Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wake, Sleeper, from the Dream of Reason: THE BEYOND (Final Girl Film Club)

"And you will face the sea of darkness, and all therein that may be explored"
OOOOooozing holes in
the warlock's chain-whipped latex face
melting like running water through a white house paintbrush.
LOUD Italian pop balladry out of context
adds no irony- like Hercules hurling
the inappropriate discus

to the unclean
popcorn-and-sticky coke film phlegm floors;
the sweet century-old whores rouge wet funk
of the Roxy, The Lyic, or some PA
drive-in, its weed cracked concrete grasping crooked poles
to hold crackling low speakerboxes, hissing screams and pleas;
Or - indoors with dust mite velvet curtain air thick, and onscreen
pink foam blood bubbling, with no congealment,
splats all that may be explored in gore, or
eternity, or broken backed city seats --their springs coiled pointy from below
through rent cushion foam, like knives in undead hands from back seats carving out
your back pocket like a surgeon as you, so shrunken into yourself, sit, squirming.

Traces of cemetery loam and browned oregano
sprayed with formaldehyde, rolled long ago, dropped in the Men's,
dried, then smoked in the front row. No usher there to say no you can't,
nor would they dare - these men breathe with razor blades. In the back,
two derelict junkies snoring, another one muttering, too stoned not to snicker and moan.

The white-eyed girl stands on the one and only bridge to Hell;
the spiders pull pink strands of latex from the lips
of fallen felons and fusty librarians;
all these things commingle and conjoin in acrid haze,
as eyes by rusty towel hook deface,
leaving one undead and shambling pointlessly through space.
Vroom Vroom!

German signs taped to New Orleans doors by Italian craftsmen.
Fabio Frizzi's unclean synth score like sloshing backseat soup.
Shepherds bite the throats of maids, one per screening, always the same
stolen-from-SUSPIRIA slyness, in the fronds of that Louisiana parlor.
And out upon the dock, no matter what o'clock or time of day,
to windward --back through decades all -- unerring in trajectory,
I spit seawards towards Italy,
at Fulci!

Without the drive-in box, the Roxy or the Avalon
what survives to make Beyond worth a DVD?
Seek you what dark sea pleasures you may find there
as the disc spins under the laser's reddened eye,
like whales swim across each endless sea,
like flying spittle aimed with zombie shark fight accuracy,
and all therein that may be explored
flies my fake-ass pink foam spit
back into my warlock face.

Fuck you, Fulci!

(for Final Girl's Film Club): focus on Lucio Fulci's THE BEYOND).

Many people complain about this film that there is no story, that it's just a series of gross out scenes, etc. What this poem intends to do is place the "Fulci Experience" in the proper grindhouse/drive-in context. The Beyond was never meant, perhaps, to be watched with a focused eye, sober, at home, by yourself, taking notes. It was meant to be seen somewhere in a late night triple bill. Maybe you were supposed to be making out or shooting up, pausing only to occasionally look up at the carnage. Like Argento's SUSPIRIA-period films, it's more like an amusement park spook show than a movie, per se, and it's no doubt meant to be. Spookery is an international language, while plot and dialogue are easily lost in the international swinger audience shuffle.

The weird mix of English dub and German signs over American hospitals adds to the uncanny affect: the visceral cinematic language of Fulci is above all anti-structuralist. Words are meaningless, either lies or esoteric curses, and once the border between life and death is crossed, all the world's a graveyard of the real and so language dissolves along with most of the frontal lobes. This is the inheritance of all great Italian horror--Fulci and Argento, Soavi, Petri, sometimes Lenzi--the post-structuralist ambiguity of errant symbols ushered into being by Antonioni's Blow-Up and concretized by Europe's post-war socialist education system, and the unmooring of the symbolic from the real thanks to the popularity of LSD. This new awareness of language and iconography's destructive limitations goes up against the bloody centuries of Catholic dogma, the identity crisis brought on by Mussolini and the rich tradition of opera and the lurid 'stations of the cross' branded in every child's mind.

In this poem I wanted to create that feeling of being immersed in the unpleasant but fascinating world of "ugly" cinema, at a very ugly place--a ground zero of sleaze where making or passing out, getting high, or robbed in the dark, accompanies onscreen imagery of decapitation and gore --creating a sludgy feel of anger and rage, exaltation and despair. This is then vented by the narratoreat Fulci "across the sea" in much the same way the lynch mob travels across the river to burn and torture the warlock in the pre-credit sequence of the film. Once we step across the far shore from normal tedium of parentally sanctioned reality, the movie warns us, there is no going back to the delusions of "reason." The boat sinks as soon as we cross, its bubbling sound as it disappears a mocking laugh.

POST SCRIPT - 11/3/17
Recently re-watched this film on the new Arrow HD Blu-ray cleaned-up version and am now a fan, I take back my spit! How could I and my squeamish lunch room feminism be sooo wrong? 

Sunday, March 29, 2009


There's something undeniably--yet deliciously--wrong about all the Dylan and classic rock used in Zach Snyder's WATCHMEN. The music of WOODSTOCK and Z-100 FM is corrupted, harnessed to images of superheroes doing Bad Things. Using Dylan's "Times they are a Changin'" over a montage of aging superheroes dying and drinking is akin to Alex's conditioners using his beloved Ludwig Van played over the atrocity footage in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Kubrick's film--like WATCHMEN--doesn't give you too many people to root for in this decayed new world, just the weird feeling that everything worth saving about humanity has long been jettisoned, leaving just universal blandness and its underside: wild violent hooliganism. Nothing is clear cut, just bloody, brusied, and muddy, like the black/white morality of DIRTY HARRY was thrown into a blender and doused with CGI and motor-oil.

