Monday, May 30, 2011

Great 70's Dads, Memorial Day Special: THE STEEL HELMET ('51)

"He got up on Easy Red beach,. and he yelled 'there are only two types of men on this beach - those who are dead and those who are about to die, so let's get up off this beach and die inland' - and that officer I give my steel hat to any day."
There's few genius auteurs who are legitimate survivors/firsthand witnesses of serious Nazi shit the Second World War, liberating concentration camps (or losing parents to them). I can only think of two offhand, Roman Polanski and Samuel Fuller, both are Jewish so...

But hey, this is isn't a post about Jewishness, neither one of them brings that up in any way as to underline one's persecution or specialness, neither is typical "Jewish" the way, say, Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg are.

I mention the latter as I wish to make comparison of style between tough cigar chomping war vet Sam Fuller--whose war films are miles away from the righteous sheepishness of Spielberg's authorial avatars in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and SCHINDLER'S LIST. The real survivors of war and oppression are free from having to depict anything but their own firsthand observances. Those of us who come after can only nose amongst the wreckage and monuments like guilty bystanders, imagining what we would have felt and done were they there, which is impossible to predict. Fuller barely mentions his own Jewishness when addressing the horrors of the concentration camp he helped liberate - for him it's a crime against humanity... He's capturing the necessity of fraternal closeness when living month after month in the maw of death. All illusion and false worries turned down effortlessly as the only way to sharpen and survive is the now. Even a prayer for a balding man to grow hair is a fleeting precious glory. In his biography Fuller mentions his general bringing the entire outfit to the local synagogue after liberating a camp, because "we were all Jewish that day." For Fuller there's no need to separate his people from the flock, there are no atheists in a foxhole, and no time for self-righteous differentiation. His soldiers are the kind who automatically light each other's cigarettes, and/or take them out of each other's mouths, or use their helmets as a railing to get down into a foxhole, or rub each other's feet when they get frostbite.  It's camaraderie of the sort no second hand auteur would know about.

Think of RYAN for a minute, a film I used to love but is starting--with the passage of time--to seem ridiculous: nervous pisher Jeremy Davis hides in the rear during combat but then runs up like the ghost of liberal future, trying to stop Hanks from shooting prisoners and Ed Burns almost deserts because "this mission is FUBAR!" Dude, what mission wasn't FUBAR? Both men should have been shot too. RYAN was the movie that made FUBAR a household name. Well my buddy John's bar was called FUBAR and it was destroyed by a falling crane, Mr. Spielberg! Look at this picture I have in my hands Mr. Spielberg!

I actually admire Spielberg's directorial skill and desire to tell an important story, I was as furious as anyone when ENGLISH PATIENT won the Oscar instead of RYAN in 1998, but we don't watch and love Spielberg's harrowing D-Day action set piece for deep analysis of memory and observational detail, we love it for duplicating the sickening trauma of actually landing at Omaha or getting us as close as anyone has yet -- we presume. Fuller's D-Day (in THE BIG RED ONE) is the trauma of remembering it, one dogface's experience, zig-zagging along Omaha beach, ducking machine gun fire and hopping over the corpses of bodies washing in and back out in the tide, looking for ammo or medicine or other officers. Fuller didn't feel the need to 'duplicate' the experience in our minds, as much as record his experience. He didn't have a chance (or the budget) to get all fluid with elaborate interwoven big scale group action. His war films, such as STEEL HELMET, FIXED BAYONETS and THE BIG RED ONE are chronicles of remembered anecdotes and observations. Like any good journalist he trusts these copious real details will be enough to garner the 'right' response from the audience: that war is more complex than mere conservative patriotism or liberal ashen dismay can encompass.

Then there's the issue of a character acting his biological age: these guys who died were young and in Fuller's films they act their age: they talk trash while acting courageously, saintly in deed, foul in speech, not the reverse. And you see how survivors of combat have their trauma volume turned way down on everything else. You can see this in the voracious way Gene Evans devours a melon while debating whether to retrieve a set of dog tags from a fallen soldier in a minefield. That's how it has to be, if you are to survive, ala NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, forgoing the dubious comfort funerals (and liberal hand-wringing). You can imagine Spielberg deciding Evans is the bad soldier for not crying and pounding the sides of the foxhole when he realizes his buddy is dead, dead dead! Instead, Evans just lights another cigar, and finishes his melon. But it's only because he knows pounding the sides of the foxhole will only draw the attention of the enemy and is useless, and without that cutting out of sentiment in favor of jaded toughness survival is unlikely. Evans and his ragtag group of stragglers could be wandering through zombie infested Pittsburgh for all we or they know - it gets to the same core of why we love those films, the escapism when we're reminded how easily all our paltry problems and obsessions are just a distraction, a sleepy curtain, veiling this raw simple real of whoever's on your team vs. whatever else comes along.

Fuller's actual war experience makes his spirituality move far beyond religions or borders, or even life and death. When Sgt. Zack (Evans) watches his young war orphan guide Short Round (Spielberg used the name for Indy's sidekick in TEMPLE OF DOOM) turning a Buddhist prayer wheel or singing "Auld lang Syne" which is also the Korean national anthem, for example, you can feel Zack's respect for even this simple gestures, he knows they are so much more important than things like dog tags, burials and objectives and rank. Fuller's awareness of the power that little motions like this can have--butterfly wing tsunami-style--in the greater scheme of war. In a situation where every movement might be your last, everything is imbued with profound significance, and in this the American soldier of Zack's strange integrity begins to understand how the Asian Buddhist mentality works.

But none of this is enough to make Zack 'break' in the emotional manner of Spielberg's "The Mission is the Man" heart-bleeders. I think there is a lot of great moments of emotional group acting in RYAN, especially in the scene when they're gathered around the dying medic played by Giovanni Ribisi, and Tom Sizemore's character seems inspired a bit by Sgt. Zack, though the idea of lugging around 'dirt' from different countries in an already heavy pack seems like something made up by a screenwriter.

For Fuller, though, humanity outflanks mere respect for each others' differences - especially around the varied reactions to the Buddha statue in the temple where the second half of the film plays out. Though eventually when Zack jumps on the the statue and uses at as cover during the climactic firefight, you realize that when  push comes to shove, it's just a statue. That's the difference, again, between Spielberg's queasy sentiment and Fuller's iron-clad compassion. 

I love the casual way these guys bump into each other, light matches off each others' helmets, using them as hand railings when climbing over each other like a litter of puppies, sticking cigars in each others' mouths, guiding their progress with hands on their chests, saying cool stuff like "I'd be crossing the Army if I brought you luck to live." -  a whole code of issues about the best jobs to have and various companies are seamlessly integrated into daily talk. I noticed this when having lunch with a bunch of Rangers headed for Iraq about five years ago. Their favorite word was 'jihad' -  "I'm putting a jihad on this waiter if she doesn't bring us more coffee" -- Zack has that same hard-won, hard-bit sense of humor too, as with his insistence on the splendor of infantry life. When a soldier in his ragtag outfit complains about 'beetle-crushing' and dreams of joining the Air Force, Evans replies "in war there's nothing like Infantry. You get hit and, dead or alive, at least you're on the ground." It's a good point that indicates knowledge of countless stories of drifting at sea on life rafts for weeks, or getting eaten by sharks, or burning to death in a plummeting B-17. To a soldier for whom every minute of life is a grace (the hole in his helmet a reminder he should be, and maybe is, already dead), the presence of the ground beneath his feet is a constant reassuring miracle. The ache in your boots lets you know you're alive; when the ache stops --you worry. Your feet may have been just blown off by a personnel mine.

