in chains of boyfriends and lipsticks and teen rapists for decades to come, she will still bury you. You ain't never caught a rabbit and you're already dust in the wind.

1. I keep getting CinemArchetype requests for a post on him (Bagger Vance, Green Mile, etc.) but I'm not convinced there's a solid, non-racist Jungian undercurrent involved

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Cooler Little Sister Effect: Special 2-for-1 TEXAS EDITION: Carroll Baker as Luz Benedict II & Carolyn Craig as Lacey Linton in GIANT (1956)

The more you see GIANT, the bigger it gets.. it's one of those few films that--in Manny Farber-speak--is both termite and white elephant art at the same time, all the time. It's that big. It's a half a million acres of awesomeness, with enough room for James Dean, Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson to all stretch their claws and method-actin' longhorn feet out on the hitchin' post, tilt their hats back, and take a long drag on whatever piece of grass they happen to have just ripped up from the turf in sexual, marital, or familial frustration, AND the film has two great hotter younger sisters--AND some touching depictions of overcoming racist predispositions-- all in the same goddamned film, Texas-style, son! Take off your socks and stay awhile, there's gonna be pie later. You like pie? Who doesn't like pie... and ladies?

Hmmm mmm does Liz have a cute sister (I like the ectomorphic nerd types). Carolyn Craig starts out in the opening reels as Liz Taylor's sister and romantic advisor/sister confessor. There's not much to the role except she's cool, supportive, and casual in her tomboyish outfits (she wears what looks like daddy's shirts all balled up in front to make them fit). She and Liz have a deadpan droll sort of sisterly rapport though there's little time to display it before Craig's whisked offscreen to slowly hem in Liz's hand-me down suitor, Rod "THE TIME MACHINE" Taylor, so his expectations contour to properly match their difference. Like Rod, Craig also has good cult movie roots via THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959, pictured below). She's hotter in HILL since she doesn't have to play the secondary role (she's the 'final girl' so to speak) but in GIANT she at least gives us a nice slim-hipped modern and way less-high maintenance counterpoint to Liz's more classical personage.

Caroll Baker trumps all comers as GIANT's second half's hotter younger sister, bringing her BABY DOLL twang (it was made the same year) as Luz Benedict II, Twirling her phone cord and rolling around on the ground in her tapered slacks, she makes the most of her every scene, including delivering one of the slowest, sultriest bar stool dismounts in the history of cinema. She's got a crush on James Dean's (now middle-aged) oilman Jett Rink and lets him know via lots of eyelash batting and lip-biting when one Xmas day he comes a-calling, but Dean merely slurs good-bye to her in one long southern drawl of a syllable: "Everybody call me Jet, honey." The drunk masculine gravity in his voice seems to ground Baker like insulation, but she pulls herself back out from behind the wall in time for a last coquettish gaze as she exeunts so Jet and dad can "takka-lil-bizness".

The other Benedict children and their chosen spouses, however, seem stunt-casted to encourage our sharing Rock's cattleman-like disgust with them: Dennis Hopper is deliberately square as the horse-phobic son and the Mexican girl he gets the Santa Anna wind-sparked handshake with is so utterly neutral and peasant-like--aside from those pretty sparkling eyes--that you want to disown him and her both, or at least spike their lemonade and order them to loosen up. Seems Juanita's an old school Mexican Catholic stereotype, or rather so 'not' a Mexican stereotype that her character is more defined by what she's not than what she is, a kind of counter-stereotype deadness suffuses her-- and the priest who marries them is humorlessly frumpy and even his impoverished church where they're married looks like it's sweating. Of course Stevens is playing with our prejudices and general dislike for squares to make us feel like we're racist for wishing we were back on that Luz Benedict bar stool, but maybe we just hate squares, man, and people who wear too much technicolor-enhancing make-up, and act poor when they're rich just to be self-righteous and piss off their parents. But Hopper's twin sister isn't so hot either, going for the guy who played the drunken cook in FORBIDDEN PLANET! When I encounter kids like this at Pratt, I too want to shake them hard about the shoulders and tell them to look me in the eye as I slur about how they'll always have job on Big Riatta when they get back from the war. But they never lishen, even if they survive the war.

