Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Six Dope Analog Sci-fi Nugs (1978-87) Now Streaming on Prime


Biiitch, and I mean you youngsters, you're all spoiled with your blah blah, but (cranky presuppository position insert), back in the day all we had was STAR WARS, and its special effects were analog - the ships were made with model airplane parts; the stars were made by poking pins through black felt and shining a light behind it. Child, we made everything ourselves, high as shit on Testors fumes circulating in our D&D dungeons. Computer Graphics were still at the Pong-stage. Atari was just giant pixels floating around. Life in space was tactile. And anyway, the big problem with STAR WARS? Just one woman in the whole thing. It was crush on Carrie or get lost. Corman and New World and the Italians, watching the box office from the wings, they knew - add more babes with guns, scrap the John Williams pomp, crank up the jams, let fly. 

Often maligned as imitations by us pre-teen virgin nerd film snobs at the time, today these scrappy influence-gathering sci-fi pack rats glow anew, and for a very simple reason: their tactile analog special effects, 35mm film and solid HD restoration bring us the vivid tactility, deep colors and film grain so lost in modern movies (mostly) and which we never saw in these films original pan and scan VHS versions.  Italian import films especially can look like shit on pan and scan as their directors make full use of widescreen for their imagined drive-in audience's windshield. Now with restored HD colors and anamorphic widescreen on a solid HD TV with deep blacks (like my beloved Sony Bravia), oh my my my! 


1. SPACEHUNTER: 
ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE
(1983) Dir Lamont Johnson 
*** / Amazon Image - A+

Time and widening sharpening HD video has been especially kind to this weird fusion of elaborate junkyard art design and middling everything else. What was once just another blatant PG blender-pureed Star Wars Road Warrior virgin cocktail (Molly Ringwald as the semi-feral ragamuffin- her red hair niftily color-coordinated with her dirty clothes) now beguiles and corrupts. Filmed in 3D (as the plethora of things flying right at the camera will confirm), it holds up better in 2D now that the whole (wide, anamorphic) screen is visible (the reviews at the time pointed out that with the 3D glasses it was too dark - and indeed there is a lot of shadow and night/twilight scenes that probably got lost in 3D or on pan and scan home video). I guess that means no more being a 16 year-old smartass bemoaning seeing his beloved Road Warrior wasteland besmirched with a PG rating, terrible cropping, and a bratty redheaded tomboy (at least she didn't have an 80s perm).

The plot is a bounty hunter free spirit on a rescue mission to a wild wild planet (virtuous maids held captive by a slavering bandit chief in a big metal rig as he's all crippled by his own lascivious evil). Peter Strauss is the mercenary; his assistant is a cute girl who's killed in the first big firefight after the hostages are whisked away by crazy glider hooks (a very cool stunt!).  Now it's personal, he's going into the Forbidden Zone to get those girls. His particular set of skills includes acting scruffy and rouge-ish, Han Solo meets Mad Max. But Peter Strauss may not be Harrison Ford, or even Christopher George, but he is in the league of, say, Andrew Prine, and sometimes Prine is enough.

Still, it's the spectacularly termite-detailed art direction that makes it work. Cars are immaculately dirty and surreal; the sail -(wind powered)-trains are life size and move on actual railroad tracks; the hang gliders swoop down and capture people in low hanging talon attachments - not models but real life (invisible wires etc); characters show up out of nowhere on roofed circular motorcycles; a barrage of deflated Michelin man-style blubber people come sliding obscenely forth from hanging cocoons; big trippy neon tunnels suck soul energy; and--the big highlight climax--Molly Ringwald is thrown into the pit to try and survive an obstacle course spring-activated buzz saws, spikes, whirring lawnmower blades, fire jets, and an ever advancing spike-fronted bulldozer. Hot damn!


Funny enough, the main reason my buddies and I sneered at this film at the time was due to our reverence for the original source material, i.e. The Road Warrior. Why did we sneer when, nary two years later, George Miller destroyed that reverence himself in Thunderdome when he brought all those kids aboard, choking the mise-en-scene with a cadre of scruffy orphan on a kookie train. The Tina Turner hit song and big bounce back from Ike media splash (her imperious overacting still lingers in my mind, "Raggedy Man" yeah right) and a 'Thunderdome' that includes bungee bounciness. What's next, George? An ewok? And don't make some lame joke about Angelo Rossitto. The man is a treasure. I didn't care for having to imagine a whole layer of pigshit under the city. That's disgusting, George!



It was a rough time to be a teenager, the mid-80s, during sequel fever. Greedy filmmakers forgot all the best films we saw repeatedly in theaters--Raiders, Ghostbusters, Conan, Star Wars -- had no kids in them. It was like they'd turned to writing of the sequels over to TV sitcom hacks for whom learning kids liked a movie meant putting actual kids in the sequel, which is a kind of dumb "you got an F in viewer psychology class and all you got was this lousy 7-figure writing gig" habit of Hollywood's. So Star Wars developed an ewok problem the same year (1983) as Spacehunter came out; Raiders of the Lost Ark's 1984 sequel had that insufferable Short Round, even Ghostbusters 2 (also 1984) had to have a baby in it. As I've said, kids hate to see themselves in movies unless they're legit savages -see CinemArchtype 21: The Wild Child - rather than merely slightly scruffy brats with big black velvet painting eyes.

Well, Ringwald gets a pass because, though her acting is all over the place, at least she's a girl, and cute, and not insufferable. Well, she's kind of insufferable, but the color coordinating of the maroon-brown clothes and her cherry red hair go a long way.


