Wednesday, April 30, 2014


1930 - dir. Howard Hughes (w/ James Whale, Edmund Goulding - uncredited)

Hughes' infamously expensive Hemingway-wannabe saga of WWI pilots and the woman holds up today as fresher and more cutting edge than say, Scorsese's The Aviator. Its only drawback is the ill-conceived casting of the Yank brothers who come to Oxford for the learnin' and stay to become pilots during the Great War: Monte (Ben Lyon) is the cowardly, jaded womanizer; Roy (James Hall--a bloated mix of Richard Barthelmess and Bob Newhart) is brave but a chump who idolizes women to the extent of idiocy. He expects nymphomaniac Jean Harlow (in the role that made her an instant iconic sex symbol) to live up to his goofy moralistic ideals because she kissed him once! If you're a pretty girl who gets around (if you know what I mean), you've probably had more than one dude like Roy moping you, leaving emails or messages constantly, getting ever more sullen as to why you haven't called him back. "Never love a woman," Monte tries to tell Roy, "just make love to her."

It's a great line, but the question is, who was the girl, Howard, who left you with such a high opinion of women? She must have been quite a gal...

While unconvincing as a ladykiller, at least Lyon does a decent job with his scenes of his being seduced against his very weak will by Harlow who--with her thick, jet-black eyebrows giving her platinum wave just the right level of dirty contrast to her platinum wave--almost steals the movie from the spectacular aerial combat. It's for her and the fighting we're here, not the dimwit brothers, so every scene of these two sibling muttonheads engaged in their worldly nonsense seems worthless unless Harlow is there, coming between them.

The thing about Hughes is: he at least walks it likes he talks it; there's a cool sense of uninhibited sexual congress with Harlow, as expressed keenly in one of the best all-time 'fade-outs' in the pre-code era. It's a scene of her and Monte making out on a couch, crossed over to a scene of naive brother Roy sulking back at the bunks (having been blown off by her on his imagined date); when we get back to the couch at Harlow's pad, the vibe has shifted from simmering hot to ice cold. Monte's ashen mood and Harlow's nonplussed attitude ("It seems colder in here now," she says, "doesn't it?") indicates they had sex on the couch during the fade-out and (my guess) it wasn't very satisfying. Monte now hates himself, and--in grand womanizer misogynist fashion--thinks she's a slut for putting out. He lacks the self-awareness to realize his post-orgasm depression is not her fault, but his, and nature's. Yo Monte! Every true playa knows not to get all pissy and moralistic with the girl you were busting moves on 'before' shit got real, even if now all you can think about is getting home before your wife (or idiot brother) finds out.

I admit I've never been a huge fan of Harlow's work in later movies, where she often seems a bit shrill and broad, especially playing alleged society dames. But the Harlow on display here is like a whole different person than the one shortly to rule over at MGM. She's not a baby-talking brawler lounging around eating bonbons and babbling to her maid or shoving around Wallace Beery; she's an educated, upscale nymphomaniac, whose love of sex is like a fierce elemental magic. She's thinner too, and younger than she'd look in just another year or so, and you can feel the hair on her arms tingling with a every carnal inhale. She's like a living electric sheet of fire. She's not perfect, just dazzling.

(Compare to how kind of busted she looks just a year later in Public Enemy, below).
Second big bang for the buck here the aerial combat; all the sounds of all the guns and the humming of the biplane engines as they go buzzing about is of course post-synced (Hughes took so long filming Hell's Angels it was started in the silent era) and the engine buzz is strangely soothing; also, having an aviator doing the filming and choreography definitely hels; we get a clear picture of where all the planes are in relation to each other, the ground, and the cloud layers; and most of the dialogue is in German in these scenes, so the inter-titles make a weird kind of sense, especially in a very long and riveting scene involving a German zeppelin attempting to drop bombs on Piccadilly Circus on a cloudy London night. The trick for zeppelins (this being the era before both radar and twin engine planes) was staying high above the clouds up where the air is too thin for single engine biplanes. With no bombsights invented yet (and no black-outs), they lower the bombardier down through the clouds on a cable; and for some unexplained noble reason, the bombardier steers the bombs into the water, knowing full well the British planes will strafe him anyway. The mix of luck, patience, not freaking out or choking on the trigger, and just how damn slow those planes were compared to today, all come roaring to life. Hughes went all out for this stuff, especially with hand-painted color tints.

And as the German who first duels with Monte (before the war) and then later questions the boys after they're shot down behind enemy lines, Lucien Prival is a delight. A leaner, feral version of Erich Von Stroheim, he steals the final (alas, landlocked) chapter of the film. Don't forget the Germans weren't yet Nazis and it's clear Hughes doesn't see them as faceless ogres; there was still a lot of chivalrous, sporting blood between Huns and Brits, especially with the upper crust aviators. They'd all been drinking, playing and dueling together at each other's colleges scant years before. Of all the male characters in this filthy war, it's actually Prival who seems worth the couch of Harlow.

But man, those chumps from Oxford...

