Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


TWIN PEAKS is happening again; Agent Cooper has returned in different places as different selves; DANGER 5 is no longer on Netflix, but THE LOVE WITCH is. Things from the past come back yet nothing from the moment leaves--the selection is so vast picking something is impossible. So we go back in time to when--if we wanted to see weird shit, sex or gore--we had to go the R-rated movie, or... in the 80s, we had to rent it, and were limited by what wasn't checked out, and by circumstance. Now we miss that simplicity, the narrowness of options. So we make movies that evoke those golden years of a smaller group of options. If you want to make a movie that looks and feels like it was made 20 years ago then you might be a retro-metatextual, but I won't judge you. I'd have to pick a version of me to do that, and I'll leave that to the professionals serenely rooted in space and time.

What's important is that the acclaim for STRANGER THINGS and IT FOLLOWS helped kickstart a batch of filmmakers into making stuff they wanted to see back in the days of standing in front of shelves filled with empty clamshell boxes, child's mind thrilling to the lurid covers. From the recently discussed SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL to as far back as GRINDHOUSE, a kind of borderline nostalgia future-past melancholy washes over things to free us all from the terrible burden of the slick but washed-out HD CGI present --wherein STAR WARS films look like video games and video games look like neorealist crime dramas.

Neither feature film discussed below is specifically great (which is why I added a short at the end that is). In fact I'd love to sit them down with each other and have them compare notes for each has what the other lacks: for THE VOID, it lacks patience, tick-tocaklity and focus; BEYOND THE GATES action and surprise, the strength of convictions --willingness to crank it to eleven rather than constantly dialing back like a repressed schoolmarm resisting temptation.

(2017) Dir. Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski

An art director and make-up artist teamed up for this, their directorial co-debut that serves a nice showcase for their specific sets of skills: great analog/latex effects and a bizarre Lovecraftian mythos (replete with an transdimensional world of floating black pyramids) liven up an 'all in a single weird night' tale of an understaffed hospital (in the midst of closing) deep in the meth belt that gets hit with a very weird outbreak of... tentacles and cultists. Aaron Poole stars as the shaky sheriff who lets you know how rattled he is by shooting a patient in the head for the crime of weirding him out after he brings him in with a gunshot wound. The guys shooting at him arrive, hold everyone hostage, and then the hospital is surrounded by a cadre of cultists in white robes with black triangles on the hoods. All Hell breaks loose, literally, and quickly and badly edited. There's way too much shouting and waving guns to even notice the four different Clive Barker and John Carpenter movie borrowings melting together in the hallway: Soon elements of THE THING and ASSAULT PRECINCT 13 merge together and then goes IN(to) THE MOUTH OF MADNESS with the PRINCE OF DARKNESS, up to the attics of Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, then out to Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND and the Solaris-from-Hell space ship in EVENT HORIZON, there's probably others.

That may sound great, I know it did to me. But Gillespie and Kostanski clearly have a lot to learn about what makes a good horror film, like when to use dialogue and when not to, how much dialogue is too much, where to put the camera, and how to set up an ominous mood or make effective use of a  synth drone score. They go for a Carpenter vibe but don't have the patience for Hawksian cool or the slow-building relentless dread that are amongst Carpenter's best auteur traits. Instead there are way too many balls in the air at once. Screaming "c-c-calm down!" in a room full of over-acting under-directed actors for minutes on end doesn't count as plot development. When the film quiets itself long enough to focus on just one or two characters at a time, sun of a gun if it doesn't almost works. But the drawbacks of the 'more-is-less' approach escape the VOID. It's as if all the elaborate monster tableaux are lined up offstage like a make-up artist reel-cum-fashion show and, if they don't keep slithering out, they'll get so backed up the film will end before they can all fit onstage.

That's not to say it's all that bad. As one of the nurses--Kathleen Munroe (above right) is a real stand-out: a gorgeous blue-cat-eyed creature in the Famke Janssen x Franka Poetente mold who stole a lot of pieces of my heart as a wild Irish lassie equestrian zombie in Romero's unjustly ignored SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (see my comparison of it with PET SEMETERY + the RNC National Convention). Here --all coy in her green scrubs--she reminded me of the cute nurses who gave me Ativan and Librium when I was flipping out this past Feb. Exuding actorly grace and sultry depth, she might have saved the movie had the writers allowed her to be a cool Hawksian heroine in the vein of Laurie Zimmer in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. But that would perhaps take cigarettes and balls and low 'indoor voice' talking. Gillespie and Kostanski prefer yelling and hamming. And, worse, after the first chunk of film is over, and all the tableaux in place, she's whisked down the rabbit hole to become just another imperiled Pauline for our trusty rattled sheriff to rescue. And his lame attempt proves way less engaging than the sight of Munroe prowling the empty, quiet hall in search of drugs for a pain-wracked pregnant lady. (They also shoehorn a kind of tired 'mourning a dead child' subplot [the grief broke her marriage with the sheriff], i.e. the kind of lazy screenwriter's shorthand for 'character development' that Carpenter studiously avoids).

Another thing missing that would have helped here is a 'gateway' drug for all the craziness: meth is name-checked but there's no evidence of it. The source of all this strangeness turns out to be bizarre rituals carried out in this lonesome meth lab cabin. But where is the meth, damn it? I don't have much experience with it, but it seems to me meth would make a great key to Lovecraftian horror evocation. Gillespie and Kostanski would be better prepared to explore this aspect if they'd done meth --write what you know, bro. (sniffle). I bet that cult leader doctor could get his hands on some wonderful drugs - why would he bother with cheap ass meth? Imagine if he had synthesized some new drug - a kind of meth-DMT combo that shattered the fourth dimensional wall? I would have loved to see all sorts of directions that could have gone (and it would have, no doubt, if Stuart Gordon, Carpenter, or maybe Matthew Bright were involved). Another drug-relevant angle: fostering the connection between drug withdrawal and the hell dimension. The high of variation of meth opening their pineal glands the way FROM BEYOND's tuning forks do or my own Salvia Divinorum + Robitussin + light-sound machine + Mingus "Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" journey to Balloon machine elf time-space mandible-weaving adventures back in the day. Or the anguish of suddenly losing all connection to that bliss as the inevitable pay-back recovery shows us that hell is as easily accessible as heaven and that, indeed, one may seldom experience on extreme without inevitably spending time in the other.

These caveats aside, Gillespie and Kostanski do offer some superb sequences near the climax, and it's inspiring that they demonstrate the chops to create their tentacled visions in real analog latex. But--once again--the problem is perhaps real life experience. The blurry frenzy of action in THE VOID has the air of fear and doubt, like an insecure painter who just throws all his paint on the canvas and runs out of the room, hoping it passes as art. So, while a huge tentacled thing erupting out of a dead man's stomach would be plenty great on its own, here it's got to go down with a flickering overhead light gone to strobe, crazy camera movements, cross-cuts to a screaming pregnant woman about to get a C-section with no anesthesia, and a hysterical over-acting pre-med intern refusing to help cuz it's too gross, and around ten people yelling at the top of their lungs as people shoot and swing axes at the tentacles. The camera seems half in the way of the action instead of chronicling it, like a nervous spectator with one eye on the door. None of these elements helps the action or mood, making Carpenter's genius for getting out of his own way all the more remarkable and precious.

Like Hawks, Carpenter took his time to make sure we got properly creeped out by the slow evolution of the THE THING. It was creepy because it was a legitimately fucked-up movie trying to pass as 'everything's cool' normal. At the end of, say, the intense autopsy arm-chomping scene, for example, there's a kind of a joke (the king crab eye stalks and legs sprouting out of the head of the dead man) and Kurt's exclamation 'Jesus Fucking Christ." It's funny and all the more terrifying for keeping it 'real' like that. Carpenter knows horror takes time, suspense must be built (the time when the eyes and legs grow out, the head is under the table unseen, we're not sure it will get away undetected).

It's like when making out with a girl for the first time: the slow build, the teasing push and pull, ebb and flow, is just as important as the actual kissing. If you just lunge at the person with tongue extended and don't give them a second to breathe, well, honey, it's called 'suffocation' and maybe THE VOID.

