LGBTQ HORROR FILMS FOR A HAUNTING HALLOWEEN

Today’s Cinema Adventure is a list of suggested viewing for the Spooky Season.

Halloween (sometimes referred to as “Gay Christmas”) is on its way, and it’s a great time of year to turn off the lights, settle in on the couch with that special someone, and put on a really scary movie.  Unfortunately, though the genre seems tailor-made for it, there are woefully few horror films aimed at LGBTQ audiences – sure, there’s always “Rocky Horror,” or “The Hunger,” or the blatantly homoerotic “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” but let’s face it, we’ve all seen those plenty of times.

So if you’re looking for something different this season, I’ve put together a list of alternate choices representing the queer presence in cinema – maybe not overtly, in some cases, but certainly in their subtext and sensibilities.

 

THE CLASSIC:

Bride of Frankenstein
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) – You won’t find a gayer horror film from Hollywood’s Silver Age than this legendary masterpiece.  After playing it straight with the first “Frankenstein” movie, out director James Whale pulled out all the gay stops for the sequel.  From the metaphor of a hated monster who only wants to be loved, to the presence of the deliciously queer Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, it’s a prime example of a slyly subversive subtext inserted between the lines of a mainstream narrative – and also one of the best monster movies of its classic era.

The Haunting“The Haunting” (1963) – Even if seems tame by today’s standards, director Robert Wise’s adaptation of a short novel by Shirley Jackson is still renowned for the way it uses mood, atmosphere, and suggestion to generate chills.  More to the point for LGBTQ audiences is the presence of Claire Bloom as an openly lesbian character (Claire Bloom), whose sympathetic portrayal is devoid of the dark, predatory overtones that go hand-in-hand with such characters in other pre-Stonewall films.  For those with a taste for brainy, psychological horror movies, this one is essential viewing.

 

THE CAMPY:

Warhols Dracula“Blood for Dracula” AKA “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” (1974) – Although there is nothing explicitly queer about the plot of this cheaply-produced French-Italian opus, the influence of director Paul Morrissey and the presence of quintessential “trade” pin-up boy Joe Dallesandro – not to mention Warhol as producer, though as usual he had little involvement in the actual making of the movie – make it intrinsically gay.  The ridiculous plot, in which the famous Count (Udo Kier) is dying due to a shortage of virgins from whom to suck the blood he needs to survive, is a flimsy excuse for loads of gore and nudity.  Sure, it’s trash – but with Warhol’s name above the title, you can convince yourself that it’s art.

Phantom of the Paradise.jpg“Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) – Again, the plot isn’t gay, and in this case neither was the director (Brian DePalma).  Even so, the level of over-the-top glitz and orgiastic glam makes this bizarre horror-rock-musical a camp-fest of the highest order.  Starring unlikely 70s sensation Paul Williams as a Satanic music producer who ensnares a disfigured composer and a beautiful singer (Jessica Harper) into creating a rock-and-roll opera based on the story of Faust, it also features Gerrit Graham as a flamboyant glam-rocker named Beef and a whole bevy of beautiful young bodies as it re-imagines “The Phantom of the Opera” with a few touches of “Dorian Gray” thrown in for good measure.  Sure, the pre-disco song score (also by Williams) may not have as much modern gay-appeal as some viewers might like, but it’s worth getting over that for the overwrought silliness of the whole thing.

 

THE CREEPY:

The Fourth Man“The Fourth Man (De vierde man)” (1983) – This one isn’t exactly horror, but it’s unsettling vibe is far more likely to make you squirm than most of the so-called fright flicks that try to scare you with ghouls and gore.  Crafted by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (years before he gave us a different kind of horror with “Showgirls”), it’s the sexy tale of an alcoholic writer who becomes involved with an icy blonde, despite visions of the Virgin Mary warning him that she might be a killer.  Things get more complicated when he finds himself attracted to her other boyfriend – and the visions get a lot hotter.  More suspenseful than scary, but you’ll still be wary of scissors for awhile afterwards.

Stranger by the Lake“Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac)” (2013) – This brooding French thriller plays out under bright sunlight, but it’s still probably the scariest movie on the list.  A young man spends his summer at a lakeside beach where gay men come to cruise, witnesses a murder, and finds himself drawn into a romance with the killer.  It’s all very Hitchcockian, and director Alain Guiraudie manipulates our sympathies just like the Master himself.  Yes, it features full-frontal nudity and some fairly explicit sex scenes – but it also delivers a slow-building thrill ride which leaves you with a lingering sense of unease.

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Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Days of Heaven, the 1978 second feature by director Terrence Malick, featuring a young Richard Gere alongside Brooke Adams and actor/playwright Sam Shepard in an elegiac tale of two migrant workers who scheme to con a dying farmer out of his fortune on the early-20th-century Texas panhandle.  Universally lauded for its visual beauty, it was nevertheless snubbed at the time of its release by critics who found it shallow and unengaging; in the years since, however, it has come to be recognized as one of the best films of the seventies, perhaps partly due to a two-decade hiatus taken by its director following its completion, during which time a sense of nostalgic retrospect- coupled with wide exposure on art-house cinema screens, cable TV, and home video- prompted a re-evaluation of its merits.

Set in 1916, Days of Heaven unfolds mostly through its visuals and the overdubbed commentary of Linda, the younger sister of its lead male character.  The movie opens in Chicago, where Bill, a short-tempered steel mill laborer, accidentally kills his foreman in an on-the-job fight.  Fleeing the scene, the young man collects his sister and his girlfriend, Abby, and the trio jumps a train with dozens of other poor laborers seeking opportunities in the wide-open spaces of the American Midwest.  Their journey takes them to the expansive plains of the Texas panhandle, where they find work as harvesters alongside other migrants on a large wheat plantation owned by a shy and sickly young farmer.  To avoid talk among the other workers, the unmarried young couple pose as brother and sister, and for awhile the little makeshift family finds a sort of idyllic peace in their simple existence here, despite the grueling and dangerous work required of them, and despite a growing interest in Abby from the lonely young farmer.  When Bill accidentally overhears a conversation in which a visiting doctor informs the farmer that an unspecified illness leaves him only a few months to live, the ambitious and opportunistic young laborer begins to concoct a scheme by which he and his companions might trick the dying man into leaving them his considerable fortune.  He encourages Abby to accept the farmer’s advances; she does so, reluctantly at first, but gradually warms to him as their relationship progresses.  All goes according to plan- the farmer marries Abby, and moves her into his house along with her supposed siblings- but as time passes and his health remains stable, the delicate balance of this romantic triangle grows ever more precarious.  With Abby’s feelings becoming more and more conflicted, and the suspicions of the farmer’s trusted foreman threatening to expose the plot, Bill’s jealousy and impatience grow, and he begins to contemplate other means of removing their gullible benefactor from the picture.

Director Malick, who earned a degree in philosophy before turning to filmmaking, had made an impressive debut with Badlands, a 1973 drama starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young couple on a crime spree; produced independently, it garnered such acclaim at the New York Film Festival that Warner Brothers bought the distribution rights for three times the amount it cost to make.  For his follow-up project, Malick teamed with producer Bert Schneider, who negotiated a deal with Paramount Studios in which he and the director would be given complete artistic control over the project; the studio paid for the film, with Schneider agreeing to cover any amount spent beyond the allotted budget.  Malick, meanwhile, developed his vision for Days of Heaven with acclaimed Spanish-born cinematographer Nestor Almendros, drawing inspiration from paintings by Andrew Wyeth (specifically “Christina’s World”) and Edward Hopper (“The House by the Railroad,” an iconic image upon which the farm house in the film was based) and planning a narrative presented more through imagery than dialogue.   Filming took place in Alberta, Canada, despite the Texas setting, and thanks to Malick’s and Almendros’ wish to shoot mostly during the so-called “magic hours” (the 20-or-so minutes around sunrise and sunset) in order to capitalize on the special quality of light present at these times, it was a painstakingly slow and frustrating process for the actors and crew.  Things were made worse by Malick’s unorthodox shooting schedule, in which he would frequently diverge from the loosely organized daily plan according to his own whims and changing ideas; this caused expensive delays, as did the director’s choice partway through production to jettison his scripted dialogue and allow the actors to craft the story through guided improvisation.  In the end, the project went severely over budget- Schneider had to mortgage his house in order to live up to his deal with the studio- and took so long to complete that key participants (including Almendros) had to leave in order to fulfill other commitments.  To further exacerbate matters, Malick then took two full years to piece together the movie from the miles of footage he had shot; a full year after filming wrapped, he had to call his actors to Los Angeles in order to shoot assorted pick-up shots, famously including close-ups of Sam Shepard taken under a freeway overpass and an underwater take of Richard Gere’s submerging face captured in a large aquarium in Sissy Spacek’s living room.  When Days of Heaven was finally finished and released, the lavish praise it received for its visuals was undermined by the mixed critical reactions to its content, and though it turned a small profit at the box office, it was widely considered a financial failure.

Nevertheless, all the painstaking work undertaken by its director, maddening as his process may have been to his colleagues and his studio, resulted in a film of breathtaking beauty, and though its simple story is seen as if through a prism, detached from the reality of its circumstances and affecting our emotions only obliquely as we take in the wonder of the pretty pageant displayed before us, it nevertheless has a cumulative power that strikes deeply resonant chords within us.  It’s not a deep tale, and its inescapable conclusion is obvious to us even as its premise develops, but that is part of the movie’s haunting charm.  Our intellect is not the target, but rather our senses, and through them that deeper level of understanding where we can appreciate the profound beauty of sadness.  For sadness is the overpowering emotion in Days of Heaven, creeping around the edges of every scene, even those full of joy; it comes from the implicit knowledge that everything is temporary, that the world is in a constant state of change- a theme underlined by the importance of the seasons in the life of the farm, the ominous juxtaposition of industrial age machinery in the pastoral life of its workers, the certainty that the security of regular wages will come to an end with the harvest, and the specter of death that haunts the doomed farmer.  It is exuded in Linda’s narration, filled with wistful nostalgia and philosophical observation rather than direct reminiscence, and it is inherent in the entire situation presented by the film’s central plot- a timeless and oft-repeated saga of the heart being subjugated for worldly gain, of people yearning and struggling for a life better than the one they know, in which brief happiness is attained and lost by all involved.  Days of Heaven, ultimately, is a meditation on the transience of all worldly things, almost biblical in its message; indeed, the title itself is a scriptural reference, and biblical connections are conjured by a number of elements, not the least of which is a plague of locusts that settles on the farm during the film’s climax.  It is not, however, a preachy polemic warning us of the wages of sin, but rather an invitation to embrace life in all its pleasure and its pain, to appreciate the good moments as they come and weather the bad ones with the knowledge that they, too, shall pass; most of all, it is an evocation of things past, a commentary on the repetitive and universal patterns of human behavior, and a chance to mourn our own losses and celebrate our own memories.