So, let's bury the hatchet and savor the anamorphic HD screen and Amazon's lovely streaming print allows us to savor Ringwald's red hair against the harsh burnt umber sky of a strange planet so elaborately and creatively detailed I thought at first it had to be a Dino de Laurentiis production, made with Ron Cobb, John Barry or Anthony Masters or someone at the art direction helm. The amount of creativity in this repurposed junkyard planet look, and the weird creatures and dangers met along the way, is well beyond the capacity of the story or direction to do justice to. It's like a quick museum tour through some elaborate interactive space that requires way more time and attention then the rushed guide is giving. The bad guy's big lair is about three stories tall and full of so much welded-together artfully-rusted bric-a-brac it should have been made into a permanent interactive art installation the moment filming wrapped. I can only imagine the sorrow of the craftsmen who labored on such spectacular mise en scene only to have it all torn down after the wrap, see the film barely recoup costs, and then have 90% of all their work lost on pan and scan home video, never---as far as they knew--to be seen again. Redemption ahoy!


For example, the space above, a beautifully natural-industrial flooded cavern/basement kind of environment, neither indoors nor out, with mangrove tree roots that are actually pipes, and so forth, is the kind of 'in-between' zone Antonioni would approve of were he making a sci-fi film in his post-structuralist Red Desert period. And then these sex hungry sirens cohere out of the mist, debating whether to use our wandering mercenary Peter Strauss for breeding purposes, a great idea (he's into it), but that's scuttled almost immediately with the arrival of a small dragon/snake thing (like an X-mas garland with teeth) which the sirens are all afraid of but seems easily dispatched by their spears or elaborate nets. That's a wrap on the sirens - were they edited out to make this a "G" rating? No one even mentions them again. and YET, Strauss and Molly Ringwald are too scared to go back into their parked car; they escape up a hatch to the surface and leave their car behind so they can wander the desert and almost die of thirst. Jesus - why didn't they just back the car out? It makes little sense, and this great set and sexy siren thing is just forgotten for the rest of the picture- we're onto another gorgeous, creatively ingenious set, should have been an art installation, but Strauss and Ringwald just run through it and it's never seen again.


Lastly, in my continuing push to restore some kind of platonic good faith between women and straight men, I recommend the film not just for the beautiful visions and creativity of the sets and vehicles, but also the unique relationship between Molly and Peter Strauss's characters. There's never any sexual intention between either one of them - never even a thought of it. She's obnoxious, but that's okay - I like she cuddles up to him in the dead of night because she's cold, but that it's no more than that for either of them or for the director, script or any unspoken subtext. She's more an adopted orphan, a scrappy Oliver, a Dr. Who companion, and his disinterest in even having her around speaks to, ironically enough, his worth as a mentor. It's a testament to a more innocent time, when real men were trusted to be caregivers of teenage redheads because, unlike celibate priests or pent-up nerd weirdos, they were laid, loose and not Archie Lee desperate or Humbert creepy.

Best of all, PG or no, it all ends with cocktails, evoking the spirit of Howard Hawks!

2. BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS 
(1980) Dir. Jimmy T. Murakami, Roger Corman
Script by John Sayles; Art director: James Cameron
(New World) - *** / Amazon Image - A+

The idea that this film was actually put out by Corman's New World seems absurd- it looks like a movie that would today cost at least 100 million today. Imaginatively written by John Sayles, adapting the Magnificent Seven/ Seven Samurai, it's got a zingy cast including John Saxon as the evil warlord; Robert Vaughn as a professional killer hiding in a dusty old space arcade; starry-eyed Richard Thomas as the John Boy-meets-Luke hero; George Peppard as a kind of Han Solo meets cowboy truck driver (truckers were still 'in'); buxom Sylvia Kristel as a diminutive Valkyrie; and--a personal favorite--a robotics engineer played Darlanne Fluegel, whose haunting gray eyes perfectly counterbalance her 80s-anticipating ironed blonde hair and gray-piped pink jumpsuit, as the breeding-ready love interest. How did John Boy get so lucky?


James Cameron worked in the art direction unit, which--as with his work on Galaxy of Terror--may partly explain why it's all so stunningly gorgeous, every frame pops to the point Star Wars now seems hopelessly square by contrast. Just dig the ship John Boy flies in (above) - it's both phallic and fallopian, like some Frank Frazetta barbarian lost a fight with a sexy slug. Why wasn't there a toy version of that instead of the tiresome Falcon or Tie-Fighters? I'm also a big fan of the cozy spaceship and planet interiors, full of warm hued-lighting and interesting touches that give them a 70s shag carpeted / older brother's van bedroom aura. Every ship has its own homey touch, you want to live in them and get to know these people (most of them anyway), but since it's a Corman joint it has to be over in under 90 minutes so Roger can save money on film cans. (Would there was a longer director's cut).


There are still negative voices out there for this movie, but if they're going by some old video pan and scan or other, they need to shut dey mouths and watch it again... in Prime's widescreen restored-color version it pops and glows and beguiles. And if they don't appreciate Sayle's weirdly Buddhist script (lotsa talk about the 'Vardas' preaching nonviolence) or the gorgeous matte shots and creative ideas bouncing all over the place, then to hell with them. For me, the only sour note concerns the scarfaced moron underlings of Sador, who have balding ginger 'fros and piggy noses, who pick up a peasant girl and presumably rape her in the back of their spaceship (she comes out form the back room with her dress torn and crashes their ship for them in retaliation, killing herself in the process - it's an oddly sleazy addition, unnecessary moment). There's also some weird misplaced hostility from John Boy with the arrival of Kristel's valkyrie, and her sudden appearance as a right-sized (and how!) maiden is never explained. If I have to get this minor to quibble, you know I loved the rest of it. Hubris kept me from watching it at the time -- it seemed such a blatant ripoff to my 13 year-old Star Wars-ophile senses (Empire Strikes Back was out the same year) but now I could care less about Star Wars whereas I'm a big-ass fan of Battle Beyond the Stars. Hey, it even has more than one female character --they even talk to each other, even if it is about sexMaybe George Lucas should have been ripping it off instead of vice versa?

