Thursday, March 27, 2008

Film #20: Repulsion


(The above poster design is an astounding unofficial graphic for Repulsion created by +Pemo+ who, at the time of its making, was a student at FADU-UBA in Buenos Aries. Check out more of his amazing collages: go to www.flickr.com and search for +Pemo+. And click on the above image for a clearer view of its perfect copy.)

If I were powerful enough to go poof! and instantly make one movie on this blog valued by film fans as one of the greatest ever made, I would choose 1965's Repulsion. But, despite its being a most mortifying work, it appears as if hardly anyone has seen it. And it’s their loss. It's a harrowing, unmutable dark night of the soul that will scar you with its raw slashings. Director and co-writer Roman Polanski is at the apex of his considerable powers as his camera follows a pretty but sexually repressed manicurist named Carol (Catherine Deneuve) as she slowly dips into a lonely madness.


Using the nauseating device of a steadily rotting skinned rabbit to signify Carol’s worsening condition, Polanski trots her through nervous, sleepless nights listening to her bitchy sister (Yvonne Ferneaux) get schtupped in the next room, then in daylight has her literally being chased down by a horny, oft-rebuffed suitor (John Fraser). But when her sister and her married boyfriend (Ian Hendry) go off on holiday, things get REALLY awful. Isolated and tortured by her lack of intimacy or the desire for it, Carol absently stumbles through a series of wicked hallucinations that’ll have you questioning your own sanity (watch out for those walls, man!). Trust me, a few of these moments will make you jump so high, you'll spill your popcorn like a dang idiot. 'Nuff said.


The gorgeous Deneuve, in an understated outing that remains one of her best, was put through the psychological ringer by Polanski who insisted she abstain from sex or even see her boyfriend while the film was being shot. Often, he harshly insulted her into giving the performance he required (one shot has Deneuve swinging a candlestick holder at someone off-camera; she’s actually trying to bash Polanski, who’d taunted her once too often). With a bizarre score from jazz percussionist Chico Hamilton, chilling photography from Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove, Star Wars), and one of the most thought-provoking final shots in cinema history, Repulsion is certainly entitled to a reputation as the female Psycho, even if it isn’t nearly as well-known. See it immediately. And prepare yourself.

Film #19: Last Night at the Alamo

Last Night at the Alamo, the late Eagle Pennell's seminal indie film from 1983, and one of the first hits at the Sundance Film Festival (then known as the USA Film Festival), is a boisterous, ultimately pitiful portrait of a doomed Houston bar's alcohol-sodden denizens. It takes its place alongside Barfly, Trees Lounge and Husbands as an unshowered, unshaven sketch of loud-mouthed drunks, so if you like those titles, you should seek it out, even though you might have to go to your local art-house video purveyor to find it. Filmed in a murky black-and-white from a crackling script by Kim Henkel (co-writer of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, of all things), it stars Sonny Carl Davis as the bar's swaggering cock-of-the-walk, a soft-spoken but arrogant misogynistic loser who calls himself "Cowboy," less so because of his braggadocio about being cast in a Hollywood shoot-'em-up, and more because he's afraid to take his cowboy hat off, lest it reveal his bald dome.


Cowboy's manic desperation to save the Alamo from a bulldozing is the driving force in the film; this watering hole is all this sad character has to hang on to in his retreat from a world of anonymity. Yet no one's really listening to his rebellious plans to publicize his cause--all the people getting plastered at the Alamo accepted their defeat a long time ago, and are not surprised that the bar's sinking fate is one more kick to their collective stomachs. Though this all sounds horribly depressing, Last Night at the Alamo is actually one of the funniest movies I've ever seen (it would make a great stage play, imho). The only place where curse words have ever sounded as poetic is maybe Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, or the Canadian real-com Trailer Park Boys, which might have been influenced by Pennell's film. Possibly not, though, since Last Night at the Alamo is hard to see, as it's criminally yet to recieve a proper DVD release! So you'll be forced to find this rare treasure on VHS, if you still have one of those dusty ol' thangs (copies of the film on tape have reached $100 on eBay, which'll show you how much some people love it).


The cast is quite excellent, save for a little stiffness here and there. But Davis is riveting in the lead--other than his appearances in Pennell's short film Hell of a Note and in the writer/director's first indie hit The Whole Shootin' Match, Davis never went on to assay as memorable a character as he did with Cowboy. But, as Orson Welles said, one is all you need. Another Pennell regular, Lou Perry, impresses as Claude, a hen-pecked husband who can't decide between slinking home to his social-climbing wife or defiantly burning down their house (I love the way he says "Got-dammit"). And most notably, Steven Mattilla is a scream as Ichibod, the goony, overhyped exterminator who idolizes Cowboy and can't say a fuckin' sentence without cussin' (his opening scene arguing with his girlfriend while angrily driving his "piece-of-shit-truck" is a real attention-getter).


It's a shame that Pennell didn't get to taste much success after this film was released. He, too, let drink get the best of him. He was a director-for-hire in a couple more low-budgeters and, by the time of his death in 2002, he was reduced to begging for beer money and living under a highway overpass. His is a tragic story, but it resulted in at least two great movies that mirrored closely his faith in a man who sticks to his guns like he tried to do. Loud, booze-sodden and darkly heartbreaking, Pennell's Last Night at the Alamo is essential viewing, a portrayal of the American Dream's breakdown and a landmark in indie production that predates by about two years the trumpeted arrival of Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Film #18: The Beguiled


In 1971, Clint Eastwood was dangerously, fabulously nearing superstardom. He'd long since completed the "Man With No Name" trilogy--A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly--with Italian director Sergio Leone. But he hadn't yet gone supernova with his role as the unorthodox San Francisco cop "Dirty" Harry Callahan. That's probably why he and his other directorial mentor, Don Siegel, felt comfortable enough to produce The Beguiled. It stands, after Two Mules for Sister Sara and Coogan's Bluff, as the actor/director team's third, and strangest, collaboration.

Based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan and packed with gothic atmosphere, The Beguiled is, simultaneously, a moralistic Civil War-era fable, a horror picture, and a devious black comedy (actually, this unclassifiable quality, coupled with what Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel called its "broadly misanthropic" tone, contributed to it being one of Clint's few financial flops). In it, Eastwood plays John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier who escapes the battlefield and is discovered passed out against a tree by a meek little girl (Pamalyn Ferdin, the distinctively-voiced actress who made her mark in the 1970s as the star of TV's Lassie, Space Academy, and as the voice of Lucy in the animated feature A Boy Named Charlie Brown).

Immediately smitten, she turns out to be one of many Southern young ladies
attending a school run by repressed headmistress Geraldine Page. In fact, as the healing McBurney discovers, it's been a while since any of the school's budding ladies have seen a big, strong man. Naturally, McBurney's trapped convalescence definitely turns a few pretty heads, and he takes full sexual advantage of his position. First, a frail teacher (Elizabeth Hartman) falls for him, then a saucy student (Jo Ann Harris) tempts him with her charms. Even the stern Page finds herself doting on this jerk. McBurney finally reveals himself as the scoundrel he truly is and, as a result, gets that old chestnut about "a woman scorned" vividly taught to him (the film's climax left a black, gooey mark on my young soul).


