God’s Own Country (2017)

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When “Brokeback Mountain” arrived on the scene in 2005, it was almost unthinkable that a big-budget Hollywood film about a same-sex romance between two sheep herders could even get made, let alone go on to become a critically-lauded, multi-award-winning cultural phenomenon.  To be sure, it had its share of detractors, but the favor it gained within the mainstream was a clear sign that the tide was turning with regards to LGBTQ acceptance.

In those pre-marriage-equality days, its tragic tale of love thwarted by social intolerance was a somber testament of truth for the millions of queer people who had lived such lives through the generations that had come before – and make no mistake, it’s still a story that needs to be told.  Even so, there are many who felt that the film’s star-crossed lovers deserved a happier fate.

Now, twelve years later, they just might get a second chance – at least by proxy – in filmmaker Francis Lee’s quietly breathtaking debut feature, “God’s Own Country.”

Set in the bleak highlands of modern-day Yorkshire, it centers on Johnny Saxby, a young man who lives and works on his family’s struggling farm.  By night, he escapes from his grueling existence by drinking himself into a stupor at the village pub; occasionally, he finds temporary escape in anonymous sexual encounters with other men at the cattle auction or, presumably, from the surrounding area.  His routine is disrupted, however, when his father brings in Gheorghe, a Romanian immigrant worker, to help with the sheep during lambing season; though he is at first resentful and abusive of the new hired hand, a powerful attraction soon develops between the two men.

How things unfold from there is the main business of the movie, and it would be bad form to reveal how it eventually plays out; suffice to say that, despite the similarities in their subject matter, “God’s Own Country” is a very different experience from “Brokeback.”

It is, of course, patently unfair to define Lee’s heartfelt and highly personal film in relation to another movie, no matter how much the comparison begs to be made – but it’s hard to avoid pointing out at least one particularly telling detail.  In “Brokeback,” the two protagonists face homophobia from both without and within; but in the contemporary world of “God’s Own Country,” that homophobia is more of a phantom threat than a concrete one.  The people around Johnny seem to accept his sexuality; and although he himself struggles with internalized shame, it may have less to do with being gay than it does with a fear of intimacy.

It’s this that makes the movie as far removed from “Brokeback” in tone and attitude as it is in the time and place of its setting, and it makes all the difference.

Lee’s film is a patient, understated, and touching portrait of two men as they find the courage to break through barriers – not social, but personal – to reach each other.  It’s a struggle we’ve seen explored by heterosexual lovers in countless romantic dramas, but for gay couples on the screen the obstacles have historically been cultural or political.  Though such factors may lie at the root of Johnny and Gheorghe’s issues, there is no need for them to change the world to be together – only themselves.  In this way, their story is perhaps more closely related to Andrew Haigh’s excellent “Weekend” than it is to that other sheep wrangler movie.

Comparisons aside, “God’s Own Country” stands tall on its own considerable merits.  Inspired by his coming of age in Yorkshire (the movie was filmed in his own village, with the farm where he grew up only a short distance from the shooting location), Lee has written and crafted a lovingly detailed work, as rigorous in its painstaking authenticity as it is poetic in its cinematic expression.

There’s much to appreciate in Lee’s directorial approach.  He proves himself a master of visual storytelling, communicating some of the film’s most potent moments with little or no dialogue, and orchestrating a rich symbolic subtext with subtle visual cues throughout – like the muted reds and blues of Gheorghe’s knit sweater, which make it shine amidst the movie’s stark grey palette like a multi-hued beacon of hope.  He is equally shrewd in what he doesn’t show; he largely eschews the wide landscapes typical of such pastoral romances, instead keeping his camera – and the story – focused on the personal and intimate.

He also draws superb performances from his actors.  Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu make Johnny and Gheorghe, respectively, as genuine as they are endearing; their natural ease with their surroundings– Lee put them to work on a farm for several weeks before shooting – underscores and enhances not only the realism of their acting but of the movie itself.  Most importantly, they have a rare chemistry that wins the audience from their first meeting – and places their love scenes among the sexiest big-screen pairings in recent memory.

In the smaller (but crucial) roles of Johnny’s father and grandmother, Ian Hart and Gemma Jones give quiet, dignified eloquence to characters who, in a lesser film, might have been rendered as course and one-dimensional stereotypes.  Far from being antagonists, they provide a rich and fertile ground from which the film’s love story can grow.

It should be noted that “God’s Own Country” does contain some full-frontal nudity and relatively explicit sexual content.  This will doubtless be reason enough to entice many viewers within the film’s target audience, but there is so much more in this little gem of a British import to warrant seeking it out.

Though it may not attract much mainstream attention, “God’s Own Country” feels important.  When a movie about two men who fall in love with each other doesn’t feel the need to justify its own existence by advancing a social or political agenda, it’s proof that the turn of the tide signaled by “Brokeback,” not so very long ago, has carried us at last to an era in which a “gay movie” can simply be called “a movie.”

The fact that it’s also an excellent movie is a welcome bonus.

 

 

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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.

