Thursday, September 30, 2010

Excuse me, Miss, but Haven't We Died Somewhere Before?

Much as I love and admire VERTIGO (1954), I don't love love it the way I love THE BIRDS, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, REAR WINDOW or PSYCHO. It's not riveting, it's existential and sometimes plodding (as a kid I was bored silly by the endless shots of Stewart driving around the block and spying on Kim Novak in a flower store); It took a dozen viewings before I was able to appreciate the modernist freak-out of having Jimmy Stewart--our soft-spoken American son--acting like an obsessive misogynist dickweed. Speaking of which (SPOILER ALERT) but if you haven't seen it by now, well, you should be seeing it now. What if you die before you get a chance to see it? Or worse yet, what if you see it and realize you are already dead? Oh my god, that's what happened to me!

I've been watching BAND OF BROTHERS and in one scene a rough tough NCO tells a shaking, traumatized young private that the trick to overcoming fear in combat is to just know you are already dead. If you're afraid of losing something, life especially, you haven't got a chance of keeping it. You have to act 'as if' it's all gone, and from that comes a relaxed sense of fearlessness, like Tyler "It's only after we've lost everything that we can do anything" Durden from the FIGHT CLUB. In tripping parlance this is called 'letting go.' If you feel the reaper breathing down your neck, you don't run or cower or plead, you face it eye-to-eye and, with a loving howl, dive into his arms so hard you shatter both his reedy ulnas. Death wasn't expecting that! He's amused. He's been at this a long time, so any courageous about face wins his admiration - you've just made a friend of death. Play your cards right, you just might find yourself in the womb of fear. 

But what if you're not in the 101st Airborne, or running along the edge of Jack's personal razor, of in some decadent Paris hotel, what if you're just Jimmy Stewart, that suit-and-tie-encrusted square, adrift in late 1950s super boring San Francisco? What if, instead of having to fight Germans, you just have to climb Midge's step ladder, but you can't even do that? What if you're a woozy romantic gumshoe, playing at being a San Francisco agent ("available Ferguson" - that's you)? Then brother, watch out --it's VERTIGO.

Black and white is over, Mr. Narrator Grade-A Chump Fall Guy! It fades away in the first few frames announcing 'VistaVision' like the whole post-war noir haze has been yanked off the roof by gravity's unruly hand, plunging down 40 stories to Technicolor's lurid red-purple spectral conclusion. It's not that our Scotty (Stewart) is a coward, sir. It's just he looks too long into the face of the gorgon and turns to stone. Not even Midge's Mozart can cohere a single breadcrumb for his lost eyes' alignment.

Don't look into her false-colored eyes
Male-gazing into Medusa's face is best done--if at all--via a rear-view mirror or a quick coy glance, like one gives a pretty face while passing each other in the 5PM subway rush. If you gawk, you shall be ensnared, petrified, arrested for being a peeping tom, their passing glass-eyed gaze turned sour--an instant change in status from 'innocuous part of the urban landscape wallpaper" to 'another in the sea of horny objectifying creeps.' Or worse, if she's looking for those kind of gazes, and fins to return them - with interest. A wolf's howl freezes in his throat as his bluff is called. Scotty stares too long and he winds up a statue frozen in the funny farm flower garden, until he gradually crumbles and melts like the end of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, only instead of Fay Wray clawing his mask off, it's Kim Novak's mask returning from underneath her real one - allowing his own frozen VHS tape to finally eject.

The key element of 'unease' that prevails through VERTIGO, though, is that Dali melting-watch of the gorgon sensibility (hence the boredom). We never actually see Scotty rescued from his opening scene cliffhanger predicament. This leaves us with a queasy feeling all through the film that he's about to fall. We never see him get 'better' in the rest home and be discharged. There's a feeling he's still on the ledge during the first half and still in the home in the second. After we fade out from the roof scene, the first time, he just suspiciously now walks with a cane and strings along with Midge, his emasculatin' and desexed (bespectacled) fashion sketch artist 'pal.' But whenever he looks down from any height we get a mysterious 'uncanny' glimmer that maybe this is all happening in a 'before his eyes' kind of instant. ala Cocteau's BLOOD OF A POET, or TWO SECONDS starring Edward G. Robinson (1). And when he winds up losing the artificial persona of Novak the second time he is restored to the roof at last. Time will move normally again, even if only for the two seconds it takes to hit the pavement.

Or the end of the rope.

Now here's another thing that recovering alcoholics and addicts who were 'low bottom' (1)  and soldiers recovering from post-traumatic stress all know: the feeling that you 'almost' died so often that in many of your parallel lives (running concurrently with the reality "you" are in) you did die, and your quantum immortality options have dwindled, i.e. you are approaching your total death when all your quantum options run out (there are a hundred of you who live past 50 but only one of you who lives past 100). This is in fact a good thing as you will--finally--be able to remember your own death only when all the parallel lives are over -- which means you are completely whole only in that final moment; that's when you 'really' die, the complete and total soul death, beyond the grasp of any soul collector's fifth-dimensional clutches.

If you don't believe quantum immortality is real, here's an experiment: next time you 'almost' get hit by a bus or something random like that, close you eyes and feel, with your auric tentacles, into the dimensions to the right and left of you... are they still there? Does your soul feel lopsided? Can you 'almost' hear the distant shouts of ambulance drivers on your right or left side, the feeling of being lifted onto a stretcher, the smell of hospital disinfectant lingering even as you go on about your business in your dimension proper as if nothing happened, which of course it didn't?

Whoa, in VistaVision this might have scared me - did I ever see it that way, you know, 'before'?
Of course this all speculation, though I personally feel it to be very real. As nobody remembers dying (unless they come back into this life, in which case it's not death --just an NDE) it's obvious that we will never 'experience' it, hence it can't happen. Even people who remember past lives have a hard time nailing down what goes on between the births and deaths. If we are in a purely dead state we become, in a sense, experience itself, depersonalized intelligence, a free-floating locus of identification, i.e. very similar to the way our identification shifts when being at the movies, the free-ranging narrative focus that Hitchcock suddenly seizes control of and stabs in the middle of PSYCHO or Dali and Bunuel in the beginning of La Chien Andalou. 

The only difference between movies and real death from this angle is one of morality: Watching sex onscreen might make us hypnotized (Mecha-Medusa), like we can become when free-floating disincarnated spirits drifting in the dark void, attracted to the copulating bodies of the Sidpa Bardot (the activated womb looks like a campfire). Our spirits can wind up trapped like a fly in the amber that reflects the blazing prana, forcing us to reincarnate once again.

If you look too long at violence, on the other hand, you can make some new friends, like pulling dead characters up out of the screen/swimming pool/mirror in Cocteau's ORPHEE (1950, below) and inviting them to play cards. It's opposite land!

But as with BLOOD OF A POET, in ORPHEE Cocteau makes the mistake of assuming that mythic surrealism needs to function in cinema as it does in painting or theater, which is to say, as a shortcut in lieu of outdoor sets or tracking shots. Cinema moves far deeper far faster than a white elephant and if you want it to sell a lot of tickets your film shouldn't stop too long at the zoo, or art museum. Staring into a painting too can also be a kind of sticky amber flytrap... as in Carlotta Vance's black hole hairdo (below). Death has all sorts of dangers, presuming you want to stay dead (i.e. safe in the center of the mandala). Wherever you let your gaze and interest settle for more than that rear view glance, that's where you end (up). So look wisely, and never stare at something that has the power to stare back, unless you want to suddenly remember that you've been staring into a mirror.