One of the trailers that played before WATCHMEN was for TERMINATOR: SALVATION and it looks great, the industrial wasteland-scape recalling the outback world of THE ROAD WARRIOR. But all the complicated sun-bleached CGI rubble doesn't add up to much after awhile. While CGI and mega-budgets let today's Hollywood minds create sci fi worlds our 1980 George Miller could never hope to duplicate, I'd still rather watch young pre-nuts Mel Gibson tangle with the dreaded Humongous (shown in WATCHMEN amidst a wall of TV screens) than all the gray day burnt-out cityscapes CGI can muster. No matter how intensely detailed it gets, CGI is always just a step and a jump short of anime' (when Sally Jupiter and the all-CGI Dr. Manhattan have their long dialogues together, it feels as phony as Jar Jar and Liam Neeson talking in PHANTOM MENACE). All MAD MAX 2 needed was a real car and a real gun and your heart was leaping in your throat. But everything is disposable today, so the heart leaps not - just  goes crumbling into pixels: the guns are melting in the rain like Dillinger soaps. Nothing survives at the cineplex for long except for the sexually frustrated howl of young male hormones; Humongous still lives, but reproduced in a post-modern ground zero simulacrum, on TV at the bad guy hideout at the end of the earth. Like all the Dylan and Hendrix, he's there as a cultural touchstone that's been licensed and co-opted, bottled...stacked and canned.

Did you know that if a sex offender comes into the hospital begging to be castrated, they would never do it? Why is this foul sex drive so highly regarded? It's the real culprit here, not greed or ambition or hatred; sexuality curdles everything with its corrupting touch. The whole comic book superhero world is born from this dishonorable discharge, this rape-ening of the world that turns innocent young men into Michael Landon (left) and women into something we never wanted to see them be: sexually voracious sadomasochists.

I'm always thrilled to see my misanthropy shared in a film's subtext; aren't we all full of secret ambivalence about mass destruction? Our world is a vile cesspool, like our friend Rorschach is always writing in his little TAXI DRIVER journal. Hey, we're reading it aren't we? Put the gun down, George, wait til it's time.

While WATCHMEN might be a cult classic in a decade or two, like STARSHIP TROOPERS, I wish they'd gotten a real artist like Alex Grey (left) to step in and bring some art director cohesion, the way HR Giger brought it to ALIEN (1979). As it is the big blue naked man is ridiculously uninteresting, like something between an out-of-focus anatomy book projection on the wall and a gay porn star (replete with effeminate, vaguely smarmy voice)

But I mean seriously, they play Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" in one scene, and I'm all like... again? Are they still reading the same old (2002?) market research report that suggested James Brown's "I Feel Good" be included in every single comedy trailer? And "All Along the Watchtower" for every 1960s montage?

It's a great song, but by now it's beyond cliche. I first noticed the Watchtower issue awhile ago when enduring the trailer for CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR: Phillip Seymour Hoffman pimped out as a congressman slow mo walking through a 1970s disco groove club. The Hendrix plus the glitter signifies the two-decade span, the hazy morass of Vietnam and acid that was 1965-1974, approximately (Sweet Jane). It's all they need. I squirmed in my theater seat in mute horror. Hendrix+Dylan now equaled Tom Hanks. All was lost. And now--relentlessly, murderously--the corporate plowmen continue to unironically, retournement-ally paste the song in everywhere over montages of slow motion Nixonism. Of course I'm sure it's encoded into the Watchman mythos that it's all self-aware Godard-style to its own comic book bloodlust. So why not go all Heavy Metal about it? Black Sabbath or Earth, Wind and Fire? It's a feelin', baby. Just because your budget allows for all these A-list rock classics doesn't mean you have to use them all.

The thing I admire about WATCHMEN is it does explode the mythos of America's Stockholm syndrome (reflected in Silk Spectre's falling for the Comedian after her attempted rape); pointing out we love watching our country get screwed over via slow motion handshakes behind flag country curtains, as "All Along the Watchtower" plays. We're letting them plow our earth and drink our wine, confident that none of them / along the line / know what any of it is worth-- and we cut back and forth to a television with that monk burning himself alive in protest for Vietnam. I've seen that footage being played on 1960s TVs since the 1960s (PERSONA, Bergman's 1966 film, used it first, to my knowledge, and before this I last saw it in I'M NOT THERE. It's become linked to the horrified female gaze via TV).

I'm not saying the footage isn't fascinating, just that it's embedded in WATCHMEN so deep the post-modern overuse angle is lost in the morass, just as all the other symbolic-historical tchotchkes in this film, from the overused smiley face button on up to the Egyptian artifacts, all trying to archly point in several directions at once and so end up like the Scarecrow on the Mount: "Of course you could go both ways!" America the violent, the beautiful, the beautifully violent; the Leni Riefenstahl by way of Roger Waters violent, italics and ironic quote symbols fall from the sky like rain on our ever-staining Rorschach blots. The feeling you get is that Zach Snyder has gone the reverse direction of the way Paul Verhoeven interpreted Robert Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS. Where Verhoeven exploded out in dry-docked self awareness, Snyder loses his arch via over-reliance on hokey touchstones, the way a Tom Hanks Movie would. With Snyder, self-reflexivity and political satire are absorbed as dogma, the way biblical metaphor becomes cold hard fact in the minds of the congregation.

Just how conscious was the fascism in TROOPERS we do not know, but it's a great look forward and a refracted glimmer of what could be a very real truth about our culture. Fascism is able to encompass its own fun house satirical reflection, i.e. it survives its own satirization, even thrives on it: hipster irony begets ironic fascism begets "the new sincerity" and onwards into neo-Puritanism, and that's why it works in dealing with grey aliens as well as hormonal suburban teen alienation-- the ticket and annual double-size issue buying kind. Irony learns to be as twisted as how a teen sees himself in the mirror. If we distort your reflection enough to get you to think you're ugly, maybe you will buy more skin products. It's worth the gamble that you won't go all Columbine on us. (though we secretly hope you do; a senseless killing sells papers!)

