Thursday, February 25, 2010

Have we got a tough guy here? Have we got a tough guy from the streets?

In this hipster overrun time of ours, we've been slowly losing our dangerous man persona, ever since THE GRADUATE made it hip to be sullen. Men of earlier decades were real, complex, intelligent and tough: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, James Caan, Brando,  Lee Marvin, Sinatra, Bronson, Bogart... badasses not afraid to show intellect and wit, to pick fights and help others with their brains, fists and--when needed--guns.

We've still got some tough guys today, but most of them are pretty boys with glazed eyes. They toughen themselves up with military haircuts and grimy armor and CGI high contrast. For lack of a better all-around representative of this style, I'm using Channing Tatum, who I like a lot, actually, as far as this kind of new male goes. In all fair prejudice,  I'm looking at movie star males who are a whole generation younger than me, a generation that's grown up neck-deep in real war (Iraq and Afghanistan) video game war (too many to name, but most recently TOUR OF DUTY IV) and online fantasy war (W.O.W.). They celebrate the new sincerity and new virginity, and it scares me to death. Theirs is a bizarro-world, more conservative than their great grand-parents in the 1950s! At least the grandparents smoked cigarettes and had unprotected sex in drunken blackouts... for awhile..."cough"


At least Tatum has a fairly deep voice, but look at his baby face and his brow furrowed with dopey concentration, the kind of blank face that helps smart kids fit in, which is fine considering the callow war heroes he specializes in, but now, dear reader, now let's think of real tough guys, and how they don't have to pretend they're not witty, crazy and full of venom and vinegar. Imagine the original STAR WARS if there was NO Harrison Ford to add a real 'dangerous man' energy to the role. Instead, imagine if Hayden Christensen played Solo, or Freddie Prinze Jr. You have fallen asleep!? Welcome to the 10s! 
Just to prove it's got nothing to do with face and hair color (i.e., apple-cheeked and fair-haired callow) check out Angelina Jolie's dad (below left) in an old photo. He's got a baby face too, but take a deep look into those eyes. Even squinted shut you can tell there's a man in there, he'll fuck you up and not need to call for back-up and body armor before he does it. 

What you get with Tatum is more like a male model --a mix of tough guy posing, bedroom twinkle and the vacancy of a kid whose used to being stuck in classrooms and churches and not fathoming a word the teacher or preacher is saying and no one cares because there are kids worse off and louder.
Also, you have a kind of military professionalism. In the absence of actual fathers in the home, these kids have adopted military ethics and leadership as the de-facto non du pere (or "no of the father" - the prohibition of enjoyment that constitutes acceptance into the social order, away from the realm of the mother). 

That's all well and good until you remember just how dangerous, how far outside the box, our stars used to be. Our men used to be so dangerous that Harvey Keitel was the callow pretty boy (below). Now of course his hair and eyelashes are longer than Tatum's, but why is that? WHY oh WHY does every young thug-lite now have this awful mix of 50s crewcut and 80s gel hair? Oh, don't get me wrong, the actors of old could still bring the danger with no hair or even a self-inflicted Mohawk. Just look at De Niro's eyes (left) and you get a chill right down your spine.

I've been getting into The Dog Whisperer and I think he would call this trend an example of "bad leadership skills" or lack of assertiveness. A passive little boy lostness has infected our young men due to a crisis of fathering that's been getting worse since the dawn of the industrial age, and which they can't shake no matter how many CGI buildings they demolish...

As a final illustration, let's compare the new 3-D CLASH OF THE TITANS hero's look (GLADIATOR/300-style) with the original Harry Hamlin (whom I originally hated even seeing it in theaters as a kid back in 1983, for being also too smarmy). But compared with the harsh nihilism of the near-bald mercenary version of Perseus at left, freakin' Hamlin's a small miracle.

That said, we know where the Hamlin look comes from, and the first "tough guy pretty boy" from which the title of this blog entry comes (Randy Newman's "Pretty Boy" from 1979's Born Again) but it launched a thousand seamy/sexy NYC youth ships, and made glazed-eyed, pouty-lipped mono-syllabic working class boyhood into a sexual commodity that still sells today, even though the original is all but forgotten. I refer of course to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977).

P.S. for an antidote and return to full cool toughness, I recommend Kim Morgan's Dangerous Soulful Sexy Deep Freeze: Lee Marvin.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bright Lights Film Journal #67

The inestimable Bright Lights Film Journal has received a swell make-over, so if you're having trouble finding it, just go here.

To give you some background on this amazing and long-running magazine, definitely check out Matthew Sorrento's interview with BL editor Gary Morris. Finding Bright Lights can be like coming home after years of wandering. If you like first-rate film writing mixed with freestyle cultural associations and psychosocial analytic theory, then Pounce! Gary Morris rocks!

 I've got a few things in their latest issue, #67:

"Peer pressure is either a boon or a bitch with the power to destroy the world, or save it." 
Femme Fatale: Cinema's Most Unforgettable Lethal Ladies, by Dominique Manon and James Ursini.  Hammer Glamour, by Marcus Hearn.
Reviewed by Erich Kuersten
And on the blog, Bright Lights After Dark, from today:

Charge of the White Elephant:  

"When Lee Krasner describes Pollock’s creative art to potential buyers or critics it’s in a stilted, rushed way, as if she’s trying to earn a 20% commission before she gets cut out of the deal AND keep her thick long island accent in effect at the same time: “What Jacksin’s doin’ with line and cullah goes beyond abstrackshin.” It’s all overstuffed with pompous gravitas and we know that the lines coming out of Krasner’s mouth are meant as exposition so that we, the viewers,  can share in her drunk husband/infant’s brilliance, but instead the feeling is kind of like going to what you think is a cocktail party and it’s really a time share condo pitch."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

VOODOO MAN: Patron Saint of Megalomaniacal Children and Torpor!