3. STARCRASH 
(1978) Dir. Luigi Cozzi
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A
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If you're watching all these as part of an Acidemic-azon Prime festival, let me warn you that it's better to watch this one first, because the FX are so crude it can feel like you just got demoted to the kid's table. That's not to say that--in their badness-the special effects are not peculiarly charming, especially if you were a kid in the 70s and remember Lite-brite ("making things with light"), HO scale airplane models and erector sets. These three elements seemingly comprise the bulk of Starcrash special-effects tool kit. But hey, the film is still a blast... a big terrible blast. Directed by the "Italian Ed Wood," maestro Luigi Cozzi (working here, as he often did, under the Americanized 'Lewis Coates'), Starcrash moves so fast from cliffhanger to cliffhanger it seems to have more in common with one of those compressed feature film versions of the 1936 serial Flash Gordon (right down the helmets, and the hero's escaping his/her stint shoveling fuel into the enemy blast furnace) more than its clear source in$piration, the previous year's Star Wars. The sets, guns, and costumes are all super kinky and wild, and clearly Cozzi lavished attention on weird details, leaving the big picture a tad lumpen, but never flaccid.

The story has outer space adventuress Stella Starr (Caroline Munroe) squaring off against her future Maniac co-star Joe Spinell as the evil-laughing, mustache-twirling, cape-swirling Baron. Spinell is clearly having fun so it's too bad he (as well as Munroe) are so blandly dubbed by other people. In league with "dark forces," the Baron has created a weapon "so vast, so huge, it would take a whole planet... to conceal it," Clearly, when it comes to Star Wars rips, Coggi don't kibitz -- (there's even an actual light saber at one point). On the other hand, his real yen is clearly to do The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in space -and to that end there's a stop-motion giant 'metallic' warrior woman guarding a beach, a sword fight with a pair stop-motion skeletons, a benevolent stranger in a gold mask, treachery from an evil double agent, and Caroline Munroe (that's why Cozzi cast her and made sure she brought her heavenly midriff), but that's just the half of it!


Now the bright side: even if you don't like Munroe's co-star Marjoe Gortner (perhaps due to some archaic prejudice against overly white teeth and curly hair) one has to admit that--maybe thanks to his being an ex-child evangelist--he handles the scenes of mystical magical force-casting with admirable dead-eyed focus. Though he may be quite diminutive, his red and black leather uniform is way cool.  Munroe's 'sexy' outfit looks like it was cut out of a naugahyde car seat by contrast, though it's still a striking image that cuts through the years like a knife (especially if you're old enough that you remember her Starlost magazine cover). But oh, if only there was more of the evil Amazon queen, Corelia (Nadia Cassini -above)! Tossing off classic bon mots ("put her in the mind probe!") in her repurposed gladiator movie brocade, tossing her dynamite bangs back from her eyes while tossing Stella to the mines, she's very.... memorable. With a few extra lines she might have been a new Aura or a gender-reversed Vultan. Sadly, like every other challenge they wiz past, Stella and her inexplicably Texan robot, "L", escape from her clutches mere seconds after falling into them. Cozzi just can't wait to dash ahead.


With already twice the number of cool female characters than in all of Star Wars, would there was time to stop and appreciate any of the high camp weirdness before rushing onto the next exhibit. By the time we meet the king of the universe (Christopher Plummer) you can tell he's important because his ship is bright gold and he's dressed in all sorts of Versace-ish golden chains and frills), we're out of breath, like an old parent dragged through an aquarium by a sugar-addled first grader. Barely conscious, the one pure male heart left in Hollywood does a great kind of reverse hamming, trailing off into elliptical pauses for effect (or to read his cue cards ): "you must sail... to the haunted stars.... and find the count's... secret ship... and destroy it."

Barely talking in a whisper, while schmaltzy grand piano refrains in the background, we feel the greatness enter the room in fisher king style.

As for John Barry's titanic score, Legend has it that Cozzi didn't let him see the actual film while he was composing, lest he back out of the deal, which was a smart move. Barry treats the material like it's big budget grandeur and rises to the task in a way that puts John Williams 'rousing sci-fi adventure' refrains to shame. Yeah, other things might have helped: when David Hasselhof pops out from behind a golden mask (yo!) and yeah, we're like 'why couldn't he and the Gortner swapped roles? That-a been so choice. So many 'why couldn't?'s to count... but that's Coates!


Ah, the more you see this film the better it gets. It's over so fast, before you can even start to appreciate the great leather outfits and cool helmets of the bad guy minions it's already over and Plummer is announcing it's time to rest. But you can't wait to go again! The joy of the digital age, my friend, you don't even have to rewind anymore. 

Dude, find Cozzi's HERCULES and start the madness anew - it's even worse/better. The same erector set is used, this time for flying monsters, three-headed dragons, and... I already forgot. Praise this kind idiocy and aging process- for it doth erase each plot point like a nepenthe vape. 


4. SPACEBALLS
(1987) Dir. Mel Brooks
*** / Amazon Image - A-

Time's been kind to this lumbering doofus of a film.  A favorite of good friends of mine, it never used to make it past my three strikes rule. Strike 1) the off-the-beat comedic hamming of Rick Moranis as 'Darth Helmet' (it's a big helmet - get it!?), 2) the gross eating habits of Barf (John Candy's dog-wookie character), and 3) the disgusting 'Pizza the Hut'. But those are just the breakwaters, the first five or ten minutes. Once someone made me stick around to the end I started to really vibe with this film, especially once Daphne Zuniga shows up as a runaway bride in a gorgeous wedding gown exposing her toned, lithe, tan arms. Escaping a marriage to sleepy Prince Valium by jumping into the space Winnebago of Bill Pullman as the Han Solo / Clark Gable (in It Happened One Night), her charm takes over the picture and lifts it over ugly hurtles. She and Pullman have a palpable chemistry and play the whole thing deadpan straight, which helps immeasurably especially when we have to endure oversize sight gags like the industrial strength hair dryer and the troopers 'combing' the desert.