Malick’s success at realizing his vision- laborious and, perhaps, badly organized as it was- cannot be denied, nor can credit be denied him for making a film of such unique and delicate beauty; it would be wrong, however, to ignore the tremendous contribution of cinematographer Nestor Almendros on the artistic success of Days of Heaven.  He worked extensively with Malick from the beginning of the process, having been chosen by the director for his earlier efforts (particularly The Wild Child, a 1970 effort by French master François Truffaut, with whom Almendros had a long-standing professional relationship); the two men were much in tune with each other’s sensibilities, and Almendros was impressed by Malick’s knowledge and understanding of cinematography, both technically and aesthetically.  Their collaboration and the loosely-structured, improvisational process they used in creating the all-important look of the film may have led to dissatisfaction and frustration among the rest of the crew (there were claims that the two men “didn’t know what they were doing”), but it resulted in a truly stunning visual experience that still ranks as one of the most gorgeous films ever shot.  Malick’s vision works because of the power of the imagery which Almendros helped him to realize, deliberately drawn from the painters which first inspired the film- not only the aforementioned Wyeth and Hopper, but Johannes Vermeer and other old masters, whose distinctive visual style is referenced throughout in the play of light and shadow- and the techniques of silent filmmaking, with its penchant for the ethereal qualities of natural lighting and its reliance on the importance of wordless storytelling; indeed, these infusions are a perfect fit with the period and setting of Days of Heaven, enhancing its sense of time and place trapped in a bottle, and giving it a magical, shimmering quality that pervades even its earthy and most brutal moments.  The achievement is more remarkable because not only was Almendros, as a foreign national, not allowed to operate the camera himself (due to union regulations), he was also beginning to lose his eyesight at the time, and had to prepare the shots in advance with the cameraman by taking polaroids of the set-ups and studying them through his glasses. It is important to note, in the interest of giving full credit where it is due, that another legendary cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, was brought in to complete the shooting process when Almendros had to leave; the two worked together for a week ahead of time, and Wexler made every effort to duplicate the style that his predecessor had set for the film.  Unfortunately, though over half the footage in the completed movie was shot by Wexler (according to his own letter to critic Roger Ebert), he received credit only for “Additional Photography,” rendering him ineligible to share the Academy Award ultimately received for the cinematography in Days of Heaven.  This oversight resulted in some degree of controversy within the industry, but it has been widely acknowledged by all involved parties that both men played an important role in bringing Malick’s opus to the screen, and the work that they did stands among the best in either of their careers.

Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," the painting that primarily inspired Malick to make "Days of Heaven."

Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” the painting that primarily inspired Malick to make Days of Heaven

Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad," another important visual influence on Days of Heaven

Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad,” another important visual influence on Days of Heaven

The magic of Days of Heaven is also bolstered immeasurably by Ennio Morricone’s ethereal score, borrowing from Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Aquarium” (from Carnival of the Animals), which is played over the film’s main tiles, and carrying its mood and motifs into the original music he provides for the narrative.  The remarkably authentic period atmosphere is made possible largely through the costumes designed by Patricia Norris, which she made with old fabric and used clothing items, giving everything a faded look of well-worn realism; also important here are the authentic period vehicles- everything from early automobiles to monolithic farm equipment to a bi-plane carrying a troupe of traveling entertainers- and, most prominently, the farm house, designed and constructed by Jack Fisk, which dominates the landscape of the film, both physically and psychologically, built from plywood and fully dressed with period detail inside and out.  This latter piece was used to film both exterior and interior scenes (a rare occurrence; standard practice, especially at the time, would be to shoot the interiors on a set in a soundstage) and leaves a lingering impression on the memory well after the film has faded to its final close.  It is, in its way, as iconic a structure as the house from Hitchcock’s Psycho (also based, coincidentally, on a painting by Hopper), and gives Days of Heaven a concrete center, a simple, serviceable image rich with multiple layers of symbolic meaning.  Finally, the cast cannot be overlooked.  Though Malick sought to evoke memories of the silent era, there is no bombastic posturing here, no emotional histrionics; instead, his players complement his elegantly simple plot with performances of equal simplicity, avoiding bravura displays and offering instead a low-key naturalism which implies volumes through its very restraint- likely a result of the improvisational nature of Malick’s shooting process.  All four principals give unforgettable performances; Brooke Adams provides a heartbreaking balance of pragmatism and romance as Abby, Linda Manz is hard-shelled but touching as the worldly-wise-before-her-time Linda, Sam Shepard mixes melancholy and earnestness into an appealing package as the unnamed farmer, and Richard Gere uses his almost impossible physical beauty as a powerful tool both to express a genuinely good nature and to mask the darkness brooding inside it in his portrait of the charismatic Bill.  Mention should also go to Robert Wilke, the craggy-faced character actor who manages to touch us deeply in his brief screen time as the farmer’s loyal foreman and surrogate father figure.

Terrence Malick, after Days of Heaven, spent twenty years as a virtual recluse from the movie industry, finally returning in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, a WWII drama which sharply divided critics who found it either a masterpiece or a pretentious sham.  The same response, by and large, has been generated by his subsequent films.  For many, myself included, the jury remains out on whether he is in fact a genius or a charlatan; but regardless of any assessment of his later work, Days of Heaven– especially taken in combination with his earlier Badlands- is more than enough to ensure his status as a true cinematic master.  The way it uses imagery to convey its story, as well as its underlying subtext and the thematic elements which drive it, is a rare and remarkable achievement in utilizing the full power of cinema as a visual medium, and the magnificent beauty of that imagery is still unsurpassed over thirty years later.  Those seeking a passionate romance, with all the typical heart-tugging excesses of standard Hollywood fare, are likely to find it a cold and distant experience, like watching fish behind the glass of an aquarium- a comparison that is, upon reflection, more apt (and less critical) than it might seem.  Malick’s triangulated tale of tragic love is more compassionate for being less sentimental, more deeply moving in its preoccupation with the surface than any number of films that strive to explore the inner experiences of its characters; though it has all the makings of a melodrama, it is a tale without heroes, heroines, or villains, and its characters all contain elements of each, making it impossible to take sides or to judge their actions.  Through the director’s well-considered lens he shows us life, plain and simple, using his art as a means to reveal beauty rather than to manipulate emotion.  As a result, though we may feel somewhat removed from the events and characters, they have the unmistakable ring of truth, and our reactions to them are as honest as they come; for this reason, I count Days of Heaven as one of my personal favorite films, and despite my ambivalent feelings towards its director, consider him one of the greatest filmmakers of his time.  I don’t like to make hyperbolic proclamations like that, so coming from me, you can consider it a pretty strong recommendation.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077405/?ref_=sr_1

 

 

Flesh Gordon (1974)

Flesh Gordon (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Flesh Gordon, a 1974 semi-“porno” feature spoofing the classic sci-fi movie serials of Hollywood’s golden age, directed by Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm and starring… well, probably no one you’ve ever heard of.  Rooted in the irreverently hedonistic sensibility of the so-called “sexual revolution” of the seventies, it lampoons the old-fashioned conventions of the original Flash Gordon adventures by sexualizing all of the story elements and adding lots of gratuitous nudity and sex.  Campy, juvenile, and amateurish, it nevertheless has a certain goofy charm that helped to make it a favorite on the midnight movie circuit and something of a cult classic.  It is also notable for its cheap-but-well-executed special effects, which were orchestrated by several future industry legends (most notably specialty make-up pioneer Rick Baker) and were sufficiently impressive to put the film into consideration for an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects- though ultimately the Academy opted to skip the category that year due to a shortage of suitable contenders.

As written by co-director Benveniste, the plot follows the story of the classic Flash Gordon serial so closely that the filmmakers had to include a disclaimer before the credits, expressly stating that the movie was meant as a parody and “homage,” in order to avoid a lawsuit from Universal Pictures, copyright holders of the original.  As the film opens, the titular hero is traveling by plane, summoned by his scientist father to help in the effort to stop a mysterious attack from outer space; the earth, it seems, is being bombarded by a “sex ray,” which causes widespread havoc by causing people to break into spontaneous orgies, and young Flesh is so far immune to its effects.  Unfortunately, the plane is hit mid-flight by a blast from this deadly extra-terrestrial aphrodisiac; its pilots abandon the cockpit in order to join the sexual frenzy in the passengers’ cabin, and the unmanned aircraft begins to plummet from the sky.  Flesh manages to rescue Dale Ardor, a young female passenger with whom he struck up an acquaintance before the ray hit (compelling her to rip off her clothes, of course), and the two parachute to safety on the ground below.  There, they find themselves at the secluded home of Dr. Flexi Jerkoff, an eccentric scientist who has traced the source of the sex ray to the planet Porno, and has built a spaceship- decidedly phallic in design- in which he plans to go there.  Flesh and Dale, naturally, decide to join him, and the three new comrades set out on their journey through space.  It doesn’t take long to arrive- this is super science, after all- and they soon find themselves in the palace of Emperor Wang the Perverted, who plans to dominate the universe through its libido; the deviant despot conscripts Jerkoff into his service, declares Dale as his new bride, and sends Flesh off to be castrated.  However, Amora, the Queen of Magic, has become smitten with the young hero; planning to make him her consort, she abducts him from the palace, with Wang’s men in pursuit.  Though Amora’s vessel is shot down, Flesh escapes intact; Jerkoff, meanwhile, has managed to flee from the palace, as well.  The two adventurers reunite, and, joining forces with Porno’s rightful ruler, Prince Precious, they undertake to rescue Dale, destroy the sex ray, and overthrow the evil Wang once and for all.  To do so, they must defeat a tribe of evil lesbian Amazons, outwit Wang’s spies, and defeat the Great God Porno, a giant satyr-like beast awakened from his long slumber by the evil Emperor himself.

It’s probably unnecessary for me to have provided even such limited detail in the above synopsis; like most so-called adult movies, the plot of Flesh Gordon is really immaterial.  It exists merely to provide a framework for the various titillations and parodies which are, of course, the only reason for the film to exist.  As far as titillation goes, though virtually every scene features some degree of nudity, and there are a number of scenes in which people are seen having sex, the truth is that Flesh Gordon is really pretty tame, even by 1974 standards.  Part of the reason for this is that, although the film originally included numerous scenes of explicit, hardcore sex, both straight and gay, the filming of such material was illegal in Los Angeles at the time it was made (hard as that may be to believe now); to prevent their prosecution for pandering, the filmmakers were forced to surrender all such footage the L.A. vice squad, and Flesh Gordon was released without explicit pornographic content.  This was undoubtedly seen as a setback by its makers, but in the long run it was better for the movie; if it had been full-fledged porn, it would not have been as widely seen- or perhaps, at least, not by the same audiences- and would likely not have achieved the popularity it eventually enjoyed.  In the more “soft-core” form it was forced to take, it managed to become as much a lampoon of “skin flicks” (as they were euphemistically called in those days) as it was of the corny space operas of old.

