Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Monday, July 27, 2015

The New Triple Long Pig Dare Ya: SHARKNADO 3, CHOPPING MALL


I was shocked watching SHARKNADO 3, which premiered with much Shark Week-esque hooplah on Syfy last week, when one of the "live tweets" mentioned "the theme park worker" and not the Universal Orlando Theme Park worker, which is really doing your promotional tie-in guy wrong. Meanwhile a commercial commemorates one of the recently eaten Secret Service guys, saluting him for being free at last from his wearisome cellular contract. Hey, that's clever, taking a chummy cue from Shark Week's many tie-ins over on Discovery. Aye, a fine example of synergy and vertical integration, albeit offset by the instantly-dated expression "Oh hell no!" white people are now so crazy about. Can using words like "clutch," and "baller" be far behind, yo? "Try the new, super- ill sausage and baller bacon butter triple hog dare ya from Applebees" Dave and Busters new Holla Back Baller Rack: 15 ribs for fifteen bucks" or "Patron Blue Tequila - Clutch... simply clutch."


The Sharknado series is the biggest hit to come from the latest Corman offshoot company joint Asylum: they realized they had a great high concept idea and so decided to spend a little more money and do it better than the usual wretchedness. Thus, SHARKNADO the First delivered the same sort of kitschy but solid thrill vehicle Corman had been parking on drive-in and TV screens across the country all through the 50s-70s and late night cable all through the 80s, and VHS rentals all through the 90s. And lately, for SyFy, he's been in the shadows behind a new self-aware camp golden age (if you don't take too much umbrage at crappy CGI). Usuing the 'nado as a springboard, Asylum has left their sleazier jungle-based tommyrot (the Pythons and crocodiles and Pirhanas) behind and gone for a slightly more upscale, younger, hipper approach. Taken as one nonstop festival of semi-conscious hot young things at the beach shouting "Shark!", these films have become like a Baywatch marathon for monster movie lovers to nap to on a lazy Sunday. Then, for the peak of corporate recuperation, the big moment when another Sharknado film drops - usually Sundays at 8 PM, following or preceding Shark Week on Discovery - and with enough sponsors onboard for Synergy tie-ins to make Roger and Julie very happy.

Because hey, you can never have too many clever ad men tying in their lures on this big air shark wrangle, because every time there's a self-aware camp 'event' like this, the self-aware metatextually hip tie-ins become closer and closer to the actual movie until the two are tangled as two fishing lines. The result makes for quite a spectacle, as watching America eat itself always is, even as it eats you from the toes up, until all that's left is a finger on the remote.

Such faux-self deprecating product placement and tie-in integration is all over the net, and even on NBC's Saturday Night Live, which does Amex commercials in the same manner as their satiric commercial sketches, making the two impossible to separate. In other words, vertical integration is no mere Jack Donaughey 30 ROCK joke. Check out this Clickhole ad's deadpan mix of satire and straight forward advertising... where does one end and the other begin? Exactly.

That's why the second SHARKNADO was so painful: it had become fully self-aware and was just camping it up, shitshow-style, featuring a string of bloated once-familiar faces hoping to up their Twitter numbers as they're eaten near destroyed NYC landmarks (or crushed by the severed head of the Statue of Liberty) and Fin's hero complex looking dangerously close to domestic terrorism (See Micro-Manager Munchausen). This third go-round--despite the douche-chilled "Oh HELL No!" tag--makes it back to something like the first film, which worked so well because it wasn't just the tornado that was interesting, but the incoming tidal surge that flooded the drainage sewers and left the water line climbing up into the Hollywood Hills. The way it all unfolded over one long afternoon, starting in a Santa Monica beachfront bar and ending high above some strange air field next to a UVA rest home, one long incoming wave, seen from behind wet SUV windows, and heard in the background FM radio news updates folded into the slap of the wipers and the uniquely LA ongoing discussion of the best shortcuts across the Ten, or whatever, the way the tornado didn't even come along until the final third; the stabbing sharks with your pool cue as they come rolling in through the bar window; the green table felt soaked in blood and saltwater; the traffic inland, stalled out on shoulders getting dumped on from upper exit ramps; the sharks in swimming pools, sliding down the highway strips, cars waiting for wave intervals to dash past off-ramp intersections, and the way normal life seemed to go on simultaneously to the disasters, it was all a comfortable foggy blast. The fact that, even as all this apocalyptic shit is going down, traffic is normal right outside on the highway, or across the street (stolen shots being a Corman tradition) was analogous to the film's effect. It was exciting without trying to earn our respect, or to suspend our disbelief and sweep us into a magical realm... of wonder... and imagination...! It was enough for SHARKNADO that we laughed once in awhile, and reach for the remote in despair.

Print the legend though - the Sharknado itself caught on, as well as Ian Zetterling as the older dude Scott Walker, and Tara Reid. No one but me remembers the cool parts: Nova, the flooding aspect, the boozy bar-to-rainy car vibe... but that's life. Time marches on, and the flood was probably harder to animate digitally than just having airborne sharks. And this tie-in bonanza is once-in-a-lifetime. I'm sure none of the subsequent airings will have those same ads, and it's a damn shame. 


But hey, Bo Derek plays Tara Reid's mom; and she's eternal like "She Who Must Be Obeyed", both of them dragging now-designated sharknado expert Fin to Orlando (for theme park tie-ins) instead of into the thick of the tornado, or helping the president prepare for the oncoming tide of inexplicable airborne sharks (the White House is destroyed; the mood is jovial). Reid's quite pregnant, their oldest son has "deployed" so isn't around; their cute daughter Claudia (Aubrey Peebles) is played by a different actress with dark hair (Ryan Newman), a subject of much small talk on Twitter. Now Fin and his family are public figures, America's designated sharknado chasers, with an Oval Office quick pass. Ever the hog of the first film's glory, Fin doesn't like that Cassie Scerbo's Nova spent the sequel off on her own (though I could swear I spotted her in the subway), going all storm chaser Mad Maxine without him, ensconced in an armored shark investigation camper with radar, arsenal, and contingency plan (Frankie Muniz is her lovelorn tech guy). Once again, Scerbo steals the show and bumps this back up to the old levels, giving her usual great raspy voice Jersey girl menthol-smoker realness even to her manic obsessive psychospeak. When she says, for example, that when she crawled out of the shark in the climax of the first film "it's never been the same" she does it with just enough gravitas, neither turgid nor campy. It's just a junky ass flick, but in this moment it shows you can address PTSD without being either dismissive or PSA maudlin. 

Cassie Scerbo, you are the heart and soul of these films and never let them tell you different! Tara Reid gets the name recognition and does the promos but you do the heavy lifting and provide the soul and appeal. Scerbo, your love for Fin--who only had eyes for his family which of course made you love him more--was the first film's core. Not having you around in the second made it fairly trite going. Is there anything more unseemly than some Cali broheim lecturing us on what it means to be New Yorkers as he runs hither and yon, chasing his family around the all the usual sights (Times Square! Subway! Mets Stadium! Statue of Liberty! O00h-rah!) like a confused maniac terrorist-tourist hybrid? The only interesting aspect left was Tara Reid having her hand bit off and replaced with a bionic arm. A part I do not remember but works well enough here.