Filmed on location in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, The Beguiled is spookily shot in diffused, overcast light by first time photographer and later Eastwood regular Bruce Surtees, the son of legendary photographer Robert Surtees (The Graduate, Ben-Hur). But its quality didn't make a dent at the ticket counters; though it was a modest critical success, its downbeat tone failed to lure moviegoers' asses into the seats. Siegel and Eastwood both drew sour criticism from the then-hot feminist quarter for portraying women as vindictive creatures. Siegel, a notorious man's man, came to the film's defense, maintaining that, like males, "women are capable of deceit, larceny, murder, anything. Behind that mask of innocence lurks just as much evil as you'll ever find in members of the Mafia." And, if you think about it, really, that's the ultimate feminist statement!!! Eastwood, too, defended the film, eventually marking it as one of his proudest achievements (he later, in 1992, dedicated his Oscar-winning, female-friendly western Unforgiven to Siegel and Sergio Leone). They would later collaborate on box office hits Dirty Harry and Escape From Alcatraz, but would never again make anything, together or apart, as alien and haunting as The Beguiled.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Film #17: The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl


If you've ever seen Triumph of the Will or Olympia, you've probably wondered about their mysterious, reclusive maker. Leni Riefenstahl rose to prominence in pre-Nazi Germany with her strapping, sexy starring roles in Arnold Fanck's heroic "mountain" movies. Having given up acting in 1933, she resolved to turn her energies to directing films. Her reading of Adolf H.'s prison memoir Mein Kamph was a revelation. "I became a confirmed National Socialist after reading the first page," she wrote in her memoirs. "I felt a man who could write such a book would undoubtedly lead Germany. I felt very happy that such a man had come."


Her film of Hitler's 1933 Nuremberg Nazi rally, Victory of Faith remains little-seen. But, turns out, it was just a trial run for yet another go at recording a gathering of jackboots. In 1934, she shot Triumph of the Will with discernible passion. Even though it was obviously documenting the beginnings of worldwide calamity, this true believer made Hitler's arrival on the world stage look as welcome as the Second Coming, and few Germans at the time would have objected to this view. Check out how Hitler's plane comes zooming out of the dramatic grey-white clouds, or the epic craning of the camera over the throngs, or the impossibly uniformed lines of soldiers and swastikas. She adored this Hitler dude, and helped make him the monster he became.

She went on to record her reeling ode to Aryan physical beauty and athleticism, Olympia at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, thus sealing her international reputation, even among disgusted Nazi-haters, as the first notable female film director (watch the Olympics today and you will still see shooting techniques that she pioneered). She continued to support Hitler all through the war, and he returned the favor by bankrolling her increasingly lavish productions.


Once the war had ended, Riefelstahl found herself imprisoned in a French detainment camp. Upon her release, she continued to try and make films, but her support of the Nazi carnage shot her chances for funding, so she concentrated on still photography, and thereby sank into a notorious obscurity. That is, until she agreed to sit with director Uli Wertzel for 1994's The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Wertzel is a lucky beneficiary of the 90-year-old's misused talent and undeniable charisma. Regarding the Holocaust, Wertzel catches her parroting that tired old "we didn't know anything about it" excuse guilty Germans handed the world. Her onscreen contention that artists cannot be political is a jaw-dropper, but is also bizarrely understandable given the abstracted virtuosity displayed in Triumph and Olympia.


Clips from her small but significant body of work serve as centerpieces to this long, grand documentary, though the footage of the middle-aged Riefenstahl filming native tribes in Africa and, then at 88, shooting underwater films of marine life are easily as intriguing. In particular, I loved the hilariously arrogant scenes where she directs the director, decrying his shot set-ups and, while talking and walking, complaining that she can't talk while walking. Wertzel's controversial celebration of this notable but terribly misled filmmaker is a supremely satisfying look at the life in art and the art of a life.

Film #16: Tales From The Crypt (1972)

Most people know Tales From The Crypt as an 80s/90s cable TV show in the Twilight Zone / Creepshow vein -- sometimes scary, very jokey, with an animatronic near-skeleton as its host. Those more familiar with this version of the classic, famously-banned 1950s EC horror comics probably aren't even aware that it was previously filmed, ever so slightly more earnestly than maybe was needed, in 1972. This Tales from the Crypt was helmed by British director Freddie Francis and produced by Max J. Rosenberg and screenwriter Milton Subotsky, whose Amicus Films was the chief rival of the UK's more famous Hammer horrormeisters. Subotsky made a career out of making uneven anthology films like The House That Dripped Blood and The Vault of Horror, but this one stands strongest. The Crypt Keeper is here not played by a puppet, by a very game Ralph Richardson. Cloaked and enthroned in the British catacombs, he presides curiously over the ensnarement of five sin-soaked individuals and, in a delicious framing device, asks them each to tell the story of how they arrived there.


Joan Collins is a murderous housewife whose bloody Christmas Eve clean-up is interrupted by a maniac dressed as Santa (there's one moment here that ALWAYS startled theater audiences). In the one slightly drab segment, Ian Hendry is an adulterer caught in a confusing loop of nightmarish mayhem. Then, Richard Greene is a businessman who, in a Monkey’s Paw, variation, discovers an idol granting him three wishes (let’s just say he and his wife make all the wrong choices). The most inventively written episode has Robin Phillips playing an upper-class snob who taunts his unwanted neighbor, a poor old widower (the gentle Peter Cushing), into the grave (love those nasty little greeting cards in this episode).

And, in the best all-around section--as always, saved for last--Nigel Patrick is the greedy headmaster at a blind person's home where his charges, headed by Patrick Magee, plot vengeance for the steak-eating, wine-swilling pig’s continual skimping on their food and heat. You'll NEVER forget how this one turns out!! There's loads of veddy-dry humor and ominous atmosphere, complete with a memorably firey finale scored with a booming organ rendition of Bach’s spooky "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." Like the best anthology movies, it leaves you wanting to take in even more episodes. This touchstone of British horror remains one of the best, or at least one of my most loved childhood favorites. Guess I was a pretty twisted kid.

NOTE: DO NOT WATCH THIS TRAILER IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE--too many spoilers!

Friday, March 21, 2008

R.I.P. Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)



One of my favorite notable people died the other day--in fact, the very day I unknowingly, maybe psychically, posted a comment about viewers whom I feel incorrectly judge my favorite and, frankly, the best movie of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction/fact writer who co-authored the script to 2001 with Stanley Kubrick, and then wrote the novel around the script while stationed at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, was a ripe 90 years old. With his age, I can't say his death was a surprise (he even recorded a goodbye to life for those concerned about him), but it was unfortunate nevertheless. My feeling is that most people, including me, have no idea how he affected our world. And younger generations probably didn't even know who this man was.

Clarke was British, but he'd lived in Sri Lanka for the last 52 years. In addition to writing "The Sentinel," the 1948 short story on which 2001 was based, he also authored Childhood's End, Rendezvous with Rama, Fountains of Paradise, a rare memoir titled The Lost Worlds of 2001, and one of the great science fact books ever, Man in Space. He commented on live TV regarding man's landing on the moon, was the person who first posited the idea of using satellites as telecommunications relays, and he himself said his most valuable notion was the concept of space elevators, which are being experimented with today! So without him, no cell phones, no global communications, no eventual space exploration for the common man! The guy helped bring us all closer together, for Pete's sake!

Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), he was very wise and talented, and he had nothing but contempt for the man-made notion of religion, being a full believer in the "religion" of science (I find it irksome, though, that he wrote he "sometimes [thought] that the universe is a machine designed for the perpetual astonishment of astronomers." If that was his belief, then where did God lie in his worldview, I wonder).

I met him once in L.A., when I was much younger, while he was promoting the entertaining but inevitably disappointing sequel to 2001, 2010. I was so starry-eyed, I can't remember what we talked about. I mean, I NEVER expected to meet Mr. Clarke, particularly on my first time out as an 18-year-old film reporter. I'd been a fan of his since I saw 2001 for the first time when I was eleven! What do you say to a person like that, a person who knows so much about seemingly everything? In my daze, all I do remember is that he was quite cordial and dignified.


He lived a long fruitful life, and I'm sure he and Stanley are somewhere commenting wryly on the state of the world and deeply discussing scientific matters. Who knows? Maybe they're flying to the center of the solar system together. They would both probably hate the religious, after-life implications of this cornball idea, but it could be happening nonetheless. I mean, the universe, I'm sure Clarke would agree, is a bizarre and surprising place. This man believed in the endless possibilities of space travel, and always had fascinating facts to drop about the vastness of our cosmos. For instance, did you know that the number of planets out there is roughly equal to the number of people who have ever lived on earth? He said with wonder that each person, living or dead, then could possess one planet all to themselves. Isn't that an astonishing notion?

Goodbye, Sir Arthur. Travel safe.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Film #15: The Gods of Times Square



In its pre-cleanup days, the Times Square area in New York City was a place of vague contradictions. There'd be creeps streaming out of the jerk-off palaces as the melancholy mop-up guy got ready for another swabbing of the booths. Down the street, at one of the broken-down but strangely opulent all-nite movie houses, Lady Terminator would be playing on a double bill with Killer Condom. Two crusted, white-bearded Night Train junkies could be heard further up, brawling over the last Pall-Mall. Fish-netted trannies patrolled the area, scanning men's eyes for the next "date." The latest issue of Knocked Up and Milky could be glimpsed through the cracked, pink neon-lit porn shop windows. And the best hot dog you ever had could be gotten for a song. It was gloriously filthy, America's Reeperbahn.

Then there would be the presence of those who thought they could save all the lost souls wandering dejected down the spit-spattered sidewalks.  Nevertheless, religious zealots of all stripes still were unknowingly smeared with the same grime that coated 42nd Street. And it's these colorful, proselytizing characters that make up a large part of Richard Sandler's epic 1999 documentary The Gods of Times Square. For seven years, Sandler--who remains a practicing documentarian and acclaimed still photographer--roamed the area, pointing his camera towards his subjects and grilling them about their spiritual beliefs.


He catches the Jews for Jesus hawking their dichotomous dogma. Militant blacks are emphatically out in force, screaming about how they are the real chosen ones, and how the white man was put here "to be the Devil on Earth." Hasidics hold fourth from a massive trailer that blasts klezmer music through the city air. A Christian semi-raps through his bullhorn, warning us that, come rapture, we're going to be "roasting on our roaster, while we're toasting on our toaster and we're coasting on our coaster" (remember, this was pre-2000, the Christian year of the supposed Armageddon). Jimmy, a personable, beatific rocker dude with a Madonna obsession (the singer, not Jesus' mom) confesses that the Son of God has already come back to Earth. An elusively poetic Muslim with a priest's collar and a bottle-bottom glasses dodges answers to the Eternal Questions. A homeless man, in one of my favorite segments, has wisdom to spare regarding the flow of energy and the fabric of life. A flamboyant, bow-tied older gentleman condemns the lack of spirit in the city. A long-standing hot dog joint has its final day in business, culminating in the owner's saddened, physically-challenged son's rendition of Springsteen's "Hungry Heart." And a hilariously, scarilyporn-addicted businessman mightily resists a disciple's efforts to rescue his butt from eternal damnation. The array of stubborn misfits here is dazzling, and long gone from Manhattan.

Daniel Brown's ethereal editing style transforms Sandler's arty portrayal of the Times Square milieu further into dreamlike territory, with musically-timed cuts of gigantic fashion ads, surreal electronic displays, and disturbing views of streetwise desperation. He makes an invaluable contribution to Sandler's heartrending mourning of an admittedly rough, earthy cultural touchstone destroyed by corporate (read: Disney) interests (one man, in a gaudy McDonald's t-shirt, applauds the change, but another invades the Disney store and holds a stuffed Mickey Mouse up as a representation of the antichrist).


In the end, this is a personal documentary, as much as Ross McElwee's Sherman's March, for instance, or Michael Moore's Roger and Me. There's no narration here, but we are guided by personal, searching questions delivered by Sandler from behind the camera. The director/videographer remains a curious figure but that adds to the uniqueness of one of the most unforgettable documentaries of the 1990s (right up there with Crumb). When I was programming the Dahlonega International Film Festival in 2002, I insisted on having The Gods of Times Square as a centerpiece attraction, and the director happily provided us with a film that was 12 minutes longer than the 93-minute version with which I had originally fallen in love (the 2007 DVD release includes this footage separately on a second disc). Brave, unrelenting and honest, Richard Sandler's beautiful Gods of Times Square can withstand any level of hype: it's just that good. Miss it at the risk of your own soul's peril.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Film #14: Advise and Consent

I have to comment on the Elliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. I once respected Spitzer, mainly for calling radio stations out on taking payola for playing tons of bad songs over the past decade or so. With that, I was just glad to get an explanation for the unexplainable and some measure of vengeance for "Who Let The Dogs Out?" or whatever. But then, he started acting like an asshole, telling people he'd "steamroller" right over them. What an arrogant prick. Plus, he hypocritically went on a self-righteous rampage and threw a bunch of hookers in jail. Hey, just leave all them girls alone; we all know prostitution should be legal. As the fabled oldest profession, isn't it finally time to take the stigma off of it and in the process, make the inevitability of love-for-pay safer and more accessible?


We all need sex, and some people--guys and gals alike--just don't have the chutzpah to get it for free, so they just cut right to the chase and go pay for it. I don't see anything wrong with that. I mean, you can buy everything else in the world, so why not a little genital relief? This is America, right? Call me a filthy pig, but there you have it. But I gotta say this: couldn't have Spitzer nailed down a nicer-looking girl to boff? Look, "Kristen" (real name: Ashley DuPre) is fine--hot body and everything. But Spitzer's wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, is an absolute knock-out. I mean, a knock...out! AND smart AND successful AND supportive AND much more than this guy deserves. So, good riddance to him. Who wants a guv with poor judgment and mediocre taste (of course, to be fair, the girls on the Emperor VIP site from which "Kristen" hailed, had their faces blurred out, so that could explain that). All of this is so, so sad, but it is what it is.