1933 - dir. Michael Curtiz

Warren William is at his most frivolous in this Warner Brothers comedy, maybe even too much so, and I say this as a die-hard William fan. I even like Satan Met a Lady, that original Maltese Falcon adaptation where he hams it up so much he seems merrily cockeyed, a bit blitzed, not quite blotto or stinko, but buzzing. Here, as a bestselling romantic novel writer, he's even buzzier, but he has a weird cool chemistry with Joan Blondell as his (what else?) fitfully bemused secretary so we know we're safely ensconced in primo WB pre-code territory, in short, the wolf is in his tailored forest. Adding to the value: Helen Chandler is the unwelcome sister-in-law of his latest on-tour groupie/conquest (Genevieve Tobin), showing up to make sure she comes home, for the sanctity of marriage and reputationzzzz. In reality, Chandler was a notorious alcoholic who burnt herself up in a fire shortly hereafter, a fitting if tragic fate for a girl half in half out of this world (as in 1931's The Last Flight and Dracula). Wallace Ford--bespectacled!-- is cast against type as Chandler's litigious husband and fellow moral task force self-appointer. Dragging Tobin's estranged but relatively cool husband (Hugh Herbert) in tow, they set about following William from Cleveland to Albany on the sleeper train, hoping to nab him in the act. And there's a great scene where their presence in the next car all but forces William to sleep with Tobin, waiting in his sleeper in a sexy negligee. Pre-code gold! It all ends in William's Albany boudoir where he jumps around on the bed and generally carries on while Blondell is gradually revealed to be far more than a secretary but hitherto 'open-minded' to his dalliances with ladies such as Tobin - usually, but because Tobin's married and he's lying to her about it, she gets pissed. Is he gonna do the right thing? Are we kids or what?

That's about it --not much to write home about though the actors sure strive for a farcical peak. It doesn't come, that peak, but William is on camera every minute, almost, so it's tough to care about anything else, even though we realize that he needs more menace to be really riveting. Here he's coasting on his wolfish charm like he knows we'll love him no matter what. We will. Gotta love a confident man.

1934 - dir. Lloyd Bacon

Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell play two small time grifters in this half-good WB drama. Hustling and flowing from the Turkish baths of NYC to the running afoul of mobsters in Chicago to hiding out on the shores of Marina Del Rey, seeking safe harbor in a small Portuguese immigrant fishing community, the kind of Podunk town that showgirls and good-hearted Steinbeckian whores go for their second chances, turning respectable to marry some terminally decent, slow-witted townie (see also: Tiger Shark, Anna Christie, The Wedding Night, The Purchase Price, The Wind, to name merely a few) whose lunkheadedness is almost like one last dig at the sanctity of, as Blondell's heart-of-gold whore puts it, "good honest decent hardworking people, which you wouldn't know anything about, Dick Jordan!"

Believe it or not, the big surprise here is Victor Jory as the chump. With his deep voice, looming height, the stoic poise of a stock company Sitting Bull, and gravitas that belies his then-lean years, he might have a bizarre accent and mangled fisherman syntax, and Cagney might talk faster and hustle more but Jory's tortoise wins the race, legitimately, and we don't roll our eyes. While such a result certainly pleased the censors (then looming ever closer), the film's subtext never sides with the forces of small town decency: the sanctity of marriage may prevail, but as Cagney walks off into the sunset, arm-in-arm with his killers, it's him we want to follow, even if that means going straight off a cliff.

1933 dir. Michael Curtiz

Robust Raoul Walsh direction makes this turn-of-the-century New York City Darryl F. Zanuck opus the Gangs of New York to beat, with all the downtown warring fire brigades, Tammany Hall corruption, nickel beer, sawdust floozies singing from laughing laps, tear-stained blubbering pathos, callous racism, and freewheeling stunts the era can offer, and of it rendered in a mise-en-scène so vivid you can smell the cigars, cheap beer, and coal fires.

Wallace Beery stars as Chuck, the--what else?--big shot of the Bowery; Jackie Cooper is his adopted son, a racist orphan who likes throwing rocks through "chink's winders" (we're invited to nervously laugh as the brigades slug it out during a laundry fire, leaving the Chinese stuck on the fourth floor, burning alive); Fay Wray is the good girl who ends up keeping house for the pair of them, much to Jackie's initial resentment; George Raft is Chuck's rival, an up-and-coming sharpie with a saloon and fire brigade of his own. Chuck don't like that much, and he's so tough he saps a broad just because she drunkenly crashes into his table, as illustration to Cooper that women are "only after yer spondoolicks." Cooper's hip to that, doesn't like girls, and instead goes in for trading cigarette cards "from guinea kids." Yeesh! Cooper's presence on the scene is somewhat superfluous, it seems thanks to the popularity of THE CHAMP, he's become affixed to Beery like some kind of blubbering lamprey.

The problem with the whole motivation of Leo DiCaprio in the very similar GANGS OF NEW YORK was his swearing revenge on a man who his father lost a fight to fairly. There's no treachery involved, no injustice. (No sense in tracking down the enemy soldier who killed your father in WW2, after all - it's not personal, Sonny). It shows the extreme cluelessness that can result when a genius like Scorsese's every dumb idea is never doubted as genius. Well, alas, even The Bowery feels the need to fall back on a similar hackneyed arc of its day, for as popular as vengeance for dead family members is today, in the 30s it was the 'love triangle', usually a woman choosing between a young man with no dough and an older successful but unsavory character. Thus, here a triangel coheres from the crowded streets betwixt Wray, the jealous brute Beery and George Raft as his slick rival--yawn. A better plot thread has Raft jumping off the Brooklyn bridge on a wager for Chuck's saloon; he makes it but almost used a dummy in his place, so reversals of fortune are always happening on the Bowery, including an appearance of vile liquor-bashing Carrie Nation and her armada of shrewish wives. Living examples of the evils of sobriety, for a country finally free of the evils of prohibition (it was repealed in 1933 - the same year of THE BOWERY's release), the drunkenness flying in the face of their dour battle-axe waving scans a genuinely patriotic.