I don't even mind that Fin's still got the obsessive hero complex this time, because it fits the film's subliminal integration into army recruitment propaganda and its even further-around-the-curve NRA promotion. Whenever gun nuts take the law into their own hands to save their neighborhoods from flying sharks, this movie proclaims, we all benefit. Michelle Bachman and Ann Coulter-- both of whom make cameos--especially benefit from this red state synergy. And of course NASCAR and military build-up must be acknowledged, and respected. Ooh-rah! UFC fighter Josh Barnett blasts sharks for the military--now more than ever. In the synergy ads, Race Car Driver #3 uses being eaten by a shark to escape his cellular contract. Cosmetics come in real killer colors; the incessant car insurance barrage "I guess they don't like you driving around on three wheels." And the smug girl chiding her husband with her good driving record cashback; Sam Jackson ranting about your 'hard-earned' cashback; the new Jeep Cherokee; and the M. Night movie about creepy grandparents; Pepsi; for us in NYC a spate of local ads for: the Honda Summer Clearance Event, Broadway superstars of Magic "The Illusionists," and The Book of Mormon. Promos for Syfy's own latest 'scary critter+natural disaster' hybrid hop-on, "Lavalantula"; the upcoming Syfy miniseries Childhood's End which is about an alien invasion that brings happiness and peace but what's the downside? What are these peacenik aliens really up to? "I would rather the world go down in flames under our control," a staunch white male shouts "than live in prosperity and peace under theirs!" Spoken like a true Republican! "Messing with Sasquatch" promotes rude near-bullying taunts of Bigfoot in the name of jerky; turkey and guacamole (flavored substance) from Subway; Captain Obvious at Hotels.com ("They won't judge your life choices"); some guy with an unbearably pandering sensitive voiceover, the kind so common now, where they talk to you like you're five years-old and just skinned your knee:"All you need to see is the next 200 feel - that's how life unfolds - and you'll get there." (1) Fuck that. The badass anti-smoking ad equates a cigarette with a vicious science class monster with smoking, and that's so clutch. Anything that kills you makes you cool first. If Bogie's life taught as anything it's that real men don't do longevity.  

Subtextual pro-NRA ultra neoConservative Army recruitment tool or no, watching Tara Reid give birth while falling through Earth's atmosphere inside a giant flaming shark, Fin cutting a whole so the parachutes can get through? Priceless. Her skin looks much better, by the way. And Nova, welcome home. I just hope they wise up and give you your own local girl vs. shark series, because you're that old animal flesh creeping back again, a thumb in the eye of the CGI Moreau!



CHOPPING MALL (1986) on the other hand, came to me free of all commercials, liens and tie-ins. Seeing it (for the first time) last week after the NAD 3 was very satisfying. Why had I waited almost 30 years to get onboard the MALL train? The poster alone (at left) kept me away back in 1986, when I was still a young punk smoking his way through college. It looked like a cheap slasher film which by 1986 was one desiccated formula. I remember imagining some bloated, mentally challenged mall cashier chopping up and eating the long pig (you have to look close to see the hand holding bag is mechanical). 
Turns out, my imagination was wrong! I found out last week that it's a Corman-produced joint about mall security robots run amok after freak lightning, the same night three young furniture store clerks and their dates, plus another couple, spend the night at the mall furniture store (to get it on away from parents, one presumes). It's Corman underling Jim Wynorski's directorial debut and he'd go on to much worse things, I'd imagine (I'm too leary of adenoidal snarkiness, fat guy gross eating, frizzed out 80s hair and cracking, fake breasts to travel very far in his and fellow leerer Fred Olen-Ray's overall direction). But here, some initial snark aside, the all-in-a-single-night momentum keeps things pleasant and the sex jokes are front-loaded only. It has nice tracking shots, a good percolating synth score and genre in-jokes enough to make Joe Dante smile wanly at Forrest Ackerman's autograph. For example, the gun store in the mall is called "Peckinpah's"; the nerd shows his blind date ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS while everyone else gets it on (the kind of thing I used to do, alas, on dates - I'd even show them the same movie! Hmmm); the dialogue quotes from the original THING ("it's gonna be real mad when it gets to me") in a way that lets us know these two buddies have seen that film as man times as I have (double-hmmmm!); one character tries to dispel robot attention by saying "Klaatu Barada Nikto" (I shouldn't have to tell you where that's from), and the robot lasers borrow sound effects form the 1954 WAR OF THE WORLDS. Corman company movie posters adorn the pizza shop walls; Mary Woronov and Paul Blartel roll their eyes during the robot debut ceremony (with plenty of ROBOCOP allusions); and Corman regular Dick Miller is a cranky custodian. Sure, the acting veers all over the place, especially the half-hearted screams of the usually great Crampton (she just looks great this time), but that just adds to the ramshackle verite... Teenagers, man, who the hell knows how they'd handle being, as one character says, by way of apology for her skittishness, "chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots?"  

That line could easily die of camp overkill in the wrong hands, but here it works at straddling perfectly the line between genuinely bad, fake bad, and kinda brilliant. As with all Corman and Co's output, there's the realization no one wants to see 'real' acting, so we can eschew the seven stages of grief which pretentious writers and actors so often mistake for realism or importance (that so deaden THE MIST, for example), and go right to the savagery switchpoint. Even the designated strapping jock type Mike (the beloved John Terlesky of DEATHSTALKER 2) has good-natured charisma rather than Cruisian narcissism; the nerdy blind date's a crack shot (Kelli Maroney, who was in the excellent NIGHT OF THE COMET--which I did see in the theater); and the sexy older girl (Karrie Emerson) is an ace mechanic. Rather than sobbing and whining, the girls make bombs with cans of gas and protect each other's flanks. Sultry scream queen Barbara Crampton (FROM BEYOND, YOU'RE NEXT) doesn't last long enough to be a bother and is good in the bubbly PJ Soles sex bunny role. The robots are real-size, genuinely remote-controlled full scale maniacs on real tank treads, whizzing up and down the mall halls. They are GOG-esque, with Gort laser eyes, and Robocop-style platitudes--a combination way cooler than you'd expect for such a low budge endeavor with such an ROTM poster.


To tie in SHARKNADO, Wynorski's currently working on something called SHARKANSAS WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE.  Dominique Swain and Traci Lords will star. I will certainly watch it... probably not. Wynorski is very hit and miss for me, mostly miss. But I love DEATHSTALKER 2, and I love CHOPPING MALL, as it doesn't just source from TERMINATOR but from TERMINATOR's own sources, and it achieves the rarest of all hat tricks in this genre: self-aware intertextual wit that never descends into campy disdain for its own genre. After all, it was Roger Corman's 50s sci-fi films that inspired THE TERMINATOR (James Cameron even got his start working for Corman) which led to CHOPPING MALL, which weaves that thread to a separate strand of suburban amok consumerist satire for a weave that's pure New World schlock.

Just as the recent masterpiece IT FOLLOWS did, CHOPPING MALL knows that great horror begins at home, not in some idyllic small town in some folksy New England that never war or some decayed inner city but in the real normal middle class suburbs, the ever-larger and more depersonalized grocery store, and at the Main Street-killing mall, and in our theater-killing TV sets. Anywhere we go to feel safe, or sated, or comforted is-- in the perfect horror film-- used against us. America has always been and will always be slightly paranoid. It's only natural that whatever we make in our own image would try to kill us. 

It's a chip off the old block that way. 

Aside from swatting a fly or two we need never kill things anymore, in real life, personally I mean, we seldom even kill our own food. It's killed for us. But our animal DNA has us hardwired for hardship; it releases that special dopamine reward for when we kill our own meat through some savage effort, or start and maintain a camp fire, or vanquish our foes in physical combat. Without those kind of basic challenges, the ones the movies provide us by proxy, those dopamine chemicals gradually tone way down. When a good movie taps those instincts, we get a little taste, but as for real life dopamine-flood primal caveman victories, what's left? 

Sex, procreation, maybe kickboxing-- mere scraps compared to the staggering endorphin rush we'd once get after killing a saber-toothed tiger with nothing but a sharpened rock while weak from near starvation, then cooking and eating it with the tribe...