With that, and former N.J. governor McGrevey's confessions over threesomes, and that right-wing senator guy who was caught looking for the glory hole in an airport bathroom, and newly-minted confessions of infidelity from just-sworn-in New York Governor David Paterson AND his wife (there ya go, ladies!), it seems time to reexamine Otto Preminger's 1962 Washington sleazefest Advise and Consent. Adorned with a huge cast of veteran actors, the show finds Preminger once again in sex-scandal mode (so many of his movies feature this, from the salty rape-related trial involving sexy Lee Remick in Anatomy of a Murder, to Maggie McNamara as a demonstrative virgin in The Moon is Blue--the first American film to have the words "virgin" and "pregnant" in its dialogue, to the incestuous longings of Keir Dullea for sister Carol Lynley in Bunny Lake is Missing).


Here, Henry Fonda lends his always-ultra-clear moral stance to his role as a stand-up Secretary of State nominee whose approval by the Senate is held up by a fiercely partisan battle. When the objecting party starts digging for dirt on their enemies, they commence to rattling the closeted skeletons of Communism and--gasp!--homosexuality in the pasts of those they hate, resulting in lots of misery and public service bloodletting, and all for naught. This turns this movie from what could have been a stodgy parade of politicos into a chess-like series of moves and dodges. George Grizzard, the picture of alpha-male corruption, is the chief dirty-tricker, while Charles Laughton is the bombastic senior senator who talks a good game while never saying much, which is certainly a talent one needs to reach the top in Washington. SPOILER ALERT: The hapless Don Murray is the target--he has one scene in what must be the first appearance of a gay bar in movie history. IT'S OKAY, YOU CAN READ THIS: Fast-paced, and adapted from the classic best-seller by Allen Drury, the film sports a distinguished supporting cast including Peter Lawford, Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, Walter Pidgeon, Lew Ayres and Burgess Meredith. Check Advise and Consent out, and see how all things political have remained the same lo! all these many years. Now, I'm gonna go find me a prostitute...(kidding! Geeez!!!)

Film #13: Safe


Everyone who hears me describe the quiet but terrifying film Safe as a horror film always gives me a lot of gas. (snicker!) “Safe isn’t a horror movie, it’s a blah blah blah!” Well, I’m sorry, but yes, it is a horror film--an extremely modern one, one perhaps way ahead of its time, but a horror film nonetheless. I don't get why some people can't see it. I mean, not all horror movies have monsters or maniacs waiting to chop a gal in the head with an ax. I mean, broaden your views!

Because, to me, the fact is obvious. Forget its mood or subject matter for a moment, and just look at how it's constructed. Writer/director Todd Haynes, in what I still think is his best movie, slyly builds enormous tension while unfolding this story of Carol, a vapid young homemaker (played by a devastating Julianne Moore) whose sterile, not-a-thing-outta-place environment suddenly becomes paralyzed after she contracts an unexplainable illness she thinks is caused by chemicals and fumes in the air.

All right, I admit that Safe doesn’t sound very horrific. I mean, this could be a Lifetime movie, or something. But it sure plays like a shocker, right down to the crushing, foreboding atmosphere in Carol’s too-perfect home--it seems haunted--and the menacing music ringing as Carol has an violent attack at a baby shower, or collapses in a dry cleaning store being sprayed for bugs; it’s as if she’s being stalked by toxins. Every time a car passes or another character uses any sort of concoction, Haynes makes palpable for us the fear that cruelly overtakes Carol’s life, while inevitably making us wonder if Carol herself isn’t the cause of all her suffering.

Safe seems to have been inspired by The Exorcist's unnerving pre-pea-soup spinal tap scenes in moments where her doctors and husband try to figure out what’s gone wrong in her seemingly healthy body. And check out the Cronenbergian touches in the climactic scenes at the cultish desert retreat Carol travels to for recovery; eeriness reeks from the gloomy, glorified refrigerator she inhabits, and from her nearest neighbor, a herky-jerky recluse wandering the countryside like some neurotic Bigfoot. There’s no blood, no gore, no screams in Safe. But there is a monster: an unending sense of dread at the polluted emptiness of modern life.

Defending 2001

2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie. Those real cinemaniacs out there will totally empathize with this, while the people who didn't understand the film or whose attentions drifted away while watching it will be baffled at the logic of my tastes. They'll say "Ewww, it's so boring" or--like I heard my dad say when I was a small child--"What the hell? There was a baby floating in space at the end?"

As if that were a bad thing...

I mention this because I recently revisited a post I wrote on the IMDB replying to someone who was quite harshly criticizing this masterpiece of masterpieces. And this is what I wrote in response to anyone else who shared this view of the film after inevitably and understandably watching it on TV for the first time:



Before you read this, keep in mind that I am a lover of all types of movies, regardless of their ambitions. In other words, I could just as easily be defending Meatballs or The Incredible Melting Man or Showgirls here. But I am here, specifically, to come to the defense of the greatest, and perhaps the most misunderstood film ever made. I am sympathetic to, even a little bit in pity of the people who don't get 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Because I believe you are all victims of the hype machine which has taken over the movie industry since 2001 premiered in April 1968. It is not a movie, like many, that you run out and rent once someone declares in astonishment their surprise at your having not seen (or experienced) it. It is a movie you must realize is so far above all other movies in terms of how it uses the specific artifices of cinema--it is so far above that, that those who have never seen anything like it are sure to react negatively once they've been challenged by it. And, so, in realizing this, you must psych yourself up for this experience. You must say to yourself "A week from today, I will see 2001, and I will read about it beforehand to prepare myself, and then I will see it, and hopefully reap its full benefits." To treat the watching of this movie cavalierly is to doom yourself to being hatefully mystified by it from the start.


Because let me state it plainly: 2001, whether you think it boring or not, is the greatest movie that has been made or will be made. It is completely successful in dramatizing the history of man from ape until superhuman. No other movie will ever even attempt to do such a thing without being compared to this progenitor. And no movie could ever do it. As it is a film that takes this tremendous leap, it cannot be held to the same accountability that other lesser-scoped movies are held to (and let's face it: ALL other movies are lesser-scoped).


So, those who are used to conventional plots where everything is dutifully spelled out in some way or shape; those who are used to the snappy dialogue to keep them connected to troubled but identifiable characters; those who are too used to the formulaic, to the charming, to the loud and boisterous, to the conventional---those viewers are going to have to look elsewhere for satisfaction. As for those who carp about the lack of memorable characters in 2001--well, the movie has one of the great characters in movie history. That that "person" is a semi-faceless computer should not matter much; if it's humanity you're after, remember that HAL 9000 is very much a mirror of the human condition: friendly, hard-working, prideful, suspicious, fearful, curious and, ultimately, murderous.


The danger I fall into here is that I, and anyone else who loves 2001, could now attempt to explain its mysteries to you. But that would rob you of much of its fun. So I will avoid this temptation. As Kubrick said, "The truth is in the feel of it, not the think of it." I should say now that, beyond all this, I know that it is unfair to initially judge 2001 while watching in anything other than a movie theater--one with a screen that is not only large enough to demand your undivided attention, but is also the beneficiary of the lulling yet engaging powers of film projection.

Perhaps most do not realize this, but when you watch movies on DVD or VHS or TV in general, the brain is not as engaged as it should be. When you watch a film, in the theater, projected through celluloid at 24 frames per minute, your mind is the object that's really creating the illusion of movement. You see a picture, and a picture, and a picture, 24 times a second, and your brain makes the connection between all of those little still pictures, and is thus automatically always engaged, and thus transported. Mind you, this goes for all films that are projected in this way. This adventure is what we pay big money to experience when we go to the movies.