Notoriously absent from the world of DVD for the longest time (it's somehow not as much in the PD as the rest of the Lugosi Monograms? What else explains it?): VOODOO MAN (1944) completes the holy "Lugosi Nine." The missing link in the chain of strange, boring, inept but irresistibly Brechtian and unintentionally hilarious horror films from poverty row studio Monogram starring Bela Lugosi. Marked by a cheap crackerjack style that made sister fleapit PRC seem an MGM by contrast, what saved Monogram movies from dullness was a savvy they needed to keep kids from getting bored and tearing up the theater seats with their switchblades and--in the Lugosi nine--an ability to create the space for the great one to display the full breadth of his talent, from heartbreaking pathos to seething megalomaniacal menace.

Especially during the war years (when the bulk of "the nine" came out) Lugosi's complex persona found a niche freezing the new brides of overseas fighting men, as if preserving them for their soldier boys' return (in danger only of having their hair combed and petted by Carradine like he's Lenny with a rabbit.)

VOODOO MAN's release year, 1944--the last full year of all-out war, was an otherwise lean one for horror films. Aside from the work of Val Lewton over at RKO,  poverty row studios like Monogram ruled over the empty kingdom of wartime horror like blind kings. A lack of budget led to lack of meddling producers noticing or caring about the product as long as it was finished at or under budget and on time, and in the process nocturnal dream poem auteurs like Lewton and Jacques Tourneur could weave future classics like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE out of gossamer cobwebs, while half-asleep directors like William "One Shot" Beaudine could follow their lead like a dollar brick road, straight into the undernourished collective unconscious of the home front audience.

In the case of VOODOO MAN (or similar CORPSE VANISHES), the plot involves Lugosi abducting women for scientific experiments and keeping them in suspended animation via hypnosis and/or narcotics. The subtextual translation to home front psychology isn't hard to discern: Unable to see what their men were doing overseas except through alchemical means (and letters that might arrive after the sender had already been killed in action), the brides and sweethearts left at home created a distorted magnification of sexual paranoia that found a nice screen in the suave, European dark and handsome devil Lugosi even as the repression of being faithful to a ghost husband driving themselves into cold storage storage fugues.

But me, I was a kid when I first encountered VOODOO MAN as a bored child in the 1970s. It was on UHF TV almost all the time, along with other Monogram Lugosi 'classics': THE APE MAN, GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, THE CORPSE VANISHES, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT and THE INVISIBLE GHOST... all could barely register against the constant attacks of static and "ghosting" on UHF channels, and in retrospect, that made the threadbare films seem better - like maybe we missed something, like there was something to miss. We kids watched these titles over and over again --every time they were on TV--in our forlorn pre-VHS hope of catching a view of a real frickin' monster --they were rare. Maybe it was edited out and we'd see it next time? The "Voodoo" title of this one made us think that, maybe, there'd be, I don't know, a zombie? Anything? But Noooo! Just hypnotized chicks in robes, and Bela Lugosi and George Zucco in a crazy headdress, all seeming to have been filmed on a single dirty staircase with a ratty old camera, and as full of dull adult talk as any crappy film parents watched.

But still... when Bela was on, we were transported!

To really appreciate VOODOO MAN as a key 20th century work of art, you need to vibe with the lonesome beauty of Edward Hopper's paintings, as in the gas station scene above. It's hard to tell if the VOODOO MAN gas station is indoors on a set or outside at a real gas station, I'd assume the latter. But the resemblance is uncanny for other reasons then the style of the pumps; the same lonesome quality of Hopper's gas station, the same eerie forlorn dusk approaching, darkening the forest down the road so it seems like a black devouring sadness is creeping towards the man working outside. Similarly, the drivers who pass by George Zucco's gas station don't realize this is the station where Zucco signals the arrival of desired vicitms by radioing on ahead for the trap to be laid. In bigger budgeted films you might see a long shot of the gas station along the road, but Monogram's aesthetic afforded no non-stock footage exteriors. So the Zucco station demands close framing all the time, giving the film a cramped feeling as if the road is only around a mile total in length, and then the world just ends in a black gulch abyss. 

World War Two saw, among other things, men going off to fight battles who, before they left for Europe, got married so they could at least have some sanctioned sex, i,e, not die a virgin, and maybe even leave a kid behind as a legacy. For a nation of these young women and young men, the sexual relation was hot and short, leaving them with a whetted appetite and little else. Their erotic awakening froze in early bloom. The soldier’s bride surely felt as if she was married to a nonexistent entity (perhaps she even sets the table in case he comes home, in shades of Lugosi’s first Monogram pic, THE LIVING GHOST). Not only is her man not around, but his next letter may arrive weeks after he is already dead. These sorts of things were probably swilling around the collective unconscious like a plague of ghost G.I.s and seductive traveling salesman Hitlers. Like the Voodoo Man, in fact. 

And of course, through it all, that horrendous ache, the lonesome sadness, the same sadness a boy in the early 1970s like myself was feeling from staying indoors on a sunny day, unable to leave Bela's side in his hour of woe, sighing over his Charlie's Angels bubblegum cards in prepubescent longing all the more tortuous for the fact that Kate Jackson was so out of reach, yet right there - in ephemeral mirage form. Life.... to death. Image... to life, and each side greener than the other, blacker too. 

