Thursday, July 31, 2014

Taming the Tittering Tourists: 50 SHADES OF GREY, 9 1/2 WEEKS, EXIT TO EDEN, SECRETARY + SHE DEMONS, Franco, Bunuel, Josef von Sternberg, Alain Robbe-Grillet

Most fans of 50 Shades of Grey--the kinky BDSM bestseller by E.L. James--were wincing (and not in a good way) at last week's debut of the forthcoming film adaptation's conventional, fashion mag-slick trailer - "I didn't like it the the sixth time, when it was called 9 1/2 Weeks!" But no one asked the big question: What's wrong with cinema that it can't seem to capture the sickly turn-ons of a good bondage book? When I saw and heard the conventional sounding Edward of the piece, Mr. Grey (Jamie Dornan), the "masterful" captain of industry and 'wealthy, spontaneous, travel-minded' gentleman (the kind of man every girl with an online personal ad pines for --take it from me, so hard) with a dirty little secret. I was glad to see he had one of those freaky reptilian-bird-alien-CGI-hybrid faces like old Bob Pattinson's, but his hair, suits, and voice, not to mention age, are as ROTM as any lawyer-cum-porn star in a 90s direct-to-cable office thriller.

There, there. There's always Wild Orchids 4.
Maybe no one now working today could have filled the Mr. Grey part with any degree of affect, except Harvey Keitel (a prospect too odious perhaps to consider seriously, which is exactly why it would have been awesome). It also may have worked if Dornan kept his Irish accent, or wore his hair in a crazed tousle to give himself the air of a coked-up Caligula, but there are just too many young male models with nothing but gym muscles and hair gel by way of 'gravitas' pretending to be high-powered executives on network TV for him to stand out.  Dornan is beautiful but would he ever make it as a dom outside of a Westworld-style robo-fantasy? I know some girls who are or were dominatrixes for a living. They are terrifying, even off the clock. They'd tear him apart without even needing to crack a whip.

And that's the problem with adaptations of bondage books in a nutshell. The reason that shit gets ladies so hot is that it's Freudian --it runs deep. Anger over one actor playing a character already cast in the mind of every turned-on broad in America is normal, anyone who read the book first feels that way, but sadomasochistic stuff is doubly difficult because what's so very erotic on the page becomes either too goofy and tame (Secretary, Exit to Eden) or too genuinely violent and disturbing (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) once committed to screen. Too much visual information (facial cues) lead us right out of the sadomasochistic spectator pleasure position and into the empathic concern position. On the printed page, the bondage fantasy recaptures the pre-empathic age when we tattled constantly on our fellow children in hopes of witnessing their humiliation via mom's wooden spoon or dad's belt (1). The mix of vicarious anal phase humiliation and pain conjures sadistic glee instead of concern and outrage because empathy hasn't quite kicked in yet. Kids are more concerned about what they can get away with doing without getting punished. This fear of punishment gets to the dark chthonic heart of animal desire in the anal and oral phases. Ideally we evolve past this sadistic stage by around third or fourth grade; empathy kicks in and we suddenly don't get the same thrill torturing Japanese beetles in the driveway (2). But on the printed page (or spoken word) we can easily override the empathic response and recall the jouissance of imagining 'a child is being beaten' in a way far different from the vicarious thrill of filmgoing. Once onscreen with real actor faces saying the lines or contorting in pain, presuming we're not sociopaths or high on cocaine (3) our mammalian higher functioning kicks in.

Masochism may survive onto the big screen due to the innate nature of cinema as a voyeuristic absence (as in the films of Josef von Sternberg or Luis Bunuel) but not in the form of traditional leather and lace titillation that erotic fiction so easily accesses. Bondage stuff in reality is usually dictated by the woman. The man's either masochistic or enacting the part of the master she wants, but usually this is via spoken narrative during sex, more talk about what she'd like him to like her to do, at least in my (not insubstantial) experience. If physically enacted, there's a safe word, most importantly, and carefully laid-out rules of conduct on both sides --especially if the man is the dominant figure this is so important, and what separates spousal abuse from kinky foreplay often boils down to just these rules.

The same rules that make it possible in real life, alas, kill it in the movies.

According to Gaylyn Studlar (4), true masochism can only exist in dreams, conjured more out of a need to safely experience the abyss, to trick out the satisfactory endorphin rush that surges to accommodate sudden pain (as in the heroic measure of wasabi or hot sauce); it must be done in person or in the mind where we can imagine a transformational ecstasy that ordinary movie watching doesn't accommodate. The shocking Times Square marquee, coming attraction, or the film capsule review might enflame or awaken these latent desires, but the actual film will never measure up; it's the difference between remembering your own crazy, erotic dream and hearing about someone else's. It's the difference between seeing the covers for films like Kitten with a Whip or Naked Under Leather vs. the actual movies.

Example #1: In the 90s there was a small, velvet-lined S&M themed restaurant in midtown NYC called La Nouvelle Justine: it offered a menu that included spanking hot young slaves or being spanked, and an overpriced chocolate mousse cake in shape of a spike heeled boot for parties of five or more. While tourists and bachelorettes snapped pictures and laughed in embarrassment, tame bondage rituals were enacted and pretty slaves marched back and forth, pretending to be thrilled at the prospect of their future lucrative punishments by the diners. We were there for my roommate's orgiastic kid sister's birthday, so we bought her a hot boy of her choosing to spank, knowing she was no slouch in this department. One light (for her) slap and he jumped up and ran away with a girlish shriek; the bouncers came over to warn her to be gentle.

Fuckin' midtown, man.

Hearing is believing (from top): Weekend, Persona
I was into bondage myself, off and on, for years, always more in theory than practice (losing my virginity to "Venus in Furs" helped), but generally turned off by any evidence of it onscreen; that's why, for example, so many Nerve profiles cite as their favorite sex scene Persona (1966), which has no sex at all, 'just' a monologue about a spontaneous beachside foursome, delivered in a flat, slightly ashamed voice by Bibi Andersson.

As our French correspondent Severine notes: "Most French people would tell you that the image neutralizes the imagination in this field and suggest you to read, or ask someone to read you erotic literature." But then the book sells, gets passed around at mom's book club, and boom, a best-seller, so then someone has to make a movie of it. The problem first appeared in the mainstream via 9 1/2 Weeks (see top image), a 1986 film that had so much word-of-mouth buzz, a bit like 50 Shades has now, that it fooled people who saw it into forgetting they hated it. Its post-American Gigolo cocaine-modernist penthouse spandex-and wool socks aerobics sexual aesthetic--never my cup of tea even back then--has not aged well except as camp (see also: The Hunger, Flashdance, Shiver, Last Seduction, Disclosure, Basic Instinct) and within even that narrow confine, Weeks sucks. Even with Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke (back when he was still pretty) it sucks, and they can engage in all sorts of kinky shit with ice cubes and candle wax all they want, it seldom draws more than titters. I know girls who love that movie, though I would argue they love thinking about scenes from it while masturbating. It might work being remembered but as a film it's a joke.

men in black, blondes to the right, from top: 9 1/2 Weeks (1986); Dangerous Game (1993)
Similarly, all that 'R' erotica stuff in the back row of Netflix and Amazon Prime, like Emmanuelle, Justine, or The Story of O, is never sexy except in rare instances of almost incidental hotness. They're of worth today only for their non-'erotic' elements --the hyper-active zooms, the terrible fashions, the hilariously stilted artsy blocking, terrible dubbing, cliche'd muzak and montage. Sometimes we 'remember' these films as hot, since remembering brings eventually us into the same hot zone as literature, or the dream.

Today, with AIDS awareness running concurrently with the rise of home video and internet pornography, free love has been hidden away so that the jovial bacchanal of 70s XXX marquee is gone, replaced by condoms on gym-muscled dudes so pumped with Viagara so a girl doesn't ever get a break. HBO runs endless misogynistic sleazy shit like Game of Thrones and no one bats an eye, while stuff that moves off the lip of the familiar and seems genuinely dangerous-- such as the borderline misogynistic mental torture of Madonna in Abel Ferrara's much-hated Dangerous Game (1993)--stirs our preliminary superego shock troops into inner-censorial unsexy PC knee-jerking. Maybe with coke around we'd feel different, coke censures the empathic mammalian response, but without it--thank god--we're too compassionate to enjoy another's suffering. On the other hand, there seems to be a weird distance - the famous thing where a girl shown having an orgasm will garner a film an NC-17, seeing her brutally gang-raped and murdered, an R--showing just how vindictive and resentful censors are towards women's bodies. Into this dilemma, the bondage book adaptation has two choices, an "isn't this silly?" self-aware limp dick campiness, or perfume ad textures and hairless bodies artfully entwined under misty filters, i.e. sterile affectation.