When watching a film at home, or at a theater using digital projection, this work that so delights many human brains in movie theaters, and hopefully will for a long time--this work is done for you. There's no 24 frames per second bullcrap at home. These images are electronically blended together for you, like processed food. As a result, if a film is not loud or dramatic enough to punch through to the viewer by sheer force, one can find themselves meandering away, easily distracted by a ringing phone, by a light or a noise, by a lover or friend, by a pet, or by one's own thoughts. This might be something most movie viewers have never thought about. Or maybe, if they did, their distractions were merely attributed to the small size of the TV screen, or to some perceived fault of the movie or its makers.

Well, size is important, as we all know, but it's not the only importance. Film demands your attention, unless you just refuse to give it, which is your right, of course. But don't always blame that lack of attention on the film. Blame your dislike of any movie on what you PERSONALLY like or dislike. If you dislike quiet, laconic, even what might be called boring films, then just admit to this. Admit that you need a lot more to keep you engaged--emotional or physical explosions and catharsis, if you will. Then, upon admitting this, one discovers something about themselves. But don't always go blaming the movie itself--whatever movie we may be discussing. That movie in question is what it is. So you can only blame yourself.

This is the joy, in essense, of watching movies. They can help define us, define who we are, what we love, what we enjoy, what we value. Ultimately, then, 2001 is a movie for people who look beneath the surface, whose brains crave the deeper thinkings. This is not intellectual arrogance; this is who we are--accept it or on your bike you go. 2001: A Space Odyssey was made by Stanley Kubrick, and co-written by Arthur C. Clarke--both of whom were geniuses on the level of Mozart or Picasso or Michaelangelo. It was targeted, as few movies are today, to other people who had the seeds of genius in them, or at least the appreciation of those who have it. And, hey, if you're not one of those people, it's fine. Nothing against you. You're not a lesser form of humanity. Calm down. But these sorta people, these seeds, they find entertainment in places those without this mode of thought can't find it. These people, their entertainment can be in other great things like GoodFellas, or The Matrix, or The Godfather, or Deep Red, or The Music Man, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Ran, or The 400 Blows.


But--and nothing against these other examples of filmic perfection, mind you--those who revel in the notion of big art, and big thinking, and celluloid answers to the gigantic questions, like where did we come from, and who are we and where are we going...well, 2001 is their movie. It's my movie, that's for sure. To those who don't understand or accept all I have written, or how I have written it, or who detect a sense of mental superiority in my tone, I advise you to trust me: reevaluate your position only after you've seen 2001:A Space Odyssey projected on film, on a massive scale, during one of its many periodic theatrical revivals. Then we can have a real debate.

P.S. Anyone who has not yet seen 2001--you are in a lucky position. Look at these images included here. Get engrossed in them, as I was before I thought I had seen the film. Imagine them all coming from the same movie. Be confounded by them. Be amazed by them. And then treat youself to them fully, with your mind completely open, with it expecting something totally unique. In this brain state, you will not be disappointed. Take these images. Soak them in. Love them. They are yours forever.

Film #12: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Certainly, few TV series in history have been poured over more than Twin Peaks. Without it, there probably would've been no Sopranos, Lost, 24, or Six Feet Under. Fans of director/writer David Lynch, and of great television have inspected each frame of its always enthralling, often frustrating 29 episodes, scrambling for clues to a myriad of mysteries posed by its hundred-some-odd characters. Who killed tortured beauty queen Laura Palmer and wrapped her corpse in plastic is, of course, chief among these. But why did she hobnob with the lowest of lowlifes in the twisted town of Twin Peaks? And who's this Killer BOB, really, and what's the true nature of his steely, insistent evil? Where is the Black Lodge and what lurks behind its blood-red curtains. What riddles could be addressed by that dancing, backwards-talking dwarf? And what's the significance of the poetic line scrawled on a piece of paper at Laura's murder scene: "Fire Walk With Me?"

After the series concluded its two-season run in 1991, these queries still were gnawing at the show's most devoted fans. So when Lynch and fellow writer/producer Mark Frost announced they were mapping out a film called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the enigmatic director's aficionados heaved a collective sigh of relief, since the show's final episode left us with more questions than answers. But, typically, the director wasn't interested in clarifications. Never one for imposing meaning on his work (which has gotten increasingly inscrutable, culminating in his latest, ultimate effort towards cloaked meanings, Inland Empire), his feeling is that vitality seethes in his most confoundedly personal imagery. (Lynch admitted on The Charlie Rose Show that he once went to a psychiatrist but before the secret-spilling began, he asked whether therapy would affect his creativity. The doctor's "yes" abruptly terminated all sessions, and sent Lynch searching for eventual relief in an outspoken enthusiasm for meditation.)

So, instead of taking up at the series' enraging denouement, Lynch opted to set Fire Walk With Me months before Laura was slain. It commences at another riverside town where another, possibly BOB-inspired murder has been uncovered, and then jumps to the Pacific Northwest's pie-and-coffee-and-fucked-upness capital, where Laura (the mesmerizing Sheryl Lee) and fellow victim Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) act out their final, horror-filled week among the logging community's slimeballs.

Much of the original cast returned--Lee, Kyle McLachlan, Ray Wise, Peggy Lipton, Grace Zabriskie, Dana Ashbrook, Eric Da Re, Madchen Amick, James Marshall, Heather Graham, Miguel Ferrer, Chris Isaak, Frank Silva, dancing dwarf Michael J. Anderson, log lady Catherine Coulson, and Lynch himself as Agent Dale Cooper's hearing-impared boss Gordon Cole. But lots of unfamiliar faces popped up, too, including Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie, Kiefer Sutherland, Jurgen Prochnow, and Moira Kelly (taking over Lara Flynn Boyle's role as Donna Hayward). Angelo Badalamenti's eerie, best-selling score returned, too, as did the rich costume and production design by regular Lynch collaborator Patricia Norris.



Once largely ignored (except as Laura's black-haired doppelganger cousin), Sheryl Lee emerges as the movie's MVP--wild-eyed, drugged up, confused, screaming with a piercing terror, laughing drunkenly at boyfriend Bobby's bumblings in a flashlit forest. Finally, Lee gets something to do besides play a bluish corpse and the beaming subject of a framed photo! The film's best scene has her staggering towards her fate at a clamorous, strobed-out nightclub where ominous dance music so overcomes the dialogue that subtitles are needed (has there ever been a more accurate club scene filmed?). Lee's reactions per Laura's situation are what provide Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me with most of its intensity; it's an energetic, troubled performance that should have netted her more notoriety. But the film was drubbed and shelved, and that was that.

At the movie's 1992 Cannes Film Festival premiere, Lynch gave a patently veiled explanation as to how he arrived at producing a prequel rather than a continuation of his Emmy-winning TV landmark. "I wanted to go back into the world before the series and to see what was there, to actually see things we had heard about. For me and I think for pretty much everybody that's ever been, there's a feeling that there might be something like sub-atomic particles existing that we can't seem and x-rays and maybe a few other things out there, and a little opening could exist, and we could go somewhere else. And that idea kind of excites me."

