Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ride the Snake: Boris Karloff's HEART OF DARKNESS (1957)

Recently discovered hiding deep in the Amazon Prime--an interior so vast and tangled one never knows what serpent jewel is coiled below the most innocent flower thumbnail cover: a 1958 TV adaptation of Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS starring Boris Karloff as Kurtz. For fan of both the actor and the tale, it's quite a find: Archetypal, potent, pungent, primitive in every definition of the word (picture quality as savage as the setting), acted in a kind of beatnik cafe dream poetry shorthand, following streams far indeed from Conrad's estuary, it nonetheless sings the masculine psyche electric, turning the journey of Marlow upriver to Kurtz into a kind boy's life anti-colonialist/pro-incest version of Alice in Wonderland performed by the residents of some remote mental institution. Some might consider it unwatchable due to terrible image quality and stagy overacting, but for those of us "in the know," one look into Boris Karloff's wild eyes as he dances around shirtless in a jungle leaf crown while a circle of cannibals thump on drums, shake skull rattles, stab goats, and wiggle long feather or vine skirts that look up close in the unshaded video quality like fire (or radar-jamming window), and we know we're home. Add a shirtless wild-eyed Roddy McDowell as Marlow, demanding the whip and being branded with a hot "K", feeding off Karloff's crazy energy, matching his performance art hysteria note for note, like Page and Plant dueling high notes in "Dazed and Confused" coupled to a family trying to be heard on the tarmac of a busy airport. "I celebrate my cruelty!," they shout. "I celebrate my hatred!" Been there, bro. I hereby claim this HEART as wild and true. "I celebrate my lust!"

I celebrate the generosity of Amazon Prime and this great deal they seem to have made with 'Sprockets,' a vast library of long-neglected (unrestored) exploitation movies from the 50s-70s, many of them too damaged to even be on a Something Weird compilation. I celebrate thegenius of mixing the potted plant jungle lurid sadism and miscegenation fantasy of Kongo, and White Woman with O'Neill's folk play existentialism (Emperor Jones), undergraduate avant garde theatricality (ala the old Pratt Institutionalized Theater, here) ans Greek-myth analyst-couch bird-swarm beach-boy maenad rending ala Tennessee Williams / Hitchcock. I celebrate its Shavian satire, Kafka-esque existentialism, Maugham 'Victorian morality dissolving in the jungle heat'-ism, and bounty of expressionist dream poem segues. Honey, this isn't the Congo of Conrad, with its observed landscape and anthropological detail, but an inner Oz for sexually repressed British sailors desperately praying away their incestuous desires. And no matter how intense things get, the magic coins in Marlow's pocket --like ruby slippers--whisks him home as fast as Thorazine.

I'll confess, growing up watching Shelly Duvall's Fairy Tale Theater with my parents, then studying Jung in college, (and finding magic doorways to weird worlds outside of class), have perhaps left predisposed me to love something as woebegone as this old Heart. It's similar to the way I love The Love Witch or Valerie and her Week of Wonders, or Lemorra: A child's Tale of the Supernatural. I love the Disney fairy tales too, but they're so well done we don't get the ceremonial magick element so much, the Brechtian disconnect that lets you think hmm next year maybe I'll ask to play the Wicked Son, or witch, or the God of spring harvest. If you love any of those three--which get too the surreal element of dreams -which often appear slightly 'off'-- then you might cotton to this which is like the repressed hammy male version of those fairy tale sagas, only it's more a reflection of going off to college and having your first acid trip and orgiastic sex experience in the same night and feeling like you just opened up from a black and white shell to a prismatic butterfly of awakened transdimensional sanity - only here it's all black and white and scuzzy forever, the basement mythic landscape of the 1933 Paramount live action Alice (see: Reeling and Writhing) rather than the Technicolor Disney. It's expecting the good father (the absent/dead father is always good), and finding instead the primal father, the jungle devolving him along a mythic reverse axis, from Zeus back to Cronus, from color to black and white, from HD to fuzzy primordial analog signal, bounced across to dupes of time like a leaden skipping stone.