Goofy but sufficiently deadpan horror movies like CHOPPING MALL and SHARKNADO tap into this exhilaration even as they expose its utter ridiculousness. They clarify the answer to why we create our own artificial calamities, and why advertisers take advantage of this to ride our fear, which is why the shark eating you will soon be financially obligated to remind you about the new Applebee's shrimp platter comes with an all you-can-eat salad buffet. Don't ask why its so eager for you to clean your insides out with good ruffage. You may learn things about your resale value you're not comfortable with. 



NOTES:
1. My voiceover career stalled out when clients stopped wanting the deep Tom Waits rasp and moving towards that touchy feely "high" voiced food co-op nonsmoking smug sensitivity in my voice so I may be prejudiced, but fuck that namby-pamby shit. Love.... it's what makes a Suburu a Suburu,... fuck that guy. When a Corona gets its lime, you can kiss my white ex-smoker asszzz. 
2. I literally watched that movie last week, and at his age had the same shy boy trouble busting first moves. I'd show them weird old movies til they'd either get tired and leave or throw themselves at me. But that was before... the meds. Now I'm all cured. Too late though - the Cialis giveth and the SSRIs take away

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Metatextual Exorcist's Assistant: MAPS TO THE STARS, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA


Film as a medium isn't old enough that it has a set response as to how to handle the 'problem' of aging A-list actresses. But two 2014 films both recently released on DVD have shown the 'old' way can be made 'new' again through post-modern tweaks. The sexy young bitches of the 80s-90s have found work playing middle-aged actresses fighting to stay young and relevant, the way hot bitches of the 20s-40s did in the 50s-70s, by playing faded stars who go insane from being cooped up in their cobwebbed minds and mansions while the pictures (and cars) in the world outside get smaller, junkier, younger. Going 'Norma Desmond' allows for a kind of ageist exorcism which then makes the aging actress playing the unbalanced aging actress seem balanced by contrast. So Billy Wilder makes Gloria Swanson seem cool and Robert Aldrich makes Bette Davis seem fearless--they boldly go into the depths of their own potential madness as Hyde versions of their own personae. Skulking around their eerie mansions as theremins goose their every mirror-ward hiss, the well-aging actress playing the semi-well-aging actress playing the unwell (delusional) aged actress is cathartically freed from her own gerascophobia, exorcised with the help of a Chanel-scented strait-jacket (starring Jessica Lang as Joan Crawford). (1)

Maps and Clouds stars in an important drama about Alzheimer's
Now that we're all feminists again, the kind of lurid madness that made Baby Jane and Norma Desmond so indelible is too objectifying, too freakshow, for squeamish PC Hollywood. Age and narcissism mustn't be reduced to just another carny attraction-- not that Hollywood wouldn't make it so if we demanded, but you can't put the genie back in the bottle. So the producers must instead paint a sensitive portrait of Alzheimer's or some real-life tragic figure's descent to madness. They must be educational, touching, and earnest instead of high-camp shock-value horrific. We associate aging with importance now, middle-aged actresses with serious drama. In this way, filmdom solemnly leads them out to pasture rather than letting them shred the walls of a cinematic padded cell. With all projects not good enough for a dame of their stature, they wither from underuse.

Sensing an opportunity to fill the gap, however, scrappy maverick independent filmmakers circle the wagons around the A-list divas with a little money saved up (or will work for scale to get their attached to a truly edgy and 'now' product) who want to sink their teeth into something bonkers for a change, to work with talents unafraid to plunge into new dark depths behind the camera, irregardless of the PC putsch that so paralyzes mainstream Hollywood when it comes to bitches over 40. Canadians like David Cronenberg and Frenchmen like Olivier Assayas, keep the luridly self-reflexive spirit of Billy Wilder and Robert Aldrich alive, for they know a secret denied the average Hollywood hack: the 50s-70s 'horror hag' spirit need only be taken one meta-level further to resonate in our new century's junk TV-addicted consciousness afresh and leave the stigma of exploitation behind in the process: Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche shall play Gloria Swansons playing Norma Desmonds now, instead of just playing Norma Desmonds trying to play Salome. Brian Oblivion would be so proud! 

THE CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
Dir Olivia Assayas (2014)
***

Olivier Assayas uses the post-modern lesbian corporate thriller the way Jean Pierre-Melville used the French New Wave gangster film, as a gateway between high art and low genre for anyone with a Gauloises and Steadicam to glide through behind him. In his Boarding Gate, for example, scenes of Asia Argento walking through a vast bustling Hong Kong mall-flea market--each booth/stall a vast tapestry of electronics, contrasting languages and music all whirling together one after the other--are perhaps the most ear-boggling use of post-modern affect in all cinema, but then... what is there to when from why? We're left feeling cheated, confused, even irked.Assayas' biggest weakness has always been his endings, since demonlover, even. His best works, like Irma Vep, end in pure abstraction. His worst endings feel like betrayals - like he led us on, like seducing us into bed then running away going "I forgot I'm married" and runs away last minute.

Before something like that happens, Clouds of Sils Maria covers several layers of a power trio of strong female leads ranging along the All about Eve axis, each playing versions of themselves and their personal assistants in screens-within-screens. The catsuit Les Vampyres S/M gone corporate bitch-in-the-boardroominess of his dEmonlover and Boarding Gate coalesce against Summer Hours pastorale realness as two women play characters studying to be themselves and each other; the same weird mix of back-stabbing and compassion with which younger executive assistants are shepherded by older female employers into the abyss of self-awareness and ambition, breaking them down and being broken in turn in some twisted--even if initially altruistic--identity merge/melt-down. They have youth; you have power. But they can get power, what can you get, except older?

From the ongoing discussion between Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) about Maria's character in the play that made her famous (she's now shifting from the ingenue to the older lesbian mentor, and she ain't happy about it). Maria's nihilistic interpretation of the character during rehearsals and discussions jibes with Val's hip youthful (American) interpretation of Maria's interpretation, which Val sees as solipsistic, as glorifying youth based on one's rose-tinted memories and attacking her own aging dignity. And Val isn't backing down even against Maria's contemptuous laughter which might have worked on her when she was Val's age, but Val is somehow more grown up than that.

It makes sense then that Kristen Stewart steals the show as Val, handling her personal assistant duties with startling cool, knowing just how to rile, soothe or otherwise push Maria's buttons while juggling deals and cars and hotel rooms and interviews and meetings with photographers, all without ever seeming to break her detached stride or smash her incessantly ringing cell phone. Chloë Grace Moretz plays the rising star playing the younger part in the play (the superhero masochist in the comic book film they see) who Val and Maria meet with later for drinks, along with the young dumb boyfriend, a writer whose wife tries to commit suicide and...hmmm.

If that's confusing, it's my fault. Let's just say it's Bette Davis' The Star meets Petra Von Kant rehearsing a lesbian corporate boardroom version of The Blue Angel in the isolation of Faro (where Bergman filmed Persona) so hey, that's a lot a layers of reference. What makes it work even if you don't know those films is the way the pair of actresses connect with such quiet force (we understand immediately why Stewart won the César) and the dialogue of the play they're working on resembles their characters' own relationship--and perhaps Stewart's real-life relationship with PA Alicia Cargile (left)--so much it's (intentionally) impossible to tell where one (the lines they're running) ends and the other (their actual relationship) begins, except that the line-running they do feels real while their sudden lurches into directly discussing their own relationship--Val complaining as Maria laughs at her impressions of the play's subtext--seems sudden, hamfisted. It's as if direct confrontation would be too much, too theatrical, so they just endure all they can like it doesn't bother them until they just bail. It begs an interesting question: how does one deal with having acted all kinds of break-up scenes with someone when you're suddenly actually breaking up with them, without it feeling cliche? Atsa lotta layers, Olivier! Maybe ats too much...