In war, normal boundaries are dissolved and boundaries between soldiers seems (in Fuller's films at least) the first thing to go, as when Zack comes tumbling into a ravine with a bunch of pinned down soldiers, all clumsy and awkward, then pops up completely relaxed, like a love-in version of a mosh pit. Like a foxhole monk, Evans examines and blesses his crew, Short Round particularly, finally tapping their helmet right where their third eye is, like a holy benediction. This kind of hands-on camaraderie creates intimacy without weakness. Like a good 70s dad, Evans creates the space for the others to enjoy and relax; he keeps Short Round alive and even paints him some dog tags; he takes pride in making some sense of safety possible, without bothering to participate in it directly. His natural grumpiness serves him well. His love is tough, and if it wasn't, he and his charges would already be long dead.  They may not last the next hour, but they're here now.

As Fuller notes in his autobiography, producers first wanted John Wayne and then Larry Parks for the Sgt. Zack role, with Fuller threatening to quit each time. As a decorated war veteran, Fuller actually had business meetings with the army brass over elements like Zack shooting a Korean prisoner of war, then demanding he be kept alive ("if you die, I'll kill ya") shooting up a Buddha statue, and mentioning Jim Crow and Japanese internment camps in the soldier's dialogue. The North Korean officer they caught even has an American accent, and bad teeth and a whole Commie rap to lay down. And Fuller fought his way through to having it all included. Never try and fight with a veteran! No 20th Century Fox mogul can ever hope to be scary to a guy like Fuller unless he's got a fleet of Panzers or German 88 artillery.

At the end of RYAN, Matt Damon's elderly grandfather asks his wife "am I a good man?" While I never fail to cry at that moment, I still think it's not a question Sgt. Zack would ever ask himself. War is not a place where dying for a friend requires a pre-agreement to 'earn it.' War is just a fucking bloody mess, and the idea of 'earning it' implies a core sanity or rightness which is the death of true courage. "Buddha bless you," Zack snarls to his dying prisoner, and the gruffness somehow makes it all the more effective - you feel it like a kick to the back of the head. That's better.

Friday, May 27, 2011


Late May, summer vacation, Memorial Day. a time to embrace the inner WW2 past life veteran. Where were you when you fell? If you had a past life in North Africa, running raids against Rommel's fuel dumps, and maybe died under the treads of Rommel's esteemed Afrika Corps, you will love Netflix streaming, whereon WW2 desert warfare is amply represented.

The tussel with Monty and Rommel has long captivated the cinematic imagination.  On such a flat, harsh, unforgiving playing field, strategy is everything and both sides can get lost just trying to find the front. There are ample opportunities for stealth and skullduggery as front lines are hundreds of miles across. It's where scrappy outlaws and cunning commandos undertake missions where they wear any country's uniform but their own. 

 First: RAID ON ROMMEL (1971) with Richard Burton as a British commando taking out the shore guns of Tobruk. There's some icky misogyny with Danielle De Metz as an anachronistic jet-set Saint Tropez Italian courtesan (see how she's sandwiched in the poster atop), as if the whole movie resents some producer's edict his gold-digging hot model girlfriend be included, and no one bothered to ask her to change into something from the period. There's even a nasty crack about white slavery when she's shot up with heroin, and hip early-70s rage at high gasoline prices, making a great show of exploding fuel dumps and unlucky Germans lit ablaze in the Tobruk night thanks to Burton's ruthlessness with a flame thrower. It's such a mounting orgy of explosions by the end that it starts to resemble some surreal demolitions-porn video. Turns out it's all lifted from an earlier film, one called TOBRUK, in fact. 

PLAY DIRTY (1969) goes for the existential vibe where that's concerned: tire repair, driving stolen trucks up a mountain, weathering a sandstorm, and other SORCERER-waiting-for-Godot-style existential tomfoolery. Michael Caine is the by-the-book officer, Nigel Davenport the hardened cynic, Nigel Green the dissolute, cynical and well-worn Colonel who plans the mission (another fuel dump, by Jove!) Together they shoot unarmed Red Cross workers, (nearly) rape a German nurse, kill innocent bystanders and otherwise commit egregious and unclean deeds in the name of 'the mission.' Also anachronistically, they blare tons of music on the jeep radio like it's goddamned Top 40. The acting is all good but the existential vibe a bit souring. Part of my yen for WW2 movies is that they provide a rare chance for noble Hawksian male camaraderie but PLAY DIRTY denies that fantasy, trying to shoehorn post-1969 Vietnam bitterness into pre-1945 history.

When I see a war movie I want more than the begrudging respect of a few salts and an innocent German nurse nearly raped and then stabbed for no discernible reason. I want more than WAGES OF FEAR-style men in trucks minutiae. Hitler and Japan were the be-all and end all of ruthless evil. We can try to fathom the depths of soullessness we are all capable of, but even the cynical air of the late 1960's-early 70's Vietnam era which infuses both these films can't argue with that level of horror. Why bother souring us on the last chance we ever had to be truly the good guys? There's a time and place where we actually won the war, and no amount of Vietnam disillusion should cloud that up. Sometimes in showing how gritty and vile war is you only show how bitter and jaundiced you are, and PLAY DIRTY alas seems to think rubbing our noses in rotten behavior is a kind of Robert Aldrich shortcut to hip anachronistic CATCH 22-MASH-DIRTY DOZEN relevance. But cynicism should never cut so deep you start biting the hands that hold your tickets. Only on the Military Channel.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Long and Tall XXL in the Saddle

The way John Wayne rides a horse is the closest thing lazy big and tall men have to their own form of liquid poetry. Always bumping our heads going down basement steps, cramping our legs in ordinary airplane seats, dangling over edges, looking apish in hand-me-downs from normal size cousins; we're often light-headed from being head in the clouds all the time and John Wayne is all these things, but turns them upside down through sheer moral charisma. He's so tall he seems like he's outgrown the pony below him, even if its a roaring stallion. He forces us to re-examine the sheer surreal strangeness of a man riding a four legged animal like some strange Martian centaur. He's the father who is both fearsome, protective, loving, and just a wee bit of a jokester. All that adds up to perfection, so when Wayne goes rogue on us, like halfway through RED RIVER, we're traumatized in a way we're just not when the diminutive James Mason loses it along similar lines in BIGGER THAN LIFE.

I'd been avoiding John Ford's cavalry trilogy (FORT APACHE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, RIO GRANDE) my whole life, smarting from the childhood terror of Henry Fonda's stern anti-Indian policies and the mix of honor, tradition and whiskey-besotted sentimental blarney that is life in Ford's patriarchal colonialist west, and instant tedium to any kid who doesn't yet know the sweet soul-stirring taste of the 'water of life.'

But I should have known better not to just glance at labels and mustaches. (Wayne's mustache spooked me away from SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON). The problem with assumption means you're always predicting the lowest result. Period westerns with frilly bonnets and well-meaning old matrons stirring pots and yelling at young Jeff Carson to come in from the fields for dinner can be dull, but that doesn't mean Ford's are dull. In fact every aspect of every Ford movie would be dull in the wrong hands. In Ford's hands, however, it's poetic. The iconography comes to life. As he probably invented most of it, I guess that makes sense

To me it's proof that the conservatives and liberals are all mixed up - the neo-cons should making more movies and the liberals saving their sermonizing for the senate floor. And for god's sake, more drinking. If you look at the films of the 1970s compared to the films of now, it's clear what made them cooler, earthier, more poetic, dirty, cool, and real: more Valium, cigarettes (indoor smoking), booze, casual sex, long hair, and whatever the hell else.