Subtle, pretty color shit wouldn't work in this jungle --dreams are often in black and white anyway, and of poor quality image-wise, as your third eye antenna can't always get a good picture. I can handle poor quality black and white much better than poor quality color, which tends to be washed out and depressing. In this case the rough signal works: there's an Everclear-smudge stained charcoal sketch madness at play in the images here, brought out by the ancient tape artifacts (the grayscale has become... unsound). The weird distortions and deep black outlining give it all a ghostly inked-in appearance as if from some spy camera left in a cavern on the moon crossed with a smudgy courtroom sketch witnessed by a drunk suffering the DTs being wheeled into the psych ward down the hall, seeing the image trail onto the white walls. The result of it all is neither TV as we know it today nor off Broadway theater nor beatnik theater troupe improv, but a mix of all three as if witnessed by another planet. Maybe its far-away residents are viewing it right now, sixty odd light years away (it was broadcast in 1958 as part of Playhouse 90) as the first sign of life outside their own solar system. Enthralled alien anthropologists will wonder whether this is some ritualistic indigenous ceremony, a filmed inauguration, live, like an Olympics ceremony, re-enacting of ancient rites, on ancient video equipment, as valuable a relic as cave drawings or Sumerian tablets, or just crappy TV. That initiation rites from boy to man are such a key part of all indigenous tribe mythologies and so absent from our own (outside of the military), surely says something when dealing with our national crisis of arrested male development. We don't televise wild initiations into the terrors of the unconscious self, but we should. After all, like any other televised event, it's all a show.

As in the Off-Off Broadway dream poetry tradition, scenes in this Heart of Darkness are connected by childhood nursery rhymes ("Bobby Shafto's / gone to sea"), further making this all seem like a long LSD trip back in the day when it was legal and done on a psychiatrist's couch surrounded by giant potted African fronds. Maybe the sound of children playing outside the shrink's window became like tribal chanting reflecting the ebb and flow of inner psychosis, the old neuroses dissolving off the patient's soul like a serpent's old skin. It the skin isn't shed, a very bad trip can result, as it does for a long while with Marlow. McDowell's repressed and unhinged character, in refusing to open himself to his sister's carnal desire, becomes a hurricane eye around which scenes revolve in ever tighter loops of madness. Each meeting gets weirder, slowly peeling his 'false Buddhist' monk robe skin off until all that's left is wild overacting, shirtless, bug-eyed, and cracking a whip to keep time.

Starting with a ship's hold wherein he's forced to crush a rat in his bare hands (like salty shipmates always be making faux-Buddhists do), through to his returning home alive and reborn to his lady love/sister Maria (Inga Swenson), McDowell's acting is either terrible or brilliant or both, holding the whole thing together with a kind of magical foot-to-the-gas madness as Marlow, reminding me how deft, charismatic and hilarious he was as Tuesday Weld's manager in Lord Love a Duck (there, as here, never stealing a scene but rather using and reflecting the energy of the actors around him, then mirroring it back and raising it again, forming a slow burn duel of ham mania).

Inga Swenson's Nordic alien DNA captured via early TV signal
being non-receptive to the alien cover signal (as seen in THEY LIVE)
Indeed in addition to the Conrad text (we do get some of the original dialogue, including "the horror, the horror", there's almost a greatest hits of dissolving theatrical sanity going on. For example, when we first meet Maria, she's running drunk and barefoot through the snow trying to join a throng of passing holiday carolers, conjuring an array of booze and/or loneliness-wracked Tennessee Williams heroines ranging from the Glass Menagerie all the way up to The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone ("I have to keep reminding myself you're my brother," she purrs after a long welcome home kiss on Marlow's neck).  Marlow feels compelled to run off and find Kurtz (her dad / his guardian) for guidance before he winds up in bed with his own adopted sister. Before he leaves, Maria gives him some coins for the bus home, and they become his magical talisman, the breadcrumb trail, ruby slipper. It seems rather forced but it does reflect the realization pulsing through the production that this mythic freestyle, not a faithful adaptation of the text, there's a parallel in the psychedelic trip, i.e. Thorazine or--failing that--a Xanax, or--failing that--lots of alcohol or Nyquil. "Pull the string!" The rip cord, the umbilical deep sea diver oxygen line.

The rest of the film is a progression of weird archetypal energies: a 'Before the Law'-esque wife of a disappeared trading company envoy; a blind 'crone' (Cathleen Nesbitt - left) in Queen Victoria /Virgin Mary headdress, signs Marlow up while loudly encouraging him to also join "The Society for the Repression of Savage Custom"; the company doctor (Oscar Homolka - below) measuring his skull against those of previous trading company representatives for comparison (he thinks head size changes after "you go out there to that frenzy, that solitude, that swamp of obscene temptation where there's no policeman, where no voice of a kind neighbor can whisper a public opinion, (ala "don't touch the B in room 237");  pushed through a closet door of the trading post, Marlow winds up in the jungle where a cannibal boy almost bites his finger off, and the weird dark energy begins to really congeal.