See, folks, Brooks makes films for a big audience to laugh at, loud and progressively raucous, in a theater. That means pratfalls carry pauses for presumed guffaws. But even at home his movies that endure because they take the time to hit all the mythic narrative bases, delivering the feel of his sources (The cinematography and special effects are all as good as any other decent post-Star Wars rip) and avoiding instantly dated ephemeral pop culture references. Lovely detours into poker-faced absurdist post-structuralism, as when the bad guys watch a VHS tape of Spaceballs to figure out their next move) and when the Yiddish-accented Yogurt (Mel Brooks) showing off his collection of Spaceballs merchandise ("ver da real money is made") give it enough of a deconstructed edge you don't feel too stupid for liking it. Brooks also plays the evil emperor, as basically the same corrupt mayor he played in Blazing Saddles (only instead of a buxom redhead secretary to bark at there's an 80s punk-short haired imperial officer onscreen at the urinal (hmmm). Joan Rivers provides the voice for the cockblocking C3PO chaperone and there's some great inside bits like sound effects guy Michael Winslow as a radar technician and John Hurt in his Nostromo duds chowing down at the local space diner (uh oh).



Really though, what puts it all over, for me, and gets me watching again and again (after decades of resistance because of the first 15 minutes of gross-outs and lame slapstick) is Daphne Zuniga's Druish princess, who slowly comes around from whining about  her industrial strength hair dryer to blowing up whole armies when they dare to mess up her perfect hair (and it is perfect, auburn, perfectly curled, down and free-flowing over flawless bare shoulders). Spaceballs has already led me safely out of two panic attacks. Such is the power of the schwartz and Brooks' innate love of classic genre cinema. Alas, we're supposed to laugh when Barf molests a waitress with his errant tail. Barf, you aptly-named cretin, the days when that was funny are gone forever! 

5. SATURN 3
(1980) Dir. Stanley Donen
**1/2 / Amazon Image: A

Kirk Douglas plays "the Major" i.e. Adam, a hydroponic botanical scientist trying to solve a rapidly dying world's food shortage in an experimental, octopus-armed hydroponic garden in a cave.... on Saturn's third moon (so far you've got biblical allegory and Ringo Starr lyrics - and we've barely begun!). His Eve, i.e. his lover/assistant, is the 32 years younger Farrah Fawcet. She's never even been to Earth! She doesn't know how lucky she is, so Earth has to come to her, in form of insecure (but with excellent eyelashes) Harvey Keitel, who--as Benson--lets her know they're so hard up on Earth they eat dogs, and everyone has to share sex partners, or else it's stealing, and people take pills called 'blues' just to relax enough to fall asleep. Yes please! Benson lusts for Farrah, thinks it's unfair Adam gets her all to himself, especially since Adam is obsolete, old, and 'inadequate.... in every area!" Benson is there to build them a giant robot, but it goes crazy when inadvertently uploads his own stalker obsession onto Hector's organic hard drive. Thus begins a very long interesting stalk and chase sequence. There's no way to radio for help while S3 is on the far side of Saturn. Hector has all the time in the world to lumber around the tentacles of the garden after our fleeing lovers. Does the name 'Hector' stand for the razzing the December end of May-December relationship receives from his racketball buddies (ala BREEZY)? Or is Hector himself a symbol of time's relentless attack on the male libido?

Clearly conceived of (by Martin Amiss!) back when priapic middle-aged white men were still allowed to be punk rock, (and sci-fi was for them rather than kids), it stands today as a yet under-appreciated mecca for detailed and highly imaginative art direction. Costumes, sets and effects are all of a unique, highly organized mixture of organic and mechanical: bizarre green/black insectoid space suits, a robot chassis styled after Da Vinci sketches, and winding hallways through the cavernous rock lit with an array of white, green and gleaming blue luminescent wires and pipes like a combination giant human arterial system, ocean floor tentacle mazes and Space Port at the mall. Good Elmer Bernstein music too, and Kirk is clearly feeling it - his fuck you to the social order at the end gets me cheering every time, even if it's from inside my own navel. (full)


6. GALAXY OF TERROR
(1981) Dir. Bruce D. Clark
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A 

I read all the hostile reviews when this movie came out and vowed never to see it -- little did I know it would hold up so well, not for any special reason but, like Battle Beyond the Stars, from surfeit of termite detail, aided in no small measure by ambitious production designer James Cameron and the genius of cinematographer Jacques Haitkin (Nightmare on Elm Street).  The space ship interiors are gorgeous, cozy and amniotic (love those padded walls); the strange mist-enshrouded giant space pyramid the crew scale and enter is a haunted world of eerie gel lighting worthy of Bava.



The crew is there to investigate the crash and demise of a crew on a strange planet. But what they find are demons of their own minds, reflected back on them. Each meets their doom in a brutal, gory ironic way, one after the other. The cook (Ray Walston) knows more than he's saying, but just smiles enigmatically when questioned; Sid Haig plays a weird cult member whose devotion to his 'crystals' as his only weapons borders on absurdism (they break so easy it's a wonder they lasted him a week); Robert Englund winds up fighting himself (don't we all?); Erin Moran (Joanie!) is an empath who's not loving the weird vibes of this planet and she's claustrophobic and winds up having to slide through ever-narrower embryonic tunnels; sexy Taaffe O'Connell (below) is ravished by a giant slug monster; Zalman King provides the scowling --growing even more peevish than usual. Soulful-eyed Edward Albert is the Tom Skerrit-like natural leader. He's quickest to conquer his inner demons. The captain of the voyage is played by Grace Zabriskie with her usual alien-eyed conviction. She's one tough old salt, calling everyone "boy," like "come get some chow, boy." And somehow seeing her wide-awake face lit only by those cool red dashboard lights makes me feel grounded. Sure, she ends up going down tough as a burnt steak, but I don't think there's ever been a female space commander quite like her since. Or before. (see Angels of Death vol. V)



Trouble is, the film moves so fast that you've barely met her, or anyone else, before their ranks dwindle down to almost nil. Better that, though, than drag too long, I guess. Speaking of fast, see if you can spot that little stop motion lizard man thing from Joe Dante's Piranha. And if the end of the ride comes too soon, too super strange and mystic, to satisfy, don't get uptight: you can always go back and ride it again. That's the joy of the Prime. You don't even need to rewind anymore. Not even Phillip K. Dick could have predicted that kind of instant gratification.