In Ford's cavalry pictures we actually see (heaven forefend!) a situation where drinking, dancing, and killing are all socially condoned rituals. Most boys today find themselves stricken as social outcasts, hunted by the cops, the minute they sip their first beer or toke their first joint. Rather than an initiation into the social order with its laws, values, and common enemy (outlaws, Injuns), the first beer or toke casts us forever outside the social order - we become the outlaws.  Is it the drugs that are to blame, or the laws, those nanny state control freak tantrums that result when laws are passed but Americans don't instantly fall to their knees and renounce whatever it is the hysterical old people see fit to demonize? The sentences are lengthened, the fines stiffened, and still Americans cling to their freedom. Whether hurling tea into Boston Harbor, rising up against the whiskey tax, or growing dope in your parent's upstate New York basement, you're a true patriot! And you know who would agree with me? Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, you heard me, and John Ford, John Wayne and BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS star, John Agar, before, that is, the evil brain took over his body.

And especially if you're tall and heavy and don't move so well, let Wayne show you how it's done - and remind you that you don't have to do it. Summer's here, so soak it up the way the west was meant to be, in the dreams of a TV,  with Irish in your air conditioned blood finding itself warmed in every song The Sons of the Pioneers sing to their holy Shirley Temple.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


1973  - Dir. Antonio Margheriti

This international-Italian/French co-production stars yeh-yeh girl Jane Birkin as a plucky ingenue possibly going mad in a mansion full of eccentrics all vying for possession of the elaborate yet crumbling secret passage-ridden ancestral estate; she's like Paulette Goddard in the 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY if the Bob Hope part was played by a brooding Byronic pretty boy chief suspect... and he had a pet gorilla; and she came with her mom, but her mom was murdered and then appeared to her as a vampire ghost with a Hamlet-like demand for vengeance. The score's a bit on the dimestore Morrione cop show side, but that's hardly bad thing. The main benefit here is gorgeous photography lush enough that at times Birkin's luminous hair has the beauty of Sissy Spacek's in BADLANDS, this film  bumps up three stars now that it's not a panned, scanned, washed-out mess. The only remaining flaw is a truly ridiculous gorilla suit, which is anyway a nice souvenir from the age of the old dark house mysteries, which Margheriti clearly loves along with the writing of the godfather of the giallo, Edgar Wallace.

One of the stand-out elements here are the clothes, which 'nod' to an assumed setting of 1930's England, but just nod, keeping the high fashion edge rather than getting bogged down in stuffy details like bowler hats and woolen overcoats. For her mourning wear (above) Birkin is given a beautiful black fur collar and her nightgown's sexy without being tacky (Von Sternberg would have approved). The whole production, aside from lingering close-ups of rats eating the face of victim #1, is very tasteful. The music is the orchestral suspense-generating variety rather than the moody giallo electric guitars of the time, but that's not worth a demerit. Indeed, the only demerit is maybe dubbing Serge Gainsbourg (he's the detective) with a fake Scotch burr, and not letting Jane B. do her own voice in English (She was English, after all, despite singing in French for hubby Serge). I kept thinking, hey! She's Charlotte Gainsbourg's mom! and imagining Charlotte even being conceived during this shoot, though that's maybe a stretch. Still it would fit with Charlotte's career choices, and thus this would be a great double bill with ANTICHRIST! Meee-yow!

1977 - Dir. Lucio Fulci

Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci may have a weakness for pointless gross-outs, nightmare logic, and jarringly placed schlock pop ballads, but THE PSYCHIC (AKA 7 NOTES IN BLACK) proves he can also  deliver a relatively tasteful, classically logical, lovingly lensed 'psychic wife searching for her own killer'-style-mystery. Here Poe motifs mingle with an array of time capsule 70s horror film trends, namely ESP - which was super hot after CARRIE - and it's all so well done you'll forget how entrenched it is in its moment. Bixio, Frizzi and Tempera's score will rattle the lamps off your table but only via such a slow build-up from a gentle refrain (the "Seven Notes" of its alternate title) that you're never shocked, only slowly alarmed.  And the ending is incredibly tense, clever, and torturous without being gory. Truly both Hitchcock and Poe would probably nod to each other from across the balcony at a preview screening, while De Palma would stew in jealousy that someone was able to hit all the buttons he did but without all the fancy tricks and misogynistic violence.

Jennifer O'Neill is excellent in the lead, devoted to the truth of her visions with such single-minded resonance you can see why her character has so ably blended into the fathomless wealth of her hood-eyed husband (Gianni "Sartana" Garko). Even if she never even takes off her coat or sweater, let alone disrobes for some obligatory love scene, her eyes still smolder, perfectly holding a vast amount of black eyeliner with nary a droop or smudge; her Brazilian ex-Cover Girl model skin brilliantly matches the rich autumnal color patterns of her fashions --she's an unusual presence in these kinds of films --a mature knock-out and no push-over. First accusing him, but then working to clear her husband of a five year-old murder after she flashes on where the body is buried, she sets about following her instincts and drives with enough keen resolve we never even notice when they begin to give way to uninhibited horror. An extended cat and mouse chase through a rich old art dealer's mansion and an under-construction nearby gallery museum provides most of the suspense: it goes on so long it's still in effect by the climax and end of the film! Add the dusty, unused mansion that Garko seldom uses but ONeill is thinking about refurbishing (she's neither a mother nor employed, though--as she tells the cops--she's a decorator), and you have a movie that breathes a rarefied, rich air without seeming like a social climbing outsider. Every car is gorgeous and when Garko flies he takes his own private plane and she waves goodbye from the landing strip before driving off in her swanky ass roadster. O'Neill doesn't bat an eye over any of it, yet has no problem grabbing a pick axe and hacking through a spot in the wall her vision tells us hides a body, even while alone in a huge spooky mansion.  Evelyn Stewart plays her sister in-law, a strong-willed, very-cool cigarette-smoking Germanic lady who helps her decode the clues; Gabriele Ferzetti (!) is one of the suspects - but he had a beard in the vision! OMG, he shaved it off! And Marc Porel is her 'para-psychologist' doctor and ex-lover, who records her descriptions of her visions for later use and backs her up on her endless investigations. She may be seeing into the future as well as the past --gulp--which is which?

All in all, it's a big hit, artistically, and O'Neill's facility with mental powers made her ideal to appear in Cronenberg's SCANNERS four years later, once again showing an ability to seem very resilient, assertive and self-confident while at the same time deeply affected by the weird and horrific (2). Even the dubbing is good. And as it builds and builds in intensity the score starts to straddle the line between Ennio and Goblin as if the two were really one and the same all along. The photography is nice and dusky, the frame often encompassing the entirety of a room from above, allowing us to soak up the centuries in the ancient plaster like some crystal energy-sucking ghost. All in all, not to be missed.

1970 - Dir. Mario Bava

Movies like this early Bava effort live and die by the score and Pier Umiliani's sleazy, shrill, unmodulated organ-- like some Fellini movie fell off its tracks and smashed into a roller rink DJ booth-- and bursts of inappropriate Latin jazz makes you wonder what Ennio might have done with a few electric guitars instead. Bava meanwhile is indulging 'lazy zoom shot' mode, so we know we're not in Black Sabbath country anymore. Where we are at is a weekend getaway of the jet-set rich and famous, out at a swanky summer pad on a remote island where all the men are jostling for a mcguffin formula for rubber or something, trying to outbid each other and steal each other's wives (or give theirs away). The blonde young scientist (steel-eyed William Berger) doesn't want to sell, but his wife is hot so maybe that can be a wedge? Adolpho Celli is one of the more boisterous swingers, ever trying to Shark Tank a deal together with one or more of these cagey investors. Helena Ronee, Edith Meloni, and Ely Ganalle are some of the dolls, though the real standout doll is Edwige Fenech, though here she has little to do except look languidly oversexed. As friends and enemies and lovers all sashay around and also die quickly (we never see them murdered, only discover the bodies) it's like Bava is trying for La Dolce Vita via Ten little Indians. As the bodies accumulate in the meat freezer, the swingers all wonder to the extent they should care about their own safety. "We're the first one to have deep-frozen houseboy" notes George (Teodoro Corrà), 'coldly'.