That's the deal here, with so much going on, nothing ever has time to happen. Carpenter's movies seduce you into bed, VOID just runs up and starts humping your leg. ASSAULT gained suspense from the camaraderie between the cops and outlaws in the face of a common enemy and the cool Hawksian focus of Zimmer; the quiet omnipresence of the nonspeaking gang members. Instead of the eerie silence of the gangs or the croaking THING incarnations, here we're forced to listen to the head bad guys' overly theatrical 'stage-voiced' dissertation on the 'new flesh' through what sounds like the PA system for way too many minutes. The bulk of the characters are all annoyingly one-note, between the screaming pre-med intern who panics and lets the pregnant woman almost die while she hams it up like a little brat, and the two rough townies (the good one's mute, the bad one never shuts up), there's so much negative energy that well, I had to go back to ASSAULT afterwards and be reminded Hawksian cool exists.

Further detriments: a good deep droning retro-analog synth score (as in STRANGER THINGS or IT FOLLOWS) would have helped immeasurably, instead, twangy guitar and the usual orchestral pointlessness. There's four different composers used and none can hold a candle to Disasterpiece or Umberto. Next time, boys, instead of just emulating John Carpenter movies, watch the movies he emulates. Watch RIO BRAVO, EL DORADO and THE 1951 THING. Stumpy, don't make me tell you again. Give Kathleen Munroe a cigarette and a match and punch the first pisher who squawks.

(2016) Dir. Jackson Stewart

BEYOND THE GATES' musical score on the other hand is a blast --n effective melange of Goblin-esqe synths, it's by retro-analog heavyweight Wojciech Golczewski. Like VOID, BEYOND is not set in the 80s so much as set within a universe clearly indebted to, haunted by, and styled after Videos The Director/s Rented as Impressionable Kid/s. Here however, it's not the Carpenter movies of youth but a video board game, NIGHTMARE. I'd never heard these kinds of things even existed before this film! Now I learn they had real commercials in the early 80s, and everything! Must have been a regional thing because I would have remembered. I'm the type.

And it's because I am the type that I hoped this story would resonate more than it did. The tale of a pair of semi-estranged "adult" brothers who reunite at their old homestead after their video rental store owner father vanishes, there to mull through his old shit (the store is out of business but still right where they left it - as the real estate clearly isn't booming in their small town) and maybe find out where he went. The 'dead' video store is a great location for a horror film but it's not utilized nearly as effectively as in the Blockbuster/Shining episode of SOUTH PARK. It's barely even used at all, except as a means to put the brothers in contact with the last thing dad was watching (the videotape portion of the 'video board game'  ---hosted by Barbara Crampton in new wave hair and eye liner, easily stealing the show). Instead, most of the film occurs in dad's suburban tract home, where things get scary but nowhere near as scary as a dead video store (what it tells us about ourselves is maybe something some of us aren't ready to hear).

Missed opportunities aside, at least--unlike THE VOID-- Stewart's film has a compulsive watchability, due perhaps to taking time to develop the characters, and establishing a mood wherein some dreadful thing seems always waiting around the next corner (not easy to do in a tract home). However, the pair of brothers at the center of the story don't make too much sense - they seem to have nothing in common, not even antagonism; they seem to share no common memories at all - and though they both supposedly worked at the store, and despite of all the time they must have spent in and around it,  they never mention or reference a single film, customer, event, ex girlfriend, or anything. Also, though one brother is coded as kind of cool, it's a bit odd that they're both such pussies that they have to stop playing the game the moment it gets the least bit spooooky. When Crampton mentions they need to find their father, the first thing they do is call their cop friend, like there's anything he can do about an old 80s board game. Would they call the cops if they found a stash of weed back in dad's office too? Nothing's worse than a kid who looks and acts cool who turns out to be just another narc.

Also, if any movie seemed to invite some SCREAM-style meta commentary it would be this one. Dealing with two brothers who grew up working at a video store, one would presume they've seen a film. They haven't. Similarly, one is supposed to be sober, but there's ne'er a discussion of their past drinking binges. Son, I'm sober and that's all my brother and I ever talk about! It's a way to connect across our gravitational reverse polarity, but here there's no connection or even a shared joke here (the sort of thing that some improvisation or rehearsal might have brought forth), nor is there family resemblance and there's no real understanding why one brother--the sober anal nerd--seems to have inherited the house and store and the other (Chase Williamson, so good in JOHN DIES AT THE END) just stays a kind of stumblebum, except to add a kind of EAST OF EDEN foreground to its JUMANJI-ish basement backdrop.

You da man, Chase

My main issue with the film, however, is the worminess of the square brother (Graham Skipper -intentionally unpictured), a fella so intrinsically unlikeable it makes it impossible to tell why anyone would want anything to do with him (imagining him fooling around with his girlfriend is singularly unsavory). I wanted to smack the glasses off his head and make him do whiskey shots, but instead he's supposed to be sober and that's another thing, man, I didn't like about this film. There's always dorks in AA who are just tourists and morons, not drunks. They go on one binge or get busted by their parents and whisked off to a rehab boarding school the minute mom finds a bag of weed in their room; or they just like AA because there everyone has to be their friend and hang out with them, no matter how skeevy they are. So while it was heartening at the big climax to see this square finally get around to killing and stabbing alongside his cooler brother, there needed to be more of a character change to believably get there -- a kind of change a slug of whiskey would have brought out like Popeye's spinach or like Nick Frost's two-fisted relapse in THE WORLD'S END. Now that's a reunion movie.

Instead, what does this pisher Graham do? When cleaning up the house, he finds and then pours his dad's liquor down the sink, to make sure his brother or a guest or his girlfriend can't have any just because he's so righteous and smarmy--and there's still a whole film to go. I may be back to being sober, but my thought was still to kill him! KILL! In AA we hate hearing about people who commit that kind of drink wasting just to feel smug in judgment of their drunken fathers. Give it away to some needy friend off the wagon, like that tweaker at the local pub (go-to dirtbag Justin Welborn), who--incidentally--is right to want to deck you and steal your horny girlfriend (Bea Grant). Urgh.

I wish these girls (from the NIGHTMARE-esque viral trailer
actually were in the movie, they'd have made it a lot better,
but the filmmakers think we'd rather see a
pale buster like Graham Skipper pour liquor down sinks.
Still, much more so than THE VOID, GATES managed to hold my and my co-viewer's attention all the way through, and is helped no end by Barbara Cramtpon as the master of" the game." She looks terrific and seems to be having a pretty good time --more so than anyone else. Brian Sowell's elegant low-budget video cinematography finds new roads within GATES' suburban 70s track house milieu and purple/red/blue video game weird color scheme (it's like an Easter Sunday afternoon SUSPIRIA); Golczewski's synth score keeps burbling, throbbing and buzzing; and seeing the brothers bonding by hacking away and stabbing undead demon versions of their slain parents and foes is--in the end--quite heartening.

Also, Chase has a fucking beer once in awhile, thank fucking god.
and speaking of God....
(2014) Dir. L. Gabriel Gonda

If you want to see something funny after these self-serious retro yarns, check out DARK DUNGEONS a 40 minute straight-faced adaptation of Jack Chick's infamous Christian tract denouncing Dungeons and Dragons (as well as books like  Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) as gateways to Satanism and witchcraft. Come along then as two cute young freshmen girls are lured to the dark side during a LARP (Live Action Role Play) session during 'club' rush week. One of the girls, Debbie (Alyssa Kay), turns out to be a natural spellcaster (with real magic) rising under Mistress Frost's (Tracy Hyland) dark red tutelage to a 'level-eight' sorceress; her budding bestie/possibly experimental lesbian crush, Marcie (Anastassia Higham), on the other hand, hangs herself because she's left behind at level-seven. Marcie's suicide, and being sent on a mission into the tunnels to other dimensions, combine to make Debbie realize her soul is in jeopardy. Will God's love find her in time?