Again, the transitions are telling in capturing the beatnik theatricality at the heart of darkness and psychedelic transfiguration: Homolka pushes Marlow through a door into what seems like a storage closet but is actually the jungle, so that Homolka and the old woman seem to be looking at him down in the bush from the safety of a small window in a tree, like parents dumping their freshman son out of a passing car onto the campus lawn at the start of fall semester.

Now, in the jungle, things devolve quick: cannibals almost eat him alive before he's saved by the estimable Mr. Robertson (Richard Haydn), the Trading Company 'accountant.' The complete opposite of repressed Marlow, and without a shred of the humanity of the earlier characters, Robertson has embraced the moral twilight and encourages Marlow to do the same: "I don't judge anything, so I don't suffer." Whipping natives to ease his aggravation, he tries to offer Marlow a chance to get out his aggression with a proffered whip, and notes that he'll have to whip the native slaves all the way back inland to Kurtz's compound anyway, that he should give into the madness of the place, but Marlow--his resolve ever weakening--cannot, refusing even a Pim's cup with homegrown cucumber. We can feel the ghost of W.S. Burroughs stir sluggishly like an opium ghost in our bloodstream with the appearance of this Benway-esque character: "No drinking, no violence - you're really quite an example of something or other aren't you?" he says. Assuring Marlow, he has nothing but admiration for Kurtz's methods in dealing with his cannibal slaves ("he sends them off all fat and saucy with a meal of two-legged pig, which I think is a charming way of describing what they eat. [1]"), Robertson is our first example of a man who's kept his British detachment by surrendering fully to the madness of the place. Marlow cannot, he'd rather hang the chain on himself and beg to be whipped like an anguished penitent.  He's combusting from the inside out, being devoured by the Congo, while Robertson isn't even bothered by flies. 

Eartha Kitt (left) shows up as Kurtz's silken feline queen. Named her Maria, as are all Kurtz's women so named, reflecting his incestuous obsession (the Elektra complex of the 'gentlemen's agreement' relationship between the three of them) she's ordered to get the coins from him, as if a holy grail relic that frees him from Kurtz's trap.

Of course in this surrealism-on-the sleeve riffing, it's not necessary to glean whether or not there's actual incest or desire between Kurtz and his daughter --this is pure psychosexual dream theater, laying its surrealistic tells far more bluntly than Conrad, there's no time for subtlety. Writer Stewart Stern clearly uses the source text as diving board rather than a podium, he's interested in reaching certain deep Medea / devouring mothers, hoping for coins tossed in by long ago Phoenician sailors, swallowed by the depths of the Kali-tentacled maternal behemoth. It's Conrad the way Coltrane's "Favorite Things" is Rogers and Hammerstein.

As we get closer and closer upriver to Kurtz the mythic resonance gets more and more abstract, the acting hammier, the jungle--blurred and outlined by the primitive video--more and more stage-like. When we finally do get to Karloff's Kurtz, his eyes are wild - sticking through the sludge of the image, fitting perfectly the madness of his character. His features are hideously distorted and blurred, like the final freeze frame of James Caan victorious and subhuman in Rollerball, or a Francis Bacon portrait that's been left out in the rain. The lines between his teeth as defined and black as if he's been brushing with charcoal, eyes bugging, flanked by leopard skin doubling as shotgun holes through copper plates he's a scarier children's book monster than Maurice Sendak could e'er imagine.

And putting other Kurtz's to shame (Welles' radio show version included, Brando of course being the worst), Karloff seizes the chance to really ham it to the rafters and thank god he did, for anything less would have been lost in the splotchy Bacon/rain/Caan smudginess of the distorted video image. As it is, both his and Roddy's eyes--seemingly outlined in black magic marker--really pop out, like mad scientists in the peak of a DOM trip, that bold 13-hour mouth at the froth from which no traveler returns without a jingling secret pocket Xanax ("welcome to Annexia") silver bullet for the Emperor Jones' William Tell routine.