ORPHEE's a good example of these BTG (Beyond The Grave) perils in its depiction of passing through the water of a mirror as entering the underworld. There is no translation of this motif on a metatextual level in Cocteau the way there is in, say, Ingmar Bergman's PERSONA (2). Instead, Cocteau displays a continental contentment with the whimsical  proscenium arch-contained magic of Méliès (3). For VERTIGO, Hitchcock's psychedelic jumping-off point is the gritty San Francisco detective film noir, whose femme fatale offers a critique of desire that subverts the structure of the carny pitchman ("Is she alive or is she dead? Trashy or Classy? All I know is hubba hubba!") into a No Exit deathtrap of rear screen projection, matte paintings, diegetic paintings, and boring flower shops. There's no noir edge to the Can-Can film cans clattering merrily up and down Cocteau's safely contained busline of a stage (4), but in Hollywood every skirt is just the red velvet curtain before a grisly death scene (or life scene, if you're dead) spills off the stage and bloodens your tux and you realize you've been the corpse all the while.

In that way, the work of Cocteau (and even sometimes Bunuel) is a little bit like the painted Greek statues in Godard's CONTEMPT, an old-school white elephant refusal to make eye contact with the terrifying black hole Medusa sun blinking back at them from the screen, even though that's what's being filmed. It's what la nouvelle vague was reacting against even as they loved Fritz Lang, one of Europe's classical formalist masters. If a Lang or Cocteau wants to make a black hole of death they make a big black hole, Hitchcock just styles your hair so that it actually is a back hole of death, it sucks your narrative locus of identification clear out through the other side of the screen and a black hole can also be a pupil's reflection in an empty drain. Lang's hole is just a hole, filmed from the side.. one that by now looks too familiar to ever be confused with our own.  May as well cue up the Mozart and get comfortable, Johnny-O. you ain't falling anywhere... Midge's got you. "There," as Marnie's mom said (and says, and will soon again say), "there, now."

Special Thanks to 1000 Frames of Hitchock from whom I filched the above screenshots! 
Thanks to Robin Wood, who's writing on Vertigo in Hitchcock Revisited, inspired many of the jumping off points of this essay.
1a. Low bottom is an AA term for what's low enough to hit before you get sober and rise back to normal, i.e. almost dying of DTs or alcohol withdrawal, or living in that terrible space wherein you can't drink enough to stop your withdrawal symptoms because your body is so poisoned by alcohol you can't even get the bottle within a foot of your mouth without choking and vomiting from the smell, let alone keeping alcohol (or anything) down. It's a drag! 
1. Cocteau's film occurs in the space between when a small brick smokestack blows up, and when the dislodged chunk of tower falls. Robinson's is all a flashback in the two seconds before he's fried in the electric chair.
2. I admit that could be because I'm much more libidinally 'fascinated' by Bibbi Anderson than Jean Marais, it might be the opposite if I was gay, female, or French.
3. Georges Méliès is one of the French pioneers of cinema at the turn of the century, a stage magician who used film at first as a feature of his act.
4. That's of course a reference to Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) to draw the point of how Hitchcock learned the hard way that you can't show a kid getting blown up if we know about the bomb in advance; and that there's a law against bringing nitrate film cans onto public conveyances as the stock is so flammable, the cans were almost like bombs (Sabotage is also referenced in Tarantino's reference-dense Inglourious Basterds).

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Lacan Hour: Episode 29: the Objet petit a

Damn, I thought I had posted this, but apparently not. Anyway, here it is if you missed it. My long-awaited sequel of sorts to the acclaimed LACAN HOUR, comes to you special in a sneak preview -- it features more claymation and more high strangeness as Erich asks the difficult questions about Xmas and defames rollercoasters. Special Tribeca appearance by Mr. Negativity! Claymation by Meghan Wright. c. 2010 Acidemic Films

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Favorite Film Critics: Joseph A. Ziemba & Dan Budnik (Bleeding Skull)

When I was around 12-16 I made a lot of super 8mm films with my friend Alan: lots of stalking and combat and little kids from the neighborhood outfitted in my dad's giant worn out suits, and fireworks special effects. I drew the explosions in with a pin on the emulsion, the old fashioned FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE way! On my super 8 projector you could do overdubs onto the finished celluloid. I'd que up the right section of CAT PEOPLE (1982) in the background as I banged pots to get the perfect Giorgio Moroder score. Alan's job was the guns, the casting, the dummies to throw off the roofs. We filmed for a week at his grandparents. His grandparents loved our movies, unconditionally. We could have shown them home movies from Mars and they would have adored them. We showed them over and over and they never wearied.

Good movie criticism then is about being a grandparent, not a snark. One should arm their reader with the insight/angle of vision by which you did enjoy or possibly could have enjoyed the film, for it becomes your job as a critic to enjoy films, to have a base-line to your rating curve that rests on your uninhibited enjoyment of all types of films (unless it's your job to warn your narrowed demographic of readers what not to waste money on at the multiplex that weekend, ala local paper journalists). If the film is a dumb sex comedy you could applaud that "for whole lengths of time the image is gloriously in focus," for example, and get laughs and applause where if you mentioned parts were not in focus, you'd stir butterfly tsunamis of bad karma.
But when the films get so bad that not even Alan's grandparents could love them... then you are in trouble.

That's when Joseph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik come in.

No one seems to embody that beautiful gandparent truth in their film criticism more than Joseph A. Ziemba, in whose eyes the most appalling, haphazardly-shot cheapo horror pic can finally become the CITIZEN KANE it was meant to be. Ziemba's all about pulling away from any sort of expectation, beyond even the Brechtian meta-textual realms of Godard at his dullest, beyond Stan Brakhage abstraction and beyond even EXORCIST 2 level odiousness and into something Ziemba calls "grating, sub-arthouse anti-entertainment."

He'll still be there, til the last of the credits have rolled.

More matter-of-fact but just as insane, Skull's co-creator Dan Budnik focuses what you should actually bother to see rather than just read about. Budnik isn't afraid to tangent off on the step-by-step process of falling back in love with the final girl in HE KNOWS YOUR ALONE. Budnik is the Jon Stewart to Ziemba's Stephen Colbert, the Paul to his John, the Wyatt Earp to his Doc Holliday.

Bleeding Skull  started in 2004, had a hiatus, and is now back. I'm still digging around their archives, so might not even have yet found their recent stuff.  I particularly like their old VHS reviews, with their relishing of horrible blurred, faded color and unholy contrast levels, blurry tracking, and muffled sound. For Bleeding Skull, it is all part of the artistic meta-experience.