1931 - *** - dir. Jack Conway

Karen Morley is at her warmest and most mature in this pre-code MGM caper: The romance between her and master thief John Barrymore starts with his discovering her naked in his bed during a party (he insists on being in the room while she dresses - with the lights off - and it's pretty sexy... for he is no gentleman!). And since this is Paris, he doesn't have to go to the gallows to spare her from having to confess she spent the night with him when a crime is announced the next morning. He doesn't believe her story about being an exiled Russian countess, but he still likes her. So do we. Theirs is a relationship of mature equals and that's a rarity even in pre-code, or screwball for that matter. I'm not a huge fan of John's brother Lionel, who here plays the head of the French Secret Service, sworn to bag Lupin before he retires. As always, Lionel is as fussy and mannered, and dawdling as John is sweeping and debonair, but the pair have a more interesting rapport here than in all their other films together. Enticing dabs of old dark house mystery atmosphere help it stay fun, with great Cedric Gibbons art direction prodding the events ever forward.

Even if, by the end, not too much is really at stake (the French and Italians love their master thief narratives more than Americans, who don't always see the point) and it all kind of resembles the later THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (i.e. no deaths), right down the daylight hour museum theft, so what? Lipin was here first. And despite its rough treatment, the Mona Lisa is none the worse for wear having been ripped off it's canvas stretcher, rolled up and concealed inside an umbrella jacket. In fact, the only real crime here is Karen Morley's not being in more films or better known. Appearing only sporadically after she left MGM (due to disputes over her private life, and later the blacklist) we have but a handful of films with which to treasure her mature sexual openness and the way she more than made up for actorly limitations with unusual line readings, effortless charm and an icy laugh. So there's this film, PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD, SCARFACE, MASK OF FU MANCHU, DINNER AT EIGHT and, well, they'd all be worthwhile anyway, but with her... they're all sublime. She's got such mature allure in LUPIN she melted the keys in my pocket. We wouldn't see sexual confidence like hers again until... well, Renee Russo in the THOMAS CROWN remake. Like the Mona Lisa, cherish her always.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

All you need is holes: WONDERWALL (1968) and the Entomological Mystery Tour

Thisbe and Pyramus loved through a hole in a wall, and that made it to Midsummer Night's Dream, so surely there's room for a more one-sided and decidedly creepier (though seemingly not aware of it) 1968 Britpop film called WONDERWALL about one amongst "all the lonely peepers." Prof. Oscar Collins (Jack McGowran), a waterworks entomologist, collects bugs and peeps through a microscope eyepiece-sized hole in the wall at neighbor and fashion model Penny Lane (Jane Birkin). She's got a very trippy pad, a photographer (Brian Walsh) who dresses in Apple Records green, and a two-timing boyfriend (Ian Quarrier, who tries to get her into a menage a trois with Anita Pallenberg) - all things of interest to old man Collins! Problem is: Birkin is so gorgeous and young, with such heavenly legs and crazy fashions--that we want to see her all the time and less--a lot less--of old Collins. We only see her framed in a round hole and, eventually, several holes, like little mod kinetoscope vignettes, intercut with long stretches of Collins' little rat face peering, peering peering.... the round light coming through the hole from Penny's apartment occasionally illuminating one of his round spectacles.

It's creepy, man, a grody PEEPING TOM made creepier because the film thinks he's a Paul McCartney lyric / color-coded cavalier and not a creepy peeping tom who just found something better than amoebas. When Quarrier visits him to borrow ice for a party, it's clear he needs an older man's counsel, but Collins, dressed in a tux as if hoping to be invited over, cannot provide even that, and it's very, very dispiriting. It becomes a helluva slog, this film. It drags and drags as Collins misses, again and again, the chance to actually connect with other human beings. Also, he doesn't see the less glamorous moments at his neighbor's pop art flat, like Penny's shaving her legs or drying her socks in a jar by the door, or visiting the doctor or eating cereal, as if that's supposed to somehow de-ickify his displeasing addiction (as the 80s porn stars used to tease, it's "for educational and scientific purposes only"). We never learn or care: will Quarrier help raise his forthcoming baby? Will the professor ride to the rescue, I mean in some capacity other than cocking his head quizzically as might a beagle unable to decode his master's command?

Whatever the motives, or intentions, the soundtrack is certainly a nonstop feast for the chemically-enhanced ear. It's an entomological freakfest, with George Harrison's psychedelic melange of sitars, guitars, harmonica, tamboura and Indian horns howling, tinkling, and buzzing like an array of electric insects.  The cumulative result of it all (music + a dysfunctional wretch watching pretty people pose) makes WONDERWALL a kind of no-talking Beavis and Butthead if they were just one guy who watched vintage Joi Lansing Scopitones through round holes in a wall instead of Heavy Metal on a TV set. The bug analogy is borderline impressive --only Norma Shearer in RIPTIDE (1934) and Isabella Rossellini in GREEN PORNO (2008) come close (but no spider ala Lansing's "Web of Love" to provide a threat) and Harrison's buzzing tamboura and sitar hovering deep inside the ossicles are like a bee in the ear.


The source story is by Gérard Brach, who wrote REPULSION and CUL-DE-SAC and THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who penned VANISHING POINT (1972). One gets the impression of Brach's earlier work that he never meant Professor Collins to be any kind of Monsieur Hulot-Chaplin type whimsy generator but a skeevy older version of Terence Stamp in THE COLLECTOR, saved from needing to abduct pretty young specimens for his killing jar as one lives right next door (and old Collins has drilled plenty of air holes). The idea that Collins loses himself and begins to demolish his apartment to better make a million holes in the wall to peep through is creepy in itself, but doubly so when filmmaker Joe Massot films these actions to a bouncy polka and double projection speed ala Harold Lloyd or Benny Hill. Instead of laughs, what Collins needs a good slashing by Catherine Deneuve's razor, especially once he makes it his business to break into Penny's pad and start nosing around her underwear drawer (imagine if Chaplin did that as the Little Tramp?). Does Massot presume we'd think he was just being irrepressibly, innocently curious?. That's the fundamental problem, or maybe solution, to this film --that young Penny just happens to be trying to snuff it right at the same evening he busts in to 'examine' her privies?  Good old Collins! 