It's worth comparing this adaptation alongside two other mythopoetically dense Stern screenplays: Rebel without a Cause (for Nicholas Ray) and The Last Movie (for Ray's friend Dennis Hopper) there's the fascination in all three scripts with: ceremonial rites (Rebel's chickee run off the cliff; the way the locals in Movie actually hurting each other in literalized imitation of the stuntmen in their village); and the terror conjured by a sexually voracious female on the male psyche (Natalie Wood's daddy issues; Julia Adams in Last Movie). That last theme is turned into a fairy tale magic talisman for both Kurtz in Marlow, both the impetus for their escape to the Congo and the magic key for their return. The yearning of voracious, unbalanced Maria reaches out to both men at all times, holding them in a loose orbit around her via symbolic totems: the coins for Marlow, her portrait medallion on the bare chest of Kurtz (like a pagan charm -her image becomes the yin in the center of all this frantic performance art yang). They are both driven to flee home to escape her, only to find representatives with her same name (the queen). Their pronouncement "I celebrate my lust!"-- in conjunction with the talk of 'cutting loose' in a land far from the prying eyes of puritanical neighbors--serves as a reminder that the 'repression of savage instincts abroad' (as in the Puritans, Rev. Davison in Rain) always devolves into sex tourism: "Behold my surrender! Behold my marriage with abomination!" Marlow snaps the whip and Kurtz leads the chant, the drums pound, the flames heating the "K" brand and the wiggling feather/taffeta skirts and headdresses all overlap and become one blurry rain of braided energy. The way the natives clatter their homemade percussion instruments and wave their crude knives evokes Suddenly Last Summer (released the same year), the rending beaks and claws of The Birds rending the children as per Mrs. Brenner's unconscious bidding, just as the beach boys render Sebastian as per Violet Venable's (rather than let him enjoy one summer out from under her wing). Kurtz represents the male equivalent of this Madea/ devouring mother, he's the primal father writ large- mirroring our modern cult leaders like David Koresh or Jim Jones, preferring to wipe out his flock rather than be taken back to civilization, ruling with violence and keeping all the women to himself, like a lion.

I should note that as with the source text, there's a rampant racism at work here: all the African natives--except the Queen--are depicted as savage childlike cannibals, who respect only brute force (the whip). But we should remember that this jungle is in the mind of a repressed virgin who's never been there and so projected his id onto it. Well, isn't that what racism is, you say? True, it's evil, I retort, but it's even a theme of the play that only by expressing this evil, owning it, can we exorcise it. It's in celebrating his evil and his lust that Marlow frees himself from its toxic grip, at least enough to breathe, and to give himself a hug (above), his dilated pupils looking up towards the finally revealed heaven. In owning it, it's repressive force is spent, like a Nerf ball held under water by the feet while idling in the pool - let go and it shoots up to the top, but then it's just there, a mere floatation device. The last thing that would suit Marlow's character is to get all preachy and self-righteously racial activist. What can white authors know of blackness? To try and Stanley Kramer it up would kill the larger-than-life messiness of myth. Myth needs to be neither believable nor logical, true or safe, (nor -as here - even in focus or frame), PC or un-PC, what it needs to do is resonate below the line of consciousness, become truer than truth can reach, provide a kind of trap door access to the basement of the mind, to open up the vents and allow for temperature equilibrium across all the floors of the house. Just as the African tribe surrounding Kurtz use ceremonial masks to reflect their demons rather than hide them, this primitive TV broadcast of Heart of Darkness spews forth an admission of evil and in the process exorcises it.

That's why it helps in a way too that this is so poor and overwrought --the totemic demon mask need not seem real, but almost something to laugh at, a cathartic confession rather than denial, the head of Medusa reflected in the Perseus shield of satire. So let us celebrate our evil and above all celebrate the ability to cherish weird-ass shit like Playhouse 60's Heart of Darkness, celebrate a humanity that could allow this dark plumming of its darkest depths, the bravery in going--as my friends and I used to say--"for distance" rather than polish, decorum and linear clarity, for riding the snake rather than scorching it in terror or catching it for a terrarium. Now our live TV events are tepid musical remakes of movies, as toothless as a long-caged rheumy lion. We won't see the like of rough unhinged dream theater 'interpretations' like this Heart again, outside perhaps of "Le Bad Theater" on SNL reruns (2) and we will continue to suffer for its absence, just as the lack of male initiation trauma (3) it depicts inevitably outs in everything from school shootings, alt-right trolling, and all the other sad last ditch gasps of boys who never found their hideous dark father's compound and so never saw the sad end game of their own dark hypocrisy, or tasted the ecstasy of being shred to bits by a thousand little beaks.

