Saturday, January 30, 2010

Misogynist! Genius!

The title is a line from Le Tigre's "What's Yr Take on Cassavettes?" but applies equally well to Dario Argento, and all accusations and adorations are true. On a freezing Saturday I start to write but end up reading endless reviews of giallo dvds I'll probably never see, on sweet sites like the Mondo Digital, the Cinebeats, the Final Girl, the Tenebrous Empire, the Bleeding Skull and my long-time favorite, Eccentric Cinema. I love reading about movies from other people's perspectives, and something about giallos seem to bring out the best in people. I think it's the feeling they have to justify their love of the genre in the wake of "feminist accusations of misogyny." That's not a put-down but an observation of myself in particular. Perhaps discussing Argento DVDs is just the codex some of us use to disguise topics too horrifically ambivalent to deal with directly.
I was reading Stuart Willis fine Giallo Collection piece on and its mentioning the misogyny accusations of Argento's Bird With Crystal Plummage:
The razor-slicing of a female character in a lift is justifiably famous for it's shocking impact, and in recent years the reinstated footage of the killer slicing apart a woman's knickers has become a talking point too. Savage, suggestive and yet another piece of ammunition for the insane brigade who think Argento hates women.

Now, I both agree and disagree that Argento hates women. Any artistic complexity--and Argento's is bottomless--naturally results in oppositional interpretations being always valid. The reason law has to be so exact is to prevent this sort of thing, a bar is set in the shifting sands of human emotion/action, and that is all we have to prevent a full reversion to savagery. Art on the other hand must always remind us that this bar is not really set at all, to remind us not to rely on it too heavily but instead find the bar within, before it closes forever and you're left high and dry. 

The problem isn't in discussing misogyny in relation to Argento, but in understanding the way an artist deals with issues of gender--especially in a country like repressively Catholic Italy, where single women are harassed on the street and mothers are sanctified martyrs, their apron strings like tenacious tentacles that can only be removed with violent razor attacks--and the way critics subsequently respond and the way a wide array of interesting viewpoints can lodge in the drying cement around a film's reputation.  Argento both indulges in and criticizes this approach--a metatextual deconstruction that was the style of his time and place during his formative years (Antonioni, Bertolucci, Fellini) and the ascription of pain receiver is feminine as the female body is considered more vulnerable, a more 'open' source of anxiety, more conventionally able to feel agony due to the ravages of menstruation and childbirth. Woman becomes mom/whore/wife/victim chimera on which conflicted viewers work out unresolved issues of castration, post-weaning depression, and the blood of conquerors like the Moors tossing angrily in their glands. Argento is like Hitchcock getting stabbed through the looking glass eye with a sharp PEEPING TOM poker, making us aware that we're all part killer, part bug-eyed victim and it's this continual self-inflicted violence that both defines us and prevents us from effecting real change. We'd be better off blinding ourselves, like Ray Milland in THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES.

What saves us though is that feminist criticism has effectively brought the idea of misogyny and violence against women into the popular critical consciousness. Now a cheeky lad like Stuart Willis can enjoy Argento's films while engaging in a dialogue with a feminist Other who monitors his arousal responses like a disproving clinician, thus allowing him to transfer and exorcise collective guilt. At the same time this Other provides a kind of anima projection superego which prohibits and therefore enhances certain shades of sadistic enjoyment. Internalizing the feminist backlash against the film's violence in this way may add metatextual goodness to one's viewing pleasure.

Criticism perhaps needs to be over-the-top and make grand sweeping pronouncements, resting assured that whatever critics write won't actually start a revolution, but just plant seeds hither and yon. We can be confident that sooner or later something's bound to actually grow to fruition, but that's not our job - we're the sowers. The seed planting then becomes a reward in itself, the Johnny Appleseedian spread-sewing motion like Tai chi. For embracing change is not the same as trying to change the world, but rather to realize it is always changing and it's our own perceptions which are stuck in the illusory field of time, wherein gravity weighs us down with age and boredom.

No great art actually solves problems or answers questions but instead brings confirmation to doubt, a sense the answer to that question you were obsessed with as a child and have perhaps since forgotten and is still out there, waiting for you to pick up its breadcrumb trail. To firmly believe in two simultaneously contradictory opinions is to free to enjoy your own enslavement, which is all true freedom is, or as Bob Dyaln sang "You gotta serve somebody," and the king is dead. Long Live the King... of death and sex cinema, and his unholy feminist backlash queen!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cinema's Naughtiest Germans, Part Two


The best aspect of this strange tale of German gymnasium girls--torn apart by conflicting development rates-- are the two actresses, one of whom, Karoline Herfurth, looks a bit like Liv Ullman. She plays Steffi, the poutier of the pair, while the radiant and very German looking Anna Maria Muhe plays Kati, her more "normal" friend. Whenever the film is focused on either of their faces, it’s fascinating as they are natural actors who--like real teenagers do-- hide as much from the camera as they show, even if they don’t deliver the powerhouse performances of Oscar-minded Americanische jungen.