But maybe it's also because this weird pro-scopophile schizodimensional angle that it's ultimately interesting beyond its basic function as a pretty eye-popping light show showcase for Birkin's heavenly gams and shiny straight hair. If you go in expecting it to be a dull story of a dweebish ratfaced peeping tom scientist shuffling around his apartment in his pajamas, a reverse-gendered REPULSION tale of mental disintegration coupled to some old nudie cutie comedy like THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS, then the pop art YELLOW SUBMARINER tangents will throw you left afield; if you go in expecting a pop art whimsy-fest, though, prepare to be rather unnerved by the inordinate amount of time we watch Collins watching said fest and cocking his head.

So the big question is, just how did this creepy clueless perv ever get George Harrison on board, as well as the Beatles'/Apple affiliated haberdashers and pop artists The Fool to work on such a vile travesty of countercultural values? The reason should be obvious: Harrison wanted to get more things on record, to promote his Indian music penchants beyond his usual one track per Beatles' album. Wasn't Harrison at all spooked by the thought of recording a score for a film about a sick little man who spends every waking hour spying on his flashy Apple Records-affiliated rock star neighbor's sex and drug life? As perhaps it would also do in India, maybe blissful meditation made George blind to the perv in his midst?  I would think George would have read the script (slid under his door probably, written in creepy Henry Darger longhand) and as been as creeped out as if it had been pictures of him and his wife sleeping in bed.
Then again, there's some evidence he may have just recorded an album with insect-buzzing tamboura and let Massot use it as he wanted, you know, to get rid of him.

In the end Massott comes off as being an incompetent probably with some private funds that afford him the means to make films and hang out with pop stars (he got SONG REMAINS THE SAME by living next to Jimi Page and because Page knew he'd worked with George Harrison). The result is a mix of Polanski/Powell film critique and pop art made by a guy who thinks he's doing a mix if SHERLOCK JR. and WALTER MITTY. His dear old professor Collins is a Mr. Jones / Father McKenzie bowler hat type Brit flouncing around in a student art film, a REAR WINDOW's Jimmy Stewart if he had no friends and didn't even know Grace Kelly, but spied on her and no one else, and we were somehow expected to root for him, a creep too shy to even realize how creepy he's being, one who figures a movie about him watching old Grace Kelly through a hole was enough of a movie subject, especially with his imagining having a big duel with her boyfriend for her hand, using as weapons things like giant oversize pens, lipsticks, and cigarettes while the lime green photographer snaps pictures, all just so she can load his hookah while he stares off into space. Who pictures themselves as an old square duffer trying vainly to look hip? That defeats the whole purpose! Something is happening here but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Collins? Dear Mr. Collins! You should really be in jail, or a nice rest home, chasing butterflies with  a little net.

Now I should preface by saying I adore Michael Powell but I'm too skeeved out by PEEPING TOM to ever see it again, ditto THE COLLECTOR, which my English teacher actually showed us in Middle School, and it depressed me for years. Also, I can't stand Monsieur Hulot and all those damned (in my mind) terrible Jacques Tati comedies. And when it comes to the Beatles I'm more a Harrison-Ringo-John fan, and find some of Paul's songs insufferably cheeky and guileless. Paul was always trying to bring in the lonely old timers and bouncy children along on the picnic, dumbing shit down so they understood, while John and George were about leading the brave young adults into the future (and scaring the shit out of those same children and old folks).

So here, while the score is all alien and strange and Harrison-Lennon,  the colorful psychedelic whirligig is seen at arm's length while the foggy London codgers are front and center, the way, say, the Beatle's MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (below, above left) tried to be cheeky fun for one and all but instead was kind of like the dream of a kid who fell asleep on a dusty couch to his mom's afternoon BBC kitchen sink soaps while home from school with a high fever. Just look at the drab washed out image of the four of them in their animal maskies below - as creepy as the brown bear man in THE SHINING or the citizens of Summer's Isle. It's creepy, is what it is, am I right, Sir? Not at all for children, sir.


It's sad too that Jack MacGowran, the great Irish Beckett interpreter, a titan of the stage capable of great oratory, who was fantastic as the gut-shot bank robber in Polanski's CUL-DE-SAC, is stuck playing a silent observer peeping tom scientist, his mellifluent orating voice for naught. Even happening to be in a position to come to her rescue, he hangs way back and lets the bobby get the glory and the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (meant to resemble making out, all the better to agitate old Professor Collins, my dear). The whole film has the queasy vibe of someone trying to paint a DayGlo PG patina of scientific inquiry on something he knows deep down is prurient, puerile, and pathetic. Penny has to almost die for the prof to have a chance to kiss her without it being creepy (i.e. mouth-to-mouth resuscitation) but even then he just hovers near her and does nothing too scared to remember even how to use a phone for help (beseeching the audience instead). So really the idea a woman lives or dies by the whim of a timid man too wussy to even fantasize outside the tiniest of boxes is almost too sexist and objectifying to bear. If I am drowning I hope my life guard isn't some shy ugly girl with a crush on me who lets me die rather than risk, you know, it being weird or something, by giving me mouth-to-mouth.

For all that, again, WONDERWALL can't be dismissed easily -- it has a lot of British fans like Liam Gallagher at the band Oasis. And I imagine if you discovered the film at four AM on BBC-4 while coming down off LSD in your London hotel after a gig, then well then you might write a song about it, too. And seeing it all swanky with pop art colors exploding off of the screen on the Blu-ray while Harrison's music flows remastered and earthy-ethereal in a gorgeous remix, there can be no doubt it has druggy pop art allure: Both apartments eventually look amazing thanks to set design by The Fool, and Birkin is progressively more and more gorgeous. So on the proper chemicals I imagine and with no expectations I suppose it would be quite the thing, and for the rest of us can certainly provide some help in the old spatchka department.