I didn't even go into their flawless choices in screenshots, and the dryly hilarious captions... Hell, y'all need to just go there with me now, to the source of some random quotes, first from Ziemba :

The Incredibly Strange Creatures that Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies...
What's that spell? Imagine Serge Gainsbourg meeting up with The Chordettes at a showing of The Weird World Of LSD, then stopping off for sno-cones at Coney Island before heading off to sleep." 
 Dark Night of the Scarecrow:
Although the template-driven plot and extended runtime can't match the taught anxiety of Bad Ronald, Scarecrow still consumes you. Performances? Definitely flawless. Imagery? Repeatedly frightening. Fat guys running through a field? Slightly humorous. The Halloween party and warbling synths enriched the Autumn aura and paved the way for a cryptic climax that could only leave a smile in its wake. 
Satan's Storybook (1989): (image atop)
A small void exists between "Super Mario Brothers On Ice" and an evening at Medieval Times. Consider it filled. Satan's Storybook is meant to be taken seriously. I think. Therefore, by the power vested in thine camcorder, the defective structure, theatrics, and presentation run tantamount with that sincerity. This unlikely collaboration leads to an experience that originates on Mother Earth, but clearly ends up in galaxies unknown. And that's what we want. While SS is nothing compared to the prodigious sweat-psych of Boarding House, the constant close-ups, grim tone, and ambitious-yet-crappy costumes resonate with that familiar stench. Even when you're half-asleep.
Blood and Lace (1971)
Ellie, the lovely mod. Tom, the drunken handyman. Colby, the horny cop. And, of course, "Old Man Mask", the burly hammer-killer.
I think I'm in the right place.

That's what it's all about, isn't it? The right place. The right time. The right feeling. Collectively, that's what we search for. A perfect B.L.T. at lunch, an evening headphone session with "Nilsson Sings Newman", a late-nite tryst with The David Steinberg Show; they all pave the road to many Rights and very few Wrongs. Of course, that depends on who you are. Do you have a thing for hammer POVs and rubber-limb gore?
Blood And Lace knows the answer. Welcome to the right place.
 Sinthia, the Devil's Doll (1970)
So there's the gist. When you add the frequent triple-exposures, warbled easy listening LP music cues, and a reliance on confined spaces, Sinthia reveals itself fully. Aimless. Dumb. Pretty boring. It's a superb example of grating, sub-arthouse anti-entertainment. Of course, that's the very reason why it's worth experiencing.
And Now, Dan Budnik... who blew my mind with this:

Demons of Ludlow:

"A haunted piano is delivered to the town of Ludlow just in time for their bicentennial. Of course, when the men deliver it, they don't say "Here's your haunted piano. Where do you want it?" The haunted part is a surprise. It's a gift from the man who founded the town. And that man was a jerk."

The Hungan
I mean, here's a beautiful example: the guy throwing the party introduces Cry Wolf. They start playing a song, pure-80's hair band. The camera sits on the other side of the room pointed at them. The song starts and folks begin to dance. In front of the camera. They all move in front of the camera. You can barely see the band. This goes on for two minutes. The great thing about the film's length is that this scene will not preclude something like this happening again in ten minutes. It does not mean that we won't get a long scene where the campers chat amongst themselves (sometimes incoherently) as they stroll to the campgrounds, with a strong whiff of Blood Lake  mixed in. It does not mean that we won't get a long scene where some waitresses' chat about a date one of them had. It means we get it all. 
And, it's all great. 
Dude, BLEEDING SKULL is all great! Even if (like myself) your natural decency doesn't permit you to enjoy these sorts of films, you owe it to yourself to be informed. May Cry Wolf and Sinthia have mercy on us all in the future. Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, Just drop by when it's convenient too, be sure to call before you do (read that sung by Nilsson) and goodbye burdensome sanity.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Great Acid Cinema #23: THE EMPEROR JONES (1933)

Robeson felt "O'Neill had got what no other playwright has--that is, the true authentic Negro psychology. He has read the Negro and has felt the Negro's racial tragedy." As for his performance, "As I act, civilization falls away from me. My plight becomes real, the horrors terrible facts. I feel the terror of the slave mart, the degradation of man bought and sold into slavery. Well, I am the son of an emancipated slave and the stories of old father are vivid on the tablets of my memory." (Musser).
Intellectual, actor-college football star, master of the universe who used his incredible creative energy, charisma and vocal power for the good and love of all men (and was thus persecuted and demonized by capitalism's power elite), Paul Robeson today has become a larger-than-life heroic figure: a socialist version of John Henry the steel-drivin' man and a bass-baritone black golem too brave, tall, smart and talented to safely ignore. The white establishment had to silence him, take away his passport and give him holy HUAC hell.

THE EMPEROR JONES (1933) became Robeson's big 'signature' film/role (and his last, at least in the US). Written for the stage by Eugene O'Neill and adapted for the film by Dudley Murphy, Jones himself is a dark mirror to Robeson's quest for dignity and justice for all. Brutus Jones was how we assumed white conservatives imagined Robeson: a strapping 'buck'-wild monster, whose mix of brawn, talent, booming voice, brains, and psychotic ambition just might actually surpass the white man at his own game. In real life, Robeson was an educated, avowed social activist, which in some ways was even scarier. That voice demanded respect, and no amount of racist oppression could stop the white man from instinctively both fearing and being seduced by it. Jones, the ruthless emperor, is the dark Col. Kurz-style heart of that fear, the worry that the black man might be even more dangerous once he got the hang of amok capitalism than the white man. Even the name 'Jones' conjures an insatiable consumerism, a hunger for momentum, which wouldn't last long once caught in the sluggish quicksand snail's pace of political and social reform. A name for addiction, "jones" is a hipster phrase for the early stages of drug withdrawal, re: The Last Poets' hit "Jones' comin' down." - "I'm jonesin' for a hit." An "Emperor Jones" is when the early stages become 'King Kong' size. Jones' gradual disintegration in the film is also perfectly analogous to the 'coming down from psychedelics' experience or opiate or benzo withdrawal (we've all hallucinated demon witch doctors in the trees while lost in the night, at one time or another, if you know what I mean).

Meanwhile he's regularly presented with brutal, embittering quandries completely foreign to us as viewers, and he continually solves them through bravado and fast thinking, until finally he's all out of sass and the only person left to make a sucker out of, is himself. Dum bum BUMMM

Nearly 70 years later, JONES still has a lot insight to offer, and still suffers from misunderstanding and snap judgments on the part of both its critics and champions. I frankly love the film, and have seen it a dozen times, on the old scratchy print the used to show on PBS, and even saw the Wooster Group version with Kate Valk in blackface back in 1996 (below). I can only imagine how offensive the 'black' language and expression (i.e. "sho nuff!") remains for some African Americans, but one must remember O'Neil wrote all sorts of 'hick humor' plays with equally colloquial dialects-- as was the style of the time (as in AH, WILDERNESS!). I'm not saying the umbrage taken isn't justified. Part of the appeal for me stems from a vein associated with having my LSD and shroom-ravaged bad trip late night moments saved by the old blues, the way Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Blake, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, etc. soothe a whiskey-troubles soul; and another vein of my childhood love of the pre-code Universal horror aesthetic. In fact, more than anything else of the time, JONES captures a lot of the 1931 DRACULA (with a silver bullet being the only thing that can kill him). And it turns out they had the same set designer, Herman Rosse, and JONES director Dudley Murphy co-wrote DRACULA!