"It's because I'm ugly that I do ugly things," is how Boris Karloff put it in THE RAVEN (1933). But you just looked ugly, to yourself, like the pot calling the pot in the mirror black, and not even realizing its white the whole time. Celebrate the times, come on! Sincerity is the new insincerity but please please please! Leave Jimi out of this. The dead will soon return and when they eat my brains and drink my wine, I want Hendrix to be someplace far away and safe, drifting on a sea of forgotten teardrops / on a lifeboat / sailing ho-o-ome.

Even original WATCHMEN creator Alan Moore knows the Yanks aren't ALL violent sociopaths; too bad he forgot to tell Snyder. The maniacal rage of the Spartans in 300 had a definite heroic purpose; the rage of The Watchmen eats itself, like a clock swallowing its own tail. Snyder stands there getting all the details right, hoping--we presume--that the meaning will come.

Maybe it will; WATCHMEN is surely the APOCALYPSE NOW of its decade. It will take many viewings to truly "get" all the details and even more viewings than that to determine whether or not this warrior's journey to the heart of darkness actually goes anywhere, or just blows a lot of thing up, hoping you wont see how fat Brando got in all the smoke. I've sen APOCALYPSE over 30 times and I still can't tell.

P.S. I turn you also to Kim Morgan's uncompromising and refreshing take on the film here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bad Titles Cramped Their Cults

Like beautiful blood diamonds caked in dirt, the following five films are gems waiting to be discovered by film fans brave enough to look past banal video cover art and meaningless titles:

1. OVER THE EDGE (1979)
 This is the best youth amok movie ever made, with clear-eyed attitudes towards drugs, sex, youth, suburbia. It has great performances from a genuine young cast, and an awesome kickass score (Cheap Trick!).

Possible Problem: "Over the Edge" sounds like a dozen other, far worse but better known, films. There's an after school movie of the week on alcoholism or a high school wrestling story...and just the dimly associative feel it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola in his post-"One from the Heart" phase (like Matt Dillon is going to end the movie learning how to be a better caregiver).

Better Title: He Pushed Me First; Let's Blow up The School; A Kid who tells on another Kid is a Dead Kid

2. THE LADY IN RED (1979)
 As I wrote in an earlier post on Bright Lights After Dark:
The fast moving tale of a young farm girl led into a life of crime, prostitution, communism, love and finally, bloody machine gun vengeance, it was everything an alienated teenager trapped in suburbia could want in a movie, rolled up tight into a lean 90 minutes.

Possible Problem: Think the phrase "Lady in Red" and what do you get: that smoov Chris De Burgh song and its shady affiliations with the Gene Wilder comedy, The WOMAN IN RED (1984). Right there it gets confusing. If De Burgh had called his song "WOMAN IN RED" or something ANYTHING else - then maybe the 1979 LADY IN RED would be a cult classic to this day... as it very much deserves!
Better Title: Kiss the Blood from Dillinger's Corpse; Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly

Directed by Alex de Iglesias, this was just too badass for anyone to know what to do with; a sequel/prequel to Wild at Heart in a style that made Natural Born Killers seem like MTV posturing. Javier Bardem is magnificent as a Santeria-practicing super freak. Anyone who loves Bardem in No Country for Old Men or Vicky Christina Barcelona owes it to themselves to see him cut loose here.

Possible Problem: The title is too much like Ride with the Devil, the Ang Lee western starring Jewel (it's actually a quote from the Tim Burton Batman that Bardem recites while staggering through a drunken Mexican town). And the "(Verb) with the Devil" title automatically conjures images of direct-to-video blandness, as does the dorky cover art: a photo-shopped Rosie Perez with a shotgun and a bored look on her face. And where is Javier Bardem? So far in the background you can't even see him. Honey, this doesn't need to cash in on anything, if only its distributors had a little faith.

Better Title: Perdita Durango, the original Spanish title, and name of the Barry Gifford book it was based on.

4. THE FALL (2007)
This is a bizarre and touching tale of a depressed stuntman and the six year-old Italian peasant girl he tricks into bringing him morphine via colorful tales of adventure. Brought to us by David Fincher and Spike Jonez, so you know it's good.

Possible Problem: The Fall? For serious? It's the name of a mid-1980s soft punk band, among many MANY other things. When a typical movie hunter (like me) doesn't get any "reading" off a title or image (and this movie has no recognizable star) he/she tends to keep looking. This seems--based on the Dali-esque cover--like Cirque de Soleil-style whimsy squared with surrealist cuteness. Well, it is that, but it's still good.

Better Title: The Unlocked Pharmacy

5. WONDERLAND (2003)
A gritty, violent re-telling of the multiple homicide case ex-porn star/junky John Holmes got mixed up in towards the end of the 1970s, this has great acting, a seriously disturbing and vivid mise-en-scene and great dialogue. Granted, it's a lot of detail and attention on what amounts to a bunch of slimy drug addicts offing each other, but so what? Marty Scorsese's movies are basically the same shit and while this isn't quite to Marty's level, dude! Lighten up! You hear me?