The macabre irony is heavy-handed but Bava's clearly having a ball (or faking it well), oscillating between the leering zoom poetry of Jess Franco, the glittery decadence of Fellini, and the frisson of Antonioni. Wandering camera close-ups and pull-focus deep frames make it all easy to watch --the flow of fabric for lounging Fenech's dresses drape around the rectangular parameters of the proscenium arch as she rotates around on her circular bed, waiting for some husband or other to make a move. Outside, people wander the beach and spy on each other behind the rocks; inside, we follow the path of a bunch of silver balls from a fight up the stairs down into a sunken bathtub adorned with another dead beauty.

So many people die so fast you may wonder what bloody well is the point. Since the house is all modern and stark white there's little opportunity for Bava's deep red and purple gel color schemes, but the lighting is still great if you have the Blu-ray or it happens to be on Amazon Prime in HD; the women are all hot, their dresses are pop art at its finest and there are great lines like: "Death makes you feel dirty." and "Houseboys come and go but there's always the bottle." There sure is...

There's also the cast, led in spots by Edwige Fenech and Ira Von Furstenberg (Diana's ex sister-in-law), and let's check in with Tenebrous Kate:
These jet-setting millionaires may be a generally oily and unlikable lot, but don't think for a minute that this means they're not incredibly well dressed.  The costumes are drool-worthy, from Edwige's scanty white petal bikini to the slim-cut hep-cat trousers favored by the gents of the cast.  Spangles, gauze, colorful lacey undergarments, and pop art fabrics abound.  The house where much of the action goes down is the seaside equivalent of the Frank Lloyd-Wright-esque mansion at the end of "North  by Northwest," with its cliff-side perch and vast expanses of window." (more here)
Amen. The trick --as Kate shows in her observant details--to digging this film is to admire the crazy clothes and pop art detail rather than expecting to be riveted by the narrative. Apparently Bava was hired on at the last minute and was refused permission to deviate from the script. Still, ever the pro, he delivers with some great shot composition, so you have to be paying attention to more than the plot to 'get' its brilliance. It may take a few viewings but it's worth the effort, just barely, now that the HD version lets us see around the corners, and count the luxuriant strands of Fenech's hair.

1971 - Dir. Aldo Lado

An ornate title with an objectifying noun (girls as breakable objects) + a high-ranking international journalist (Jean Sorel as a soft butch version of Franco Nero) sulking through communist Prague thinking his press card allows him to push his luck with the repressive authorities + sinister suspects snapping down shades, or lowering their newspapers slowly to peer malevolently as he passes + a dark secret that's like Kafka via David Icke +  one cute girl vanishes almost immediately = Aldo Lado's dreary film, proving gialli need to take place in the more permissive West or are just depressing. Aside from a great last ten minutes, Dolls puts the drag in draggy. With "the oppression of the [Communist] party," in full effect, reporter Sorel is continually under scrutiny for trying to tell the truth, which is that attractive young people should never look too attractive to the cold, dead-eyed middle-aged elite of an Eastern European country, for no good ever comes of it.

Case in point: Sorel wants to smuggle his lady friend (Barbara Bach) out of Prague into West Berlin. "Don't worry about crossing borders, I've already crossed palms" he assures her, thinking himself very witty. But the palms might have ideas of their own and when he shows her off at a party that night-- Bach looking ravishing in a shimmering cocktail dress, her famous long brown hair a perfect silky band offsetting the silvery grey of her dress--the power brokers at the bash start stirring to life like deeply entombed sleeping vampire catching wind of a far off spelunker's period. She's gone by the end of the night, and didn't bring her passport, leaving Sorel with just her purse and her dress on their couch, so where... what?

It's hard to care when the setting is this oppressive. The key to the giallo is it exists in a post-Antonioni Blow-Up world, where the youth rule the scene and beauty is its own tyranny and anyone who cares to don black gloves and wield a razor can become king for a few moments before he dies hideously. Here there's no chance evil will ever lose; the deck is so stacked against Jean it's hard to root for him. Even Ennio Morricone's score lists along at half-mast, limiting itself to some screeches that sound like an orchestra tuning up before playing a program of Bartok as conducted by Bernard Herrmann having a panic attack. Sure, it's still Ennio and it rocks in its draggy way: I had the soundtrack long before seeing the film and used to love to listen to it on my Discman while walking through Prospect Park at night with my dog; every shadow on the stone bridge walls alive with pareidolic menace, the Bartok-by-Herrmann-ish avant garde jangles frying my nerves in the most giddy and pleasurable of ways.

But dude, where are the stylish clothes? The hot girls? Once Bach is gone, only Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin, as a sex-starved fellow journalist, gets any color, and then only via headscarves that only make her look older than she already was at the time. At the party she comes onto Jean pretty intensely and if you're a Bergman fan it's weird to see this crossover, since she's usually such an icy Nordic powerhouse, aloof and imperious (or if horny, openly vampiric, like her Veronica Vogler in Hour of the Wolf). There's also a zombified blonde hanging out with another of Sorel's journalist buds, played by the great Mario Adorf, a much more acclimated guy who notes: "even chickens in the frying pan are called political suicides here."

Narrating from a slab on the morgue ala Scared to Death, the disjointed recollection format is confusing (continuity is anticommunist), but we get many pieces of a bizarre puzzle. Some scenes seem to be missing and the overall hanging heavy bureaucracy and corruption. It's pretty funny that a supposedly keen journalist would go around trying to solve his girl's murder with his conniving ex-lover who desperately wants him back, a kind of L'Aventura in verso but it's hard watching this chump refuse to notice the giant dripping jaws of the bear closing in on him.

Expertly summarizing the film's distinct old vs. young generational conflict as analogous to Eastern European politics is James from Behind the Couch:

The film also serves as a sly allegory addressing the destructive nature of totalitarian governments, like the one in power in Czechoslovakia at the time. The weird socially elitist members of the cult represent overpowering authoritarian systems in which the higher classes literally suck the life out of younger generations, those less well off and anyone else who opposes them. The older generation is depicted as inherently sinister in this film. The disdain and suspicion of the elderly middle class is exhibited clearly in the scene in which Gregory sneaks into the goldsmiths building and into a room full of elderly people in evening dress listening to a classical concert. They sit motionless and look uncannily like the undead ghouls in Carnival of Souls
That sounds creepy all right, but is it any fun? Without the pop art colors, foxy broads in dazzling clothes, and sense of a kinetic capitalist whirligig at work, Morricone's dissonance can only do so much. In Eastern Europe, the murder of free-thinking young people--whether by knives, imprisonment, Satanic cult sacrifice, or just drab industrial Kafkaesque slow soul crushing-- seems almost a mercy.