It makes sense. I can feel both of them in my bones each time I watch either. And like Lugosi, Robeson makes full use of the center stage to flex an actorly power that transcends as it darkens to an almost supernatural degree. They are larger-than-life actors playing--and they so rarely get the chance--larger-than-life mythic figures. Are Jones and Dracula evil? Surely, but we resonate with them. They sink deep into our archaic consciousness like a deep bass root chord.

Take the pic above and look close at Robeson's expression. When Robeson's Jones gets mean like this, he turns almost subhuman; his grimace above is chilling even in a still image, it doesn't even seem still at all --it's like any moment he may turn away from Dudley Digges and look directly at us. But when he's happy, he radiates like a sun. He embodies for me what I think of as a 'peak' human being, radiating out into mythic dimensions.  Then there's deep booming voice. It's so pervasive it rattles subwoofers like crinkly leaves. Almost like the weather, you tremble underneath his turbulent sky. Without this mad Robeson fire, Jones would be just a charming sociopath. Instead, he's God and the Devil rolled into-one-another-ala-Ahab-bled.

Kate Valk in blackface: The Wooster Group's avant garde version (c. 1995)

Shot on Long Island Studios (where the Marx Brothers' filmed ANIMAL CRACKERS and THE COCOANUTS), THE EMPEROR JONES definitely lets you know it did not come out of Hollywood (supposedly Billie Holiday, Moms Mabley, and Rex Ingram can be spotted in the bars and courts). There's nary a stock cliche of Tinseltown to be seen. Instead there's that cool mix of the avant garde and New Deal realism that made New York City pre-codes (Like Max Fleischer's Betty Boop cartoons) so edgy. "New Yowahk" accents and edgy art poetry combine here the same way they would decade laters with Lou Reed or Patti Smith, or concurrently in Duke Ellington's BLACK AND TAN FANTASY.

The first half of the film (not in the original play) finds Jones leaving for a big job as Pullman porter and saying goodbye to his Baptist congregation and his woman (Ruby Elzy) No sooner has he run off to the train than he's getting into scuffles; winning at craps; fighting over vamps, and blackmailing industry bigwigs ("'Sho would be a shame if word got out 'bout that merger!") He does all this with such finesse that the corrupt white men around him can’t help but be impressed. Pretty soon they’re lighting his cigars and floating him stock tips. Then, like all Monopoly players eventually do, Jones goes directly to jail. After a chance to sing "Water Boy," with his shirt off, Jones murders a guard and hightails it to a remote island where he soon craps his way to a dictatorship, shootin' strings of lucky sevens with hand-carved dice. Ere long he's trading on white man's economic advice once more, this time with a British importer on the island, Mr. Smithers (the only other character in O'Neill's original play). Jones lays it down for Smithers real clear once he rises to power: 
“Looka here, little man! There’s little stealin’ like you does and there’s big stealing like I does. For little stealing they get you in jail sooner or later, but for big stealing they make you emperor and put your picture in the hall of fame after you croak.” 
For the real Robeson, an honest man in a world of degenerates, it would be long after that he made the hall of fames, but there's a plaque for him in Somerville, NJ, where I grew up! He's on a mural on a wall I used to pass on my walk to work in Fort Greene. No lionizing for the Emperor Jones himself, though: he remains stuck in a weird limbo between offensive caricature and archetype, John Henry the Steel Drivin' Man spot-welded to a Warren William capitalist / Mr. Hyde. That's why that Wooster Group production was so gutsy crazy: it genuinely risked alienating the bourgeoisie on whose grants they depend... you go, Woosters - bite that feedin' hand!

I often fantasize what would have happened if THE EMPEROR JONES (1933) had been a big enough hit that its archetypal poetry and power was recognized and it became a series unto itself ala the Dracula or Mummy for Universal. Each film could end with him falling into a volcano, dropped into a sulphur pit, riddled with silver bullets, or seemingly trampled by buffalo, only to return in the next installment, with a serial-like recap and prologue. Titles might include: THE EMPEROR JONES IN ANCIENT EGYPT; EMPEROR JONES VS. THE TIGER WOMEN; THE CURSE OF THE BRUTUS; JONES ON THE LOOSE; BRIDE OF JONES; JONES VS. THE WOLFMAN (they could fight over Jones' silver bullet); and then later a short-lived TV series. Rival studios could do their own knock-offs. They tried to so similar things all the time, as with the old Adventures of Harry Lime radio show, or the short-lived Bold Venture, based on the characters Bogey and Bacall played in TO HAVE AND  HAVE NOT. Remember? You don't?

The real selling point 'money shot' for the series, akin to the vampirism or other 'grotesque' selling points of the Universal horror series', would be the equivalent of what frontal nudity was in the 1960s or cannibalism in the 1980s, namely the long overdue sight of black-on-white violence. EMPEROR JONES has two controversial and very subversive moments of this: 1) when Jones smashes a guard in the back of the head with a shovel, and 2) when he throttles Smithers for waking him up and breaking bad news. The lone surviving EJ print  was--until recently--missing these moments, no doubt sliced off by squeamish censors hoping to avoid riots in Southern markets. It's refreshing to see them included in the new Criterion edition, for these are key moments that supplied the precedent for what as to become (as Kim Morgan notes)  "the slap heard round the world." during IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1959).

Such  a JONES genre might have been created had not Robeson come under federal scrutiny and been forced--like so many of his communist-sympathizin' brethren--to head to Europe for his creative freedom. Over in England he did in fact star in a series of unique-to-himself genre films, like SANDERS OF THE RIVER, JERICHO and SONG OF FREEDOM, but the 'edge' that JONES had is not there, no gutsy stab into the heart of old Jim Crow; no racist stereotypes inflated and exploited until their meaning drained all over your antique sofa. Without O'Neil to supply the brazenly nutball scenarios, there was only stoic communist-flava, ala THE PROUD VALLEY, a tale of Welsh miners and labor organizations. It might be uplifting, but it's got no hook, no draw... no darkness... Britain is already too socialist, and not nearly enough racism, to provide the pressure cooker flavor of JONES.

EMPEROR is actually a bit like BLACK CAESAR or AMERICAN GANGSTER (which I compared to JONES here), or even THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING or STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE in the idea of a charismatic amoral scoundrel as the center of gravity; a villain who is far more interesting than the sanctimonious straight edges around him. It must be remembered after all, that this is how it should be and has always been in great drama. Audiences enjoy gangster movies because they themselves are not gangsters, and the movies let them get a by-proxy taste of what only looks good from across a glass shop window. Up close it's stagnant and poison, so they get the best of both worlds - the fantasy without the actual danger and incarceration. The feel good social sanctity movie is the reverse: it looks stagnant over from across our tinted window, and the film is about convincing you to hold your nose and endure! All for the good of the worker! For the good of the poor! Let zem eat you! There's no hook, no excitement in seeing a pro-labor unionization movie, unless it's got some great action scenes and/or method-acted corruption, ala ON THE WATERFRONT. I don't argue the brave heroism of the first union men who stood up to the raids and scabs and breakers, but it's not fun, Tony. It's strictly business.