Shot off the cuff, DD has a great zero budget gonzo spirit, a deadpan reverence for the Chick source material, a mostly-female, funny, and very cute cast, and a great deadpan "Embrace me, Jesus!" ending. If you've even been out on a deep end-limb in your rowdy days, and prayed the 'no atheists in a foxhole' prayer (ala AA) then you'll relate and maybe even mist up. I don't know the extent to which the ending is meant satirically or not, and I don't ever want to know. It's funnier not knowing and I respect that the spiritual solution is at least treated with some modicum of respect and real love. I don't think Jesus would be offended either way. The filmmaking team behind this crowdfunded (but which crowd?) little miracle are perhaps the Ron and Suzy Ormond of their time! Speaking of, know what else can now be found on Prime? MESA OF LOST WOMEN!

See original tract here

PS: Let me also point you towards the following retro-chic gems, all of whom get my personal, higher recommendations:


Friday, May 26, 2017

Pitt Daddy Blasts Again: WAR MACHINE + All-Out War Acidemic Memorial / Father's Day Round-up

I never fought in a real war, but growing up we played war with cap guns or plastic Uzis and I had HO scale planes dogfighting over my bed; I don't have to tell you how bad things are today: toy guns are fake looking, made of yellow or orange plastic to allay the triggers of nervous cops. But in the 70s-80s our guns were real-looking, heavy and loud. Nowadays the squirt guns have way more range, so maybe it's a trade-off. We need George C. Scott as Patton and Nazis to fight; instead we got Afghanistan civilian insurgents and Brad Pitt as General McMahon. Yeah, I'm watching the released-today-on-Netflix WAR MACHINE, the true story of the crazy gung-ho general brought in to 'fix' Afghanistan not too long ago (?) and who was taken down by a snide Rolling Stone reporter and his own reckless urge to shoehorn the complexity of counter-insurgency into a war model he can 'win' (he's not the general taken down by an affair with his sexy biographer, he's taken down by a snide journalist --big difference!). Adopting a comical (and overused) bowlegged running style that lets him show off his barrel-chested burliness (as if he's always about to fall forward and give you twenty), Pitt's SLING BLADE-on-the-half-baked-pasta-shell voice and pillow factory energy makes watching him is like reading a paperback military biography on a long plane ride rather than living the history. After the coiled cobra calm be brought to David Ayers' FURY and Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (above), it's a bit of let-down how slack he is here - the calm is there, the cobra is gone. Looking back at those earlier films it's clear he had a few things going for him, trait-wise, other than a comically stiff Fearless Fosdick chin and an ostentatiously silver head of hair. One of the easiest to admire was the easy way he had with shooting unarmed prisoners (the kind of thing a Tom Cruise or Leo would worry might alienate their fan base). Where's that 'madness of war' gone, Brad?

As with Jolie's fall from feral madwomen grace, I blame their children.

In other words, WAR MACHINE's General McMahon is a bit too obviously the work of a beaucoup liberal screenwriter trying to be balanced while taking down as a well-meaning warrior blind to the fact that America hasn't won a war since 1945. A sniping journalist voiceover burdens itself with all the usual suspect hearts-and-minded critiques we all know by heart and never asks why we'd want to hear this 'embedded' opinion rather than the researched high of war by someone like Kathryn Bigelow, Mel Gibson, John Milius, or Clint Eastwood. It's pretty easy to throw Tilda Swinton in a German press briefing and have her deliver the 'Big Message' lines the rest of the film's too distracted to convey, but if it is supposed to be all based on a Rolling Stone piece we'd have been much better off going with a more nuanced 'gonzo' journalist approach, i.e. focusing on the journalist''s personal experience situated within the events, their observations, and the drugs they were on that may have distorted those observations, with background press and history folded into it rather than this kind of presumption that liberal bias equates truth.

The script starts out well but then wind up in situations no journalist could possibly be, like the generals date with his rarely seen wife (Meg Tilly - be in more stuff, baby! We miss you) or some 'typical' FUBAR moments of chaotic boots-on-the-ground implementation of the general's 'big' strategy.  Rather than focus on the war room or his base of command, or attempt anything remotely close to the lived-in professional atmosphere of a Bigelow or Eastwood, or the true satiric madness of a Milius or Southern, where there's admiration for the courage as well as savage critique (and a sense of eyes and ears embedded into the actual rhythm of a professional workplace), here we have the impression only that the writer-director has seen THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY and probably was unable to light a fire under Pitt's ass the way a more macho name like Tarantino or Ayers or Fincher has.

When I saw that Pitt was going to play an older man with silver hair, as stars often do to segue their advancing age within the mythic scope of their public persona, I was excited. Gone is the tiresome Pitt role of rear echelon for the Jolie traveling humanitarian circus, I thought, and now he can get back to being a wild man! Aging males rejoice! Alas, the Jolie-drained version of Pitt--all edges sanded down--is still with us. On the other hand, INGLORIOUS is up on the Netflix stream. It's always worth revisiting whenever the drums of war and remembrance sound.

Also worth revisiting:  my own humble (hah) writing on war movies I've seen, loved, tolerated, for I've always tried to honor both sides of myself, one the kid with the dogfight in his bedroom sky and arsenal of cap guns, and the satiric deadhead sophomore heading off to see PLATOON with a headful of mushrooms like goddamned Lance going up the Kurtzy river.

War, what is it good for? Men. It's good for men. And prosthetic limb-manufacturers.

"We've seen this PC young typist character before, in Saving Private Ryan (played by the ever-mugging Jeremy Davies), though there we also had the chronic complainer (Ed Burns), and the "Wardaddy" there wasn't a mighty Pitt but 'decent guy' Tom Hanks. Pitt had proved he could be wild and liberated even whilst a young scrap of a fella, back in Thelma and Louise, so that's never been in doubt, but even so, here we got some extra layers of toughness as borne out by his scarred and diesel oil-stained face. We see him get kind of cleaned up when a nice little breakfast served up by a couple of scared frauleins is invaded by the rest of his motley tank corp, and we see Pitt forced into a weird no-win zone between solidarity with his rapey crew and an innate gentlemanly spirit, it's the most tiresome scene in the film, and I'll confess I FF-ed part of the way, but it's almost worth it for the brutal pay-off, which finally brings things to bear for our milquetoast. Eventually the lad even learns when to let a kraut fry to death and when to chop him in half. Hell yeah, Sgt. Rock loves this movie, wherever he is. (more)

In the land of no morality and bullets flying overhead, it's a man like Fuller you depend on to deliver the sense of security that a strong, good man is holding the tent up, even if he's just acting tough to keep the children from crying. No wonder his men love Marvin and follow him around all throughout BIG RED ONE (and why Fuller became lifelong friends with everyone from Godard to General Omar Bradley). In the end, the kids getting blown to bits come and go, but old paragons of salt like Marvin keep the world turning. You love him even as he sends you to your death with a silent pointy gesture. (full)

"The most essential (we desperately need it back) yet dangerous of the unassimilated abject pantheon tends to be defined by his utter lack of social graces and his surplus of animal power; he's a bit too large for ordinary civilization so he lives--by choice and necessity-- in the wilderness (until he's needed for war); his hair and wild beard and maniacal eyes give him away... he's the wild man. Any hero's journey requires a visit with him for the wild man holds onto the element that is 'circumcised' or castrated to make a civilized man, and that element is required for success. When the rest of his tribe was being declawed for city living, the wild man stayed behind, and kept his claws. His isolation represents a possible outcome for the hero's journey if the hero decides not to return to the social order with his beanstalk prizes and instead shuns the company of soft-handed mortals and stays in the forest where nymphs and satyrs run free. The wild man can be terrifying or gentle but either way he lives larger than the average bear, and way larger than the civilized schmuck." (5/12) (full)

"..Fuller's actual war experience makes his spirituality move far beyond religions or borders, or even life and death. When Sgt. Zack (Evans) watches his young war orphan guide Short Round (Spielberg used the name for Indy's sidekick in TEMPLE OF DOOM) turning a Buddhist prayer wheel or singing "Auld lang Syne" which is also the Korean national anthem, for example, you can feel Zack's respect for even the simplest gestures. He knows they are so much more important than things like dog tags, burials, objectives and rank. Fuller's awareness of the power that little motions like this can have--butterfly wing tsunami-style--in the greater scheme of war makes the film hum past the parameters of its situations. In a world where every movement might be your last, everything is imbued with profound significance, the moment expands and enlargens past any map, and in Zack's strange integrity we begin to even understand how Buddhism works." 5/11 (cont)