While the 50 Shades trailer reminded me of Adran Lynne's 9 1/2 Weeks (the perfume ad version) and its subsequent deluge of big budget late 80s-early 90s copycat corporate jet sex thrillers, what the surrounding outraged Grey-fanatic uproar reminded me of was the heady days of A.N. Rocquelaire, (the nom de erotique plume of Anne Rice) whose est seller bondage novel Exit to Eden was adapted into a move that wound up ruined by Hollywood groupthink in 1985. The story of an bondage-themed island resort for rich kinky decadents, it was an darkly erotic murder mystery, not a comedy, but the suits cast Dan Akroyd and Rosie O'Donnell in the leads as buddy cops (the body cop movie was all the rage in '85), which made the book's fans feel like Jimmy Stewart when Midge shows him her self-portrait in Vertigo (1958).

Another entry in the mainstream bondage category on the camp-winky side of the valley, Secretary (2002 - above) fails in ways not quite as extreme: seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal walk around an office doing paperwork clamped into a black leather stock is overly twee-quirky funny, not remotely sexy, but at least she herself is cute and her masochism acknowledged as preferable to her depression-motivated self-cutting. Still, her getting spanked for the first time by boss James Spader during office hours is the film's only sexy moment because it's unplanned (could easily win her a harassment lawsuit), dangerous (no safe word), and functional (he's correcting her typo). But soon the typos are framed along the office corridors, and quirky paint schemes turn the legal office into some 'madcap' Urban Outfitters showroom.

For true sadomasochistic affect we will have to look still farther, across the pond and back in time, and onto the Blue Underground and Severin DVD labels, to maverick auteurs like Jean Rollin, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Jess Franco. 

The latter's Succubus (1967) is a fine example of the whole twice-removed 'listening to someone else's dream' nonstarter vibe being re-charged through a neat intellectual triple reversal. A nightclub S/M performance in a film is tepid but if the dominatrix killing them for real and no one in the audience knows, then a kind of mecha-medusa-mirroring Antonioni signifier collapse leads us out of the Platonic cave altogether, like the jolt when Samara crawls out of the TV in The Ring.
Bunuel directing La Belle du Jour; She-Demons
There are rare directors who manage to understand the 'someone else's dream' dilution and reverse it yet again, to take us all the way out of the dream within the movie and out of even our dream of reality and back into their 'privatized' space, like falling asleep and waking up as your own mother, and no longer even being born. Bunuel and von Sternberg bring viewers to this death driven sense of total floating freedom via recreations of the Freudian primal scene, and a grasp of the longing to return to the pre-Oedipal total reunion with the mother. The result is a total and complete annihilation of self and free will, a surrender that overloads the superego with super-amped feedback until it shatters, freeing our recessive psychic blocks, opening the cellar doors on our subconscious basement prisons and letting all the long-repressed memories and desires escape into the open air, where of course, they evaporate, because an unbound desire is an oxymoron.

This is where French theory comes in handy, ala the concepts of masquerade and Deleuze's 'Becoming-Animal' - as in She Demons (1957, above), where castaways wander into a scene of beautiful blonde savages being whipped by Nazis. Our natural desire to kill the Nazi and free the hot jungle girl is tempered by the gun (phallic authority of the father) of the Nazi whipper and our possible misunderstanding of what's behind it all (as a child would misunderstand the primal scene). It's not erotic to watch, and over too fast to lose ourselves in via fantasy, but the kinky image and the idea that 'somewhere (on some island) a beautiful blonde demon girl is being whipped by a cruel Dr. Moreau style Nazi' lingers in the mind. When mulling through my bad movie collection, I can watch Plan Nine, Mesa of Lost Women and The Astounding She Monster over and over, but She-Demos gives me pause, due to this concept of imprisonment and abuse. Freud's 'somewhere a child is being beaten' scenario gives it a subconscious charge of queasiness. In not watching it, I'm preventing the suffering. But at the same time, I have two copies of it. And I take one everywhere I go. To get back to Vertigo, I'd say the other films are just 'safe' places like the art museum and national park, but She-Demons is the old bell tower, or Midge's step-ladder.

At the same time, whipping not 'supposed' to be erotic, not built up by smutty directors with kinky sex toys, the woman moaning in dubbed in pleasure or laughter or infantile squeals of pleasure, then and only then is it arousing --because it is so very wrong to be aroused. Because soon after the punishment, the woman reveals herself to have devolved into a gibbering devil, ala the Island of Lost Souls animal men. The House of Pain creates consciousness - arousal leads to savagery and then despair as desire is washed away - revealing the same old emptiness and fear.

Venuses in furs 
It's up to Von Sternberg and his Dietrich collaborations in the final analysis, to remain seductive as well as masochistic--the impossible hat trick. Bunuel is great but I never really feel the need to see most of his movies more than once (though I write about them endlessly), whereas the Von Sternberg-Dietrichs improve and beguile more and more with each successive viewing. If the collective 'we' are to understand why the Grey book is so popular yet the trailer isn't, Von Sternberg is the key:
"The fatalism of Von Sternberg's films is not simply an acceptance of death as an externally imposed inevitability but the expression of the masochistic urge toward death as a self-willed liberation. In choosing death, an illusionary triumph is created: the illusion of choice," (48)

"...masochism's obsession with death may be interpreted either as the expression of a universal instinctual urge or as the result of the masochistic wish for complete symbiosis with the mother and a return to nothingness,.... Eros is desexualized and resexualized; death becomes the ultimate fetish that fascinates with the promise of a mystical unity." (p. 123)
Only Bunuel and Von Sternberg ever seemed to grasp this concept, and it's interesting that both adapted the same masochistic text, Pierre Lou├┐s "La femme et le pantin," or that two different actresses play the same character in Bunuel's version, That Obscure Object of Desire, the cocktease girl who continually manipulates the lead and denies him any form of sexual release, a bond she instinctively understands he needs and appreciates (he might have some sexual liasons with her, but since we don't see them in the film/s [ever in Devil] it's a moot point; the censor's requirements are in themselves masochistic in this sense). The rapper Scarface once said, "I'm done as soon as I bust me a nut," - well, some characters never want to be 'done' - it spoils the game, turns a long elaborate twisted ritual into a disappointingly short-lived gratification followed by shame and emptiness. The whole trick to getting what you want is to deliberately want to want it rather than to have it and want your old wanting back. Most magic tricks are part sleight-of-hand and part misdirection, but in masochism, misdirection is the whole trick. The slighted hands of the clock are frozen at bedtime, right before mom comes in to kiss you goodnight and turn out the lights. If you never get the kiss, the lights stay on and the demons under the bed can't get you. 

From top: Blonde Venus, That Obscure Object of Desire
 Don Pasquale hits closest to home...

I've never been a fan of The Devil is a Woman or the Bunuel version, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) but I respect them and so question the underpinning of my own hostile reaction. I loved a girl who treated me wrong when I was ten, exploited my devotion by denying me any good cards in Candyland (she's put them on the bottom of the deck and make me draw again), borrowing my stuff and never giving it back, batting first in whiffle ball and then quitting when it was my turn, over and over. I was so smitten I never caught on to her tricks until years later. Now her memory is buried under the deck like those cards Since then I've always shied away from movies where everyone is money-grubbing like a third world tourist trapper, such as in von Sternberg's version especially. All the money he shelled out is what Atwill stresses in his re-telling of his relationship with Concha (Marlene Dietrich) to young dashing Cesar Romero, but he plays down any sexual contact (this being the only post-code Dietrich/von Sternberg collaboration), leaving us with a series of bilking, check-writing, cataloguing of goods, birds, food, baskets of comestibles for the mother, and Dietrich with her hair up in baroque headdresses singing a merry peasant song about sons of bakers, and florists, "and other things that aren't so sweet." It's dispiriting, even as we realize Atwill is emphasizing these things to Romero to try to scare him off. That's fine strategy, but lousy art. It doesn't go all the way, so winds up jarring the brain with the kind of shit we go to movies to escape, i.e. the check. We see films to reach the oral gratification illusion rather than the actual gratification which leads immediately afterwards to disillusionment. A triple reversal is mesmerizing, a quadruple just exasperating as a double.