Maybe yes, for then comes that terrible Assayas anticlimactic 'resolution.' As the Binoche-Stewart personae (see what I did there?) merges into itself like a sssnake. along with the two characters they're rehearsing (via the actress and personal assistant they're playing), there's a sudden mystical shift that... well.. it doesn't work. Oh Olivier, you just had to keep adding layers until the whole thing deflated like an overdone soufflé... again. 


Maybe I'm wrong or nitpicking --it's just that jibing to Stewart and Binoche's chemistry through most of the film as I was, I felt genuinely saddened by the sudden flight into Peter Weir-ish fourth act mysticism. The big comparisons critics have been making of course are to the endings of Bergman's Persona and Antonioni's L'Aventura, but the former was abstract from the get go, there the weird ending made sense and in the latter they at least talked about the disappearance --it even obsessed them for awhile, until they forgot about it, and we didn't much miss the missing girl anyway, since it was Monica Vitti we were collectively falling in love with even at the start. Here in Sils that love equation is reversed, like L'Aventura if Vitti just left without a note toward the end and we spent the rest of the damn movie with the smarmy Sandro (Gabriele Farzetti). Some critics hypothesize Val kind of morphs into Chloë Grace Moretz, playing the tabloid-branded scarlet letter marriage-wrecker of years ago (see: Kristen Stewart in the Snow with Poison), but to me they're making excuses on Assayas' behalf. Mention art cinema 'modernity' vs. vérité realism if you want --it just plum doesn't work... for me at least. In interviews Assayas says he wanted to give the audience something to think about, but it feels to me like all he did was take something we were thinking about away. 

The scenery is staggering. I love this mountainous zone where German loftiness, Nordic depression, and French intellectual aesthetics sizzle together and align like a constellation. I was imagining what if Bergman were directing, that he might go full-on post-modern and we'd maybe get an interview with Alice Cargile in between takes of the film within the play about a pair of women in a play. That might have worked, but whatever - the Melville of post-affect cinema transcends such things as satisfying destinations. As with Irma Vep, Boarding Gate, Carlos and demonlover, the trip is where he works his magic. Once arrived, he's all out of rabbits.


MAPS TO THE STARS
(2014) Dir. David Cronenberg
***1/2

One can't imagine either Hollywood or the Sils Maria European bourgeois "artist" community making a film like Maps to the Stars. A lurid, slow-burn haunted-Hollywood saga of pyromaniac schizophrenics, hot young ghosts, egomaniacal stars, and abusive life coaches, it could only come from a Canadian indie auteur who doesn't need pretentious vanishings to craft a Brechtian dissertations on aging actresses being intimidated by the endless incoming waves of amber ingenues. As in Sils, the idea of female 'performance' leads to meta-split mirroring, passive-aggressive sabotage by the older insecure actress against her younger personal assistant, the Twilight connection (Stewart in Sils, Pattinson Maps), Stewart co-starring with Maps star Julianne Moore in Still Alice the same year (top), like an eerie reflection across continents, genres, and post-modern layers. 

Thing is, of the two films, only one is genuinely subversive and ballsy. Only one goes to places the jugular didn't even know it led to.



In both Sils and Maps there's the idea of being subsumed by another's ego, of being a young female assistant, trying to have her own life while working for a solipsistic middle-aged actress who's going insane from dealing with the dwindling roles / loss of youth, and so bullying their younger incarnation in an attempt to exorcise their own inferiority complex. In Sils the assistant takes revenge in the must cowardly way possible, by merely vanishing without even two-weeks notice; in Maps, well.. I can't spoil it, but it's far more satisfying. There's a sense of unyielding magnetism in Cronenberg's film that Assayas' was too high in the Alps to feel: the inexorable magnetized streak of insanity running deep in the fault line crust of Los Angeles, and the most expedient, direct way to drill down into it.

Sordid show biz underbelly chronicler (and Castaneda mystic) Bruce Wagner (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) knows every inch of what his script is chronicling, and he can match the darkness, stab-for-stab. Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) arrives on Hollywood Boulevard by bus after being released from some juvenile mental hospital, and--like Melanie Daniels at Bodega Bay--her mere presence triggers the vengeful furies, here a series of ghosts: Her new employer, fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), is haunted by her crazy star mom Clarice, who set their house on fire when Havana was only a child; Agatha's estranged brother Benji (Evan Bird), a bratty child star, finds himself haunted by a girl who died before he could grant her Make-a-Wish Foundation request. Meanwhile, a new biopic is being made on Clarice's storied life and daughter Havana is  fighting to play her, even while claiming she was molested and abused. Ingeniously, the ghost of Clarice is played by luminous hottie Sara Gordon (above, in the bath),  and of course, it makes sense--why wouldn't a vain ghost want to appear younger than her own grown alive children? It's just the right kind of weird twist that shows a real subversive instinct that Maps has in abundance, the kind Assayas ultimately lacks even as it covers the same ground.

It's all in the genes.



With the kind of naive prepossession that does well in Hollywood, Agatha-- on meds and working the steps, tries make amends with her family, but that doesn't go over well with her bitter father (John Cusack) who still hates her for setting fire to their house as a child and feeding Benji a near-fatal overdose of pills. Since that ordeal, Cusack has risen to make a fortune as a platitude-spouting gestalt masseur (with clients including Havana whom he clearly hasn't told about Agatha or vice versa). He has demons of his own, clearly, exhibiting the typical violent denial self-help gurus often display towards their own hang-ups. 



Ultimately these two interlocked pyromaniac-and-narcissist-choked LA families crash into one another in a shocker climax so effective and satisfying it becomes the polar opposite to Assayas' Sils's (we saw them as a double feature this past Friday night - I'd recommend you do the same, in the order presented). We just don't expect such a shock because for awhile there Cronenberg made us forget we were watching a Cronenberg film and not some piece of Hollywood self-regard and near-whimsy about how all we need is a bus ticket and a dream. That's the Cronenberg touch at work, to be good enough at the one thing you forget it's the other. Stars has courage to go deep into the abyss from off a steep, high diving board, while Sils only splashes around a bit then crooks a finger towards Lars Von Trier's receding light. Even Maps' ghost appearances aren't trite or cliche. Although they're presumed to be just psychic projection, it's a movie first, so we understand that being actors anyway the haunted A-listers are conditioned to let their imagination get the better of them, to confuse their script with their life in ways only we were confused by in Sils Maria. In other words, even as actors playing characters who are actors, characters will mess themselves up in the name of a good performance, with the understanding that--above all--they're still in an "actual" film as well as a film about film, even when they know within the context of the (outer) film that the (inner) film is just their reality and not even a film-within-the-main film!

If that's confusing, consider the contrast: in Sils, Binoche is playing an aging Marlene Dietrich remaking The Blue Angel as a butch Emil Jannings, heading back to her classroom to sulk after her younger wife hooks up with the strongman. In Maps, the better option is finally presented: kill them both and burn the whole fucking cabaret to the ground! Clarice and Agatha, I tell they, by the power of Chuck D, Hollywood sur le feu!

NOTES:
1. PS - when I wrote this that AMC show FEUD hadn't even been announced! Was it ushered into existence because of this post? I like to think so (5-16-17). 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Summer of Streaming II: Post-Giallo Nightmare Logic la Netflix




Dream or Nightmare logic: a lazy way for European directors to run amok with free association non sequiturs and not have to worry about coherence, or a daring approach to the post-60s crashed jet set void de la Freud delving, based on the symbolist and surrealist movements of the early 20th century?

A: Yes
B: Magenta.
C: Hollyhocks
D. Mrs. Claypool
E. (......windshield wiper sounds)
F. Two of the above

2. European art cinema can be very boring and opaque if you're careful. But if you're not--if you're, say, dosed or delirious or bored into falling into a trance--its abstraction makes perfect 'sense.' Falling half-asleep while watching Rollin or Jess Franco's earlier work, for example, is a truly psychedelic experience, and in most cases almost inevitable. Would you agree?