On one of the girls' nights out they wind up being picked up by two older men and brought over to a "grown ups" lounge. In Germany, kids can enter bars and drink without i.d.s, making this an interesting contrast with the forbidden, glamorized nature of drinking in typical American teen films, though this environment is still seen as adulthood ground zero, full of sex, drugs, music and disillusionment. Among the disillusioning sights: Steffi's dad, making out on a couch with a woman not her mom and--even worse--the woman is East German! Steffi and Kati key woman's car, track her down to a shitty East Berlin tenement, and then Steffi proceeds to trick the woman's teenage daughter (Josephine Domes) into auditioning at a modeling agency which specializes in adult videos, under the pretext that it’s a record company (knowing from personal embittered experience the owner is a sex predator). Mein Gott! Are Germans really so vindictive that they would want to send girls they don't even know to their death? Oh wait! Of course they are! Was eine unheimliche frage!

Meanwhile another cute blonde girl has disappeared and the whole city is up in arms. Only Steffi knows the truth, and she's too self-absorbed over her dad’s divorce to consider that the psycho killer who almost raped Kati could be behind it. It's as if city-wide manhunts ala Fritz Lang's M were something a teenager would barely notice compared to her own petulant sulking. It really becomes Kati's movie as she must stand up to Steffi, who by this point is snorting coke, sleeping around, and not going to class. Eventually it all boils down to suicide and self-cutting, but along the way there’s lots of music sung in English, and everyone seems to be bilingual. B


Based on a true story, this is a nice mix of WW2 period craftsmanship and forbidden love that makes most life-under-Nazi-rule dramas look like mopey bourgeois white elephant glad-handing tripe. There's more human warmth and joy in three minutes of screen time with this pair of star-crossed lesbians (one Jewish, one "Aryan") then in the whole goddamned three hours of THE READER (2008). Why am I even comparing? Perhaps because many are the films that mix Nazi vs. Jew persecution with forbidden love and sumptuous period decor and wartime lighting schemes, but few are any good, and this one is great, and didn't even get consideration for best foreign film in 1999. It did get nominated for a Golden Globe, Oscar's sleeker more artistically comprehensible, less bourgeois self-congratulatory cousin.

As Felice the Jewish lesbian "hiding in plain sight" as assistant editor of a Nazi newspaper in 1943, Maria Schrader is an absolute knock-out, a jovial gamin who'd be ideal as a cross-dressing Shakespeare heroine, ala Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT. We believe her dangerous good cheer because Schrader plays the role with a fearless recklessness that perfectly captures our hearts and her character... her decision to risk discovery in order to stay with her Aryan hausfrau lover Lilly (Julianne Kohler) is the most beautifully brave and foolish move since Winslet jumped off the lifeboat in TITANIC (1997). Their love is hot enough that you understand why she makes this suicidal gesture. It's beautiful to be that swept away, like THELMA AND JULIET! Even more startling, the film seems true even as it's completely insane, and still covers all its thematic and narrative bases to leave you profoundly moved. Best of all, sullenly self-righteous books-on-tape artist Ralph Fiennes is nowhere to be found. A

(AKA EUROPA, 1991)

An early Lars Von Trier gem, not quite a masterpiece, perhaps due to lack of star wattage, a killer performance from Ernst-Hugo Jaregard and Udo Kier aside. Von Trier fans know Jaregard best as THE KINGDOM's  Dr. Helmer and Udo Kier from.... well where do you begin? Here he's an ennui-ridden gay brother of femme fatale love interest Barbara Sukowa (LOLA), and maybe a werewolf (in the post-war German terrorist sense). Alas, much screen time is eaten up watching dumbkopf American expatriate Kessler (Hean Marc-Barr) mess things up for his exasperated sleeper car conducting uncle. If you're a fan of trains you don't have to know why Kessler expressly requests the sleeper car. Damn is it sexy there. A giant box full of dreaming passengers, careening along through the Hamburg night, it's an ideal mirror to the audience in a dark theater. But Kessler is like that temp you hire only to have to spend so much time correcting his mistakes you may as well do his job yourself in addition to your own. No doubt Von Trier wanted it this way. He considered this a masterpiece and gave the Cannes jury the finger when he didn't win the Palme d'Or. But Americans don't like seeing Americans portrayed as incompetent patsies by Europeans. We hate that they love Jerry Lewis, or maybe just I do.

Yeah, Von Trier is Danish, but the film's set in post-war Germany so it still counts! Best of all it's got a German message: if you're not fighting to the death for a cause, no matter how doomed, then you're asleep at the wheel and may as well go off the rails. Words to live by, until someone reminds us it's from Mein Kampf.  And the Germans love trains, punctuality and death in equal measure. PS - there actually wasn't too much werewolf activity in Germany aside from some vivid pirate radio shortwave messages, as most of the werewolf engineers fled to Palestine to help organize, you guessed it, anti-Israeli terrorism!  Gott in Himmel! B+

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cinema's Naughtiest Germans!