Meanwhile we've also grown cynical about social activism after its failure to do much about Vietnam (1) and even less about Iraq. Maybe social change can be effected a lot more by satire and active disengagement with modern society. James Cagney played lots of morally ambiguous tough guys and the man was a saint. So why not Robeson? The saintly defender of the downtrodden is an admirable role, but it sets one up for easy toppling; it signifies a complete misunderstanding of viewer psychology. Playing 'already toppled' characters is the equivalent of what theorists might call 'strategic transparency.' That's why Bush was so popular and Obama with his rational intellect and calm demeanor makes average Joes want to shoot holes in the ceiling.

THE EMPEROR JONES remains a true work of art in part because of its flaws. It's George Bush in blackface setting himself on fire for the good of the people. It's utterly unique unto itself, an avant garde howl of racial fear and confusion. It's a celebration of black power, even as that power is--before our eyes--broken down, crushed, frustrated and torn apart, until the terrifying roots of slavery are exposed. JONES exposes below those roots, even, until life itself, the 'first man', is revealed as originating in a bloody whirl of black skin and primordial anguish. Moby Dick isn't Greenpeace-friendly and JONES isn't PC, they are literature from an age when literature didn't mean snoozing in the Merchant Ivory section and running creative decisions through a cultural committee. There's a little something for (and against) nearly everyone in THE EMPEROR JONES: horror, action, spirituality, island beaches, and great bass-baritone singing. It's messy, it's complicated, and it's retroactively racist. But real art doesn't leave you pious and ethical and with arms of hand-printed socialist pamphlets you're expected to hand out at the door or else be labeled part of the problem. It kicks you in the groin, knocks the pamphlets out of your hands, and then tells you it's sorry with a song that gets you too teary-eyed to resist when it steals your wallet.

JONES would be a good double-bill with RUNAWAY TRAIN, for example, if you wanted to move away from the race issue altogether and just compare character studies of men who have transcended fear (for the most part) and cannot be beaten as they escape jail and run for freedom or pursue power, hindered only by their own short-sightedness and inability to 'stop' running once they've been given too much power and luxury and don't know what to do with it, a problem which similarly defeats Daniel Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and the Fred "Hammer" Williamson in BLACK CAESAR (1973) and everyone in the AMERICAN GANGSTER genre. American gangsters don't know how to grow old the way they do in, say, TOUCHEZ PAS GRIBISI. It's cuz America still aint old yet!

It's in this fashion we should especially view the second half of the film: it's as if Robeson's mythic archetypal warrior is totally having a bad acid flashback of his life, and the terrors that are part of the whole black diasporic experience, finally tapping into the basic suffering root of life, ala William Hurt at the end of ALTERED STATES (only with the songs of the Baptist church instead of the love of Blair Brown) racing along on a psychedelic train ride straight to hell that makes me think O'Neill--an alcoholic--may have based some of those hallucinations on his own bouts with delirium tremens. God knows I based some of mine on The Emperor Jones. It's also of course, hugely apt in its prediction of the next fifty or so years of the diasporic experience as poverty, drugs, AIDS and other legacies of Antebellum dehumanization linger on.

I am not a huge fan of this recently restored blue tint which makes the already dark scenes so dark we can't savor a lot of the jungle atmosphere or Robeson's expressions. Alas, that seems to be the only available version now. 
Emboldened by his contacts within the black intellectual community of Harlem, O’Neill was surely confident his socialist solidarity and overall good intentions compensated for any unconscious racism he may have had when writing JONES. So if the strokes he paints his Brutus with are harsh and crude we should endeavor to see this as an expressionistic affect common to depression-era theater. This was modernism, and Jones is both a character and a folk-tale mythic archetype, a symbol of the entire African-American experience plunked down into a savage gangster rise and fall-ghost story. Plus it helps that Robeson’s huge form is so thrilling to look at: his broad and shirtless black body is held in vine-wreathed medium shots through the long trek around the jungle set and you can see the sweat glisten. All his visions and terrors are posed for as if a performance studies thesis on New Deal charcoal drawing-illustrated folk songs slowly drowning in amplified feedback. If O’Neill and Robeson couldn’t quite transcend the quagmire of African American stereotyping in the 1930s at least they could depict it as an actual quagmire, with vines, quicksand, ghost crocodiles, demonic witch doctor phantoms and a fade-to-black final line deliciously cynical enough even for Billy Wilder.

(parts of this essay originally appeared in Bright Lights After Dark, 2007)

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Fury of a Thousand Bronsons!

In honor of Moon in the Gutter's Paul Thomas Anderson blogathon, here's one of my early from the 2007 Academy Award era... a bold pronouncement that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THERE WILL BE BLOOD indicated a return of the repressed wild man archetype, i.e. the force sought by the Men's Movement:

(originally posted in Bright Lights After Dark 3/08)

We’ve had the Night of the Iguana, the Day of the Locust and since around 1989, we’ve had the years of the disaffected sheep. Now I’d say 2007 Oscar Night heralds the Age of the Wildman.

We’ve got two movies up for big awards that seem of wed together already by primal masculine force: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Both have been supplying many men who have seen them with some missing nutrient in their diets.. they’ve been starving for it without even knowing it was missing.

What is this wild man force and how did we lose it? We had it in Jim Morrison, Robert Bly, Ken Kesey, Nicholson, Brando, Robards– we lost it in the blinding Tom Cruise flash and lo, there was pouffy hair and loud jackets and closeted queers confusing straight dudes into thinking wearing eye liner was punk rock. Then came the 1990s, dot-coms and a crushing need to stay edgy even with two kids and six figures. But let’s face it, the masculine archetype fisher king is going to lie around in defeat eventually, it’s the nature of the seasons. The only difference is in the spring-back -- how far down you hold the Nerf ball under the water before it shoots up again. The longer man festers in his cubicle the louder the explosion when the Iron John yang energy comes hammering up out of the ground in great black oil sperm of my vengeance-style bit torrents and old-testament oratory.

It should have been the year of Josh Brolin as well as Daniel Day Lewis tonight at Oscar time, but I think Brolin has those old and comfortable voters a little confused; he’s like an accusatory ghost from a time the academy had thought long dead and buried in a Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson VHS clamshell boxfire.

Men who have grown soft with unearned privilege will probably not like Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and are probably the reason Brolin’s not even nominated. The return of the true king is never welcomed by the pretender to the throne. The haters thought this sort of mustachioed hombre long vanished. Now he’s back, covered in the dirt used to bury him, but his eyes are burning through the dust with the fire of a thousand Bronsons!