A. No
B. Sax player shredding a picture of Lina Romay and dropping pieces in a ditch by the Autobahn.
C. Sax player shredding a picture of Maria Rohm and throwing pieces into the Bosphorus.
D. Trumpet player taping a picture of Soledad Miranda back together again, in vain.

3. There are five easy ways to understand Italian drive-in dream logic, all based on the Carnival of Souls principle:

a.) DEATH: The protagonist is already dead and/or stuck in an endless reincarnation loop stuck in the amber of hell/heaven time.
b.) AMNESIA: The protagonist/s have amnesia but don't even know it - they try to hide it, the way you don't want to admit you don't remember someone who comes up and knows your name. The result of lots of drinking in the swinging European 60s-70s.
c.)  DREAM: Dreaming while awake, caught in a web of true myth, where waking consciousness and unconsciousness have lined up perfectly, like two overhead transparencies.
d.) LSD: They're tripping or recovering and can't remember which is which (lots of acid in 60s-70s Europe)
e.) INSANITY - They're remembering or recounting narrative from a psych ward.
f.) All of the above, for in a way they are all the same, non?

Remember that in Europe the language barriers are more immediate and the past older than in America. In Europe, a 70s B-movie can take place in a real castle, or a condemned art nouveau mansion cheaper than building a single Hollywood set, so a modern French model in a turn-of-the-century vampire gown running loose amidst the Gothic spires is not only cheap to film, it has so much post-modern frisson it creates a truly 'all times all the time' dream logic loop all into itself. And if the lips don't match the voices, even if there are subtitles, that's okay - a poetic monologue voice over (written long enough ago the poet falls into the public domain) wraps it all up with a patina that screams subtlety. 

Beyond the Black Rainbow (top: The Strange Color of your Body's Tears; Berberian Sound Studio)

For this festival we're talking of a return to the art of those pre-slasher death-poetic times, for eccentric visionaries in Europe--Franco, Rollin, Fulci, Argento-- knew they could go nuts with their zoom lenses and post-modern refraction, with their anti-Fascist subtexts and surreal castle-running as long as they delivered lashings of sex and ultra-violence their profit-minded producers demanded. Even Antonioni had to stuff orgies into Red Desert, La Notte, Blow-up and Zabriskie Point; Bardot had to have a nude scene in Les Mepris to justify the expenses of color and Cinemascope...

It was a different time, before the derelict fringe theaters at the edge of America closed. And kids watched tapes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead until they were numb to all but Hostel, Devil's Rejects, Saw, Wolf Creek. Compared to that madness, the razor slash black glove murders of what Mondo Macabro calls Eurosleaze seem almost quaint.

You and the Night

And so we come to this post-modern age we live in, the last pre-pornographic gasp of mainstream cinema when returning to forgotten old styles and genres is not only fun and rewarding (hence It Follows and Duke of Burgundy) it's easier than it was even back then when the films were released. Many of these old films were washed out pan and scanned blurs on TV but are now restored by to HD by loving homegrown labels. And so new films spring up paying homage to the post-modern psychedelic wellspring of experimentalism created by early Argento, late Antonioni, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, Brian de Palma, Michel Soavi and the music of Ennio Morricone, Tangerine Dream, Goblin, and Bruno Nicolai.

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears

And atop the crest of the post-modern alienation resurgence lurks 'the Darionioni Nuovo' the New post-Dario Argento-Antonioni wave-- Peter Strickland, Helen Cattet and Bruno Forlanzi, Sebastian Silva, Nicolas Winding Refn, Panos Cosmatos, and the post-Carpenter/Morricone music of Sinoa Caves, M83, Tom Raybould, Cliff Martinez, and Rich Vreeland. It's a new setting sun; the alienation-cum-Freud dissociation style used together to explore red desert crimson rivers of pain and ecstasy, hills of post-modern disaffect that uses our need for a coherent linear narrative mapping against us with the result being, in the right conditions, the most exalted of transcendental weird epiphanies. These young filmmakers use our presumed familiarity with exploitation and art film history, with fairy tales, David Lynch, and modern art as a kind of metaphysical third heat paint brush. The result is what art cinema should always be striving for: an erasure of the line where narrative classical cinema ends and avant-garde experimentalism begins. Madness coheres like a boil atop modern alienation's callouses; our own vivid imagination becomes a finger pointing at how innate and irremovable is our compulsion to craft a frame, an order, a meaning, a reason, a psychosocial iconography, onto even the most elusive and elliptical of texts. It's only when the symbols are there but we can't connect a single one that we're finally free --pure Joycean aesthetic arrest mingling with the erotic Batailles death drive at the same time So line these up in your list, see them all in order, all at once--obey.... obey... and let go of that tightening noose around your mind called language. You'll die, but you won't suffocate. 

See also:
STAGEFRIGHT: AQUARIUS 
Bad Acid 80: Italian Horror Drive-In Dream Logic


1. PASSION
(2012) Dir Brian De Palma
***

De Palma's Italian modernizing of the Hitchcock homage, an obsession he abandoned for a slew of blockbusters in the 80s-90s, has kicked back in for the 21st century, on more modest budgets, out in Europe where they still revere fading auteurs. He's been crafting old school returns to form like Femme Fatale and this loose remake of the French film Love Crimes, called Passion. Strangely, due to cast and content, it also functions as an unofficial sequel to Soderbergh's Side Effects (which as Alan Scherstuhl notes "ground that other girl with the dragon tattoo through something like the same pharmaceutical Hitchcockisms.") Even  with all that intertextuality, Passion--not unlike Fatale, --met with critical hostility from a knee-jerk press too busy sneering at the unrealistic excess and recessive misogyny to notice the sexy genius at work, condemning it have having almost no reference to anything other than Hithcock and Chabrol films. But if Passion came out in 1973, those same critics would be worshipping it today, since Pauline Kael would be around like a protective lioness for her dirty kick cub. She's gone, but here on Netflix Passion finds a new chance for resonance, since it can become part of a post-giallo festival list like mine! Always the downtown American twin/paisan to Argento (see: Two Hearts Stab as One: De Palma's and Argento's Reptile Dysfunction), De Palma is nothing if not savvy about the obsessive alienation caused by the endless proliferation of image, of titles binged in meta mirroring, instant festival curations (like this one). His films work best when they're situated between the art and low horror films on the theater 'coming soon' wall. And onscreen, the boardroom lesbian betrayals and seductions, the split screen, the ballet, all add up to a curious and sometimes titillating exercise in pure bravura style for style's sake. Pretend it's a futuristic thriller coming out in 1978 and that it's not a movie at all but a lesbian fantasy Catherine Zeta Jones is having while in jail during a Side Effects coda. Frickin' McAdams is the hottest thing ever, man, and brings so much duplicitous brio to her role she's like her old Mean Girl self grown up for the long con. And the gorgeous-if-sterile corporate imagery, hot sex, cold stalking, and ominous Pino Donaggio score are as perfectly interconnected as a fine Swiss watch.




 2. KISS OF THE DAMNED
 (2014) Dir Xan Cassavetes
***

Bearded screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglio) meets alluring but stand-offish Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) but they can only hook up if he becomes a vampire, cuz she gonna bite him. Love finds a way and five Twilight films are condensed to the opening act of a low budget but artsy and vivid retro-esque vamp tale from the daughter of John Cassavetes. Backed up with a sultry Steven Hufsteter score (with just enough vintage Morricone twang), the delicately low-key romantic chemistry of La Baume and Ventimiglio intoxicates so when Djuna's wild child sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) shows up, needing a place to crash after laying waste to her last party town residence, we recoil in frustration like we're Gene Tierney cockblocked by apple-cheeked cherubs in Leave Her to Heaven. Kiss of the Damned isn't set in the past or anything but Cassavetes is clearly paying some homage to the sexy vampire films of swinging 60s-70s Europe, and she hooks us into loving them anew by filling us with the giddy high that comes from being welcomed into the in-crowd, and being cool enough that of course you fit right in, and get to stay young and gorgeous forever... 




3. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
(2012) Dir Peter Strickland 
***1/2

While we wait for his wildly acclaimed Duke of Burgundy to come to Blu-ray, the Argento stylistic anti-misogyny,Bergmanesque post-modern meltdowns and Lynchian "no hay banda"-ism of Strickland's memorable debut Berberian Sound Studio add up to a deeply unsettling visually (and most importantly aurally) seductive post-structuralist fantasia wherein a reserved Brit sound mixer (Toby Jones) works on a mysterious horror film in 70s Rome. We never actually see the film the's working on (just hear it), which just adds to the unsettling frisson of its imagery --no visual violence can really match our imagination, aptly mirrored in the sickening dead-inside feeling overtaking Jones as he rattles the chains, crunches heads of lettuce, and drenches it all in a dripping crypt echo (from the fractions of script and scenes the film seems one part Argento's Suspiria, one part Soavi's The Church, and one part Fulci's City of the Living Dead). Strickland trusts his expert blocking and cagey actors and actresses in and around the studio's tight places, and though the rudeness of some of the macho Italian filmmakers gets on one's nerves, it's supposed to, indicating the corrupt, decadent fucked-up misogyny of Italy runs thick as blood under the giallo genre's slick surface. A layered masterpiece of enigmatic self-reflexive horror, Berberian Sound Studio is like five different Italian horror and art film DVDs--the films and making of documentary  extras--all swirled together into a fantasia that puts broader self-reflexive stuff like Shadow of the Vampire to shame, and instead approaches the meta greatness of Irma Vep, StageFright, Contempt and The Stunt Man.

4. STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS
(2013) Dir. Helen Cattet y Bruno Forlanzi
***1/2

Hélène Cattet et Bruno Forlani, cinema's first and only mixed gender / race / nationality directing couple have been setting my head on fire ever since their 2009 feature debut AMER. I was so blown away by their unique mix of modernist experimental and post-modern 70s Italian horror narrative that I even coined a term to describe them the Darionini Nuovo. Argento may not have made a decent film since the mid 90s, but this pair has taken his blazing primary color iconography farther than brother Salvatore would have e'er allowed. (I'd also argue Argento really needs Asia's mom, Daria Nicoldi to help him write and get the feminine fairy tale point of view, because without her--as in his last decade's worth of films--he just seems perversely misanthropic.) Granted Forlani / Cattet's unique looping style will no doubt prove alienating after about twenty minutes to people who don't know Suspiria, Red Desert, L'Eclisse and Bird with Crystal Plumage like the black of their gloves, and who don't swoon at gorgeous ironwork maze of art nouveau architecture or thrill to Jungian psychosexual mythic color-coded resonance, all slashed out before them like a blood bouquet against obsidian skies. Then again, even those of us who do might need a break halfway through. Don't worry, the joy of streaming is you can just stop and pick up later where you left off. Or start over. There's no difference. Maybe try playing ten minutes of it in between all these other films, like a connecting story to a horror anthology. Either way, essential viewing. 


5. BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW
2010 Dir. Panos Cosmatos
***1/2

Michael Rogers is a batshit crazy psychiatrist named Barry Nyle, who keeps the director's scanner-style acid-spawned only patient, Elena (Eva Bourne), under heavy sedation in a futuristic Rothko-cum-Kubrick orange or red or yellow room, and tries to analyze her through her a thick protective glass, while jotting down 'notes' and slow-as-molasses-style going even more insane. He also has special super tall robot-like guards called sentinauts and a weird white triangle device that can deliver sound vibrational (presumed) shockwaves to knock Elena to the ground and (presumably) jam her brainwaves if she tries to explode any heads or walk out the door. It's really a sight-sound spectacular, heightened by a great retro-futuristic synth score by Sinoia Caves which heats and throbs and pitch modulates around the bizarre retrofuturistic dome, going everywhere Barry goes, from the depressing nurse's break room, the office/drug den of the Buckminster Fuller-ish founder of their geodesic complex, his slick car. In a flashback to 1966 we see the Fuller-ish director as a younger man, taking Barry on his deep dish drug trip (LSD was legal then and being used by forward-thinking psychiatrists all around the world); his trip resembles the 'Beyond the Infinite' section of 2001 slowed to molasses and judging by the third eye drawn on his forehead and his patience with letting his face melt and dissolve, we figure he must be ready to transform... but into what? Then he's reborn in an oil slick, crawling out of a black circle like a reptile from its egg, and latching onto the woman, some woman... I don't know...his wife? Elena's mother? Does he kill her by ripping her throat out with his teeth, or is that an ejaculation? Is she coasting on an orgasm, or is the light going out of her eyes? Or is he remembering his birth? Does the director forgive him since he's legally insane due to his heavy trip? Dude, I've been beyond the black rainbow too and I didn't end up killing anyone, so what's this guy's deal? I do know how easy it seems at the time, but there's a difference.

We know Cosmatos's deal at any rate: he's made a glacial melding of Canadian retrofuturistic 70s horror (Scanners, Blue Sunshine) impossible to categorize masterpiece so far ahead of its time it's past hasn't even happened yet, and yet it's never left the 70s, why would it? The imagery and the music is the thing... is Cosmatos our new Kubrick? Time alone will tell, but it won't tell Barry. 

6. ROOM 237
(2014) Dir Rodney Ascher
****

Now we come to the dividing line between present-past and passed-past and pissed-drunk, a sideways crab-like moving from post-modern giallo to paranoid theorizing to proto-giallo to TV movie giallo and bizarro refractability. With Ascher's fascinating documentary we understand the impossibility of a text ever meaning anything, regardless of the author's intention. So freed of all understanding, we enter the realm of madness and all is illuminated, and terrifying. First because paranoid psychosis is very contagious so as we hear these crazy theories about what every little detail means we begin to get scared by the original movie all over again. Now we realize the insanity that appears when we lose all contact with the outside world. Artists try to work with it, theorists riff on it, and the writer drowns in it. Forget about being reduced to a simple icon through repetitive mantra makes a dull boy, the SHINING is all about losing all connection to icons, all signifiers, until objective consensual 'meaning' vanishes into the fog of the purely subjective. Good riddance, or rid...dle dense! (more)



7. LISA AND THE DEVIL
(1974) Dir. Mario Bava (1)
***

Lisa (Elke Sommer) is on holiday; her tour bus stops at a maze-like little Spanish town and and Lisa sees a jolly demon in a Middle Ages fresco - it sticks in her mind; then she sees a man who looks just like the demon buying a mannequin at an antique shop she wigs out. So do we, for he's a bald, lollipop-sucking cigarette-voiced hipster named Telly Savalas. It's all too much for poor Lisa and she's thrown into what Carlos Castaneda might call 'non-ordinary reality' and what Bava might call purgatorio but what we call 'surreal 70s Euro-cult heaven.' Obsessed by a little musical carousel of macabre figures chronicling the endless cycle of life after life, Lisa begins to wake into that special nightmare where you turn around and suddenly everyone you know is gone and you're all alone and lost in an empty narrow streeted maze in a foreign land; you catch a ride in old car from a rich couple (the younger wife having an affair with the hot young chauffeur, the older man too world-weary to give a fuck, etc.) The car breaks down near a a weird old villa where you all run up against a cockblocking Hitchcockian matriarch played by Alida Vialli (the malignant future director of the Freiburg Dance Academy) and her cat-eyed son (Alessio Orano), who she won't let beyond the villa walls and who has been so....so lonely. Corpses accrue, and as they do, mannequins appear which Telly arranges in the 'funeral rehearsal'.

