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 pretty young things. Maybe the mighty masterpieces of switchblades and eyeliner by Meyer, Hill, Wood, Corman, Tenney, Waters, Sarno, etc. 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, precocious maniac Kansas Bowling, whose entry in the burgeoning prehistoric slasher-beach party genre, BC BUTCHER, was begun when she was just seventeen. Shot on bright and lovely actual film (16mm, but still), it's been released through Troma, and is currently available on Amazon Prime screaming und soon ze vorld. It's nowhere near as polished and coherent as Biller's film but damn if it don't look like itself, and it's the only one close to doing that. It's so itself it even clocks in at a mere 52 minutes, which as we all know is a weird length, too long to be a short, too short to be a feature. Usually if a distributor (Toma in this case) wanted to bring it out they'd give the filmmaker a few bucks to shoot some filler to get over the 65 minute mark. Bowling says, nay, no thank you Lloyd. It's perfect as it is. And what the hell is it if not its own damn thing? Bowling has made her own category, and there's no going back. The faux-leopard skin costumes are 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. Everything is perfect. 

As with so many of Bowling's admitted favorite films (she 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 GAVE GIRL, ADAM AND EVE VS. THE CANNIBALS. or even EEGAH! But who wants them? Where da art der? No art at all for Bowling, just a THING THAT WOULDN'T DIE-style romance between hulking prehistoric monster, the Butcher (Dwayne Johnson) and the vengeful spirit of a girl murdered by the fierce amazonian tribal leader (Leilani Fideler) for sleeping with her man, an unbearably fey Rex (Kato Kaelin). Butcher finds her body, takes it to a cave, adorns it with fruit, and falls in love with her - her ghost (?) driving him forward to wreak bloody vengeance.

Later, Rodney 'the Mayor of the Sunset Strip' Bingenheimer and his friend Duck-Duck appear on a rock--in full 'modern' hipster clothes--to introduce 'the Ugly Kids,' a proto-punk band playing their latest "hit", using watermelons as instruments and generally behaving 'antically' as if they were in a Monkees video. 

The shirt, sez it all
In other words, ain't a damn thing changed since the way old days, as high school-age Bowling coveys. This is a story of a girl clique that lives and dies in a few hundred yard radius, their turf, their territory, and their queen has to hold it. It's AAW (All About Women), ala a lion pride, where the male lions are either monsters (the Buthcer), mincing idiots (Kaelin), or punk rock anachronisms (the Ugly Kids). Instead of browbeating the issue, though: Bowling's rolled a perfect 'j' on the Bechdel Test.

We need girls like Kansas, they are the real future, if there's to be one. Her 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, depressed misogyny masked as joyless softcore camp, and washed-out, wan HD video patinas. The rows of Prime streaming are choked with such things. Seek ye them not!

Look at her there, at left - a kind of Fiona Apple of the post-Psychotronic future, a groovy schlockmeister Joan of Arc. Whole cliques and tribes rise up around such figures, leading to the question of why and when will Bowling act in her own films (she's an extra in some of the scenes --left) but that's it. She should, for 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. 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 know we've made a huge mistake and will not escape the inferno alive.

Then again, who does? (As Edward James Olmos would say).

As for other films by women in the genre, (it would also make a good triple bill with THE LOVE WITCH and #HORROR) it bravely does what it wants far outside the normal patriarchal linear structure. Billed as 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 circa 1983. If that ain't your bag, Jimson, just move along. If your little sister's friends are bothering you, put on your headphones and pretend to be asleep. It's only one night, and you will probably survive. Just don't open your eyes or you might see some gnarly shit. 

Bowling - center - a worker among workers, melons.


The issue revealed within BUTCHER is the deep resemblance between an unchaperoned Girl Scout camping trip and life in a prehistoric tribe where the men went out hunting three years ago and never came back (ala Viking Women vs. the Sea Serpent). Packs of girlfriends going through puberty, these gals rely on strength in numbers. Cockblockers run routine patrols around the camp perimeter, fully aware slashers strike when couples are at their most vulnerable and isolated, i.e. finding a secluded spot to fool around. There's safety-in-numbers, so going off alone, in pairs, 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 country, or the territory of some hungry monster, or rival tribe

Despite the undercutting and man-stealing, what we do see throughout BC is a kind of monkey-grooming tribal togetherness that's usually very hard to capture and welcome to see. A lot of other female-clan-led overdo the girls' initial victimization - as if women warriors are all forged in the heat of abuse by men, rather than via their own desires. 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 meant more to be boasted about, to run from, or to get with in order to seem sexually mature, then for any hormonal drive. They might stab each other in the back, or front, over one, but they make up as fast as they squabble. In the end it's the boy who suffers - they both drop him - sisterhood comes first.