Thus to appreciate the beauty of VOODOO MAN without the background of having seen it many times as a child in the 1970s, or as a wartime lover, you must first understand true suffering: romantic longing, unfair parents, stupid little brothers, annoying teachers. You should be a mad genius trapped in the mundane reality of normal suburbia. For like such a mad genius, VOODOO MAN suffers from disrespect and the hostile derision of lesser mortals. For indeed, the poverty row horrors of the 1940s were dissed by everyone, even their own makers; a sad state of affairs when the director and writer admit throughout the film that they don't give a damn about what they're doing and you shouldn't either. But we were used to being told stuff we liked was crap. And we raged against boredom and against every bedtime; and in this refusal to kowtow to life's petty rules we really found a kinsman in Lugosi. It didn't matter how bad everyone else was in front of and behind the camera, Bela was a star and he gave it his all, like it was his last picture ever, and like his character had nothing left to lose, was not about to postpone joy just because the cops and/or mom was closing in. 

So yeah, the director William "One Shot" Beaudine shot the film with his usual adherence to the lazy tenets of his nickname, though like the lazy he occasionally lurches into inspired brilliance. "Romantic" lead Tod Andrews plays Ralph, the most unimaginative and dull screenwriter in Hollywood, though his existential suggestion that Bela Lugosi star in the film he has just written and/or lived, does in fact come true, Moebius strip style. Still, in Ralph's own words, "Zombies are a scenario writers worst nightmare. I should know, I wrote one once.” 

Hmm, so zombie and horror films are for morons, and Monogram's writers should know, because they write them? Such self-defeating and dubious logic abounds all through the film, as as when the sheriff refuses the hero's help in finding the ever increasing roster of missing women: "Me and Elmer've done all right looking for them ourselves, I guess we can look for one more." Not that they've found any clues, or leads, or women, but they're doing "all right by themselves." That's something a child says when they're too shy to ask for help. Such blatant contempt for the intellect of an audience borders on the pathological, even further, until it loops back around to crest the pinnacle of high art. 

This meta-logic ties into the practice of voodoo itself, in both in the contempt it inspires in the western "white man," and the way trances actually can be induced to universal benefit and cosmic aura enhancement. The voodoo spells performed are just contemptuous mumbo jumbo but the actors are game and Lugosi and Zucco both intone like skilled hypnotists or bass players, their robes are badass, and Ramboona clouds the minds of all who would try and stop them. Free to treat the landscape of the film as his own tyrant sandbox, Lugosi outwits the sluggish sheriff, berates his cringing dingbat servant/drummer Toby (John Carradine) and leaves hypnotized women shambling around his whole world backyard. It fits the mindset of any frustrated kid who (often rightly) feels the adults in charge are raving idiots and/or cocktail-dazed bullies; and who recruits the dumb little brothers and their friends into his mad schemes to transform the den into a magical alternate realm. The only other 'real' person he knows- - his wife--is dead, or in kid terms, his best friend moved away, or Kate Jackson exists only on the cover of Bananas, in WW2 terms it's that girl back home re-reading the letters written by her MIA husband until they're sogged, until she turns to killing sailors as a sacrifice to get her man back from hell.  

In case you don't have a drunken father or son or me to make snide comments as you watch the film, the VOODOO MAN DVD comes with the comic stylings of Rifftrax, hence the cover that makes this look like some frat boy Tiki party video: Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, ala Mystery Science Theater, are the comics and rather than robot silhouettes there's thankfully just a hilarious audio commentary option. I'm certainly grateful to them for getting the film out on DVD, in a nice transfer, and for keeping their comments on a separate track so I can enjoy the purity of the original and refer to their company only when I want to make sure they caught some ridiculous moment, and they do catch them all. Keep 'em coming, buckos! 

So now that I've trashed the film and everyone, let's concentrate on the brilliance beneath: Lugosi, naturally. His restrained, melancholic performance reflects, as I've said, that he always brought his "A" game (check his "handy" robe above), no matter how contemptuously the actors around him treated the story. As grieving husbands trying to resurrect their lost Lenores he could pull you right into the screen by the throat just by welling up his eyes with tears and spacing out his words in the right way... "Life... to... death!" His sense of despair and dejected madness is again totally metatextual, for he was a classically trained toast of Romanian theater who had come to Hollywood and rose to iconic fame and just as quickly fell off big studio favor and now here he was at Monogram studio, with William "One Shot" Beaudine, kind of like Klaus Kinski in AGUIRRE: WRATH OF GOD, ending up the king of a gaggle of unimpressed monkeys. And Zucco of course, his perfect wingman. 

Bela's megalomania and devotion to the eternal "play" of acting, then, earns our love despite and because of the dregs surrounding him. Children still at that pre-compassion stage could easily identify with that kind of protective madness, the insanity that prevents true genius from succumbing to despair at the mundanity all around.” 

I also like how the film adheres to the spirit of a child’s sense of play, where no one really dies or escapes fake death. In all these Monograms there was seldom any actual harm done to these young frozen brides. They usually snapped out of whatever trance they happened to by the picture’s end (presumably unmolested -- coded into the 'child-like' nature of her keepers), while Bela inevitably died in his burning lab, usually with his hands happily locked around the neck of a gorilla. Every kid knows that in war games the only true winner is the one who dies last. Even the last man standing knows that, to truly win, you don't stay standing--you're always shot by the second-to-last man as he dies, as a kind of final exhale of life and bullets: in death there are no losers, everyone gets their own death scene, to make of what they will. After all, what is the difference between a living soldier and an emotionless zombie if not that one of them is seen but not heard from, the other heard from but never seen again? The pain of absence underlies both, and is the one true enduring badge of courage. Come home, soldier. Andy, come home, whatever you are. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sprays of Heaven: IN THE DUST OF THE STARS (1976)

"Help means so much more than giving you weapons." 