Oh those Germans. And how well they die... on Netflix! It seems half the films available for instant viewing are for, by, or about that most egomaniacally insane of western nations, Deutschland! For some reason these Teutonic descendants of pillaging marauders and towheaded savages are just meant for the casual distance provided by Netflix streaming. Let's take a look:

1. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, dir. Fassbinder)
Failed attempts to get through badly cropped, dubbed VHS bootlegs made me associate Fassbinder with tedium, experimental amateurishness ala Warhol/Morrissey and inevitable peevish headaches, and even the title of this film made me think it was about Eva Braun, mistress of Hitler (below). But now, on streaming Netflix, Fassbinder is ready for rediscovery. BRAUN's got pre-code era frankness and post-war late 1940s Berlin disillusionment, as a combination LAST SEDUCTION meets BABY FACE uberfemme negotiates her way from despair as the impoverished wife of a missing German soldier to mad riches as the mistress of a captain of industry! Brechtian socioeconomic satire merges with Almodovar/Sirk-style operatics like a bayonet through black market butter. Plus, there's lots of good post-war wreckage for our heroine to negotiate her way through (in high heels, naturlich).  A-

2. The Baader-Meinhof Complex(2008, dir. Uli Edel)
Sociopathic German youth never looked better than in late 1960s swinger outfits with machine guns in hand, even if the filmmakers feel the need to use, yet again, Buffalo Springfield singing about how what it is ain't exactly clear / but there's a man with a gun over there, to encapsulate that wild time of the late 1960s (and of course the ubiquitous flaming monk on the eleven-o-clock news). Though occasionally confusing as characters come and go with no ID cards (and all the hot German frauleins change wigs and hairstyles understandably often), it's all boldly ambiguous and rich without being tediously overcrafted. The terrorists aren't painted in any particular brush, letting viewers be attracted to these angry political activists while horrified at the violence of their actions.  The sobering effect is to find your gangster movie fantasia suddenly resembling middle eastern terrorist mentality; you've been tricked into identifying with your own enemy via the mass hypnosis of popular cinema; your own tool of hypnosis used against you, bourgeoisie schweinhund!

Consider the loop of hate that leads from the Nazis back around to the Baader-Meinhof group aka The Red Army Faction: First, the Nazis take their hate out on the Jews; then the toughened surviving Jews split to the Holy Land and take their rage against the Germans out on the Arabs; the children of the former Nazis take the rage of the Arabs out on their parents, for not fighting what they perceive as yet another Hitler in their midst (America). But is it really that these kids don't want to make the same mistake their parents and grandparents did and look the other way as fascism takes over and seals the fate of the free world or is it merely antisemitism reborn in flashier clothes? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so cute... been so violent... for so much media attention. B+

3. The Last Days of World War Two (2005, History Channel)
We all love WW2 because it's the last war wherein we had a clear, unshakably firm purpose as human beings. We needed to band together and work our asses off to defeat Nazism or we'd all be enslaved or killed, so it was more than just a "political policing" action. When Bush calls Iran part of the Axis of Evil he's showing he doesn't know what he's talking about: the real Axis of evil would blow his mind with its horrific yen for wanton destruction. LAST DAYS is flashy, bold and relatively fearless in its constant, excited head counts ("one hundred thousand die on this day, 60 years ago!") And the footage is unsparingly gruesome, sad, sometimes darkly comic... sometimes devastating beyond thought or words. We can never remember this war enough, and thank the stars and General Patton for our continued rulership over the free world! A

Go To Bright Lights After Dark for a semi-sequel to this entry: From Russia With Hell!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Great Dads of the 1970s: Lee Marvin in THE BIG RED ONE

Sometimes a "period piece" tells more about the period in which it was created than the one it depicts. Fuller's grand war saga THE BIG RED ONE is just such a piece, with Fuller's unique mix of sentiment and vulgarity in WW2-era being the ideal commentary on the 1970s mindset, at least how I remember it. You could almost say that Fuller's 40s-nouveau aesthetic came to mesh so perfectly with the 1970s that--at the time when I saw it at the drive-in with my family as a 13 year-old (and it was cut to nearly half Fuller's intended length)--THE BIG RED ONE was almost invisible, even in plain sight. For a WW2 movie, it blended so well into its moment you could barely see it, like an all-in-black ninja skulking between the cars.

If you're a WW2 fan like me then you know that Fuller's films are all pretty accurate, because he was there; a lot of the dialogue is no doubt straight from Fuller's sharp journalist memory, with Marvin leading a rifle squad through North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Belgium and finally Germany. Most of it was filmed in an around the actual locations of the battles, with Fuller's journalist memory no doubt recreating it all better than any squad of Spielberg advisors ever could. Now note I don't mean accurate as in "here's what Patton was doing at the time" but "these were the rumors related to us by the guys farther up the line." and so forth. Fuller was a newspaperman, so almost never lets that crucial distinction distort his tale. Like any good good reporter, Fuller is very specific when it comes to what he witnesses firsthand vs what other soldiers tell him they witnessed, or heard, etc." It's a difference that's not available to those who weren't there. Forced to get all their info secondhand, baby boomer filmmakers like Spielberg use their talent and budget to recreate what they imagine might have happened, based on what they read or are told by old crotchety survivors. Fuller doesn't need to rely on these sources since he IS a crotchety survivor.