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was roundly booed by the Cannes audience, and was greeted with poor reviews from dense American critics. But it was a hit in France and Japan and has since garnered somewhat of a rep as an overlooked ne plus ultra by publications like Video Watchdog (who hailed it as "a major event in the cinema of imagination") and Paul A. Woods' excellent Lynch overview Weirdsville USA (which called it "Lynch at ground zero"). See it and, if you can stomach its palpable dread, judge for yourself. I count myself in the "pro" camp, personally.

Here I Come to Save The Day: Andy Kaufman on DVD and The Problem with Bio-Pics

It's a hard thing to pull off, the filmed biography--harder than ever, probably. If a life is exciting enough to spawn cinematic translation, then I’m sure—via the number of middling bio-pics I’ve seen--that the directorial temptation is to simply, one by one, dramatize those events that made the life portrayed so special in the first place. Do this and, hey, you got yerself a movie. These “They did this, and then they did this and, oh, surely, you remember this” bio-pics are what I call “just-the-facts” films. (by the way, the correct pronunciation of the term is "bio-pic," not "biopic"--I've heard some people make it rhyme with "myopic," making it sound like a twin-eye disorder).


There’s many of them--well, for instance, almost every show business biography, from What’s Love Got to Do With It to Ray to The Buddy Holly Story (as is common with the genre, these three feature stellar lead performances, but the movies themselves are otherwise somewhat flat), La Bamba, Till The Clouds Roll By, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, Houdini, countless TV movies, and so many other theatrical titles--all of them fall victim to what should be an obvious problem: they redundantly recount the lives of pop cultural icons whose business it was to make sure that scads of people were already watching at their moments of success and failure. Let’s face it, it was easier for great biographical movies to be made when their subjects were people like Van Gogh or Pastuer, who actually achieved notoriety in times when people weren’t peering over their shoulders with a camera.


Among the unscathed in the show-biz bio-pic genre is Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which to my mind has an entry pass into the pantheon of great film bios like The Passion of Joan D’Arc, Napoleon, Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Coal Miner's Daughter, Raging Bull and The Elephant Man. As in those ambitious films, Burton and the movie’s writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski showed us the truth and grace beneath their subject, beneath Ed Wood and his thankfully singular talents (see Film #11 in this blog). Unfortunately, Alexander and Karazewski were less lucky--much less--with Man On The Moon, their treatment of comic visionary Andy Kaufman’s sadly short life.


Directed by Milos Forman (who also helmed the screenwriting team’s previous picture, the somewhat more successful The People Vs. Larry Flynt), the film is so “just-the-facts” that it becomes pointless to watch--we already know he wrestled women and masqueraded as his unctuous alter ego Tony Clifton. Ya got anything else? And the whimpering, too-bad answer: nope. The movie is a Kaufman’s Greatest Hits compilation, as performed by the skilled Jim Carrey, who has Kaufman’s vocal cadence down, but not his essential sweetness. (A note here: I've often found that the best bio-pics limit their coverage of the personality; the less time spanned, the better the movie--look at Capote, which documents only about ten years of the man's life, or Good Night, and Good Luck, which chronicles even less time. Rarely does a birth-to-death bio-pic come forth successfully, because dramatizing a person's entire existence in two hours is just too much to chew.  Unfortunately, Man on the Moon makes this mistake.)


As such, Man in the Moon works better as an advertisement for the real Andy Kaufman’s groundbreaking work, plenty of which is available on DVD, and all of which lend us more intimacy with the comic’s persona than does Forman’s film. Gaze at Anchor Bay’s The Andy Kaufman Special, originally aired on ABC, as the host talks so revealingly with special guest Howdy Doody about his ongoing fascination with the marionette. As you watch, note the audience, simultaneously giggling nervously and finding themselves emotionally spellbound at this obviously meaningful personal moment for Kaufman. His sheepish attempt an unprepared talk show interview with his guest, a gloriously game Cindy Williams, is just one feature in this special that makes one realize that Kaufman’s genius lies in helping us keep our silly side alive.

Witness the excellent Andy Kaufman Plays Carnegie Hall and the moment where Kaufman-as-Clifton raucously introduces a new act he found on the road, the Partridge Family/Cowsills-esque Love Family, who deliver a cornball version of “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” replete with symmetrical choreography and toothy smiles. It’s all pure kid’s stuff, as is Andy’s happily out-of-breath delivery of his opening number, “Oklahoma!” or his hand-clapping joy in listening to a special guest sing a Happy New Year song or his famous climactic milk-and-cookies stunt.


Take a gander at My Breakfast with Blassie, Andy’s bright My Dinner with Andre spoof, chronicling his morning at an L.A. Denny’s with the famed King of Men, wrestler Fred Blassie, and you’ll see Kaufman deftly toying with reality as we peer into what sometimes seems like close-circuit camera footage of his conversations with Blassie about breakfast foods, annoying fans, and post-toilet-use hand-washing. You sense Andy’s been a longtime admirer of Blassie’s just by the way he reveres the great wrestler’s flamboyantly-spoken wisdom.


And watch Kaufman jabbing at wrestler Jerry Lawler with a hilarious, playground-quality taunt/song delivered to an arena crowd in I’m From Hollywood, the documentary on Kaufman’s influential sojourn into the wrestling world, and you’ll see Andy the Kid right in front of you, being naughty and angling for a spanking from the wrestling audience, who loves nothing more than to hate their villains (especially ones who are so cowardly as to only wrangle with women). In his cajoling of audiences to let go and have fun, so ably captured in all four of these video works, Kaufman gave us entertainment-starved saps a glimpse of what we’re so often after in our media consumables: a ticket back to childhood, guilt-free and joyous, if we want it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Film #11: Ed Wood

Lessee now...bio-pics about filmmakers. I dunno what took moviemakers so long to get around to attacking this subject---doesn't make sense, given how they make their lettuce. But as far as I can tell, Clint Eastwood's 1990 film White Hunter, Black Heart seems to have come first, surprisingly enough. It may have cloaked its main character with the name "John Wilson," but it obviously and effectively tells the brutal story of John Huston and his exploits while making The African Queen. Then we have Richard Attenborough's stuffy 1992 recounting of the life of Chaplin, with its only memorable element being Robert Downey Jr.'s dead-on performance as the film pioneer. But the best of the bunch, before or since, is Tim Burton's comically inventive version of the life of the greatest Z-list moviemaker of all time. What would've Ed Wood himself thought about Ed Wood? He would've eaten it up like a thick steak and downed it all with a fifth of scotch.



I'll never forget seeing Ed Wood for the first time, at 10:30 on a Sunday night in Atlanta, at Phipps Plaza. Not many people in the audience--the film was a bigger hit on video/DVD than at the theaters. That was okay by me--that meant less people talking in the theater. But from their rapt attention, I knew this crowd knew and appreciated Ed Wood the man. And from that first shot pulling into a rain-battered house that hides a coffin containing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), who rises and proceeds to introduce this film in the same manner that the real Criswell introduced Plan 9 From Outer Space--this thunderstruck concept had its hooks in me, and I had no worries. I knew we were all in for a good time. Further, when Howard Shore's masterful, bongo-and-theremin-driven score blares forth, and the inventively orchestrated credits sequence carries us through an Woodian cemetery, a fight with a giant octopus, and a trip into outer space--I REALLY knew I was in for transcendence. And the show had barely started.