This brings us to the satirical side of the film.  Though Flesh Gordon is loaded with crude sexual innuendo and sophomoric jokes, it somehow manages to be endearingly cute.  Sure, the humor is as juvenile as the nudity and sex are gratuitous, but this in itself is part of the charm.  Benveniste’s script does not pretend to be anything other than a collection of cheap laughs; it is free of the kind of hip, self-aware cleverness that mars so many similar attempts at this kind of send-up.  The comedy is so obvious and so gleefully raunchy, so painfully and ludicrously obvious, and just so plain silly, that it is impossible for any but the most snobbish viewers to be unamused; you roll your eyes and shake your head, but you chuckle as you do so.  One of the main reasons for this is the movie’s underground feel; the cheap sets, the grainy 16 mm look of the photography, and the hopelessly amateur acting, all give the impression of watching some weekend garage-filmmaking project undertaken by naughty teenagers while their parents are out of town.  The two directors clearly have limited knowledge of how to make a movie, with poor staging, sloppy editing, and muddled storytelling that sometimes obscures the intended focus of scenes and prevents us from getting an adequate view of would-be sight gags.  It’s somewhat frustrating, at times, but it has the effect of making much of the movie’s funniest material play like throwaway gags, the kind of parenthetical comic detail that contributes to the underlying wackiness that pervades the piece as a whole.  At times, the film’s raw quality is similar to the early work of John Waters- certainly the sex and nudity has the same glamorless, unattractive sensibility as one finds in Waters’ films from this same era- but with more of an attempt at emulating the polish of mainstream Hollywood.  It’s an attempt that falls far short of the mark, but, of course, that’s part of the joke.

Despite the low budget and the obvious inexperience of its directors, however, Flesh Gordon manages to impress with its special effects.  Certainly, these are not the high-tech visual feats of magic one could expect from an A-list studio production, but cheap though they may be, there is a sense of artistry on display here that lifts the movie above the level of low-grade exploitation cinema.  Under the supervision of Walter R. Cichy (one of the film’s three producers, along with Ziehm and Bill Osco), the designers and artists involved- many of whom, as mentioned, were established or soon-to-be established industry professionals- manage to infuse their bargain-basement work with the kind of imagination and tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the cheapness seem like a choice.  With an obvious nod to the spaceship-on-strings style of classic sci-fi history, the movie delivers deliciously cheesy visual delights to go with its inane dialogue and corny story; shaky walls, cannibalized props and sets, and primitive in-camera trickery create the appropriately campy environment, populated by such ridiculous creatures as “Penisauruses” and the aforementioned Great God Porno (voiced, sans credit, by the then-young-and-unknown Craig T. Nelson) which are brought to life by surprisingly deft stop-motion animation.  In addition, the thrift-store pastiche of costumes and the over-the-top execution of the makeup give the whole thing a Halloween party tackiness that somehow puts the perfect finishing touch on the whole package.

As for the cast, the only name of note is Candy Samples, a former pin-up and porn actress who earlier had worked with Russ Meyer, who makes a cameo as Queen Nelly, the eye-patched (and breast-patched) ruler of the Amazon lesbian tribe.  For the most part, the performances are as banal as one might expect, with Jason Williams and Suzanne Fields, as Flesh and Dale, respectively, barely able to muster the sense of excited urgency that is, pretty much, all that is required of them- well, except for their bodies, of course, both of which are suitably sexy in that pre-personal-trainer (and pre-silicon) early seventies way.  As Dr. Jerkoff, Joseph Hudgens (in his only credited film role) manages to combine likable earnestness with a Vaudevillian sensibility that, for some reason, conjures memories of Groucho Marx, and Lance Larsen exhibits signs of personality as the deposed Prince Precious, a leotard-clad Robin-Hood-like figure, mercifully keeping his mincing to a minimum as he allows the character’s name to do most of the work in conveying his sexual preferences.  The acting highlight, as far as it goes, is the performance of William Dennis Hunt as Emperor Wang, sporting outrageous Fu Manchu makeup as he chews the scenery with appropriate relish, laughing maniacally as he incites his mostly naked subjects to copulate and calling his minions “dildoes.” To be sure, none of these performances are Oscar-worthy, but they work well enough for a film which gets most of its charm from being deliberately bad.  There’s something about bad actors doing their best- even when it’s terrible- that is much less painful than good actors purposely trying to be bad; in this case, it complements the style of the film and, somehow makes it all the more satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong here; though it might seem I’ve raved about Flesh Gordon, it’s hardly some sort of visionary masterpiece.  It’s pure schlock, in fact, and shoddily made schlock, at that.   What makes it entertaining is its sheer unpretentiousness.  Benveniste and Ziehm were simply trying to make a cheap, funny, sexy movie that would appeal to youthful audiences; the vehicle they chose was designed to poke fun at the old-fashioned entertainment of an older generation, and whether by accident or canny exploitation, they managed to ride a wave of nostalgia that was rising in popular culture at the time.  These factors may have helped to give their movie a bit more push than it otherwise deserved, but what made it become a sort of mini-phenomenon was the fact that, for all its ridicule of the serials that inspired it, it exhibits a clear love for that source material.  Despite its effort to reinvent Flash Gordon as a blue movie, Flesh Gordon is undeniably sweet, amusingly naive, and more than a little geeky.  It’s these qualities that make it worth sitting through, not just once but over and over, despite the lousy acting and bad jokes; personally, I would rather watch Flesh Gordon a hundred times than have to watch the abysmal 1980 remake of Flash Gordon even once more.  Though this movie makes fun, it also celebrates the original; in truth, it’s really pretty true in spirit to those old melodramatic space operas, because they, too, were designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator by exploring the public’s sensationalistic urges for action, fantasy and, yes, even sex.  After all, the costumes worn in those 1930s movies were pretty sexy, for their time; by 1974, they might have had to eliminate costumes all together in order to get the same effect, but the principle is still the same.  Obviously, Flesh Gordon is not for die-hard prudes; but you are likely to see racier stuff on late-night cable TV than you will in this movie, so anyone else is encouraged to check it out, at least once.  It’s likely to be one of the more unique cinema adventures you’ve had, and besides, do you really want to miss a movie where the only way to defeat the villain is to use the “pasties of power?”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068595/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

 

Serpico (1973)

Serpico (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Serpico, the 1973 classic by director Sidney Lumet, based on the true story of the first New York police officer to speak up about the widespread graft and corruption in the city’s police force, featuring Al Pacino in an iconic early performance that cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s hottest stars and offering one of the finest examples of the kind of gritty, authentic filmmaking that made the seventies one of the richest and most influential decades in the history of cinema.  Shot entirely on location in the streets and interiors of New York City, it was made on a budget of a million dollars- small even for the time- and made over 30 times that amount at the box office, riding on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that had begun in the late sixties; its financial success helped pave the way for a sort of mini-genre that exposed injustice and corruption in government while exploring the difficulty of maintaining individual honor and integrity in such a dishonest system- a theme found in many of the period’s greatest films, reflecting the zeitgeist of an era marked by disillusionment in the powers that be and a growing mistrust of once-respected institutions of authority.

Adapted from Peter Maas’ bestselling book, the film follows the true story of policeman Frank Serpico beginning with his graduation from the New York police academy and his subsequent rapid rise from beat cop to plainclothes detective; a dedicated and exceptional officer, he excels at his job, using his spirit of innovation and his street-savvy sensibility to become the best cop he can be.  Along the way, however, he repeatedly encounters colleagues who resort to unethical behavior- physical abuse of suspects, accepting handouts and bribes, and, most pervasively, extorting money in the form of shakedowns and payoffs from criminals in exchange for looking the other way.  It’s a tradition that seems to be as old as the police force itself, and one in which everyone is expected to participate; those who refuse are viewed with suspicion, intimidated, scorned, and threatened by other officers.  Though at first Serpico is able to remain aloof to the widespread corruption, the pressure from his colleagues eventually becomes unbearable; he tries to take action through official channels inside the police department, only to find that the entire chain of command- all the way to the top- seems bent more on ignoring and covering up the problem.  When he finally joins forces with a lawyer friend and takes his story to the Mayor’s office, he is again rebuffed.  When his personal life also begins to crumble due to the emotional strain of his professional situation, he finally decides to go public, telling his story to the press and forcing the department to begin a widespread internal investigation.  It is Serpico’s testimony that will be the key to exposing the extensive wrongdoing on the force; perceived as a traitor to his fellow policemen, he is soon placed deliberately in danger while on duty, set up by his partners during a drug bust; shot in the face and abandoned at the scene, he nevertheless survives to bear witness at the hearings conducted by the Knapp Commission, a government agency set up to investigate largely because of his determination to make his story heard.

Though the screenplay for Serpico does take a few liberties with the true events, it is for the most part a faithful depiction of the real story.  Maas’ book, written with the participation of the real Frank Serpico, was adapted faithfully for the screen by Waldo Salt, with later modifications by Norman Wexler, who restructured the narrative when director Lumet decided it was too long.  In order to pack the decade-long saga into a manageable running time, the story is told in a sort of collage, constructed of mostly short scenes which document the progression of events over time; most of the faces change as Serpico is variously transferred throughout the department and makes changes in his personal life, but the thread of continuity is maintained by the main character’s presence at the center throughout and the unchanging circumstances of his dilemma- though the names and places may be different, the underlying situation is always there, showing not only the widespread nature of the problem but suggesting, by extension, that such corruption is a universal issue.  It’s an approach which also helps to reduce the sense that we are seeing a “movie” with actors (though many of them are recognizable faces), lending the piece instead a feeling of genuine, fly-on-the-wall credibility.  This kind of pseudo-documentary authenticity was no doubt enhanced by Serpico’s direct involvement; he was initially present on the set during shooting, until Lumet and producer Martin Bregman deemed him too distracting (or, perhaps, too intimidating) for the cast, and he was Pacino’s guest for several weeks at a rented house in Montauk, where the actor spent time with him in order to gain insight in preparation for the role.

The slice-of-life perspective Serpico uses to take us through this true story of heroism is ultimately made possible by its director.  Sidney Lumet was a filmmaker with a long and varied career, starting as a child actor on Broadway (indeed, the memorable party scene early in the film was shot in the apartment of Sidney Kingsley, the playwright who hired the 11-year-old Lumet to appear in the original production of his classic Dead End), whose studied, realistic approach and emphasis on the psychology of his characters had developed through years of work in the theatre and the early days of live television drama, and had made him the kind of “actor’s director” perfect for helming the strong, character-driven films that dominated the cinematic heyday of the mid-seventies.  Marked by a refusal to sentimentalize and an observational sensibility that allows both an empirical detachment and an intensely emotional connectivity, his style reached its peak during this era when polished Hollywood glamour was supplanted by a stripped-down, cinéma vérité honesty in popular filmmaking, and nowhere is it more clearly on display than in Serpico.  He wasn’t the first choice for the project, however; originally slated to direct was John G. Avildsen, but creative differences with Bregman led to his eleventh-hour replacement- a fortuitous twist of artistic fate, for it’s nearly impossible to imagine the film through the lens of another director.  Lumet’s instincts are a perfect match to Serpico’s story, and his  love for the craft of filmmaking- and for the city of New York, in all its contrasting splendor and squalor, photographed with equal reverence by Arthur G. Ornitz- is as evident as his technical skill here, helping to capture a visceral, on-the-scene portrait not just of the city, but of its people, and transporting us so completely into the place and time that we feel we know it as well as if we were there ourselves.  It’s a more genuine environment than most of the plastic-and-glass urban settings we see in modern police dramas, and one that reflects the economic reality of urban bureaucracy; it also provides a tangible sense of the rough-edged, oppressive conditions which may contribute, in some way, to the temptation for many to abuse their positions for personal gain.  Lumet’s most powerful and effective tool though, is the respect he gives his actors, allowing them to command every scene and placing primary emphasis, always, on their characterizations.  There are no flashy feats of camera artistry here; Lumet uses his lens unobtrusively, in full service of his cast, knowing that the story comes to life through them, and not through cinematic trickery.