1971 - Dir. Giuliano Carnimeo

When it comes to soundtracks, Bruno Nicolai is no Ennio Morricone, but he conducted and collaborated on many of Morricone's giallo scores, so sometimes his score of jazzy musak for Bloody Iris veers out of the usual spy film schmaltz and into the breathy sing-song creepy stuff from the earlier Argento films like Bird with Crystal Plumage. Bruno could never imagine these movies ever getting on TV and video was a decade away, so he can be forgiven for thinking we'd forgotten the eerie melody. Compensating for any inequity is the always provocative Edwige Fenech, here as--what else?--a neurotic under-sexed housewife escaping a bad group marriage ("one flower, one body, with many petals") by moving into a Satanic high rise. Her neighbors are models already in the midst of being knocked-off before she gets there, as we learn from some creepy old violinists dishing exposition in the foyer. Everyone's a suspect, including Fenech... or is it all her imagination? My money is on the burn victim recluse, the old lady who won't "give them alcohol" or the hot lesbian offspring of one of the taciturn old eccentrics. The killer is the official giallo type: androgynous in black stocking mask, raincoat, fedora and gloves. In this instance, alas, the gloves are a sickly looking yellow rubber variety. A real turn-off!

I'm not giving anything away by mentioning the main culprit is Fenech's mysterioso architect boyfriend (the ubiquitous tall dark and effeminately handsome George Hilton) but he goes all fugue state panic at the sight of blood--or wait, is it her jealous ex-husband (Ben Carra), the same man who drew her into the Wildflower Group sex club in the first place ("you're an object and you belong to me!")? An hour after watching this film you won't be able to remember a thing about it, but is that really so bad? Some great scenes of urban alienation, like a stabbing out in public that takes forever for anyone to notice as they hustle past to and fro, bespeak some lofty underpinning to the 'you never know who your neighbors are anymore' modernist eeriness. Even the lesbian neighbor (Annabella Incontrera) responds to Sheila's freak out that a neighbor's burn victim son just tried to rape her by admiring her body and saying "you'd tempt anyone" rather than offering sympathy or help calling the cops. A black dancer challenges her nightclub audience of leering men to a judo fight, vowing to be their sex slave if they should subdue her inside of three minutes --the kind of stuff an American director would hopefully never dare put in a film ("your color is already starting to corrupt me" notes the club's pervy owner). A ditzy roommate Marilyn (Paola Quattrini) feigns drowning in the tub for a joke, the day after a girl is killed in it (she gets the best line though "No orgies: I get motion sickness!"). Then there's the mom of the burn victim: "my son never harmed anyone before; he understands what whores you are!" Even Hilton warns her "wait until I try to make it with you and you'll find out what a bastard I am." At least he's honest. But the most offensive bit is the cop's derogatory put-downs of the lesbian neighbor ("try the opposite sex; that's what we're here for!")

As with all early 70s genre cinema set in old or new apartment buildings,  Carnimeo sets the tension in elevators, sub-basements, and auto junkyards, and the power keeps going out. Could this film have been seen by Brian De Palma? What's that? You don't care? You can't leave me, Jennifer! You're bound to us, do you hear? Bound... body and soul!

Yes, cliche'd dubbing abounds but some parts are pretty kinky-creepy and Fenech looks great as always. Her tortured puritanical soul battling her corruptive, voluptuous sprawl of a body in a one-woman wrestling match, she's latent Catholicism's whole trip wrapped up in a languorous cross-bed stretch. And her makeup - alabaster cheeks and perfect delineated black eyelashes over big wide eyes (like limpid pools - gorgeously lit), and clothes--especially a long black cape, and a blue, white and red mini dress that evokes nurses and sailors---are perfect.

2. If you want to read a disturbingly-TMI mini-biography check it out on Imdb.  

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fourteen or Fight! WILD IN THE STREETS (1968) or "The Day it all Happened, Baby."

In today's environ of political stagnancy we may no longer remember how it could even be possible, but between 1967 and '70, the establishment was seriously concerned about being overrun by its own children. The suits were scared, the politicians saw the size of the crowds at Woodstock, the small cities worth of people who would appear within a week of some rock star announcing a free concert, and they knew no army could stand in their way. And we have WILD IN THE STREETS (1968) to prove it. This is the film that made good on the ever-looming urban myth about the evil hippie plan to spike the water supply with LSD, that foresaw the lowering of the voting age (the age to vote didn't get lowered to 18 until 1971), and threatened to send everyone over 30 off to camps for 're-grooving' (1). The only old guy in the film is the original Ed Begley as a youth-hating politician advising the only-then semi-old California senator Hal Holbrook not to make a deal with the devil, or a young rock star, in this case Max Frost (Christopher Jones, who looks like James Dean's x Martin Sheen).

Max is handsome and charismatic; he can even get away with having a weird pony tail - he's that hot. Richard Pryor plays his drummer; Kevin Coughlin is his 14 year-old queer (!) super genius accountant and guitar player; Diane Varsi is his ex-child star / acid casualty senator. Shelly Winters brays to the rafters and his glomming mom and her schtick has not aged well (until she gets subjected to 'LSD therapy' and decides, "I'm sure my son has a very good reason for paralyzing the country" - she really nails the vibe; her eyes glow in awe over a flower) Songs include "Shape of Things to Come" (a real-life hit), "We're the 52%" and "Fourteen or Fight!" which encourages youth to go on a rampage if the voting age isn't lowered to 14. Eventually, after a few more rungs in between, it is. As soon as that happens, naturally, Frost is elected prez, baby and the organized jihad against the older generation begins in earnest. But his days are numbered: age stops for no Pan.

What's interesting is that this film came out a year before Woodstock and Altamont, but these events are already prefigured in "the biggest block party in history" that narrator Paul Frees calls Frost's Sunset Strip demonstration. Frees' narration also mentions that the older "people die of shock just watching TV." Oh if only, man, if only.  The songs were written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann who wrote songs in the following year's ANGEL ANGEL DOWN WE GO, which would have been more of a hit had it not had a late-inning title change (to CULT OF THE DAMNED) to capitalize on the Manson murders, or if it had a real hook like this whole voting age business.

But hey, baby, let's focus up on 1968, the year this film came out, hitting a nice little nerve during a very turbulent and hopeful time. Up until this point in history the youth had a pretty serious, even pipe-smoking voice, especially on college campus, where they regularly made local and even national news protesting and holding sit-ins. It was the year that battles against sexism, racism, censorship, Vietnam, and sexual taboos raged and America seemed ready to rip its face off.  If they wanted, these bands could start a real revolution with their long hair and their rock music.

I wasn't thee, of course, but anyone can feel the change and nervousness just by watching GIMME SHELTER. The scene were Melvin Belli acting as the Stones' lawyer, meets with assorted SF city planners to coordinate the Altamon Speedway free concert. There's a sense the city needs to accommodate the crowds the Stones will bring and not the other way around. You can feel the unease as the old powers bow to the whims of the young. And then later in the film, the way the wild anarchy of druggie California weirdness in turn overwhelms the music itself.

On that note, it's to the credit of TV director Barry Shear that he can depict Max's massive shows of youth revolt without any big crowd scenes, really via nothing more than tinted stock footage of the nightly crowds on the Sunset Strip, overlapping with a parking lot bonfire, parked motorcycles, stalled traffic, random shots of crowds dancing, tinted windows, blinking signs, audience shots from earlier rock concert films and earlier love-ins, skylines, and the Capital Building -all whirled together in a color-styled Eisensteinian overlapping montage set to the bands' music and cheering and sirens. In other words, nary a farthing spent on crowd scenes (PS 1/19 - the version recently shown on TCM didn't have this footage. Could it have been added later to pad for TV running times, like AIP often did before selling packages to TV?). Genius! To give the film that you-are-there youth clout, there are walk-on cameos from youth idols like Bobby Sherman, Peter Tork, and Gary Busey. As with most AIPs, there's less than a dozen people in the whole movie but if you're drunk or ten years-old it can seem like the most dangerous, expensive film ever made; in the style Corman brought to AIP (and later took with him) a bigger canvas is suggested by drawing on parallel drive-in experiences (i.e. we don't need 'new' crowd shots, we've seen plenty already).

