Friday, April 29, 2011

B is for BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962)

Buried unceremoniously in amidst the 'forgotten' films avail. for streaming on Netflix is a film you must see: BURN, WITCH, BURN (1962), an AIP film from the UK, based on Fritz Lieber's perennial ghost tale, "The Conjure Wife." There was a vastly inferior adaption in the 1940s called WEIRD WOMAN, part of a B-list series of films based on the popular Inner Sanctum radio show. And there was this, which is awesome. But which of the two is available on R1 DVD? Right you are, but that's all moot now, thanks to the 'flixstream. Known in the UK as NIGHT OF THE EAGLE, it turns out BURN, WITCH, BURN is the best-kept secret in early 1960's black-and-white British horror. 

What makes this film work is its moody black and white photography and AIP talent roster, including Corman Poe screenwriters Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, who always instill 'classic' material with an edge of modern wit that does nothing to dispel the unease and terror. It's directed by Sidney Hayers, a TV director who's worked on The Avengers, and Baywatch, among others, but hey - it's all about the script and the actors, and these are top flight: Janet Blair is the wife, Peter Wyngarde the brooding Rod Taylor-ish lead, Margeret Johnson the limping rival; Judith Stott an amazing and odd face as the charmed co-ed. Kathleen Byron (so terrific the sex-starved nun who falls to her death after being rejected by the only eligible bachelor for a thousand miles in Black Narcissus).

I've been shy about this film since I dreaded slogs of  the tedious, patriarchally condescending husband belittling his wife about her black magic habits, as is so often the irritating way these kinds of movies eat up running time. He does do this but she fights back with scathing wit and makes her conversion to logic something that's a result of her own self-doubt, rather than his stern sexist berating. From a feminist standpoint its demoralizing watching even strong British women demoted from sexy independent thinkers to smiling slave drone Stepford wives.

Filmed in black and white, BURN has the arty photography (by Reggie Wyer) of the British countryside: mythopoetic and effective use rocky beaches, and cloudy English skies stack this up against the cream of Hollywood's post-Lewton / Tourneur ambiguous shadowy horrors like THE HAUNTING, as per this delicious review from Unkle Lancifer on Kindertrauma:
Black and white film adds something unique to the movie viewing experience overall but it adds something super unique to horror films and something super special gonzo incredible unique to the supernatural horror film. How can anyone wonder if witchcraft exists? Black and white film IS witchcraft! You just can’t get this effect with color film (unless your name happens to be MARIO BAVA.)
Indeed. It is hard to think of who other than Bava could ever get this chilled sense of dying of the light ominousness--where imagination starts to conjure shapes and movement within darkening shadows-- in color, and harder to think who other than Lewton could sneak so much genuinely intelligent female characters into a black and white horror film. And Byron's evil witch has great lines, mocking our hero's 'desperate stretching of logic' and ever-weakening attempts to deny that which he knows to be true. Meanwhile a whole litany of superstition rolls by: charms, spells and obscene phone calls, all topped off by some wild ass shadow-perspective monsterizing worthy of the greats.

So while the world knows to bow for the stealth-intellect and shadow-shelved soul of the Lewton box and the CURSE OF THE DEMON and HORROR HOTEL DVDs, no one, at least here in the states, knows that BURN, WITCH, BURN deserves not only bowing to, but scraping, bowing and scraping... and more scraping... scraping until the very celluloid emulsion under your nails strikes sparks and we're all in black and white flame... engulfed?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Screw any Man under 30: ARIZONA DREAM (1993, dir. Emir Kusturica)

"Why must you screw any man under 30?"
"Because it's normal... in Papua New Guinea!"

The above lines of dialogue give you some insight into the hysterical weirdness of Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica's first English language film, ARIZONA DREAM (1993). Don't let it get confused with other ARIZONA movies, or quirky ensemble films too numerous to name (BENNY AND JOON springs to mind, but I've never seen it). Yes, it's got an Eastern European post-structuralist fascination with America's desert 'roadside attraction' culture, and yes it's got a whimsical voiceover (from Depp), Eskimos, a hypnotist sled dog; a fish with two eyes on the same side of his face, a balloon, an airplane propeller mounted to the chandelier for a ceiling fan; Depp acting like a chicken "buck buck buckcock;" fish swimming up the sky river whenever someone dies; ambulances going over the moon; pet turtles at the dinner table --but none of it done in a corny 'faux-centric" way like a Sundance workshop "about family... about hope... and about quirks" nor is it done in an 'aren't common folk delightful?' Capra style nor inundated by Chaplin sediment. Instead, this has enough 'hysterics' to land it amongst films like Zulawski's 1985  L'AMOR BRAQUE (my piece here) or 80's Godard like DETECTIVE and PRENOM: CARMEN. In short, it's genuinely nuts, not that fake Sundance nuts-lite.

The story unfolds with nature conservationist Depp being lured by brother Vince Gallo out to Arizona to attend his uncle's wedding. Jerry Lewis is the uncle, a car dealer with a thing for pink Cadillacs, and he's marrying supermodel Paulina Porizkova! So far so good. Yet that whole set-up is dropped once Lili Taylor as a rich heiress and Faye Dunaway as her hot mess stepmom show up at the dealership and Depp and Gallo start stepping on each other's game like the Marx Brothers over Thelma Todd. Depp quickly moves on up to the ladies' remote Arizona mansion, to shag Dunaway and help her realize her dream of building a fantasmastical flying machine while crazy (or saner than everyone else) daughter Lili Taylor smokes and broods. Sure it might sound a little Wes Anderson-meets-Tim Burton but hey, any film where Faye Dunaway out crazies Jerry Lewis is all right with me. (I generally cringe watching Lewis' schtick, but he's restrained and excellent here, content to step back and let the cast each have a moment).

Fans of Vincent Gallo should note there's early signs of his BROWN BUNNY austerity, as when he performs the crop dusting scene from Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST at a talent show. Later, during a pivotal scene of bedroom-hopping upstairs, Gallo sleeps downstairs on the couch, watching GODFATHER II and reciting the whole Fredo "Don't you think I'm smaht?! speech while the hopping intercuts its way through the night. Are these moments of metatexuality meant as metaphors for desert roadside America? (French theorist Baudrillard and writer Nabokov were both fans of driving aimlessly around in the American Southwest - I'd bet Kafka would have been too, were he born in the correct egg sac). As seen by the European cinephile mind, Arizona becomes a place of endless expanse, pop culture hall of mirrors refraction, and stunted emotional connection, where space, time, and family cease to have any meaning, and one finds oneself hiding and dodging like a scarecrow at an airport. Gallo also quotes the Cowardly Lion ("I didn't bite him!") and dances around when things get too weird, which they do.