Naturally, Lisa looks just like Alessio's dead wife and--when he later makes love to her comatose form her by his dead wife's sleeping skeleton--his lonesome kinkiness gets so creepy on so many levels you just have to laugh.

Mario, you make Poe seem balanced.

Who pulls your strings, baby?
Anyway, it's all cool as this is all just a tape we played long ago underneath the carousel of time Lisa wanted at the antique store, which turns up here, with a tape player providing the music; Savalas' mannequins come to life and play the parts of long dead lovers or whomever is needed, and the killer kills them back to mannequins again. Funeral marches are held on the spot, as the latest body is wheeled around on a serving cart through the vast semi-decayed mansion; one lavish room is devoted solely to family funerals, which Alessio later tries to change into a marriage chapel by kicking wreaths over. If the (painted on clapboard) decaying trimmings and gaudy silver of this old villa begins to weigh on the mind like one has spent too much time 'antiquing' on a sunny afternoon in the country with mother.... always with mother. But murders come too fast for boredom, and necrophilia follows hot on the heels - a dozen viewings later and you appreciate it like you just learned to savor very old wine instead of wolfing it down for a quick escapist buzz.

Depending on your affection for the giant pointed 70s collar out over smoking jacket lapel look, the size of Alessio's collar at left might be just too much. The sickening key lime green of Elke Sommer's raincoat and shoes makes me, personally, ill and really brings out the greasy flatness of her gaudy cheap 60s make-up (as Audrey Hepburn says in CHARADE, certain shades of limelight can wreck a girl's complexion). But, even if you're sick like me, if you get to the end you finally get why she was wearing it in the beginning; because every color must match, pre-destined like a dream, and her horrible make-up is all gaudy and doll-like purely so she looks like a mannequin in profile. The film is full of things like that, so never doubt the maestro, baby (PS - I recently saw the HD remastered verision of this on Shudder and take back everything I say, she looks ravishing - it was the old transfer that made everyone look so waxy). I would be thoroughly a fan if the score was Morricone twang instead of Carla Savaina swank, but there is an interesting giallo-esque sing-song motif playing for all the broken clock shots (lots of 'x' symbolism) and whether ironically working a lollipop colored the same lime green as Elke's coat, dropping double meaning Satanic inferences like "nothing escapes me, madame") or wryly talking to himself while packing mannequins into coffins as part of a "dress rehearsal for a funeral"--he's divine, baby. Divino. I also love him as the Cossack officer in Horror Express ("who are the perpeatratazs?!") and he's my favorite Blofeldt ("you love chiggens.")

Selected Shorts:
KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER
(1975) "The Trevi Collection" (ep.14)

I never saw Kojack but Kolchak is different. Him I knew and loved. And it was even on early enough I could stay up to watch it. And in this episode we're reminded there's no cheaper yet creepier effect than casting and dressing humans to look like mannequins so you can interchange them with the actual mannequin in the background of shots for a very unnerving effect. Bava used this trick in Lisa and the Devil albeit more overtly. Like the 1979 Tourist Trap, Kolchak keeps the truth ambiguous. And this witchy episode is one of everyone's favorites from the era. Right up there with the lizard monster in the tunnels, the headless biker, and the ghostly Native American shaman. Dig man... canceled after one season... 'cuz he was getting too close to the truth!

"Danielle"Starring Jennifer Lawrence
Saturday Night Live - Season 38, Episode 11 Time: 43.52-47 - 47:08

The movies this four minute spot parodies are all-too familiar for anyone who remembers pay cable in the 80s. And the brains behind this (clearly Fred Armisen and Bill Hader) know their stuff and Lawrence is, as always game. Brilliantly capturing the flat but sonorous voice dubbing --clipping sentences together.... tofitthelips as they move... and the crushing banality of it all and sudden sharp laughter-- hahaha, look kids I'm a bufoon... It's priceless and worth taking the time to find, for it captures perfectly the icky sensation of watching Europeans try to act like Americans on vacation, and pretend orgy mongering is natural for all jet set lounge cadets outside the US. if you want to stick on this bent - check out Danger 5, the first season. 





8. THE IRON ROSE
"La Rose de Fer" (1972) Dir Jean Rollin
***
The French love their poets the way Americans love rock stars. This is normal, not something for your girlfriend's parents to passively sneer at. In other words, unlike Americans, the French love writers as well as performers, and understand that the actors aren't just making this stuff up on the spot. Most of all, though, they love French poets like Brittany's own Tristan Corbière, one the crowning jewels of the Symbolist 'dead before 30' dozen. I'm not sure which part of Françoise Pascal's final monologue/ voiceover during her nude cross-bearing is from him, but I do value that it's hard to tell. I also value that, aside from an ominously black train parked in the weeds in the middle of nowhere and an opening working class wedding feast (at which both characters seem to clearly not belong --as if already ghosts), the film takes place over one late afternoon-into-dawn trip to the overcast graveyard. As their pleasant and banal Rohmer-esque date turns first into a slow nightmare (they can't find the exit), then paranoia over each other's motives, and then a surreal mournful cry for death, the whole film becomes a love song, a longing for the loving embrace of la mortalité, finalité et l'éternité. 

And is there any image more quietly under-the-skin creepy than this image at right? Non.
Every student filmmaker knows that old cemeteries are the best places to shoot films cheap (superstition keeps most people away; the stones add artsy death drive heft), and a cast of just two actors walking through it is even cheaper. You don't even need a script! You can just shoot your actors frolicking or running or freaking out and figure out what the reasons are later via voiceover. It would be lazy in most directors (even I've done it -see the Buenos Aires section of The Lacan Hour) but that's just part of Rollin's charm, that pretentious art film iconography. There's already a morbid air to his Euro-sex films anyway, so it's no stretch going this dark, and Pascal's deranged and demure performance, slowly going crazy amidst the plethora of human bones scattered in the open crypts, is perfect.  

A purist might wonder how either this or the last film is truly post-giallo, but to that I shrug like a condescending French cabbie and note that it's short, so you might not even have time to wonder where the hell it's going before the ride is over. Just know the boy and girl are dressed in bold primary colors, so we can see them in the fading light. There's no glaring spotlights or day-for-night nonsense, making Jean-Jacques Renon's photography all the richer for being so dark without going murky. When the sun comes up and the the conqueror worm's snacktime looms you can feel your pupils contracting from the sudden light. It's glorious in its Poe-sy despair.


9. YOU AND THE NIGHT
"Les rencontres d'après minuit" (2013) Dir Yann Gonzalez
***
You'll either like it or think it's too jejune, or maybe both but if Radley Metzger and Jean Cocteau collaborated for some SoHo gallery after-hours happening... this, honey, is it. Mme Jannings notes on imdb: "This is a movie that cannot be seen with the eyes of evasion. It is a movie that needs to be watch it (sic) with the eyes of the soul as well as the physical eyes, without prejudgments, and without taboos." Oui, mademoiselle. It may have that pleased-with-itself, breastfed-until-21 sense of presumptive entitlement, which most Americans get bullied out by third grade, but it has a warm heart, and if you wish to understand Cocteau, which is to understand France, there you see? I've written copy for a Paris web site, and maintained a 'cinq a sept' with a married Swiss-French businesswoman for three years, so I know what is to love the French, biblically, aesthetically, tragically, and this film is just like that. In fact it is better at what Greg Araki tries to do than Greg Araki (whose White Bird in a Blizzard almost made this list). It's also better--to my mind anyway--than anything by the sentiment-besotted Wong Kar Wai. Rather, it has something of that Apollonian Kenneth Anger-via-Max Reinhardt magic ritual-fairy dusting that amply compensates for its overall... ow you say, self-indulgent wankery? As with Cocteau, the boys are astonishingly gorgeous, the girls ruggedly handsome. As in Argento there are bold striking colors. There are elegant tableaux compositions, a great M83 score, and a nicely ravaged cameo by the ever-feral Beatrice Dalle as a whip-wielding commissar. If it all adds up to a nice bunch of parts rather than a movie, well, what of it? Love leaves a new hole for every old one it fills. 