Writer Robert Thom wrote the script, based the script on his short story, "The Day it all Happened, Baby." Thom wrote a lot of films about overbearing moms and their beautiful Apollonian sons, like that ANGEL ANGEL AKA CULT OF THE DAMNED (the fat girl's rich bitch mom Jennifer Jones sleeps with her daughter's rock-star boyfriend); BLOODY MAMA (Mama--Winters again--sleeps with her son's gay lover); DEATHRACE 2000 (son runs over old lady); LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (snide old lady gossip columnist hounds Byronic filmmaker and his lesbian assistant) etc. It doesn't take much psycho-analytic deconstruction to glean Thom's whole bag, making him the link between the AIP drive-in and Tennessee Williams. Sebastian Venable's fingerprints are all over Thom's subtexts!

Come to think of it, has Robert Thom ever written a straight love scene? Like a genuine no-nonsense 'straight people being genuinely romantic' kind of trip? Oh wow... no. There's seduction but never love; there's no sex in WILD IN THE STREETS, and the one moment of intimacy comes with Jones and another boy. Oh Thom. As Diane Varsi drawls, with a loving, languid smile, "I think... you boys... are fags."

Again, it may seem 'strange' but hey, for a commercial film from 1968 meant for mass drive-in appeal, that kind of risk-taking is awesome. Buried under the main text, and enough psychedelic light show madness and teeny bopper blonde hair to keep the older generation confused, it can fly right by if you ain't lookin'.  For all that great covert stride-taking, however, the music still has traces of AIP's patented corniness: lazy horn sections remind you that the older generation making the film harbor unconscious resentment for their drive-in demographic, like the horn section is sneering as their talents are wasted on 1-4-5 rock tripe. But they shall play it or go to the camps! Even Shelly Winters eventually has to bow and gurgle to please them, and methinks we're meant to feel bad for her, for--in her bloated, indiscriminate devouring--does she not represent America itself? But America has always thrived on dissent. Sometimes the greatest patriots are those who would elect a mentally unstable sociopath "just to see what would happen." (you know who I mean).

After WILD was over, I turned cable back on and there was this show on History Channel: '69 - The Sexual Revolution' and Hugh Hefner talking about how he and Shel Silverstein appreciated the free love movement more than the youth around them because they--he and Shel--had grown up in a more conservative time. And I thought, like wow, dig, my generation is living the exact reverse!! I saw enough sexual liberation as a kid in the 1970s that I've come to feel I'll never--no matter how debauched I become--ever live up to that level of freedom, and the younger kids are threatened, not by my moral rigidity, but my lack thereof. I preach, not of decency, but of the glory of a vanished age, a time before safety, health, environmentalism, and antidepressants (which are a lot like the daily LSD supplements in the re-grooving camps), a time when sex didn't need apologies and guilt trailing after it, repression and fear blocking its path. WILD IN THE STREETS reflects the other time, when the idea of freedom and the banners of sex, drugs, and rock and roll had permanently (we thought) done away with the nanny state Safety First Clydes and racist, sexist, homophobic Anita Bryants, or at least reduced them to powerless Shelly Winters caricatures, the type of whose raving actually made the average Americans more tolerant (Anita Bryant's rabid hate-mongering actually turned a lot of Middle-America around on the issue --i.e. it's this bitch that is evil, not them). But our nation is nothing if not bi-polar, half terrified family man, half crazed druggie biker.

That's the secret of America: when you're always fighting yourself, you can't lose.

1) Firesign Theater - Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lashes by Covergirl...and Centurions: THE TOURIST, MASQUERADE and THE SEVENTH SIGN

Where o where hath my Angelina gone? The one who burned a whole through GIRL, INTERRUPTED, or even the one who dazzled with her mix of mature romanticism and aerodynamic toughness in MR. AND MRS. SMITH?

Like Natalie said in THE BLACK SWAN: "She's gone!!"

In SALT (2010 - see my review," From Russia with Adamantium Cheekbones") we saw the once mighty Jolie beginning to look a little frail. We winced when she fell from high bridges onto highway traffic, for her bones seemed brittle like a bird.  The only wincing in THE TOURIST (recently arrived on DVD) comes from the contrived situations and dialogue, barely audible as Jolie's manipulative narcissist triple financial double-crosser never speaks above a posh British purr she must have borrowed from Eva Green in CASINO ROYALE.

Jolie was only around 35 when she made THE TOURIST but she seems much older thanks to a Joan Collins-level makeover: botox frozen smile, cheeks glossy, eyes smudgy-smokey like yawning coal chutes; endless cutaways to rich beautiful younger men looking up, in rapturous awe, from their Rolexes and Cristal flutes; or parting before her at the ubiquitous ball like a black and white formal sea, nodding in admiration as this old-before-her time diva passes by, rigorously bound up in the latest expensive couture, walking like she's holding a vial of nitro in a place where no lover has ever trespassed; all that's missing is a tag for Godiva chocolate bars, or rejuvenating night creme, spoken in a hushed turned-on whisper. If it was 1984 and this was a TV movie called Jacqueline Susann's Venice Nights and Jolie was pushing 50, it would finally make a lick of sense.

Even in her seventies and drunk beyond measure, Marlene Dietrich, for example, could still pull off the trick of shining through such airless luxury and making the public adoration believable. You might say you can't compare Jolie with Dietrich, to which I'd say, yeah, duh! Jolie could act circles around Dietrich, and is just as hot if not hotter, so why is Dietrich at 70 sexier than Jolie at 35? The truth is, these handsome moneyed guys on these euro-trains wouldn't give the Jolie in this film more passing glance if it wasn't her movie. Her vibe is dour; she seems to expect adoration to the point she'd crack apart if someone rolled her eyes instead of widening them in awe. All that keeps her from crumbling into mummy dust is an incessant stream of adoration. She's a black hole of compliments, and I've known girls like this--drop dead gorgeous but frozen solid in their personae like victims of their own mirror Medusa-- and any man who can afford a Rolex has already learned not to even make eye contact with this type of pretty woman ("it's so expensive!" as Mischa Auer noted in MR. ARKADIN), unless, of course, the director insists

When Bette Davis made herself the object of every man's desire in her films, for another contrast aside from Marlene, it was fascinating because she wasn't remotely hot (post, say, 1935) and didn't try to hide her psychotic intensity. If she dreaded getting old, she'd just scream at the mirror in full Baby Jane make-up until the madness passed. Bette was so cool she even made films like THE STAR (above, with Oscar and Jim), which spoke to the tragic absurdity of actresses clinging onto juvenile roles long past their prime. In short, Davis embraced her own ridiculousness with the tenacity of a boxer, the type so used to punches they don't even flinch when enduring a flutter of sharp jabs to the kisser

THE TOURIST screams for a Davis or a Dietrich or even a Joan Collins. Lacking one, it insists we believe its phony emotional catharses and triple crosses; it prefers we swoon at Jolie's perfume ad acting while it itself remains steadfastly cynical (the final line is as shameless a piece of subtextual vanity as I've ever heard). When the climax of a film involves the heroic self-sacrifice of actually paying back taxes, you know you're watching a film made by people who've never flown coach or cooked their own food, let alone been chased by the cops, or slept on a floor, or had to drink beer so bad it could only be ingested via a chilled funnel. I refer of course to nasty-ass Piel's, Milwaukee's Best. 