Face it: Edward D. Wood Jr. made movies the way he wanted to make them. He had twisted visions and technique, and not a dime, and it didn't matter, 'cuz people are still watching Plan 9 From Outer Space, Bride of the Monster, Glen or Glenda, and Jailbait. Ed Wood is easily Tim Burton's greatest movie, and one of the greatest movies about the movies, because it knows this. It realizes the singularity of his efforts and boldly makes a direct correlation between Wood, who made the "worst" movies of all time and Orson Welles, who made the "best." On top of that, the film's special luminescence comes from the clever irony seeing Burton's opulent, expensive black-and-white work, gorgeously produced and paced, about a guy who made perfectly ugly black-and-white el cheapos that still, because of their naive, even sloppy uniqueness, hold us in their thrall.

In what is still also their best work, pop culture chroniclers/ screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski (Man on the Moon--about Andy Kaufman--and Auto Focus--about Bob Crane) found a sapphire of inspiration in their exploration of the creative urge and the joy in following a dream, however whacked-out it may be. Ed Wood exudes a romance for filmmaking, maybe for the first time in cinema history; it loves the process. Rich in character--and in characters (Jones' Criswell, George "The Animal" Steele's Tor Johnson, Lisa Marie's Vampira, Bill Murray's Bunny Breckinridge, and the incomparable Martin Landau, unrecognizable in Rick Baker and Ve Neill's deft makeup, as Bela Lugosi), Ed Wood's life now seems made for cinematic retelling (the film is based on Rudolph Gray's verbal history book, Nightmare of Ecstasy). Even if Wood's (and Lugosi's) time on earth weren't as peachy as it appears here, it's okay--for me, that's part of the movie's cosmic joke: it's a $25 million Hollywood movie about an off-Hollywood director who was probably lucky to make 25 million cents in his lifetime.

Even with its love-lettering to movies, the decision to center the work on the father-son relationship between the optimistic Wood and the morphine-addicted Lugosi is a masterstroke, particularly coming from Burton. He had a similar relationship with his own boyhood idol, Vincent Price, who was not only the subject and narrator of Burton's first animated success, the likely autobiographical Vincent, but also, in his final screen role, played a key part in Burton's Edward Scissorhands. It stands, then, that this odd, touching on-screen fellowship between Johnny Depp's always-firey Wood and Landau's alternately sluggish and sharp Lugosi resonates throughout the film, even after Lugosi has disappeared from the scene. Both performances ended up being the single best special effect of 1994, a spinning wheel of desperate ego and deflated despair, all spiced up with Landau's grouchiness and Depp's emboldened zeal. Depp's showing here, after his uniformly touching displays of talent in Edward Scissorhands, What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Benny and Joon, convinced me that he was the finest male performer of his era.

As for the supporting cast, Murray scores points for delivering some of the movie's funniest moments, including its best throwaway gag--he dips a sneakered toe into a baptismal pool to "check" its temperature. Sarah Jessica Parker is an appropriately shrill presence as Ed Wood's first girlfriend and ill-fated leading lady (who went on to bigger things as the writer of a few Elvis Presley songs), while Patricia Arquette effuses wonderful sweetness as Wood's understanding true love (she barely reacts to Wood's nervous confession of compulsive tranvesticism). And Vincent D'Onofrio cameos brilliantly with his exacting imitation of Orson Welles (which is strangely looped in its sound--an element I like to view as a tribute to Welles' largely sound looped work in Touch of Evil). I also like Rance Howard (Ron Howard's dad) as the demanding producer of Bride of the Monster, with his emphatic desire that the film end with a "biiiiiiiig explo-sion!" Mike Starr's confused, streetwise backer of Glen or Glenda? is also a blustery notation.



But Martin Landau is the miracle worker among them all. I still remember being introduced to him with Space:1999, the often maligned but strangely, quietly entertaining 1970s science fiction show from Britain's Thunderbirds producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. If you would've told me when I was 13 that he'd take home an Oscar in twenty years for playing Lugosi, I woulda laughed in your face, even while knowing of his contributions to such films as North By Northwest and Cleopatra. But, starting with Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream and on into Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, Landau was obviously on to a superior second wind. I mean, is there anything funnier than the scene where Lugosi is charged with stepping into a night-shrouded pond ("Damn, it's cold! Throw me the viskey!!") in order to fake a life-or-death struggle with a giant, dead-tentacled fake octopus? His screams as he writhes with this thing are the stuff of myth, and the camera crew doesn't even have sound! By scene's end, the shot of an awed Ed Wood saying "That was perfect!" is completely called-for. And, in another key sequence, the way Landau's drugged-up Lugosi begs to end his life--with Wood in tow for the ride--and then grabs ahold of himself, eyes aglow, and breaks down in Eddie's arms, apologizing for even considering the notion. Wow. I didn't expect to cry in this movie. But I did.

Finally, as if all this weren't enough to convince one of Ed Wood's merits (and some people might still need convincing, since the film's cult status was confirmed by its sadly low $6 million box office take), the movie boasted of some indespensible technical contributions: Shore's moving and detailed  score, Stefan Czapky's award-winning, contrasty black-and-white photography, Tom Duffield's appropriately seedy art direction, and Colleen Atwood's imaginative costume design. With the exception of his gloriously silly Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands (each of which were nearly equal in quality to Ed Wood), I had always thought that Tim Burton had a genius for creating deeply-flawed but quite watchable films (his subsequent output, with the exception of the charming Big Fish and ambitious Sweeney Todd, has been much less impressive, with the outrageously puzzling and derivative Planet of the Apes, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and on and on, with the diminishing returns of Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows). But he vindicated himself, forever and entirely, with this heartfelt comedic masterpiece Ed Wood.  I like to think that Burton is constantly striving to make this kind of movie once again.  Maybe the fulfillment of this prophecy will be his upcoming 2014 production Big Eyes (also with Alexander and Karazewski as screenwriters, and with Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in the leads, and with a similarly obscure story that needs to be told).  I certainly hope this is the case.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Film #10: Black Christmas (1974)


I’ve always contended that John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween stole this movie’s place as the progenitor of the slasher genre. The 1974 Canadian shocker Black Christmas is classier, scarier, and nicer to look at than any other slasher film out there (with Carpenter's movie coming in a close second). The story is familiar: an escaped killer sneaks into the attic of a sorority house during Christmas and begins to pick the girls off one by one. You’ll see things you’ve seen before, but produced with utmost care: lengthy shots from the killer’s point-of-view, sinister obscene phone calls (the film’s most frightening moments), and much slasher violence, including an Argento-esque murder with a glass unicorn. It even has an unsettling, Halloween-like ending--but this came out three years before (as Silent Night, Evil Night, its alternate title, Clark's film was banned from airing on NBC in the mid-70s during Ted Bundy’s reign of terror, thereby upping the film’s cult status.