What happens when a peaceful rocket full of sexy East Germans are lured to a western colonized planet and are subject to drugs (the red spray is "spicy" while the blue spray is "sweet"), erotic dancing and orgiastic staring contests?  Das ist die frage in Gottfried Kolditz's colorful, cool and just plain weird film, 1976's IN THE DUST OF THE STARS (Im Staub der Sterne). Classy is the word I use to describe this crew, four women and two older guys, well-dressed and even-tempered. Nice hair.

Answering a distress signal, this East German rocketship (from the planet Cynro) emergency lands and is greeted first by a woman dressed like Pocahontas driving a combination school bus-railroad handcar who comes rumbling up to the ship in welcome like she's Robby the Robot in FORBIDDEN PLANET. Suko stays behind to spy while the rest ride over to the club to sit on divans and catch snide insults from the local bosses. Someone wants this spaceship to go home, but first, why not invite them to the party? Pocahontas comes by later with prismatic plastic fantastic invitations for each of them.

The "boss" of the planet is a fey German artiste who gets his hair painted blue and is forced to play with lite-brite and a keyboard that controls a disco dance floor full of pythons and gel-lit frauleinen. Don Draper this guy ain't. And let me tell you, his army sucks. Mostly the battles consist in a lot of standing around, working up the nerve to bust a cap, like a high school dance in Hell. These cavorting hedonists never speak, but spend most of their time spraying drugs of one color or another into their mouths, brainwashing nosy visitors with pen flashlights and doing licentious dances. The costumes aren't up to Mario Bava PLANET OF THE VAMPIRE standards but nonetheless pretty fetching, with an uncanny resemblance to UN peacekeepers. And it's nice that they change clothes about five times a day and stay color coordinated with each other, as if through telepathic EFSP (Extra-Fashion-Sense Perception). The patterns and styles are elegant and mod without being tacky or cumbersome, and they go well with the natural blonde shag haircuts of the majority of the crew. Jana Brejchov√° is the hottie commander (at right). She was once married to Milos Foreman!

In a way, DUST OF THE STARS is the perfect Iron Curtain counterpart to the American space fantasia of 50's sci fi films, ala: CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON/MISSILE TO THE MOON/QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE and THREE STOOGES IN OUTER SPACE, wherein dopey male astronauts land on a planets run by space women with a hankering for new blood... in their lineage and on their mandibles. In DUST there seems to be mainly dudes on the planet, at least with speaking roles (aside from Pocahontas) and the men are in weird Studio 54-esque "boytoy" attire, all ready to offer a hit of primo "spray" to any crew member with an open nostril, er, I mean mouth. And the girls in the crew are the ones who call the shots! The two men on the crew are clearly both well-laid and mildly emasculated... a perfect Euro combination that Americans can only sneer at in envy. Both Paul Lind and Mae West would have loved them!

Kind of like HELL HOUSE (the Halloween 'haunted house' wherein Christian kids finally get to dance, pretend to do drugs and worship Satan in their own way), the licentious dancing and spraying of the aliens here presumably was acceptable to the East German censors because it was negatively depicted as a trap-- set by Decadent Western Imperialist aliens--to ensnare good honest Communists.

The parties these aliens throw are awesome, but for my money nothing can beat the black tights beatnik bar modern expressionist dancing of CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON. Man, those girls just nailed it! And though one of the two men on the Cynro crew is pretty smart (usually in these films, only one paranoid crew member smells danger while the others consider him a buzzkill), the commander is a woman--and competent! Navigating her sometimes overly compassionate female emotions with the same objective grappling of, say, Kirk on STAR TREK grappling with his shoot-from-the-hip egotism, and between all of the crew is a sexually relaxed vibe (they sleep with each other and make no big deal of it? Man, those East Germans!). My favorite is the girl at lower left; what a magnificently sensual pout!

I think her name is Miu. She's played by Regine Heintze, and I love her. Also, I love the offhand way that the film's sexuality and lovely female forms are displayed without any leering and/or slavering. It's like the characters in this film actually have sex rather than just winking and drooling and then finally having one chaste kiss like they're David Manners at an ice cream social. In DUST, they just do it and forget about it. The Germans have no patience for lovelorn leering! Stand straight! Are you slouching?! Achtung!

I am grateful to Netflix for having this film on instant stream and thus indirectly introducing me to the wonderful site known as Teleport City ("Bringing you yesterday's tomorrow... today!"). I love what their writer says about the loose nature of the crew (remember this was the 70s, pre-AIDS awareness, when sex wasn't a four letter word):
Now, in addition to their refreshing gender make-up, there are other things about the Cynro crew, only subtly hinted at for the most part, that make them just a little different from what you'd normally expect from the militarily-ranked team manning your average movie starship. I think, also, that these things are meant to suggest the way things roll back on Cynro. For one thing, this gang is just a tad more touchy-feely with one another than the behavior of those serving aboard the Enterprise and its like have accustomed us to. Secondly, Suko, as a not-all-that-in-shape middle aged guy with thinning hair, clearly has the arrangement to beat onboard the vessel, as he seems to be the boy toy of at least two of the female crew members, including the Captain and her blond colleague Miu. Miu, for her part, also might have a thing for the ladies, as one later scene seems to suggest. While all of this implied hanky-panky provides the opportunity for a bit of casual nudity and light petting between the cast members, it's all presented very matter-of-factly, with none of the exploitational hubba hubba you might expect. Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman this is not -- and the tone seems to suggest that the egalitarian ethos observed on this lots' home planet extends to everyone getting an equal piece, not just of the proverbial pie, but of each other, as well.
Now I don't know about you, space neighbors, but that seems pretty cool to me. If the wall hadn't come down, I might be tempted to hurtle it. I would disagree with Teleport City about the score (they don't like it). Yes, it's a bedroom-ish low fi casio-guitar soundtrack, but it's superb in its monochromatic moodiness; it's low-fi shoegaze twenty years ahead of schedule and as such is 100 times better than those super-slick-hyper-cliched Danny Elfman orchestral/children's choir cues that have been deadening so many big budget sci fi and fantasy films here in the states in the last 20 years.

