Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Schlock and Aww: BC BUTCHER and the Kansas Bowling Miracle

Could our current Alt-Right Hype-Bart macho backwash moment be the last gasp of a drowning buffalo? If so, it's a comfort that what is best in man, his ability to celebrate and pay tribute to strong women, should be remembered and absorbed by the nation's upstart young things. The mighty masterpieces of switchblades and eyeliner from Russ Meyer, Jack Hill, Ed Wood, Corman, Del Tenney, Waters, Arthur Marks, Sarno and the like will live on long past that buffalo's panicked squealing, ennobling a new breed of female filmmakers like Anne Biller (THE LOVE WITCH) and most recently to my bemused, even grandfatherly eye, precocious maniac Kansas Bowling, whose entry in the burgeoning prehistoric slasher-beach party genre, BC BUTCHER, was begun when she was a mere prat, i.e. 17. Shot on bright and lovely 16mm, it's been released through Troma, and available on Amazon Prime screaming und soon ze vorld. Or not. As with so many of her favorite films (she even likes Herschel Gordon Lewis and Doris Wishman! Eww!) the BUTCHER ain't exactly CITIZEN KANE, or even ONE MILLION BC or even CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR. Or even CAVEMAN. Or GAVE GIRL. Or even EEGAH! But who wants them? Where da art der?

The shirt, sez it all
Instead, Bowling wisely jams in all the shit she wants, including anachronistic punk rock interludes, a THING THAT WOULDN'T DIE-style romance between hulking prehistoric monster, the BC Butcher (Dwayne Johnson) and the vengeful spirit of a girl murdered by the fierce amazonian tribal leader (Leilani Fideler) for sleeping with her man. In this cave clan matriarchy, boys are way way to the side. Only a few get any lines, and even then they come off as mincing idiots (Kaelin) or anachronisms. Instead of browbeating though, Bowling's rolled a perfect 'j' of A+ on the Bechdel Test.  At 52 minutes long, BUTCHER bravely dares you to dismiss it as too short for a feature, as little more than a home movie made by some bonkers little sister badass, the type who followed you and her cool brother to punk shows and ended up snogging with the bassist.  Everyone else loves her like a brother, and backs her screwy vision for the past.

We need girls like Kansas, they elevate the nerds and incorporate the jocks --even the bullies (like Max in RUSHMORE with that thug Scottish tosser). The Joan of Arc savior of geek kind, Bowling's arrival on the scene is like a nascent Hill-Waters-Meyer version of John Connor, with the Terminator foe being the cookie cutter indie horror with its endless deluge of two-hander captivity dramas, torture-revenge cycles, haunted new tract homes, and washed-out, wan HD video patinas. The rows of Prime streaming are choked with such things. Seek them not!

Look at her there, at left - a kind of Fiona Apple of the post-Psychotronic future, a groovy schlockmeister Joan of Arc. Blossoming natural charisma, when harnessed to democratic creativity (instead of the deadening 'bubble' effect of shallow mean girl-ism) tends to rally the troops. Whole cliques and tribes rise up around such figures, leading to the question of why and when will Bowling act in her own films as, just like CITIZEN KANE is really as much about Orson as it is about Hearst, it's clear how her own charisma and cool has made a slight fan bubble around what is essentially a home movie almost lampooning her own mania for carnage. She turns the audience into an adoring and slightly senile grandfather (like my friend Alan's, who adored our super 8mm action films when we were kids) and the French troops besieging 1429 Orléan.  We follow her into the flames, but then find her licking the walls and babbling about tiny monsters inside her skin or worse, giggling.

We see it a little bit of this effect in SUPER 8, when the boys get Elle Fanning to co-star in their sci-fi opus. Girls like Kansas are the balm of a wounded nerd soul. If they can avoid doing something stupid, liking trying to get romantic, these boys can ride in her crew to destiny. There's always the one dude who wants more, like that bassist in No Doubt; the more they whine and try to grab the ingenue's camera gaze, the more unsightly they become. Then they just... fade... away. It's the rule. No amateur filmmaker should ever be so dumb - for in just asking her out he dooms the entire project. Either she says yes and alienates everyone else in the cast and crew or she says no and you sulk for the rest of the shoot, deliberately sabotaging her sound mix, and otherwise darkening your once sunny resolve. These facts are inescapable, my young friend! Bowling must be free to roll. The Bowling breaks, cradles falling, all that. Joan would have lost all her powers if she started shagging some young buck in the ranks. Maybe she did anyway, but if so - she picked one who could keep his goddamned mouth shut.

If you have Prime, may I suggest you cradle BUTCHER betwixt the also-on-Prime QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS, CAVE GIRL, ADAM AND EVE MEET THE CANNIBALS, HUNDRA, etc. then it suddenly seems rather amazing. Contrast is surely 20/20.

As for other films by women, it would also make a good triple bill with THE LOVE WITCH and #HORROR.  Like them it's a film that bravely does what it wants far outside the normal patriarchal linear structure. For a 'prehistoric slasher film' BUCHER is certainly not the least bit scary and, for a mostly-female cast, not sexy. It's not even very funny. In fact, it's probably somewhere between an annoying slumber party your younger sister is having upstairs, and if you fell asleep flipping back and forth between TEENAGE CAVEMAN and BEACH BLANKET BINGO after a night getting drunk outside the City Gardens All-Ages punk rock show. If that ain't your bag, Jimson, just move along. If your friend's little sister is bothering you, put on your headphones and pretend to be asleep.