Then again, me, I can't stand Oasis.

But this guy Prof. Oscar Collins is half the show and that's 100% the trouble. If we come to the Blu-ray, we come for a psychedelic plasmatic gorgeous pop art happening, presumably, not a sad lonely ratfaced entomologist, and that we do end up with just such a one addresses the lingering need of British counterculture to address the problem of the judgmental old duffer in their midst, his bowler hat and imperious chin and jutting umbrella as he waits for the morning train, the type Peter Sellers loved to freak out in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN but Paul McCartney would bring on tour, citing just how clean he is. We just shush them away now, but in swinging London there was only the BBC and the cinema, and British cinema has always been a mixed collar bag, with a socialist streak, a hard-lost sense of labor/whig dichotomy, stodgy propriety and a penchant for turning nearly ever genre of film as dishwater grey as an English sky. And if an older fella really wanted to know what was going on in the swinging bird's pad, he risked the chance of letting his 'no sex please--we're British' bourgeois prurience get him in a stiff upper liplock. He might feel he has a right to move in and arrest them all if things look suspiciously salacious through the keyhole (and he can't admit to himself he too wanted to smoke hash with a naked Marianne Faithful on a bearskin rug or that he shouldn't have been peeping in the first place - he saved that girl, whether she thinks so or not!)

For all his criminal faults, an American filmmaker like Woody Allen at least understood that basic truth of viewer psychology. Woody's going after girls young enough to actually be his daughters isn't something he feels we'd root for, yet he at least is honest about how its his repressed incestuous longing that's the very core of his comedic art, an elaborate disguise for something too twisted to convey any other way. In real life, Polanski is on the run, but Allen strides free, and WONDERWALL is somehow convinced it's Allen when it's Polanski, the way Michael Jackson was convinced he was Peter Pan instead of Captain Hook; each believing that their artistic drive is coming from somewhere other than the drive to create enough distracting noises to cover up the hideous heartbeat of their buried desire. Allen's years of analysis have given him enough awareness to understand that it is the beating of his own hideous heart, his guilty conscience, and so his distracting noises are conveyed as self-aware comedy. And Polanski's awareness comes from feeling the need to film the tell-tale heart directly, that the heart is all he can see and so forgive him if he doesn't even deign to make distracting noises. But Joe Massot's WONDERWALL is so distracted by his own distracting noises it forgets all about the heart, and so mistakes its beating as the sound of butterfly wings, and so it is Massot never asks himself the tough sordid Flannery O'Connor question: isn't every butterfly collector more liable to sniff through his prey's old cocoon drawer than save her from self-immolating? And isn't chloroform handy for both abducting girls and killing insects... painlessly?

By the end of the film we more or less resolve this sad salacious episode in Collins' life, but for the rest of us we can't help but feel like Woody Allen trapped on that sad sack train at the start of STARDUST MEMORIES, if the entire movie was spent with him stuck in his Kafka-esque hell car watching Sharon Stone blow kisses through a window. 

But hey - it was 1968! The director, Joe Massot, had one more trick up his sleeve. In 1976, he was hired to make Led Zeppelin's SONG REMAINS THE SAME. He was Page's neighbor and had been pestering him and manager Peter Grant about it and they'd all knew WONDERWALL, his only other film, had Beatles mystique behind it (and they hadn't seen it, though I imagine it would have been a dealbreaker if they ever did). And so they hired him work unseen for SONG (and then fired him halfway through). I first saw SONG for the first time on TV after a wild party, with no expectations, and a bunch of friends of some girl I was halfway hooked up with (a tale for a different post-here!), and tripping on too much acid to find fault with it, and I loved it. So set and setting are everything, but most importantly, no Professor Collins, no Monsieur Hulot, in SONG, just the crazy, violent, talented, dangerous, beautiful young adults of the Zeppelin. And while WONDERWALL is a tolerabe curio for Beatles fans and Britpop lovers, I'd rather not be reminded how long ago that wild party was -and that I too am just a peeper now, a spy in the house of love, a fool on on the hill. So take your concern for the bowler hat chaps and shove it where no one comes near. All the lonely people hate looking at images of lonely people looking at images of pretty young people--it reminds them of their loneliness which is like taking an aspirin to enhance your pain. Cut out the middle man, the mediary who'd pin Jane Birkin's wings to the wall so you can pay him for a glimpse, and free her with thine own electric eyes! If she never comes back, you never really saw her to begin with, and so, Monsieur Collins, adieu! J'snooze!

from top: Song Remains the Same,
Stardust Memories, Wonderwall

Monday, April 21, 2014

Antichrist in Translation: UNDER THE SKIN, HABIT

Showing off scars, from top: Under the Skin, Habit
Under the Skin (2014), the new slick dark green opus from Brian (Birth) Glazer, is a film that links up one's panic attacks before and after itself (as seen by you, the viewer) and signals the future of cinematic horror-science fiction as less about acting and thrills and more about the viewer's brain dissolving itself in a pool of black oil in the middle of a dark forlorn forest, wondering as it fades how it hears the rain and sizzle without ears. 2014's first official trans-humanist off-world 'chance to begin again' at that Crystal Peak moment of post-modern social decay, the screen on which it's showing as permeable as a jet black oil-filled swimming pool, Skin is not just mercury mirror from ye auld Cocteau Orphee, not just the menstrual matrix of Shauna Macdonald's Descent. It's the next step deeper. Just don't expect to climb out in the same skin you wore when you dove--or were sucked--in. You emerge as different from your old tar pit-stuck self as a tetrapod is from a placoderm.