For the true masochist the velvet cage is not reminiscent of prison but of infancy. The crib bars past which one cannot crawl signify safety as well as frustration; in adulthood this feeling translates to the movie screen one cannot enter. We're locked out, but in the darkness of the audience lies amniotic safety. Don Pasquale watches Carmela make love to the younger bullfighter through bars, making him a ground zero witness to a recreated primal scene: the crib that prevents unobstructed maternal access triggers the primal scene's return in all its superego smashing Thanatos-resurrecting shame and longing. This obstruction is duplicated in the filmgoing experience, which might try to wear the mask of the sadistic male gaze but is (as per Shaviro and Studlar) masochistic in the face underneath... unless the gazer is the type who never sees anything but MGM musicals.

The sweet, cinematic pain of separation (boys to the left): Blonde Venus, Obscure Object of Desire, Persona
Devil is a Woman
True masochism pre-dates the Oedipal complex, it moves towards total reunion or separation, peek-a-boo, as it were, the return to a total reunification with the mother and the annihilation of the self (and any post-oral phase baggage that may have accrued), Eros and Thanatos are re-conjoined. There are no images at the end of this reverse embryonic journey, the eyes have yet to open, but movies can't go dark, so they'll never get there. Even without ruining a BDSM fantasy, such as by making it ridiculous through winks and snarks, or sterile through perfume ad luxury, there's already something faintly ridiculous and sad about bondage onscreen, ala that weird night at La Nouvelle Justine. It's like fiction within fiction, a double negative, which has value only as metatextual abstraction or intellectual discourse, which is why it's so beloved of French intellectuals like novelist/theorist Georges Bataille (Story of the Eye) and filmmaker/novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, but is never sexy. No matter how arty the lighting and fractured the text, the bondage and discipline stuff in Robbe-Grillet's films always looks a little sex shop goofy. There's no way to de-goofy it without going really dark. Either way, not sexy....

Gradiva (2006)
In the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, many of which are now on DVD, rustic barns, thrift store period costumes, and brand spanking new spankers mix uneasily together to no real affect. Robbe is an intellectual, take his word for it, and part of the Georges Bataille-Deleuze-Lacan industrial complex. But in the end, it boils down to the same goofy handcuffs provoking little more than boredom and vague feminist ire. Read a book, Alain! Aloud, so we all can hear. And ideally make that book Gaylyn Studlar's In the Realm of Pleasure. You're probably smart enough to understand it. That's called flattery, you craven dog! Kneel before Gaylyn's leathery whip of knowledge!!

1. Though I hear that's not done these days by parents, kids certainly can imagine being abducted thanks to nonstop media hysteria. And I'd add that when the 'child is being beaten' frisson is taken out of the parental sphere, dad loses 90% of his authority (a good dad shouldn't need to punish, but without the threat what power does he have?) Now the power is reversed, rather than the kid scared of the dad spanking, the dad is scared of the kid saying he was spanked, leading to child services' snooping and neighborhood gossip). This accounts, in my mind, for the at least part of the shift of the father's role in the house from authoritarian top dog to--essentially--older brother. 
2. That's kind of my story. I was a very kinky kid until one day, when I was around seven, torturing beetles with a neighborhood friend in his driveway, I saw one of the beetles staggering away leaking black blood on its remaining leg, and I felt totally sick and ashamed. I stood up, stepped on them all to put them out of their misery and never hung out with that kid again, the shame and sick regret forming the core of an every expanding empathy snowball, 
3. When I was studying to be a drug counselor I learned it's common for cocaine abusers to order S/M porn and bondage gear online in the middle of the night during a coke binge, forget all about it, then be appalled when it comes in the mail a week later. Sometimes they forget they ordered it and think some freak is stalking them. It's often a factor in what compels them to seek treatment.
4. Studlar, Gaylar, Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic by Garylyn Studlar (Columbia Press, 1988):

Thursday, July 24, 2014

OBVIOUS CHILD, GINGER SNAPS and Your Reproductive Lunar Cycle

Even in our modern age of 'chick-flicks' and 'rom-coms' --films that allegedly delve deep into women's sexual trials and truths--there are some issues which never get treated 'openly,' i.e. brazenly and even-keeled: the female orgasms, menstruation, and unplanned pregnancies that end not in hasty marriage or adoption but abortion. And of those, almost none that involve abortion without guilt or shaming, or using it as some character development to imply loose morals and lazy self-preservation instincts. The censorship codes of our grandparents die hard. Sexual voracity is strictly for teenage boys, or hot (but accessible) 'girlfriend material' like Emma Stone; trapped in bromantic comedies with dudes well below their stature, these 'cool girls' get together with some fat unemployed slob 'cuz he's witty and Apatow sez so. And if she does find a good looking dude, he's inevitably cookie-cutter WASP bland, or a playa who puts her on his B-tier booty call list.

That's why films like OBVIOUS CHILD (2014) and GINGER SNAPS (2000) are so shocking, and instantly relevant. They provide sorely needed feminine mystique injections into a cinema choked with hormonal boy's gym clothes rankness and squeamish back-of-the-bus tittering.

Slate at Cross's.
The first great abortion comedy in history, Obvious Child is a conscious effort to undo this injustice and in the process remains hilarious down to its fertile core. SNL alum Jenny Slate stars as struggling Williamsburg hipster stand-up comedian Donna who "would like an abortion, please," and respectfully declines hearing the other options from the Planned Parenthood counselor. She likes the guy she met on a one-night stand, Max (Jake Lacy, from The Office), who was too drunk to get the condom on, but doesn't know him well enough to even tell him, right? She needs confirmation that she doesn't need to tell him, which is interesting in and of itself. If this was any other movie, not telling him would be a betrayal and she would have to die for her sins... so the baby could live, or some shit like that.

Credit a beautiful script by director Gillain Robespierre (based on her short film of the same name) that we never doubt Donna's sensitivity or strength, even as the jokes flow consistently. We can respect that Donna's mind is made up and that she's smart and has considered her options and is neither martyr nor lost soul. She even knows how to check her own tendency to leaven her inner tension while dealing with the issue, yet never presumes that tension is somehow 'valid' because of the surrounding controversy.

There's such a perfect rapport between Slate and the material it's hard to believe it's all not happening in the moment, with special attention to the way people actually talk, not 'normal' people, but real young Williamsburg-dweller college-educated witty individuals. I've seen this kind great naturalistic flow only with the best 'ensemble' female comedy teams--Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in BRIDESMAIDS (2007), Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer in BROAD CITY, and nowhere else. These are women who've done enough improv and rehearsal to make their characters breathe and roll rather than submitting to some half-assed plot twists thrust on them by some clueless male or self-hating female screenwriter whose low opinion of young women is masked by generic feminist lip service (i.e. the grating dimwittedness 'hipsters' in JUNO and FRANCES HA).

Broad City - the Best 
The cast includes Polly Draper as Donna's domineering business school professor mother; Richard Kind as her puppeteer dad; David Cross a skeevy comedian chum; Gabe Liedman the bitchy gay emcee buddy (with none of the usual cliches thereto forthwith); and Gaby Hoffmann (see: The Little Mescalito that Could) as the roommate. All able. When Donna busts the tale of her abortion out on stage we cringe and hold tight to the arm rests, teeth gritted, expecting yet another long, sad bombing like her previous performance, or alienation of this new man's affection. I won't spoil the endings but I wouldn't even be writing this post had OBVIOUS CHILD even once tread familiar ground.

Robespierre and Slate
I can see this becoming the film women watch while on the couch recovering from their Planned Parenthood journey, something that won't make them feel bad about their decision while never making light of it either, with no need for self-hatred or permanent emotional scarring. May this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship and collaboration: Slate and Robespierre, the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler of a new child-free generation! Between them and the BROAD CITY babes, I have high hopes for a second female comic renaissance (1).

Speak of menstrual cycles, and the female orgasm, and female duos fighting the Patriarchy, GINGER SNAPS (2000) arrives on a stunning Blu-ray/DVD combo from Shout Factory this week. A near masterpiece of feminine hygiene horror, GINGER has a deserved cult, genuine badass attitude, humor, existential morbidity, and a blood-drenched yet touching finish. Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) is the older sister, the bitten one, and younger introvert Brigitte (Emily Perkins) her faithful and similarly Thanatos-obsessed sister. They hate everyone in their nowhere Canadian high school and live in their own world, taking pictures of themselves in various death scenarios for a ghastly school art project under the opening credits and discussing suicide methods. When a popular girl overhears their bitter remarks about her during field hockey practice, an escalating series of fights leads to Ginger being attacked by a werewolf. As the full moon of her menstrual cycle lycanthropy turns her from HEAVENLY CREATURE into a strutting JENNIFER'S BODY-style maneater, Ginger becomes first hot, then kind of overbaked with a lame chest piece and cute button poodle nose, then an outright animal puppet. She'll (still) rip your guts out, Jim.