A lot of the onscreen action can get confusing, but then again, it probably was confusing at the time? You can see where Godard--a true-blu Fuller fan--got ideas from Fuller for his own narrative-melting 1980s works like CODE NAME: CARMEN, as when bank robbing terrorists and cops shoot it out in a hotel stairwell while old folks read the paper in chairs around them, regarding the bloodshed with casual disinterest, as if it's just kids playing tag or a theatrical group rehearsing. One of my Fuller favorites: Lee Marvin wakes up in a North African hotel-turned hospital, with wounded German and American soldiers shuffled amid civilians and doctors of both nationalities, doctor uniforms and patient whites obscuring who's on who's side - everyone in the beds all in and out of disguises as they try to figure out which side is in control and if they should lay low, fight, dress up like the enemy side, or flee. Later a similar scene plays out as Marvin's rifle squad zips into an occupied insane asylum, moving silently and en masse through a room full of mental patients splayed out on couches and chairs, all of whom either ignore or help the soldiers. The crazier ones probably not sure the sudden near-silent surges of four or five bent-over soldiers at a time, rushing silently from behind couch to under table, and onwards through the chateau, in and out of sight with a wink--are real or imagined.

Conversely, examples of Fuller trying to add commentary to true memories can be spotted a mile off: The squad's sneaky infiltration of a Nazi-held mental asylum actually happened, but an inmate grabbing a dead German's machine gun and shooting everyone in sight, shouting "Look, I'm sane like you!" is a little too on the nose --even if it did happen. The periodic and useless cutaways to Marvin's opposite number in the Wermacht also feels like he's making a forced point.

There is also the 1970s aspect - the jetzt-verboten political incorrectness, regarding "whores" and scenes such as one extraordinarily uncomfortable subtext bit in which Marvin's squad delivers a French peasant baby in the moist confines of an abandoned German tank. They're all gathered around and holding down the woman and spreading out her legs as she screams in pain, a guy mentioning he's getting horny while using condoms on his fingers as gloves and a cheese cloth as a surgical mask. What's evoked is soldier-on-peasant gang rape, right up to Marvin whispering "puuu-say" into her ear to get her to push the baby out. Later Robert Carradine blows this thousand buck check from his first published book on a party to get Belgian whores for the night and make them do "whatever weird stuff we always wanted," which includes freaking out a Belgian hotelier with the ridiculous request of a recently dead fellow infantryman, to have a big-assed woman put her butt cheeks on the (freezing) glass.

The thing is, man, being occupied and half-destroyed by bombs and occupation has probably made half the young women in Belgium into whores of one stripe or another, just to survive and feed their families, so this broad drunken objectification carries a weird depressing aftertaste, especially if you've seen UGETSU. Then again, is being a prostitute that much more tragic and demeaning than being a soldier? (As Dietrich said in MOROCCO: "There's a foreign legion of women... too...")

I don't mean to knock the film, or Fuller. by mentioning all this, quite the contrary, to show how no one likely even noticed or thought twice about these possible readings makes the mix of raunch and reproduction all the sweeter. Back then men didn't have to constantly affirm they were NOT rank misogynists. And if a guy got his nuts blown off, we didn't mollycoddle him and race to sew them back or decide at the last minute not to cut them off  like they do now in movies like TEETH and HARD CANDY; we tossed them nuts to the hungry dogs with a smirk and then forgot about the matter, even if he was our best friend.

Marvin's '70s dad skills include his ability to stand back during downtime and let the boys in his rifle squad do their own bickering, boasting and teasing. He listens, and grins wryly or walks away in feigned disgust, but he rarely interjects or tries to compete. He doesn't need to, and he knows these kids do though --it's how they keep up their courage. You almost never see him interrupt or censor a conversation no matter how offensive, but when he calls a soldier's number to run up and die trying to bring a Bangalore torpedo across a heavily defended beach, that guy better move ass or he'll shoot him himself. The best you can do is just trust and love Lee Marvin. Do what he tells you and rely on him to not get you shot. If you do, well, see you soon.

Marvin only smiles in a close-up/medium shot once, when he finally loses it and starts laughing with joy when they successfully deliver that baby. A man who's been doling out death for years suddenly brings in a little life. "We all felt pretty good about it" Carradine notes in the film's superfluous voiceover. No need for saying it -it's all there in Marvin's hangdog expression as it finally overflow its borders, exploding with a hoarse grinning laugh and a palpable joy as unsentimental in its genuine sentiment as a Hemingway novel, then just as quickly back to business. In the land of no morality and bullets flying overhead, it's a man like Marvin you depend on to deliver the sense of security that a strong, good man has your back, even if he's just acting to keep the children from crying. No wonder the little kids love Marvin and follow him around all throughout RED. In the end, the soldiers getting blown to bits come and go, they're all pretty forgettable despite the callow actor's attempts to win us over, but it's Marvin you depend on for direction in the film, it's Marvin you come to love, even as he sends you to your death with a silent pointing gesture.


Friday, January 08, 2010

le rayon bleu de Deneuve

Xmas is over and I'm now in the Blu-ray group. It's cool and all but, man! All that detail and clarity scares me motionless. Two minutes into it and I'm really missing the blur that used to cover all the tiny beads of sweat under actors' stage makeup. Luckily there's Criterion, who manage to make Blu-ray look just better enough to be worthwhile, but not so sharp as to cut the nose off a snoopy detective. Shall we all not be punished for seeing too much? Well, not all the time: REPULSION (1965) looks heavenlier than ever, not that I've seen it in any form before except on my auld streaky pan-and-scan VHS wherein it came on after UNDER THE VOLCANO but before CARNIVAL OF SOULS

Hell was, ash yew know, Hugh, my natural habitat... 'til now.