Bowling - center - a worker among workers

The issue revealed within BUTCHER is the deep resemblance between girls at a slumber party / unchaperoned Girl Scout camping trip and life in a prehistoric tribe where the men are all either out hunting for weeks at a time, or dead. Packs of girlfriends going through puberty, endangered by sleazy hormonal boys who hide in the shadows of the fronds like saber-tooth tigers; strength in numbers as a large order of cockblockers and final girls run routine patrols in search of stragglers keeps the group secure. The cockblocking DUFF is hated by the boys in the dead of night, but thanked the next afternoon when no one's pregnant. Despite the undercutting and man-stealing what we do see throughout BC is a kind of monkey-grooming tribal togetherness very hard to capture on film. There's safety-in-numbers, so going off to be with a lover or even to look for the last girl who vanished, is to risk never coming back. In these thick woods, a mere 20 yards away may as well be different planet.

A lot of female-helmed work seems to really overdo the victimization - as if these women were dropped into a hostile male-dominated world from out of the sky, utterly defenseless, open to attack, and all women warriors are molded for better or worse from the hands of men, rather than each other. Bowling's movie is way beyond that. A boy or two might play a part either as monster or object of desire tussled over between tribal girls, but in the end the men are little more than objects as seen by a 15-18 year-old girl with a pack of her girl friends. They might stab each other in the back over one, but they make up as fast as they squabble. Boys come and go, sisterhood is forever (as with lion prides).

The key difference is that, precocious or not, Bowling writes like a 16-17 year-old girl rather than beyond her years as some super genius Paul Thomas Anderson-Richard Kelly type for whom high literature seems to underwrite even the expletives, a howl of sacral chakra hunger, the airbrushed-ELO van-driving older brother cinema vs. Bowling's punk rock little sister cinema. And that's what BC is, make no mistake. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be having this conversation. The things that would please BUTCHER's detractors (breasts, gore, scares, terrible jokes) would knock it back into just another topless dancer. So the average Troma-fan may heave trollish comment indignantly upon its imdb user comments just as higher-brow critics climbed over themselves with loathing for  #HORROR  and before that, TWILIGHT, or any other film that explores female psyche in its menstrual blood-drenched fury, to suggest a man isn't a woman's whole reason for existence, to show, as so few do, the interaction of women with women in ways other than competing over a man or talking about a man (re: The Bechdel Test). Despite its problems #HORROR is film I'll defend any time, its great EMA score, its chilly post-modernist art design, the privileged ennui and evil wild child pack mentality-- the whirlwind mini-lynching the kids regularly engage in as they turn en masse against each other in turn before passing the pariah badge onwards like a hot potato, it all reminds me of listening to "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Daughter are some Jive Ass Slippers" in sync with a light-sound machine while on Salvia Divinorum, and that's not easy to do. I'd rather see and hear that kind of organic madness, cohering and dissolving like salt pool eddies in an incoming or outgoing tide, rather than some white elephant 'story' any day. With Bowling it's the same as in #HORROR only different, with more love and less tech. Her characters are united against exterior threats, they might kill each other and step on each other's turn to pick the activity for 'evening theater' but they make up too. It's the kind of clique-based insecurity round-robin so intrinsic to adolescence, depending on the group leader even as they undermine her authority and steal her man' with lots of little fights and making up ebb and flow of the 'pack mind'. Phrases are repeated and expanded on as if everyone is making declarative statements for the first time, then going back over them as if to remind themselves of their character notes. Chief Neandra (Fideler) for example keeps reiterating she already killed "the beast" so there can't be a real external threat (a split second flashback shows super fast that she killed a stuffed animal).

We see some of this girl pack mentality in Biller's LOVE WITCH where Elaine tends to go for men who belong to other women, even that of her first new friend in town, or the vicious feeding frenzy of popularity hot potato chasing in #HORROR, but Bowling's script, and the charmingly amateur but naturalistic and sincere performances from the mostly all-female cast lend it a unique warmth, where the leader, Leilani, might be a little too chest-thumpingly insecure and needy, she also can check herself and make up with girls she wronged; she knows when to take credit for killing a monster before or after it's dead, but also doesn't run from the fight. She knows instinctively that the one way to beat a monster in a cave fight is to pick the fruit off his girlfriend's dead body. For his beloved is none other than the girl Leilana killed and partially devoured in the opening scene, gussied up in a weird Vorhees mom and son FRIDAY 13th PART 2-style operation. In other words, it's true love between hulking monster and vengeance-crazed corpse/ghost (laughing in black and white nightmare flashbacks in ways shockingly similar to the girl laughing at William Campbell from inside his wet canvas in BLOOD BATH).

When one of their tribe gets killed they can only look so far in these thick woods  -- the corpse could be mere feet away and there's just too many distractions. Characters kind of riff on their own insecurity like the tribe leader who's so possessive and needy of her man, unbearably fey Rex (Kato Kaelin) a seemingly mostly-gay weirdo more playful and giggly than sexy; or the anachronistic touches like Rodney 'the Mayor of the Sunset Strip' Bingenheimer and his friend Duck-Duck appearing on a rock in full 'modern' hipster clothes to introduce 'the Ugly Kids' a proto-punk band air-banding their latest hit on watermelons during the tribe's nightly story time, replete with slow mo jumps in the air like a Monkees music interlude. The costumes are all clearly cut from the fabric store by jagged scissors the way a mom might whip up a Halloween costume never meant to survive the night. And the group is regularly endangered by their tribal leader's adolescent insecurity.