Maybe that's the alchemical transubstantiatory rub: this is a film where rich people fool each other into thinking they're poor - like internet dating in reverse. But the film itself hasn't fooled anyone (it bombed), least of all the Cult d'Jolie. Our baby is a dinosaur now, with an array of war orphan leeches draining her charisma daily. Will we ever get her back? All signs point to no. We're stuck with the waxwork substitute.


Speaking of back taxes and fooling each other with false personae, there's a forgotten, similar film called MASQUERADE (1965) on Netflix Streaming, which is marginally better than the very similar THE TOURIST, if only for its droll William Goldman script and wry performances from British spy movie regulars like Jack Hawkins and Charles Gray. The plot involves the 'kidnapping' of a young heir to an Arab kingdom who is about to turn old enough to depose the acting emir, who's in league with the Communists (the heir is pro-British). A coup is feared, and the kidnapping prevents it. Only who hired bungling playa Cliff Robertson to guard the chicken coop?

Soon enough, naturally, the kid is kidnapped from the kidnappers and Cliff finally realizes he's the fall guy; a traveling circus/smuggler troupe led by Michel Piccoli that includes femme fatale Marissa Mell (both were in DANGER: DIABOLIK!) and a knife-throwing dwarf are running the show. Double crosses galore, mes amis! No one is who they seem! Robertson owes back taxes to the British! Again with the taxes.

At least MASQUERADE has the self-awareness to regard its own facile nature with the same witty acumen it regards espionage and, if there is no difference, at least its British enough to admit it. Here if you're not a triple agent, with golden parachutes from here to Madrid, then you're worse than a fool, you're a patriot. THE TOURIST would probably smile at the notion of actual patriotism if it could but it doesn't dare take the risk of wrinkles.

Luckily THE TOURIST's bombing at the box office showed we didn't come to praise the golden mummy but to sell it on eBay. THE TOURIST will soon reside in the $3.99 rack next to THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE and SHANGHAI SURPRISE... only to re-emerge from the rubble, like MASQUERADE did, half a century from now, in a dusty corner, like a memo from a presumed long-ago melted-down-and-sold as-black-market-ingots golden calf.

Another Netflix streaming pick for this week is THE SEVENTH SIGN (1988), which as you may have heard is about 'the end of days,' set to happen this week or, failing that, 12/21/12. Excited? It stars Demi Moore as a pregnant yenta busybody who--while snooping through her tenants' mail--discovers an ancient document announcing her child as the harbinger of the end of the world.  Jurgen Prochnow (her new tenant) is the looming 'Lamb,' opening seals and bringing down plagues: rivers of blood, snow in the desert, dogs and cats living together. Michael "I came back in time for you, Sarah" Biehn is the dad, which lets you know their kid is going to save the world from SKYNET or the Antichrist, maybe - that's called associative casting!

A low budget film of the kind that rarely get theatrical releases anymore, SIGN at least has the courage of its bizarro convictions: it's played stone-cold straight, all the while casting some doubt--not too much--as to Demi's sanity, making it the dead opposite of THE TOURIST. In fact, watching all three in a period of days was enough to make me realize that Angelina Jolie is the lamb of God;  THE TOURIST a cinematic equivalent of morally bankrupt Sodom; Johnny Depp the hapless lamb led to slaughter at the altar of Jolie's martyr complex. Gone are notions of good guys and bad in all three films. What's left are soulless, bejeweled zombies that still walk slowly across the uptown Fifth avenues of the Earth, their souls half-devoured by invisible demons from the Orion constellation; abetted and aided simultaneously by their personal shoppers. But then of course there's always the mothers like Demi who won't let humanity just die for once. No one, but no one, is allowed to die on their watch. As GODSEND taught (if you never saw it, read my piece from 2004 here), even dying is no escape from the righteous, prayer-starved clinging of the previous decade's deities!


Semi-SPOILER ALERT--the possible pro-life associations in THE SEVENTH SIGN made me root, as I'm sure many have, for the end of the world, rather than this STEEL MAGNOLIAS / LIFE BEFORE HER EYES/ SWITCH soapy martyrish ending. Is Demi serving mankind or just the moral 'majority' by dying for her child? How can you tell if a woman's sacrifice is noble or just a symbolic subjugation? Well, either way, those Christians are gone in just a few more months and maybe Angelina Jolie will be able to resume undermining the status quo of feminine oppression like she did in FOXFIRE and GIRL, INTERRUPTED and stop pandering to rich materialistic women of a certain age on behalf of high-end make-up sponsors. After all, Demi Moore's dating Ashton Kucher, and that's ballsy. Why can't Jolie do something ballsy? Adopting endless amounts of orphans is not ballsy. I mean, am I the only one who's jealous of those little bastards? I get the impression they are responsible for both her terrible project choices and her frozen weariness.

Maybe in the future the good guys and the bad will once again be distinguishable based on something other than who's offering who the most money to stab their own unborn grandchildren in the back, and who oppressed the Third World first first vs. who wants to do it now.  THE SEVENTH SIGN at least lets you contemplate your own ambivalence about humanity's inherent goodness and whether your soul's old enough that the end of days seems an impossibly sweet 'get out of eternal reincarnation jail' free card, or young enough that all you care about is who will look after the children. Either way, you can't help but thrill at the prospect of things changing and all those evil people (whomever they are to you these days) finally rotting in hell like they deserve. Those bastards!  In the words of Malcolm McDowell as CALIGULA, "If only all of Rome had just one neck!"

Blow, Gabriel, blow that thing!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Girl who Fingered the Frenchman

Ah  France, the big scandal erupting with Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a reminder that where there's liberty et fraternite' there are also sleazebag rapists in high places. The attack (ED NOTE: It's since been downgraded to prostitute-blackmail scam) happened in a New York hotel, and maybe its my city pride that makes this story resonate as a great David and Goliath style upset, something the Millennium Trilogy could be proud of, and might even be a little bit indirectly responsible for: the word of a rattled immigrant hotel maid was enough for our cops to pull this high roller Frenchman off a first class plane and throw him in the clink. Word is finally out: clergymen and politicians are the sex maniacs of our age - believing the word of the victim is the new black!

To see more? Cinema, naturalmente. The above attack sounds very plausible, in fact I've seen it in at least two films, and recently: Asia Argento's self-directed SCARLET DIVA (with a crazy producer played by artist Joe Coleman chasing Asia down the hotel hallway in Paris, naked but for cowboy boots, ah, Cannes! - my in-depth discussion here) and Vince Gallo attacking a Paris hotel maid in TROUBLE EVERY DAY (above, here). The evil rapin' madmen of power in GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO and the Millennium Trilogy are apparently in France now that said girl made it too hot for them in Sweden (see my piece on Bright Lights, 'The New Lurid: Cinema's Rape Disavowal Fantasy').

But what of other locales in France, outside Paris, ala the French countryside? This seems to be a pretty terrible place. Vast stretches of emptiness given privacy by giant tank-hidin' hedgerows allow slavering mutant sexuality to flourish. A group of normally upstanding males commit a horrific gang rape when they realize a woman is living alone in a stone house by a remote stretch of French country road in ONE DEADLY SUMMER (1983), with the victim's daughter (Isabelle Adjani) enacting an elaborate revenge before realizing maybe it didn't happen or whatever (I had to stop watching after that). Indeed, in this array of films, the French countryside is a place where no one can hear you scream, and no law can come to your rescue with any quickness, the law may even be the source of evil groping. Men must stand on their own good conscience, and many do not. Remote areas are a creep's power source as much as above-the-law titles like politician and priest, but the ambiguity and self-reliance goes both ways. All is not always what it seems.