And even more importantly, thanks to this curated orgie de fête, it's a film that doesn't need to stand alone, not anymore, which is good since it's a film all about standing together, and how the most oversexed are often feel the most alone. If you are young and gorgeous, sex is easy, bonding is hard, especially even if it's as a group, it's every loner's dream, to find a readymade clique of like-minded outcasts on your level in every way, who don't want anything from you in terms of sex or money or favors, just togetherness. It's a love far rarer than the carnal or romantic; you have to drop everything and run with it, to the grave, and--especially if you're a debauched French poet--even beyond. It's a feeling between actors and crew on most theater productions, and in a few 12-step groups I've been in (you know who you are, Y&W, YES, Regency) provides a chance for a lot of monologues set to flashback dream theater tableaux (seeing a film of the Star's obsessive sexual love for her beautiful son is a decadent meta-highlight), and it's all followed by a feeling of warm togetherness that we in the audience may or may not feel part of, depending on our mood, attention span, and the year on our AA chip. That's all what it is, what it is not: whiplash edited, morose, uncouth, violent, or abusive (Dalle's commissar aside). Like AA, it's a safe enough that flights of Cocteau-esque fancy can flourish without fear of ridicule or persecution. It's the kind of talk where, as an American, if you were in the room you'd have to roll your eyes and sigh. For all these people are, sexually, is talk: the words, the imagination, which the French believe (and Americans do not) is much more seductive to them than the image. Rather than doing lines off each other's bellies and swilling wine like a pack of HBO Scorsese rutters before going home alone to take a hot bath and cry their mascara down into the bubbles (as we have all so often done, we lost revelers of the night) each stereotype confesses, and talks to each other; then they engage in group astral travel to beaches and theaters. And thus, it gives we with slow-to-start hearts ignition, champagne to ressurrect jet set languors everywhere, to heal those third grade wounds. There's always, as Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness might say, always another beautiful young person in need of money and a place to crash. We shall be young forever. Yeeesh what a thought. 

10. THE CALENDAR GIRL MURDERS
(1984) Dir William A. Graham (TVM)
**1/2

Here's a different kind of pre-pre-post-giallo, a prime time major network's watered-down version of the lurid 'hot girls endangered by the viewer's own twisted obsession' drive-in Italian staple. As Lt. Stoner (great name!), cop Tom Skerritt does his usual low-key thing on the hunt for a serial killer of 'calendar girls' (an approximation of Playboy playmates mixed up with the fashion world in ways that, like the 70s in general, refuse to become clear). Sharon Stone is one of the models, though she seems to have some other job in an office, and all sort of televised events involving swimsuits, fire, aerobics, and track meets (lest we forget about Personal Best) provide perfect opportunities for stake-outs, security lapses, car chases, and binoculars. The killer takes advantage of every opportunity to make Stoner look like an idiot. There's a s score that at times passes Deep Red-era Goblin in the night, and Robert Morse (Bert Cooper from Mad Men) is a deranged emcee in terrible blonde toupee, one of many red herring weirdos in the fringes. 

Calendar Girl Murders
Coming as it does in '84, the fashion shoots are full of horrifying 80s spandex and tacky post-no wave punk-lite make-up, but things are still 'open' in that medallion over turtleneck Cali kind of way. Tom Skerritt makes us realize it was him, not Sigourney Weaver or Ridley Scott, who really made the interaction amongst the Nostromo crew so low-key and naturalistic in Alien, which explains why that kind of chill cigarette ambient naturalism is lacking in subsequent sequels. And Sharon Stone plays a kind of foreshadowing prelude to her suspicious author in Basic Instinct. The only way it could be better would be if they kept the VHS streaks. Instead it does one better.

Basic Instinct
Of course, I'm a fan of any detective named "Dan Stoner" with Stone calling him Stoner all the time, "Hey, Stoner" especially hilarious. And Stone treats this major role like the creme de la creme, like it's her big chance, which I guess it was. Righteous! In prime TV movie style, Calendar delivers the 'jiggle factor' even as it critiques the morality of its delivery system; in true De Palma style, the clues are all discoverable via fashion photographs, and TV recordings, and Skerritt's cop regularly uses people as bait to flush out the killer but then he fucks up his monitoring strategy and so they're killed, one after the other. What a moron.

Making it fit this festival is the weird frisson of Stone answering the door with wet hair in a white terrycloth rob to talk to the cop who suspects her but is too turned on to care (above, left), almost the exact same scene occurs in Basic Instinct, right down the robe and wet hair. Basic Instinct was itself a post-modern twister (i..e all the 'real' murders were in Stone's book as was her romance with that film's Stoner, Mike Douglas) so the two provide a nice infinite loop of reflections with the first movie in the schedule here, De Palma's Obsession which is a very loose remake of a French film Love Crime.

And here's a real twist, Skerritt's Stoner is married with kids, i.e. still marries so not showing up late for joint custody hearings like every other cop on TV! But he's tempted, mightily by Stone. Who wouldn't be? Seduced by his son's pin-up crush? It's right on so many levels. And in true 70s form, cops and killers hug it out at the end and there's a great 'wrap-up' scene back at the station, where Michael C. Guinn as Stoner's chief magically lifts the entire film right out the path of an approaching Martin Balsam denouement and into a gritty-but-funny 70s cop show Barney Miller meets Fassbinder one instead.  It may be nothing new (or old) but The Calendar Girls is still itself. It exists, trapped in time, and Netflix reminds us of that every day... til it's gone.

PS Basic Instinct is also on streaming and Sharon Stone tears it up. Douglas is a matter of taste but god bless him for not being afraid to show dat ass as well as the less attractive side of being a cop who's not as adorable and macho as he thinks he is and has become so used to bullying women around and getting away with it he'd make a fine solstice offering in Neil LaBute's The Wicker Man! - and with that ice pick handy at the end of the film, he still might make the cut.

Fin

NOTES:
1. it's cinema history that Lisa bombed and producer Alfredo Leone tried to recoup his losses by jumping on the Exorcist bandwagon and shooting a few reels of Exorcist ripoff footage with Elke Sommer coming back to play possessed and a priest doubting his faith while they flash back to the events that led up zzz. Re-released as House of Exorcism, Leone recouped his losses! Hurrah. And naysayers hate it, but I can't blame Leone for not wanting to go broke so Bava can make art that won't be appreciated for at least 30 years. Plus, I think Exorcism is hilarious and there's some added footage not used in Bava's film that makes it an interesting addendum... I think. And since it is also on Netflix streaming here so I'd recommend playing them both at the same time kind of like playing Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon together, if you get my drift. Here's what you do: put Exorcism on your laptop or phone with the volume low but audible and Lisa on the main screen. Set the laptop/phone down somewhere it's just obtrusive enough, like on the coffee table and let the overlap, duplications, and occasional switches to added footage of Elke being possessed make it all seem like a concurrent sixth dimensional reality: Lisa and the Devil is like one long dream some young woman afraid of sex and mannequins might have after an Ugetsu -Wild Strawberries double feature, but stretched to a film length with no 'waking' in the normal sense. But with House on at the same time, Elke occasionally wakes up in an Exorcist 'second level' Inception style dream reality, and then the exorcist himself wakes up to being forced to walk in Father Karras's and I don't know how many others' shoes... back to that accursed villa, just like the end of Exorcist II. (NOTE: Right as I was finishing this post, House of Exorcism disappeared on Netflix.... coincidence? 


FURTHER NETFLIX RECS:
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