The primitive milieu certainly serves the juvenilia, as does the Troma label. In other words, though I find Troma's puerile sense of humor generally nauseating, I do support its inlawful unalienable right to exist, I only lament the socker loom smell that comes from (in my mind) unlaid white guys making films so they can make girls take their tops off without it being weird, a sort of parenthetical misogyny and objectification barely held in check by the guiding hand of cool Lloyd Kaufman. A lot of that might be my own imagination, maybe mixing up Troma films with Fred Olen Ray's snarky half-assed silicone and Casio pre-programmed drum tracks. Video makes me depressed so how nice that a whole past era was shot on 16mm and 35mm film, when this shit had to be hunted down in the loathsome part of town, where underground nights would pack 'em in on weekend midnight shows to see stuff like John Waters' MULTIPLE MANIACS (recently out on a great Blu-ray from Criterion) or some Warhol or Richard Kern shock litany you literally couldn't see anywhere else. A young princess of the post-Psychotronic generation, Bowling shares that perfect Michael Weldon mix of punk rock and grindhouse influences so DIY and FU as to inspire generations to pick up cameras and guitars and start bands before they even know how to play or films before they know how to shoot.

Thus here we have colorful dialogue fusing classic caveman epics with modern feminism, so the girls have evening entertainment with Anaconda (Natasha Halevi  - with the best long hair I've seen in centuries) noting, "I've been waiting for two moons for my turn in the evening theater" and then wanting to play charades, and then Leilani cutting the game after one guess. Oh the nascent humanity! Is it the movie #HORROR so desperately wanted to be, in a way, the KIDS of darkness? No. It is what it is, and for that alone it deserves to stand next to LOVE WITCH, DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT, and AMER as mach 7 feminist retro-throwbacks to the days of AIP beach movies and Italian Eurosleaze imports making strange double features.

Bowling is way beyond that kind of thing, and that's why she's so important - she's the antidote, in a sense, to the self-important narcissism of Brit Marling's self-important 'intellectual' sci-fi films. There's no way Marling likes Hill-Meyer-Corman style primitivist drive-in fare. She's too busy cooing over SOLARIS and 2001. But us, the male rows of eye stalks, who escaped into the movies back in nursery school and have been on the run ever since, we're delighted. Shit, son, Bowling even likes shit I do not, such as the Troma films. I respect Lloyd Kaufman, he's a true original and like Charles Band has his own gonzo flavor, the kind of 'sub-Corman post-Corman' entrepreneurs who carved their own niche with creativity born of poverty-necessitated improvisation. But for those of us who actually were teens in the 80s, taking first girlfriends to see BREAKFAST CLUB at the local Bijou, ugh, etc. it's something we're not always anxious to revisit. Nostalgia tends to drop off a steep shelf with puberty. But the movies that recapture the giddy thrill of making movies, back in the era before affordable video cameras, when a reel or two of super 8mm film could be shut and 'edited in the can' by weekend nutcases like my friend Alan and I, then dubbed, mixed, gunshots scratched on, and ready to show the grandparents by the following Saturday, those will always be in tune with the moment, for they're not trying to 'take us away for 90 minutes' but rather show us how to actually escape altogether. Movies like BUTCHER are the missing rung in the ladder, where a girl and a big 16mm camera in her father's Topanga Canyon backyard can be the Joan of Arc torch that awakens you from your Topps gum-stick slumber and into the Steadicam harness. Hurrah for Bowling then, for insisting on using 16mm, for bravely making a teenager-by-teen movie (rather than a precocious look at adulthood from outside it), for reveling in her own punk rock can-do aesthetic. Bowling may have a ways to go but she's already herself, and that's something. May she now join Biller, Amirpour, Xan Cassavettes, and Helene Cattet, to stand with elders Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, a not only more female-helmed horror future but a true kind of female horror, where men are neither the focus nor the demographic... My male gaze stands ready for its reverse gender co-option, let the scissors fall through the center of my evening paper. The ancient past is now rewritten in Panic hair dye. It is in good hands. The hands it is in are smeared in fake blood and they are attached to a real girl. She might be named Kansas Bowling, but she's not trying to be coy or Lolita-ish or otherwise conforming to some masculine gaze or nerd ideal, but she actually loves this shit - she worked all summer to make sure it was shot on 16mm instead of video. Her love of the trash classics is palpable in every junky frame.  I love that I don't even like it. It's the end of the free period. The dawn of the non.