Younger Brigitte, meanwhile, has to begin the scary task of trying-- not only to help her sister by finding a cure and then cooking it up and injecting it-- but pulling away from their sacred death pact and passing judgment against the 'right' of might.

Killing humans should not be a moral issue for werewolves, anymore than buying a steak for most 'normal' eaters, but Brigitte isn't ready to make that jump, differentiating almost like Scarlett Johansson choosing life in GHOST WORLD. Meanwhile one basks in the lack of tacky on-the-nose
moon-titled pop songs, and though there's a few boys and meals to the side, including a helpful chemist/horticulturist/pot dealer who seems partially inspired Josh Hartnett's character in THE FACULTY (1998), this is a girl's horror movie, bloody like the menses-minded wolf.

There's still a few problems, like the less-than-stellar werewolf effects: there's no real transformation money shot the way there was in THE HOWLING or AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and the wolf puppet itself is pretty weak. The idea to make it hairless was a real mistake. These are the kinds of problems which could have been covered by CGI, but digital effects were too expensive at the time. As we learn in the extras. That it all still works is testament to the power of Emily Perkins, whose scenes with the transformed Ginger come alive in ways the monster on its own could not. Like Slate in OBVIOUS CHILD, we can read all sorts of inferences in Perkins' eyes--her understanding of the impassive rubber wolf mask's little gestures makes it come alive for us as well. She brings home the real sadness of being stalked by your own sister, the burden of knowing the only soul in the world you trusted, your one true friend, now wants you to kill your to prove your sororal devotion. With her sullen long face hidden in a deep foxhole of long protective hair, Perkins still conveys a range and her rapport with Isabelle so solid that the minor mechanical problems all melt away and only beautifully framed horror film tableaux remain. The only other actress able to convey the crushing despair of seeing the most important person in your life become a mechanical latex monster? Geena Davis in THE FLY (1986). Another Canadian horror film! Canadian + loss of the kernel by which it was you and she against the world? Coincidence or 49th parallel slid its compass?

The wealth of extras on the Shout disc include a somewhat rambling making-of documentary, deleted scenes, previews, and two separate commentary tracks. In these the director John Fawcett makes sure we know he's the feminist behind this, not all the (ditzy) women who worked on it, like co-writer Karen Walton (though she does get her own commentary track and surely had a hand in the rightness of the dialog, the way Debra Hill did on HALLOWEEN). They're currently working together on the hit BBC show ORPHAN BLACK so they must still be tight -- but he'd be a lot better off letting Walton take more credit. Hell, Jack Hill even invented a woman author for his SWINGING CHEERLEADERS script, though none was remotely involved. Fawcett does have some slyly deprecating things to say about the final monster, and how they had to keep it in shadow a lot to keep up the scariness --a nice way of saying it sucked - though he was the one who insisted it be hairless and albino. (Terrible choice, John!) There's also some insight into the tax-funded Canadian film industry (there was a backlash when the script was sent around to casting agencies because Columbine had just occurred), audition tapes from the early part of the process, and what the actors look like now (or Emily Perkins anyway, who seems like a completely different person, above)

Jennifer's Body (note Hawksian Scarface hand stamp)

But the real juicy extra is a panel of female horror writers and filmmakers discussing horror films that deal with women's sexuality and how drastically apart films like GINGER SNAPS are from the bulk of slasher films and how that imbalance is an expression of man's horror of gynecology; the scariness and pain for the girl of her first period being something a man can't quite face, and the way females can only achieve orgasm in movies if they also kill their lover immediately (or else are killed) afterwards. They give some love to the underrated JENNIFER'S BODY (see my praiseful post Dead Jennifers), CARRIE (of course), and VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS. And they seem to agree with me that TEETH is a nice idea that totally fails as a film, its makers second-guessing and sewing members back on right up to the time I turned it off (see here).

The sum of their discussion is never voiced, but you can read it here: GINGER SNAPS is badass. It dares to never even approach the idea of a 'normal' life being worth a shit. We don't end the film with Brigitte cutting her hair and finding a nice boy her own age, thank the pantheon of female gods. GINGER has already gone on to have quite a cult for itself, and even two pretty good sequels. I hope OBVIOUS CHILD gets the same lasting love, and that it blows Zach Braff's facile WISH I WAS HERE (which includes "Obvious Child" on its golden indie oldies soundtrack - as if snooping over Gillian Robespierre's shoulder) out of the water, and that more female writers and directors and actors have the balls, if you'll forgive the expression, to openly convey the bizarre terrors of their menstrual and reproductive cycles rather than leaving it to men for whom the vagina is still a disturbing void ever ready to swallow them up, but over which they presume control once they have successfully entered and planted their flag. Fuck them and their flags! If every abused suffering wife and daughter in a fundamentalist or abusive home just slit her husband's, father's or oldest son's throat in the dead of night, we'd wake up to a world free of violence. Am I the only one who thinks like this? Fuck the irony! Wake the Venusian Flytrap kraken, let a screaming jock or frat boy be fed to each anemone tendril orifice!

Or at the very least, ladies, keep up the good fight, and smile so we can see your pretty incisors...

1. the first being of course the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler-Maya Rudolph-Rached Dretch SNL era.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Medusae of Asia vs. Old Testament Huston: THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941), RAIN (1932)

Pre-code neo-Jacobean Tragedy's final venomous wheeze. THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) sinks its cobra fangs deep into the mongoose of censorship, self-abasement, and social taboo. Its fangs sink deep into buried wells of buried sins black sins that the Breen Office had been keeping a lid on for years. They demanded over 30 script revisions got GESTURE and it's still mighty sleazy! 

Based on a play by John Colton, GESTURE asks 1941 America to pretend Shanghai wasn't then locked in a death struggle with the Japanese. America still tried not get too involved (this was clearly released before Dec. 7) But the attack on Pearl Harbor was on its way... Hollywood exotica would never be the same again.

Directed by the great Josef von Sternberg and full of all his trademark decadent visuals, it doesn't have the divine Dietrich but a close friend of hers (from the 'sewing circle') if you get my drift. Ona Munsen (1) as a Terry and the Pirates-style dragon lady named Mother Gin-Sling, owner of a Shanghai casino structured like the rings of Dante's inferno. As the roulette wheel spins so does the wheel of degradation: Gigolo-ing, gold-digging, rickshaws through festival throngs, degraded murder, sleazy drug addiction, alcohol addiction, gambling addiction, white slavery, Mike Mazurki, suicide, elaborate revenge, hookah smoking, and Von Sternberg's super masochist sublimation power Though thanks to a combination of the Breen Office, the long-term effect of the Depression, and the rumblings of another war, the sins and lifestyle we see are significantly reduced in wattage.

More than politics, though, SHANGHAI GESTURE is about the lack of Dietrich. No actress can be both imperious matriarch and bespoiled hottie other than "she." Without a star of major elusive persona-sliding range, these exotica fantasias can't sizzle properly: RAIN would be a mere drizzle without Joan Crawford; RED DUST (1932) on the other hand needs both Mary Astor in the rain and Jean Harlow in the rain barrel; THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1934) has both Myrna Loy urging on the whipping, and also Karen Morely endangering the western world through soft-spotted carelessness, etc. Josef von Sternberg's whole oeuvre would be just chiaroscuro exotica if not for the enigmatic Marlene; and THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) would have been perfect for Dietrich--she was even the right age. Did he hope to lure her back? I don't recall and I lost my copy of his autobiography, NOTES FROM A CHINESE LAUNDRY.

Munson, with headgear ostentatious enough for a Flo Ziegfeld's mythology revue, has a commanding presence but she can't infuse a single glance or wave with enigmatic playfulness and subversive innuendo, or radiate hypnotized cobra calm, like Dietrich. Munson can convey a kind of sinister Gale Sondergaard regality but that's only part of what makes a great dragon lady. There's a coke-drip sonorous jubilance in her voice, but no matter how gymnastic her balance of camp and dramaturgy, her headgear is what we remember. It screams camp diva, or at least sultry goddess but the last thing she should do is underplay her imperious grandeur. This is isn't CHU CHIN CHOW, baby!

Munson split our mortal plane in '55 with a suicide note that read "This is the only way I know to be free again... Please don't follow me."

Classic Munson.