Is it any wonder that cinema fans in our media-saturated 21st century prefer the cool macho alienation of THE DEER HUNTER? COMING HOME challenges us to be more open and loving with one another and it does so by practicing what it preaches; it gets all sticky and gooey, it "lapses into melodrama;" it asks us to feel deeply. Conversely, THE DEER HUNTER asks us only to pop open another cold one and turn up the game, to drown out that soft voice that would point us towards the love we'd prefer to think irretrievable. If things get too intimate, just drown that sensitivity in another game of Russian roulette, like a real man would, if he ever played it -which he didn't.  (12/07) (full)

But that's the thing, most of us don't have to submit to this once we are 21 and/or out of our parent's house. But the poor devils in Tarantino's last two films each have to contend with whole dinner times going past, or lengthy conversations, with people trying to be their parents, with laws that remove rights already instated and strip classes and races of social equity. A parallel might be trying to get through a whole dinner with strict parents as a ten year-old trying to hide the fact that you're stoned and drunk out of your gourd, and by dessert you think you've got them won over so your mask starts to slip a little, and you keep hitting the wine even though your mom glowers at the water level. And your friend who stayed for dinner is like dude, ixnay on the ineway tilunway erway outway the oordway. (more)

Patton's discipline is intended to create that condition of initiation, Stockholm syndrome in the service of country - there's still going to be the odd soldier who resists the comfort of berserker madness and thinks clinging to the crumbling shards of his childhood persona will preserve rather than destroy him. In the end all the military drilling and exhaustion is to weaken the ego's dogmatic hold, so you can actually be molded into a killing machine who can then run into the path of flaming bullets--against all self-preservational logic. But as long as one soldier can get away with pretending to be sick to get out of combat, the morale of the whole unit is in jeopardy. Hence a little bitch-slap, which he performs in a sense as performance for the other men. Watching this with my dad as a child I used to think Patton was being a bully for slapping the soldier. Later, as a hippie, I thought he was existentialist and square. Now I'm all into his heart of darkness. Patton must necessarily be excused from any consequences that may stem from disrespecting boundaries, for the best defense is a good offense and therefore disrespecting boundaries is the mark of a good general.
3/10 (more)

PLAY DIRTY (1969) goes for the existential vibe where that's concerned: tire repair, driving stolen trucks up a mountain, weathering a sandstorm, and other SORCERER-waiting-for-Godot-style existential tomfoolery. Michael Caine is the by-the-book officer, Nigel Davenport the hardened cynic, Nigel Green the dissolute, cynical and well-worn Colonel who plans the mission (another fuel dump, by Jove!) Together they shoot unarmed Red Cross workers, (nearly) rape a German nurse, kill innocent bystanders and otherwise commit egregious and unclean deeds in the name of 'the mission.' Also anachronistically, they blare tons of music on the jeep radio like it's goddamned Top 40. The acting is all good but the existential vibe a bit souring. Part of my yen for WW2 movies is that they provide a rare chance for noble Hawksian male camaraderie but PLAY DIRTY denies that fantasy, trying to shoehorn post-1969 Vietnam bitterness into pre-1945 history - 5/10. (full)

The film is all allegedly true, but you know espionage tales, you'll never get straight facts. Just enjoy the luridness, the Enno Morricone score, and the first rate B-movie international cast: Suzy Kendall as the title spy (a confederate of Mata Hari), Capucine (above) as a lesbian poison gas designer; Kenneth More as the head of British Intelligence; Nigel Green (COUNTESS DRACULA) as the head of German Intelligence, and a large crew of extras marching around in gas masks for the big finale, making me wonder if Ralph Bakshi used this movie for 'rotoscoping' backgrounds in WIZARDS. Best of all, it's World War One, not World War Two, so the German were still 'sporting' and 'gentlemanly' to a degree. You don't have to hate them as badly as you would in a few years. (Full)

If you want to scoop deep into the real murky moral ambiguity of war, the heart of the heart of darkness, take to the air and hunt the pre-code 1930s WWI flying ace movies written by John Monk Saunders, where dogfights and aerial maneuvers are performed in the era's rickety biplanes by day and mortifying guilt, terror, and despair is drunk away with rousing camaraderie by night. Using recycled aerial footage (and shots of the Red Baron) from the silent film Wings (1927- based on Saunders' book) the dogfights are conveyed via quasi-kabuki anonymity as pilots are shot at through rear projection, adding to a sense of depersonalized, out-of-time aloneness 'up there' in the deadly skies. Since all the pilots wear the same evil-looking goggles it becomes important to cast actors with differing jaw lines, leading to some pretty strange specimens and accentuating the anonymity of death. The same Red Baron-type hun shoots and dies and salutes either way, in the same footage, in almost every one of these films but that only serves to unite them, and together they make a startling picture of a moment in time in between the advent of sound and the arrival of Hitler and Tojo, whose combined barbarity crushed-out Hollywood's anti-war sentiment like a brief candle, or at any rate made it seem willfully naive. (full)

"Bigelow's unflinching feminine eye for what war is shows how much damage the male psyche--man's need to prove himself against real physical danger--has suffered over the years trying to be "nice" in the long twisted, never-ending, ever-more draconian and litigious wake of early 80s PC thuggery and "bare life" fearmongering. No pain, no gain, goes the slogan --but while women are born into a cycle of menstruation and the agony of birth, what do men get to do? No wonder they've grown anti-dirt. But our James here has passed this by; he's materialized from a breed of men that seem unfazed by the dubious comforts of peacetime (as brilliantly portrayed in a simple shot of James powerless in the face of a gigantic supermarket cereal aisle)." (more)

"Time and again we see in [HOMELAND] how men believe whatever narrative will make them look like they're in charge, that nothing can slip by them; they fall in love with caution, the ritual of work, the process, the secret handshakes. Women threaten this slow steady safety not only by diluting the male bonding epoxy with their estrogen and logic but by their incessant pointing out of the men's blind spots. The men don't want to think outside the box, but if needed for her own success, women will drag them out, breaking the bones and resetting them correctly like a patient but resolute (and unconsciously sadistic) mother." (more)

Twice the action of Hot Shots Part Deux, twice the laughs of Saving Private Ryan, say what you want about  STREET FIGHTER, like BOMB (Maltin), ** (imb), or 13% (rottentomatoes) I declare it a delightful romp for a lazy Saturday when you can't summon the will to vacuum or go out in the rain. If you haven't seen it you might confuse it with all those first person shooter films like Doom, where everyone's trapped in a locked-down maze of drippy subterranean tunnels, and breaking bones, but it's pretty sunny and merry a lot of the time, with a dry wit and divine art direction (I love love love the black-red look of bad guy's boudoir) It's got that international style, the Jackie Chan film aesthetic, but is also populated with crazy steroidal villains and a stunning international portfolio of a cast: Kylie Minogue as Van Damme's right hand; Raul Julia laughing maniacally, longing humbly to hold the world in his "loving grip" while worrying about the size of his future city's food court and showing off his groovy post-SS cap, black cape and silver gloves, demolishing the awesome customized tail fin/red skull scenery as the bad guy. In addition to ransoming a bin full of hostages, Cool Raul is making a Carrot Top/Hulk hybrid monster (from one of JCVD's former buddies) in the basement of his evil fortress. But the fortress also is full of high places and chain pulleys to swing down from in ripped derring do. Great lines ("you got... paid?"), hilarious bits (Bison punching a video monitor when it shows a boy frolicking with a dog), and wry orchestral, foley, and set design touches, like Bison's wall portraits ranging in style from Napoleon to a John Wayne Gacy-style clown version--all great little termite touches." (full)

There's nothing wrong with adding fantasy / fictional elements into war films, ala, say INGLORIOUS BASTERDS but we know from the beginning that BASTERDS isn't about war but about war films. We presume from the beginning that THE DEER HUNTER is about war's victims, 'real people' from small American towns who play with fire and get burned, but it turns out it's not about them at all. It's about Cimino's desire to morph blue collar alcoholics into Slavic mountain gods who are then consumed and brought low by gibbering Asian devils and their own thousand yard staring contests. Suicide may be painless, but make a habit of it and you become a pain... in the ass... of valor. (full)

"APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) is the ultimate trip for Vietnam, the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY of war films, updating the original acid story, Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS to accommodate a broad spectrum of black comic situations. Brando's ambiguity as Kurz in the last section is always a bit of a let-down to what came before (Brando wasn't 'experienced). But before that, the peaks happen often: the Colonel Kilgore scenes of course, and the scene that's preceded by Lance mentioning to Frederic Forrest as they're cruising up to the final checkpoint, beyond which is Cambodia. "You know that last tab of acid I had? I dropped it." Forrest replies, as if barely listening, "Far out."