REPULSION's eerie but glacial frisson makes it actually ideal for being the first film to watch on Blu-ray: we see just enough ugliness outside the flat to make us cling to Deneuve's soothingly blank visage all the more. The "too much detail" problem is sidestepped via her stunning countenance. The way Blu-ray sharpens her features into a realm of "too much sight" is usually reserved only for the insane -- the sight of particles and energy actually changing in the face second-by-second. Her face, hair, and expression oscillate into her sister Francois, Cybil Shepherd and/or Gwyneth Paltrow at times; other times it seems like she's trying not to laugh as she walks down the street, hiding how amused she is by Polanski's camera, and we realize that---for some of us--beautiful girls in particular-- the camera never shuts off. 24/7 they're watched by a million slavering, arrogant or competitive eyes, all longing to be toasted in her flaming wicker head... or singed on the edge of a straight razor. As Saul put it in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, "Flames... are really knives... and it's cold, flame is!"

(the camera is a hallucination)
Such madness is, I'm afraid, generally the result of too much clarity rather than too little. As REPULSION's side cast makes clear, the ones who get along in this crazy social order are half-asleep savage brutes, the Stanley Kowalskis of the world.  A younger, quieter, more homicidal version of Blanche Dubois, Deneuve's heroine by contrast suffers at the (unintentionally brusque) hands of her sister's arrogant, cheeky lover, a balding bullethead (you can practically smell his stifling aftershave from down the lift) who can't imagine why little sister wouldn't find him adorable; he presumes she must be dumb and daft just because she's sensitive, vacant and almost Zen-like in her stillness. She should be in a nunnery, only she'd have to cover up that dynamite hair... and that would be a crime even Jesus could not abide.

Sometimes I wonder if all this clarity is revealing stuff even Polanski didn't see when picking out shots. In the Criterion commentary track, he seems almost indignant that critics and fans could find themes and subtexts he didn't put there (it's funny how often that reaction springs up in auteurs - you'd think they'd have been to enough shrinks to know better). He sure doesn't seem to miss much, though, and this is the kind of film that craftsmanship was made for since it's the accumulation of small details that reflect a decaying latent schizophrenic mind: The gradual shading of light and darkness and the way the world keeps turning outside your door even as you stay locked up in your house, afraid to go out because of the weird breathing you coming from your drain. If it's too pronounced and over-produced you sense the trickery and think someone's working a gaslight. On the other hand, if it's totally unnoticeable you think maybe they really are out to get her. One tentacle of Polanski's genius is that even when the script decides which is which, he doesn't. Naturally we can come away with all sorts of in depth readings as to what actually is there. When the only one who hears it can't trust their own ears, did that falling tree really make a sound?

Take it from anyone whose ever been confined to their flat in the middle of a sprawling, car alarm and siren-ridden rush hour midtown work week while recovering from drug binges or emotional trauma, for days on end without human contact, not even daring to move from a sitting or lying position, watching the sun come and go, the hustle and bustle of commuters like a syrup-paced Koyaanisqatsi, the slowly cohering spiderweb in the corner contains your only companion, every little shadow twists into a million almost-things--REPULSION is 'true'. Now on Blu it makes sense that Deneuve's so hypnotized by wall cracks in the film; now we can see deep inside them ourselves (in ways we couldn't on video)... like the barrier between the viewer and the image has been damaged, and any minute we might reach into one of the cracks and pull Deneuve's hair, or be pulled in ourselves... no wonder she's so crazy! Just be glad her razor's not in 3-D... not yet, and that--beautiful or not--she's safely on the other side of the screen.

It's an alarming trend that imagination has grown so undernourished while being paid so much lip service by Hollywood - the ability to do anything with CGI has led to a kind of pixelated torpor. I'm happy that geeks are gettin' rich and powerful, but every new format and digital breakthrough leads us further from the ability of our own personal imaginations to fill in blind spots, to see details where none actually are. Imagining a hook dangling off a car door during a round of ghost stories around thefire is a hundred times more vivid (and scary) than the inhuman precision of CGI in a movie version. The more detail we actually see, the less we imagine and thus the less scared we are, as Val Lewton well knew. Like so much corporate red tape, digital image "clarity" results less in capturing the transformative beauty and power of our dreams than the reverse, reducing even the wildest alien vistas to ones and zeros, ever-so-slightly pixelated and airless, "more human than human."