The other players of this little comedy, meanwhile, seethe and stagger about the casino's few sets but never quite find a shared frequency: Gene Tierney, especially--beautiful though she may be--pouts so sourly as spoiled rich girl, Poppy, we wonder how Victor Mature (as pimp-procurer, Dr. Omar) can put up with her, let alone waste time trying to seduce her with Song of Solomon quotes and lame 'orientalist' lines like: "My mother was half-French and the other half was lost in the dust of time, so I am related to all the Earth, and nothing that's human is foreign to me." Yeeesh! Meanwhile, Maria Ouspenskaya hovers below decks as Mother Gin's mute assistant; Eric Blore is the casino's accountant; Mike Mazurki a 'coolie' rickshaw spy (there's no real Chinese actors in the film, other than extras); Michael Dalmatoff a Russian expat bartender; Ivan Lebedeff, about to blow his own brains out as an unlucky Russian expat gambler... and, looming on the horizon, on the opposite side of town, Walter Huston as the great white moral businessman fixing to evict Mother Gin-Sling. He's just bought her casino's whole neighborhood out from under her as part of a massive urban development project.

With eyes calmly alight, Mother Gin-Sling encourages our confidence in he grand plan to blast Huston's patriarch off his pedestal in the bug MADAME BUTTERFLY-style climactic revelation. Fate's fickle finger will spur her her New Years dinner party (an invitation Huston can't help but accept) into a third act denouement of MADAME BUTTERFLY self-immolation proportions. Bad drugs, drink, gambling, and sexual jealousy, and the now debauched Poppy's abrasive petulance shall come to collect--(NO SPOLER)

Taken as a whole, GESTURE is not up to von Sternberg's Dietrich collaborations at Paramount, but part of this could be the relative blurriness of the 'they did what they could' restoration and the 'they got away with what they could' limits of the code. Par of it is also the attempt to have myriad threads running through instead of focusing on one character, as it would with Marlene. In their still-ephemeral and brilliant (pre-code) collaborations, In those films they conjured a very vivid feeling of the street in relation to the interiors. Here no space seems connected to any other. There are some good crowded Shanghai street scenes early on though that a prime JVS. The big Chinese New Year celebration is a writhing cacophony of rickshaws, costumes, dragons, and peddlers crammed together beautifully, evoking the crowd scenes around the train in Shanghai Express, but again they never feel connected to the casino, nor the casino connected to its adjacent rooms and bars. 

JVS' litany of artsy touches is fine enough to help that not matter, and to make us long for an HD remaster. Von Sternberg sheathes Munson in exotic murals painted by Keye Luke, who--though Chinese--doesn't appear---hmmm. There's a slow litany of minor irritations like that which keep adding up. The cast seems either drunk, irritable, high on opium, or suffering withdrawal. Tierney's inability to separate playing a bitch with being a bitch is the biggest liability. It's as if all the drugs and booze and sex were just keeping her eternally hungover and cranky rather than turning her into a desirable drug addict wonton like the script calls for. If you've ever dated a girl so gorgeous you stick around even though she irritates the hell out of you, of she''s boring, crabby, manipulative, petulant and/or violent, then you may shudder in sad recognition. I know I did. And I don't come to Von Sternberg for that kind of shudder.

She does look beautiful, though: she knows it, though.

That said, slowness and pointless bits of business are the side effects of von Sternberg's style--every character is always moving towards or away from sex or death.  There's very few daytime exterior shots and only one bit of Shanghai stock footage letting us know that it might seem like midnight in the casino ("Never Closes" is their motto) but it's actually a weekday morning and right outside poor bastards are shuffling to and from their petty 9-5 jobs while inside the wheel spins and everyone's still up. I used to love that in the old days, partying all night at a club or someone's loft and staggering out to find the sun is up and fresh-scrubbed bright-eyed people going to work etc. Me in opaque shades being carried by a guy on either side of me so I don't fall over while aghast commuters file past. I loved that shit!

I'm rambling again, so that would seem to conclude the tour, so what of the antagonist? What of the... Huston?

With his terse delivery and rigid military posture, his dart-like movements, the way he kind of leans back and tenses up as if ready to hurl himself across a table at his quarry,--his vowels shortening as if on a count down to blast-off, Huston always excelled as inflexible moralist captains of industry, the kind never hip to their own fatal flaws. He was a cop fond of beating the truth out of suspects in BEAST OF THE CITY; a tough-ass by-the-book warden in CRIMINAL CODE; a King Lear-ish rancher in THE FURIES; and a sadistic crippled ivory trader in KONGO, and--most iconically for the time--the inflexible but ultimately corrupted reverend Henry Davison in RAIN. Just as the new testament patriarchal signifier--support and a kind no bullshit affection-- would become embodied by Spencer Tracy, Huston embodies the Old Testament wrath and vengeance.

I know it's a side note, but Spencer Tracy never worked with Howard Hawks, and I can see why: Hawks had a code of his own, and it had nothing whatever to do with following the letter of the law or mistaking sanctimoniousness and sentimentality for truth and justice. Tracy is so moral he needs a Mr. Hyde potion to slip his Rock of Gibraltar steadfastness. while Huston deludes himself from the beginning, seeing his greed and white male rightness as universal benevolence in the grand Fox News tradition. For example, in KONGO, he ruthlessly intimidates tribes of Congolese with juju magic tricks. Spencer might do similar things, but would think he was the good guy doing it, because he'd have a bible instead of a feathery headdress. Tracy would do it with a dopey smirk meant to win a Tess Trueheart prancing around in some meadow; Huston had no interest in being seen as good or noble, only in achieving his grand design, a kind of upper management application of governmentally sanctioned force, very in tune with the pre-code era, when the future survival of organized modern human civilization was still iffy. And unlike Tracy who rarely oversteps, Huston surges forwards, blind to any plea for tolerance, and often faces tragic realizations over what damage his inflexibility hath wrought, like a scissoring censor who realizes, too late, he's cut off his own genitals. Surely his son John drew on that persona for his own quintessential titan of industry in CHINATOWN.

So it's this paragon of vengeance Huston who goes up against Mother Gin-Sling at a climactic "Chinee New Year" dinner party. SPOILER ALERT! She turns out to be Huston's ex-wife, and man does she paint him a lurid portrait of her grim life being abducted and sold to a 'pleasure boat,' on her way to meet him one night, and having pebbles sewn into the bottoms of her feet after she tried to run away (and these details survived the 30 rewrites!) And she even gives a New Years' eve floor show out in the street in front of the casino, of girls being hauled up in cages as a reminder of the old white slavery auctions when their girls were hold off the boats in nets. And that survived the rewrites too! Yikes... I guess objectification and dehumanization of (non-white) women is always OK by the code (as long as the girls playing the nonwhite women are white, of course).

Chinese New Year, celebrating five thousand years of sex slavery
a ghoulish girl and a bottle of booze cures all ills

RAIN (1931) finds Huston facing the exact same problem, trying to get a very young Joan Crawford out of tropical prostitution, but you know how it is--this time she doesn't want to come to the light. Once she learns he's arranged to haul her back from the tropics to stand trial (these expat prostitutes are always on the lam after murdering either a violent john or pimp--but it was in self-defense!) she finally--in her darkest moment of despair, sees light..

There's a great climactic scene on a set of stairs during a late night monsoon in RAIN I was lucky enough to see by total chance while tripping one rainy afternoon: Joan is angry, crying, desperate as hell, trying to escape up a set of stairs while Huston stands at the bottom, reciting the lord's prayer over and over again while she screams and yells in rage and fear and then starts moaning sobbing in despair at the thought of going back to the states and certain trial or execution. He just keeps reading in a low measured patriarchal voice. Joan is a phenomenon. I saw this scene, on shrooms, watching--as she went slowly in perfect modulation during the long single take--from imperiously demanding he leave her alone, to begging for mercy, to pleading for her life, to sobbing in despair, to finally entraining her pitible whimpers into the prayer he's saying. The rain seems to stop and the sun come out. Somewhere along the line their two voices entrain, and she stands up, super calm, walks down the stairs, ready to go. In her darkest hour, she finds the lord, through chant, and it's all right there in that long twisted scene on the stairs. It's like watching a kind of actor transfiguration right before our eyes, and makes us understand why this was such a long-running hit on stage (even SCARFACE saw it in Hawks 1932 film)

Maybe it was the mushrooms that afternoon but I've felt, ever since that damp and dismal afternoon, that RAIN is a horror movie, a kind of DRACULA in reverse, about the dangers of religion and spirituality. With her thick early sound era make-up, Crawford's Sadie Thomson has a ghoulish obscene aura, the sister to Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and Irving Pichel in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER; they could all share the same Max Factor black lipstick. And Huston is her Van Helsing, but thanks to being swamped in at a remote midway station on his way to the interior to convert savages he takes it as his duty to convert her back from vampirism, only to turn bloodsucker himself.

As Marlene said in MOROCCO, "there's a Foreign Legion of women, too."