Similarly ahead of his time is the fey "boss" of the bad guys, a prancing Caligula-wannabe who parties with snakes and likes to change his hair color to match his mercurial mood. He could be knocking back drinks with any 1990s Manhattan loungecore crowd and everyone would assume he's in advertising -- but it's still only 1979 and he's a Communist playing a decadent Colonialist oppressor. And we think those East Germans were behind the times? In 1979 they were partying like it's 1997, which is to say, hard and unsmilingly.

In typical Communist fashion, the action break-out finale looks more like a labor strike than a shootout, replete with hundreds of confused, identically-dressed male extras hacking at rocks, locking arms and shuffling around in nonviolent protest. No one seems very militarily coordinated on this planet, with opposing armies running to and fro like herds of awkward antelope, but they look good, specimen-wise. Boasting a mix of modular architecture and muddy grassland roughly parallel to Gene Roddenberry's TV special futurescapes of the era, the film earns extra points for the natural and uncanny weirdness of East German design and the refreshing lack of western sexism. Not once does any male say anything condescending or object to a woman in charge. And our director manages to make the women all seem both vulnerable and strong, smart and gullible, i.e. like anyone else -- all while never missing a chance to show some sexy thighs (below left).

Much more bizarre in terms of sci fi plots is the moral quandary the crew faces: If they intervene on behalf of the oppressed workers of the planet then they'll have to stay around like a peacekeeping delegation and will probably get involved in an interplanetary war; if they just leave then they've turned their back on a people in need. This quantry makes a good modern parable for a UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, Liberia or Darfur--or the reason, for example, that George Bush Sr. was too smart to invade Iraq ("no exit strategy").  By the same token, the conquering Tem people know they can't kill or attack the visiting ship directly if they want to avoid an "inter-galactic incident," but the miners are all fair game, used as human shields, slave labor and so forth --again, just like real life!

Another perhaps more controversial analogy is with modern UFO philosophy--i.e. the notion that we're (as in earthlings) under the rule of trans-dimensional aliens who harvest our genetically modified souls and have worked their way into the fabric of all levels of social leadership. The space travelers tell the enslaved Tekk: "We can't build a force field around your planet so you can develop undisturbed like we would like"-- a lament very similar to UN policy toward underdeveloped nations undergoing exploitation by slick multi-nationals, or the way grays try not to disrupt our evolution even as they tinker with our DNA on the sidelines.

Whoa! Don't think I'm crazy. I've just been reading Nigel Kerner's new book all weekend. It's not that I 100% believe we're a soul farm stud on Orion's Belt, but if we in the First World can't/won't imagine there might be some extraterrestrial race for whom we're a Third World primitive society in the midst of being exploited (we learned Colonialism from somewhere) maybe we deserve all we get, or may have already gotten. Plus, our East German rocket comrades bear more than passing resemblance to the "blonde" aliens sometimes seen cruising around in saucers or European dance clubs.You will now please erase this nonsense from your mind. Alles ist schone. Alles ist schone...

Due to budget or obscure Communist censorship laws we don't see too much violence or special effects; most of the attacks are offscreen (we hear about them on the ship's radio). The big climax just involves one "important" death, which causes "the Boss" to smash his orbs, if you know what I mean. On both sides of the squabble there's a remarkably etched-in sense of collective teamwork, decision making and leadership skills. But hey, we don't have to see scenes just because the rickety sci fi framework plot requires them;  we've seen it all before -- fill in your own blanks, let your tongue feel the spray, and dig those astro-boots (right).

In the end, DUST says more about Communist fantasies of western decadence, Binaca-style spray drugs and open-sexuality than a whole festival of Amerikanische schweinhunde filmen ever could. Most devastating is the implication that the need to get high and exploit nude bodies is perhaps just a Capitalist-conditioned response to the repression and misery instilled by our Puritan forefathers. These East Germans don't need to do all that because they just have casual sex with each other, wear cool clothes, and forget about it. With a crew of beautiful, healthy German women to give your aching head a maternal massage as needed-- and/or dance while you eat breakfast, maybe you'd be just fine as a cog in the people's machine. After all, what else are you exploiting the workers and getting high for, anyway?

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Bulls Fighter: BRONSON

There's tough guys, and then there's Charlie Bronson (not the one you're thinking of). Johnny Cochran fought the law and the law won, but Bronson has fought the law for three decades, to a bloody tie. All the bulls can do is keep him locked down - the minute he's free, he starts a ruckus. And it's a bleedin' true story! He wanted to be famous and he is.  The film looks and sounds gorgeous, but the whys go unanswered. Or do they now? (Yes) Who are you talking to? (you). You who? (don't let the posey fool ya).

The English language debut of Norway's wonderboy Nicolas Winding Refn, BRONSON's slow mo strut and staggering formalist tracking shots (timed to great classical music and shrill Pet Shop Boys disco) are CLOCKWORK ORANGE enough to wow the highbrow critics and scare the provincials (it glorifies hooliganism!). But far more than Alex's in Kubrick's film, Refn's antihero's edge-of-your-zipper male persona is ultimately made deeply sad and tragic (not to mention slyly post-modern). Bronson is an unstable terror, but kind of a hero. He doesn't actually kill or rape anyone, nor does he seem to pick on anyone smaller than he is. He's not a sadist or a bully, per se, yet the man ends up serving more time than most rapists or murderers have, at least in the UK. What a world! What a man.