Willard (Martin Sheen) gets off the boat at the bridge, bringing Lance with him like a magic protection symbol, like the white cloth pinned to the nurse's jacket in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Everyone fighting at this bridge seems lost and abandoned ("Who's in charge here?" / "Ain't you?") until they find a taciturn spectral presence named Roach (the Duane Jones zombie figure equivalent from IWAZ) who they bring out of his pot smoke and Hendrix-filled cubby hole so he can take out a crazed VC sniper in the black night distance. "He's close man... real... close", says the Roach, his eyes glazed over with the 1000 yard stare. He loads his grenade launcher and just fires it straight up into the air without even looking, BAM, all is quiet, no more sniper. Roach's face barely changes except to snarl a bit as he whispers, "motherfucker." 

Says it all, man. (full)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Anti-Authority Nowhere Land: CONVOY (1978)

America needs a hero again, c'mon back Rubber Ducky 10-4 and remember that song "Convoy" by ole Cash McCall? Sure, now that the trucker craze is decades gone, and rap is here to stay, McCall just sounds like some grizzled old Marlboro man babbling into his CB receiver while a Curtis Mayfield instrumental plays behind him on the FM dial, but in 1975-6, his "Convoy" was haulin' ass up the charts until it became the hood ornament on a full-on cross-country trucker fad going no place at 80 mph, downhill. It was the kind of thing we all heard on the radio in the car nonstop and either loved or ignored. We didn't really 'hate' things in the 70s, there weren't enough options. We had to listen to what the DJ played, so we just figured it was 'new' and we'd get used to it. Lack of options made us less judgmental.

It's been gone, but now it's back - on Blu-ray no less, so c'mon back, good buddy, all the way through, put the CB back in the box and turn to the movie of CONVOY at long last. Why? Because Pauline Kael liked it. And cuz Kristofferson is in it. But why? Why was it ever made? It's hard to fathom nowadays, because songs are too scattered along generational formats, but back in the 70s a single could get so big across so many demographics that movie versions of goddamn songs were commissioned. We loved some songs so much we needed, producers guessed (wrongly), to see a film version the same way we needed the novelization of a movie (but that's different since --don't forget--this was the time before videotape, so the only way to 'own' a film was via the paperback).

But the more we pull a song to us the harder we push it away later, so the movie inevitably bombs and today only a few of us remember they even existed. Take for another example the more northern state-style 'softie' radio obsession that came upon as after McCall's song had died away, Debbie Boone's 1977 hit "You Light Up My Life." Whole families would pull over when "Light" came on the car radio, and cry in unison. A Light up my Life movie was immediately commissioned, producers ill-advisedly presuming America wouldn't be long sick of the emotional hit by the time the film came out later in the year.

We were. And to this day no one has ever seen You Light Up My Life.

But Convoy (1978) had more than a feelin', by which I mean Peckinpah directing, which meant slow-mo bar fights. It came out three years after the song had been forgotten. Emotion didn't enter into it, not the sappy kind anyway, only a comforting feeling of strength and solidarity with the truckers of the open road. It sat in our minds next to Burt Reynolds' middle finger and our ability to get truckers to honk real loud if we turned around and made a 'toot-toot' gesture as we passed them. The real appeal for those of us too young to drive, though, was the novelty of the CB radio and all its crazy code words: You could get on there and DJ to maybe millions, maybe no one; you could tip off the reverse going traffic if you spotted a 'bear in the woods' i.e. a speed trap waiting for traffic on the other side. We didn't have Twitter or cell phones, but those didn't exist yet - CBs did - but you needed cool parents to get it and install it and teach you how to use it, a combination of elements that no one I knew managed to pull off.

Car culture was huge, still. Once in awhile we got rides in the older kids' cool Trans-Ams or Firebirds and it hooked us. The automotive store became a kind of secondary Spencer Gifts. We eyed the Playboy bunny mud flaps and bought novelty rearview ornaments to hang over our beds like dreamcatchers. We'd sit in our sixth grade class wearing black driving gloves, just in case. Meanwhile at the movies, the masses clamored in love of the motorized outlaw. Sugarland Express (1974) and Vanishing Point (1971) paved the way for the whole "mass of Americans rallying 'round one outlaw car'" cause thing, so big at (of course), the drive-in. By the time Convoy rolled off the line that thing was quite overdone. It rolled alongside High-Ballin' and Every Which Way But Loose, choking on the dust of Smokey, Handle with Care, Breaker Breaker, High-Ballin', White Line Fever... on TV, the genre devolved into Nielsen scavengers like BJ and the Bear, Dukes of Hazzard and TV movies like The Great Smokey Road Block and Flatbed Annie and Sweetie Pie. If you're curious, the junkyard in the back of Amazon Prime streaming is laden with them. Most look like shit but some still got the gleam in their grille.

I never really had more than a fleeting yen for the trucker life back, myself, as a grade schooler in the 70s and even then I was horrified by that cropped afro look rocked by Ali McGraw in the Convoy commercials, not that there were many, but they played here and there during Saturday morning cartoons, like that straggler who shows up at your party at dawn after it's already over and your parents are in bed, but you're up waiting for the cartoons to start, and he's drunk and laughing at his own jokes Your parents wake up and there he is... on your couch, snoring.

That cropped afro, man, what a bad bad bad decision.

Still, Pauline Kael defended it, and 38 odd years later, that was enough for me to get the Blu-ray:
"Peckinpah uses the big rigs anthropomorphically, and while watching this picture, you recover the feelings you had as a child about the power and size and noise of trucks, and their bright, distinctive colors. Graeme Clifford's editing provides fast, hypnotic rhythms, and sequences with the trucks low in the frame and most of the image given over to skies with brilliant white clouds are poetic gestures, like passages in Dovzhenko. As a horny trucker, Kris Kristofferson lacks the common touch that might have given the movie some centrifugal force, though he's as majestic-looking as the big trucks. 
Hell, forget it. As Kristofferson might say, "Dovzhenko, my ass!" But I am a Pauline Kael disciple and thanks her odd associations and my man crush on Kristofferson, for better or worse, I have joined the Convoy. Wanna ride with the Duck, come on back?

Burt Young - the king of country
Kristofferson's handle is 'the Duck' and despite the name--and Kael's opinion-- he alone looks, talks and acts like real live trucker might, and is the only member of the main cast who does. Peckinpah clearly didn't know much about the trucker red state mystique because for the rest of the cast he apparently didn't look farther than the NY Actor's Studio: Queens-born Burt Young (handle: "Love Machine") is about as cowboy as a Nathan's egg cream. When he delivers lines like "Long highways sure grind the souls off us cowfolks," you wonder if it's supposed to be a joke --if it is, it sucks. Couldn't Peckinpah find real country boys to ride these rigs instead of a bunch of uber-ethnic NYC character actors? Brooklyn's own Franklin Ajaye is the black trucker (handle of Spider Mike) and Ernest Borgnine ("Cottonmouth") is such a foul, greedy cop he entraps Duck, Spider and Machine on an off-road, shakes them down for $50 each, then follows them to a crowded diner where he tries shake down Spider Mike a second time, with everyone watching, which is beyond idiotic, like getting away with stealing someone's wallet, then following him into a crowd and shooting him in broad daylight for not having a second wallet.