Specifically, of course, it comes to life through the actor at its center.  Al Pacino, already proven as an intense and charismatic performer through his star-making role in The Godfather, solidified his status as one of “New Hollywood’s” hottest talents with his scorching portrayal of the title role; he gives us a man of intelligence, humor, compassion and honor, without being afraid to show us his flaws with equal honesty.  His Serpico is a hero whose fight for moral integrity also becomes a fight against himself, as the escalating frustration and pressure bring out his anger, depression, pettiness and self-doubt, and Pacino lets us have it all in an unvarnished and compelling tour-de-force that deservedly earned him an array of award nominations and wins.  It’s all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the film was shot in reverse sequence, in order to accommodate the changes in Serpico’s appearance.  Since his facial hair was required to become progressively more pronounced throughout the story, Pacino grew out his hair and beard before shooting began, and then gradually trimmed it back throughout the course of production; it is routine for a movie to be shot out of sequence, but even so, the clarity of Serpico’s emotional throughline is astonishing, considering it was achieved, essentially, backwards.  Though Pacino carries the vast majority of the film himself, he is surrounded by a fine gallery of supporting players, most significantly Tony Roberts, lending his dry and urbane charm to the role of the department lawyer who becomes Serpico’s friend and ally, and including such stalwart and familiar (or soon-to-be-familiar) actors as John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Lewis J. Stadlen, F. Murray Abraham, M. Emmet Walsh, Judd Hirsch, and Tony Lo Bianco.  The entire cast becomes fully immersed in the film’s reality, without a single “actorish” performance among them- though Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe, as the two significant women in Serpico’s life, seem stiff and more than a little out of their depth as they attempt to share the screen with their formidable co-star.

Serpico, when it was released four decades ago, was as topical and current a movie as you could get, offering for consideration a subject and story fresh from the nightly newscasts and the national papers.  Today, of course, it seems somewhat dated, to the casual viewer; the world it shows us, though utterly authentic in its day, now feels almost quaint, a nostalgic reminder of a time before cell phones and computer networks became standard operating equipment and video surveillance equipment captured virtually every move an officer could make on duty.  The environment and the situations strike us as a pastiche of familiar cop show clichés threaded with liberal naïveté; indeed, the corruption of Serpico’s fellow officers is amateur stuff compared with the staggering cases of corporate and governmental chicanery that have come to light, over and over, in the years that have gone by since.  Even so, Serpico remains a powerful cinematic document of its time and place, infused with a sense of moral outrage and antiestablishment fervor that is still quite capable of moving us.  Much of this has to do with Pacino’s electrifying, impassioned performance, of course; but it’s the film’s focus, built into its screenplay and shrewdly maintained by its director, that ultimately allows it to transcend its era and stand as more than a well-crafted period piece.  Lumet doesn’t care about the details of the corruption against which his hero fights- the nuts and bolts of the investigation are passed over in his movie, with only enough specific circumstance to set the stage for the real drama that concerns him.  That drama is not about the external events of Serpico’s life, but about the effect those events have on his inner self- the struggle, the emotional stress, the conflicting guilt that comes of being forced to betray one deeply held ideal in order to uphold another.  Serpico emerges, most of all, as a meditation on heroism- not the guts-and-glory kind that is usually the focus of police dramas, but the kind required to withstand the inner turmoil that makes standing up for your principles something that is easier said than done.  It offers us a portrait of a real life figure willing to sacrifice the thing which mattered most to him- being a cop- in order to be right with his own conscience, and it does so without the kind of cloying sentimentality that so often makes such movies feel more insincere than inspirational.  The real-life Frank Serpico told Al Pacino, when the actor asked him why he decided to come forward about the corruption inside the NYPD, that he had done it because, “if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”  It’s a rare man who can recognize the importance of such a distinction, and a rare movie that can help us recognize it, too.  Serpico is such a movie, and that in itself- even more than the towering performance of its star- is what makes it a classic.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070666/?ref_=sr_1

 

Desperate Living (1977)

Desperate Living (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Desperate Living, the 1977 feature by underground filmmaking icon John Waters, featuring an assortment of his “Dreamland” players in the tale of a deranged suburban housewife who is exiled with her maid to a shantytown full of social rejects.  Financed, as all of Waters’ early projects were, on a shoestring budget, it generated notoriety through the outrage it sparked among the lesbian community for its treatment of same-sex female relationships, but it failed to catch on with the public to the extent of his previous hits, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, probably due in part to the absence of his signature star, Divine (who was unavailable to appear because of his commitment to a theatrical project in New York) but also because the “midnight movie” fad which had provided the perfect venue for the earlier films had largely subsided by the time of its release.  Nevertheless, it has taken its place as a cult classic alongside the director’s other works of the period, with which it shares an outrageous, anarchic sensibility and a deliberate intention to provide shock value through its depiction of socially taboo behavior.

The plot follows the misadventures of Peggy Gravel, a housewife from an affluent Baltimore suburb, who has recently returned home- perhaps prematurely- from a stint in a mental hospital.  Paranoid, delusional, and disgusted by virtually everything, she harangues those around her with wild and hysterical rants, accusing the neighborhood children of trying to kill her and reproving her husband for his ineffectualness.  When he attempts to calm her by administering her medication, she assaults him, calling for aid from her maid, Grizelda, an obese black woman whom Mr. Gravel has recently caught stealing from the household, and who now, believing she is protecting Peggy, smothers him to death by sitting on his face.  When the two realize they have committed murder, they go on the run together, attempting to drive out of town in Peggy’s car, but they are stopped by a policeman; instead of arresting them, however, he demands their underpants and some kisses for his cross-dressing, auto-erotic pleasure.  In exchange, he offers to let them escape to Mortville, a sort of hobo jungle on the outskirts of town where the criminal dregs of local society can find safe haven among their own degenerate kind.  The two women make the journey, and find themselves in a derelict town built mostly of cardboard and garbage; after trading a lottery ticket for a guest house owned by hard-edged lesbian Mole McHenry and her girlfriend, Muffy St. Jacques (“the most beautiful woman in Mortville”), they learn that the community is ruled by Queen Carlotta, a sadistic and self-serving tyrant who takes pleasure in degrading her subjects and dispensing draconian punishment to any who dare to displease her or disobey her absolute commands.  As the unlikely comrades settle into Mortville life, they begin their own lesbian affair, despite Peggy’s revulsion; meanwhile, Queen Carlotta’s egalitarian daughter,  Princess Coo-Coo, has fallen in love with the trash collector, and renounces her privileged life to elope with him.  The angry Carlotta has him killed, and when Coo-Coo flees with his body, she seeks refuge in the home of Peggy and Grizelda.  Peggy immediately alerts Carlotta’s goons, and Grizelda, attempting to protect the Princess, is killed in the ensuing struggle when she causes the house to collapse on herself.  Peggy, however, is rewarded for her loyalty to the Queen by being appointed as the replacement for the now-imprisoned Coo-Coo, and as her first duty she sets into motion the royal plan to infect the entire town with rabies, starting with Coo-Coo herself.  Back outside the “palace,” the lottery ticket Mole accepted as rent has proven to be a winner, so she uses the prize money to buy a bargain basement sex change for herself, thinking it will please Muffy, who has been goading her with fantasies about men.  Instead, it repulses her, causing her to admit that she loves Mole just the way she is; the sewn-on penis is severed and thrown to the neighborhood dog, and with their bond renewed, the couple leads the Mortvillians in a revolt against Peggy and the Queen, at last exacting vengeance for the brutality of their regime.

If this narrative sounds a bit convoluted, it’s no surprise; Desperate Living constitutes Waters’ attempt at an epic fairy tale, with multiple characters in interwoven subplots, and part of his particular milieu– at least in these earlier films- is a disregard for logical coherence in narrative structure.  Waters’ story lines are usually threads intended to link together his depraved set pieces, and a great deal of the fun comes from the fact that they are generally irrelevant to the real purpose of the movie, which is mainly to delight and disgust his viewers, preferably at the same time.  The downside to this approach, from a certain point-of-view, is that many of his movies have a tendency to “peter out” rather than build to a climax, with the final resolution often being little more than a means to tie up the loose ends; but Waters, always the iconoclast, has never concerned himself with following rules, and such an aesthetic consideration is as immaterial to his agenda as laws and social mores are to his characters.

This latter point is not strictly true, actually.  Waters’ films are usually populated by people who are greatly concerned with codes of conduct, albeit warped or inverted ones.  Here, for instance, Peggy is motivated by a fanatical devotion to her own brand of decency and decorum, a world view in which she, as a member of the social elite, is the natural recipient of preferential treatment and should be immune from the disgusting unpleasantries of the world; it happens that, for her, those unpleasantries include any form of natural impulse or show of sentimentality or affection.  She hates nature, is repelled by her husband’s touch, and would rather be raped by the kinky policeman than submit to his kiss; yet she is willing to ally herself with an oppressor and give up her own life in service of the ideal of autocratic privilege.  Similarly, the avowed man-hater, Mole, is prepared to transform herself into the very object of her own loathing in order to satisfy the needs of the woman she loves, not just because of her desire to please her lover, but because she is dedicated to her role as protector and provider.  The irony of both characters, of course, is that they personify the things they themselves despise; the victim becomes the victimizer and the militant feminist embodies the negative masculine stereotype she has rejected in others.  In similar ways, the other denizens of Desperate Living enact this paradoxical principle, or else they perform the meaningless reactionary pantomime of the social bystander, chasing their own self-serving needs and pleasures, deluding themselves with rationalizations and platitudes, and expressing outrage when they are met with opposition; Waters shows us a world of degenerates, overseen by other degenerates, and the only unacceptable transgression is the assumption of authority.  Of course, one could open up a discussion about the layers of social satire, political allegory, psychological commentary, or mythological inversion that can be seen within this low-rent fantasy melodrama; or perhaps we might speculate about the filmmaker’s intentions regarding such things as alienation of the audience, subversion of societal values and norms, or the use of cinema as an expression of counter-cultural concerns.  In the long run, however, Waters’ interest in such matters is clearly parenthetical, at best, and his work here- as with all of his films, particularly the “Trash Trilogy” consisting of this and the two previous efforts- has more to do with his creation of a signature mise-en-scène which can best be described as “transgressive camp.”  Even more than that, perhaps, it has to do with sharing his warped sensibilities through the medium he loves.