What I really admire about this weird little mess of a film is that Bowling writes like a 16-17 year-old girl rather than aiming beyond her years and sometimes coming off naive, i.e. winding up like a Paul Thomas Anderson-Richard Kelly type for whom high literature seems to underwrite even the expletives. If theirs is the airbrushed-ELO van-driving older brother cinema, Bowling's is little sister punk rock slow walk home through the bad neighborhood without fear version. 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 (if she added more breasts, sex, gore, scares, terrible jokes) would knock it back into just another Troma piece of shit territory. The fans of such things may heave trollish resentment upon BC's 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 (re: The Bechdel Test), but they already lost. They is losers... incel 4 life. And they know it.

Despite its problems #HORROR is film I'll defend any time, for its 'evil wild child ride into the whirlwind of mini-lynching hot potato pariah badge passing' style is mad rare. It probably scares parents into blind hatred, much the way KIDS once did. But I'd rather see and hear that kind of organic madness, cohering and dissolving like salt pool eddies in an incoming or outgoing tide, than some white elephant 'story' any day. Bowling's characters are at each other's throats often enough, but united against more than 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 and apologize too. It's the kind of clique-based insecurity round-robin intrinsic to adolescence (and threatening to a lot of adults) where depending on the group leader, even as you undermine her authority and steal her man, is no paradox. Little squabbles and apologies make up the 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 which most dialogue hardly ever covers but is actually they way young groups of people talk, and is how slang spreads so fast.

 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 shows her ripping stuffing from a small stuffed tiger). She might be a little too chest-thumpingly insecure and needy but she also can check herself and make up with girls she wronged; she knows when to take credit for killing a monster before it's even dead, but also doesn't run from the fight if it comes around her way. 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 FRIDAY 13th PART 2-style shrine. 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).

For that alone BC BUTCHER deserves to stand next to LOVE WITCH, DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT, and AMER (not in their league but it can still stand by them). Bowling's brazen anti-style idiocy proves  a refreshing antidote to Brit Marling's self-important bourgeois 'intellectual' sci-fi films. Watching Marling's work you know she probably has never even seen any of the Hill-Meyer-Corman style primitivist drive-in fare. She's too busy cooing over SOLARIS and 2001. Her loss, man. Well, maybe there's room for both extremes. Maybe both the lowbrow/highbrow women can alike join Biller, Amirpour, Xan Cassavettes, and Helene Cattet, to stand with elders Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, to create a true kind of female horror, where men are neither the focus nor the demographic and Bechdel becomes an obsolete term.. My male gaze stands ready to feel alienated, to feel what the female gaze has felt for so long. Let the scissors fall through the center of my evening paper. The ancient past is now rewritten in Panic hair dye and cheap punk rock wigs. The future is in good, fake blood-smeared hands. She might be named Kansas Bowling, but she's not trying to be coy or conforming to some masculine gaze or nerd ideal. She actually loves this shit. She worked odd jobs all summer to afford 16mm instead of cheap 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 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, so many his creditors can't afford to say no to giving him more, until you wonder if he's the 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 who announced he was the single greatest art swindler in history, owing upwards of $50 million), and another example is THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. History is full of such men, their legend often outlives their debts. Alas, until WW, the movies didn't know how to portray them. The result was an either/or, 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, the swamp the banks of opposites and rise right up through the sewers. And in playing us for suckers as easily as he plays boardrooms full of filthy investors, Warren William rides the razor's edge of nation-bankrupting high finance chicanery 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. Even his bones are soon frozen assets, crows and vultures waiting in line to file their injunctions for whatever scrap of marrow he didn't pick clean himself before departing.

If, in films like SKYSCRAPER SOULS (1933) and THE MATCH KING (1932), Williams meets his waterloo via some pure souled woman screwing up his chicanerous circuits with last second philanthropy (fatal, in his case), 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. We've soaked up usually sufficient brilliance--been awed at 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--that when 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 with her acute integrity, we're not too disappointed. It has to come from somewhere, may as well be a girl with cute legs.

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 the mystery series's that sustained him in the post-code era: 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 approximately the same time zone, lazy detectives accuse him, forcing him to lead them to the real thief or killer. Eventually, in the later films, 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. This saves the cops a lot of thinking for themselves, and as a result they seem to get stupider, more grotesque. In the more comedic entries, The Wolf's involvement stems from his crime hungry sidekick.

Now, as that assistant, Eric Blore may be a peach of a character actor, 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, overplaying to the rafters as if the director is making little 'hammier, hammier!" signs from behind the camera, he's down right irritating. 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 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 I think 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, and to do so above board (it's for a client rather than himself, so the code isn't as worried).

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 if he seems in no great hurry to nail the culprit. 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 grants 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. 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 than the paragon he'd conveniently become. Ever a legal precedent ahead of disbarment or incarceration, this early Mason races around setting up deliberate dodges to discredit witnesses before the cops know there's even been a crime committed. In the first season of the Burr TV show, and in Williams' four WB movies, Perry Mason is 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.