"It is the waving of her Heavenly Hair!' The Sanctiomonious Sci-Fi of Marvy Brit Marling
Let the Darionioni Nuovo Entrain your Dissonance: AMER (2009)
Bell, Book, and Hallucinogenic Tampon: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)
Take out the Kids and Tuck in the Trash: #HORROR
Prepare for the Coming of the Hillary Matriarchy: DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT
Babes of Wrath: Dangerous Women of the New Depression vs. American Dogma
America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton
CinemArchetype 23: The Wild Child
The Beautiful and the Darned: Avenging TWILIGHT

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Warren William's Moveable Feast: The Perry Mason Edition: CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS

Now more than ever, and you know why, we need to examine the pre-code films of Warren William. Expert as a cruel capitalist, he's got plenty of moxy and wit and though way more charismatic than a certain president, shares his mercenary capitalist spirit, the sort that has billions in assets and billions in debt at the same time and you wonder if he's a jagged knife in capitalism's heart or its resuscitating defibrillator. My old art dealer embezzler boss was like that (I found out I wasn't getting paid for my last month of work when I saw he'd made the front page of the NY Post), and another example is William Powell as Flo in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. History is full of such men, but the movies often don't know how to portray them and so wind up on the either/or dichotomy, either a Daddy Warbucks or a Scrooge, an embezzling market crasher or a hardworking tentpole of American industry. But Williams' titans are always more than either a champ or a villain. And in playing we in the audience as easily as he plays boardrooms full of filthy investors, Warren William straddles that / between either and or and rides it like a ripsnortin' stallion. If it throws him in the end, well, the credits were coming anyway, so let the 'little people' pick over his corpse as they may, they'll find he somehow managed to 'take it with him' after all.

If, in films like SKYSCRAPER SOULS and THE MATCH KING, he falters on account of some woman screwing up his circuits, it's always late enough in the film that we've enjoyed at least a few uninterrupted reels of pure Williams' champagne-and-cocaine trouble-ducking, the way he charms and disarms a constant stream of alimony-hungry ex-wives, bank examiners, potential investors, mistresses, and CEOS, having a great time doing it all too, until some innocent hick girl, a ballet dancer, a loyal secretary, or the sister of a man he ruined in s semi-crooked deal, undoes him, and he sacrifices it all so she can ride into the sunset with some dimwit rube of acute moral integrityzzz.

I've covered my love of WW last year in Warren William: Titan o'Vitaphone, but this time I want to take a closer look at his 'series's - for he's played Philo Vance (once - rather lacklusterly) Perry Mason (four times - brilliantly), and The Lone Wolf (eight trillion, averagely).

The Lone Wolf is one of those Boston Blackie-style things ala TO CATCH A THIEF where a prominent but reformed jewel thief is regularly swept up in daring robberies he initially had nothing to do with but since he was seen in the same time zone, lazy detectives just assume they should round him up, forcing our antihero-hero to lead them to the real thief or killer. Eventually the lazy cops accuse him of murder and put out a warrant just so they can get him on the phone; they know if they just chase him around the bends long enough he'll unearth the culprits just so he can go back to his life of leisure, unharried. A lot of times it all depends on his sidekick to get the ball rolling when the Wolf would rather 'not get involved' (just what we want, to cheer him on in not rescuing imperiled heroines). Eric Blore's a peach of course, especially when directed by Preston Sturges, but I've never felt a palpable zim and zoom between him and William's Wolf. At times, such as speeding to escape a simple traffic ticket, nicking random goods and drawing heat down upon himself, he's down right irritating and rather than find a nice low note, he just overplays to the rafters as if the director is making little 'hammier, hammier!" signs from behind the camera. Add the relentless ambling of the cops who have merely to see the Wolf walk down the street past a newsstand's jewel robbery headline to 'link' him to the crime, and it all gets pretty tiresome. When he's tangling with Axis spies, snaking through B-budgeted hookah bars and leading the cops like he's the hounds in a fox hunt, William can sometimes resonate. Other times, it becomes harder to care who's got the button, or the stamp collection, or the diamond, or the fake diamond.

But he really shines, is really pure WW, in his four Perry Masons, because he gets the chance to play someone who actually belongs at the scene of a crime, thus sparing us so much labored set-up, and since he isn't the first person suspected, but rather he's defending the guilty-seeming party, he's much freer to connive. Lawyers with a lot of oratory, confidence, and grinning wolf delight (styled after notorious real-life legal stars like Bill Fallon) were Williams' specialty (see Titan o Vitaphone - Warren William part 1) and with Mason he crafts a lawyer whose high wire technicality-skimming leave us bedazzled, even while we're in no great hurry to nail the culprit, and best of all, there's no need to get reformed by some sappy girl hick's idealism as he's already, supposedly, the good guy with a girlfriend who keeps him keep 'beyond' the clutches of mortal honesty. Free of these third act reformations, then, William gets positively giddy in these four films. Mason's encyclopedic grasp of the law granting him an almost holy ghost power which William capitalizes on with lordly glee. Some critics decry the Williams of this era, the WB post-code / pre-war zone, but to me this semi-shady version of Mason is a delight. Fans of the TV version scoff, but if you know that show at all you know that in the earliest seasons, Raymond Burr starts out more like William's Mason, ever a legal precedent ahead of disbarment or incarceration as he races around setting up deliberate dodges to discredit witnesses before the cops know there's even been a crime committed. By the third or fourth season Burr's Mason had become more of a saint, but in the four Mason movies William made for Warners in the mid-to-late 30s, he's definitely at least 70% unmitigated rascal.

In his giddiest films of the Mason series, the spirit of William seems to affect the movies he's in so that the entire cast joins into a kind of specialized mania. The quips fly a bit faster, the dialogue becomes a tad racier and everything's more sophisticated when he's around, and, if you can keep up with him, the fluidity of persona and shifting interpersonal relationship power ratios becomes its own kind of Shiva flame dance reward.