That Desperate Living is an expression of the filmmaker’s own imagination is certain; as the producer, writer, director and cameraman, he makes sure what shows up on the screen is pure Waters.  The histrionic dialogue, the over-saturation of de-glamorized nudity and sex, the exploration of fetish behavior and insular communities, the skewering of respectable society, the fixation on repellent imagery and ideas; these are trademark elements in his films, and they are all present here in spades.  Desperate Living features copious full-frontal nudity (both male and female), the sexualization of children, a baby in a refrigerator, the human consumption of vermin, sodomy with a firearm, cannibalism, and penile amputation, to name just a few of its dubious delights, and in typical Waters fashion, they are de-sensationalized to the point of banality- which is why they amuse us rather than outrage us.  This, of course, is precisely the point, if there must be a point; Waters shows us that the only thing more ridiculous than human behavior is to be offended by it.

Indulging in this pageant of absurd excess is a cast mostly comprised of the director’s regulars, a troupe of stalwart non-actors upon whose services he has relied upon from his earliest days.  Leading the pack is the incomparable Mink Stole, a fixture in Waters’ films who is here given her most prominent role as Peggy, sinking her teeth with relish into the character as she alternates between hysterical wailing and some of the most ferocious bitchery you will ever see.  She is perhaps (apart from the late Divine) the most proficient purveyor of the curiously bad-but-somehow-great acting that defines the style of the filmmakers’ canon, and Desperate Living offers probably the best showcase of her unique talents.  Accompanying her on the adventure is Jean Hill, a greeting-card model turned actress whose jubilant sass makes her a fitting complement to Stole’s venomous ice queen, and the two exude an undeniable chemistry as they act out their perverted fantasia on Imitation of Life.  Waters newcomer Liz Renay (a notorious burlesque queen, former gun moll, and convicted perjurer, whose scandalous autobiography prompted the director to pursue her for his film) brings a surprising freshness of personality- not to mention her sizable breasts, unfettered onscreen for a good deal of the film- as Muffy, and Susan Lowe as the pugnacious Mole, normally one of the director’s bit players, manages to hold her own admirably in the role originally intended for Divine.  Also notable is Mary Vivian Pearce as the goofily likable Coo-Coo, and “Turkey Joe” in his deliciously trashy cameo as the cross-dressing cop.  The standout performance, though, comes from the sublime Edith Massey, the snaggle-toothed ex-waitress who became a sort of muse for John Waters and a cult icon to boot, as Queen Carlotta.  With her inimitably amateurish delivery, her indescribable physical presence, and her inescapable authenticity, she makes this grotesque character into a mesmerizing spectacle; gleefully punishing her groveling subjects, turning her leather-boy lackeys into sexual objects with whom she engages in lewd- and graphic- excesses, or sweetly bestowing gifts on a pigeon like the skid row vision of a Disney Princess and her animal friends, she is the indisputable highlight of Desperate Living.  The lady had charisma, there’s no denying it.

In spite of the fact that the cast is entirely on target, however, the absence of Waters’ supreme diva, Divine, is keenly felt in Desperate Living.  There is a void, somehow, in the center of the movie, that none of the other personalities can fill.  This is not to say that any of them are lacking in commitment or ability- at least, the kind of ability required of them here- but that some intangible quality is missing that none of them are quite able to provide; it’s possible that this is due to the lack of a strong character to provide central focus in the story, for Desperate Living, in truth, is all over the map- but then so are most of Waters’ films, a fact which audiences easily overlook with Divine’s electric presence as an anchor.  It’s hard, though, to place the blame wholly on this gap for the fact that the movie doesn’t quite work- for, unfortunately, it doesn’t.  Though it is a veritable treasure trove of deliciously quotable lines and ripe with the kind of unforgettable lunatic imagery that keeps us engaged in any given individual moment of the film, it never really grabs us with the unexpected visceral urgency of some of his other works; all the pieces are there, but the whole package leaves us decidedly unsatisfied.  It may be due to the attempted scope of the story, or the fact that the fantasy is so far removed from real experience that it loses the sliver of plausibility which gives the director’s preposterously lurid tales their outrageous edge, but for whatever reason, Desperate Living loses steam soon after it takes us to Mortville, a fact that is particularly disappointing in face of the fact that the film’s first ten minutes are pure, vintage Waters, containing some of the most inspired expressions of his wicked genius he ever managed to create, and setting the bar at a high level which the rest of the movie is then, sadly, unable to match.

Still, for Waters’ many fans, this kind of critical quibbling makes no difference to their enjoyment of its many riches, and for those who are exploring this alternative auteur for the first time, the fact that Desperate Living is not as complete a package as the masterful Female Trouble doesn’t make it any less essential an experience.  There was a certain magic at work in these heady, early years of the Dreamland crew, and it is just as evident in this movie- with its guerilla-filmmaking feel, its grainy 16mm photography, its elaborately shoddy sets built from found objects and refuse, its celebration of filth, and its mockery of traditional cinematic forms- as in any of the others.  What makes it so… well… refreshing (for want of a better word) is that, as always, Waters’ subversive trash is not merely intellectual posturing, nor is it exploitation, for it is clear that all of his participants are equally complicit in his effort to inundate us with perversity; John Waters is a subversive filth-monger because he finds it fun, and because it is an expression of self rather than a calculated pose, he makes it irresistibly fun for the rest of us.  Of course if you are someone who has, as Peggy Gravel puts it, “never found the antics of deviants to be one bit amusing,” you are best to leave this one alone, as well as the rest of Waters’ canon; although his work, for all its over-the-top shock value and subversive topsy-turvy morality, is ultimately as good-natured and sweetly innocent as, say, two naked children playing doctor, for somebody whose sense of humor is not well-tuned to this kind of trashy treat, it’s about as appetizing as a fried rat on a plate.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075936/

Women in Revolt (1971)

Today’s cinema adventure: Women in Revolt, the 1971 Andy Warhol-produced film satirizing the Women’s Liberation Movement and starring a trio of transgendered “superstars.” Notably, it was the last film to be produced by Warhol on which he actually stood behind the camera, though it was directed by longtime associate Paul Morrissey; it enjoyed more attention and mainstream notoriety than many of the infamous artist’s earlier films, largely on the basis of its controversial approach to the subject matter, drawing the wrath of feminists who felt it was a slap in the face to have their cause savagely lampooned and to be represented onscreen by “female impersonators” instead of biological women.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three women who become involved in the Women’s Lib movement for their own reasons: Jackie is a militant intellectual schoolteacher who believes men are inferior to women and should be relegated to their naturally subservient place in society; her friend Holly is a model who hates being treated as a sex object, although she herself has a ravenous libido; and Candy is a society heiress who longs to break free of the stiflingly traditional role she is expected by her family to play, wishing instead to build a career for herself as a glamorous movie star. When Jackie and Holly decide to form their own protest group- called Politically Involved Girls, or “P.I.G.” for short- they hit upon the idea of enlisting Candy, hoping to capitalize on her high-profile society position to generate publicity for their cause, and more importantly, to gain access to the financial support of her family and the wealthy circle in which they move. A series of misadventures follows in which each of the three activists are revealed to be more motivated by self-interest than by real passion for their cause. Jackie, despite being a self-proclaimed lesbian, spends the organization’s money on a bodybuilding male hustler and becomes the unwed mother of his baby; Holly succumbs to her penchant for drinking and sex, becoming a derelict living in the street; and Candy abandons her friends, her family, and the movement to realize her dream of stardom.

The scenario for Women in Revolt– it would be inaccurate to call it a script- is not so much a storyline as it is an excuse for extended on-camera improvisation and trashy bad behavior. This, of course, is the real purpose here, far more than any deliberate social or political commentary. Still, it’s easy to see why genuine feminists would find Morrissey’s movie insulting and offensive; their arguments are put into the mouths of enfants terribles whose grotesquely exaggerated behavior and plainly self-absorbed motives render them meaningless and laughable. Given Morrissey’s right-wing political bent, it’s possible, if not probable, that this was at least part of his intention here; but in truth, the whole affair is so patently ridiculous that it is impossible to take seriously. The political satire is merely a vehicle in which the film’s three stars can indulge in their individual excesses, gleefully breaking taboos and acting out with histrionic abandon. Much of the dialogue is devoted to the kind of verbal bitch-slapping that has fueled drag shows for decades, and for the most part, whoever shares the screen with each of the three central characters is merely there to provide a foil- and the occasional straight line- for their onslaught of caustic camp.

Though this formula, admittedly, provides numerous amusing moments throughout the film, it is also the main downfall of Women in Revolt. The pervading atmosphere of uncontrolled, undisciplined expression hardly makes for concise, coherent filmmaking; the improvisational approach works for fleeting moments, but those are islands in a sea of self-indulgent chatter- often spoken simultaneously, in a seeming battle for dominance, rendering much of its content incomprehensible and more than a little grating. This, of course, is inherent in improv, which is why it is most effective when used as a basis for developing more polished material or edited into a cohesive form by a savvy director; it also helps when the performers have been given clear guidance and, ideally, have received some formal training. In the absence of these elements, the end result usually ends up looking and feeling like a free-for-all, reminiscent of rambunctious children play-acting in a schoolyard game of make believe- which can be effective in short doses, but is perhaps not the best way to sustain the length of an entire feature film. It creates, in fact, the sense that we are watching a movie made by amateurs, and such is the case here; the low budget production values, the clumsy lighting, the choppy editing, and the generally insipid nature of most of the dramatic conceits all contribute to this feeling. As a result, instead of being provocative or outrageous, the proceedings quickly become simply tiresome, with a juvenile sensibility that makes the archness of the film’s tone come off more like shallow snarkiness. In addition, despite a considerable amount of gratuitous nudity- mostly male- and sexual content, the handling of these scenes strips them of eroticism; indeed, sex as portrayed here is a repugnant, degrading act, devoid of charm or subtlety, and thoroughly shocking for reasons that have nothing to do with morality or social acceptability. Like everything else in the world as seen by Warhol, Morrissey and company, it’s just another boring convention to be disdained and ridiculed.