The excellent cast includes Olivia Hussey (very good as the most sheepish of the sorority sisters--love that sweater with the hands on it), Keir Dullea (Hussey's slightly batshit boyfriend), John Saxon (as a cop--what else?), SCTV's Andrea Martin (Hussey's nerdy best friend), and a scene-stealing Margot Kidder as the sorority's queen foul-mouth. Director Bob Clark (who died along with his son in a tragic 2006 car accident) would later become more famous for pioneering the teen sex comedy with the Porky’s franchise and making A Christmas Story a holiday perennial (there's occasionally some humor--often misplaced, I think--in Black Christmas as well). But Clark should be considered, also, a major figure in the horror movie history, having done notable work with Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Deranged (the riveting Roberts Blossom starred in this Ed Gein-inspired story, on which Clark was an uncredited producer working for Dead Things writer Alan Ormsby), the terrific Dead of Night/Deathdream, about a zombie Vietnam vet returning stateside to wreak payback on his family and the military, and his high-powered Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack The Ripper movie Murder By Decree. All these movies are very much worth seeing. But Black Christmas remains his most thrilling contribution to the genre.

I wanna conclude with one short, vivid memory I have of Black Christmas. Upon its 1975 release in Atlanta, when I was 9 years old, I saw an ad for the film in the newspaper. At its bottom, inside a little square, was an invitation to call a phone number so's you could hear a special Black Christmas greeting. I remember calling the number nervously. But the phone on the other line would just ring and ring. I must have hung up and called that number twenty times, but no one ever answered. Being a kid hankering for instant gratification, I remember being quite frustrated by this. But now, when I think about the movie, too (the ending, in particular)--I find the marketing stunt to be creepily brilliant. By the way, I own a Silent Night Evil Night movie poster that, unusually, came with a black-and-white paste-on piece that, if applied, would change it into a poster with the Black Christmas logo on it--very rare and extra-cool.

Film #9: Targets


It's time for us to rethink what constitutes a horror film, especially in this time of exquisitely poured-over daily bloodbaths. I know that, in literary circles, the horror genre has split into “fantasy horror”--Frankenstein, Dracula, ghosts and the sort--and “modern horror,” which considers serial killers, madmen and mass murderers. But why doesn’t this distinction exist as strictly for movies? Most viewers don’t feel films about reality-based multiple murderers deserve to be included in the horror genre, even though these monsters are scarier than any ol’ mummy or wolfman. I mean, is Seven a horror movie? Deliverance? Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer? I Stand Alone? Or Funny Games? I think yes.


In Targets, Peter Bogdanovich’s sobering look at the varying distances between fantasy and modern horror, Boris Karloff portrays Byron Orlock, an embittered old screamfest idol who’s announced his retirement from Hollywood because he's sure the real world has become scarier than any of the cheapos he’s been making. While he’s in L.A. for the drive-in premiere of his last film, one of these worrisome true-life horrors is unveiling in another part of the city, as the all-American Thompson family is too busy with the daily grind to notice the breakdown going on inside the head of their Ken-doll son, Bobby (Tim O’Kelly). Byron’s and Bobby’s worlds collide, but not before Bogdanovich stages one startling act of violence after another. No movie, ever, has matched Targets for vile, matter-of-fact depictions of random violence (though there’s very little blood). We quiver, matching Bobby short-breath-by-short-breath at his every pull of the trigger. Adding salt to open wounds, the director shoots this berserking in an unforgettable quasi-documentary style (the scene with Bobby taking potshots at highway-bound cars while munching on a Baby Ruth will make you wince).

Bogdanovich was one of the first to make a film about modern monsters, predating The Honeymoon Killers, Helter Skelter, and the similarly Charles Whitman-based TV movie The Deadly Tower. That the filmmaker did it while simultaneously paying tribute to the great Karloff, who gained his fame playing fantasy monsters, is no mean feat. Plus he's even one of the leads in Targets, unbilled as Sammy, Karloff's put-upon director (it's a sarcastic, showy performance in which sometimes I swear Bogdanovich is doing a Jimmy Stewart impersonation). Here I have to mention my favorite scene in the film: Karloff's recitation of the classic horror tale "A Date with Death." It was performed in one take, in a hotel room setting, as the camera slowly pulls in on the English actor's ancient face. The final moments of this monologue are especially stupendous because Bogdanovich told Karloff to think about his own death at the tale's final line, and it shows.




There are a lot of details to comment on here. The sharp cinematography here is by Laszlo Kovacs, who impresses with scenes of mysterious darkness (as where Bobby is smoking a cigarette, waiting in the night for his wife to get home), blinding brights (sniping on the oil tankers), and pretty chiaroscuro (Byron's hotel room). Kovacs landed his union card because of this film and went on, with most everybody who toiled behind the scenes on Targets, to collaborate with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda on Easy Rider. Next, let's give a shout-out to Polly Platt, Bogdanovich's then-wife and muse; it was she who gave him courage to mount this film, plus she provided its excellent art direction (the cool blues in Bobby's parents' soulless house are appropriately maddening). Let's make note, also, of the fact that the idea for the film really first sprang from the head of legendary director Samuel Fuller, who refused any credit but still gets a "Thank You." And pay attention to the kooky pop songs that play on Bobby's radio--they were provided to Bogdanovich from Sonny Bono's collection of rejected demos. Bono trashed them, giving them away for peanuts, but I think they all have a Nuggets (or at least a Pebbles) compilation-style zing to them.



Of course, Targets famously begins with the ENDING of another film, Roger Corman's Karloff / Jack Nicholson classic The Terror (so weird to see a movie start off with the title THE END flashing up on screen)! As well, there's a long look at an earlier Karloff film, Howard Hawks' mortifying 1932 prison drama The Criminal Code. Then, for drive-in fans, there's some exciting documentary-like footage of a 60s-era ozoner's concession stand, playground, box office, marquee, projection room, car park, and even some glimpses inside the drive-in screen itself.

And, by the way, Bogdanovich didn't intend this movie to be about gun control so, while I think the anti-gun, Charles Whitman/Lee Harvey Oswald statements at the film's outset add to the chills, Bogdanovich fought the studio over them and lost. But despite that, Targets from 1968 remains a wonder.


Film #8: The Innocents


In 1961, British director Jack Clayton delivered one of the greatest horror movies ever made--the ghost story to best all ghost stories. His exquisite adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is boldly frightening, sexually suggestive, and beautifully shot (by Freddie Francis). Deborah Kerr, in perhaps her finest performance, plays a repressed nanny whose new charge--taking care of two orphans (the creepy Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens) at a secluded country estate--proves to be more than her nerves or her faith can take. Is the house haunted by the ghosts of two passionate, lovelorn servants? Or is she merely being put through the ringer by the brats?


The lively script (by Truman Capote, John Mortimer and William Archibald) reaches its peak when the ominous Stephens, by candlelight, recites a morbid love poem to the dead, with Kerr reacting with sudden alarm (also, their bedside conversations are quite anxious, one of them leading to a totally wrong-feeling moment between the two--this scene couldn't be filmed today without a uproar from concerned parents). Amidst unworldly walks through deserted hallways, dusty attics, haunted gardens, and wind-blown bedrooms, the tension builds superbly until you think you mightn't be able to stand another minute. The swirling, chaotic ending is the final punch to the gut, a shocking coda to all the dread that's come before.


Be sure to watch this on wide-screen mode in your DVD player, so you can fully soak up Francis' black-and-white, deep focus framing; his work shines, particularly during the complexly lap-dissolving dream sequences and, of course, when involving the ghoulish apparitions. Director Clayton even uses sound and music superbly, with moments of noise and silence that will chill your soul. The Innocents is one of the few films that made me jump out of my seat while I was sitting comfortably at home with the kitties. Now, that's something!