Lili Taylor has perhaps never looked sexier or seemed more relaxed as Dunaway's stepdaughter, even as she commits bungee jumping pseudo-suicide or dreams of coming back as a turtle, and even she, like fellow eccentric ham Lewis, lets co-star Dunaway--sexy cougar-style in country frock, pale denim jacket and beauty contest hair-- out-crazy her. That's love, brother!

This cast clearly has affection for each other and the chops to improv and ham it up without moving out of character or grandstanding or stepping on each other's beats. Thanks to his endless Tim Burton movies, Depp's quirkiness isn't quite as fresh as it may have been back in 1993, but Kusturica is no Burton, and ARIZONA DREAM never loses its giddy, mystical edge. Actors tend to talk a lot about the friends and collaborative energy they experienced on the set of whatever film they're plugging, but here none of that friendly collaboration feels like it needs to be mentioned. It's there --there's no need to talk about it. Let the Iggy Pop songs on the soundtrack (written by Kusturica for the film!) tell what needs telling, and leave it at that.

After DREAM, Kusturica would make his definitive politico-black comedy UNDERGROUND (1995) and you can see some of the ideas in that later film born in DREAM's scattered, hypertextual framework. Long unavailable on DVD or VHS, it's a delight to find ARIZONA DREAM on Netflix streaming! Fans of acid cinema are obliged to, if not plunge, at least wade tentatively in... before it vanishes into the fishnet ether from which it came. (P.S. 2/16/15 - it did.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Morphine, Cappucine, and Dino De: FRAULEIN DOKTOR (1968)

Currently available only on Netflix streaming (the openly sapphic poster above may be a clue to why it's never seen the light of DVD or network reruns, animal abuse may be another), is this big budget but never leaden, endearing, openly referential to von Sternberg's DISHONORED, sometimes confusingly-edited, reasonably engrossing, mildly titillating melodrama from Dino De Laurentiis, FRAULEIN DOKTOR (1968). Also known as FRAULEIN DOCTOR (on Netflix), it's the story of a German morphine-addict bisexual super spy who--among other things --helps assassinate a Naval admiral, after first stealing a French poison gas formula by by seducing and then assassinating its lesbian chemist (Cappucine) creator.

What makes it so indelible as that for all its potential sordidness (she celebrates success by shooting up), the film is clearly structured along a DR. ZHIVAGO (1965) template, which is to say, it has big elaborate international WW1/Russian Revolution-era sweep, Jarre-ish orchestral soundtrack (by Ennio Morricone!), a superfluously detailed train journey; a big crowd scene WW1 attack, and romantic leads who look a lot like Julie Christie and Omar Shariff (Suzy Kendall and James Booth).

However, this ain't your mom's ZHIVAGO clone, unless your mom is a lesbian junky super spy working for WW1 Germany (i.e. the bad guys). The opening barbed wire silhouette and deep color splotch credit design is something straight out of the Corman Poe series, which is the next best thing to Saul Bass in the cool credits department, and Morricone's typical mix of avant-garde frisson and emotional sweep trumps Jarre's tediously repeated peasant carnival waltz theme to make this a winner from the start. Shorter, meaner, more jaded, cool, and allegedly true. Dipping its toes in a druggy kind of debauched super genius nastiness--our fraulein --like a cross between Nico, Dietrich, Julie Christie, and a Fassbinder Sukowa, shoots up a lot of morphine--it's her real romantic partners--and when she stares lustily at the soldiers in her Red Cross train (she's disguised a nurse) you know it's because they're all being given shots of the good stuff. You imagine that's what's in her bug-out bag, but we never lean (the filmmakers miss a good chance by not bringing back the morphine haul at the end- maybe it was edited out). It's rare in a movie like this you would feel that junky longing, the time to watch her eyes whenever a short of morphine shares the screen. While the lesbian seduction has a creepy Aldrich-style freakshow quality, the fact that it's there, and is so central to the film it makes it on the poster, all while staying true to the Zhivagosian 'sweep' shows this has got De Laurentiis' ballsy fingerprints all over it (Morricone's score makes it the most romantic moment in the film, even more so than the later instances of romantic connection between the Doktor and her reverse double agent confederate (James Booth, refreshingly practical). Much more than this, as per De Laurentiis' best works, there's a sense of real moral ambiguity, where if immorality is condemned, it's also championed equal measure. And with his other films, it may be packed with extras, vistas and sweep, but it also zips along, careening with the joy of forward momentum, careening past all the flowery places filmmakers like Lean would stop to dawdle. Only the end, a muddy sea of extras in gas masks with helmets too similar to tell if they're German or French, all climbing over each other trying to escape or capture various trenches and roads, gets a little monotonous, but by then we're at the climax, so a little sweep isn't going to kill you (just make you squirm over endless close-ups of French infantrymen's hands and fingers dissolving into taffy from the the Dokotr-stolen gas.)

I never did much cotton to ZHIVAGO (the only character I liked was Rod Steiger's, so it made rooting for Omar a real hard task) but I dig that FRAULEIN takes what it wants (romance, WW1, blonde nurse with an excellent Germanic jawline, trains) and leaves the rest. I also like that FRAULEIN keeps itself under two hours, and doesn't get lost in a maddening love story so much as have occasional touches of 'what might have been but may or may not be two lovers bullshitting each other.'

But for all the differences, there's no doubt what blockbuster film our FRAULEIN is aping. It's superior and unique in its way though, and still is, if for no other reason than what other movie is about a beautiful blonde junky possible psychopath. Only at the end do we see any display of emotion other than the rapture from or over the thought of a post-op fix. It's so unique it's almost dangerous - is this why the film is so hard to find?? Put it out on DVD, I command you!

Far less lush than Dr. Z, and occasionally dopey, Dr. F is still underrated, under-seen and would be just a stilted sweeper ala ENGLISH PATIENT, except for one thing -- Ennio Morricone!