These criticisms, valid though they may be, might be immaterial if one considers that film for Warhol- originally, anyway- was just another decorative medium, a way to produce ever-changing pop art images to be projected on a wall at a party, perhaps- a means to provide atmosphere in the background of a real-life “happening.” The rules of good cinema do not apply when a film is more of a statement in itself than a legitimate exploration of the art form. However, by the time of Women in Revolt, the enigmatic Warhol had stepped away from participation in his film productions, handing over the reigns to Morrissey, who had taken things in a more (or, arguably, less) ambitious direction, focusing on a narrative-driven, mainstream approach. It would be a mistake to classify these later Warhol movies as art for art’s sake, as they clearly aspire towards providing a more medium-specific experience; therefore, it seems fair to say that by any reasonable cinematic standards, Women in Revolt is a terrible film. One might argue that the film eschews traditionally accepted style and polish as a rejection of conventional cultural values, but pretensions of artistic purpose are no excuse for sloppy movie-making, and even if one generously classifies Morrissey’s style as cinema verité, it’s hard to think of a less professional, more careless example of cinematic hack-work. What makes this film so appallingly bad is not its nasty attitude or its banality, but the fact that it is, in the end, a poorly executed, badly assembled mess- and despite the fact that Warhol himself operated the camera for several botched scenes (at the insistence of star Jackie Curtis, who refused to perform without his participation), the fault for this lies solely at the feet of its director. Morrissey’s apparent lack of skill in the creation of his product may have been intentional, a deliberate effort to make a statement about the subjectivity of artistic values or to prove the point that arbitrary notions of bad or good are irrelevant to an audience simply seeking to be distracted; but his work here smacks of fraud, the attempts of a would-be artist to discount the importance of techniques he hasn’t the patience or understanding to master. Whereas Warhol’s genius was in simply setting up the camera and letting it capture what it would, the same approach is Morrissey’s crutch. In other words, Women in Revolt seems the work of a lazy director who wants glory without having to work too hard.

Despite this harsh assessment of Morrissey and his work, Women in Revolt is not devoid of value. For better or for worse, in fact, it is probably a more significant film today than it was when it was originally released, due largely to the window it provides into the miliieu of the Warhol factory and- more importantly- the all-too-rare opportunity it gives us to see the work of its three leading players: Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn. Each of them were members of Warhol’s famous coterie at the “Factory,” known for their work in previous of his films, and as such were popular- and notorious- fixtures of New York’s avant-garde arts scene. Curtis, unlike his two co-stars, was a female impersonator, who appeared both as a man and a woman in his work, and was successful independently of his projects with Warhol; he was an actor and playwright whose edgy, campy plays were a fixture of New York’s experimental theatre scene, as well as a singer and poet whose work garnered considerable praise and attention from critics of the era. His screen persona- abrasive, outspoken, sarcastic, and sporting a frizzy red wig with glittery make-up- provides many of the best one-liners in Women in Revolt, and whenever he is on the screen he is in absolute command. This is not always to the benefit of the film; many of the shrillest and most confused scenes are the result of Curtis’ aggressive improvisation, in which other performers are drowned out and cut off at every turn in favor of his unscripted outbursts. Nevertheless, it’s a smart performance, giving a glimpse at the potential for brilliance which might have been more fully realized with a little rehearsal and direction. Likewise, Candy Darling, a true transgendered performer, who had worked extensively with Curtis in his plays as well as in previous Warhol outings, reveals the ethereal, double-edged sincerity that allows her, somehow, to rise relatively unscathed above the messy chaos of Women in Revolt; she contrasts Curtis’ brash bullying with her own form of dominance, the cool superiority of a sophisticated and intelligent woman with nothing to prove. She is elegant and truly beautiful, and Women in Revolt is at its best- and most watchable- when she is onscreen, working her magic with the curious blend of earnestness and irony that made her one of the most charismatic of the “superstars.” Rounding out the trio is Woodlawn, also a true transgender, whose fiery Puerto Rican energy bursts from the screen, representing the raw energy of the body (as opposed to that of the mind and spirit, personified by Curtis and Darling, respectively) as she gropes and gyrates her way through the film. Truly sinking her teeth into her role as a nymphomaniac who hates men, she gives a manic, conflicted performance which displays a remarkable gift for comedy and hints- as does the work of her co-stars- at a considerable talent, making us wish all the more for a surer hand behind the camera. The fact that all three of these stars are so obviously gifted is yet another indictment against Morrissey’s infuriating mediocrity as a director; their work continually gives us glimmers of what Women in Revolt might have been. Still, they provide plenty of reasons to sit through the movie- though it requires considerable patience and might be best accomplished in short installments- and even manage to create several moments which could be called classic. Besides these three heavyweights, the film offers brief appearances by other counter-cultural icons of the era, including Penny Arcade and Betty Blue, and Brigid Berlin in a wordless cameo as a decidedly butch bar owner.

The fact that Women in Revolt is an atrocious movie, oddly enough, does not alter the fact that it is a classic, of sorts. Clearly, there are many stalwart supporters of Warhol and his crew that would defend the film staunchly and embrace its many flaws proudly, claiming them as victories in a cultural war and viewing them as medals of honor. There is certainly a weird power to this curiosity of its time, and despite its lack of real ambition it manages to offer up some interesting observations about the power struggle between the sexes- particularly through its reversal of roles in which liberated women treat their men with the same disrespect and contempt they deplore when they are the recipients, and the use of sex as both a bargaining tool and a means of gaining power. It can be argued that the movie was a success in terms of what it set out to accomplish. Warhol neither knew nor cared about the aesthetics of film; he wanted only to present his branded material for the sake of building his cult-of-personality-based empire, and notions of good or bad were of little interest to him. With this in mind, Women in Revolt is exactly what he wanted it to be- a source of controversy and buzz, and another brick in the continually growing monument to his so-called genius. Indeed, given his particular, nose-thumbing stance at conventional society, it is probably preferable that it should be bad; the exaltation of the banal was a major part of what he was all about, after all. Therefore, I find myself in the curious position (which Warhol would have loved) of recommending a movie that I found to be abysmal. I would stress, however, that my endorsement is based not on any sort of respect for the artists behind the scenes, but on my admiration for the ones on the screen. It is beyond tragic that these three were given the treatment they were- exploited by Warhol for their “freak” appeal, they were given just enough cultivation to reveal the brilliance of their underlying talent, then abandoned because the impresario had lost interest. Perhaps the real reason for his fickleness can be surmised by viewing Women in Revolt; it is the talent of Curtis, Darling, and Woodlawn that redeems the experience, and without them it would truly be unwatchable.  Could it be that Warhol feared they might outshine him on their own merits, and take away some of the credit for their own success? It’s a question, sadly, that must be asked, but can never be answered. Darling would pass away of cancer within two years of the film’s release, and Curtis would die of a heroin overdose a decade later; Woodlawn returned to her native Puerto Rico and worked as a busboy until, years later, a resurgence of interest in her former persona allowed her to return to the limelight. Women in Revolt, wretched as it is, is a snapshot of a moment in time, when all three were poised on the brink of success, and maybe, just maybe, could have broken through the barriers of social prejudice to achieve mainstream success. It was not to be, but they paved the way for future generations who continue the struggle for transgender acceptance. That in itself makes this movie worthy of respect- not for the posers behind the camera, but for the real people in front of it.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0129631/

Chinatown (1974)

Today’s cinema adventure: Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir-inspired mystery drama starring Jack Nicholson as thirties-era private detective Jake Gittes and Faye Dunaway as a mysterious widow whose secrets lead him into a complex web of deceit, corruption, and murder. Renowned, among other reasons, for its screenplay by Robert Towne, which has been hailed by many critics and film scholars as the greatest ever written, it became an instant classic on its release and is still widely regarded as one of the very best films of the seventies, and, indeed, of all time.

Towne’s acclaimed script takes inspiration from the circumstances surrounding early Los Angeles’ complicated acquisition of water rights, fictionalizing real-life figures- specifically William Mulholland, who engineered the importation of water from the north by way of the Los Angeles aqueduct- to create a background for the film’s mystery; though the events of Chinatown are entirely fictitious, this historical context provides a connection to reality that infuses the movie with a sense of authenticity and gives it a feeling on relevance beyond its dramatic narrative. Set in the L.A. of the early 1930s, the plot follows Gittes as he works what he thinks is a routine case. Hired by the wife of Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer for the city’s Department of Water and Power, to catch her husband in an extra-marital affair, he soon finds evidence not only of Mulwray’s supposed infidelity, but of mysterious diversions of water taking place under cover of night. When Mulwray turns up suspiciously drowned and Gittes discovers he was hired by an imposter, he decides to pursue the case in order to save his reputation. The trail begins with the real Mrs. Mulwray, who has a secret connection to her late husband’s “other woman,” and ultimately leads him into a game of clandestine politics, real estate fraud, and dark family secrets; with the police and hired thugs on his trail, he must try to find the key to this complex mystery before his time- or his luck- runs out.

On the surface, it sounds like a typical scenario that could be found in any of a hundred hard-boiled detective stories from the thirties or forties, loaded with the clichés and conceits of such fiction; the wisecracking dick, the deceitful femme fatale, the oily politicians, the psychotic gunsels- all of them are present and accounted for in Chinatown. Towne’s script, however, uses the trappings of the genre as a springboard from which to explore a myriad of deeper mysteries, allowing the unfolding story to take us from the larger arena of politics, power, and greed into the more inscrutable realm of the human heart; in the convoluted skein that lies at the center of the mystery, we find that the most intimate longings are ultimately responsible for the most momentous events, and actions with far-reaching consequences are motivated by simple flaws of character or personal dysfunction. As Gittes digs deeper, he uncovers a vein of corruption that runs from the top of the social order to the very root of the family structure, soiling everything it touches in between; it’s not a pretty discovery- the dirty little secrets he uncovers are very dirty indeed, and the glimpse we are offered into the inner workings of politics (both public and personal) among the rich and powerful is one which offers a very bleak picture, indeed, of the way things really are beneath the pretty surface of prosperity.

Woven into the tale is also an exploration of fate, dictated by the hopes and fears which motivate our actions and ultimately cause us to bring about the very results we wish to prevent; it’s a theme encapsulated in the very structure of the film, in which Gittes, who carries the emotional scars of his history as a policeman in L.A.’s Chinatown, vows never to return there, and yet the trail on which he is led by his case brings him right back into its heart for the film’s climax. An ironic twist, and one of many throughout the film; true to its film noir roots, Chinatown is a movie about irony. Gittes is as worldly and cynical as they come, and yet he finds himself betrayed at every turn by his naive assumptions, and his skeptical view of human nature leads him to repeatedly misjudge whether to doubt or trust the people around him. Not that he can be blamed- in Chinatown, nothing is what it seems, and the more you see of what goes on below the surface, the less you can be sure of how to proceed.