With William, it's all about the hustle and charm, the act of being fully alive in the moment, the liquidity with which he floats his way through a scene. It's like he exhales laughing gas or his contract dictates a nitrous tank is always just off camera. In his Perry Mason films for example, the movie around him is ever trying to find its footing, as actors and actresses either get on board his magic train (Owlin Howlin and Virginia Bruce are stand-outs in this regard, and--most surprisingly--Porter Hall!) or get left behind. Even if you don't cotton to William's flippancy in the role, there's no denying his momentum, even if some of the Spudsy Drake stuff can get a little dumb and shrill (he manages to start on some mail order weight lifting program and actually graduate with his 'tiger skin' by the end of what is supposed to be one long night, as if the school's whole semester went by from midnight to two AM) as if an order from on high demanded they shoehorn lowbrow schtick in there, and sometimes they try and pile so many bits of business over the climactic meet-ups in his office it gets frustrating, but hey - Williams always rocks it.

Let's look see at the best two of the four:

(1935) Dir. Archie Mayo
THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS is a fine example of Warner mystery 'product' at its post-code peak. William's office is shown as being quite plush, everyone is trying to get five minutes with him.  Della Street (a bemused Genevieve Tobin) regularly fights off vast arrays of clients, and several detectives are at his beck and call. When Mason stumbles onto a murder scene, he never judges, just regularly evades the cops, determined to protect his clients from prosecution (by sequestering them out of town). Porter Hall catches onto the witty madness in a unique way as the smitten department store owner who hires Mason to get justice done for his dizzy counter girl object of affection (Patricia Ellis) after she's rooked out of her prize money in a gigolo's traveling scam (he sets up big leg contests in one town after another, then absconds with the prize money, leading to a lot of girls and their possessive boyfriends [like stalker Lyle Talbot] in the suspect pool (of course he's murdered). There's an exciting scene where Mason helps of the girls escape a watched hotel by pretending she's very sick and he's the doctor (their chartered plane takes off just as the cops (who include Barton MacLane) have driven onto the airfield. What a con artist! Owlin Howland is 'Dr. Croker' here, whose office is on the same floor and who declares Perry has to stop drinking all alcohols, which leads to some tiresome business with having to switch to milk. Minus ten demerits! Was the censor watching or something? 

(1935) Dir. Michael Curtiz

In the CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, Williams' Mason is suddenly made an amateur master chef, ever taking fresh crabs over to five star kitchens to whip up ten course meals; the NYC coroner (Owlin Howlind), also a bemused gourmand, tags along and thinks nothing of bringing the entire gang back to the morgue for a quick autopsy over after-crab coffee. The whole affair seems to devolve into a happy party, a moveable feast ala the writing of Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Robert Altman's NASHVILLE. From personal experience, I do love that feeling, of running into all your friends wherever you go, and just constantly eating and drinking from location to location, breakfast to brunch through to late night after-hours drinks. Here the feast moves from murder scene to morgue to DA's office and the inner circle includes a reporter who's name is 'Toots' (Thomas E. Jackson), so we can enjoy dialogue like Howlin (clearly having a ball being a William wingman) saying "help yourself, Toots."

Ever the center of attention, William is so clearly loving life he almost overdoes it, even for us fans: the more irritating moments involve the big climaxes, such as the need for a medical examination to be going on during the big climactic denouement in LEGS, or the night court histrionics of Virginia Bruce in CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS (1936), with Della demanding a divorce mere hours after getting married because Mason gets  highjacked by a beautiful damsel-- after insisting he do no more criminal cases, which is a bad faith streak going around in the mystery sets at the time, as each sleuth or crime doctor needed a fiancee making him swear to stop doing the things we're watching the movie to see, and we're left to wonder: do the writers believe we want to see such badly-dated misogynist subtext ('good' women want to tie you down and stop you from having fun) or is this a nervous producer's idea on how to placate the censor? Or is it the writer's sly ribbing of the censors and their memos on how maybe these crime movies should have less crime in them?

At some of these we balked. I still have a hard time watching the first few FALCON movies from RKO, with the bitchy fiancee determined to usher Tom Lawrence into a life of bond trading rather than crime solving and his pained evasion. especially considering the fey weariness of George Sanders. Rather than giving us any indication why he would want to spend five minutes with such a nag, he conveys the isolated anguish we might see from a closeted actor pressured into straight marriage by his studio.

One subtextual aspect of the Masons, and this holds true with the TV show too-- is how some murders benefit the entire world. The set-up might be purely formulaic: the more odious a character is the more suspects, and with Mason plots, that usually means more than one person may have tried to kill our victim that fateful night, or actually thought they did and covered up another person's crime. Only the one who delivered the fateful, final blow is--upon being exposed to light--revealed as evil (or if not, Mason immediately takes up defending them on a case of self defense). It's as if the poker or vase was a hot potato, so it's okay to smash an evil guy on the sconce if he falls and doesn't die, but if the next person comes along, and while said guy is prostrate on the floor, hits him again, then the last guy goes to jail BUT if he dies from the fall down after the first blow--even if that initial blow wasn't fatal, then the first guy goes to jail. Man, with Mason you learn so much. We learn too that murder of an evil man, no matter who did it, is also very cathartic for the whole community, the victim's evil is excised from the social order, and all those who were afflicted by that evil are now free. It's as if this person is a straw dog soaking up all the venal odium our era needs to shed, then they aree slaughtered by a collective urge within the texture of reality, after which Mason eventually focuses and solves the case (as in the opposite of dis-solves), like rain putting out the blazing wicker man pyre only after the inhabitants are done to a fine crisp. If the murderer of our sins who must be punished is named Jesus, whom else is William's giddy Mason but the Pontius pilot of Steamship Satan!?