I guess part of it for both Brolin and Lewis is that they’ve been away from Hollywood for awhile, Lewis cobbling in Italy and Brolin wandering through Ireland with his young 'uns. Stay in Tinseltown too long and even the noblest of men can turn into needy eaters in need of a good Camille Paglia-style beatdown. Lewis and Brolin have the sense to wander out into the desert when they sense themselves growing soft with money and fame. This wandering away from civilization and its tiresome trappings for communion with the wildness of nature — this was once part of something known as the Men’s Movement, around the late 1980s--early 1990s. It was a time when men went into the woods to beat drums and howl and shed their tired sad sack personae; a time before the age of Irony, before changing times made masculinity and fatherhood something to hide the way witches had to hide from the inquisition. Well, we see now that the wildman was just in orbit – he’s returned with the tick-tock precision of Daniel Plainview’s oil pumps!

as you can tell by my vigorous enthusiasm, I was totally hoping for something that actually did happen the following year with films like THE WRESTLER and has since vanished as the Coens went back to torturing wusses and the Rom-Coms and Cera-Eisenbergs have flooded the gates, but they're out there.... come back wildmen! So later in 2008 I wrote a piece riffing on Manny Farber's White Elephant art vs. Termite Art: THE TERMITES OF PLAINVIEW:

The few critics and artists who dismiss THERE WILL BE BLOOD as undeserving of its hype–due to story weaknesses or hammy acting, usually–tend to be the ones who are “trying” to be different, and so would pay less respect to the fearless soul searchers, explorers, depth-sounders and kamikaze love hipsters like Welles and Godard, Gondry, Ray, Hawks, Tarantino, Baumbach and Martel, and more to the “workmanlike” mapper precision of the Coen Brothers, Kubrick, Spielberg, Ford, Truffaut, Hitchcock, Payne–those who perfect the lines and feel out new fissures in the rock that the explorers have excavated, that Manny Farber’s termites have eaten through. For fans of the mappers, the gaping plot holes, inconsistencies of style and meaning and haphazard story construction of the explorers–the ungodly mess, in short–can be unforgivable. For we lovers of the explorers, any story holes can be stepped over without the smallest break in our stride as we follow the brave deep into the cinematic danger zone; we'd rather get lost in the woods than a lovely elaborate hedge maze.  There’s some that try to control it, quench it, put it out, and there’s some that go wild-eyed and giggling, cooing and tittering like the late beloved Richard Widmark.

A unique example to discuss of a mapper and explorer rolled into one would be John Huston. His films tend to be adaptations of classic “explorer” works: UNDER THE VOLCANO is a fine example of Huston being too busy getting period details of 1933 Mexico down, polishing up the quaint old cars and setting his actors to staggering just so, that he misses the thrust of Lowry’s novel, which is as an apocalyptic mirage of one man’s drunken dying soul bleeding into those around him and its reflection in the tide of fascism and blah blah. One mustn’t put modern in with the classical, or must one?

A “classic” example of the explorer vs. mapper would be Welles’ MACBETH vs. Olivier’s HAMLET (both 1948). Olivier’s film (left) is a stunning masterwork with each line of text lovingly orated and the deep shadow lines visible all the way in the back of the cavernous sets. There’s plenty of deep focus expressionism for those who like that sort of thing, but not enough to drown the bard in Ophelia’s bathwater, so to speak. Welles’ MACBETH on the other hand is a roaring, sweaty delirious fever dream-catastrophe where a good chunk of the dialogue tends to be inaudible under scratchy recording and thick brogues (Welles famously pre-recorded the dialogue and monologues and made his actors lip-sync). Just take a look below at that outrageous hat!

Welles plays Macbeth like someone just waking up in the drunk tank after a three-day meth binge. Soldiers cast in hand-me-downs from Republic studios old serials seem to drip down from their weird cavern pathways onto him, like expressionist maggots from a Polanski skyway. Welles shivers with horror like he's hoping if he acts like its a nightmare he'll wake up and have blood-free hands. His Macbeth bellows great lungfuls of melodious brogue, hallucinating Banquos hither an yon. He chews so much scenery he gets woozy and seems about to fall over into the witches’ bubbling pot at any second, but I’ll order Ham on Welles over Hamlet Olivier any day. There’s mad genius power with Welles; his is the termite art that never stops to count the receipts or weigh the meanings but rather plunges reckless through the walls until all is black and sweet silence. Daniel Plainview and THERE WILL BE BLOOD are like that, and for the Olivier loving mappers of the world, that's just too long-haired, indulgent, and reckless.

And God do I hate Olivier's short bangs in all his Shakespeare stuff. He looks like Sting's queer older brother, but not in a good way. HAMLET's photography is brilliant however and every word spoken goes down like a hundred dollar bottle of anything. If Victor Mature as Doc Holliday were here, good Sirs, then perhaps he could finish. I can't remember the rest! 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: There Will Be Blood, Elizabeth!

The awesome Jeremy Richey of Moon in the Gutter and the Jean Rollin Experience, two of the grooviest and nicest blogs in the world, is--as would befit a nice and groovy writer--hosting a Paul Thomas Anderson blogathon. In sympatico, here's a remodeled version of a Feb. 08 Bright Lights piece comparing Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD to ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE which came out the same year (2007).

Thrilling and underrated is how I find ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE. I’ve read some of the reviews and probably waited this long to see it because of them, but now I’d like to blow those critics back to the Spanish Inquisition-themed S/M dungeons they came from. Yes it’s true the costumes and set design and CGI ships are all a little too fresh off the romance novel cover, and all the colors have been retouched to the point that even Edgar Burne Jones might urge restraint. But coming to it after watching THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY THE EIGHTH I realize that this is how it’s done when depicting the Monarchy: the characters need to stand very still, like tarot cards, while lighting technicians fuss over them as grooms of old.

Call me crazy, but with ELIZABETH, all the over-doing it kind of works, mainly because at the heart of it all is a great actor who nails the royal spirit down to the last nuance while still being “real” and alive with wit and sauce. Cate Blanchett! Charles Laughton brought a sprightliness to Henry, Blanchett brings sultriness and stealth warmth to Elizabeth, and each without ever breaking their painted poses.

What does this have to do with THERE WILL BE BLOOD? Indeed, consider that both Plainview and Elizabeth eschew sexual partners in favor of becoming the stuff of legend. Each gets to smite down with DOGVILLE-style vengeance the rabid dogma of those who would convert them from their own narcissistic perfection, in Elizabeth's case the Spanish Inquisition. In Plainview's case, a pisher of a preacher trying to douse him in the blood of the lamb.

I say this as a decree and a challenge. Cinema rides with Elizabeth and Daniel ride against Joseph Breen and his Censorship Armada!

I love a good whipping as much as anyone, but not from Joseph Breen, who used Catholicism’s mighty power to inflict a state of cinematic censorship so barbaric and stifling as to be akin to the Inquisition itself. In 1934, all the hitherto free flappers and sexually promiscuous lady aviators were tortured into submissiveness, chained in ugly skirts and pregnant to homey stoves, wed to sullen bullies like George Brent. Struggling for a moment’s happiness, they’d have to be killed at the end if they dared have sex out of wedlock with someone flashy. Emphasis on the lock in that last sentence!

At last there are movies like THERE WILL BE BLOOD and ELIZABETH, which are free of censorship enough for their leading characters to skip sex altogether. That is true subversive power, like the eunuchs in Shaw Brothers Hong Kong films. In order to learn the last and most deadly secrets of Kung Fu, you must castrate yourself… quickly, before you chicken out! Then you gain the freedom from desire and the magical power that comes from being beyond sex and gender.