It'll keep getting worse until one day we'll look in the mirror and have one of those meta-mecha Cyberdine/Rydell Corporation moments (realizing all our memories are not our own) and, when that happens, we can only hope Polanski will still be there, slicing our noses and rubbing his lens in our lifeless doll eyes until we're blocked, shocked and pleasantly clockworked, like Deneuve in the arms of her painted-white rapist walls, waiting for the cool of night and the absolving obsidian dark into which we can, at last, see nothing.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call: Summerisle (Neil LaBute's WICKER MAN)

Having finally shrunk my balls enough to reach the end of Neil LaBute's WICKER MAN remake, I see what a fool I was to give up so many times before, and what a genius Nic Cage is to risk coming across as such a terrible actor. I was so used to the central figure of manly authority in a horror film being the 'good guy' I kept pressing stop against my will. But it finally dawned on me that here he's the villain, and doesn't even know it. And yet his Nic Cage-iness is the exact same as it would be if he was trying to rescue the Declaration of Independence! Genius.

It helped me, I guess, to have seen ANTICHRIST and BAD LIEUTENANT 2: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS in the interim between attempts. All I needed was to wait for those two movies to finally be made, and Boom! La Bute's WICKER comes into clear perspective. On that note, may I recommend the three as a triple feature?

So, there. See? There's no need to sacrifice me, now, to your bee gods now, gentle ladies, fair ladies of Fårö...

Let me clarify, I don't think LaBute's a misogynist, anymore than Von Trier or Herzog. They all merely believe as I do that if women ever truly shucker free--all the way and completely--from patriarchy's handcuffs, then as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz once put it: "Say goodbye to your nuts!" That's not misogyny, any more than INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is anti-Semitic. These sorts of hatreds generally come from a place of unconsciousness, once brought to light from the muck through art, yadda yadda, they're often dispelled (or at least temporarily exorcised). And LaBute packs this MAN with plenty of very powerful, frightening, intelligent women, all going up against one lone, coarse, ineffectual male cop --and I bet that's pretty far from a misogynist's idea of a good time. Even for us sensitive males, a truly liberated, sexually aggressive female is one of the most terrifying creatures on this or any earth, and here on Summerisle one can't even trust in God all of a sudden, because God is suddenly not even a "He" and everything gets dark and scary and one's balls shrink and release hormones of queasy dread that hit like an extra dose of blood-chilling gravity.

And the same goes for Nic Cage --that national treasure. Whenever we think our man Cage is totally sucking, it's probably that he's just so far ahead of the curve we're afraid to follow lest we get hit by a truck careening around the bend. Not unlike the character he plays in the BAD LIEUTENANT 2, Cage's cop in WICKER doesn't care if we root for him or not, he's got his own road to ho, an arc that transcends words like "reckless," "brave," "idiotic" or "inspired."

Perhaps this WICKER has acquired such a dismal rep because it is neither a CHILDREN OF THE CORN GONE WILD as its targeted demographic likely hoped (based on the generic 'scary pastoral kid' poster, nor a "noir antihero loses his marbles" art movie, but rather something much more difficult to handle: a damning critique of patriarchy wrapped up in teen remake horror trimmings, with just enough polish that we believe in its structure as a "Where the *)@^&# is my daughter, you monster?!" movie, the kind with frantic cop fathers throwing away their rule books and/or drinking alone while staring at half-burnt family photos or yelling into the faces of apathetic mayors. WICKER even pretends to be such a film until it suddenly springs shut with a mouse trap-snap square on the sac of our manly American values. "How'd it get burned how'd it get burned how'd it GET BURNED???!" Cage screams in progressive loops to the one girl who doesn't hate him, and we realize it's already too late, for us, for him, for everything except another season's apple or honey haul. Pointing a gun at an unarmed woman in order to steal her bike, Cage is, as one sister puts it, "quixotic." The missing child has become the new windmill.

Just as the fun of the original was in feeling the last two thousand years of Christian stigmata stains burnt from our eyes via a single dose of Pagan Lasik, so too the fun here is seeing how--without the people of Summerisle kowtowing to his manly whims--Cage's patriarchal righteousness is revealed as immature bullying and violent hysteria.  Cage here is like the sister's boorish boyfriend in REPULSION or the sleazy neighbor in CARNIVAL OF SOULS, only we're conditioned by his star wattage to think he's the hero, because he thinks he's the hero, and the film posits him in just that framework (the 'child is missing' scenario being the 'cheap shot' way to get a viewer involved, outraged, concerned, glued to the screen - as he in turn is glued). Like the hero of an action film, too, Cage is outnumbered, and we're conditioned to always consider the outnumbered lone male worrying about a missing child to be the good guy.

Alas, LaBute's subtle tweaking of this expectation all but dooms his message for anyone but those of us who love to see this type of safety-first Clyde crushed to death under Tura Satana's headlights.

I guess more than any other film, the original included, LeBute's remake is more like Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1974), in the sense, and it offers a similar story arc and intentional confusion over whether the lead actor is a hero or villain: Dustin Hoffman in that film is a representative of the "civilized world" entering a strange, cut-off remote society and expecting viewers to laugh along with him as he jibes the locals for the first 1/3 of the film. Critics in general were unkind to the movie, many failing to pick up on the idea that Hoffman's outsider was the real villain and even calling the film sexist thanks to a morally ambivalent rape scene. You can imagine LaBute suffering the same misunderstood confusion over WICKER MAN. In a critique of the patriarchy, one must apparently never be ambiguous or stir up unresolved social anxiety if you want to win over a crowd.