Ennio Morricone was more than just the guy who brought electric guitars to the western, or children's sing song la la la's to giallo -- he proved that the right music could 'make' a movie appear out of nothing but a bunch of scenes. Under his baton the score became as essential an ingredient as actors or dialogue, even more so where international films are concerned and dubbing issues could often muddle and sour the story without a weird musical score to fill in the blanks. DOKTOR's long lesbian scenes with Cappucine, the druggy 'shooting up' music when our junky anti-heroine fumbles for her vial; or the heroic little gestures of the Giancarlo Giannini's world weary spy, are amped up like a case of delirium tremens when Morricone is working the magic. Suddenly something that is inert becomes tragic and larger than life. Make no mistake, without Morricone, Italian exploitation cinema, from giallo to Laurentiis' blockbusters, would be only fun, not the magic they are!

Surprise of surprises: the events in this film are all allegedly true, but you know espionage tales, you'll never get straight facts. Those are classified so long people forget where they filed them. So just enjoy the luridness and the first rate cast: Capucine (above) as a lesbian poison gas designer; Kenneth More as the head of British Intelligence; Nigel Green as the head of German Intelligence, and a large crew of extras marching around in gas masks for the big finale, making me wonder if Ralph Bakshi used this movie for 'rotoscoping' backgrounds in WIZARDS. Best of all, it's set in World War I, not World War II, so the German were still 'sporting' and 'gentlemanly' to a degree. You don't have to hate them as badly as you would in a few years. 

It's also worth scoping out if you liked, say, a very similar international De Laurentiis film that mixed adult elements like drugs, (real) animal killing, hot girls, and lesbianism in with its 'historical' story, BLUEBEARD (1972). All that's missing, really, is what saved BLUEBEARD from Burton's boozy somnambulistic hamming, a little minx named Joey Heatherton.

Joey Heatherton... you make life complete. And FRAULEIN DOKTOR, you're not far behind. Firing Squad, commence streaming!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Acid Cinema: JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)

Call me a heretic, but I know that if Jesus were around today he'd be passing out dosed wafers in the park like that dude in HAIR; and I believe in Claude, God, and Franco Zeffirelli because none are afraid of dropping the foolish game of fear/desire outer wheel edge running and moving straight to the center, where self-sacrifice made in pure love meets pure light and the borderline between life and death is dissolved like a line of salt up the nose of the Atlantic. That's Jesus' country. Happy Easter!

Back in 2000 I was assigned all of Zeffirelli's film for a search engine project so I actually sat down and watched the entire six-hour movie of JESUS OF NAZARETH in a single night. Dude! I got converted for the whole rest of the weekend. Being less than a year in AA, I literally saw the light --it was the 'pink light' phase of early recovery; I wept a lot in those days, with cathartic joy like my soul had been frozen up inside an iceberg for 20 years and now the ice was breaking off in big chunks as it melted in the pink light sun. THE APOSTLE and BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON were two other films I saw around the same time, and they made me pink-light gratitude weepy as well. Priase and gratitude to Bill W., Robert D., Franco Z, and Dr. Bob (and nurse Janis).

My previous relationship with Jesus had consisted first of resentful agitation via Sunday school, then anti-dogmatic arguments with various Christians, and then LSD various peaks and spiritual elevations, manic highs and exalted weekends, all followed by loss and depression. I would feel Jesus as my wingman, sometimes, and all would be glorious summer and love and egoless benevolence coursing like electricity through me, thanks to his magic... until he said, "Okay, now try it yourself for awhile, I have to go take care of something." Pretty soon my whole magical worldview would implode as the devil would move in to fill the gap, like the 'fun' uncle. Then of course there's the heaping amount of intolerance that goes on JC's holy name, which he does nothing to stop. All in all, you could describe his behavior as 'erratic.'

But Jesus is the ultimate in cool customers; he waits and waits and never begs you to take him back. He waits 'til you're in that foxhole of mortal fear and your atheism melts in the panic and then he forgives you your trespasses and wanderings, and you're forgetting to call him is forgotten. He never loses his edge of mystery; he's always the hottest guy in the room, spirituality-wise. But even if he doesn't exist except as a concept in a lot of folks' minds you have to agree that concepts have a lot of power. And like Martin Luther King or Gandhi, he inspired people to risk their lives in the name of love and an ideal, and that's not easy.

That's especially true in Zeffirelli's JESUS OF NAZARETH. According to my Argentine socialist intellectual filmmaker ex-wife, there's paintings and pictures all over South America taken from this mini-series TV event, and thus in millions of Catholic minds ever since, actor Robert Powell's Jesus is Jesus. That's what makes me so suspicious of the Shroud of Turin, why does Jesus look exactly like Robert Powell?

This must be said: Powell's performance as Jesus is probably one of the most amazing, deeply spiritual things I've ever seen. With his "piercing blue eyes surrounded by plenty of white, same expression with the mouth, same ecstatic near-death look in the eyes," as Sir Guy of Gisbornne describes, "I remember being totally electrified by Powell (I was 8)."

I hear you, Sir Guy. I was electrified and I was 33!

My favorite scenes involve Michael York as a gonzo John the Baptist (above). Before we see Salome (Isabel Mestres) dance for King Herod (Christopher Plummer) and get old John's head served to her on the proverbial platter (another highlight) there's York's big baptism scene with Powell: a powerhouse moment that rocketed me into archaic Christian nirvana. Frothing at the mouth stampeding around in his little nook of the river, he's gorgeous and magnetic and utterly alive. He's more of a Christ than Powell's Jesus in that moment and it's as if in baptizing him he suffuses Powell with that same grounded but manic holy fire. There's some major women: Ann Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Olivia Hussey the Virgin Mary, the delectable Claudia Cardinale as the adulteress Jesus saves from stoning. The rest of the all-star cast may hide behind beards and some get less than a scene or two, but that's okay, the film has a great momentum, which as anyone who's sat through ponderous three hour Hollywood biblical epics can tell you, is a real rarity. I love that it's very linear - whatever scene they're in, they're talking about how worried or excited they are at what's coming up, then Boom, they go right to that scene they were worried about, wherein they talk about how worried they are about the next scene, Bam! It's a good steady rhythm that leaves no room for dullness.