The cast includes Val Kilmer, Lisa Kudrow--amazing as Holmes' wife--and Kate Bosworth, sexy as Holmes' underage girlfriend! Eric Bogosian is miscast as the bad-bad-bad guy, but if you've ever seen of his monologues you know that tapping deep into the hearts of killers is what he does best; and when he goes all postal, you feel genuinely afraid for the actors in the room. Meanwhile a huge roster of welcome names appear in small roles: Carrie Fisher, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Tedd "Put the fuckin' lotion in the basket" Levine, and Janeane Garofalo (I could have sworn the most marvelous of gravel-voiced character actors, Michael Wincott, was in this as well, but he's not listed in the IMDB credits).

Possible Problem: The misleading title conjures a number of things through no fault of its own, like: Next Stop Wonderland, a witty but rather formulaic romantic comedy starring Hope Davis; Alice in Wonderland, and perhaps a documentary on Iraq. Looked at in the video store, one's gut impression? Boogie Nights by way of Hope Daivs? Forget it, the casual renter is by now hopelessly confused.

Better Title: Wadd

All great acidic content movies, man, so don't fall for the timid releasing company art that makes them try and look like third rate rip-offs. Pounce on these badly titled gems!

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Sammies: Charlie's Angels & the Sammy Davis Jr. Kidnapping Caper

Angel: "You prefer to go incognito?"
Herbert Brubaker: "Don't you talk no smut, woman, I'm a veteran!"

The very sophisticated and marvelous Sammy Davis Jr. makes a 1978 episode of Charlie's Angels extraordinarily special. The episode to which I refer being found in season two, disc five: "The Kidnapping of Sammy Davis Jr." Thank you very much. But can you dig the split, man? The Jekyll & Hyde split trip this cat's all about? Because tied into a fundraiser Sammy's doing (this all while skirmishing with angels and kidnappers) is a "celebrity look-a-like" contest, with a fake Burt Reynolds, a fake Barbara Streisand, and a... Sammy Davis Jr.! The sheer thinness of all this is stretched to surrealism when Herbert Brubaker III (Davis in platforms) gets mad whenever anyone tells him he looks like Sammy Davis! Why is he at a celebrity look-a-like contest, then? He just wandered into it, baby.

What's cool is how deftly Davis navigates between the two poles. As a white guy reading into it, I'm thinking these baggy pants stereotypes have their purpose in any culture. As an African American artist of widespread white acceptance, a cat like Mr. Davis essentially has to play white better than even a white guy. This results in a hyper-articulateness, since there's perhaps encoded hostility at needing to "become" rather than "be," to enunciate with Poitier-level precision in order to be as diametrically opposed to the soulful "jive talkin" of popular culture stereotype as it's popular to get, and it's only then that he can embody a burlesque of the stereotype as it makes him all the more sophisticated by illuminating the difference, ya dig, baby?

And so Herbert Brubaker III, President of H&B "Boozeterias,"becomes the depository of all Davis' abolished black impersonator-impersonator-isms. Sammy's getting old here--you can see ennui in his eyes; he's still got tons of class, grace and supreme showmanship but there's a glimmer of getting ready to face something, like Johnny Cash in the "Hurt" video. It's time to take some personal inventory, and exorcise some of his personal and political/racial demons. And if you can do it around three lovely ladies, on prime time, so much the better. Boozeterias!

The white mainstream acceptance thing carries lots of baggage: The late 1960s through 1970s was a gala time for the sophisticated (i.e. white-friendly albeit unafraid to examine racial stereotypes) black comic, ala Godfrey Cambridge, and Flip Wilson. On the other end there were "blue" comics like Rudy Ray Moore whose records were aimed largely at black audiences to be played at parties. And there was a consistent pressure within the intellectual black community to not let your "blackness" slip away by adopting too many bourgeois affectations while at the same time not becoming too ghetto so the white man stereotypes you again. And so Davis makes a point that the gorgeous woman waiting for him at home (real life wife Altovise) is "cocoa-brown" (as opposed to his previous wife, the controversially blonde May Britt, or the black wife forced on him by the studio--practically at gunpoint-- in the late 50s, Loray White) and he's sporting his jewelry, but as his Davis self, he's clearly in the groove of the uber-sophisticated cat, forever erasing chunks of homespun heritage on behalf of bourgeois advancement, pulling common perception of African-American culture behind him like a canoe while maintaining a lightness and ease that can seem, at his advancing age, heavier than uranium.

Let's not forget that the Rat Pack refused to play segregated casinos and thus helped abolish segregation in both Atlantic City and Las Vegas. But let's also not forget that Harry Cohn arranged Sammy's real-life kidnapping to scare him off an affair with Kim Novak in the mid 1950s. And while the kidnapping here is pretty nonthreatening all around, it still has a whiff of that incident. Of course the coded-Cohn kidnappers pick up Brubaker by accident and when he tries to tell them who he is, the kidnappers say he's just trying to "weasel out of [his] own kidnapping!" --a hilarious line implying that being kidnapped is some manly rite only the weaselly would try to escape from.

But most of all, Brubaker provides Davis with a real chance to shuck and jive in the style of the Moores and Foxxes rather than sip champagne and make bon mots ala the Cambridges and Wilsons, to tarnish his gloss and get some crazy soft shoe off his chest. For an intellectual artist of Sammy's caliber, a Hyde like Herbert Brubaker III, with his huge blue and white checkered flared pants and white platform shoes (which Davis can't even walk in) must have been some kind of crazy liberation. And most of all, he finds the perfect group of supporters in the lovely angels, and gives a veritable refresher course in the proper etiquette for dealing with three beautiful lady bodyguards who really can't bodyguard worth a damn (they like to jump on the suspect's back like children). As the top quote "don't talk no smut" indicates, this is a land where no bad guy is bad enough to sexually assault, torture, starve, or even intimidate anyone; it's a comfortingly sexless universe filled with attractive symbols that lead nowhere. In this groovy 1970s paradise "the Candy Man" fits like a crazy supersexy glove, just another reminder that once upon a time stars could be sexy without implying sex; could be cool without being empty; hip without being hipster; and nice to each other without being naively sentimental.