In sum, Peckinpah ain't thinking things through. Is he even reading his own rewrites? Maybe he can't. Maybe it's the booze. Hell yeah, it's the booze. But the truckers need a reason to be chased by the law, because Burt Reynolds was chased by Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit, and Gleason had such a grand time that he birthed a whole archetype: the fat and sassy Southern sheriff. He became a comic foil for every subsequent picture ever made that has a fast car in it. The Fat Sheriff archetype even made his way into Bond films, a mere four years earlier. (1) But Borgnine sucks the fun out of it. Convoy aint a fun picture. Cathartic at times, sure. Crazy, daring, odd, but not fun.

But hey - the fight happens, the truckers all become outlaws and then folk heroes without ever bothering to question any weird plot device that happens along. Duck picks up this close-cropped perm-fro'd Ali McGraw on the way out of the diner (she jumps ship from her previous ride) and she becomes his chronicler with her fancy camera or something. McGraw may be still gorgeous, but  her close cropped permed hair is continually depressing. In the annals of 'bad hair' decisions it makes Orson's cropping Rita's long tresses for a short blonde flip in Lady from Shanghai seem inspired and lovely instead of churlish and mean. Together in fact, Rita's and Ali's hair crops make a great collective illustration of how a petulant male auteur unwittingly reveals his misogyny. As Vincent Canby wrote at the time: "to transform a naturally beautiful woman into a figure of such androgyny seems, at best, short-sighted; at worst, it's mean-spirited."

Don't mean to shit on this otherwise interesting flick but considering the amount of shitting on our collective hats Peckinpah does during the movie, well, it's a good place to vent. On the plus side, there are some stretches of Peckinpah brilliance vis-a-vis his signature rapid editing through tight shots of crazy locals in various states of intoxication. A series of old faces, drinking and smoking in the proximity of flags, feels authentic enough - and all done without Easy Rider's redneck-demonizing, Altman's tacky mummery, or Smokey and the Bandit's lecherous bouncing and guileless harmonic score.

Then again, it also lacks Easy Rider's truly revolutionary spirit, Nashville's sense of moveable feast community, and Smokey and the Bandit's star chemistry. In the latter, especially, Jerry Reed, Burt Reynolds, and Sally Field bring out a special something in each other hard to duplicate. Reynolds might come off macho for the press, but he genuinely loves (and is not threatened by) strong female co-stars like Fields - and that's apparent in their chemistry; and Jerry Reed well, he loves Fred, his hound dawg. All four of them look authentic, like they could have driven straight up from Florida or Texas, and all of them got star wattage charisma to burn. By contrast, the only authentic looking 'red state American' main character in Convoy is Kristofferson, and even he feels out of place. He's too cool to behave logically, too pointlessly iconoclastic to even try to save himself from 20 years in the pen, even if it's the easier, righter thing to do. The whole mess of issues Bobby "ain't so good at stringin' words together as you are" creates for his self through his stubborn insistence on not being this and not being that, begins to feel less like working class heroism and more like of Munchausen-by-proxy stupidity, like the idiot kid who's too dumb to hide his weed going through customs, then bitches and moans about violations of human rights when it gets taken away. He likes to drink "Everclear" and listen to "we don't smoke marijuana and we don't take LSD" like there's no hypocrisy there. Again--a joke? The alcoholic Peckinpah has no right to get anti-anti-establishment.

That said, Duck's not afraid to have a few big rigs get together to smash open a police station where Spider Mike's been violated, rights-wise. Shit gets smashed up for real (it's pre-CGI) and that's why films like Convoy will endure. If you see a cop car go flying off the interstate and through a billboard, better believe some stunt man did just that. And it just feels real good. That metal crunch got tang!

Alas, when not crashing cars or eye-fishing roadshow funerals, the Peckinpah signature over-editing thing does not always work: that truck stop cafe brawl with Cottonmouth, for example, isn't quite the same ode to violence as the opening or closing of The Wild Bunch (1969). With all its slow motion and quick cuts it becomes abstract and unseemly: cutting back and forth to about eight different characters in various states of falling, rolling, punching, ducking or running - all in a very close quarters diner environment--is numbing and dumb rather than riveting. It's a fight that would have blown our minds in the hands of a tight-editing Walter Hill (as in the bathroom fight in The Warriors) but Peckinpah infamously wasted weeks filming and it's clear that about 100 different takes are all used for one single movement to create a bewildering sense of time and relative space (a character might start falling off a stool at one end of the counter and land behind a table on the other, his eyes indicating he somehow has aged 20 years in frustration with his director in between the two angles). Then there's the big events and demonstrations as the rebel convoy gets longer and longer, word spreading analog viral through the CB network of all the 'little' people from Flyover USA who are tired of getting pushed around. Yawn. It works at times, in others, it's just a lot of nowhere shorthand for 'everyday' America. I guess it's inspiring, but man, that food in the back of them trucks crawling along is gonna spoil. And what about them poor live pigs being hauled by Love Machine? What about their freedom? The sooner I can stop associating Burt Young's harsh face with actual pigs and the tang of sulphur, methane, diesel and asphalt, the better. Son, dump them pigs loose upon the plain, and get thee to a ROCKY pinball machine (3), stat!

Young in Rocky II - made the following year (1979)

So why'd the trucker craze leave before Convoy could recoup? The 70s was a great time for fast turn-over fads -- they swept the nation and then were gone like phantoms, only to have feature films like this come out months after the craze had dwindled off, mainly because they just took too damn long to finish thanks to their big budgets subjecting even the smallest decision to overthink and second-guessing. These came out after the TV movie knock-offs, which turned the tropes so many different ways we couldn't help but lose interest. I vividly remember watching some trucker adventure, I think it was Flatbed Annie and Sweetie-Pie on network TV with our babysitter back in 1979 and thinking dear god, why are we still caring about big rigs on the run from corrupt local law? I mean, on a pop culture terms, the Dukes of Hazzard had premiered the night before. BJ and the Bear was going strong into its second year. Enough was too damn much.

The result is like a rich giant little brother trailing after sleeker meaner trend setter B-movie older sibling, and then TV movies after that, leaving a big, sprawling gloriously trashy messes like Convoy in the middle of the road for the middle states to absorb through half-asleep drive-in eyes.

But if a year found big movies actually setting mega-trends the result was electric. Sharks in '75, for example. 1977 set a new benchmark, as we saw three major motion pictures all swirling around in our collective consciousness (and unconscious): The Spy Who Love Me (we dreamt of owning underwater cars) Smokey and the Bandit, (CB radios) and of course Star Wars (light sabres), and to a lesser extent, Semi-Tough. This was a time before VHS, Cable and Betmax, when, for example, one never in a thousand years would hear cursing on television or see gore or nudity (unless it whisked by an artsy PBS-BBC show like I Clavdivs) anywhere but a theater or drive-in.  This gave the 'R' rated films a holy power to us kids who couldn't see them. If you watched something like Semi-Tough or Smokey today, and pay attention to the comedic rhythms, you hear the pause after each expletive, the way comedies pause for laughs after punchlines, so the audience could whoop in delight at the utterance of these verboten syllables. This makes them hang in the air in a weird way: For all his swagger, every expletive Reynolds utters in both films comes with quotation marks --there's a sense of 'oooh I'm saying something naughty!" in ways totally foreign to us today where 'shit' and 'goddamn' are so common as to be unnoticed even on prime time.

Another thing new to us was, of course, nature. Seeing the Drapers leave their picnic trash behind in Mad Men made my generation lurch back to life and remember the old family habit of throwing our McDonald's trash out the window as we drove home, until the crying Native American by the dirty highway got us to stop.  Another thing is just general animal rights awareness. I remember of course feeling kind of guilty at zoos with jungle cats in tiny concrete cages, prowling endlessly back and forth, but I never imagined it was wrong. Now I have to run to change the channel when ASPCA commercials come on. I'm sensitized to the point I see a cowboy tie up his horse by a bar in a western and I wonder, what about the horse? You gonna leave him out there in the wind with no water or food? These things bother me now. Convoys are all well and good, Love Machine, but what about those pigs left for days back of the rig? And when do you all stop for gas? And don't you got somewhere to be with those truckloads? Was the script wroted by a drunk illiterate six year-old? War his name Sam?