The fist stone-casting scene is another highlight. While his anger brews, Jesus is sitting on the ground throwing small rocks back and forth against a wall and staring at them like runes as the local freaks want to stone a maiden death for the usual infidelity -- suddenly he gets up and launches into the "ye without sin" speech, and it flows so organically you're like, yo Jesus! I fucking love you! And Powell finds the line between being ass-kicking and fearless, masculine and idealistic, with being fathomlessly compassionate and kind. There's nothing like this moment anywhere else in cinema, let alone 'biblical' adaptations. It's alive with holy power - even on a small screen with eight other things going on in your living room - it reaches right into you and pulls something out.

Another hugely powerful moment is the crucifixion scene. We've seen Jesus take everything in stride, even his beating and whipping and thorn crowning, and nailing hands to the cross, but it's when the Romans hoist up the cross and Jesus feels the agony in his hands and shoulders as he's lifted up by these wounds that his eyes suddenly bug out in total surprise and pain. It's like this finally is so much pain he's suddenly agonizingly human, just for a second. His transcendence afterwards thus has so much power, even a stone shall not go unmoved.

So with all that in mind, shouldn't all these stone-minded Christians stop stoning our beloved Lindsay Lohan?  If this film were remade, she'd be the ideal choice to play the adulteress. Talk about forcing those unconscious fuckers to take a second or two before casting their next nasty e-comment!

So, wrapping up this sermon: Happy second birthday, Jesus! Keep coming back, it works if you work it so work it, we're worth it, and you're worth workin' it for. Even if those who act in your name are often violent idiots you're still cool. Amen, brother! Thank you thank you thank you. And Jesus, your Zeffirelli biography with all its actual locations, strong acting, fast-pace, trenchant insight, and painterly lush photography, and awesome Powell, York, and Hussey would look awesome on Blu-ray! Just sayin' - pull ze strings!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

WC Fields Forever: The Film Forum, NYC, starting Friday 4/22

It's impossible to avoid ballyhooing it up when announcing the seminal event in mine or any other film drunkard's life, the Film Forum's WC Fields retrospective, beginning tomorrow, Friday April 22nd. Unless I'm mistaken it includes every single film--even the silents and shorts--the Great Man ever appeared in. If you're unfamiliar with Fields, think Hank Quinlan in TOUCH OF EVIL if he drank more and strangled Akim Tamiroff less; think Nic Cage in LEAVING LAS VEGAS if he didn't leave, and didn't care about sex, love, or any form of gambling he couldn't cheat at; think Ray Milland in LOST WEEKEND if he stopped cringing and learned to laugh at the mouse-eating bats in his belfry. In fact, Fields would size up these aforementioned cinematic drunks and proclaim them a lot of "sissies." (He'd probably tolerate Geoffrey in UNDER THE VOLCANO, though).

Ironically, Fields never hit the big time until he was old, and almost dead, in THE BANK DICK. But he worked all through the silent era, and in Vaudeville, where he was huge, and came from a literal hard-knock life as a child in Philadelphia, a life few of us will hopefully ever come close to having. That trauma and pain was used by him as the ailment for which booze was the cure, and his clear-eyed ambivalence about the death he was drinking himself to is reflected in his existential gallows humor.

As for women, no luck or much interest sexually, but he loved to have young girls around--daughters, nieces, visiting princesses--and tolerated a slew of shrewish wives while generally steering clear of intimacy or most other physical endeavors outside of juggling, golf, deep elbow-bending, and pool, at which he was a master. He was married to booze, period, and like all true drunks, this singleness of purpose made him an almost holy figure, sanctifying him in film after film as the caretaker of abandoned orphan-style tykes and studio proteges. They were safer with Fields in his cups than they would be with any priest or adopted 'righteous' parents. Fields ferried orphans to rich relatives in SALLY IN THE SAWDUST, and POPPY while 'saving' a princess's life in YOU'RE TELLING ME, and protecting his daughter from bullies and/or suitors in MILLION DOLLAR LEGS, THE BANK DICK, and MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE. He also was given a niece in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK. Perfect companions to this staggering talent, these girls and Fields worked together in a way that was surprisingly touching, especially considering Fields' rep as a reprobate and raconteur.

But it's his aggressive carny pitchmen and towering drunks that really stick out, and who made him such a hit on college campuses in the 1960s, and ever since for some of us, you know who you are, and you need to stop to drinking, or at least stop long enough to get out to the Film Forum.

Below I've laid out the first few films of the schedule for your convenience, but you can also check it out here on the FF website. I've seen most of them (though not in these new prints) except for a few of the silents and ALICE IN WONDERLAND, so I've rated them as well, in case you need to be choosy:

Friday and Saturday - April 22/23:
IT'S A GIFT - 1934 - **** (dir. Norman Z. McLeod) / THE DENTIST 1932 - *** / MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE- 1935 - *** (dir. Clyde Bruckman)
Fields had two personae: the roustabout carny pitchman who'd rob his own grandmother to pay his bar tab, and the harried husband, stoically enduring abuse at the hands of a shrill wife and loudmouth kids until he finally (hopefully) snaps. IT'S A GIFT is far and away Fields' best in the latter category, with one memorable set piece after another. THE DENTIST has been floating around in so many butchered public domain editions that the the occasional flash of 'what the hell' as Fields ends up practically mating with one of his female patients is sometimes long lost, but not this time, Josephine! FLYING TRAPEZE is, confidentially, one of the weaker of the family man films, with primitive Hal Roach-style gags, a truly evil wife and a stepson who steals Fields' wrestling ticket and otherwise makes life hell for him and his daughter from a previous marriage. Fields endures it all until...well, look out. The best part is the beginning, a gag involving burglars breaking into Fields' homemade liquor barrel.

Sunday/Monday - April 24/25
DAVID COPPERFIELD 1935 - **** (dir. George Cukor) / ALICE IN WONDERLAND 1933 - ***1/2 - (Norman Z. McLeod)
Fields as Humpty Dumpty! Cary Grant as a mockturtle! Etc. Weird but great in its weirdness (see here) COPPERFIELD: Fields was a huge Dickens fan and gave this his all -- but it's no comedy, especially with Basil Rathbone as the sadistic evil stepfather, and Fields only shows up towards the second half. But once he does show up he's so great, and the previous stuff is so grim, that tears shall surely ensue.