"even the jungle wanted him dead"
It's also on youtube!

1. "two-legged pig" also known as "long pig" =  human flesh. 
2.  though there was a TV movie version in 1993 with John Malkovich and Tim Roth,  it was too sunny and realistic, faithful to the text to the point of sterility.
3. Initiation rites do exist in some organizations but outside of, say, the Navy Seals, they lack sufficient trauma for true change - as the agony of child birth makes a mother of a woman, the agony of the initiation rite 'second' birth makes a boy a man. No pain, no gain is no gym mantra but, sadly, at the core of all human maturity. Not that I want to go there, anymore than I already have.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Square in the Maenads: 68 KILL

Trent Haaga's darker-than-black noir comedy posits, early on, that even within the cartoonish, exaggerated post-grindhouse-fueled Alamo Drafthouse-bound renegade spirit popularized in the mid-90s by Tarantino, and Rodriguez--there are bounds not to be crossed. Even for characters who--like the assassins of Banquo---are so incensed by the vile blows and buffets of the world they are reckless what they do. For a hard-working squaresville lovestruck septic man Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler), roped by crazy hottie girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord) into robbing one of her johns (of $68,000), it comes fairly early on, but... wait. I can't say more, for to spoil even one twist or turn on this wild ride is to lessen its blunt force impact. Suffice it to say, for we fans of strong assertive women (those who score along the Hawks-Russ Meyer carnal spectrum rather than the 'strong-willed mother' Ford-Spielberg curve)  this bonanza of badassery is, especially in the time of plunging markets and collapsing governments, something we desperately need. Why wait for a woman to be harassed and abused enough that she finally pulls a gun or a knife and goes on a vengeance spree? That, to me, is sexist, inferring a woman needs a man's cruelty to light her inner bomb's fuse. Yes, let merely seeing the combination when your john opens the safe suffice as a sufficient excuse for unleashing your inner maenad.

Liza with her weird brother Dwayne (Sam Eidson)

When I was around four or five, I was briefly obsessed with the cartoon SPEED RACER, not because I loved it but because I hated the good guy, 'Speed', and hated his stupid monkey and sidekick and the ridiculous striped caps. I always thought it so unfair that the cooler bad guys (always in cool black shades) never won a single goddamned race. Every day I'd await it on afternoon TV, sure that this one time the bad guys would win. Weeks spread into months, and my frustration grew. Finally my mom explained the terrible truth. I felt sick to my stomach about how foolish I had been. It was fixed.

I mention that to explain the euphoria that overtook audiences, 25 or so years later, when the outlaws of True Romance, Bound, The Last Seduction, Natural Born Killers,, Pulp Fiction all were surviving past the credits, often with their masterful crimes going rewarded. Beloved 80s-early 90s crime characters like Al's Scarface, Baldwin in Miami Blues, Thelma and Louise, and Walken's King of New York no longer had to die at the end. It's not just that crime was paying, it was that the schmucks on the other side of the thin blue line were losing. It was a victory not only for crime but for the haters of cliche, and for a certain kind of blind obedience to 'rules' that says we in the audience are too stupid to get that this is all just a movie, that 'rooting' for bad guys will make us bad. There's a respect for the audience inherent in the low bar sense of morality we find in 68 Kill, it's the same kind of respect that allowed Don Rickles to insult audiences for half a century. He trusted you felt the love in his heart, that it was a joke, that you weren't going to shoot him in the parking lot.

We don't get that vibe so much anymore - we're too crushed up in PC remorse--all our big screen killers tend to be pedophile shadow people, gender a prison that destroys across generations-- it's depressing. Crime has lost its sexy bubble gun snap. We had Spring Breakers a few years back, and occasionally a Tarantino film, but where can badass alpha bitch psycho monster hotties go to unfurl their random violent urge flags these days, I mean really unfurl them? Where can an actress really breathe larger-than-life malevolence? There was a villainess in Wonder Woman but she's just a love-starved, disfigured French chemist gone awry. Where is the Kali archetype? The Red Queen? Where is the Catwoman who revels in her diabolism the way Julie Newmar used to, rather than morosely doing what she does to help her sister, or exonerate her record, or help some blind nephew go to Juilliard or something. Where are the Bridget Gregorys, the Tura Satanas? We've been needing some since the 90s.

Finally, they're here.