Finally, now that there's BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS and ANTICHRIST to situate it, however, even WICKER MAN makes gonzo sense. In the first, director Herzog is terrified/ambivalent/enthralled by the forces of chthonic nature, forces reflected in BAD's flood-faded colors and Post-Katrina New Orleans water lines; in WM, LaBute is terrified/ambivalent/enthralled by a strong cabal of women, reflected in the patronizing warmth of Ellen Burstyn and the sudden mood swings of Lee Sobieski; for ANTICHRIST, Von Trier just cuts, literally, figuratively and otherwise, right to the chase, right to the chthonic meat of things, where nature and the feminine entwine into one massive castrating green wooded Medusa, and then Von Trier does some pruning. Taken together the three films perhaps indicate that patriarchy has to repress and belittle the feminine, for the very simple reason that otherwise women will realize it's much better to kill men off once they've served their reproductive purpose, or send them off to work in the fields as castrated slave labor. Hasn't anyone seen CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953)? What's the matter with you people? You think this is a joke? A child is missing!

The 1973 original was (perhaps) more bearable for American audiences because of the British accents which made the colloquial strangeness even stranger (not close to home enough to stick in the proverbial craw, as LaBute's version does) and it should be noted that the original was similarly box office-stricken in its own home country of Great Britain (due largely to bad marketing and brutal editing).

In the Americanized rendition, Nic Cage goes deep Yankee tourist: unconscious of the world around him, condescending, arrogant, even boorish, expecting that wherever he goes people will "get" his outmoded hipster posturing and that all women will bow and scrape before him when he flashes his badge and waves his gun around, jurisdiction be damned.  When they don't, his only option is a roundhouse kick to Lee Sobieski's heaving bosom. But that still doesn't work.

In the end the movie resonates for the same reason it annoys: we hate that which reminds us of our own unconscious Ugly American-in-a-china-shop deformities. In BAD LIEUTENANT, Cage made us feel the chronic pain of his character and revel in chemical relief and the joy of dancing ever on the edge. In WICKER MAN, it's not his pain that's alleviated, but the pain of any woman, minority or child who ever endured an unwarranted and inappropriate "pat-down" or otherwise had to suffer the preachy condescension of an arrogant male official. It's always amusing to see these patriarchal bullies squirm when the shoe is on the other foot, until of course we realize that we the audience are the ones squirming... in embarrassment. Ask not for whom the man burns, he burns for bees... until there's no other foot left.


Read also Kim Morgan's"The Bitch is Back" on her Sunset Gun, which originally, back in 07, gave me the courage to keep trying to make it through. And remember, just because you wear a bear suit doesn't mean you can punch out pagan women! You need a pope hat do the that. Or to paraphrase Lauren Bacall: Be careful of those double standards, Steve. You're liable to trip over your cross and break your neck!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


A lot of shit went down in 1997, the year AUSTIN POWERS came out: loungecore was the big vibe in downtown New York and my loungey clique was so 'hip' we made the cover of the New York Times style section; Faxy Brown was Thursdays, often at Lansky's; Weds was lounge night at Windows on the World (top floor of the World Trade Center); Friday was for tourists, man, so we stayed in and did ecstasy and watched Connery or Lazenby Bond movies. Feather boas, bands like Tipsy, Martin Denny, Esquivel, Pizzicato 5; drinks like cosmopolitans, manhattans, and martinis; Cigarettes and tuxedo jackets over silk shirts; smoking cigarettes everywhere but the elevator; Moby and Fancy and Molly who got rich as a dominatrix and moved right up to the big leagues... then... it all... changed. Ecstasy was no longer the drug of choice; cocaine was cheaper suddenly and widely available --I didn't like it; Sex and the City premiered, imitating our style just enough to make our style seem idiotic; swing dancing took over from the usual freestyle. You needed to know how to swing dance or you'd 'do it wrong' so interpretive moderns like me had to sit it out before the 'Cabaret Law' killed even that limited expression.

I judge, not just because I was too dyslexic to learn swing dancing, but because the scene was never about syncopation or following some actual rhythm, man. It was about lack of principles. As 96 bloomed in full, we ruled. The term metrosexual was about to be coined just for us; Sex and the City was still just a column in some magazine; straight men kissed each other hello; everyone's face was stubbly with sexy shadow. Absolutely Fabulous was our message in a bottle from Swinging London, and then AUSTIN POWERS. Formidable!

AUSTIN POWERS survived the end. It was more than just cultural zeitgeist/touchstone kind of hit. And that's too bad, because all the success went to Mike Myers' head, just as it did Molly's and mine and all them who jumped on the cheap-cocaine train that officially kicked loungedelicness to the curb First, Giuliani banned dancing like he was goddamn John Lithgow in FOOTLOOSE, then 9/11 exploding of Windows on the World; then I almost died on a massive ten-day bender, watching AUSTIN over and over drinking and wondering: where have all the flowers gone? It wasn't about alcoholism, ecstasy, ennui, fabulousness, thrift couture, blase attitude and gallery hopping anymore. It was about whispers between certain people at the Saturday night parties.