So if you're in NYC this coming weekend, look around for me! Say hi! Say, what's up!? You're not a jabberknowl, you're not a mooncalf, you're not those things, are you? Speaking of which, there's always some weird old man with a green plastic binder who sits right next to me, unbidden, whenever I go to revivals at the Forum, and he grins and looks at me during the jokes! It blows my mind, I can't escape him, so if you can't find me, just look for him, and shudder...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011



Melvyn Douglas dissolves before our eyes as a French officer put in charge of French Vietnam's most sweltering prison camp. Adolphe Menjou is the scheming major with designs on Douglas' new wife, Ann Harding; he probably sent Douglas off to the camp in the first place, hoping she'd stay behind so he can get his dirty little hobbit hands on her, as he's fond of doing in these sorts of FAREWELL TO ARMS-ish variations, but who can prove it? Harding's dad says she shouldn't follow Douglas into this jungle hell, but if she does she already has the only thing that can save her there: the 'prestige' of being white. She must never slacken her grip or lose her superior breeding! Never! The natives are a mix of African-American extras, genuine Asians, and ugly white dudes in a lot of make-up, all depicted as little more than untamed animals in comparison with the staunch white man and his wife. As with all the Commonwealth-set pre-codes, the specter of miscegenation hangs throughout!

A product of the relatively rough-edged RKO-Pathe studio, PRESTIGE has strong expressionist touches and excellent tracking shots: fire dances, cockfights, guillotines, whips, chains, and general white-on-black brutality, it's like John Ford on bad acid and malaria. Simultaneously racist and anti-colonialist, PRESTIGE should be shown in every college class about Vietnam, as an illustration of the colonialist root chord underwriting the rise of Ho Chi Minh. As the screwed-over 'hero,' Douglas starts out wanting to be nice, but gets a fever, sweats, collapses, shakes, and turns sadistic: chaining up prisoners, guillotining rebel leaders, and generally devolving into a hate-filled drunk. Harding is her usual lovely, wistful self. Her soft voice ever-crackling with dignity and bruised emotion. As befits her 'white prestige,' she does what she can, but they won't even let her hang curtains! And the ending is intense, lurid, and nihilistic. Hurrah! Only in the pre-code, and even then... only abroad.

1932- Dir. William Cameron Menzies, Marcel Varnel

Edmund Lowe takes things a little lighter than PRESTIGE's Melvyn Douglas for this more kid-friendly but still decidedly racist and colonially smug pre-code film.  Chandu (Lowe) is a lordly traveler who's learned the mystic secrets of the Yogis so now can do wilder rope tricks while saving the world from non-white power mongers like Roxor (Bela Lugosi). Chandu's scientist brother-in-law (Henry B. Walthall) is abducted by Roxer's dacoits, forced to work on a death ray that can destroy zee vorld!

Though one must put up with a shitload of tired comic relief from a drunken limey who bugs his eyes out over Chandu's magic tricks, it's worth watching for the constant bizarre touches and gorgeous art direction (William Cameron Menzies at his best) and one of the sexiest, wildest performances from Bela Lugosi. Lean, dashing, dressed in black like a cool pre-beatnik, he's at the height of his insane scenery-chewing, alive with gleeful menace. Speaking of fiery death rays, check out June Lang (below) in her sheer white gown being auctioned at a slave mart filled with lusty sheiks! Like PRESTIGE (above), CHANDU considers it a betrayal of white breeding to be so much as pawed by non-white hands, which of course made such pawing a popular threat in pre-code exotica. 

All in all, with its narrow escapes, cliffhanger derring do, visible nips, and Lugosi firing on all engines, Chandu is a great undiscovered (for most of us) treat. Playing like an excellent big-budgeted condensed serial, layered with fun, menace, and intrigue, great sets and wild rides, aside fro the racism, what's not to love? Some people have a problem with Edmund Lowe. Not me, I think he's great. He's no Gable or Grant, but he's cooler than Ronald Coleman.  Irene Ware is his love interest, the glamorous Princess Nadjii (it was OK for white men to marry foreign gals as long as they were royalty - a popular loophole to let America's horrific miscegenation hysteria go unchallenged even while living the fantasy.

1932 - ***

The first and (wisely) last time Paramount ever gave Marlene Dietrich a kid and husband, Von Sternberg here seems to be lampooning typical pre-code women's pictures, showing the divine Dietrich as a good mom scrubbing her son up German-style in the bath, and enduring her near-squalor apartment while hubby Herbert Marshall diddles in labs to no great effect except to give himself radium poisoning; she must go back to her old habits of vamping to pay for an expensive European treatment. When he finds out what she's been up to, he taciturnly snaps about his cuckolding benefactor: "I don't know whether to thank him or shoot him... dead!" When you're Herbert Marshall and the guy is Cary Grant, you're better off just thanking him, but Marshall instead labels Marlene an unfit mother. Much taking it on the lam with the kid ensues. 

 As a swinger in retirement, nothing gets me down like watching a layabout like Herbert Marshall use a kid to keep his hotter younger wife imprisoned in his stifling patriarchal caress du condescension. First, we're 'treated' to the early days of how Marshall and Dietrich met--he and his student pals stumble on her and some friends skinny-dipping in a sparkly stream, and they proceed to leer to their heart's content, which right there seems shitty and frat boyish. Next we see the product of their union, with her sleeves rolled up, bathing little Johnny while Marshall looks on, and, yeesh, you can't wait for her to bail on them both and get back into a smooth nightclub with some folks her own age. So much as I admire it, BLONDE VENUS is my least favorite of Dietrich's films with Von Sternberg. Even the esteemed "Hot Voodoo" sequence loses its edge once she puts on that hideous disco 'fro wig (above). Still, there are more great moments scattered around it than a dozen ordinary films: take for example the innuendo-driven shot of a fat diner owner puffing his cigar in anticipation of how the now broke Dietrich is going to pay for the meal she just fed to her little Johnny. Du hast mich betrogen, Johnny, in der ersten Stundt, indeed!