SEE ALSO... IF YOU MUST:

 MESSAGE FROM SPACE
(1977) Dir. Kinji Fukusaku
*1/2 / Amazon Image - D+ 

The plot is another borrowing of the seven samurai thing, this with some glowing space walnuts that find deserving heroes throughout the galaxy to save a besieged planet that, somehow, becomes a giant model of an old sailing vessel. Clearly super cheap (as per the costumes below, it's like the whole wardrobe is repurposed from whatever was left in the soundstage lost-and-found - sea captains, navy uniforms, pork pie hats, etc. Space isn't even black here - the sky looks like it was done as blue screen for stars to be added later, then the money ran out or they just forgot. Terrible effects, bad make-up, and what's worse--the Amazon image is taken from a non-anamorphic widescreen source; it looks so cramped in composition one wonders if it was panned and scanned from the original source when brought to home video, then the 'widescreen' edition was made by just masking off the top and bottom of the panned and scanned image! Either that, or the director and cameraman need to go back to film school. Only Vic Morrow manages to hold it together as a beleaguered American military attache.


----
GALAXINA 
(1980) Dir. William Sachs
* / Amazon Image - B-

There's no accounting for taste, in the rush to imitate Star Wars, but with a little sex in it, they came in droves. But the world wondered about this film which would be forgotten today if not for star Dorothy Sratten's tragic death at the hands of her evil, coked-up ex-boyfriend/manager. Alas, though she looks beautiful and is very well-lit, there's too much time watching some Joe Buck type strut around the ship's engine room, boasting and hungering for action, the burly captain dressed like a pirate, the detour to a bordello replete with all the cliches of bad westerns and disco movies. All the other things by which cheap films set in space mask their cheapness. Shots of Galaxina doing cool shit are jettisoned in favor of endless mugging by the wearisome Avery Schreiber as the captain. Galaxina watches TV and tangles with an on again/off again monster. I think. One only has so much time to watch bad movies that aren't good-bad, no matter how well Galaxina's lipstick shimmers with just a tinge of orange in the eerie ship lighting. I lover her glowing chair too. Too bad it's so badly written, acted, and directed, otherwise it would be so good, bro, like Dark Star but with a literally (she fries you if you touch her) and figuratively hot girl! 

Friday, January 18, 2019

The cruel, cruel things we did to LAST SUMMER (1969)


There's ever so often I catch even a time out critic evincing he's not seen the movie he's capsulizing, as in the Time Out Britannia entry on LAST SUMMER (1969), which calls it "winsome," and notes 'typical lessons are learned"? Oopsy-daisy. Either he's one sick British puppy or he's hearing the title and painting a very different sort of beach idyll in his mind. Sure, there's lessons learned in Frank and Eleanor Perry's sneakily devastating adaptation of Evan Hunter's novel, but calling them typical is like calling Hitchcock's The Birds (which Hunter scripted), an 'ornithologist's bayside holiday.'

I don't blame that writer; he probably couldn't find a copy of the film when he was assigned it, as to my knowledge it's never been on DVD or tape, in fact I'm not even sure where Max got the copy I duped that we watched so religiously during one of our drunken LBI summers back in the early 90s.
I may not have a copy today for reference, but I can attest: there's nothing idyllic or remotely typical about Last Summer, unless Over the Edge and Don't Deliver us from Evil are to be filed next to Gidget and Beach Party. Can you imagine? That would be so awesome for a over-protective parent to rent by mistake, thinking Evil was the tale of two good Catholic BFFs and their summer journey of emotional maturity and talent show poetry recital, and Edge about a group of kid activists fighting to save their after-school arts program.


The tale of three (and then four) privileged youngsters left to their own devices on Fire Island (?) over the summer, Last Summer builds to its evil gradually, to the point where our own giddy love for Scorpio-Pisces mayhem is used against us. There's sexual assault, menage a trois cinema groping, evil-confessing, seagull sadism, and other typical--but far from the sort of typical coming-of-age beach summer movies you'd get from Disney or Rob Reiner-childhood nostalgia beach experiences, the kind kids grow up to either forget, or elaborate on once they join Skull and Bones when their 33rd degree Mason dads get them into Yale and out of all worries about legal consequences. The story of two blonde beach bum rich kids who meet and bond with a bad influence girl, who manages to keep them both turned on and that sex drive sublimated into evil decadence, and the fourth wheel downer who comes to stay, like an annoying kid brother.

I may have forgotten some of it, but the mood still haunts me. It stars Bruce Davison and Richard Thomas (a long way from John Boy, not that, thank god, my parents ever watched that show) as a pair of beach-loafing buddies (no parents in sight) who find a wounded sea gull and Barbara Hershey all in the same day. What a break! Together the three generate what Max's mom once referred to me as, a "bad influence." As with Rohmer's Summer holiday idylls, sexual tension generates in real time over whole reels, until when it finally cracks open you feel weak in the knees. As with a more decadent European 'sexual idyll' swooner like Jean Rollin, a sense of impending doom, a naturalistic series of ambiguous omens, conspiratorial glances, and burst of random hostility amidst the hypnotic momentum, reminds us constantly that the ocean is a demonic bad influence friend itself; and unlike so many beach movies, it also rains some days. During a protracted, masterful sequence, the threesome stay indoors and wash each other's hair, smoke weed, and let the air of existential melancholy that a rainy afternoon on the beach can bring wash over them.