Take the 1970 British film about two birds cycling on holiday through rural France, AND SOON THE DARKNESS. Over at Britmovie, Drew Shimon cogently discusses the film's ability to create suspense without much overt violence or even actual dark:
Ironic, really, for a film bearing the title And Soon The Darkness, that practically no darkness is actually seen throughout, but such things are part of the strange fascination of British horror: in Die Screaming, Marianne for instance, Marianne neither dies nor screams, and in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, the identity of the slayers is in no way a mystery to the audience. What it doesn’t deliver in honour of its title, though, it makes up for by exceeding every other possible expectation.
I was led to expect this film would be really disturbing, ala THE VANISHING, which is why I steered clear for so long, but it's actually just suspenseful, sexy and awesome. Also, if you know any French at all, you get an inkling of the identity of the rapist-killer early on, and the savagery of rape as depicted in GIRL or something like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (see my 'Towards a New Cinema of Castration') is absent, replaced by the gross caricatures of lust you get in Japanese pinku films: the eyes of the rapist bugging, lips snarling in deformed adolescent exaggeration, tongue wagging obscenely... truly possessed, insane by an inability to repress basic lustful instincts. I find these depictions much less traumatic, they're more symbolic renderings, the men demeaning themselves with twisting grimaces; you never get the sense these guys getting very far, mostly humping air like a dog--it leaves one confused. If it's not meant to be harsh and repulsive ala SPIT or GIRL than what? A chance for a woodsman to ride to the rescue? A moment of kinky objectification? Or a moment to have the ugliness of base id-lust rubbed in our face as a cautionary tale? I muse on this at length in my cogent 2010 celebration of FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41, Stung by the Belle. 

DARKNESS gets a lot of mileage out of short skirts and dried patches of grass, a spooky bunch of wooded patches separating vast empty fields, the gradual setting of the sun (it all occurs over the matter of a few hours), the onset of clouds and rain, and the vast language barrier between a holidaying Brit girl and old French gas station workers. In such a tranquil setting, the sexual violence seems almost quaint, a mere flaring up of an old forgotten splotch of vile repressed desires left too long untended in the fields. Because the film works, as Shimon says, without the darkness promised (and soon, like CCR's someday, never comes), it escapes our condemnation, but there's an aftertaste of sleaze that lingers on. But hey, it's on Netflix streaming! So is the remake! Avoid the latter!

Also on Netflix streaming, all of a sudden!-- is a bunch of Jean Rollin films, including REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE (1973) Read Ethan Spigland's essay on the film in Acidemic #6, here to get the lowdown on the film's use of Freud's uncanny and the sexual doubling of Georges Bataille. Using what looks a lot like the same road from DARKNESS, this film follows to young naifs in clown costumes who wind up lost in the wilderness, eventually abducted by a castle full of old debauched vampires and their slavering rapist underlings. The girls are sexually attacked, and then forced to watch, hypnotized, as various girls chained in the dungeon are raped in the usual slavering, grotesque but bloodless, bruiseless, Sadean, confusing, tedious, all very abstract and philosophically cogent.

The roots behind intellectual S/M still boils down to the most sleazy of crimes against empathy, and if anti-pornography advocates are right--and apparently they are--there's nowhere else left to go but to that wretched basement. Once the consumer of the image has let himself become dehumanized via the suffocating access to so many images, the image suffocates as much as the proximity of the other. Rape fantasies are actually common in both sexes, but as I noted in my BL piece defending the Twilight films from anti-feminism charges, Someone to Fight Over Me: Rape is not called rape when it's in romantic fiction; it's "ravishment" / the erotic charge of setting a romance in a past era lies with the straitjacket moral code: the only way a woman can keep her honor is by resisting both the man and her own desire. She indirectly invites the overpowering on herself as a means of sidestepping issues of her feminine resolve and honor, and the uncertainty of responsibility over one's actions. This is not weakness on her part, but an intrinsic understanding of what's truly erotic about societal loopholes. She has the strength it takes to surrender... (more)

Another interesting French film dealing with slavering maniac males in the countryside is DON'T DELIVER US FROM EVIL (1971), loosely based around the same real life case as HEAVENLY CREATURES, but with a lot more teasing of leering male strangers. It starts in a banal schoolgirl reverie: two lead girls are having a holiday over the summer in the country after a long stretch in a Catholic boarding school. The pair delight in flirting with and teasing passing male travelers, but the men they lure into the brush or home to their hideout have only two speeds: grotesque tongue-wagging sexual assault and motionless confused indulgence. The men never try to tease back or engage in the girls' weird head games. Instead they let themselves be teased to a certain point and then snap, becoming insane slavering rapists in a flash, precipitating their own deaths. As Kim Morgan notes on her Sunset Gun:
Thank goodness they lived in the early 1970s. No manic panic hair, no PVC mini-skirts, no cheap fetish boots and tired, sullen expressions for these best friends. These girls are enjoying their evil. So much that they put together a crafty, dainty black mass in an abandoned chapel (you can feel fellow bad girl Martha Stewart heartily nodding her head in approval). With the dim groundskeeper serving as "Priest," they seal their Satanic deal and drive the man nuts while sitting in the rowboat in the thick of night -- he can see through their cotton Communion gear. (more) 
So can we, man. I still think of that scene at certain times...

The key thread I'm fumbling for through all this is the ultimate emptiness of sexual gratification as the be all and end all of power. All that smoke and perfume and grinding strip show razzle dazzle leads to nothing more than an expensive feeling of emptiness behind the wizard's peepshow curtain. It's culture's job to make you forget that post-orgasmic depression, but just as rich women like Winona Ryder may shoplift for a weird thrill, trying to recapture a time when acquiring possessions brought them joy, so the oversexed rich French politician may accost a hotel maid because all else has failed him, and he figures himself above the law, and maybe still thinks he's in some role-play brothel from the night before. Who knows? His world is akin to the one Kim Morgan describes, of "tired, sullen expressions, cheap fetish boots and PVC mini-skirts." But rather than be hypnotized into the world of surfaces and possessions like the men who want them, the girls in the equation are coming from a different place, trying to harness real power--to master their own chthonic sexuality-- to surf rather than dutifully drown, to dare live beyond social roles, mores and the tedious commodified grinding that passes for modern rebellion. Rather than settle for the $900 call service fee, they want to try for curtain number trois.

For these sleazy rural Frenchmen, however, all the curtains have long since been open, and they have no more control over their desires than a near-unconscious diabetic smashing his fist through a candy shop window.  It's fascinating to contemplate how a man with so much to lose as Strauss-Kahn could be so careless and crazed. Of course it could be a set-up, created to depose him by his enemies. On the other hand, even if it's true, isn't it still a set up, a trick of desire, of the devil, who rewards the debauched with all the riches of the world at the cost of their ability to enjoy them? Aren't those creepy noblemen in Sade, Huysmans, and Bataille really just depressed from having to constantly up the sadomasochistic sensation ante just to feel anything but benumbed ennui? Pity them...  certainly jail them and denounce them in the press and even castrate them but pity them, for they are dumb enough to believe the lies of their own merciless hard-ons. They have become dupes of the genetic con and are destined for incarcération... ou paternité. 

And for what? The sociopath, the narcissist, the sexaholic, even just the pervy father hanging around his daughter's room at her sleepover... who made them what they are? The answer is just the soft sound of French countryside crickets... and the flutter of pages from an old, discarded Maxim. 
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