1933 - ****

One of my favorite recent TCM discoveries, this has great saucy dialogue and sophisticated ideas on lover-swapping, especially as concerns two ladies of title, the American-born heiress Lady Grayston (Constance Bennett) and her voracious Duchess pal Minnie (Violet Kemble-Cooper) and her constant gigolo, Pepi (Gilbert Roland). A weekend in the country is called for, REGLE DU JEU-style, wherein Grayston hopes to get it on in the poolside bath house with Pepi and placate Minnie with the guest of honor, a fey dance instructor named Earnest, the hardest to get houseguest in the whole of upper crust London. Meanwhile Anita Louise, Alan Mowbray, and others look on, askance.

George Cukor--as few have before or since--really shows how the right gay male at the right time makes any party ten times better and Earnest's last act entry really kicks home the idea of a weekend party's hungover Sunday. Maybe you know the feeling: you've had a great drunken time but now its Sunday and you can barely remember how and when you may have made a fool of yourself the night before. You're anxious to leave before brunch so you can get home to your private bar and video collection, but are stopped on the way out by the late arrival of the very person you'd been hoping would come the night before. This late arrival's lack of connection with last night's damage makes him like an embodiment of fresh starts and forgiveness as he just starts rearranging everyone's mood even as the butler's taking your bag out to the car. So who laughs last? Call Earnest a stereotype, but he's delightful and even gets the priceless closing line: "There's no finer sight in the world than.. two women of title, kissing each other!"

1932 - ***

"Instead of the glorification of the gangster, we need the glorification of the policeman," explains the scroll from Herbert Hoover that opens BEAST OF THE CITY. Indirectly justifying the existence of police brutality, Hoover's letter finds its poster child in Captain 'Fightin'" Fitzgerald (Walter Huston), the Irish-Catholic representative of pre-Dirty Harry vigilante-mindedness, struggling to keep the streets of his nameless city clean while gangster-glorifying reporters gum up the works. Yes, it's MGM doing what Warners did best, a nose-to-the-pavement gangster picture, and trying to do what no other studio was dumb enough to try (except maybe Columbia), take Hoover seriously and apply bourgeois downward flowing morals to a lowbrow genre. Nothing is more anathema to genuine art than the lionization of working class 'values.' The only person who could ever make working class sentimentality seem genuine--since he damn well drunkenly believed in it--was John Ford. And BEAST director Charles Brabin is no John Ford.

All early gangster pictures were forced by citizen's groups to insert scenes of 'ordinary citizens' protesting newspapers' glorification of the gangster--these scenes were hep people's cues to go the rest room or refill their popcorn-- but in BEAST the citizen's groups have a point about who the real enemy is--the press! The cops endure a regular drubbing from the reporters who in turn influence the politicians, who need the favor of those reporters for campaign PR. Thus, the public's morbid interest in hoodlums itself indirectly breeds corruption in local government! Ladies and gentlemen, writs of habeas corpus are the tool of the mobster even more than tommy guns! Huston could slap the truth out of 'em in five minutes, but the politicians have taken away his most important tool, his fists!  

Of course one thing that made the gangster film so alluring was its wrongness, and since MGM's idea of glorifying cops is to make them into brutish, cabbage-fed simpletons (scenes include Huston reading the funnies to son Mickey Rooney over pancakes before church), you no longer get that giddy feeling of wrongness that comes from the best WB pictures, especially since the police brutality isn't directly shown. 

There are perks though: Wallace Ford is good as Figthing Fitz's brother, a cop who doesn't mind taking a drink once in awhile, especially if it's with Jean Harlow (as an unreformed moll in reformed moll clothing who sends Ford down a slippery path), and there's complex pre-code politics involving citizen's groups dictating the concessions corrupt politicians must make towards law and order, something that results in Huston being elected police chief. After his men applaud his first speech, Huston barks: "Never mind those open hands, ball em into fists and use 'em!"

But this approach also illuminates how prohibition creates contempt for the law: when you prosecute victimless crimes (no one is really glad when Fightin' Fitz closes all the bars) the more violent elements of gangland eagerly step in to fill the need, the ones not cowed by jail and cop beatings. So while Ford gets corrupted by Harlow's smooching and bootleg booze maybe Fighting Fitz is indirectly the one to blame. Meanwhile, there's lots of heroin references, as when Fitz barks: "Take away your guns and your hops and you're yellow crawling maggots."  The liberal media may have enlightened us all to the dehumanizing racism in films like BLONDE VENUS, PRESTIGE, and CHANDU, but when it comes dehumanizing opiate addicts. well, some things just never go out of style.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hex and Taxes

Emancipation Day and The Income Tax Due Date bracketed this past weekend, making it the right time to rent a ghost story/steampunk Dirty South Risin' hybrid DC comic book adaptation, on Blu-ray, and play it loud... American proud. My newest hero, Josh Brolin stars, in scarry face make-up and surly voice, as Confederate cavalry officer JONAH HEX (2010), left to die by an evil rebel general (John Malkovich) when Hex wouldn't burn down a town of innocents, or something. Medicine men show up and bring Hex back to life but he stays half-dead, partially lost in the other world, and that's what gives the film its edge. Hex can talk to the dead, and the dead are pissed. And in this graveyard of a world, pissed works. Bonding with the friend he killed his final "see you soon," is awesome in a way that recalls the "Bye Bye Life" end of ALL THAT JAZZ

Co-starring as the love interest, Megan Fox-- a raven beauty whose flawless face is here for some reason shot through the kind of Vaseline haze usually reserved for older women--plays a derringer-toting, knife-under-the-mattress-keeping prostitute loyal to Hex for reasons vaguely like Charlene Holt loyal to Wayne in EL DORADO. She fights everyone else like a wildcat, and thank god we're spared their first date but also how she pays the bills (she's not in the comics). Come to think of it, the whole mess of mysterious origin stuff is summed up the way it would be in a comic book, if you were starting with, say, issue #34, as a page of flashback before the credits. So we skip all the tiresome first meets that lesser-handed superhero adaptations think we need in a movie version, which of course we don't. As this film runs a lean 78 minutes, there's a nice random issue feeling, all swinging axes, vast swaths of expository information left on the floor, lone figure on horseback riding across the surreal plains in silhouette, psychedelic graveyards splash page eyebrow raises and abundant stones still unturned (would have loved to see them thar hell hounds Hex speaks of). But I dig the scenes of Hex rapping with the dead, pulling them up out the ground, and I dig that Hex is followed by a murder of CGI crows wherever he may ride --he's the Raoul Duke of the Old West. In this he's even more acidic than Blueberry aka Renegade

Brolin's manly gravitas and deadpan humor bumps any film up a star so I'm cool with the fact I couldn't see what was going on in any of the night action scenes. I was pleased by the overall lack of rape or inordinate torturing (aside from the macho stuff) which makes it all relatively suitable for children and sensitive feminists, of which I'm both. Rather than kill Hex and Fox whenever he gets the chance, evil supervillain Malkovich just chains them up like those self-defeating Jokers and Penguins, allowing the dynamic duo to keep their utility belts, providing oodles of opps for easy escape and vows to return same Hex time, same Hex channel. 