Played with eyes wild by AnnaLynne McCord, Liza is a super confident, cash-hungry predator with a wild lion's mane and wild psycho attitude that's all the better for being underplayed rather than hammed up. She savors the death rattles of her victims rather innocently (Chip's boss notes he saw her pull a knife on a guy after a lap dance for not leaving her a tip) but seems to actually care about him, to forgive him his trespasses, to look forward to taking him out for a wild flight from Dodge with a stolen bankroll and maybe finally use the "L" word. In her uninhibitedly sexual and violent way she could be who either Vanessa Hudgens or Ashley Benson from Spring Breakers grow into if they drop out of college and move inland to continue their life of sex and violent crime, becoming more and more nympho-homicidal, taking in cute lost puppy boyfriends who lack the spine to stand up for themselves. Evoking the composed beauty of the femme fatales in The Last Seduction, GirlyGun Crazy (or more recently, Amber Heard in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and Machete Kills), with the stripper-gone-legitimately-wild carnality of one of the go-go dancing drag stripper threesome in Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Liza is a keeper you'll want to bring home to terrorize mom with, or at least savor her every line of dialogue over multiple viewings.

And she's only one of a whole parade of amok, strong female alpha bitches to come: the hostage Violet (Alisha Boe) who lures Chip into a playful team sing-a-long to "Pop Pop / Pop Music", and later Sheila Vand (the lead in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) as the psychotic emo chick Monica, the cooler-than-thou deadpan gravel-voiced punk alpha bitch ringleader of a small meth and prostitution and whatever else gang of trailer-dwelling nutcases, including great turns by Hallie Grace Bradley [who dryly impels Chip to go down on her in back of the convenience store in exchange for information], and Lucy Faust as an expertly cackling young tweaker called Skinny. Vand's Monica is so good with that low register druggy southern drawl it's like she talks and moves via an inner green slime-soaked slinky tied to a high voltage electric hum. She alone would make the film a must. And like every other girl in the film, she can't resist messing with Chip's squaresville puppydog mind. 

We may roll our eyes at his cluelessness, may wonder how he can take so many golf club swings to the head but still keep most of his teeth and eye sockets, but it's because despite our jaded grindhouse attitude, we feel his wide-eyed agog rapture for Liza, how golden and irresistible her skin is in the morning light as she sleeps, sun sifting through the colors of their head shop tapestry curtain; even her teeth are gleaming perfect (1); feel his rage and confusion, ever out of his depth and suggestible, but unlike other fall guys Chip's been compared to, like Jeff Daniels in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, whimpering to get back to his normal banal life, or the intolerably smarmy Griffin Dunne in Scorseses's After Hours we don't consider his squeamishness cowardice but a mix of human conscience grinding gears with his smitten rapture over Liza. He's the part usually played by a good, strong working woman in a Warren William pre-code.  Happy as can be with his (literal) shit job, since it means coming home to Liza every night. But once compelled onto this midnight soujurn, he works up courage by the ounce through a furious winding up pitch style revving. He may run and may try to fight for humane interests, but he's also never in control. Every girl another ounce of sweet kryptonite. Love struck by nearly every set of female eyes (or other parts) he sees, the only thing saving him from the last femme fatale is the one waiting around the next bend.

That's why it's so important that 68 Kill (terrible name, great movie) came out the same year as Wonder Woman, The Beguiled, Lady Bird, and The Love Witch. It's like 1994 all over again but the women don't have to even be sociopaths to conquer the terrain. Now they do it so surefootedly it's like all of feminism up to now have been as little effeminate third wave 'ehheh' cough. 68 Kill is like the dirty kick undercurrent to all that. Like Rob Zombie, writer-director Haaga grew up in a trailer park, and it shows, not in a bad way, but in a way that captures the scuzzy low-fi vividness of the scene without our eyes feeling soiled and weary. Haaga got his start writing stuff (and I use the word loosely) like Citizen Toxie, so you know he knows how to deliver thrills far outside the morality-taste spectrum that so blandifies his fellows, and despite its incalculable darkness 68 Kill has a fun summery feel that says oh, lighten up Scott Tobias! (2) We're not in 'reality.' We're through the grindhouse mirror spectrum, where the colors are a little more vibrant (it looks like it was shot on actual 35mm film with popping colors and super rich flesh tones).  The score by Frank Ilfman and James Griffiths uses all sorts of twangy guitars and rumbling synths to evoke both the sunny Robert Rodriguez / True Romance past and the industrial future -it's not the most original thing in the world, but it evokes all the right past motifs: some dashes of guitar echo swamp haze, and a sense of love and joyful innocence ever fit to be drowned in a murderous industrial saw mill sea.