The screenplay for Chinatown is so thematically rich that volumes could be written about it; indeed, they have been. Much of the joy of the film, of course, is discovering the countless threads of meaning on your own, a process which continues throughout multiple repeated viewings. This is due to the contribution of its director, Polanski, whose European roots give him an outsider’s perspective on the quintessentially American milieu of the story. Instead of taking for granted the familiar conditions of the noir scenario, he turns everything inside out with his observations on the culture it portrays; his sophisticated take on the characters and their foibles, the machinations of the plot and the hidden truths it reveals, and the illusions inherent in the American psyche. After all, our seemingly savvy protagonist makes his living by tearing away illusions, but in the course of the film he ends up stripping away his own. Polanski carefully transfers our identification to Gittes, who has both the intelligence and integrity to make him an appealing representative for us, revealing information only as it becomes available to him, and making our journey of discovery synonymous with his. As he proceeds, it becomes increasingly apparent that he is trying to expose a secret everyone else already seems to know, and our illusions are shattered right alongside those of our hapless hero. This lends the film a uniquely contemporary viewpoint on the old-fashioned world it presents, and effectively converts the film noir form into a vehicle for modern ideas about the underlying moral structure of our society. Much of this may seem to be the result of Towne’s screenplay, but Polanski wielded considerable influence over the project, making important changes to the material (such as removing a planned voice-over narration and significantly changing the film’s ending) that altered its structure from a more overtly hard-boiled exercise in nostalgia to a subtle, multi-layered deconstruction of the genre. On a more technical level, the director exhibits his mastery of the medium in every frame, resisting the temptation to use cinematic methods associated with noir, relying on the script and the performances to convey those sensibilities, and instead telling the story with his own, decidedly modern, visual techniques; his use of light and shadow, his framing of shots, his incorporation of symbolic elements- all are reminiscent of the classic mode of these films without directly recreating it. He invokes the spirit of the past while constantly, and subtly, reminding us that we are watching a modern film. It’s an approach few filmmakers have successfully managed, though many have attempted it.

With Polanski utilizing his more current filmmaking style, the distinctive period feel which helps Chinatown evoke its air of old-fashioned intrigue is largely provided by its impeccable recreation of vintage Los Angeles, accomplished by the meticulous costumes, sets, and decor, as well as the carefully chosen locations- all captured by the crystalline, golden-hued cinematography of John A. Alonzo, which conjures the sun-drenched aura of the setting as well as giving a sepia-tinted nod to nostalgia. To complete the package, the lush musical score by Jerry Goldsmith adds a definitive, faintly exotic blend of romance and mystery, with magnificently haunting trumpet solos expressing the mournful longing at the heart of the movie; it’s an even more impressive accomplishment because Goldsmith was called in at the last minute to write music for the film when an already-finished score was rejected by producer Robert Evans. The veteran composer had only ten days to complete his work, but the resultant score stands with the many other elements of Chinatown that are held up among the finest ever produced for the screen.

There is a tendency in films by an auteur like Polanski for the cast to be overlooked, regardless of how superb their work may be; not so with Chinatown. Inseparable from the director’s vision is his star; Jack Nicholson’s unmistakable demeanor fits Jake Gittes to perfection, as much a natural extension of his own personality as such characters were for Humphrey Bogart. He embodies the archetypal private eye character while re-inventing it, giving us the expected image of a tough guy with a strategically hidden idealistic core, but adding yet another layer underneath which reflects the more realistic, contemporary viewpoint of the film. His Gittes seems plagued by self-doubt, a fear that he is setting himself up to repeat his past failure as a cop in Chinatown, and perhaps a suspicion that he is more of a sap than he wants to admit; its an endearing and humanizing weakness which undercuts his brashly confident air, a quality that is perhaps the essence of Nicholson’s screen persona, and it makes him the ideal factor for the audience in Polanski’s de-mystification of detective fiction. The burden of carrying the plot may be on Nicholson, but the bulk of its focus is on Faye Dunaway, as that other essential figure of the noir landscape, the femme fatale, and she is more than up to the scrutiny. As Evelyn Mulwray, she, like her co-star, brings a modern sensibility to the role, a character which runs much deeper than the usual dangerous dames in these hard-boiled tales. Dunaway gives us a well-put-together woman, used to the good life, who is haughty but candid, alluring but also intelligent, tender, vulnerable, and deeply scarred- but still full of warmth and far from broken. Though the character, true to the mold, is deceitful and manipulative, Dunaway lets us see that, in a sense, she’s not very good at it; her face betrays her true feelings at every turn, though she is practiced enough to play it off; in this way, like Nicholson, she creates a portrait of a real person trying to live up to an image she’s not quite sure she’s capable of. She is also beautiful- her smooth, alabaster skin and her faintly exotic eyes give her the perfect look to capture this mysterious, seemingly untouchable woman. As for the chemistry she has with her co-star, they make a perfect pair; their inevitable but unlikely coupling seems to come from nowhere, in terms of the script- there has been no flirtation, nor any overt indication of attraction. Yet when it happens, it feels absolutely right, a chance for both of them to let go of their jaded, protective façades and be human beings again, at least for a short time. They make a great pair, and they brilliantly capture the film’s sense of longing as they play out the story of two lonely souls whose union must ultimately be thwarted by fate, becoming one of the screen’s iconic couples in the process. The third brilliant performance, and one which is sometimes forgotten in discussions of Chinatown, comes from legendary director John Huston (a fitting addition to the cast, since his 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon, arguably gave birth to the entire film noir genre), as Noah Cross, Mulwray’s obscenely wealthy business partner, whose genteel courtliness does little to hide the arrogance and sense of entitlement that defines his character; a truly great villain, he dominates every scene he is in, and though he his screen time is relatively brief, he makes such an impression that it feels like he is in much more of the movie than he actually is. The remainder of the cast- including Burt Young as a client who becomes an ally, Perry Lopez as Jake’s former police partner who is now a high-ranking detective and an antagonist in the investigation, Diane Ladd as the phony Mrs. Mulwray, and director Polanski in a cameo as a deadly knife-wielding hoodlum- all bring their own considerable contributions to the table, fleshing out their smaller roles and providing even more texture to the already intricate tapestry of the movie’s multi-layered landscape.

Chinatown is one of those rare movies that seems to be impervious to the changing tastes of time; it captures not only the era of its setting but the savvy, anti-establishment zeitgeist of the “New Hollywood” seventies, yet it seems as fresh and up-to-the-minute today as it did nearly 40 years ago. Part of the reason for this lies in the timeless nature of its themes and its subject matter- the corruptibility of man and the inexorable workings of fate will never cease to be relevant topics, after all- but a great deal of credit goes to the delicate, deceptively simple handling given the film by Roman Polanski, and the self-assured, passionate work of its stars. There are several points of interest surrounding the movie for cinema historians- it was the first film shot in America by Polanski since the tragic murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson “family,” and the last before he fled the country to avoid sentencing for his statutory rape conviction, a still-highly-controversial incident that sharply divides public opinion even today. None of these things matter, though, when watching Chinatown. It’s a movie that has something to offer for every audience, from the serious cinemaphile to the most casual viewer. The word “masterpiece” gets thrown around a lot, and I hesitate to use it, most of the time, at least in writing; but I suspect, in the final analysis of Polanski’s body of work when all is said and done, it is this movie that will stand as his crowning achievement- more accessible than his earlier, more directly artistic efforts, possibly his most universal film in scope and appeal, and less detached than his later, more meditative work. It’s the kind of movie that entices us with its entertaining surface and draws us into its complex, thought-provoking, revelatory world- a world where right and wrong are inextricably woven together and the only way to avoid trouble, in the words of more than one character, is to do “as little as possible.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071315/

Death Race 2000 (1975)

Today’s cinema adventure: Death Race 2000, the 1975 fantasy-adventure exploitation film, produced by B-movie king Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, about a gladiatorial motor race taking place in a futuristic America ruled by a totalitarian government. Marked by its clearly low budget and campy sensibilities, it was (of course) lambasted by critics upon release- but has since become a bona fide cult classic, spawning numerous spin-offs in other media, countless imitators, and a big-budget Hollywood remake.

Wanting to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the then-upcoming film Rollerball, Corman found suitable source material in a short story, by sometime colleague Ib Melchior (who has a fascinating history in his own right, which you can read about here), called The Racer. Adapted into a screenplay by Robert Thom, then rewritten by Charles Griffith at the insistence of director Bartel, it visualizes a not-too-distant future in which America has been devastated by economic collapse and is under the control of an Orwellian regime (headed by a smarmy figure known simply as “Mr. President”), possessing the combined authority of church, state and media, and dedicated to a policy of “minority privilege.” Sponsored by the government is a yearly cross-country race in which contestants- paired with “navigators” who are apparently also designated sex partners- not only vie to be first across the finish line, but are awarded points for killing hapless pedestrians. Televised and spun for mass consumption, this ritualistic slaughter is further complicated by the interference of a group of rebels bent on sabotaging the proceedings and kidnapping the star driver, a mythic figure known as Frankenstein, whose survival of previous races has left him half-man/half-machine- or at least, according to his P.R.

Corman had always targeted the youth audience with his trend-savvy drive-in fodder, and by the 1970s had become associated with the counter-culture movement; Death Race 2000 struck just the right blend of anti-establishment sentiment and testosterone-fueled fantasy for his purposes. Using mostly re-bodied Volkswagens to stand-in for the souped-up fantasy roadsters driven by the race contestants, filmed on public roadways without permits, and starring David Carradine for box office insurance, the film was shot for a budget of $300,000 and ended up earning $5 million- critical derision notwithstanding.

The disapproval of 1975 critics was perhaps easy to understand. Death Race 2000 is a prime example of quickie low-budget movie making designed to attract a young and unsophisticated audience by titillating them with gratuitous violence and nudity. However, though that audience of pot-smoking drop-outs (and wannabe drop-outs) may have responded to these elements- which the movie certainly delivered- they also responded to something the establishment critics didn’t seem to notice: wrapped up in its lurid, ridiculous premise and its cheap, exploitational thrills is a core of smart social satire and subversive anarchy that captured the zeitgeist of these disillusioned flower-children; the darkly zany vision of the future presented here was clearly an over-the-top parody of the present-day world they lived in, from which the only real possibility of escape was to destroy the system from within- and this, of course, is exactly the scenario of Death Race 2000. While the movie’s well-intentioned revolutionaries are largely ineffectual in their war against the established order, and its media-hypnotized masses are willing lambs to the slaughter, its darkly wisecracking anti-hero- a trusted tool of the government and the best player in their monstrous game- is the only one who has the power to bring an end to their reign of deceit and oppression. It’s anti-authoritarian wish-fulfillment fantasy at its most unapologetic, and the sentiment that drives it is arguably even stronger today than it was then.

Despite this heavy-sounding sociopolitical subtext, the primary reason for watching Death Race 2000 is the same today as it was 37 years ago: it’s a hoot. Director Bartel brings his brand of dry whackiness to the table here, making the most of the story’s frequently ludicrous conceits with tongue-in-cheek self-parody; we don’t have to take the movie seriously because he reminds us throughout that it doesn’t take itself that way, allowing us to shut down our brains and just enjoy the absurdities onscreen. As for all that gratuitous nudity and violence, it certainly is gratuitous- and gleefully so; the movie revels in its tawdriness, delivering glossy, seventies-flavored sex and gore as often as possible without any attempt to justify it. The bloody parts, in particular, are highlighted with great delight, and they are somehow all the more satisfying for being so clearly fake; indeed, most of the carnage borders on slapstick comedy, and the truly graphic stuff is so fleeting you can miss it if you blink- because if it lasted any longer the bargain-basement trickery being employed would be even more obvious than it is already. It’s just more of the ridiculousness that gives the movie its deliberately mindless appeal; and it probably goes without saying that, by today’s standards, what we see in Death Race 2000 is pretty tame. At any rate, what 1975 critics found objectionable seems today like a pretty good recommendation for the film.