Though neither preacher nor virgin queen, I too have known perfect happiness in platonic love affairs with phantoms; Cate Blanchett as she rides out with long red hair flowing over cool body armor on a white horse is one such phantom. This is spirituality and love united and the flame of cinema shall never die. Now that all the world’s a screen, Cinema is the only place perhaps where perfect love can happen. Oh ye repentant sinner, will you join hands with me in demanding, for the love of god and Elizabeth, Daniel Plainview and freedom from censorship, a DVD release of the 1982 Italian trash classic, HEARTS & ARMOR, starring Tanya Roberts? Amen.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Favorite Film Critics: Michael Weldon

It's hard to remember a time when the internet was still over a decade away; VHS rentals were mostly found in backrooms of local appliance shops, and books mostly at mall chains like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Bookseller. As far as film guides, well, there was Leonard Maltin, period. But then, in 1983, as if smuggled into my Somerville strip mall B. Dalton from some strange alternate universe, was this weird thick, expensive ($25!) silver book called the Psychotronic Encylopedia of Film. Life as we knew it would never be the same again... is a cliche Weldon would never use.

Back then please recall, Quentin Tarantino was under the legal drinking age, and the Times Square grindhouse era was only beginning to die. I was 16 and my few grindhouse experiences had been traumatic: boredom trumped good sense and we NJ teenagers would take the train to Times Square the way farmers used to go to freak shows, to soak up the depravity from behind the protective barrier of our teenage alienation and sense of suburban invulnerability. All I remember is the awful stench of this one, the Roxy, showing films in at least three different shoebox-size second floor holes, we came in at the end RUBY and left 1/3 into some Jackie Chan thing -- all on projector video: a mix of really cheap weed, freebase coke, urinal cigars, homelessness, unclean sex, and god knows what else in the air. I can still smell it after 25 years.

But my morbid acuteness of the olfactory senses didn't stop me from relishing the experience, and continuing to soak up the seediness from the safety of my beige-wallpapered tract home bedroom, and no one was better at conveying the lurid trashy glory of unseen (by me) cinema than Michael Weldon. Psychotronic became my bible, my source book, my blanket where one edge was the comfort--the safety of familiar (from local TV reruns) horror classics--and the other edge the grim gore of the Time Square grindhouse, like a magnet over a cliff. I still have my original copy--bought with money begged from mom like a junkie for a fix--and the page edges are black from my endless thumbing.

The best part is the brevity of his prose, a master class in saying a lot in two or three sentences. Most of the time the doesn't give us an inkling of if the movie's really any good, sometimes he confesses he hasn't seen it. Most of it was written from memory, before the advent of home video. Instead of sitting around in the suburbs, Weldon was in two punk bands. He was busy. The source magazine Psychotronic mixed horror movie write-ups and punk show news as if they'd never been apart.

He still writes, but it seems to be more along the lines of pop music criticism as in this editorial essay I found online:
"Some people have been complaining about pop songs being used as commercials since the 70s. I always loved The Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun,” especially for the brilliant falsetto harmony ending and Sly And The Family Stone’s “Hot Fun In the Summertime.” And the intro of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” (featuring the drumming of Soupy Sales son) has become the new “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (or the 2001, Elvis intro theme) of TV ads. Key parts of all three are now being used for cruise ship TV spots. Music from an LSD casualty, a coke casualty, and a long time heroin addict to attract mostly retired couples to take overpriced vacations on ocean polluting ships that a record number of people have been puking their guts out on. Brilliant!  (Psychotronic #38)
No, Mr. Weldon. It's you who are brilliant for spinning it that way, without a single shred of judgment on any of the parties involved! I don't think Weldon comes by these keen observations via some Guy Debord détournement-recuperation angle, but genuine punk disaffect, and that's why he's so cool. Well one of the reasons. His sense of the absurd is poker-faced in a way that would make Bunuel drop a woman's shoe in salute.

In 1998 I got one of my first steady freelance film criticism jobs, working on search engine entries for a vast director canon project (Muze), condensing all these classic films (given out by director) into 200-250 word capsule reviews, up to 20 a week. Some--like D.W. Griffith and Edmund Goulding--had over 30 or 40 films to cover; they taught me a lot about film history. Others, like Roger Corman, Jess Franco, and Edgar Ulmer had even more titles and taught me how to bullshit. Who would have imagined that my endless obsessing over Michael Weldon's tight-lipped style in Pyschotronic would come in so handy? His deadpan stressing of random details and gift for collapsing mountains of impressions and factoids into one smooth, hilarious, joke-free punchline was my boilerplate. I had absorbed some of his style, like the blob!

Here's some random samples: For his review of THE FLESH EATERS (1964, above): "... (Kolsek) was a bottom of the barrel villain at Universal during the '40s and played Joseph Paul Goebbels at least three times. The film's other standout performance is Ray Tudor as the jive-talking, shipwrecked beatnik Omar." (p. 246)

What makes that pair of sentences such sublime poetry? Note the inclusion of Goebbel's middle name or the way Omar's whole groovy hipster shtick is collapsed into a three adjectives. And you could trust Weldon to understate, so if he says "the film's other stand-out" that means Kolsek and Tudor are better than the rest of the cast, but since it's Weldon you know it means more than that, Omar is AWESOME, and the rest of the cast isn't bad.

Then there's his quiet meta-statements, made all the more powerful by their rarity, as in his capsule for I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF: 
"Young Michael Landon (real name Eugene Horowitz) will never be forgotten as the troubled high school student turned into a snarling drooling hairy monster by Whit Bissell. No full moons or crucifixes are involved. Hypnotism causes the retrogressive transformation whenever Landon is startled." (p. 355).
Again, nothing jaw-dropping first-off, but note the way he just drops a weird word like 'retrogressive' in there, like it's no big deal, or the anachronistic mention of crucifixes (for werewolves?), or the lack of commas for 'snarling drooling hairy.' Savor the deadpan solemnity that's wittily undermined by the inclusion of Landon's goofy real name in the opening sentence.

Weldon's magazine has gone out of print, and so has the original Psychotronic Encyclopedia. His 1996 follow-up, the Psychotronic Video Guide is also essential reading, though by then internet and endless film guides had made it hard to stand-out as starkly as the original had 13 years previously. DVD has polished up a lot of the films Weldon had to see on streaky fuzzy faded dupes or in sticky Deuce seating back when the books were made. It's up to us now to keep his flame alive, just as he dedicated his second book to 42nd Street, meaning "the" 42nd Street, as it used to be," so too should we dedicate ourselves to Weldon. I really need to rediscover this book, now that it's sitting in my lap, and order some of the magazine's back issues (at cover price, still!) from the Psychotronic website. Check it out here.

In the end, Michael Weldon is a bit like the Velvet Underground in that he never became super popular so much as hugely influential; every kid who read Psychotronic apparently became a writer or filmmaker. Weldon taught half-suffocated, tragically bored mid-1980s suburban punks and poseurs how to see deeply into even the most opaque 42nd Street garbage and find the shining gems within.