I collaged this image/s together/m and are real prowed
I know how it is, bro. I began the weekend with a terrible panic attack. Friday crashed down around me in hailstorms of at-work red tape, hot potato bureaucratic quagmires, April allergies, allergy med-fed depression, and free-form anxiety--based on the need-- to take my girlfriend anywhere other than our couch in front of the TV for the weekend. She can take just so much of my trepidatious sloth and then the pressure is on to amuse her. She said she wanted to go out to the movies this time. My blood ran cold and I shook like the gallows pole was sliding up me arse at the thought. I came home, we looked at the times, and soon I trembling on the floor in a ball of anxiety.

Luckily, she had a stash for emergencies - and so took pity on me - and tossed a half-a Xanax down in front of me and like a good dog I went scrambling after it, ate it down like a good boy, and 20 minutes later was feeling sane enough that we caught the late show of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin down at the BAM with minimal hand tremors.

Wandering back home afterwards, up Flatbush towards Park Slope, it was around midnight. Usually busy as hell, the half-deserted and strangely-lit Good Friday-empty Brooklyn was a trash-strewn neon, rain-shined ghost town. Cutting through the uphill haze of alienated Flatbush Ave liquid street lamp and traffic light reflection on the droplets in the mist, stale popcorn nausea and lingering-half Xanax glow wobbliness pulsing through our hamstrings, we knew something weird had happened. I couldn't quite get past the feeling Glazer's film was more of a video art installation swerving towards a last minute And then the Darkness homage than an actual movie, but it was certainly art. Instead of a narrative flow there is--buried in mossy 'membrances of Basil Twist-y underwater shirt twirlings--the sense of drowning-in-place, the theater slowly being flooded with tar--like it would be, for example, at a Marble Index-era Nico concert--and that's all art can ever hope to convey. The darkness of the murky theater swallowed my soul right up, each block behind us falling into Blitz-era blackout, and even as we floated up to the smoky safe squalor of our flat, it was still there: the cord between the Twisty twirling and my body stretched G-sharp and Carpenter-ominous.

The paranoid terror red hot potato Poe-level paranoia was waiting, at home, arms crossed, for that X-half to wear off.

I felt half digested, like that Xanax-was. As it faded, so too my essence.

Then, I realized where my paranoid terror was coming from: it was coming from Mad Men.

It was related to re-watching all six seasons of in prep for the new and final season and realizing I'd mixed up Don Draper's forced hiatus from Sterling Cooper with my own at-work woes. So it's true, then. I'm already half-sunk into the black oil image. I can't always remember where I end and TV begins; since I live in NYC I get confused too and think people I know from TV or movies are people I know from work, and so I wave if I see them on the street (not helping matters, so many of the supporting actors live in my neighborhood - it's far weirder to recognize them and not remember from where).

But when things get too intense at home, by which I mean onscreen, I can move to the kitchen to fix a drink or go to the bathroom and repeat to myself, "it's only a movie, it's only a movie." To our cat we at home must look often like statues, frozen in seated positions on the couch, before the glowing square, awaiting our orders.... hours and weeks at a time pass in addled bemusement, while the cat waits for us to see her.

But does the cat know what we do? That away from the safety zone of our apartment, the world is cold, dark, harsh? The world Glazer lures us into is that zone, a dark and alien theater, built up on the power of Birth (Nicole Kidman enraptured at the concert) and the sexual allure of Scarlett Johansson- we see these ladies movie-size--and suddenly they see us-! Suddenly we're not even safe in our own simulacrum.

Set mostly in and around the dark shroud of Glasgow, Skin is rich with bleakly beautiful panoramas of: bowling alleys; cobblestone streets with sad pubs lined; panic attack-inflicting red-glazed strobe dance clubs; drenching rain over misty mountain moors and lashing surf rolling and crashing down in fast accelerations on a family, first at play and them sucking them all into their presumed deaths in a chain of failed rescues from a relentless riptide. Sans suspenseful music or any indication they've drowned, leaving only a screaming infant behind, it's such a harrowingly existential moment it kind of crawled inside my stomach like a nightmare I had as a child and had forgotten all these years. Suddenly the layers of assurance and support that nothing bad can happen to an infant onscreen are swept away with nary a sympathetic orchestral string to let us know that the filmmakers, too, are horrified rather than as mountain-level indifferent as the alien who only deigns to steal the clothes.

We're not given any indication Glazer cares about the fate of anyone in the film, even himself, his own reputation as a human being, and that kind of ambiguity is chilling, and even somewhat original. And there's also working class yobbos Scarlett hooks: their slang--as indecipherable as an alien tongue--contrasting with her (surprisingly good) posh Londoner accent--setting up a class divide, and... damn -- I can't let it go. How do you get back to talking about this film's familiar Devil Girl From Mars plot after seeing that poor bereft toddler screaming, abandoned to the incoming tide on a deserted stretch of beach as the sun sets down around him like an evil shroud? This poor kid's screams hang like a torture-tricked sucker punch cheap shot over the remainder of the film, until the sheer weirdness of the deformed lion boy pick-up throws us yet another Mickey.

Whole reels of Skin seem to have been carved out, though--based on our familiarity with films like La Femme Nikita and The Man Who Fell to Earth--we can deduce those missing pieces easy enough and patch in the cracks, but why should we have to if it's only so Scarlett can suddenly turn compassionate Ann Bancroft at the Lynchian epidermal symbolism carnival moment? I'm not an animal! See me! Touch me! I'm dreaming. Take the shot, Miss Moneypenny.  Glasgow is for drunks and junkie loo divers but too dangerous even for a black oil seductresses to engulf. Run forest-ward for safety! Wrong way! Take the shot, poured to double size for growing ladies shedding skins, melt into the forest couch so Robert Carlyle can't find ya. and carve his pound of flesh. AYe...