PS - SEE ALSO my capsule reviews for each episode of the first three seasons:


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Kate Jackson was my Village

I've been in a gloomy funk lately, so gloomy I had to turn to my ultimate solace: the first two seasons of TV's Charlie's Angels. As soon as it hit the airwaves in 1976 it was an instant sensation, especially amongst us children, many of whom couldn't even stay up to see it, but we saw the Time cover, the TV Guide cover, and were smitten en masse. I was a preternaturally perverse nine years old and the sight of Farrah Fawcet Majors, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith on the cover of TIME in their cute red and white glitter costumes sent me through the roof with polymorphous jouissance. This being the era before the internet and video, we kids didn't see pictures like this too often, at least not right out in the open, right there in the mailbox.

Young as I was, I was not unlike the insane stalker obsessive who felt that by accumulating photos and tidbits from magazines, I could somehow imagine my way out of my mundane childhood and into the show. My dream was simple: I wanted the Angels and I to live together in a cool house in my same neighborhood (instead of living with my parents and little brother), then maybe Kate Jackson and I could hold hands on the porch. Of course in the meantime I'd settle for just being allowed to stay up late and watch it (my bedtime must have been 9 PM - I couldn't even see SWAT, which my schoolmates all watched beforehand and talked about at recess with even more enthusiasm than the Angels). I was too young to understand that not being allowed to stay up to see it was what made it so desirable.

There's something about Jackson, especially, that appeals to me, to the youth. She married a guy seven years younger than her in real life, and made her big TV splash as the itinerant free spirited girl who hangs out with a much younger runaway (Lance Kerwin) in the TV movie, JAMES AT 15. I never saw that movie, but I saw enough of the later series to be jealous of Kerwin.

Man what a time! To just give you an example of how cool the 1970s were: James loses his virginity in an episode (not to Jackson) and from then on the show is called JAMES AT 16! It still only lasted a season, but damn; If you were 9 or 10, and it was the late 70s, you felt you really had a lot to look forward to.

You were wrong, but how could anyone have predicted AIDS?

Kate's appeal is not sexual, it's deeper, it predates the orgasm, she is the figure of sisterly nurturing and hints of wickedness that comes between infancy and puberty. She and her friends on CHARLIE'S ANGELS never seemed to need, think about or otherwise want anything physical from anyone other than the occasional shoulder rub or make-out session (and if a guy got to make out with an angel, he usually wound up going to jail by the end of the show) and that's why we could all safely fall in love with them. Spelling's natural grasp of viewer psychology allowed us to fantasize ourselves into the show without the Oedipal frustrations of some new boyfriend, "Sorry Charlie, Sabrina's got a date with the Chad tonight" or some other toad-ish claim. It's like GUNGA DIN, with Cary, Doug and Victor as the Angels, and no young British lass waiting to try and abduct Doug and make him have tea on doilies, and then have kids of their own, which we kid viewers would then feel alienated by (for the same reasons we hated Robin, and Superboy, and most DC superhero comics as opposed to Marvel's; DC's war and horror comics were good though).

Decidedly less voluptuous than Farrah Fawcett Majors and Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson's Sabrina was a mix of older sister, protector, nurturer and friend, and sexy enough to be more than that, "when you're ready." I still turn to her in times of trouble and still get a warm glow off her wry grin and twinkly eyes, her faint southern drawl and old-fashioned girls school etiquette, her lanky form moving with quickness, ease and grace in her stylish 1970s clothes. Before ANGELS she was in The Mod Squad, Dark Shadows and two low budget TV movie titles: Satan's School for Girls and Death at Love House! I've still never seen either one, but if you're a strung out sugar addict nine year old in 1976, there were no two titles hotter to imagine on your cold prepubescent winter nights.

"The smart angel," Sabrina never shows any skin and is usually wearing turtlenecks (part of her contract, I think) but it works, as the midriffs of the Jaclyn and Farrah or Cheryl Ladd become even more revealing by contrast; and ultimately the show is not about sex, it's about beauty; and it's not about crime, it's about mystery; and it's not about violence, it's about skulduggery. All the sex and violence is filtered through a child's conception of same; adult talk has the same abstract meaninglessness it does for children; the dialogue focuses on plot line and the script is underwritten, so there's a lot of standing around, just like in real life. And tantrums get results. Negative attention is better than no attention. Many's the time Kate will calm down a killer, sweet talk them off the ledge by guessing their fixations and neuroses and providing a nurturing shoulder to cry on. But if it comes down to it, she'll pop a cap in your ass from her snub-nosed .38. Needless to say, she's a Scorpio. What was it Johnny Depp once said? "Kate... I love you, Kate..."

Friday, March 13, 2009

THE NARCISSISTIC MALE GAZE: It's not you, it's me, because I am You

Trying again to watch JUNO the other night, and of course failing, made me ponder the difference between the male actors I love and the male actors I loathe the way a blind man loathes the mirror. How sharply sloped is this divide, the peak of a chart of self-recognition and self-disgust projected! Some actors can cross it but few return. What does this have to do with JUNO? Exactly, my learned reader, exactly.

There's a prejudice at work in this entry which I presume is based on gender; there are very few actresses I don't adore, now matter how narcissistic they are. It's a complex that seems meant for beautiful women, not coded-straight men, but when a guy is a narcissist full-blown egoic peacock it gets right under my beautiful, soft skin.