I mention this, as I have in the past, to preserve it for future generations who may see something like Smokey or Convoy and wonder what the fuck we in the 70s were thinking. In this case well, it was freedom and a crossover between the shit-kicking conservative and the blue state suburban swinger we can only dream of today. It's the money earned by car chase pictures from the Corman canon like 1975's White Line Fever giving way to good old boy Burt Reynolds and the invasion of country singers like Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Glenn Campbell into the mainstream Top 40. And the rise of the CB and the 'Fuzzbuster' into the mainstream Spencer Gift 70s lexicon. One thing follows the next and that's why I'm taking time to chronicle it all, pop culture was a much smaller tent. The three channels (not including local stations and PBS), made water cooler breeze-shooting much easier. But if you were watching Flatbed Annie (above) on a Saturday night, or as we thought of it then, Laverne and Shirley as Truckers, then you were stuck at home with a babysitter and the only alternative was The Love Boat. 

It was--on a lot of levels--a kind of reverse class-envy, a grass-is-greener longing by middle class suburbia to live on the open road and be among the beer-guzzlin, speed-takin', Marlboro-smokin' common man who didn't take no shit about drinking and driving or smoking in elevators. Some of this of course survives today 00s Williamsburg hipster thing with PBR, ironic belt buckles, fuzzy dice rearview mirror ornaments, and big ass mustaches. But these are generally uber-fey poseurs (beta cucks in the alt-right paralance) with tinny little voices that bespeak their unfamiliarity with tobacco and shouting at neighbors. Real men have voices you can feel in your bones, the ground trembles in anticipation of their Frye boot heel. Sure, they're all real dead or dying of real throat or lung cancer now, but you damn well gotta die of something. Who's to say smokers don't have an extra special first class seat in heaven, shortening their life spans so that Earth's natural resources don't need to buckle under the weight of one more greedy mouth? (2) Maybe that's not tomorrow's America, but it was damn well yesterdays. 

America's current identity crisis is not borne of ideology and belief I think but of fear and TV ratings. We need to find common ground again, as we once did with Burt Reynolds, CB radio / trucker crazes, speeding, drunken tavern brawls (the kind where stuntmen go flying through the front window in slow mo without spilling their beer, then everyone shakes hands, laughs off the bruises and goes fishing). Convoy is out on Blu-ray, where the picture is pretty --trucks shine real fine. So git it and fall in love with fossil fuels and fists... again. I would join you, but living in Soft Hands NY has made me so sensitive I can smell the asphalt tar tang and the weird bodily exhalation smell of diesel gasoline emissions and sulphur in the hot desert air just writing these gridlocking symbols of rootsy solidarity and it makes me quite ill. See, I'm no longer in touch enough to root for the Little Guy. I'm just ashen thinking 'bout his squealing cargo, those poor pigs. Damn I hate... fucking... awareness.  

1. J.W. Pepper in Live and Let Die (1971) and Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
2. This coming weekend I'll be one-year quit -- not being able to absorb any oxygen in your burnt lungs - that'll do 'er.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Burnt Persona Jessica Drives Again (to Death, Sister): SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL (2016)

Rolling through the ghostly corridors of small town 70s America, via director A.D. Calvo, rides a retro-intertextual homage to the young girl-sunk-to-madness horror films of auld. SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL (2016) exudes such a confidently lyrical, intertextual, and retro-pastorale poetry over its nicely brief running time (78 minutes) one can forgive it for not really having anything new or even coherent to say. What is has instead is a nice slow but inexorable build of unease, some genuine corner-of-the-eye scares and moments of quiet beauty, photographed in a style reminiscent of early Vilmos Zsigmond. Stars Erin Wilhelmi and Quinn Shepherd are subtly captivating as the leads in what's essentially a two-hander character study and lord there's been a lot of them, these "which is one is crazy or a figment of the other's imagination or going to kill the other, etc" sagas. But this one, this one follows its own little whispering shadow up the attic stairs.

I also shouldn't neglect referencing  how the combination of new formatting (it's 'exclusive' to Shudder, a curated horror streaming service) and old style (digital recreations of retro-analog celluloid familiarity) so eloquently sums up the easy death of 'currency.' Today, any new movie can choose to look older, like a tween at Forever 21, or worse. No one from 20 years ago would want to deliberately evoke bygone eras of filmmaking (except for confirmed horror fan Mel Brooks) but now there's just too much present to go around. I, for one, am glad the the 'everything available all the time' post-modern paralysis has reaped at least one benefit, the ability to make things made before our time. If that makes no sense, you understand it perfectly: the past is perhaps the one place we can look forward to. Anything lucky enough to have been shot on 35mm film stock now seems bumped up a star in our esteem. Loving restoration Blu-rays by Scorpion, Shout, Code Red, Blue Underground, make the lamest 80s slasher film glow like a priceless artifact in comparison to the washed-out flatness of HD video. Everything is topsy. If it will ever turvy again, well.... there's always the movies. We can make turvies today that make the topsies wince in shame.

GIRL is one such turvy.

Sent by her weary bitch of a mother to work as a helper for a secretive (and wealthy) shut-in aunt in her big, eerie Victorian house (top), friendless, taciturn bookworm Adele (Wilhelmi - above left) adjusts no problem to the job's long stretches of lonely tedium. She listens to music on her headphones, does the shopping, makes and leaves the meals on a tray by the door, etc. We never even see the aunt at all except in glimpses through the mirror. Is she even her aunt or some creepy monster lady hiding itself in there? If you've seen any movie made in the 70s, you'll naturally be suspicious. The house is big and very still and lonesome, quiet enough to make the suffocating tick-tocking of the house in CRIES AND WHISPERS seem like a sock hop; and the Gothic gloom of Adele's situation begins to get to us almost immediately, way more than it does to her. Bronte-esque as she is, Adele just bops along listening to lit FM pop songs on her possibly slightly anachronistic walkman, shopping for auntie's sardines. And... wait, who's that chick?

It's Beth (Quinn Shepherd), rocking a delectable 70s midriff, holding a tell-tale apple and the gaze of a long-haired shop clerk. The two girls strike up a friendship and soon Beth is dropping by the Victorian  mansion and bad influencing Adele into all sorts of things (stealing from the aunt's petty cash, etc.), until it's too late to extract her old persona from the vortex. Not that we want her to, but what's the deal? Who's leading who on? Don't think about it, I won't tell if you just enjoy the eerie vibe Calvo generates using little more than the odd deep shadow--such as the dark, empty nearly Edward Hopper-esque chasm space of the local watering hole.

The 'two opposite female personas melting into one another' artsy subgenre of the 60s-70s (3 WOMEN, PERSONA), the 'wild free spirit helps alienated young wallflower open than tries to kill her and take her place' lesbian thriller (POISON IVY, THE BLACK SWAN); the cautionary mental breakdown after-school 70s special episode ( GO ASK ALICE); the 'is this all a dream of Jane Eyre's crazy attic dweller post-Lewton Victorian Gothic' descent to the underworld; and the cracker factory "distortedly loud ambient sound" am I alive or dead genre (REPULSION (1965)CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1968), LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH)--are all here, deftly blended with Satanic supernatural subdivisions. Fans of 60s-70s feminine psyche horror mind-fuckery like BURNT OFFERINGS (1976), the "A Drop of Water" segment from Bava's BLACK SABBATH (1963), and of course the 1970-72 lesbian vampire 'Carmilla-wave.' and THE SENTINEL will love, as I did, mostly, scenes like the girls' dallying through the graveyard with their brass rubbing materials, peeking in at dead child coffins; their long sapphic gazes; trying on Victorian attic clothes, sneaking a peak into the invalid aunt's room, etc. Calvo touches the touchstones of 70s paranoid feminist horror like he's rounding bases after a grand slam. I hope you didn't consider all that a spoiler. Am I just showing off my vast 70s feminist horror acumen again? 