Kongo (1932)

But if there's an entrainment to the frequency of the lord, there's an entrainment of the jungle, too. And it entrains Huston's Henry Davidson just as the lord's doctrine entrains Sadie. Huston clearly doesn't have her interest at heart, but is just adhering to the letter of the law out of a kind of continual self-denial agitated by the endless rain, the way senators campaign against gay rights and then go have a men's room tryst 'for research.'

Just how many movies had women of adventure expatriating in some remote tropical outpost, either servicing the local sailors, or just drinking with the other refugees, due to the success of RAIN? My friend, they are countless. And they all erupted from five important socio-political rubrics pre-code fans know well:

1. Miscegenation -  It's important to remember that censors weren't just patriarchal prudes, they were racist. Being 'pre-code' never meant there was no censorship, just less 'clear' rules of conduct: sex outside wedlock between two white people could occur if the woman was a divorcee or widow and hence no longer needed to save her honor, or if the tryst was occurring in the land of savages--Africa, the tropics, Asia-- where the heat and the limited amount of white male options meant societal norms might melt away if the moment was right, the moon was shining and the fertility rite drums of the natives beating all night in the distance. Usually the only thing remotely like a white male authority figure in these film is s a drunk or junkie priest or doctor or ship's captain under some sort of fever or addiction, to further break down the veneer of modern civilization so that morality can't help but buckle. 

MGM was the worst for using fear of miscegenation to distract censors so that white-on-white adultery, prostitution and premarital trysting could sneak in as a lesser of two evils--a trick still used on racist parents by manipulative white girls to this day!

2. Maugham -Just advertising your film as about some (white) hottie taking it on the lam to the tropics, hooking up with a (white) junkie doctor and/or committing murder means you want the public to associate it W. Somerset Maugham, the E.L. James of the 30s. Any film that wanted to have 'steam' just cherry picked plot points from his RAIN, SEVENTH VEIL, THE NARROW CORNER and THE LETTER. For awhile there, everywhere you looked were boorish doctors who'd rather treat cholera than have sex with their wives, British colonials with stiff upper lips awash in country club gossip, opium-addicted doctors making wry philosophical comments, wicker fans, gin and tonics in the hands of insouciant bachelor bounders facing down dull husband's pistols, violent rainstorms, distant tom-toms, rickety steamship gangplanks, grinning native servants, white chorus girls and decent women tricked into prostitution by gigolo arms dealer boyfriends or their agent sending them to the far east for cabaret jobs, and dull hypocritical protestant missionaries. See: MANDALAY, ROAD TO SINGAPORE, PRIVILEGE, MOROCCO, WHITE WOMAN, THE KEY, THE BARBARIAN, FRIENDS AND LOVERS, SHANGHAI EXPRESS... the list is endless, and thank god, or Maugham, for it.

3. Prohibition - Only America could be crazy enough to try to enforce such a law, so voyaging abroad, where liquor didn't taste like Turpentine and cost a fortune became a smart bet for drunks, like a pot smoker going to Amsterdam or Colorado today.

4. Exchange Rates: In the Post-WWI economy, the dollar went farther overseas, so one could live the high life in Europe or the kingly life in the tropics, whatever your pleasure (at least that was the fantasy in the minds of the hungry Depression-era masses.

5 Exotica - The Great War had forced us to get social with other nations. We came back interested in the art and cultures of far-off lands, riffing off the aesthetics of those regions, creating a picture of the 'other' as kinky, lurid, savage, totally class-conscious but with exquisite and bizarre taste.

And the Brits always loved Egypt.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Two hearts stab as one: Brian De Palma + Dario Argento = split/subject psychic twins of the reptile dysfunction

The critics say they're indebted to Hitchcock for their tropes, obsessions and subjects, but what I really see in Italian horror director Dario Argento and Italian-American suspense director Brian De Palma is a bizarre split-subject psychic twin connection, a shared reptile dysfunction that springs from Catholicism, ancient Rome, and scopophilia-driven sexual obsession mingled into a love story linking across the oceans and continents from Rome to the USA, a round trippy immigrant passage between the old and new world / mammalian higher brain's compassion and the reptilian cortex of unsocialized pre-empathic killer. De Palma has made a few films exploring this sort of split-subject psychic twin connection (SISTERS, THE FURY, RAISING CAIN) while Argento oomphs his dark fairy tale sensationalism with it. Argento even wanted Jessica Harper for SUSPIRIA after seeing her in De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. He said so!

And I didn't even know this when I started this post, but they were born the same month (September) of the same world war-ridden year (1940), six days apart. They are both Virgo, sign of the virgin, sign of obsession, poring over film strips and sound boards with the repressed energy of a thousand unreached orgasms (Catholic guilt, mama's bathroom monitoring, and god knows what else making masturbation a hairy palm-fearing no-no).

from top: Jessica Harper w/mic in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE
(De Palma); w/knife in SUSPIRIA (Argento)
Both have been accused of objectification and misogyny due to their detailed gruesome violence against the female body. I used to agree with that diagnosis, but now I blame their reptile sadistic killer instincts on intense Italian mother-love and Catholic guilt (Hitchcock, too, was Catholic). The Devouring Mom's giant hydra apron strings cling to their minds no matter how much their onscreen avatars hack at them, each new woman's body a tendril-tentacle. I've come to feel my own feminist ire is founded in that same struggle, coupled to the unbearable level of anxious dread and soggy liberal arts (Protestant-atheist/Nordic) guilt--the compulsory mammalian instinct to protect the women (civilization, sterile) vs. the cold reptile desire to savage them (primal, fecund). When a camera doesn't look away from the horror wrought by our helpless positions as observers on the opposite side of the screen, caught like a masochistic spider in a sadistic web, then real horror can begin - on both levels at once. Feminists like myself blame the camera, the director, for our intense discomfort. Better we should have our eyes gouged out than see such traumatic butchery! Rather than examine this response and our own culpability in it (deep deep down, we feel the savage id stir), we lash out, labeling the directors misogynist in a vain attempt to scrub the horror from our eyes, not even realizing we're now part of the problem by associative vehemence.

Clara Calamai, Jacopo Mariani - DEEP RED
But Argento and De Palma will not let us look away. Even if we gouged our eyes out they'd find a way to reach us with these images.

Blood and black, from top: SCARFACE, SUSPIRIA (see Mater Testiculorum)
Argento and De Palma also use similar post-modern effects, deconstructing their own misogyny and their audience's demands for blood; each goes deep into the human eye, ever searching for what lies past the inscrutable inky black roundness of the pupil. Cameras, mirrors, photographs, film sets, stage sets, plays, taxidermy, and elements of performance-within-performance, masks behind masks, abound. I generally don't like dream sequences, they're like vents in which to dump cheap manipulations and sudden shocks without the burden of context, but De Palma melds and mirrors the dreams and reality together so completely that this harsh judgment doesn't apply; Argento does away with waking life altogether. Occasionally an Argento character wakes up in some exterior, drops by an outside a parapsychology conference for some exposition (as if a glass of water, or a quick trip to the bathroom), then it's back down into bed, the pillows, the mattress below it, the floor below that, the floor, the floor below... the floor... and then they're back and unsafe in the Freudian nightmare murk. 

from top: De Palma - CARRIE, Argento - INFERNO, De Palma -
Interesting too is that Argento's work has by critical consensus really sucked since 2001's SLEEPLESS, while at the same time De Palma's been pulling himself out of a sucky period (with 2002's FEMME FATALE). It's as if these aging auteurs are sharing a pair of traveling genius pants. De Palma's been returning to his old haunts, where cheap raincoats, razors, masks, split screens, double cross media-blackmail-stalk-and-snap PEEPING TOM post-modern media theory coupled to a PSYCHO-style cross examination, circular staircase POVs, and a psychiatrist's explanatory monologue wrapping the catalog of kinks back up in its brown wrapper before a final gotcha which often ends up being a dream within a dream, or was it (as in his recent PASSION)?

Without those traveling pants, Argento is floundering; he's become just another late night Cinemax director paying more attention to disturbing gore, gaudy sex and no art-as-violence fairy tale tricks for which we love him. Maybe it's because De Palma is making smaller movies that suit his fancies, while Argento seems laboring under the pressure of his name (and his refusal for example in MOTHER OF TEARS to go with his ex-wife's fairy tale script which might have rocked, and instead some nobody American guy's, one can only imagine it was because his had less art and more gore which is all he cares about these days, don't get me started).

Either way, and as an aside, this does not betray my grand theory that they are twins linked by some strange telepathy, like Jennifer Connelly with her flies in PHENOMENA (1984), or Amy Irving with Andrew Stevens in THE FURY (1977). 