Either way,  if a trailer park in every neighborhood in the coming disaster-stricken country of ours means more crime movies like 68 Kill. I can only trust the fourth wave will recognize the strength behind its crudity rather than get so pious it drowns the neighborhood with the bathwater. For remember: to paraphrase Nigel Tuffnel, when a man sexually abuses a woman, that's sexist, when a woman does it to a man - that's awesome. Maybe that's not being honest about real female personae, but this is the movies, man.  It's just drag. We can let our hair down here. We used to be adults...

NOTES: with Rob Zombie's similarly comic-grotesque Devil's Rejects, the big give-away that these are actors, not real trailer trash, is their perfect teeth; but I think I speak for everyone when I say, thank heaven Rob let that detail go unfixed
2. If you check out RT or wheveer, a blurb from him pops up calling it nearly a de facto remake of After Hours [that] keeps the hostility and loses the self-deprecation, which turns it into an example of misogyny rather than an examination of it.  But Scott, your implying Scorsese's film isn't misogynist, which is absurd. Go look amongst thy Scorsese discs for a real live alpha bitch and see how far ya get. PS- Sharon Stone in Casino don't count (loud does not equal strong). But the ladies of Hagga-ville? I'm more worried about the fate of their drugs. Those poor suckers never had a chance.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Ballin' the Jacks: TRUCK STOP WOMEN (1974)

Fans of high-energy strong female-filled crime films from the 60s and 70s by guys like John Flynn and Arthur Marks will rejoice to note that--slipping unobtrusively onto Amazon Prime after being unavailable on DVD for.... ever... rolls-- Truck-Stop Women (1974). One of the better films from long-working Mark L. Lester (Class of 1984), it featuring the always alluring--taken from this world too damn soon--Claudia Jennings in one of her best roles. It's a four-pull on the air horn hoot with everyone doing their best to deliver more than a mere exploitation truck stop movie, but not too much more than that. After all, it has no interest in pulling off the highway of cheap goofy asphalt thrills into anywhere except a bed with a two-timing hijacker-prostitute of the open road. This ain't your grandma's Mildred Pierce, honey. I'll tell ya what it is is, thoughmatriarchal tale of a matriarchal dynasty with a powerhouse mom is Anna (Lieux Dressler) so sassy-crafty as the owner/manager/big boss madame of a remote New Mexico truck stop / diner / motel / brothel / hijacking ring, she makes Joan Crawford seem like a dandy fop. Presiding over a loyal assortment of button men, mechanics, and good ole gal waitress/load hijackin' prostitutes, Anna's operation running so smoothly there wouldn't be even a story except that her long-stable mob connection out in Vegas has been shot, and her territory is now up for grabs. She can handle that, but she has one fatal flaw: her no-good triple-timin' daughter Rose (Jennings) who's mighty tired of life as momma's main hooker/hijacker.

Jennings is so good here it makes it all the sadder to realize she'd be dead in just five years, in an accident off the Pacific Coast Highway (at age 30). Here, as Rose, it's her eagerness to betray momma that sets the whole criminal empire off its axis. With a cunning glee that stacks her up with your average primo Russ Meyer vixen, she links up with a mafia-dispatched goodfella "Smith" (John Martino) and his candy-mackin' thug, as a combination hostage, conspirator, and lover. And each side--Anna's and Smith's--start scheming to steal from the stealers when word leaks out about a hijackable load of stolen securities stashed in the back of a cattle truck roaring past in a few days. Anna would rather not rob from the mob, but what else can she do? that money is earmarked for the muscle that would rub her out of business. It all hinges on who knows what and whether their dumb enough to tell Rose. Does she even know? Certainly we don't. This is a movie that plays--like a matriarchal version of The Godfather--all its cards pretty close to the vest. We're dealing with levels of intelligence and subtlety far higher than we're used to in shit like this.