That said, being able to predict future scares doesn't make them less enjoyable when they come. Rather, there's an almost Godard-esque cross-referencing between disparate sources that made me, for one, yell out the names of referenced films like I was recording the footnote commentary (in ways I hadn't done since SUBMARINE) and annoying my fellow viewer. The erotic story of a beach tryst Beth tells Adele during their getaway is lifted wholesale from PERSONA (1966), which is then seen, briefly, very very briefly, on TV, and further checked via some 'was their lesbian tryst / psychic merge a dream or real?' facial merging (the way it is referenced too in Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE). Things start to get really real when... well, I've said too much.

Beth in bed at the cabin (Note Pazuzu on night table at left)

While these references are really all it has under its sleeve, SWEET fits nicely next to recent work discussed elsewhere in this site, like AMER, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and IT FOLLOWSKISS OF THE DAMNED, THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, and Ann Biller's THE LOVE WITCH. The emerging retro-modernists operate on the principle you've already seen the movies they love, and rather than remaking them or working around them, they incorporate their direct thematic tropes like colors on a palette or a song in the hands of a jazz improviser. Their retro-analog stylistics intensify the melancholy of half-remembered small town suburban isolation, the giddy feeling of renting movies for Halloween parties as kids coupled to the dreamy mixture of after-school special and women's lib horror with sexual awakening pastorales in all the best female-centered horror. In other words, not just the tropes but the love, what drew them to these films. These are labors of love and the sincerest form of flattery, even if in the end, little else besides.

The trying on old clothes in the Victorian attic with a possibly ageless vampire lesbian bit was, I thought, basically over in indie film since all that great Victorian stuff finally fell apart (it lasted much longer than our modern pre-fab shit, which is why there was so much of it still around in the 70s when it would surface in films like Let's Scare Jessica to Death)
If there's not a lot else to add except to once again cite the excellent cinematography by Ryan Parker, who cares? I'll confess, for awhile this seemed more like a cinematographer's demo reel or film school thesis, a kind of Terence Malick of horror, rather than vice versa due to the continued emphasis on gorgeous composition and fading light indoors lit by a single multi-colored lamp, or a rotting pomegranate on a table at night in a thunderstorm, all twisty and alive like a rotting old Dutch master's still-life.

Those who know all the films I've mentioned here should have no problem respecting Calvo's homage as a real film as, for the most part, Calvo quotes his sources like a man, a man who's not afraid of dipping his unmoored eye down into the split-feminine psyche (even the tale of the beach tryst lifted wholesale from PERSONA has an echo--in Godard's lifting Batailles' Story of the Eye for a similar part of WEEKEND). People can argue about men doing split-subject female movies but I think it's natural, and too bad more women don't do the same with men. As of late there's only Kathryn Bigelow, whose HURT LOCKER is still probably the most profound movie about the split masculine psyche since RED RIVER. As per Jung, the unconscious ego/anima of every sane man is an insane woman; all demons are haunted by their inner angel or vice versa. The nature of the universe consists of a weird balancing act of gravitational, everything spinning everything madly around itself on both sub-atomic and macro-galaxial reality level, everything interlocked and reflected so that every Rochester has a madwoman in the attic. Thus, as the enigmatic Beth, Shepherd is both alive/seductive and zombie-like her motives stay shadowy, she's a composite; she not only lifts that sexy beach narrative in Persona but notes the Jane Eyre reference herself. Don't ask questions or you become guilty of listening, but to whom?

If you get your anima to even talk to you at all, you must be either crazy or lucky. Lock her away behind thick Victorian wood and she still passes you empty notes and whispers unintelligible secrets.

The gay or lesbian pair-bond confounds traditional Jungian dialectics, of course. The result is like electric guitar feedback, the creative inner voice looping on itself and drowning out the male ego altogether. One reason men are so drawn to the subject of lesbians in films hinges on this aspect (even more than --as bitter feminists presume--some kinky three-way fantasy) --it's a kind of death-drive freedom to imagine our complete lack of our own presence. We do no factor into the equation. We can't get jealous of another woman. Put a man in there and we wince- now we have competition. Now we must reincarnate. And we were just getting comfortable.

Exiting the film, the Shudder, the TV, it's the truly unnerving work by Wilhelmi that lingers in the mind. With a face that seems at times very old and others like a child, she has a homeschool Heather Graham-ish vulnerable good cheer in the face of utter ambivalence from both mom and aunt we come to admire even if it's a little strange. We wonder how quickly we'd lapse into morose depression in similar circumstances (or maybe already have) so her ability to keep trying, her can-do spirit, however wan, wins us over and then--when she gets slightly bonkers--we realize we're already in too deep to escape. We thought we were escaping via this movie, escaping maybe from other less captivating retro-genre pastiches, like THE VOID. But now, well, we're stuck deep.

The only drawbacks to LONELY GIRL that I can bring to mind are 1) yet another in the decade's apparently inexhaustible joyless HBO-brand rutting smash-cuts to signify a kind of depressed ambivalence (you know the kind, a girl and guy meet for the first time at a tawdry bar and we smash cut to the girl's expressionless face as the dude mechanically ruts at her from behind like some spastic dog; and 2) the Lite FM 70s hits by the likes of Classic IV, Bread (cover), Lobo, and the unfortunately-named Starbuck ("Moonlight Feels Right") which feels kind of like a missed opportunity. Music is so integral to doing these retro films right, and one dreads to imagine similar pop music burdening the amazing analog synth scores of Disasterpiece (IT FOLLOWS), Tom Raybould (THE MACHINE), Dixon and Stein (STRANGER THINGS), Sinoa Caves (BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW), The Gifted (SOUTHBOUND) and so forth. Luckily, the songs aren't the whole thing.  SWEET SWEET LONELY composer Joe Carrano does however rely on overly familiar eerie string sustains and scales, bongos and rattles making one wonder if they weren't secretly culled from some 70s PD cue library. Sound mixing is sometimes totally psychedelic, but the tinkling bell outside the aunt's room should have been a big shock (since she's dead) and instead it's buried under a cascade of piano mashes and stuttering drums and Beth whispering her name close into the mike, "Adele..."

But I'll forgive this final product a lack of point or logic or analog synthesizer with the same generosity as I appreciate the lack of torture porn, imprisonment, MISERY-style sadism, progressive isolation (i.e abuse) or moping, and I do love that it's short (78 minutes or so) and that the photography evoked old 70s 35mm and the way the splitting feminine psyche thematics fit the film's pastiche nature. After all, narrative linear 'sense' is a prison, a phallic male construct. It's not like we learn at the end of VERTIGO whether, for sure, that Jimmy Stewart has been dead all this time from a great Dumpty-ish fall, or this whole story has existed in the span of time it takes for him to let go of the gutter and smash down onto the pavement (like the breaking chimney in Cocteau's BLOOD OF A POET), instead we're left with the difference between a 'twist' like in THE SIXTH SENSE and 'art' like in POINT-BLANK --if you need an answer as to whether Walker is alive or dead at the end of BLANK then man you're a square! He who complains is not artsy - and he who is artsy, um... man,

listen, man. I don't mind, man, that even unto the last frame we're never quite sure--anymore--what is real, and at the very end, one more final reference, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944, below) brings the Val Lewton savvy full fore.

Shudder being worth getting at $4.99 a month is thus affirmed. One wonders just where GIRL might have wound up without it. So often these films get either ignored at the festivals (by distributors who aren't quite sure how to market them), or bought up and then relegated to the shelves for years or changed by studios who demand it make sense or have a point before sinking advertising into it. Shudder is there to do a rare and important job in unearthing the near-gems from the vast fields of shiite, not to say there ain't a shair fare of that at Shudder too. But I take odd comfort in their existence. In our loneliness and despair, the devil sent classic horror fans a friend. Whether or not this sweet, sweet lonely girl is real or just a homicidal amalgam of past images, reflections and hazy memories, riffs on photos both still and in motion, we'll never know... but that's just how it's gonna have to be. Times change either way. We've never gotten anything without losing something else. That's just progress, the diligent labors of gravity, weather, and worms.

1. for my curated list of cool retro-analog synth scores from 2015-16, have Spotify and go here.
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