Here are some of my major culprits. Note in advance this is not necessarily meant to be a condemnation of their skills as actors, but more in the reaction they induce in me. Thy mileage may vary:

1. TOM CRUISE - Public Enemy Number One, he's his own worst enemy with deep rooted classic alpha-wussa-male Napoleanic coded complex vanity fair. His saving grace is that he's not afraid to make fun of his own raging hard-on of a narcissism, as in MAGNOLIA and--presumably--EYES WIDE SHUT, where it's especially noteworthy in his early bedroom scenes with wife Nicole. In a married couple (onscreen and off) has there ever been such insecure, casual disinterest in the other person's body? Kidman is great, peeing with the door open and dragging her pelvis around like a ball and chain of wasted nymphotential, but Cruise is all about posing just right in the bed so as to perfectly show off his manly bicep to himself in the mirror; his hair perfect; satisfied smugness radiating out of his ever pore. He's been married to this woman long enough to have a kid (in the movie) yet still seems paralyzed by the need to show himself off to himself. But if Kubrick deconstructed him that way, to reveal the core inner spoiled brat within us all, then why do I still cringe in embarrassment, like recognizing my own base humanity in the deepening voice of my little brother?

I do appreciate his focus and attention in big action films! He can charge up your adrenalin if you let him, like a personal trainer! Gotta give him that. 

2. RICHARD GERE - He of the sophisto-Zen smugness, enjoying the beauty of his own perfect humility as he comes before us to sing and dance and perform the painfully wry smile of one who gets all the women and har run out of places to put them. He will always be AMERICAN GIGOLO to me, because that movie was in #1 at the box office when I was hitting the ghastly age of puberty. My school chums and enemies who had seen the film relayed the sordid plot line, but I couldn't see it as it was rated R and my parents were tough that way and why would I want to anyway? Still, it had done enough damage just from the slick trendsetting Venetian blinds poster and the Blondie songs which dug their way deep into my sexual coal oven and which still haven't finished burning. "Now slap her... slap her cunt!" That's all I remember when it later came on video. Since then Gere's gone out of his way to show the world how pleased with himself he is now that he's a Buddhist and humbler than us all. 

I forgive him all however, after his gamely self-mocking guest spot on THE SIMPSONS and of course his terrifying dark shadow Travolta in LOOKING FOR MISTER GOODBAR. And most of all, I forgive him because I am even humbler. 

3. ANDY GARCIA -  I've never been able to focus on a word he says, always wondering instead about what kind of hair cream he uses, and the insidious vanity that must creep in when one studies one's performing style so assiduously from a mirror that one no longer sees anything but oneself seeing. I pray this disease never befalls Nic Cage. Speaking of Coppola relations, Garcia, as I recall, got his big break in GODFATHER III, where critics noticed he was the only actor in the film who seemed to have memorized his lines. He stole the film handily, but that's no badge of honor! In the picture at left you can see his resemblance to both De Niro and John Cazale, so in a sense he was perfectly cast. If he had come of age in the 1970s instead of the 1980s, he might have rooted into the same dirty method basement which helped make Fredo and the Godfather-as-a-young-man so indelible. Instead, in true 1980s tradition, he stayed up in the master bedroom, hypnotized by the wall-length closet mirrors.

4. KEVIN KLINE - I think he's a fine actor, but Jesus Christ he's an out- of-control ham, so enthralled by his own mellifluous line readings he leaves nothing left for us, which works in a film like IN/OUT, but becomes excruciating in Shakespeare. In my humble opinion, he's too.... "obsequious"? He acts as if he's making fun of the teacher's pet in some high school acting class. But he seems like a good sport and certainly redeems himself with his role as the deceiving dad in THE ICE STORM, wherein he captures the  delusional side effects of unconscious bourgeois entitlement with a bracing honesty. And I appreciate that he takes the kids home in ANNIVERSARY PARTY so Phoebe Cates can drop ecstasy and trip all night with Jennifer Jason Leigh.

5. ROBERT REDFORD - The king, maybe even the inventor of the bland narcissist actor archetype. Too bland to say much more about. Just look at Sundance, the scourge of true independence!  Now every mailbox is stuffed with film festival invites and no one can walk down the street without some film festival swooping down on them, commercializing their every move until all is hackneyed and recycled quirky just so that the whole GHOST WORLD LITE / PRO-LIFE TEEN QUIRK POWER PUREED FOR THE TOOTHLESS BOURGEOISIE of Juno could ever have a chance to exist. 

JUNO is the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to GHOST WORLD's The Wild Bunch.

In all fairness to Redford, he seems a nice guy and did well in SPY GAME. He's rugged. He is a master of knowing when less is more. He only chokes up once, at the end of The Way We Were, and it's unforgettable. Sundance was originally strongly connected to Native American preservation or so I remember from some old NPR show my dad once had on in a car ride. And so I got the brother's back if he needs me. He doesn't; he's too lost in the majesty of his self. Was he abducted by North Korean hypnotists working for Pat Boone?

RUNNERS UP (just as bad but I don't feel like writing about them) : Ryan O'Neal, Jason Patric, Ben Stiller, Joseph Fiennes (unbearable as Shakespeare in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE but great in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE;  Ethan Hawke (redeemed by Julie Delpy and Linklater), Rob Lowe, Freddie Prinze, Jr., 

The men who embody the correct approach to conveying the arrogant but cool male onscreen: the Wilson brothers, Jon Voight, Clint Eastwood, Mark Wahlberg, Denzel, Damon, Pitt, Tatum, Elliot Gould, George Clooney, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Michael Blodgett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger (and all Australians), and of course... the definitive attractive non-narcissist male, Paul Newman!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Happy Birthday, Linda Fiorentino

Happy Birthday, Linda F!! Maybe you're all too young to remember Ms. Fiorentino, but a long time ago in the early 1990s, she blew many a mind in THE LAST SEDUCTION. As Bridget, a Manhattan-drinking and Harlem-dwelling Hannibal Lechter in high heels, she robs drug money from her husband (Bill Pullman), takes their car and disappears into Benton, a small-town in upstate New York, seducing and destroying a local boy in the process. 