GIANT's race-baiting has recently struck me as rather intentionally preachy and sanctimonious, so allow me to harp on it: the Mexicans here are like the Jews in SCHINDLER'S LIST--sad sack balloons adrift in a film about pin manufacturing (as opposed to say, the focus on armed resistance in the Warsaw ghetto in that 770s HOLOCAUST TV mini-series which blew my mind as a kid). In GIANT the only times we ever get to visit with Hopper and Juanita are when they're about to be thrust up against the color line by Stevens' Kramer-esque sanctimony. "Sorry sir, Mr. Rink would have my head if I let the wrong kinda people in," the security guard at the hotel says (at racist Jett Rink's hotel). It's fascinating because a) what do Juanita and Dr. Benedict expect? Did they borrow Uncle Rod's time machine and come to Rink's place from the far distant future? and b) why can't Juanita--having married into immense wealth--occasionally try to not look like an impoverished peasant instead of the very wealthy doctor she is, even if only for one night, even if it does mar their spotless record of humorless liberal martyrdom? If she went in wearing a mink and some decent shoes and acted like she owned the place, she could have been as Mexican as she wanted to. And what kind of woman arrives at a hotel after a long trip with a screaming baby (no nanny - when she could have a fleet of them) and wants instantly to go to some strange beauty parlor in a hotel where she already had trouble from security in the lobby?  It's underhanded is what it is, like Stevens is a lefty reporter tricking the couple into setting off a newsworthy incident; it's passive-aggressive, and doggone it, it just ain't Texan!

If you want to really make some statements that will fuck with the status quo, Stevens, how about having the Mexican chick be sexier than Liz Taylor? Or not talk like she's a simple but goodhearted peasant still learning the English? Why not have her get into people's faces about it when they step to her shit, speaking rapidly and clearly and intelligently and looking damned sharp in some expensive gown? I know the actress who plays Juanita--Elsa Cardenas--is capable of it, look at her in the picture above, with Elvis Presley (From FUN IN ACAPULCO) in a movie made in 1963, a full seven years later! Goddamned, if you had her looking like that as the wife, then even Jett Rink would change his tune, so would Liz, too, probably (in the other direction), she'd constitute a whole second front in the struggle.

Dean as Jett is similarly playing against a stacked deck before he starts, trying to woo a a hitherto game Baker by getting shitfaced drunk and wearing his sunglasses in a very dark bar. He might have gotten her to bed if he wasn't so self-defeating and pole-cattish. I mean, he asks her what she wants and she tells him a Coke and he doesn't give it to her? All she wanted was a Coke, and he wouldn't give it to her!? Instead he's giving her nothing to hold onto but a lot of method acting tomfoolery, which is so painfully like my own seduction strategy I can barely stand to watch it forty times.

Even when saying good-bye to him without him knowing (he's too drunk to see her way across the room) through some method door-lock caressing, Baker seems pretty turned on, alternating current between saddened and revolted, as if mentally sifting the balance between Jet's drinking and sleaziness vs. his being James Dean and richer even than her own father. It never occurred to me before but seeing GIANT now I don't see this as the end of possibilities that Jett and Luz II will end up together. In the last scene we learn Luz has gone onto Hollywood to be an actress, and I just know Jett's going to fly out there and start producing pictures for little ole Luz to star in, and he'll turn into George Peppard and they'll live happy-go-drunkily ever-after in Edward Dmytryk's THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964).

Yeah, so they dubbed Dean's voice in his last big scene of the night, because I guess his drunken slur was too incoherent to get across that he's really in love with Leslie (Taylor) in the big penultimate climax, as if we didn't already know that, as if we wouldn't rather hear Dean read a goddamned laundry list than go to the circus, and I don't know what Jett's thinkin' anyway, since Carroll Baker trumps all in the hotness dept. even if she's meant to come across as a tad vapid. There's no real debate though, you can't take away enough of Baker's overflowing talent and allure to make her seem somehow 'worth missing' as the saying goes. She's the kind woman sailor would dash themselves against the rocks for whether she sang or not. And anyway by then Liz is wearing so much silver make-up she could be opening for Ziggy Stardust (then again, Dean would like that sort of thing). At least the narrative winds down to a nice roadside cafe where Rock finally finds his own true love, a racist loudmouth big enough that it's finally, after all these years, a fair fight.
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