I'm no great lover of children, but to let that child get sucked off to its death purely to illustrate your hard ambivalence makes me not care that you suddenly care later on -- even if you are the divine Miss ScarJo.

That's the problem with this film, though I respect others who love it. Lourde knows I would have followed Miss Scarlett anywhere, even over to the commercial multiplex wherein she's seducing Captain America instead of playing Venus Flytrap to some juicy soccer hooligans. It's strange and scary but her alien here seems to have very little real power and decays in ways that make us hope Lars Von Trier is waiting in the wings to snatch her from the Kubrick coldness and douse her in the Charlotte Gainsbourg womb of old testament Griffith vengeance. Instead all we're left with is the unsettling and dispiriting idea that Scotland's working class might be collectively more dangerous than any carnivorous alien sexually hypnotic prowler.

Still, I saw some things I don't usually get to see at the movies - things so weird they're like the dark rural cousin to Matthew Barney's Cremaster. But I guess I'm on the fence (after one viewing) as to whether this is a real movie, a video artwork of staggering foresight and genius that will one day be regarded as the 2001 of our era, or just a long experimental hot mess like 2001 when you're not in the right mood for a pitch-shifted "Maisie."

The string of previews BAM showed before the film included something for Locke, which is set entirely inside Tom Hardy's car in real time as he talks on the Bluetooth. A whole hour and a half (no doubt) of artsy glistening street lamp reflections on rainy dark streets looking like luminous watercolors dripped on a black canvas whilst techno throbs hypnotically and family members and work acquaintances shout their panicked exposition at him via Siri's surreptitious signals and strings. Is this preview meant to prepare us for the endless driving shots and slow loop to nowhere repetitions of Under the Skin? It seemed an ill omen. If you want a real movie that does real things these days, you need to stay home and just imagine it. Movies are now about big screen compositions set within cars and the minds of predators --they don't expand your horizons but shrink them until they tighten around your neck like a dominatrix dog collar. If they don't tighten your aperture 'til you're gallows engorged, they're worried you won't feel anything at all - like we're a collective of grand theft autoerotic asphyxiation addicts.

The next stage will be where you spend your ten dollars just to sit in your car and think about what the movie you paid to see might look and sound like if it was ever made; while you drive around in parking lot circles, you grow furious that this hypothetical almost-movie would subject you to such violence, that are such awful people in the world. Dig, the movie is you, mate! Deep, man Ten dollars anyway!

Another problem with UNDER THE SKIN: what's with the mean male "handler" (Jeremy McWilliams) with the motorcycle humpsuit? There's a kind of icky chauvinist undercurrent--like male filmmakers aren't comfortable with castrating Venusian bitches unless there's a man in charge of them (see my expose of cinema's pimps both before and behind the lens). Scarlett's voluptuous body, stripped to black bra and skintight black jeans, becomes the whole show--just her and the black box rooms with the wet floors --so we really don't give a shit about this handler with his smug countenance. Ain't right he should have such power over her. The first film of this ilk that transcends the pimp factor head on and smashes it? Daughters of Darkness -- the most recent -- Neil  Jordan's Byzantium!

Under the Skin tries hard to puncture some hidden and vital vein in our decaying culture, and it does get down to the way any sense of a dislocated universal all-seeing eye (locus of identification/camera) dissolves when one is alone in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere. When no one can hear you scream, you're not screaming. So Scarlett's web-mobile rolls slowly through Scotland, trying to snare the dusty bodies of hunched-over men, pummeling their way on foot through the darkness towards home from shopping or the bus or working long after normal people go to sleep. This Scotland seems as abandoned as some lifeless corner of the galaxy. She's all alone, and between the darkness of an experimental intro that's just drones and a pinpoint of light, and the rainy woodsy finish, it's hard to get a straight bead on anything. We're used to that pinpoint of light becoming a tunnel, but it's not going to be so easy this time. Aside from 'in Scotland' we never know where we are, except that we're treading the line between modernist ambiguity and hedging indecisiveness... Glazer indeed.

In his second feature, the Kubrickian Birth, Glazer gave us a real soul in Nicole Kidman, whose gamin innocence ruptured all his shady attempts to modernize her. Beautiful with her Rosemary buzz cut and with Anne Heche as a brassy Lady Macbeth that colored the painting of our fear that nothing was true, Birth was more Kubrick than Eyes Wide Shut, but still it lacked the feeling of being aware of Earth's planetary orbit. In The Shining and 2001 you can actually feel the world turning below the feet of the Steadicam operator, the orbit of the Earth spinning around the sun and the longer orbit of the sun around the lip of it's galaxy as the universe expands outwards, and how orbits meet and eclipse each other until both disappear, and with them, the sense that any kind of stasis or stillness is anything but illusion.

Under the Skin has only one decaying orbit, and lots of flashy editing tracks and scars are displayed out from under its sleeve, including an extended melange of overlapping images through which Johansson's strange and lovely face gradually appears, but when the spell's broken there's nowhere to go but towards macroscope finality. It's the kind of film that depends on Wikipedia and summations of the original source novel for its post-mortem autopsy translation. My GF read them to me afterwards but I was sick off too much stale popcorn, and was coming down off that half doggie Xanax, and the terrors of bureaucratic power mixed with Mad Men bleed-over finally besting me and my office fuckup DTs. My weekend was ruined... forever minus two hours. 

At any rate, I appreciate a film that needs a drive or walk to and from itself to cohere. But if even then there's no real coherence, except that which we give, out of our longing to not disappoint sweet Scarlett, then it's not even itself.