Max and I, during those LBI summers, had a few different girl partners in crime but our serial monogamous hetero chastity was ironclad. We were, in fact, musicians, and poets. And wasted. And too gallant to ever make predatory nuisances of ourselves. And also, far too used to shining off jonesers and wallies to let some buzzkill broad from down the way glom onto our game. At any rate, this movie was the perfect thing to watch on a rainy hungover Wednesday morning, drinking gin and Strawberry SlimFast while recovering from the previous night's long iguana of a night. The lagoon-side of the island gently lapping our brains into something like a parasympathetic rhythm, we loved this movie because we well knew the way the right girl could ignite all sorts of ballsy courage and decadent mischief in the right pair of unemployed but well-stocked bandmates. You could alienate all your (real) girl friends and most everyone else over a single weekend. And you'd just laugh evilly, a kind of Cruel Intentions' ghosts of Vicomte Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil possession you were too drunk to fight (or too sober to remember)

Taken together, the right threesome can melt the rest of the world clean away in a haze of cigarettes, highballs, the psychedelics always wearing off or about to kick in. In that lifestyle one is always either coasting on the fumes or anticipating the next refill, but one is never completely sober. When someone else enters into that unholy threesome, and they cannot party? Pity them, lord, for they shall be doomed to rot in hell for their sobriety! Thou shalt not suffer a buzzkill to crash your acid test. Pity them but not to the point of inviting them.

With its great naturalistic dialogue, the success of Last Summer lies largely with the tight small ensemble cast keeping the peripheral squares at bay. It starts innocently enough, trying to save a seagull with a fishhook caught in its mouth. Their shared empathy with the bird will gradually be inverted by the stunning ending, but for now, their good deed gives them a kind of holy trifecta aura that evokes among other similar triads, like the trio dancing the Madison in Godard'sBand of Outsiders (1964).



Just mentioning rabies (if the wounded gull bites one of them), Sandy says "oh rabies my ass." Today the boys' shared smirk over her using the word "ass" might seem odd, as if they're already plotting something at the mere mention of a body part, but in the context of its era, children using this word (or any 'bad' word) in public was the equivalent of what in the 80s would have been mentioning she had weed (the anti-drug hysteria of the time was so insane that lighting up became an act of political solidarity). (1) It ends, well, no spoilers, but lets just say it ain't the 60s anymore. This isn't a horror movie, or a ponderous piece of 'art' either, it's neither surrealistic or weighty, like Over the Edge it fools you by slowly winning you over to its protagonist's perspective which, considering their youth and the absence of strong parental guidance, is a dangerous place to be. If you grew up watching 'After School Specials' and 'safety films' on 16mm (while in class), then you were accustomed to the feel of Last Summer, but it's a cautionary tale without a narrator, or a moral, it trusts we don't need one. Like the girls doing their Baudelaire routine in Don't Deliver us from Evil, it's because of all the movies we've seen that look like it that we're not ready for what it is. Knowing that, its propensity to get under our skin and deliver a powerful dose of recognition. If you're like me, especially, you were or are highly susceptible to the 'bad influence' of any intelligent, gorgeous young woman who falls into your circle. Even just as a friend they give you a kind of high-octane cache that can cause latent Mean Girls-cliquey kind of giddy moral blindness.

The cast is all set up for menaga-a-trouble, Design for Living-style. As Peter, Richard Thomas's sadistic demonic eyebrow arches convey a real, deep propensity for evil that runs deliciously counter to his Waltons good boy warmth. But it's more than stunt casting. He conveys a real sense of nurturing and warmth and natural leadership without ever seeming older than he is. But it's a warmth made all the more dangerous by the eerily self-confident sociopathy lurking below. The sweeter he is, the more you feel there's a reverse action building. We watch the demonic glint wax and wane in his eyes like a sinister but enticing moon.

As the smirkier blonde beta male, Dan (Norton) on the other hand, keeps his guile exposed and ever a bit sophomoric. While Peter is the type of character who won't strike until he's got the girl all but naked in his bed already, Dan plays the numbers game, so used to rejection he's built up a tolerance, to the point he wouldn't know what to do if he got one.


Lighting the fire is the new girl Sandy (Hershey), ever eager to seem more mature than she is through expressive "language," relishing the combined attention of these two blonde troublemakers. The love she shows to them, mainly to Peter, while they both lay on her lap, for example, listening to sitar music and getting high, creates a seductive bubble; the sound mixing gamely captures her whispered sutble breatthing almost in ASMR cocoon we can feel. We're smitten; we're there; there's no lumpen Catherine Burns to drag our locus of identification kicking and screaming back to the loser's table.

Together their sublimated sexual energy is a force first of good (rescuing the gull from the hook) and then, through misuse, the sublimation wanes and the fermented passions bubbles up like oil seeps. Using a kind of loose cycle incorporation of tricks perhaps gleaned from Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living, she avoids breaking up their friendship by never picking one or the other ("no sex!" - though in this case pretty close, constantly) or risking her own ostracization by coming between them nor rejecting them, rather the cycle of move-busting runs from Peter to Sandy to Dan in a continuous loop that garners intense energy as it goes. Naturally it has to find an outlet, like Sandy luring a slightly older hispanic man via personal ad on a date, tricking him into his doom at the hands of some local racist toughs.

Everyone is excellent in their naughty conspiratorial whirlwind of sexual sublimation-amped mischief; but then Catherine Burns comes loping along the lonely beach, appointing herself the ugly duckling fourth wheel. It's only during that rainy afternoon after the three of them lost in pot and hair washing that they're ready to actually pay attention to her. With a single long monologue (that led to an Oscar-nomination), recounting the last hours of seeing her mom alive --at a cocktail party that's been raging at their house for days--Burns hypnotizes us and them so completely that by the time she's done you can smell the liquor on the adult's breath, the reek of sand, alcoholic pores, cologne, sexual heat, and ocean brine, the stale cigarettes, and--finally--a fatal misjudgment of impaired motor skills. And it's this tale (notably of mom's decadence rather than her own), set to the melancholy ominousness of the rain outside, that's just enough to get her just far into the threesome's evil club, that they don't know any other way to either shake her off or get her to loosen up and stop cramping their style than what they inevitably do. Because even though they thought, after their dope-enhanced empathy with her plight, that they might turn her bad like them she just wont quit her glum whininess. Like a draggy string pulling down a trio of seagulls, her refusal to either leave them alone or participate spurns the evil trio into their final desperate action.