The cinema of the early 1990s was one of open cathartic rejection of the morality that had come in with the 1980s with the HANDMAID'S TALE-style backlash from AIDS and so forth. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS opened the door and PULP FICTION, NATURAL BORN KILLERS and GOODFELLAS all tumbled afterwards: whacking, killing, and smoting with furious anger all who came in their path (and paving the way for the timid copycats to follow, alas). THE LAST SEDUCTION was part of that first wave, but fell between the cracks since it first came out on Showtime, so Fiorentino couldn't get nominated for an Oscar. There was some flap about it at the time, flap what's been long forgotten, except by me.

But even if she had been nominated, the older Academy members may have been frightened by her voraciousness in this role: Fiorentino plays it with enough sexual rock venom to wipe out half the Catholic Legion of Decency and (SPOLER ALERT!) she wins (between this and the end of BOUND we had a small-scale early 90s coup against the code!)

Fiorentino hasn't--as of yet--had a role even close to this good in the 15 years since. Her follow-ups were JADE, which everyone was happy to watch tank since by then we hated its hairy writer Joe Eszterhas (after reading all the time in the trades about how many millions he was getting for his lousy scripts), and its orange-haired star David Caruso (who said he was "too big" for NYPD Blue). Poor Linda--and sometimes good director William Friedkin--didn't have a chance. SEDUCTION's director John Dahl put her in another noir film, this one resurrecting the old FOUR FLIES ON GRAY VELVET chestnut about retinal images on dead victim's corneas. And Barry Sonnenfeld--clearly out of love for LAST SEDUCTION--cast her as a coroner/Tommy Lee's replacement at the end of MEN IN BLACK, but she didn't make it back for the sequel. That's such bullshit! Why couldn't she have been Will Smith's partner in MIB II? Nooooooo, got to dust off Tommy Lee, like he needs the exposure or the money or like it wouldn't have been a hit without him.

Fiorentino's film output's been spotty since 2000, but I don't blame her for that: it's the pictures that got small... as in small town, again, as phony morality's crept back like fungus. At least Linda never cheapened her definitive role by doing the direct-to-Blockbuster sequel. She kept her honor! And for that and other reasons, anytime we want we can pull the cork on our bottle of the resplendently chthonic sexahol that is her character in THE LAST SEDUCTION and take a deep long illicit swig. So happy birthday, Linda (and you, too, Lucy!) and the next manhattan's on me!

Thursday, March 05, 2009


Catching 1930's ANNA CHRISTIE last night on a big screen for the first time, I began at last to understand the appeal of Garbo, sober. I used to love her when I was drinking because her mix of asexual bravado and tortured feminine emotion was the perfect amplification for my maudlin swamp moods... but seeing the film, whilst sober? To a sober 21st century mind unprepared, Garbo can be a whiny drag... at least for me, until last night when the link between Garbo and James Dean became clear... a link forged in the hell of pure art and insanity. 

Like Dean, Garbo alternates between being comfortable in her skin and trying to climb out of it; she sails on the giddy highs of some emotions and lets others defeat her. Every weary step of the way, her Anna pours forth with languor and measured early sound-second language enunciative speaking, like a leaky flour sack. There's a sense that she was good at mimicking her elders as a child, of making fun of her English teacher's pronunciation --her pronunciation and accented syllables covered with private little jokey post-it notes. In the long static scenes between her and her "Old Devil Sea"-hating Swedish tugboat captain father, Kris Kristofferson (!), Garbo wears big manly sweaters and slacks and when Kris pisses her off, her shoulders slump inwards as if she's trying to hide her lack of cleavage or keep someone from stealing her football. "Men! Men! Men!" is her lament. She hates them (like Kris hates the ocean) because her drunken father sent her to off to a farm, away from "no good sailor fellers" he says, not knowing--or choosing to be oblivious--that while there she was enslaved, belittled, abused, and eventually raped by her poor relations (we can imagine her a bit like Nicole Kidman's character in DOGVILLE).  She ran away after that, and--after starving on the street-- "worked in a house... yes, that kind of a house." Her restful idyll on the barge is surely well-deserved, and she's much more the worldly woman than her eventually received brutish but innocent sailor feller (played with amusing Irish bluster by the under-appreciated Charles Bickford --see him in my East of Borneo redux here) who is washed onto the barge and falls in love with her after she brings him a wee nip to warm his bones. Bickford wants to marry her, but first--due to her innate moral fibrosis--she has to tell him--and her father too--the truth about where she really worked in Saint Paul.

I've seen this movie a lot (via a self-duped VHS) during my drinking years, and always loved it both for Garbo's world-weary wit and Eugene O'Neill's knowing attention to alcoholic detail. We drunks know where every drop of liquor is around us within a mile radius, be it hidden in a flask pocket or behind six inches of lead; and we sense that Anna Christie does too, but is trapped by convention into the good girl strait-jacket. We know Anna likes to drink whiskey ("don't be stingy, baby..."), but she's given milk by her dad and the sailor fella who both believe she's virginal and "pure." We share her silent revulsion towards the white stuff and her unspoken desire for what the men are drinking. (When Bickford says "I ordered milk for the lady," you want to punch him.) Anna never actually drinks whiskey with the boys until the end--after shattering their illusions of her purity--and knowing O'Neill (he clearly loves both whiskey and women)--it's always clear whose side he's on. Anna's being able to finally knock 'em back with her men is her reward for dumping her abused past onto their laps, returning the full measure of their see-no-evil hypocrisy (plus interest), and smashing their imbecilic censor-sanctioned pipe dreams. The illusions of these sorts of sailor fellers is what makes old drunk tramps like Marie Dressler have to stagger the streets homeless rather then stay on in the house when the "good" woman returns. So they bring it on themselves and we're meant to root for Anna all the way - her every shot of whiskey is an unabashed triumph. She's a cooler kind of female Hickey in THE ICEMAN COMETH, or Eugene himself in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. She's back to try and get peace by shattering the pipe dreams of others and she does-- and her reward is now she doesn't have to keep drinking milk, and her future/older self --the cautionary tale of where she'll end up if she lets her past horrors go unspoken--Marie Dressler, can come in from the cold.