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Ten Strange Films you should maybe Tape (April on TCM)

This being their first month without dear Robert (who died March 6th), I extend special love and encouragement to the TCM. So here's my culling of ten films worth taping. When I was a youth all the best, weirdest stuff came on in the wee small hours; I would get up in the dead of night and slink downstairs without waking my parents, in order to tape them (via ye old VHS), just so I could pause during commercials (and because our timer didn't always work). TCM still keeps this art alive by showing odd stuff at odd hours, but lucky you - your DVR or TIVO need never miss a trick. And TCM still, knock on wood, daily, is still commercial-free. (PS - Avoid QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE, Weds. night - for it will make you so frustrated to consider its written by Charles Beaumont and Ben Hecht. I never thought I'd say this, but Zsa Zsa Gabor is the best part. She almost provides some centrifugal center around which the terrible dialogue and hokey line readings can keep within orbit of some kind of soul. But the rest of the time there's not much to do except note that the FORBIDDEN PLANET costume box must have been stored next to a window - for they are truly faded and tattered).

Weds. April 5, 2017

(1931) Dir. Tay Garnett

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

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

(1934) Dir Phil Rosen

Melvyn Douglas stars as a bit of a rogue in a publishing concern that--and this would be considered verboten by the early code--is co-ed-owned and operated by a group of men and women who share duties and power equally, mixing business and pleasure and turning it all into a kind of cocktails and ritzy MAD MEN-style bestselling author-seducing moveable feast. The women don't have to choose between career and romance as it's all seamlessly interwoven, noted with some interest by their star acquisition, an Agatha Christie-type who's visiting New York to sign a contract. A blown radio tube leads to conversation about a missing chunk of cash meant to be a retainer for a different author, but the cash disappeared awhile ago and they've been avoiding dealing with it. Eventually the truth comes out but maybe sleeping dogs should lie, and maybe they still can, or did, but with whom?

One wonders, though, in the end, what the point of it all is. Did playwright J.B. Priestley need to subtextually validate why he stayed in the closet or chose not to public with his mistress? Either way it's all very mature. The idea of women being totally men's equal in every facet of their shared business is marvelously progressive, and the romantic roundelay of everyone married to the wrong person all comes to the fore pretty fast. Luckily the cast is up for the challenge and then there are numerous twists and the ending is a gotcha of the sort I normally don't approve of, but which works here as a kind of suggestion that killing yourself might just involve 'skipping' into alternate dimensions, gradually becoming immortal by living several variants of your own life all at the same time, and death just shrinking the number of available dimensional planes down farther and farther, until one's next lives have already begun so you can let the last one of the old ones go, i.e. quantum suicide. (My apologies to anyone who read my initial misdiagnosis this was THE NARROW CORNER, a totally different film - its CORNER threw me).

Thurs. April 6th 2017
9:30 AM - KONGO 
(1932) Dir William Cowen

Infamous for his tight control of a vast 80 mile section of the Congo, wheelchair-bound sadist Flint (a rabid Walter Huston) hoards ivory, sleeps with a chimp, and controls the local tribes via displays of magic tricks all while planning his OLDBOY-style revenge against the guy who carved up his face and left him crippled to die. This plan involves Flint taking custody of his enemy's daughter and putting her through an all girls convent school, only to pull her out on her 18th birthday and throw her into a Zanzibar brothel for a year or two of degradation. After she's sufficiently debauched he drags her out to his godforsaken corner of the jungle, gives her "black fever" and strings her along on booze and beatings (and god knows what else  -even the pre-code had its limits). Meanwhile, a white doctor (Conrad Nagel) in the throes of addiction to some kind of local opiate root shows up, and Flint tries to get him clean (via leeches!) so he can operate on Flint's back. But Lupe Velez secretly risks having her tongue cut out in order to bring the doc all the root he can handle in exchange for sex. And that's not all! A parade of sadistic horrors are either narrowly escaped from and/or inflicted offstage while Huston roars in sadistic laughter; and what about the native practice of burning women alive on their dead husband's funeral pyre? GOOD GOD! This was made in 1932!? It's almost too sordid to handle even today. With all the physical abuse, vile racist caricature, and sexual degradation it would deservedly get an NC-17. (more)
Friday, April 7th
(1958) Dir. John Cromwell