Though based on the low rate of returns, ah reckon Hex won't be back. Except, probably, to pull me up from the dead in a century or so on to say, hey, you war the only one who believed in me. Thank ye. 

I read the DC Jonah Hex comics as a kid and they were always entertaining if not great. They endeavored to combine old west stuff (like the original horseback Ghost Rider on Marvel) with DC's safe-but-diverting horror ala House of Mystery / House of Secrets.  That was all well and good but his horrid scar, which has left a pointless strand of flesh connecting his lips, made me think of too many unsavory school cafeteria hot pizza incidents. I would literally be constantly feeling the roof of my mouth with my tongue and rubbing chapstick in my lips while reading, and one can't help but ask, Hex, just cut that thing - can't be no nerve endings in it - it's got to be scar tissue, just cut it and be a man.

THE WILD WILD WEST TV show is another a clear ancestor of HEX the movie, which doesn't seem to make sense since that movie didn't do well either, but then again steampunk is as steampunk does (not a lot of that in the comics, didn't need it) and idiot producers love to enforce bad copycat decisions then second guess them and triple guess and then blame the director for the resulting incoherent jumbled mess.

In the end, what counts is that Fox and Brolin play it as deadpan straight. Has Brolin ever phoned it in? Even under a whole Monty Clift-style half face paralysis he's got moody, touching gravitas and Fox follows his lead and gives as good as she gets, fight-wise. Villain Malkovich hams it up old-school, which is how it should be; and the awesome Michael Fassbender is his bowler hatted right hand man. The soundtrack isn't annoying or cliche'd John Williams recyclables nor dumb pop songs with the word 'Hex' in them. I bet the film was probably longer at one point, and got edited down like it was a Cantonese Kung Fu film after a trip through the Miramax miracle dub-and-cut threshing machine. Maybe there will be a director's cut? Eight ball says: Outlook not so good.

In the end, though, what finally tips the scales exactly even are the exposed layers of red state confusion in having a hero be a ghostly avenger from the Confederate army. In order to prove he's not racist he buys all his steampunk ordinance from an African American 'Q'-type, who makes sure we know--via expository dialogue-- Hex was never big on the whole slavery thing, even though he wore the grays. Seems the North because they were trying to tell him what to do... and Hex doesn't like being told what to do, unlike the rubes who follow the feudal doctrines of the quick buck.  Emancipation redaction operation alpha, engage! Fox and Friends hate socialism until they need a subsidy or a national highway, then just watch them go gimme gimme. That's America, buddy! Now you pay! You pay now! April 15 come. Gimme!

Seeing the beholden mess our country's in, it may be hard not to root for the evil Malkovich rather than Brolin's semi-heroic Hex and the movie doesn't care if you're red or blue or gray. Rather than the wandering soldier of adventure in the comics, Hex is maybe a bit too much like the Robert Ryan character in THE WILD BUNCH or Coburn in SAM GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, hunting down the anti-corruption 'Tea Party'-style rebels on behalf of an evil congressmen (Will Arnett).  And like those Peckinpah classics, the villains are always cooler than the good, even if the good are damn cool, too. After all, Col. Malkovich doesn't rape people, and he's into cool explosions and fighting the powa. Maybe he's right, and people who vote against their own best interests like hypnotized lemmings are the fatal poison of democracy.

In fact, no maybe about it.

Then again, maybe we're all a little bit Jonah Hex too; we still like to keep one foot in Hell just so the other toe seems heaven-soled. Sometimes talking to the dead and watching TV are really one and the same and though JONAH HEX bombed with critics and audiences, flaws and all it's aces with me, or at least jacks over nines. I hope Hex returns in either an unrated extended cut or in a sequel, some day, and maybe, in that hope... as in so many other things... I ride alone... but at least I'm not a slave... except to whiskey... and Megan's foxy raven haired-pale skin-black choker look... and mortality... and taxes.. and the pain of being powerless to help when executive groupthink and artistic second-guessing ruins possibly good movies... Helplessly, I can only rage against the ceaselessly gushing flood tide of base pasteurized moronic idiocracy that stifles our land's true grit. So go git 'em, Hex. They done you wrong, but there's no such thing as a final cut, or permanent death. And taxes, well, just save your receipts, in case the Auditor comes calling, played as--who knows--Richard Lynch in an eye patch?

Friday, April 15, 2011


It was kind of disconcerting to hear Alec Baldwin and David Letterman this week discussing their love of old films, with Dave adding they start getting good only from after 1934. Say whaaa? Dude, Acidemic readers know the best cinematic times are the eras Letterman doesn't like, the post-silent/pre-code era of 1929-1934, before the code crushed womankind and made her wear ridiculous aprons and act wholesome, in ways bourgeois woman's groups felt would be better for the 'masses.' Here's some 90 proof good stuff, before they gummed the works:

1931 - ***

 Wallace Beery gets top billing in this protean MGM gangster drama set in gritty downtown Chicago (there's some chilling stockyard tracking shots). Hard to believe Beery was once a huge box office draw, playing burly ruffians opposite Jackie Cooper or Marie Dressler; he had a certain gruff charm sure, but when he left, he took the hopes of big ugly lugs to make A-list money with him. Here he plays a ruffian stockyard worker nicknamed "Slaughterhouse" who leaves off hog killing to become a gangster (prohibition made it a sound career move), eventually running for mayor on the "pig-sticker" ticket, with the stockyards howling and mooing away behind his podium.