None of this is to accuse either Argento or De Palma of being a mama's boy, a misogynist, a copycat, or a potential murderer. For better or worse (mostly better), the critical backlash against their movies has helped usher in the PC-era. With feminist ire building in nearly everyone, the blatantly phallic drill, endless softcore strutting and groping in De Palma's BODY DOUBLE (1984) was like an affront even to his defenders and defenders of the 80s in general. In Argento's similar films, sexual fetishizing is never an issue, except as far as elaborating on the madness of the mother or father fixation which then (usually) triggers a schizophrenic break with reality.

Now that I'm older though, I see the misogynistic violence of De Palma and Argento through this same schizophrenic prism, and realize only by expressing these wormy fantasies can we temporarily-cathartically expel them, or at least depressurize them so they don't explode and cause real-life damage. How many hydra apron strings were severed or unstuck in American families thanks to PSYCHO (1960)? It made such a splash on its initial release that the ripples haven't ceased in fifty years. It changed the way America went to the movies and gave armchair psychologists a gold standard for the dangers of maternal suffocation. Who knows how many closeted or overprotected men would still be living at home and doing their mothers' toenails on a Saturday night if not for PSYCHO as a warning? "You better move out before you end up like Norman Bates." Who knows where De Palma or Argento would be without it? PSYCHO snapped the 60s off at the shower curtain 50s root, and tossed it into the inky black pupil drain, where emaciated 20 year-olds like De Palma and Argento were waiting with their celluloid nets. 

Color-coded patterns from top (alternating De Palma/Argento):

Naturally these psychic twins are not identical: Argento's psychoanalysis is perhaps deeper while De Palma is more into politics (Italy wasn't as mired in Vietnam). Argento's connection to music is more wryly contrapuntal than De Palma's, making innovative use of children's songs, whispering, percussion and even electric bass-driven funk from Goblin and Ennio Morricone. In DEEP RED, particularly a real break with convention is begun: swooning pop balladry as heads get slow motion sliced by shattered windshields--the glass a pop art snowstorm--and rattling nerve-grating, plastic cup echo-drenched percussion that stops when David Hemmings steps on a bottle, then resuming just as abruptly when a shade falls. This approach is the total opposite of the usual emotional-telegraphing of Hollywood, of which De Palma is part, preferring the usual overwrought orchestras. De Palma had Bernard Hermann scoring (De Palma's first films, and Hermann's last) which cemented the Hitchcock connection, but the genius of creating undulating nervous tension with an orchestra died when he did. Even geniuses like Hermann don't get how mellow pop songs should accompany murders and suspense music play over romantic parts. I've never been too crazy about the score of TAXI DRIVER for that reason, it's like Hermann doesn't get the ambivalence and Herzogian inscrutable stone face of the natural gods thing the way, say, Tangerine Dream got it for SORCERER. It takes true madness and the ability to convey the full breadth of that madness so those listening don't have time to recognize and escape it. It's only when De Palma got an Italian to score, Ennio or Nino Rota, that it really gels.

From top: NORTH BY NORTHWEST, DR. NO, the full ambiguity of
casual sex at its most chilling, and therefore truest.

Argento and De Palma use romance in a subversive manner, riffing on the lovers-on-the-run style of Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) by having romantic comedy tropes tossed nervously in with the suspense, sifting through the queasy mix of dread and attraction that occur during a casual hook-up, i.e. when the other person's hot but it's all happening a bit too fast to not seem suspicious (where only Connery era-Bond or Cary Grant can safely tread). Is that what happens when a charming sociopath puts their moves on you? The winding up in bed with them is carefully crafted to make you think it's chance and fate, the night itself conspiring to bring you together, but already they're spiriting you away from your old life with surgical expertise. Even if they don't end up boiling your rabbit, or bringing you someone's head in a box, it can still be dangerous to bring them home or go home with them. Every hook-up is a risk. It's like a romantic comedy is coming true and you think somehow you deserve it, because your hormones scream oui oui. But something's not right. A grown man shouldn't exclaim aloud, "I forgot to phone mother!" while sitting down to martinis with executives at the 21 Club, expecting all these peers of yours to understand.

from top: De Palma (DRESSED), Argento (BIRD), De Palma, Argento - etc.

They see you (from top: DRESSED, DEEP RED)

Lest we forget, BODY DOUBLE made co-star Melanie Griffiths (Tippi Hedren's daughter), an overnight star for her bubbly voice and her so 80s window striptease VERTIGO honey trap; Nancy Allen in DRESSED TO KILL uses her sexy body as a weapon to overwhelm the killer's gaze. It's this idea of feeling suddenly exposed as the viewer in the audience that activates the killer hiding in plain sight within the viewer's "normal" psyche-- such as when the psychic 'sees' the murderer while on stage at the psychic conference in Argento's DEEP RED. Dude, she's seeing us.

Part of the feminist arousal of ire perhaps stems from the anger at being forced to feel what the murders are depicting, not just from the stabbed side but the stabber, the horror and savagery of the murders leave their mark our murkiest reptilian recesses. But they are meant to be disturbing, to heighten our senses through fear and make us paralyzed in our seats. That is the correct reaction to these violent depictions and to presume it's not, that it's sadistic and somebody's getting off on it, is to presume a vast nation of rain-coated social sadists who get off on seeing sexy women terrorized. The response of feminist outrage is connected to the same repressive mechanisms that motivate the killers in De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL and Argento's DEEP RED. Seeing themselves being seen, they freak out. It's as if Argento and De Palma are doctors who touch these critical viewers in places within themselves they don't want to admit exist, so the urge is to sue for sexual harassment. But maybe he was checking for a tumor! Maybe she's reading too much into it based on her own hang-ups?

The stuff that really traumatizes me now is not the gore of De Palma and Argento but the unconscious, casual cruelty of other films (like VACANCY or WOLF CREEK), that aren't necessarily good or scary but leave me damaged for days, just imagining anyone would ever want to see or get off on that kind of torture porn brutality. Argento and De Palma are more compassionate; the very idea of film violence obsesses them to the point that they can target and exorcise it through a double blind mirror-to-the-audience gaze reflector, such as the movie screen-shaped white art gallery entrance in THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (below), or the (wider) screened window of De Palma's BODY DOUBLE (below that).

In these shots/scenes we're given a profound metatextual illustration of the perverse appeal of violence on the big screen, and the reason for our sometimes violent offense seeing it -- our urge to rush the screen and pull it down before the unthinkable happens, and if we fail, to find the director and pour our drink on his head and kick him in the nuts. When I was young in the 70s-early 80s, seeing an R-rated murder like in SUSPIRIA or HALLOWEEN was the equivalent of a scary roller coaster, a rite of passage, something you needed friends to go to with (at the drive-in or dangerous downtown theater). But if the audience laughs and cheers the murder (as they would going down a roller coaster hill) and someone is there alone and sulky to review the film for the Times, would they not worry, hearing the cheers and giggles, that these films are mere pornography for vicious misogynist freaks? I know that's what I would have felt. I read those reviews and developed a whole irate feminist vulnerability complex because of them, or imagining the audience cheering slaughter of sexually aware females, as if the theater reverted to some biblical age-style adulteress stoning.

But I now think these murders are meant to tap into our mammalian protective instincts far more than reptilian cortex sadism. More than cheering brutal murders, we scream at characters onscreen in helpless frustration not to go back in the house, or basement (hence all those 70s horror titles DON"T ANSWER THE PHONE, DON'T LOOK IN THE BASE etc.). But our anger over their counterintuitive behavior might be our attempt to shirk our responsibility. We want desperately to feel like the endangered woman brought it on herself for making so many counterintuitive decisions, that believing she deserved it will absolve us of the guilt that we couldn't be there to save her, that her death onscreen is the result of our real-life absence from our own lives, but it's not our fault!! Damn you for even tricking us into thinking so.

untraversable screens - from top: Argento, De Palma, Hitchcock (viewer helpless to help, or look away)

But it's really the powerlessness of being tied (more or less) to our chair and unable to be heard through the screen (often represented in De Palma like a shower stall or rainy window), and guilty at our own bloodlust, the deep dark reptilian-dysfunctional part of our viewing brains (the type that eats their young and has no empathy), that we're reacting to. It's simplistic to call that misogynist, because if we didn't feel that way, if we relished her weakness and bad choices as chances to strike, then we reduce ourselves to the lonesome status of the reptile, or cokehead, a sociopath rather than a compassionate mammal-reptile hybrid. As so often in Argento films, we shudder enough watching the stalkings and killings that we need our own avatar for that shuddering, someone similarly trapped outside the screen - unable to save and unable to look away - the reptile mind holding our terrified mammalian eyes on the blood with the same insistence as the administrator of the Ludovico Technique.