if you're an alcoholic, the first thing you notice is the upper left Heineken

No matter how many jump cuts from the trio's galavanting around Fire Island, the slow simmer hypnotic Baudelaire-ian budding evil of Last Summer never jumps its languid beach rhythm to become some kind of lurid horror film. That's one of the reasons I love it, and maybe why it confuses Time Out critic so much -- it pulls off the seduction into irrevocable evil better than any other film that comes to mind, yet without ever jumping the groove of its languid beach rhythm: you can hear the waves--or if not, the faint sound of rain--in every scene. The ocean becomes like "Trevor" in The Wild Boys! a demonic possessor (the young and beautiful being highly desired by demonic reptilian 4th dimensional forces) and rather than point fingers, or spread feel bad trauma, it points out we hold onto the 'magic' of childhood at our own peril. As long as we're too small to do any real damage, nature's sociopathy flows unchecked; carry it over into adulthood, and we're going to jail. It all makes me wonder--as I wonder with other genuinely subversive films and TV shows--if that's the reason it's unavailable (there's not even a thumbnail of it on Amazon!). Rather than rant and fume against frat boys I am forced to examine past behavior that--at the time--seemed wholly justified and awesome--especially with a Cruel Intentions marquise in my corner urging me on--but which--of late, especially--hang in my conscience. A douche bag is a douche bag, regardless of mutual consent and vehemence of one's momentary delusion that it's ever "just" sex.

Wherever the licensing or a good copy is now hiding, no matter how much it looks 'winsome' on the surface, it's a film every young punk should see, for the "lessons learned" are vital. The film itself lulls us into a rhythm we're seduced by, so that when the slow erratic buzzkillery of Burns enters, we're almost privy to the wild demon (Trevor!) that rises in us to try and make her wake up and walk with the fire so we can back to our dirty little round robin thrills.

At the end there's still no adult in sight to shame them, but it's clear they don't even need one. These
are 'good' people, usually. But they drank "truth serum" together - they fell in love as one person, and lost their connection to the consequence-ridden world. As the poster says, this summer was "too beautiful to forget... and to painful to remember." Like the first sudden gust of evening hitting your sunburned skin after a day on the beach, a sickly early fall chill runs through all concerned. The leaves can't cover their bodies fast enough.



NOTES:
1.In the 60s and early 70s (I remember when the word 'suck' was first being used as a negative, i.e. 'you suck' - in fact I think I was in first grade with the girl who started it, referring to someone so immature they still sucked their thumb - in fact it was associated with the word "still" as in latency - ala "that girl Lisa, I bet she still sucks" It wasn't "you suck" but "you probably still suck" as in get the thumb out of your mouth. This was a time when 'bad words' were genuinely bad. We'd whisper them under our breath to shock each other, and then only with people who wouldn't tell on us. If you doubt, just watch Burt Reynolds movies from the mid-70s and listen for the pause (for audiences gasps and hoots and howls) at the end of every four-letter word. Just saying "Shit!" would bring the house down (one of the reasons people fainted at the Exorcist)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Angels of Death IX: GOLD DIGGERS of 1935 ("Lullaby of Broadway")


It's a fairly ubiquitous tune today, but when this movie came out, it was brand new, written for this very film, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935, and if you see it, as I recently did, shorn of the preceding hour of shrill comedy (scheming social climber bellboys and their manager, greedy for a percentage of their tips; White Russian impresarios wheedling money from a miserly matron; her seducible offspring finding love and scam artists), the two climactic Busby Berkeley-directed numbers bend reality all the better. The first is forgettable musically but eventually erupts in some dazzlingly precise trippy fractal choreography. The second, however, "Lullaby" transcends even that.

First, it's the blackness that grabs you, coming hot on the heels of the preceding number with its geometric infinity; the single white light illuminating a far-off face, like a distant single star; a shadowed young female face that seems to be slowly moving towards us like a flying saucer or moon in a starless sky; as she becomes clearer and larger, a cold chill comes down our spine. That cold look in her eyes is both compassionate and ambivalent, remorseless, witty, brazen but never tacky, haughty but not loud or shrewish; her glare right into the camera bespeaks a dazzling familiarity with strangers; her shadowed teeth give her a cadaverous lupine edge; her cheeks shadowed by coiled hair give her the vague association of a skull, or the contours of Manhattan. She calmly looks the world dead in the eye while singing, like she's tough talking a rival gang, the city itself standing behind her, ready. She knows that NYC has her back, that she is the city, what it's proudest of.
The song, presented in this island of death and dance in the center of it all, is no longer a jingle, but a dirge, suddenly shorn of its decades-long association with TV commercials for Times Square hotels, Thanksgiving's day parades, floats, shows, and tourist stops which make it seem less like a lullaby and more like a wake-up revelry to pep grandma into finding her purse. The lyrics suddenly make an eerie sense: this tune is meant as a real lullaby for the Broadway baby--soothing the still-giddy but pleasantly danced (and whatever else)-out party girl to sleep even if it's also a wake-up call for the rest of the city.
When a Broadway baby says good night
It's early in the morning
Manhattan babies don't sleep tight
Until the dawn
As much a symbol as the Statue of Liberty, The Empire State building or Grant's tomb, this all-night party girl is a metonym for the Capitol of the World during its dark climb out of the Depression, Roosevelt's lifting of prohibition carrying her aloft as suddenly booze's affordability allows the high-rollers to give bigger tips at the night clubs.


NYC never sleeps - and for the all-night girls the jackhammer and traffic jam bleeping is the sound of the comforting arms of blissful unconsciousness, the pleasure of a body that's gone through the exhilaration of dancing and drinking all night, now slinking into cold sheets, alone, free of pawing, there to stash whatever cash or jewelry one's acquired and admire the sparkle in the morning sun. Underwriting the melody's jubilance is this giddy ecstasy that comes from hearing the clang and bustle of the 9-5 crowd grind the gearshift of the giant NYC business world back into life, and letting the rush of trains, honking horns, and murmur of crowds and hawking paperboys lull you to sleep.