Whatever your view on violence, you got to love those tracking shots and the Wagner, right? Wait, did we all see the same film? Read all these confusing reactions by Peter Travers in ROLLING STONE:
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, known for his Pusher trilogy, pushes hard at the boundaries of banal film biography. Bronson talks directly to the camera, wears menacing clown paint and does music-hall bits. He also makes life hell for guards who interfere with his vision of himself as an artist. So much for the global petition circulating to free Bronson. Whether or not you'd sign the petition, this movie and Hardy's electrifying performance will knock you for a loop.
Guards "interfere with his vision of himself as an artist"? Man, what kind of artist is he if not the Picasso of ass kicking? Like Picasso, he likes to fight with the bulls (English slang for prison guards in this case) and when he decides to be the drawing kind of artist, he gets support from the system, so what are you talking about, Peter Travers? The verb "push" used twice in a sentence?  Why does making hell for guards (which seems inaccurate since most of the guards seem like sadists happy to indulge our hero's masochistic penchants) have anything to do with a global petition? Travers thinks "menacing clown makeup" wraps up the question of a global petition, pat, and no mention of said petition is made in the film, which ends on a very depressing note. So, did Travers really even stay to the end or did he just crib from the press release?

Most critics are unanimous in their 3 out of 4 star rating for this gutsy little opera of punching and pounding. The film is stylish and sharply observed without being too derivative or suffocatingly crafty. Winding's influences are all right there in the propulsion system: Kubrick and Scorcese for momentous glacial, ceaseless Steadicam drugginess; Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson for the resonant gritty young kitchen sink yobbo class resentment /alienated-from-the-tools-of-the-system ferocity, and.... no destination really.... there's really nowhere to go but right to left, then left to right in those lovely musical tracking shots. Here's Ebert:
Originally sentenced to seven years ("You'll be out in three," his mother calls to him in the courtroom), he has now served 34 uninterrupted years, 30 of them in solitary confinement. Why? We don't know. The movie doesn't know. If Bronson knows, he's not telling
But Roger, he has been out once or twice, even in the film --he just couldn't handle it, then. And we do know why he's back: from making an in-house ruckus!  Just because you're in jail when you assault guards and hold people hostage doesn't stop it from adding time to your sentence. If he'd been a good boy he'd been out in four, but assault charges do add up, murder or none. So it's hard to feel like he's a victim of the system. Then again, it's more like the system is a victim of him, and that's why the film works (for me at least) even without going too deep under the skin. He's not that much of a threat to society--besides petty robbery--but he is a threat to the penal system. Brit corrections can't do a thing with a guy who actually likes being forced into prolonged periods of solitary confinement--or pretends to cuz he's just that tough. Every time he gets his act a bit together the warden cautiously grants him some privileges, only to regret it, time and again, culminating in the tragic climax wherein he holds his own art teacher hostage for 44 insane hours. Clearly he needs anti-psychotics and could benefit from the latest strides in pharmacology. 

My overall point of quoting the above critics is to perhaps convey how being high up in the press circle might make BRONSON more opaque, which is a sad thing to have to say, especially about ROLLING STONE magazine which, as I dimly recall, used to have its finger at least in the same town as the counterculture's pulse. A sleek, younger journal like SLANT nails it beautifully however in this piece of knowing, liquid mercury prose from Nick Schager:
As the famed inmate, whose bald head, upturned mustache, and imposing physique (usually nude or in white long-sleeved T-shirts) resembled that of a cartoon carnival strongman, Hardy is a whirlwind force of nature, stomping around a cell like a one-track pain train, leaping into battle with rabid-dog intensity (in one sequence, he actually takes on a Doberman), and in his first-person monologues, flashing unnervingly funny menace. Bronson so immediately and definitively establishes its template and character that each scene soon plays like a disturbed Loony Tunes cartoon replete with concluding punch(line). And when Bronson appears on stage with face covered in white makeup (and, in a magnificently deranged, schizo sequence, with half his face au natural and the other half done up like a mad Nurse Ratchet), Refn strikingly nails his subject as a monstrous clown, a lunatic who took great, sadistically comical pleasure from putting fists to flesh.
Love the Nurse Ratchet, monstrous clown cartoon animal strongman observations! But even here, Schager is wrong. It wasn't a wussy Doberman that Bronson fought, it was a bleedin' pit bull!

Fittingly, though it's the brilliant UK writers at GUARDIAN who really nail the anguish of the man. Check out this from Erwin James, who actually met Bronson whilst serving his own life sentence:

(the) film made me think a little deeper about the real Charlie Bronson. We have had some correspondence recently. His first letter made me want to cry. "It has been nine years since I caused anyone any harm," he wrote. "Surely it must be time now to give me a chance?" I was touched by his vulnerability. Having been a prisoner with little hope once, I wanted to reach out and reassure him. For all the pain he has caused - in his prison career he has taken 11 hostages and staged nine rooftop protests - he has had an abundance of grief in return. The film, he says, has given him a new impetus for life. "It has brought me a great feeling of inner strength and self-worth. I actually feel human again." All he wants to do now is get out and concentrate on his art. "I'm a born-again artist," he says. "Through all this mad journey of institutions, I have found myself in art."

See? It would have been good to know all that in the film... or to know anything that went a bit deeper into what makes this fighter tick. Perhaps--and this is only a guess--it's something to do with the closet's repression and/or latent homosexuality? The preference of male skin--even if it's only knuckles of the bulls--over the confusing, maddening touch of unknowable woman? Who can say? Tom Hardy is intense, beautiful, heartbreaking, and incredibly jacked, unafraid even to skirt this possibility without committing one way or another. He's smashing, he is!

Also, how in the world does he manage to--apparently--keep all his teeth? He should look at least mildly Mickey Rourke-ish after a few fights... and how can he charge into battle naked and greased up (!) and have no bulls smash a nightstick or taser to his naughty bits?  That's what I'd do, by crikey. 