I've never seen it, it's almost never been seen by anyone (no one's proud of it) but hmm mmm mmm heard such bad things about this Monroe roman a-clef I can hardly wait. All TCM offers by way of synopsis is "Booze, pills and loneliness mark a young actress' rise to stardom." Well whose doesn't, honey? Paddy Chayefsky wrote the script and from afar it seems to be one of the bridges between his early kitchen sink blue-collah period (MARTY, A CATERED AFFAIR) and his later loquacious satire period (NETWORK, THE HOSPITAL).  Kim Stanley--a stage actress whose roles were 'few and far between'--plays the goddess. Don't confuse her with Kim Hunter, as I did for the longest time (since Kim Hunter was married to Stanley in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE). Sure, THE GODDESS is supposed to be a stilted mess ("Ponderous" raves Eric Fry), but even at its worst, Chayefsky's dialogue is worth enduring. I'm hoping. There seems to be--even from this distance--a lot wrong with GODDESS. Looking at the pics above, Stanley is clearly miscast in the MM role; she could play Marilyn's abusive psycho mom maybe, but no matter how breathy and mannered her delivery may be, she just ain't a convincing sex symbol. That said, I'm excited to see if she can act as ferociously as they say and to attempt to savor what's sure to be an excruciating slog through the VALLEY OF THE DOLLS WHO'LL CRY TOMORROW, DEAREST. (PS - I tried to watch this, coming in around the middle, but it was like five endless minutes of a screaming baby while Stanley made half-assed attempts to be maternal and longed to escape. It's like we get it, we go to movies to escape crying babies, though, frickin' hell, and the idea that Stanley could be a bombshell is absurd -Carroll Baker might have saved it, but she'd done HARLOW already and I'd hate to put her through it all again).

Saturday - April 8th
(1934) Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer

Most people know the 'monsters' of classic Universal horror, Drac, Frank, Wolfman, and the Mummy. But only one ever had 'the devil -- and this is it. Hear Boris reciting extempore Latin hazily remembered from school while conducting the only devil worship / Satanic ceremony Hollywood's lurid pre-code era could produce before the censors clamped down (later the same year). They were afraid to even speak the horned one's cursed name! There's so much more, too: crazy Art Deco sets, Karloff and Lugosi (playing chess to decide who 'gets' newlywed Jacqueline Welles, or skinning each other alive, they have fun), sexually uninhibited states brought about by powerful narcotics; David Manners as an alleged writer who can't describe Poelzig's architecture better than "tricky," and "interesting", allusions to massive carnage of WWI (15 bodies deep piled in the trenches!), betrayal, loss, dead wives mounted in trophy cases and lit up as if in a carny spook house or museum, creepy floating tracking shots with OS conversation, the original use of the term 'undermined,' Lugosi as a medical doctor cautioning Manners about dismissing the supernatural as "baloney," or trying to couple with his new wife on their honeymoon despite her sexually uninhibited state; a complete and all consuming horror of cats getting in the way of revenge plans, and an ominously Wagnerian score from Heinz Roemheld. Once seen, THE BLACK CAT is not easily forgotten. Seen again, it is as if brand new. Let it inspire you to also track down MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), THE RAVEN and WEREWOLF OF LONDON (both 1935), all of them lesser-known Universal classics deserving to stand tall with the 'big boys,' taller even.  

(1971) Dir. Tom Hansen

I've never seen it, but as with THE GODDESS above, I've heard bad things. So let me turn it over to one of my few trustworthy sources, Bleeding Skull, and the Astounding Ziemba:
"The Zodiac Killer is, first and foremost, a true-crime expose which attempts to provide a theoretical rationale for San Francisco’s famed late-60s Zodiac murders. Accordingly-yet-surprisingly, the film sticks close to the facts. That is, it perceives Truth as a bent thumb-tack with which to (barely) hang all sorts of unbelievable ridiculousness. But that’s the contradiction which guarantees Zodiac‘s success. For example, The Zodiac guns down a teenage couple with frightening, vérité-lite zest. Sixty seconds later, a hilariously misogynist man named Grover wears a green polyester suit and hairsprays his poignant toupee while stating, “Yep. I’m a good lookin’ sonuvagun.” This is before he attempts to kidnap his daughter. With a saw. 
"It would be easy for me to relay ten pages of details regarding the strange vortex that this film creates for itself. Because that’s what it’s all about — details. Tons of them. Every crevice, every SECOND, is teeming with some sort of absurd declaration (“Why are evil people allowed to live, but innocent rabbits must die?”), technical levity (Did you know that The Zodiac occasionally wore Groucho glasses?), or grim, unnerving violence (the lakeside attack scene Will Get You). To reveal anything further would be a disservice to you and your first viewing. And nobody wants that." -Joseph Ziemba

Monday Morning - April 10th
(1933) Dir. George Cukor

One of my favorite recent TCM discoveries, this has great saucy dialogue and sophisticated ideas on lover-swapping, especially when its just gigolo changing hands between two ladies of title, the American-born heiress Lady Grayston (Constance Bennett) and Dutchess Minnie (Violet Kemble-Cooper). Pepi (Gilbert Roland) is the gigolo. A weekend at the Grayston country estate is called for, REGLE DU JEU-style, wherein Grayston gets it on in the poolside bath house with Pepi and placates Minnie with the guest of honor, a fey dance instructor named Earnest, the "hardest to get" houseguest in the whole of upper crust London. Meanwhile Anita Louise, Alan Mowbray, and others look on, aghast. We'd not see such liberal display of continental minds again until Tennessee Williams' 1961 opus, THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE. 