For the 25th anniversary of Weldon's landmark original Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Hollywood Bitchslap's Ron Gonsalves noted:
A note on the back of Psychotronic Encyclopedia reads, "Warning: The author of this book has been watching these movies obsessively since the age of 6. He is now unfit for conventional employment." Well, conventional employment's loss was our gain. I ache for a third volume of psychotronic angel-dust — maybe you do, too. (It's been twelve years, almost as long as the gap between the first two books.) But for now, we can simply raise a toast to the original gray brick's 25th birthday, perhaps take it off the shelf and swim around in it all over again, and give props to the man who was there before everyone else, without whom there wouldn't have been a Grindhouse or a Tarantino or a Film Threat... (10/08)
Writers can go to school all they want but in the end they learn by reading other writers. In other words, we're sponges. Many fiction writers spend a year or so trying to write like Hemingway or Raymond Carver; we film critics of a certain age and interest range spend a lifetime trying to capsulize like Michael Weldon.

But Michael Weldon is not just another big brother guide who led us from passive to active, from viewer to maker, from reader to writer. In his dry unobtrusive way he's also the grinder of the lens through which all the sleaze of yesteryear is re-examined today. So thank you, thank you, Michael Weldon!  In transforming schlock appreciation into a literary art form (of brevity and dry wit) you not only supplied expert guidance for our strange viewing interests, you taught us to how to fucking see jewels in the trashy street, and know it's the perfect setting.

(See also Favorite Film Critics: Kim Morgan)

Thursday, September 09, 2010

When the Doll is Inflamed: SUGAR HILL (1974)


The rare and precious New Orleans-set 1974 blaxploitation voodoo classic Sugar Hill is back, baby, and beautiful. So bring on the voodoo doll leg cramps, snakes, and human-hungry pigs ("Hope they go for white trash!"), it's time to wreak it, whatever it is you got on your vengeance plate. This is one N'awlins dish served so cold it doesn't even have a pulse.

A zombies vs. mobsters revenge film that knows how to take it easy and enjoy cutting up deserving honkies, one of the best aspects of the story is its basic simplicity and its amoral savoring of blood-curdling revenge. Marki Bey stars as Sugar, the sweet, sexy, witty fashion photographer. After her voodoo-themed nightclub-owning boyfriend won't sell out to a bunch of syndicate thugs, Sugar has probable cause and motive to return to her ancestral swamp homestead to her grandmother, Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), for help getting revenge. And not the kind where she gets evidence or tracks down the leader, but he kind where she kills every damned member of the syndicate responsible, one at a time, savoring every death. Maitresse's demon familiar is the laughing Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who agrees to help, raises a flock of zombies from the swamps out back behind Mama's house, and then shows up in different stereotype-satirizing disguises during the elaborate juju sting operations. The deeper Sugar and the Baron go into their cake walk-style display of how genteel black folks ought behave, the more relish they seem to feel when they flip their cards and behold whitey's inevitable display of raw terror. Great economical, often comical touches abound: the zombies are dead slaves dumped into the swamps by slave ships in the 1840s on their way into the harbor. Wearing silver ping-pong ball eyes, a dusting of gold glitter and cobwebs, and slave shackles, brandishing machetes and big evil grins, they aren't necessarily convincing or 'realistic' whatever that means, but who the fuck cares: they're fun and effective and they seem to be having a good time. That's the Big Easy recipe and it's goddamned delicious.

I love any movie where a smart take-charge woman trusts us to not be narcs or prudes about rooting for horrible black-on-white violence, and just to ride with her into the moral abyss, gleefully smiling as justice is served at the end of a blade, especially if she's smart and badass enough that I don't have to worry about her getting beat up, sexually assaulted, imprisoned, outsmarted, or turning soft at the last minute, etc. as she chases her quarry. Such dehumanizing ordeals often happened to Pam Grier in FOXY BROWN, for example, or THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTO. The deep trough of self-hated misandry such films inspire is blown up by Sugar Hill, a stone fox who puts on an endearing Morticia Adams-style thrill in her voice, almost like a satiric impression of the way posh white people talk, to the point she seems almost on the verge of cracking herself up. Whenever she's moving in for the kill, though, that slow smile plays around her cute cupid face, and Colley's eyes widen as he roars with macabre Geoffrey Holder-ish delight.

Yes, it's great to be able to root for a murderous voodoo priestess and not have to worry she's going to develop a conscience thanks to burgeoning love for a dashing black homicide cop, a guy who's so clueless he genuinely believes locals will want to help him find whoever's doing the killing, even though the victims are the same mobsters who've been plaguing their community for years. Wake up, fool! But hell, Mama and Baron needn't worry, Sugar's not going to let no ex-boyfriend cop spoil her (and our) good time. Yes, it's great to be finally rooting for a murderous voodoo priestess and not have to worry she's going to develop a conscience or let love for the investigating black cop weaken her resolve.

You know the deal. You know what I mean. Someone like Jodie Foster in THE BRAVE ONE, by contrast, is a one-woman vengeance machine, yet she isn't enjoying herself, and yet some dopey cop wants to stop her because, um, it's wrong... it's not the law? And then it ends in a big showdown when she's about to shoot the bad guy in cold blood like he deserves and the lame ass cop is all "Listen to me, Sugar! It's not worth it! Let justice take it's course!" So she puts her gun down and turns her back and has to wait until the bad guy suddenly stops cringing and whips a pistol out of his ankle you know, they don't send a pro-vigilante message to today's impressionable youth. Or show their lead in a bad light, or when all is over with she starts crying hysterically in her man's arms, or some second-guessing cop-out to the patriarchy like that.

Then there's the element of some revenge films I think of as 'inequal distribution', wherein a woman is traumatically assaulted and the assailants spend the movie doing more evil, and finally they just get shot at the end, Bang, the End. So what? That's an imbalance of pain to pleasure for me the viewer because seeing someone get shot doesn't carry the same cathartic charge as seeing them beaten up for ten minutes and then shot, or eaten by starving pigs, or thrown into a tub of snakes or hacked up by zombies. I much prefer the reverse: Let the syndicate crime boss kill your man real fast in the beginning, and then spend the whole rest of the movie kicking the crap out of his whole crew, working your way up the chain, EC comics style until you get to the bigwig at the top (Count Yorga's own Robert Quarry).

SUGAR HILL hears my plea... for instead of just honky evil we get a series of comic book style death traps involving zombie massages ("Treat me easy, easy,"), attack of the severed chicken foot (a peak AIP moment), burning voodoo dolls ("When the doll is inflamed you will pick up the knife and use it on yourself!'), and so forth. Marki Bey's not the best actress in the world, but she sure knows when to kick back and luxuriate in the power of a zombie army at her disposal, it's gorgeous to see. Her pixie face lights up with mischief as her grandmama cackles silently behind her and the Baron roars.

How lucky AIP still has gems like this floating around in the air still unseen by so many of us (also seek out CULT OF THE DAMNED).  I hope Halle Berry sees it one day, because after the mousy way she ruined Storm (in X-MEN) and Catwoman, she should be forced to watch the ballsy brilliance of Marki Bey in this film at least ten times. Bey's no taller than Berry and has an even smaller nose, but can order around whole rooms full of zombies, gangsters or cops and make it work without ever being anything but super cool, super sexy and the smartest person in the picture. In fact she works it so well it took me awhile to even notice it! Sure, Zamboona never fails, and sure, Coffy may be the color, but Sugar Hill's got the soul, and all the silver painted balls.
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