Feminist Side Note: sure, Truck-Stop Women is--on the surface--crassly exploitative (my original post title was "Jennings balls the Jack" or variations, but I toned it down as I got scared of being tarred by what is at the moment a pretty wide-swingin' brush) and there are objectionable montages of uninhibited back-of-the-cab balling and jacking, and leering. But I'd argue that compared to things that do get a pass from a lot of feminists, like Game of Thrones or American Pie, I'd stick up for this movie, and the cult of the Jennings, any day. Don't forget there are as many middle age working gal side characters as buxom hotties here, and the most complex character in the bunch is Annie, a woman of advancing years with bad teeth, fake hair, and a larger than life, uneducated but way street smart savvy that makes her all the more dangerous for knowing how to maximize all the advantages of being labeled a lady. I may sound like I'm justifying old school sexism but as I'll be mansplaining in future (or past) posts, babes like Claudia Jennings, Tiffany Bolling and Pam Grier all showed there's a kind of sexy feminism at work in some of the movies from this era I wouldn't advise you to try and demonize along with the surrounding dirty bathwater, because then even I, your longtime fourth-wave supporter, will turn on you like you've gone rabid. Or I maybe by then I too will have, and we can roam the countryside eating the locals like in I Drink Your Blood.  (End Side Note)

But what makes Truck Stop work so well isn't just the impressively high-stakes in-a-low-way plot but the ingeniously-staged, earthy crowded diner scenes at Annie's truck stop. The joint is humming with interlocking life and there's a great, vivid sense of people coming and going, eating, propositioning, overhearing, coffee refilling, sleeping and scheming, at all hours of the night and early dawn. We feel like we really get a full lay of the land there, that it's really a place, a kind of paradise of vice, where the motel rooms all have secret cameras so Annie can watch her ladies work (including Russ Meyer regular Uschi Dugart) and listen in while they pump the drivers for information on their trailer manifest (i.e. what to hijack later). And what chance to these guys have? Consider Curly (Dennis Filmple above), a lower level Anna employee, trying to hold back information from Rose while ostensibly keeping her under wraps in a motel room. He's going to tell her everything, sure, but did Annie presume that would happen? How many layers deep does this go?

That's the issue - so many of the big trucker movie productions, like Burt Reynold's Smokey and the Bandit or Eastwood's Every Which Way But Loose, presume both the characters depicted and their film's target demographic, are really, really dumb. Everything is so broad and overstated, the idea being the more of an uneducated yokel you are, the fewer things you get to feel superior to, therefore you love any film (or TV show, as evinced so well today) that lets you feel like a relative genius. But the characters here are no idiots. Lester lets them shine with levels of devious Russian doll plotting craftiness worthy of a Corleone.

Speaking of which, the actor playing 'Smith,' John Martino, should be recognizable as one of Clemenza's button men in the first Godfather. He brings far more wit and character than you'd expect, even earning our sympathy in spots, and has some great chemistry with Jennings. Each actor knows just how to play the scene and each other. There's a magical scene in their motel room together in the morning, getting dressed and drinking tumblers of whiskey, and we realize there is maybe no difference between acting smitten for a (criminal) purpose and being smitten for real with a criminal. The actors both convey this complexly cross-hatched devious/ developing love/respect without ever tipping their hands to us or each other. Love and trust and sex come built in with a certain element of performance and possible betrayal and--aside from the thing between Connery's Bond and Luciana Paluzzi's Fiona Volpe in Thunderball--it's hard to remember a post-coitus dressing/drinking/nuzzilng scene so full of commingled warmth and danger, as either side could plunge a knife into the other at any second, even though they just hooked up. It's a true meeting of equals--and you believe he really does dig Rose. Who wouldn't? Jennings, sublime in all these scenes, really lets loose with all teeth and both hands, freely heaping abuse on his gross candy bar-eating trigger man as much as she kittens it up with Smith.

The third great element is the roster of great supporting cast of tough-as-nails women, longtime Anna employees, and their grizzled trucker friends, co-workers and off-on-the-road-again boyfriends, all of whom add a layer of real rootsy Americana sadness that hangs in the wee-wee hours of dawn (reminding me of the opening scenes of Some Came Running. That's not to say it's not Tarantino-by-Russ Meyer-esque grindhouse to its core, especially the scene where Anna pulls Rose out of Smith's pool room, kicking and screaming, throwing Rose over her shoulder like a bag of laundry. From there, an elaborate series of double cross counter-moves goes on, and if you're as left in the dark as I was as to who's got what plan underneath the other plan or why they're all meeting at a ghost town to split up the loot, well, who cares? It's nice to not be six steps ahead of the characters for once. Sure it ends tragically. You forgot it's a matriarchal truck stop hijacking/prostitution ring version of Shakespeare / Mildred Pierce? Crime doesn't pay - but it sure pays well until then.

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