O'Neill is too good a playwright to spell anything out didactically; he just has Anna rear back and declare, "I'm my own master!" and in the process reduce the men in her life to sulking lions in the corner of the tugboat cage. The horrific hypocrisy of the double standard--ala the film's first act examination of the old saloon "Ladies' Entrance" regulations--comes back to bite the men where it hurts most. Her sinful secret is the mirror to her mens' 'dirty' sex drive: once she discharges it, the blame and burden is shifted; she has unsplit the difference between saint and whore, like a reverse atom bomb.

I always feel bad watching Garbo try to be conventionally sexy (MATA HARI) or zany (TWO-FACED WOMAN). She can be those things, but not 'directly', only in passing. Each requires a certain steadiness of emotion; Garbo can't, emotionally speaking, sit still long enough. She runs a whole spectrum of emotion, from abject despair to exalted euphoria, along every line of dialogue. Like the old devil sea itself, her persona is liquid-based --sloshing from artist to art work to audience - all in one weary chuckle. Go see a Mae West film and you enter a jovial Xmas ball helmed by a helluva gal; enter a Garbo picture and you enter a deserted but fragrant church, empty but for a single crying widow and her dancing flower girl daughter --these are the two main components of Garbo's face; the church is the rest of her body, it exists just to cart that face (and voice) around. Her face and voice are so expressive all else fades away --even her hair doesn't matter, which is good because in nearly every one of her sound films, her hair hangs Prince Valiant-flat and lifeless. It doesn't matter anymore than it would to a Hindu temple deity or Stockholm guttersnipe. Her face betrays every tremor of her empathic hypersensitivity, the hypersensitivity of great artists with susceptibilities to drug and alcohol addiction due to low affect tolerance (i.e. Swedish). Just as James Dean could vacillate between Marlboro poster boy and sweet, shy little nerd, depending on the line of dialogue, or sometimes within the same line, so Garbo is always pulling herself together into an unsmiling Teutonic statue and then cracking up back into a wistful little girl. Some art is a reminder to move past the pain of maternal rejection, and some art just duplicates the exact moment of it, so you can live it over and over again, the pain of loss and the final exaltation when your own 'inner mom' kicks in. Garbo's face is the mask of that inner light, the goddess who comes to comfort you when you finally recognize you are truly on your own. The only one sure to call when you cry is, inevitably, Death. See how it lurches over your shoulder and asks you for a quarter? Behind the mask she's just Marie Dressler; sans skin, sans eyes, sans everything, she'll be you too, in time.

I used to worship at the feet of the Alice statue in Central Park; she was my thin mushroom-enthroned Buddha. The size difference between us was, I later realized, the approx. same as between a toddler and a mom, or a movie screen medium shot and the average audience member distance. Isn't the first image we fixate on that of a giant female face looking down at us? Isn't that what big close-ups of women's faces in the movies are all about on that subliminal level of seduction and hypnosis that goes into good cinema?

They talk in pre-code books and in DINNER AT EIGHT of the "Garbo widow" - women whose husbands prayed nightly to the giant divinity at the local theater place of worship and gave up the earthly pleasures of their workaday wives. Not that Garbo was nurturing or maternal, but that's part of the point. We love to re-enact that golden rejection, the moment we found the cold Nordic light that could replace maternal warmth.

It's a brilliant stroke of fate that ANNA CHRISTIE should be Garbo's first sound film, as it's all about the feminine ideal coming home to roost in the gutter, the return of the elevated as the return of the repressed in a surprise Louisiana flip. The silent giant woman we've been adoring now speaks, and what she says is a confession: she's not adorable at all, she's "impure" as if the Alice in Wonderland statue started talking and the first thing it asked for was a fifth of whiskey. Unlike Dean, Garbo wasn't granted a quick death but found a fitting substitute - hiding from the public eye after being unable to move gracefully into the post-code era. And more power to her for resisting that saccharine sanctity! ANNA CHRISTIE is, in addition to being many things, an indictment of the yet to be fully enforced code itself; how much worse it would get they could not know!

Now it comes to me in a flash. Old Captain Kris is the perfect stand-in for Joseph Breen and the Catholic Legion of Decency: in using every ounce of their power to prevent their Annas of America from learning about the lure of that old Devil Sea and rapey sailor fellas, they merely left a generation at the mercy of sleazy rapist farmboys. Even worse, the code also made sure Anna no longer got to rub the Kris and Breen crowd's faces in their hypocrisy in the third act. Instead, we'd see frilly MGM yarns where sailor Kriss/Breen gags her, hobbles her, chains her to the stove and makes her smile about it because he got her a nice ring and some cherub-cheeked freckle-nosed tykes to scamper about at her feet. Our fallen goddesses would have to ride out the rest of the 1930s up to their necks in frilly bland lies until the post-WW 2 noir femme fatales found a million ingenious ways to sneak a drink when father's back was turned. Men! Men! Men! How I hate every one of them!
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