It's also true that when other artists tries to mix media theory and sex and violence, giallo tropes can't help but appear--as in the John Carpenter-scripted EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978), which somehow manages to be very Italian just by being into fashion and photography (via Helmet Newton) and set in New York at the height of its crime-ridden grittiness. To incorporate cameramen within films and musicians and sound engineers hearing something they shouldn't or seeing something they can't quite remember, is to enter a realm where even we as the viewer are not safe. It began with REAR WINDOW (1954), became entwined with the counterculture in BLOW-UP (1966) and its imitators, and continues with Argento's and De Palma's descendents, like Strickland's BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012), and  Michel Soavi's 1987 STAGE FRIGHT. The key in each is the meta-framing of the performance of horror as a rite, an ancient re-enactment of pagan sacrifice older than modern civilization, ever present in our DNA just waiting to come out, powerful even if the victim is just a barleycorn effigy.



from top: De Palma (x2), Argento, De Palma. Argento
Art galleries and artist studios legitimize scopophilic behavior, allowing for more a broader palette of associative symbolism. Stretching the sexual gamut, via headless statues and statue-less heads, Bosch and Bruegel, Escher and surrealists lead the way to where De Palma and Argento follow.  Through art, Laura Mulvey's concept of the male gaze is equalized, or at least - broadened. In subversive horror films, the male gaze is declawed, rendered impotent, because the desired woman onscreen looks back at us. She sees our evil toad thoughts and doesn't flinch or bow submissively, freezing us in our motionless tracks. Hence my term Mecha-Medusa (wherein the desored object looks back, freezing us with the uncanny, skeevy horror of our own initially lewd stare). See also: subliminal screens, metaphors for the immersive film viewing-experience, the mass hypnosis of the theater where we merge into a group mind caught under the sway of a dangerous crazy person.

Associative and literal misogynistic devouring / dismemberment / triggers

De Palma, Argento (etc.)

from top: Argento, Argento, De Palma.

Blindness allows for heightened variations on the HVR or Heightened Victim, or Helpless Viewer, Response (we can't help them across the street, being blocked by the traffic of the screen); fetish objects for objectifying (they can't look back); they cannot be threatened by what they see, hence are not a threat (as in the men blinded for seeing by matriarchal coven-ruled social order in the 1978 TVM, THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME --blindness as symbolic castration). At the same time, some--like Malden in CAT O'NINE  TAILS above--use their other heightened senses to advantage (linking their hearing to the sharper hearing of animals, or Travolta's field microphones).

Argento x 2, De Palma x2

They fog, and when something or someone looks in them and freezes stock still, they become their own objects. Doubling is related to that --evil twins, and the inherent split of actors and characters -as in the split between the woman playing a terrified woman in a horror film, or literally split in the case of the body doubles in De Palma's BLOW OUT and BODY DOUBLE. There are the separated twins of SISTERS or RAISING CAIN and the eerie similarity romances (someone looks just like someone else the protagonist was in love with and saw die-- stemming from VERTIGO) - -Geneveive Bujold in OBSESSION, Melanie Griffith in BODY DOUBLE, Margot Kidder in SISTERS, the two raincoats in DRESSED TO KILL, and so forth. In Argento, there's the impersonation of the killer as PTSD obsession in THE STENDAHL SYNDROME or TENEBRE, the fraternal twins of INFERNO, the impersonation doubling in PlUMAGE --actually, I guess it's more of a De Palma thing come to think of it, as he's way more into VERTIGO than Argento is. 

Deep Red is the color of menstruation, child birth, the link to sex and excitement, flushed cheeks, heat / dark blue the color of swollen wounds, the chill of the deep, dark death, etc.

De Palma relies on them but drags them really slow and methodical, without any dialogue and often backwards so that they're as relevant as 'reality' within the film; Argento flashes to them now and then, more out of stories told or childhood memories of the asylum or before or after (where everyone acts like automatons). De Palma links dreams with horror movies worked on by characters of his movie (John Travolta in BLOW-OUT), or wordless operas, or the clockworkiness of Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES or Dali's dream clocks in SPELLBOUND and MOONTIDE.

Great for chase sequences and as symbolic of the 'descent' into the unknowable squirmy recesses of the subconscious.

frop top: Godard, Coppola, Argento, Argemto,  De Palma, De Palma

The visual screen is just part of it, of course. Coppola's THE CONVERSATION was hugely influential on both De Palma and Argento (the scopophilia kink extends to eavesdropping). They both similarly took notice of Godard and Truffaut (as in the DON'T SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER-style arc of BLOW OUT) whose incorporation of the recording studios and screening rooms they were using into the films themselves indicated an unhesitating post-modern bent.


Antonioni's BLOW UP, Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW and Powell's PEEPING TOM are huge (obviously) influences to both directors. To a lesser extent, TAXI DRIVER (if Travis had a 16mm movie camera to point at the mirror and the pimps, imagine the movie he would make!)

SCREEN METAPHORES: De Palma is more obsessed with the hot female body threatened by the gaze (and threatening to it as well, quid pro quo) while Argento is obsessed with childhood dreams and traumatic repressed childhood memories drawn on the wall and then painted over, fairy tales elaborated into operatic tableaux (the automaton movements of the child in the DEEP RED flashbacks, etc.) Argento is more centered directly on metaphors for passive viewing (trapped and forced to watch), while De Palma focuses more on the cinematic apparatus (projectors as well as screens). Note the way the shadows in the picture above makes the childhood drawing look like its projected on the wall; below that is the image from INFERNO, the screen as opaque window about tot be slammed down on a neck, or slowly torn through by a dying woman. Unlike the earlier example (in BODY DOUBLE or OPERA), these screens aren't there to mock our powerlessness to save a woman (or alert to the danger behind her--the common thing in the crowded cinema of audience members shouting at the woman onscreen to turn around), but to threaten our sanity by either coming through the screen (like a broken head through a window) as in Lamberto Bava's DEMONS or beckoning us through it (as in DEEP RED)

From top: Patton, Blow-Out

For De Palma it's not the art house he recreates with his traversable screen, but the drive-in, the NASHVILLE or TARGETS or PATTON-style backdrop, such as the flag behind the climax of BLOW OUT or the blue behind Carrie at THE PROM (just as in SCREAM or THE RING it's not the theater or drive-in but the TV), like a kind of multi-media breakdown.

Find the skull gazing back!
(from top: Hithcock's NOTORIOUS, DRESSED TO KILL)

THE GONE-DEAD GAZE: De Palma's films are never, to my mind, as focused on art, instead dwelling more on politics and on the curvy flesh of hot girls and the terror of that objectifying gaze being reversed, of the 'object' returning the gaze, provoking a response which is always in direct relation to the viewer's fear of being viewed, of being judged. Feminist critics attach too much power to the male gaze, seeing it as ownership, which is like thinking you can get fat from looking at pictures of cake. Like dogs brave and combative on the leash but cowardly off it, we love to imagine what studs we'd be in the sack with some hottie we pass on the street; as long as she doesn't turn around and invite us upstairs for a tryst, we're safe in our fantasy. But if she drops the pretense of not seeing us and offers or asks for sex, even the most courageous of studs will usually rear back like a startled mare --it's too sudden, too soon. We perceive it almost as a violent slap, we're like Medusa flashed by a mirror raincoat.


And so it is that the ideal object that arouses or fascinates the killer is one that never looks back (figures in magazines with the eyes crossed out, blind people, etc.), allowing unchallenged staring. When the figure in portrait of Otto Preminger's LAURA (1944) suddenly appears, in a raincoat and bad mood, the detective's enchantment is instantly dispelled. The murderer's fantasy is to keep his prey from being able to return the gaze, to rip off our mask. Unless the cops scan the last image her eyeball and project it onto film (as in 4 FLIES ON GREY VELVET), or she comes back from the grave, she'll never be able to identify the killer.

Lastly, don't forget AMER (2009): perhaps so meta as to transcend narrative altogether, it presumes a certain familiarity with Argento and De Palma's oeuvre and their shared psycho-sexual roots as well as the distinctly Antonioni-esque experimental ambiguity where Jungian fairy tale subtexts go so deep down they come out the top like digging to China. One of the rare feature length films credited as being directed by a couple (she's French, he's Italian), the film is truly split, not just into three chapters but into experimental and narrative; not scene-by-scene but shot-by-shot.  At last he twins of fairy tale sexual psyche are united, the children of the giallo are born again, and the unification of male and female halves make a unique whole. AMER is the fulfillment of the promise in Argento and De Palma's most dreamlike works, distilled with all the plots and narrative weeded out but still riveting. It's glorious.
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