And Earnest steals the show.... in the very last scene no less. George Cukor--as few have before or since--really shows how the right gay male at the right time makes any party ten times better and Earnest's last act entry really kicks home the idea of a weekend party's hungover Sunday. Maybe you know the feeling: you've had a great drunken time but now its the day to go back home and you can barely remember how and when but you're fairly sure you made a fool of yourself the night before. You're anxious to leave before brunch so you can get home to your private bar and video collection before you're able to remember, but are stopped on the way out by the late arrival of the very person you'd been hoping would come the night before. This late arrival's lack of connection with last night's damage makes him/her like an embodiment of fresh starts and forgiveness as she or he just starts rearranging everyone's mood even as the butler's taking your bag out to the car. So who laughs last? Call Earnest a stereotype, but he's delightful.

Weds. Night - April 12th 

(1965) Dir. Norman Taurog 

Speaking of fey aesthetes who enliven any party, don't let its leaden sequel by Mario Bava keep you away from this giddy AIP romp which--amongst other delights--shows Vincent Price having a high time frugging his way through a plot to destroy the UN or something via his coterie of exploding hottie automatons. There's all sorts of wry nods to both AIP's greatest series, the Beach Party films and Corman Poes; Frankie falls below the swinging old pit and pendulum set, and Annette Funicello shows in the stocks), and--between the curvacous gold bikini-clad 'bots and gold smoking-jacketed Price you can forgive it any trespass, even spastic Frankie Avalon as the over-caffeinated FBI man in charge of the investigation. Granted the music is unbearably coy in spots, especially during the wacky chase scene finale, but as long as Price looks like he's having fun, how can we do aught else? And doesn't he always? Zippy the Pinhead's numero uno hombre Norman Taurog directed in his inimitable Tashlin-type style. Save it on the cue for when you need it. And you will.

Friday Night: April 14th 
(1957) Dir. Douglas Sirk

Like THE THIN MAN was a cross-authorial unofficial sequel to THE BIG SLEEP (i.e. Nick and Nora = if Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge after a few years of blissful marriage), so TARNISHED ANGELS can be imagined as a sequel to those 30s MGM barnstormers like TEST PILOT, with Robert Stack as the Clark Gable daredevil pilot, and Jack Carson as the Spencer Tracy mechanic. Then there's Dorothy Malone in the Loy-cum-Harlow role, so smoking hot and well-lit you join the crew of leering sleazebags that pay to watch her parachute down in a fluttering skirt. It's based on a Faulkner story and you will finally believe Rock Hudson can act as he plays a tipsy reporter smitten by Malone and in quiet awe of Stack's daring, but Stack needs flight "like an alcoholic needs his drink," and when his plane crashes out from under him he pimps out his wife to get a new one. Hmmm, damn right all that's missing is a Bacall for shit to be WRITTEN ON THE WIND in reverse.

If you're worried Sirk is nothing without his Technicolor, fear not. He's a master of black and white, too --images are gorgeous, flight scenes are spectacular (biplanes whizz around poles mere feet off the ground like some gonzo desert drag race) but the best scene occurs with Stack and Malone crashing on Hudson's floor and couch. He comes home a bit drunk, Carson is asleep, and there she is, awake and whispering to him. Sirk's decadent black and white lighting shining through her white nightgown as she spreads herself along the couch, and it's so hot you almost pass the fuck out. Looks like we're... closed for the evening. I'd give Stack a plane too, and so would Rock, if we could have for ourselves the Malone in this film, even for a night; and we hate ourselves for being so vile, and so does she. But that just makes her all the sexier.

Thurs. April 27
(1933) Dir. J. Walter Reuben

It's got everything I love: it occurs over one afternoon and night, ends at dawn and there's fog, a washed out road, a windy house, murder suspects, death masks, and two of my favorite pre-code actresses: Anita Louise (Titania in the 1935 Reinhardt Midsummer Night's Dream) and Karen Morley (Poppy in Scarface). The latter delivers a scene-swipingly slithery performance as no-bones gold digger Jenny Wren, who's decided to retire and intends blackmailing all her rich ex and present lovers in one fell swoop, gathering them at a remote mansion at midnight, along with their wives, if any, her own shrewd maid (Hilda Vaughn), a colorful drunk, a butch aunt (Pauline Frederick), and gangsters telling snobby hypocrites to cut out their whispering. Jenny's retirement is prompted, we learn, via groundbreaking whirlwind flashbacks, to some naive rich kid college boy leaping from a cliff after she dumped him (she learned his father had cut him off). Then his ghostly face appears unto her on the balcony, and then she's dead.... from a dart.

On hand is Ricardo Cortez as a slickster hired by an unseen party to retrieve some incriminating love letters from her suitcase. He knows the coppers will pin her murder on him so he sets out to solve the mystery before the law can fix the ubiquitous washed-out bridge. The ending, on a foggy cliff with a single engine police plane coming in overhead, and the two guys walking off into the fog, foreshadows Casablanca. The photography is Von Sternbergian level-shadowy, but with (in this case, Spanish-style) old dark house accoutrements -- secret passage, clues, complex motive crosswork -- instead of masochism and feathers, and then-revolutionary whizzing camera flashbacks, it becomes sublime. Vaughn may be the coolest maid in all pre-code, almost a Leporello-level co-conspirator rather than a mere servant. And if the lesbian currents didn't run deep enough, what about Vaughn's butch old aunt who, like Mercedes McCambridge in GIANT--is fond of using horse breeding terminology when scrutinizing potential in-law brides? Even if you're not cuckoo for pre-code old dark house mysteries, and gaga for Louise and Morely, you got to profer props for the lesbian undercurrent where e'r it flows!

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