Andre Bazin would approve of this film since it operates on a loose semi-documentary style: lots of interiors packed with extras and activity and a sense of real time via long uninterrupted takes in medium frame. Everyone speaks slowly and carefully for the early sound equipment.  If nothing else it makes for an invaluable record of Chicago in the actual prohibition era: press rooms, stockyards, nightclubs, bottling plants, breweries, various ways to stash and distribute (putting bottles inside other things for delivery, etc.) money changing hands, receipt tallying, shakedowns, political rallies, checks being written, highjacking, and blackmail. Lewis Stone is his bitter Irish rival, Jean Harlow a sexy nightclub hatcheck girl whose real job is to hook reporters so they glorify the gangsters in the press, and Clark Gable a two-timing no good rat finkwhyIoughtta.... who tips off her latest patsy.

1931 - ** 1/2

Thanks to the light touch of director Gregory La Cava this soggy farce is pretty light on its feet, even with excessive early sound hiss and TCM's print all but faded to light uniform grey. Mary Astor plays a martyrishly modern upscale wife who comes home from a trip abroad--faithful to her husband Don (Robert Ames) all the while--only to find he's taken up with a blonde gold digger (Noel Francis), and her claw-hooked mother (Gladys Gale). Once again the gender neutral fuddy-duddy-isms of Edward Everett Horton attempt to liven the stiltedness. He comes to pick Mary Astor up from the docks in a huge crowd scene; there's a brief, horrifying minute when I thought he was the husband Astor's been boasting of to her would-be lover Sir Guy Harrington (John Halliday) during the voyage. Phew! Were we meant to think that? Tricky, tricky Gregory! Things get better when the blonde gold digger hits it off with Sir Guy during a strangely sexy bicycle ride. Dewy, wild-eyed and seductive, trying to hide her panting and light sweat sheen, she really wakes up the film, ash if the exercise re-activates the bootleg backstage hooch in her system, but the zzz's are never far behind, struggling to catch up like Edward Everett Horton on a girl's bike.

1932 - ***1/2

There's been so many kid-friendly TARZAN films--from the silent era up through Disney's animated version--that it's easy to forget the first two films with Weissmuller were adult, intense, and uber-lurid. TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934) has a nude swimming scene (restored!), wild-ass battles and Maureen O'Sullivan in the hottest loincloth of any Jane ever. This one is pretty wild too. The big climax-- a tribe of pygmies throwing Jane and her father into a pit with a flesh-rending ape monster--is unparalleled in sheer lurid extremity. A more terrifying version of the Lollipop Guild, the studio used real African American and African dwarfs in the scene, and to see them all decked-out in exotic furs and fangs swarming around the pit, yelling and screaming for blood, man oh man.... it's so splendidly disturbing, and racist and wrong, you may never want to watch it again, after just twenty more times...

1931 - ***

A Warner Brothers Cagney film with lots of good-natured slapping, BLONDE CRAZY's got a little something for everyone... to be offended by... sooner or later... like seeing James Cagney--wearing lots of white make-up and eye shadow--getting taken for a sucker by Louis Calhern during a trip to the big city.  Wait... what? Louis Calhern? Senior Trentino of Sylvania? Mrs. Teasdale, I'm afraid this has forced our countries into war!

Noel Francis
Cagney starts out a movie usher, then a hotel lobby boy before hooking up with Joan Blondell to implement his scrapbook full of scams. She's the cheese, he's the mousetrap, get me? Guy Kibbee's the first sucker they trim; his roll gets them to 'a big city' and all is well... at first. Cagney in these scenes is already super-modern and hip and making fun of the measured early sound way other actors talked in the early days of sound cinema. But... again, I just can't stand seeing him get took by the dude who'd later lose a war to Groucho Marx. Am I right, bud? Would you want to see John Wayne get his ass kicked by Franklin Pangborn? And speak of the devil, Noel Francis (left) is as dewy and weird-eyed in her few scenes as she was in SMART WOMAN. More please!

There's also an impossibly young Ray Milland as a Wall Street swine who sends Blondell tomes of love poetry (Cagney reads some of the Browning in amusing style) and look fast for a 'good luck' swastika key chain.

1932 - ***

Thanks to TCM we've had the chance to discover a lot of pre-code stars that fell by the wayside over the years. Perhaps it's because being in the shadows helped stave off the draining of endless imitation, but seeing these guys in action at last over so many films it's like finding a holy grail that might lift current cinematic masculinity of its wussy gutter. Warren William is one such fella, here as droll and pleasingly devilish as a no-good embezzler can be in a loosely biographical portrait of Ivar Kreuger, the guy who cornered the market on matches in the 20s, turning his uncle's floundering Swedish match factory into a giant conglomerate because everyone uses matches, "even the rich" and anyone even the bum on the street "will give you a match." Along his way up to the top we learn all sorts of quick scam tricks, including using an array of well-kept courtesans to get insider trading tips from dignitaries, and inventing the idea of 'three on a match' to help sell more boxes, and bailing pre-war European countries out of economic collapse in exchange for match monopolies. Lili Damita gets a few meandering scenes as the main love interest; she and Warren share a long walk and got caught in the rain and then fall in love or something, then she's gone and he's back to work, thank god. No one gives a shit. We'd rather chill with Glenda Farrell who has an earlier bit as a confederate who gets the jilt stateside; Harold Huber is a Portuguese counterfeiter meanwhile, making Ivar some counterfeit bonds which eventually prove his undoing; before then though Ivar has plenty of time to espouse and practice his philosophy: "Don't worry until something happens." 

I would sure like to be able to operate that loose and gutsy but hey - it's too nerve wracking as we consider our national debt ever spiraling out into the double digit trillions. "It's all right," notes Ivar of his house of matchsticks strategy, "as long as I keep going... as long as I don't ever stop." In other words in order to not have to pay back his loans he has to keep procuring more and more debts through more and bigger investments. That's sure the way my boss Michel used to operate so I can vouch for its correctness as far as big business... Incidentally, David Letterman mentioned this movie in a discussion with Alec Baldwin this week on the joy of TCM! Baldwin hadn't heard of it. Baldwin, you'd do well to absorb a little Warren in your already scintillating rogue repertoire! He's just your type.
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