But, it takes a Brit to know a Brit, and on that note, here's one of my new favorites, Florence, of Florence and the Machines (below). If this song was rolling over BRONSON's credits perhaps, it might have made everything a mite clearer. So... will you join me in imagining this music video re-done with tons of BRONSON footage? (though you can certainly enjoy Florence's hot little shimmy as a consolation), and then raising a glass to England, where they apparently still rage like America used to in the 1970s, or before the SSRI revolution?

Monday, February 08, 2010

"Anything" goes in JEOPARDY (1953)

In any marriage, the reasons for "cheating" vary by age and gender. Older men cheat because they're chomping at the bit or having a midlife crisis or don't want to miss what might be their last opportunity. Young guys cheat because they don't want to end up like the older ones who cheat, so they want to sow the oats from their systems. Young women cheat because they're not happy or having enough orgasms. But older women cheat only in order to save their husbands' lives or reputations as DAs, and sometimes fate must contrive beyond all logic to arrange it for them, at least in the movies, of the post-code era.

Witness JEOPARDY (1953), a post-code throwback to the soapy days of maternal "indecent proposals" in films like THE CHEAT (1931), TEN CENTS A DANCE (1931) and BLONDE VENUS (1932). The whole rickety plot is set up for the payoff answer to the question: "How far would you go to save your husband?" In other words, what Rube Goldberg-style series of events needs to be set up for a Good American Mother/Housewife to able to get her freak on with a wild outlaw Ralph Meeker without having to feel guilty later, or die at the end by the decree of the almighty code?

The story is itchy, fetid and well-laden with cryptic foreshadowing: roadblocks appear on the family trip to a lonesome stretch of Mexican beach; the WW2 vet husband's .45 automatic is brought along "in case" and stashed foolishly in the glove compartment; a rickety, dangerous pier leads far out to sea; the son's constant mention of "peril" makes it seem like a Disney ride he's excited for (no American post-war family vacation is complete without a life-or-death disaster). Director John Sturges assumes we already know what's going to happen (Husband trapped! Tide incoming! Ralph Meeker! With his shirt open!) so he's able to mine terrific suspense, especially once husband Barry Sullivan starts helping his towheaded son back across the treacherously weathered pier.

Stanwyck is set up right off the bat as the kind of broad we just don't see in the movies anymore. You can tell by her deep voice, brown tan and manly aura that she's a lifelong cigarette smoker. A closeted lesbian from Hollywood's inner sewing circle (1), Stanwyck's ambivalence towards her husband's sexual advances is palpable and anyone who suffers from anxiety is bound to understand her trepidation at taking a holiday in the middle of nowhere, with no one around, open to attack from any wandering biker gang, rapist, sadist or Satanic coven that happens by, with only her naive breeder husband around for protection (with our butch belle Babs, either you show her some rough stuff up front--give her a couple slaps, throw her up against a wall, shoot a cop--or she'll lose respect for you). It ain't called JEOPARDY for no reason! And her man's innate sense of trust in the world to supply him with anxiety-free isolation jars her craw. Like so many noir women she's the only "conscious" one in the family, and when she sees Meeker, it's like she finally finds the dark soul mate she's been unwilling to admit she's needed all along. (Note the poster at left, which deceptively paints Meeker and Stanwyck as a tough noir couple)

Stanwyck is a wife who, as she explains in her narration, "found out" how far she would go for her husband. And if you want to know just what kind of distance we're talking about, just look at that canary-fed cat grin of Meeker's up top. But who is really being served here? Babs is too far gone to matron to be a jailhouse pin-up, but the roughnecked Meeker is certainly a believable hothouse fantasy for a very frustrated and guilty-about-it hausfrau. When she says "I'll do anything to save my husband... anything!" It's both dangerously sexy and hilariously campy, like the way the gay john who admits he has no money in MIDNIGHT COWBOY asks "What are you going to do me?" with masochistic anticipation.

Thus the JEOPARDY payoff is not the rescue or near-rescue, the life or death ticking of the clock, but the cool way Stanwyck goes from panicky harridan--speeding around gnashing her teeth--to a resignedly smooth seductress, sizing up Meeker as a potential lover so that you can't tell if she's really turned on, just trying to seem that way to win his interest, or cannily realizing a 'freebie' like this may not come again, and grabbing on. Meeker proposes she just forget her husband and son and ride off into adventure with him and--for a few seconds--you can believe she's seriously considering it. Regardless of her decision, what impresses Meeker isn't the thought of shagging a cougar-iffic MILF as much as the fact that she's willing to go that far in order to save her husband: "You've got some cat in you" he says. Mister, Stanwyck wrote the book on "cat" and by the way he leaps into the cold surf later to help her husband, you know she scratched him in all the right places.

That such a key element of the story is missing (we fade out from their first kiss back to the crashing waves and husband) attests to the basic adult understanding of the code. Kids could watch this and probably never catch on what happened in between that juicy fade-out. JEOPARDY's so coded, with every signifier--the gun, the car, the desert, the pier, the waves--so charged with foreshadowing, the film barely needs actors at all. Even if you've never seen a movie before in your life and therefore don't understand coded symbolism, there's something about that fleshy, middle-aged, husky-voiced Stanwyck smolder cuts right through the crap. And in JEOPARDY there ain't no crap to begin with, so you just get cut. A vehicle for suspense and suggested sexual content from an age when sun--tanned middle-aged broads could still hook 'em, fry 'em and devour 'em -- even if its in the service of the over-hallowed American Family on holiday crap-- JEOPARDY's the sort of game where everybody wins, especially horny-but-guilt-wracked-about-it wives seeing this on rainy weekday matinees while the kids are in school. When the symbolically neutered husband finally realizes that a wife in the bush can be worth more than a gun in the hand, even the censors can't do anything about it, since on the surface it's just cars, cactus, crowbars, tire jacks, and lots and lots of sexy cigarettes.