 Even if you don't cotton to William's flippancy as Mason, there's no denying his momentum. Not surprisingly for a WW role, 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. The movie around him is ever trying to find its footing; 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. The Spudsy Drake stuff can get pretty dumb, as when Spuds manages to start on some mail order weight lifting program and actually graduate with his 'tiger skin' by the end of the same night, and sometimes the writers try and pile so many bits of comedic business during the climaxes (held in his office instead of court, to allow for more futzing), it just stops being fun and becomes desperate, but hey - Williams always rocks it.

Let's look see at the best (as in zaniest) 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 of his precious time but he's not available.  Della Street (a bemused Genevieve Tobin) regularly fights off vast arrays of ignored high-paying clients, and several private detectives are at his beck and call with finding, planting and otherwise procuring evidence. We're instantly aware why he's so popular: when Mason stumbles onto a murder scene he never judges the killer/s, just regularly evades the cops, doggedly determined to protect his clients from prosecution (by sequestering them out of town until the trial, or ordering them not to talk no matter what). Porter Hall catches onto the witty madness, in a unique way only seasoned supporting actors seem to know, as the smitten department store owner who hires Mason to investigate a crooked beauty contest. This means watching in shock as Williams wakes up from where he crashed out behind his desk the night before, then pulling himself together for the day with some slugs from his private office bathroom bar.

Seeking justice for his beloved (one-sided) employee (Patricia Ellis) after she's rooked out of her prize money in a gigolo's traveling scam (the lout sets up big leg contests then absconds with the prize money, leading to a lot of angry girls and their possessive stalker ex-boyfriends [like stalker Lyle Talbot] to wade through after he's deservedly offed. There's an exciting scene where Mason helps one 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. Croaker' here, whose office is on the same floor and who declares Perry has to stop drinking all alcohol, which leads to some tiresome business with having to switch to milk. Minus ten demerits! 

(1935) Dir. Michael Curtiz

In the CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, Williams' Mason is suddenly made an amateur master chef, fond of taking over his favorite restaurant's kitchen with his pal the coroner (Owlin Howlind), who thinks nothing of bringing the entire gang back to the morgue for a quick autopsy over coffee. afterwards. The whole affair seems to devolve into a tipsy moveable feast ala the writing of Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Robert Altman movies like 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 and includes a reporter who's name is 'Toots' (Thomas E. Jackson), so we can enjoy dialogue like Howlind (clearly having a ball being William's wingman) saying "help yourself, Toots." No one rocks a long vowel like the Howlin.

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 forcing 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)? 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, you know, 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 staid bond trading rather than crime solving, especially considering the fey weariness of George Sanders making us easily convinced he's not interested in her even as a sex object. Rather than giving us any indication why he would want to spend five minutes with such a nag in the first place, his Falcon conveys the isolated anguish we might see from a closeted actor pressured into straight marriage by his studio. We never had to worry about that shit when he was the SAINT. ("he who travels fastest, travels alone")

CODA: In all the Masons there's a detective story mixed with a kind of anti-justice lawyer scheme repertoire checklist, i.e. clearly true stories about the crazy lengths the brilliant criminal lawyers go to, explaining damning evidence away via a ridiculously elaborate overlaying of killers, i.e.-the Howling Dog with its loose "two murderous sets of interlocked neighbors on NYC's ritzy Upper East Side with one of their two dogs being dead"-i.e. The Kennel Murder Case"--structure being like a jazz standard, which is then boiled into shady lawyer practice jazz solo vignettes, climaxing in a balls-out courtroom barnstormer of a jump-up.

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 diverse the array of 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 in their haste to wipe off their own fingerprints, covered up another person's crime. Fun lawyer fact we learn: only the one who delivered the fateful, final blow that killed the person is--upon being exposed to light--revealed as evil (or if not, Mason immediately takes up defending them and with a plea 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 head 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 one last time and then he dies, even if he was going to die from the first blow given time, then the last guy goes to jail BUT if the victim dies from the fall down after the first blow--even if that initial blow wasn't fatal, if it was just a love tap, then the first guy goes to jail, even if it was an accident and the guy who came after beat the shit out of him not knowing he was already dead.

Man, with Mason you learn so much about how ritzy murderers get to go free if they can afford the right lawyer.

One reason I'm so fond of these films, and the Philo Vances too, is that the deceased is always deserving of his death. The murder of an evil man, no matter who did it, is presented as very cathartic for the whole community, so in a way the murderer is the hero, even if he goes to jail in the end (thankfully for our conscience, he's usually almost as evil as the first guy). The victim's evil and the killer's lesser evil are both excised from the social order through this holistic ritual exorcism and all those who were afflicted by that evil are now free. It's as if the victim is a straw dog soaking up all the venal odium our era needs to shed, slaughtered by a collective urge within the texture of reality that the weakest of the afflicted cannot resist. Mason eventually focuses and solves the case, so everyone can go about their business, like rain putting out the blazing wicker man pyre only after its inhabitants are done to a fine crisp.

If the murderer of our sins--he who must be punished for the crime of freeing us all--is named Jesus, whom else is William's giddy Perry 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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