This is no fantasy though, you can tell the songwriters know of what they speak. I know it well myself --I lived the dance all-night walk of shame life in the city from 1991-1998, vividly. If you're going to be out dancing and drinking til the dawn every night of the week (except Sunday), there's only one city that can accommodate you without effort. This number lets the rest of America know that same thrill, even as it staggers out into ever wilder parties with ever more regimented lines of dancers, and rich faceless chumps in tuxedoes brandishing jewelry and top hats.

But what of this goddess? Whose face, laying down in bed (?) with cigarette in mouth, becomes the lower half of the island Manhattan? She's neither alive nor dead but many and none. Played by Wini Shaw, a nearly-star in the Warners musical pantheon, she's already halfway to being a psychopomp, halfway to being some killer from a film noir or horror film. With her beguiling, chilling stare right into camera we are forced to consider death in a whole new light - and to see the frivlous professional reveler as Orpheus and Persephone rolled into one. Hades as both the Underworld and its smitten ruler.

 This is not a death to run from, or towards. It's a stare with its own inexorable tractor beam pull - from the distance, like a tunnel at the end of the road in reverse; her face is the void, the city is the 'next step' that lurks beyond the illusory split between dreaming and waking. Her sultry but cold stare lingers long after the movie fades, the look that bores right into me every time I see it, no matter how long ago it was made or old I've become between viewings.


Maybe it's a dream, a warning, real or a metaphor - one look in her deep ambivalent eyes and you know the score. Life and death are the same - the city never sleeps. Here the grim reaper and baby new year share the same stairwell. She greets the milkman on his way out, pours some milk (!) for a kitten, just out there in the common hallway, looking up expectantly.  Like this errant kitty, she coasts along like a leaf in the wind, trusting that--in the city that never sleeps--there's always a mug somewhere.

Even in the film itself she is separate from the rest of the characters. There's no curtain raising or fourth wall jump-off point for this number like there are in so many others. The film doesn't find her - she just appears out of the darkness, a star in the distance coming closer with a steady, relentless momentum, staring us dead in the eye, the way a beautiful woman giving you a haughty beckoning stare across a room can muffle the party around you to a dry West Side Story school dance blur, beguile, excite and terrify you where you stand.




After her tragic fall, we see the poor kitten has no one to pour it some milk and the bed is unslept in - no one is maybe there to miss her.  She resumes her star status, back into the skyline - it's a very eerie ending to the number but with that eerie opening we're not surprised. This is a real Broadway Angel of Death - she's hardly fazed by her own demise. She becomes Ms. Death in a way that's unique to the city, which is the reason we all fall in love with it and her. She and NYC strip death of all the skull and bones posturing. She and NYC put death put on the spot, they make it stand up and stop slouching.

I certainly relate to this girl's odyssey. No NYC youth is complete without a period of walks of shame, NYC being so clearly where the phrase was invented. Where else can you even walk home from some new lover's bed on a regular basis but NYC? You get out at dawn, the smell of your lover or the dance club still all over you, with cigarettes fresh and warmly beguiling in the air, newsstands and awnings groaning open like the maws of giant friendly dragons; trucks, garbage men who should have finished up hours ago now rushing against the onslaught of rush hour. You dance home--or it feels like it though it comes off more as staggering, in torn stockings or borrowed sweatshirts. Maybe you hope your roommate is still there since you lost your keys. Well-laid and content, still high, the music you were dancing to throbbing in your blood still, the commuters going to work are still sleepy or freshly perked from their early AM jogs or coffees. Either way, it's nice to see them without being one yourself -  you're headed off to bed, and you remember being one of them and remember how badly you wanted to turn around and go back to bed, so you are kind of doing just that for them. Your destination is their fantasy. But there's no animosity between you - in face you and the commuters share a conspiratorial smile - each's presence takes the other out of themselves, for the gap in consciousness between the danced/laid reveler staggering or sauntering home to bed and the freshly woke commuter off to work, is so vast that there is no uncanny valley - no resentment any more than a dog might resent a goat.


Good night, babyGood night, the milkman's on his waySleep tight, babySleep tight, let's call it a day

1935 marked a Hollywood well into the code, but Perhaps it's because there's no dialogue, but it's also remarkably risque. Maybe they got to keep it as there's almost a moral (she dies), the way wanton harlots weren't yet barricaded from ye olde folks at home by steel shudders.
Thanks to the Grand Old Movie blog ("In the End, she Dies")

Still - the code may be in effect, but the "walk of shame" carries no stigma for this Broadway baby, anymore than any of us slumping home from our day job. The men she meets on her way upstairs glare not, neither do they scold, neither do they leer. This isn't Hicksville. This is NYC and everyone knows she works as hard for the money as they do. But the working man and the milkman's familiarity with her coming in at the crack of dawn bodes ill. One can't keep this up forever. All of us who've tried have fallen. The dancing and the partying whirl and whirl until she's accidentally thrown off a 30th floor balcony (2) or winds up in Bellevue, loaded with digitalis, screaming her head off.

On the other hand, when everyone around you is screaming too, you begin to realize at last just what 'hitting bottom' really means. It's so terrible it's kind of grand. Even after the splat, you're still dancing. Sleep tight, baby. The Milkman Cometh...


NOTES:
1. There's no brief of small town morality to guide our understanding of what's going on here - what the original purpose of an 'engagement ring' was for, or promissory notes of marriage being valid tools to sue for breach of promise, as in taking of virginity = $$. If you want to have sex before marriage, an engagement ring says at least you'll have something to pawn when it's time to pay the midwife. The ideal state was divorced or a widow and with the Great War slaughters, widowhood was not uncommon. 
2. For me, the balcony itself crashed (from 1997-9/11 our Thurs. haunt was Windows on the World on the top floor of Tower A.) 

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