1. This according to my sources on the matter, which are admittedly--and understandably--shadowy. And let it be known this diminishes my love for her not a whit, and may even enhance it far more than some dull as 

For more on Stanwyck, read my 2008 review of TEN CENTS A DANCE.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Thanks / for the Lucky Strikes

The title of this blog entry will be familiar to Jack Benny fans, as one of the "commercial song parodies" with which his Sportsmen Quartet slyly ribbed and celebrated their sponsor, Lucky Strike, that fine cigarette that 4 out of 5 doctors prefer... so round, so firm, so fully packed. So free and easy on the draw!

Bob Hope was  a frequent guest star on Benny's show and he was always hilarious, a bundle of energy and joy, sharing a deep-seated sense of ease and beyond-impeccable comic timing with fellow star vaudeville types like Benny or Bing Crosby. There's not much of that kind of rapport in BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, Hope's first big role. But he sings fairly well in the slightly trilly style of the time. He plays a radio announcer/promoter for a cross Atlantic cruise ship race, with WC Fields as his comic co-star (and Fields is not one for lightning fast banter off-the-cuff with upstarts). Fields plays a corporate spy sent to slow the boat down so the other side can win, but he lands his crazy autogyro bicycle on his own cruise line; laughs ensue. Hope meanders around introducing an abundance of weird yet strangely exhausting musical numbers, including a long Die Wulkure aria, replete with Brunhilde in helmet, braids and brandishing a spear (below).

But then, like an oasis of beauty and quiet in a big shrill sporadically funny mess, comes this lovely scene between Bob and his unhappily divorced wife, Shirley Ross. A kind of female Walter Burns in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Ross has Hope arrested so she can bail him out of jail before the boat sails, and generally employs all the screwball tricks to keep this baggy pants slickster around where she can see him.  It's an old familiar, no-win situation, but what ensues in their "Thanks for the Memories" number, their delicate but cool, unforced and sensitive shy/sly duet, strikes a note of transcendent grace.

An ode to good times that later went bad and the way savvy lovers catch themselves rose-tinting the whole affair when they know full well that there were an awful lot of good reasons why they left each other, this song and they dynamics both actors bring to it will be familiar to anyone who ever still loved--and was friends with--an ex. Hope--later content to be kind of a genial quick-witted leering buffoon--got his start this kind of sensitive smart guy, the sort who could actually wrestle with his fears, face the villain, woo the girl successfully and admirably, and still get off great wisecracks. In films like the following year's CAT AND THE CANARY and THE GHOST BUSTERS (both my favorites as well) for example, he cracks cowardly yet acts continually courageous - a whistling in the dark approach that never backs down from danger ("I'm so scared," he warns a sinister man on the boat to Cuba in GHOST BUSTERS, "if I see a ghost, I'm liable to take a shot at it, silly isn't it?") 

"Thanks for the Memory" captures this same mix of courage and avoidance as the better part of valor, and proves Hope is already a master of working off the energy of his fellow player. He falls completely in-step with the deep pangs of longing coursing through the blithe fatigue of Shirley Ross. Like a good jazz bassist might in a trio, he finds her off-beats and adds shadow and accent to her highlights.

Written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, the song itself stands way, way out from the rest of the songs in the film; it's almost Shakespearean in the way its surface percolates with sophisticated drollery, the "Hurrah for the next who dies!" modernist kind of stiff upper lip emotional denial, the trick we use over drinks to convince ourselves we're better off calling it quits, while just under the skin there's all this  tenderness, longing, regret and--most beautiful all--a genuine love and interest in the other person even if they don't get back together, even if they know it's for the best they don't. Also, the song acknowledges the weird way guilt and regret will fuel the rose-tinting process, the way everything is suddenly perfect just when you're about to finally part. So you stay to try and make it work, and it falls instantly to shit.

Love thrives on absence, and never is love stronger than when you separate ships sail off into separate sunsets. If that strength makes you jump overboard and swim to their ship, the love starts to weaken before you're even dry. Ross and Hope's singing, and the way the drama and push-pull dynamic is only heightened by the words and melody, making this one of my all-time favorite musical moments. Particularly I love the sudden stops into speaking - "That's life I guess / I love... / your dress," he sings/says, the word 'love' causing her to look up expectantly. When he says 'your dress' she looks down at it, her tears temporarily subsided even with the disappointment:

"Do you?"

"It's pretty," Hope says. Before singing some more. That "it's pretty" gets me every time; from the giddy hope of "I love..." to "it's pretty" represents a whole downward facing spiral of relationship dynamics. Ross wont get the words she wants to hear (I love you) but she will get the words she needs to hear (it's pretty).

By the end of the song, Ross is in tears and Hope has re-set the rules by resuming his role as the "distancer" in their codependent pair bond --even if he's weakened by the experience. Things seem already back where they were. So what, then, is love but the contract by which one is humbled into accepting the lesser of two evils? It's like being addicted to war: the pre-WW2 era was all about looking askance at marriage and the conventions of the old social system, flappers and fun, not marriage and kids. Funny how lately the winds of time have so shifted so that we willingly have given up nearly every freedom we won in the years between 1945 and 1979. Soon we will not even be allowed to smoke a Lucky Strike... at all... even outside! Ah, when I first moved to Manhattan in 1992, you could drink outdoors, as long as they were in brown paper bags, and there was dancing in every bar, pimps in fancy cars, drunks and punks and whiteboy funk and junkies with guitars... how lovely it was....

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