Before that, there was Larry Fessenden's 1995 low rent horror opus, Habit (Netflixed after admiring his friend Wingard's You're Next). As befits its post-Blank Generation style and Liquid Sky content, Fessenden wears all the hats and stars as Sam, a bartender and witty drunk from the era of the 90s. Hey I drank the same way, at the same time, in his same neighborhood (he bartends at the Hat, the great Mexican restaurant in the LES with the super strong take-out margaritas, though in parts it looks like Ludlow Bar, and Max Fish rolled together.) I think I've even used his great line about booze and cigarettes being a form committing suicide on the installment plan. Great minds, man. And, with his wild hair and missing front teeth, Fessenden is a great shaggy antihero, of the rare type where intellect and the ability to succinctly share one's inner feelings are not the marks of a square, nor missing teeth the mark of a townie scrub. He must have been really drinking 'cuz I think he's amazing here, and not as paunchy as he is now (drinking will do that), in things like The Innkeepers. And there's some really great drinking scenes, wherein chats with his friends, about his new girlfriend Anna (Meredith Snaider)'s habit of sucking his blood during sex, come out as organic and low-key as any normal conversation, neither forced, melodramatic or otherwise.... and she doesn't need a pimp to wave his wand and 'allow' her to feast like in The Vampire Lovers. Fuck that.

Fessenden also has a great gift for framing shots within the tight confines of small realistically dilapidated apartments. The Halloween party sequence wherein he first meets Anna is a masterpiece of tight economical framing. We've been to that same party before--20-40 people in the 20s all crammed happily into a long but thin railroad apartment set up with streamers and kegs--and the sustained conversational tone Fressenden captures is nothing short of a post-no-wave marvel. Sounding like an early Jack Nicholson but not trying to, Fessenden navigates his way through the start of a sexy relationship with Anna and into a rapidly downward spiraling series of options, as boozers often will. The hand job in Battery Park was one of the hotter punk rock sex scenes I've witnessed in some time, too, for being so sudden, realistic, intense, and out of left field, i.e. real. It left me bleeding psychic energy from out my limp imprisoned genital matrix in a way I've not been bled since Lydia Lunch in Kern's Submit to Me Now!

All that said, there's still the issue of the horror, the weakest element of this otherwise strong and moving film. The vamp fangs are clearly the two dollar plastic variety and while that could have worked --like if he was too drunk to tell if she's just joking or really trying to bite him -- plastic or real - etc., they play it straight and by then the film's run on kind of long. Still, there's still no denying this is a significant and impressive low budget work; if the climax is a let-down it's only because the rest of it is so much better than it has any right to be.

The main issue with both these films' femme fatales of course is the weird dichotomy they represent in a male auteur-verse: Scarlett rocks the posh accent but dresses like a waterfront Lars Von Trier prostitute, and why is her spaceship an SUV? And as vamp Anna, Meredith Snaider is too short to be scary; I would have liked to see her taller, or more mature, played by a real gravitas-bearing actress who somehow seemed separate from the murky twentysomething slacker low-key characters in the film, none of whom emerge to become any archetypal vampire types (the one kid tries to be a Van Helsing rescuer of sorts but it never pans out though he does get in a great stream-of-babblelogue about the real vampire being all around us in the choking overreach of popular culture). So if in the end it may not be effective as a scary horror film, it does work as an authentically booze-engulfed LES twentysomething denizen depiction, wherein the sense of world-weary isolation is so acute that the vampire metaphor is almost redundant.

The reverse is perhaps true for Under the Skin, which has a few striking visuals involving black goo (are the aliens merely tar babies drawn from this murk, as in they're all one giant amoeba that occasionally splits off and dons a pelt like a wolf in sheep clothing?) and in one climactic shot we're able to realize the way even the most horrifying sight can blend in perfectly with twisting sunless old growth forest. Critics have noted the way Earth becomes so easily alien and terrifying through Scarlett's eyes, and how inherently alien she looks to begin with, and the weird similarities between these alien seduction / immersions and the reality of reported alien abductions, and the similarity between these aliens and the weird eye thing in Liquid Sky. While I get all that I'm still not convinced. Were my expectations too high? I wasn't high at all... just poisoned by panic... was that it?

Days later I'm still thinking about it, and the film did help strangeify that long walk uphill from BAM to our Park Slope digs on a late night Good Friday, half the locals seemingly gone upstate to visit relatives for Easter, leaving the neighborhood feeling very abandoned and surreal. Maybe that's the best movies can do if they want to be both artsy and get us to not wait for video: to get us to trek out there into the dark foreboding night and pay over ten bucks to spend a couple hours parked next to strangers, our purse and coat pockets easily accessible to bed bugs and junkie fingers, the film has to seamlessly link up to all those things, to forge a doorway between our lives, where we are inside our own skins and their outer furs, wherein our seeing the film and the film itself merge. If a film can't make the walk home resonate through a different pair of eyes than the ones we came in with, then why did we ever leave the safety of our homes to begin with? Underground nuggets from the 90s like Habit, on the other hand, go the other way, to link up to our memories of being in our 20s in Manhattan in the 90s, a time when trekking to the neighborhood video store in the wearying sunshine of a hungover Sunday afternoon used to help create some kind of anticipatory context, some ceremony, even for old favorites. Both those trips -forward to theater and back to the rental place, are forgotten now in favor of Netflix, the delivery system that sluggens down to a slow-mo swim our escape path through the tar pit black quicksand stasis of reality. One day maybe soon we won't even need our own memories, our own darkness, our own seat, speakers, ears, ossicles, neurons. We'll be the viewer and the viewed in one looping orbital motion, the entirety of our senses transferred onto a stack of DVDs on a dusty shelf, and hopefully none of them, not ever, will be Transcendence. 

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