And Myers did The Spy who Shagged Me

But first - It's a labor of love, is our initial AUSTIN, innocent of all expectations of the status awaiting it. Myers is most hilarious when he's operating low and off the cuff with no pressure to measure up to a previous hit (the bombing of I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER in the wake of WAYNE'S WORLD, for example). To paraphrase Mr. De Mille, too much fame, pressure and money can do terrible things to one's sense of comic timing. All your cool friends are suddenly crowded out by sycophantic well-wishers and the elbowing entourages of second string celebrities all out for a bite of your zeitgeist. When it's gone, so are they, and all that's left is the sad Late Show jokes involving the accidental consumption of bodily fluids, focusing big budget laser beam attention on the slack-jawed 6-7 year old easy mark in all of us.

The original AUSTIN however was initially just another SNL comedy from a man who had rocketed to fame on the catch phrase-laden WAYNE'S WORLD and flamed out in WAYNE'S WORLD 2. A;; old and overplayed had the "party on, Wayne"-itude had become, we were doubtful about AUSTIN being as good as it looked in the ads.

But it was.

Mike Myers' instantly legendary character was as anachronistic as Don Quixote and as "enduring" in its age as Cervantes' in his. Myers' film barely bothered to mine the riches of the conceit, instead dealing with Austin's slow integration into the social order, and ditto Dr. Evil (also Myers), who gets almost as much screen time and has his own problems, like a now-grown-to-surly-adulthood test tube son (Seth Green) and untidy underlings like the tragically named Number 2 (a game Robert Wagner).

As the main bird, super sexy and attractively inhibited, Elizabeth Hurley never wastes a moment to get on Austin's case, just like a typical late 1990s girlfriend weaned on 90210 and Sex and the City. In one tragic scene, Austin has just demolished a whole squad of femme-bots, using nothing but the power of his shirtless mojo. Hurley (mind you, they've not yet had it off by this point in the film); she comes in and finds him covered in blonde hair and bikini parts. Instantly, the most important thing for him is that she believes he was being faithful! FAITHFUL!!!! TO WHAT??? They've not had it on. If I was the bad guy in THE WARRIORS I'd throw a handful of candy at her. But Austin just squirms in guilt. "I believe you, Austin," she says, never once doubting the rightness of her own moral position as cocktease supremis. She hasn't even slept with him but demands ultimate fidelity. That wasn't what metrosexuality was supposed to be about. 

It's a neat comment on the "unfun" 90s that Hurley's main job in life seems to be tampering down Austin's bon vivant playahood, raining on his parade, and making him like it by pure virtue of her inescapable hotness. This being the age of AIDS and ADD, it doesn't matter if he's just saved the entire freaking universe and danger is allegedly all around, it's only important that Hurley believes he's not had it off with a robot.  

Bill, your balls are in the mail.

In the interest of science, I've defrosted one of my very first film reviews (from my forcibly discontinued but now reposted 1997 AOL web site, "Dr. Twilite's Neighborhood") to compare and contrast:
Finally, a movie that satirizes our collective nostalgia for the sixties. Mike Myers gets the giddy deliria down pat as Austin Powers, a sly London "mod" photographer/super spy. He also plays the villain, Dr. Evil, a sort of composite of the Ernst Stavros Blofeld and Myer's old SNL guru, Lorne Michaels. After a cataclysmic battle at a London nightclub, Dr. Evil escapes Power's clutches and cybergenetically freezes himself. Austin does the same, and soon they are both thawing out in the chill, no-fun nineties. It's an ingenious premise, and Myers has hung a variety of assorted gags around it, in addition of course, to the now required scatalogical humor.

Therein lies the only major problem with the picture. Compared to the non-stop zing of the NAKED GUN movies, Myer's own WAYNE'S WORLD, or even the real BOND series, AUSTIN sometimes meanders and drags, less a spy movie than a series of related skits ala SNL. But the skits are funny, Myers is always dead-on, and as Powers' "Bond girl", Elizabeth Hurley proves herself to be a very good comedic sport. The film may come off as being a bit stretched out here and there, but you have to admire Mike Myer's off-the wall lunatic originality, as well as his subtle message to all the retro types out there who dress for a time they never knew. As Dr. Evil so succinctly puts it: "There's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster." (1999) ***
What?? Bitch 1986 when you started dressing like you were from 1967, and then in 1997 you dressed like you were in 20s. Erich of the past, be not smug (PS - I wrote this coda re-editing this post in 2012, so there you go, see you in the frozen HELL of the post-Mayan future!) 

ADDENDUM 6/14: Just watched it again, man it holds up well. It's been 20 years. We watched the first CHARLIE'S ANGELS movie afterwards and that film has not aged nearly as well. Like one long commercial for itself, CA is all slow-mo struts to classic pop hits that happen to have the word "angel" in the title. That's all it is. AUSTIN still has meat, and it's due to the Hurley angle - her sincerity has come to pass. And I have to agree with her--not just because she's hot. I've become cynical, I personally have examined all facets of the lifestyle I used to endorse, and they all lead to dead ends. Hurley was right. Humans need conflict and challenges (as Kirk said in "This Side of Paradise" where a space poppy promotes total happiness and surrender and no one in the crew wants to go to back to work). Austin's validation of both worlds - 'it was about freedom' vs. sex and drugs, and the new world being just as good, show him to be worthy of the golden goose.
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