The acting here is more or less what you might expect- which means, actually, that it’s pretty good, all things considered. Each performer brings exactly what is required to their character, and in many cases adds a substantial portion of their own personality to it as well, fleshing out these formulaic ciphers and giving them a life over-and-above their roles in this twisted Wacky Racers-style scenario. Some of the faces are familiar, such as future Love Boat-and-U.S.-Congressional lacky Fred Grandy and former Warhol “superstar” Mary Woronov, the latter in particular being one of the film’s highlights with her surprisingly multi-faceted performance as one of the race’s contestants- although, in truth, Woronov’s presence in such films is always a delight, due to her ability to bring so much of her smart, sexy and sweet self into the mix, so her performance here is not that surprising, after all. For many, the biggest surprise will be the presence of Sylvester Stallone as Frankenstein’s chief rival in the race, a swaggering braggart in a gangster persona who takes everything way too seriously; Stallone, who was doubtless working on the screenplay for Rocky even as he filmed this, shows the charisma and ability that would soon make him a star, even though it’s hard to tell, sometimes, if his effectiveness here is due to his actual work or to the foreshadowing of his future screen persona. As for the movie’s star, David Carradine, he was fresh from his success on TV’s Kung Fu, and he was anxious to shed the image he had gained from it (though Corman had initially wanted anti-establishment icon Peter Fonda for the role); he gives a performance that, in another context, would probably have gained him a lot of critical acclaim, investing his brooding, bitter, bad-ass character with the depth, intelligence and humor necessary to make him not only interesting, but likeable- and, importantly, though perhaps incidentally, creates a persona that adds weight to the underlying elements that give Death Race 2000 its unexpected substance.

As for the film’s technical aspects, it manages to find a fairly coherent visual style despite its low budget, injecting its fruity satirical elements into the design in such a way that the cheapness actually seems to enhance the final effect. The costumes are a blend of cock-eyed futuristic imagining and modern-day tackiness, though its worth noting the striking resemblance between Frankenstein’s intimidating black outfit with the iconic design for Darth Vader, who would first appear on the screen a good two years later. The scenic elements are handled with a similar hybrid approach. The tinselly, cartoonish trappings of the futuristic setting are grafted onto the obviously contemporary surroundings, making its satirical connection to the present more obvious; the garish, cartoonish designs for the cars smacks of adolescent male automotive fantasy, and the fact that these re-purposed vehicles actually seem to perform is impressive in itself- in reality they were usually filmed rolling downhill after being pushed into motion, and the cameras were sped up to make it look like they were moving faster than they really were. The more elaborate effects- such as the single matte painting used to create the future New York skyline- are laughably shoddy, which of course only adds to the overall appeal, as do such obvious earmarks of the grade-Z budget as the undisguised exit door in Frankenstein’s “hotel suite” and the amateurish graphics of the various signage used throughout.

Death Race 2000 was remade a few years back, boosted with big Hollywood money but no doubt targeted at this generation’s version of the same audience. I confess I haven’t seen it; but I must say I find it difficult to believe that an A-list production would have quite the same effect as the original. Watching Corman and Bartel’s film gives the impression that you are somehow participating in an underground revolution, poking fun at “The Man” under his oblivious nose. With real money and studio backing, it seems to me such a film would have a different kind of phoniness to it, one far more insidious and subtle than the cardboard backdrops and obvious stage blood of the original- but that’s a review I haven’t written yet, though perhaps one day I will. In the meantime, I can heartily endorse the low-rent thrills of this cult-classic gem from the past; though the future it foresees is a little behind schedule, it still may come- but if it does, at least we can say we were warned.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072856/\

The Great Train Robbery (UK Title: The First Great Train Robbery) (1979)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Great Train Robbery, a 1979 period caper comedy directed and written by Michael Crichton, based on his own book, which in turn was based on the real-life 1855 theft of gold bars meant as pay for the English soldiers of the Crimean War- the first robbery ever to take place aboard a moving train.  Painstakingly accurate in period detail, expertly played with just the right blend of devilish humor and edgy thrills, it features sparkling chemistry between its three stars (Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down), a clever depiction of the intricate and crafty plot, a rousing score by ace film composer Jerry Goldsmith, and a magnificent climactic sequence featuring Connery (doing his own stunt work) navigating his way across the roof of the train as it speeds through the idyllic English countryside.

Crichton’s original novel, which took the facts of the real-life heist and transformed them into a fictional narrative by using pseudonyms, composite characters, and clever re-imagining of the details, became a best-seller in 1975 and seemed tailor-made from the outset for translation onto the screen, particularly in the wake of such successful genre entries as The Sting and Murder on the Orient Express; and while an author’s helming the adaptation of his own work might seem ill-advised, at best, in this case the choice was right on target.  Crichton was a jack-of-all-trades if ever there was one, and his understanding of the film medium here resulted in a crowd-pleasing piece of cinematic candy that sparkles with contemporary style even as it maintains its commitment to the demands of its Victorian setting.  For, though the historical accuracy of the events depicted may be tenuous, attention to period detail is rigorously observed.  Crichton paints a vivid picture of the Industrial Age, not only with the meticulous detail of the sets and costumes, but with his emphasis on the dehumanizing conditions, the corruption and inequity of the social order, and the contrast between extreme poverty and ostentatious wealth.  Not that The Great Train Robbery is a film devoted to deep meaning or social commentary; these elements are present to fuel a decidedly modern anti-establishment undercurrent and elicit audience sympathy for the roguish trio of anti-heroes, despite their unabashedly selfish motivations and their ruthless tactics, by casting them in the mold of populist outlaws- a sort of Victorian Bonnie and Clyde, plus one.  This perceptual conceit is part of what makes the film so much fun; we can be firmly on the side of these wrongdoers as we watch them execute their audacious scheme, and Crichton ensures our continued interest by doling out the details of that scheme in small pieces- we are given just enough insider information to know what is going on without being deprived of the thrill and surprises that come from seeing it carried out.

It helps that The Great Train Robbery is beautifully photographed by the legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth- one of the last films to claim that honor, it is dedicated to his memory- and that the aforementioned set and costume designs (by Bert Davey and Anthony Mendleson, respectively, in collaboration with Production Designer Maurice Carter) are sumptuously executed; each of these artists play an indispensable role in realizing the elaborately recreated 19th Century London in which the bulk of the film’s action plays out.  The previously noted Goldsmith score is effective throughout for setting the mood and tone; but when the setting finally opens up, for the climax, into the countryside, his music makes its most magnificent contribution, adding to the giddy feeling of freedom conjured by the wide open locale, and to the breathless excitement of watching as the final stages of the robbery take place- and as Connery makes his death-defying journey along the length of the moving train.  It’s a payoff almost as satisfying as the one enjoyed by the film’s characters.

The Great Train Robbery is not a profound movie, nor a deeply layered one; it is hardly one of those sublime masterpieces which holds up to repeated viewings throughout a lifetime, and yet when I watched it again recently after having not seen it for a number of years (more than I’m willing to admit to), I was thoroughly delighted to find that it was at least as enjoyable as when I saw it as an impressionable lad, sitting in a darkened theatre and wanting to grow up to be Sean Connery.  Often when a movie strives only to entertain, it falls short by trying too hard, or aiming too low, or- worst of all- trying to pretend it has a weightier agenda than it really does: The Great Train Robbery suffers from none of these shortfalls.  It sets out only to deliver a thrilling ride and it succeeds at exactly that- which is more than can be said of most of the overachieving would-be crowd-pleasers being offered up by filmmakers today.  Of course, they don’t have the benefit of Sean Connery…

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079240/

All That Jazz (1979)

Today’s cinema adventure: All That Jazz, the 1979 feature by Bob Fosse which reinvents the “backstage musical” as a fantasia on death and show business.  Framed as a portrait of Joe Gideon, a workaholic director/choreographer whose self-destructive habits sabotage his life and his relationships, the film is in reality a thinly-veiled autobiographical exploration of Fosse himself, documenting his failures as a husband, father and lover, depicting his excessive use of cigarettes, drugs and alcohol, exposing his serial womanizing, and revealing his obsessive dedication to his work as both an escape from and a response to the downward spiral of his personal life.  More importantly, it is a vehicle for the legendary director- with the help of co-screenwriter Robert Alan Arthur- to deliver his cynical observations about the entertainment business and its people, and a stylized allegory of his long flirtation with death- personified here by a mysterious, angelic woman in white, with whom Gideon carries on a hallucinatory fantasy dialogue, interpolated with the scenes of his life in the “real” world.  Laced with gallows humor, it’s a film which gets most of its mileage from contrasts- between the slick veneer and the seedy underbelly of the world it presents, the syrupy platitudes and the cold-hearted motives of the people who inhabit it, and the self-loathing and the self-aggrandizement that characterize its central figure- and by extension, the director himself.  Standing in for Fosse onscreen is Roy Scheider, whose performance as Gideon was derived from first-hand observations on the set, and provides a highly truthful and sympathetic representation of a man, weary from a lifetime of literally and figuratively “putting on the show,” who is so jaded and hollow that he is unable- and unwilling- to distinguish truth from illusion.  The ethereally beautiful Jessica Lange provides a chilling blend of seduction and sincerity to her embodiment of the angel of death, lending real emotional weight to the prospect of a final embrace; and the remainder of the cast- which includes some of Fosse’s own paramours as some of Gideon’s, as well as a sizeable collection of real-life Broadway performers portraying various denizens of the show biz circus that surrounds his life- do a superb job of capturing the authenticity of Fosse’s world.  Of course, the real star of this mix of cold reality and Fellini-esque fantasy is Fosse himself- for as elaborate as the film’s dramatic structure may be, it serves primarily as a framework for numerous displays of his legendary gifts as a choreographer, captured by the first-class cinematography of Guiseppe Rotunno and performed by practitioners well-versed in his distinctive style by years of first-hand experience.  These range from the breathtaking and justly famous audition montage which opens the film, to the erotically-charged airline number with which Gideon shocks and dazzles his producers, to the macabre hospital hallucination sequence featuring Busby Berkely-style feather dancers, to the culminating jazz/rock fantasy that serves as a grand finale for both the film and its protagonist’s life.  Whatever unique insights may be offered by Fosse’s look at his own psyche, the foremost value of All That Jazz comes from these dance sequences which offer perhaps the quintessential representation of his iconic style on film.  For many viewers, the highly theatrical, stylized conceit upon which the film hinges may seem too heavy-handedly symbolic, but it must be remembered that Fosse is not attempting to present a universal picture of humanity and death, merely his own personal take derived from a lifetime of channeling reality into fantasy; and if the self-observations he presents ultimately seem, despite their seemingly brutal honesty, to be just one more level of show-biz B.S., his perspective on himself acts as a microcosmic illumination of the dangers and demons of the creative personality, and as a warning to avoid the pitfalls which he so whole-heartedly embraced.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078754/