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

 

Crash (1996)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Crash, David Cronenberg’s highly controversial and disturbing feature about a group of car crash survivors and the obsessive sexual fetishism they develop around their experience. Based on the equally controversial novel by J.G. Ballard, it was banned from public screening in its country of origin (Canada) as well as in many other countries, and released in both an R- and NC-17-rated form in the U.S. Despite widespread protest and outrage over its combination of graphic sexual and violent content, it was widely acclaimed by critics for its bold depiction of an uncomfortable and unorthodox subject matter, as well as for the cinematic prowess of its director in bringing his twisted vision to the screen.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on James, a sexually adventurous film producer whose marriage to the beautiful Catherine is spiced up by the reports they bring back to each other of their mutual infidelities. After a traumatic automobile accident requiring a lengthy hospital rehabilitation, he becomes involved with a community of other survivors that has gathered around Vaughan, a charismatic and hyper-sexual figure who encourages- and participates in- the merging of their sexual impulses with their fixation on the crash experience; James draws Catherine into the circle to join him, and with the others they explore ever-riskier fantasies in the pursuit of their dark passions. Though there is a structural arc to the story, which involves Vaughan’s role as sexual mentor and the gradual transference of his obsessions to James and Catherine, the narrative takes a back seat, if you’ll pardon the expression, to Cronenberg’s perverse fantasia of sexual deviancy.

From the very first scene, in which we see Catherine pressing her exposed breasts against the fuselage of an airplane during a clandestine encounter in an airport hangar, Cronenberg sets up his motif, a juxtaposition of soft flesh and hard metal which strives to make the viewer’s experience as close as possible to a tactile one; as the film progresses, it moves through its brief interstitial scenes- ostensibly necessary for the advancement of the plot, but in actuality merely required for establishing the next sexual scenario- into one graphic encounter after another, each one pushing us further past our comfortable boundaries and deeper into an unfamiliar realm of extreme sexual fetishism. Taboos fall away one by one as we witness erotic acts between various combinations of genders, performed in private and in public, involving sexual and non-sexual body parts, and almost always in connection with cars. This saturation of sexual imagery is not gratuitous: Cronenberg’s aim is to turn us on, certainly; but by mingling blatant eroticism with the adrenaline rush of recklessly driven vehicles, the carnage of roadside disasters, and a heavy dose of the body horror he so frequently returns to in his films, he triggers our sexual response alongside our conflicting reactions of fear and repulsion- alerting us to the possible dark corners in our own libidos and making us paraphiles by association. It’s an effect that makes Crash a highly unique cinematic experience, a sexual horror film which completely removes the distancing elements between our shock and our arousal- the subject he shows us is the object of both.

Of course, this experiment in dysfunctional autoeroticism is not for the squeamish; even those comfortable with explicit sexual content may find themselves turning away from the accompanying depictions of twisted metal and disfigured body parts, and most especially the frequent merging of the two. Those who are able to brave it out, however, might find themselves in awe of the way Cronenberg uses his skill to manipulate their wiring, like some sort of mad psychosexual scientist, to elicit responses ordinarily deemed inappropriate in the face of such stimuli. At the very least, the film begets a grudging admiration for its director’s ability to exploit the basic similarity between the primal reactions to sex and horror, and to use it in a visceral exploration of themes usually handled in the realm of intellect- the role of social conditioning in defining “normal” sexuality, the aphrodisiac effects of dangerous or forbidden behavior, and the age-old psychological connection between sex and death.

In bringing Ballard’s novel to the screen, Cronenberg (who also wrote the screenplay) updates it from its original 1970s setting and transposes the action from London to Toronto, but the underlying feeling of participating in something you shouldn’t remains the same, as does the tantalizing use of the author’s last name for the leading character, though Ballard denied any autobiographical connections (which didn’t stop eyebrows being raised when he was seriously injured in a car accident shortly after the book’s publication). To add another coincidental wrinkle, the character shares his first name with the actor portraying him, James Spader. Cronenberg’s shrewd casting adds another layer to the motif of contrasting textures, with outwardly cool, aloof performers- Spader and Deborah Kara Unger (as his wife)- colliding with the hot, rough, seething energy of Elias Koteas as Vaughan. The sparks are palpable; Koteas exudes raw, musky sensuality in every scene, making it clear how this underground sexual prophet attracts his furtive, broken followers. As a fellow survivor of the same crash, whose affair with James is the first step on his journey into dangerous obsession, Holly Hunter gives us a straight-laced, almost asexual surface that belies the ravenous carnal appetite underneath; and Rosanna Arquette, as another of Vaughan’s acolytes, is the ultimate embodiment of the film’s grotesque fantasy, a mangled sexpot encased in a set of rigid metal braces, beautiful and terrifying as some sort of steampunk sex robot- the perfect object of paraphiliac desire.

Rounding out the total package is the moody cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, which somehow gives a glossy, candy-shell shine to the dark and shadowy atmosphere of the film’s environment; and the background score, by longtime Cronenberg colleague Howard Shore, which underlines the director’s dominant concerns with a piercing, metallic guitar sound that manages to be both dissonant and harmonious.

Crash is one of those films that falls definitively into the category of cinema as art; there are doubtless many viewers who would disagree, citing its subject matter as unworthy or its deliberately titillating sexual content as exploitative. It’s a film that challenges us, that makes us uncomfortable by forcing us to cross boundaries we accept as sacred, and the first response to such material is often to dismiss it as trash. However, just like controversial works in other media- such as “Piss Christ” or “The Human Printing Press,” or the writings of the Marquis de Sade- there is a powerful voice behind this movie, one with a purpose and a need to express something about the human experience that can enlighten us despite our defensive reaction to its form. That said, it should be duly noted that Crash is not meant as entertainment, at least not for the casual movie-goer; though it is loaded with sex scenes and car chases, they are not in the nature of the ones which normally make for box office appeal. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie- I’ve had a much better time watching other Cronenberg films, disturbing though they usually are- and I’m not even sure I can say it enriched me, in any way. I can, however, say that it forced itself into my consciousness and made itself a permanent part of my psyche, for better or for worse, and that in itself is enough for me to recommend it highly, at least to those adventurous cinemaphiles who are willing to be disturbed, or even outraged. It’s not safe cinema, but then, as the denizens of the secret world portrayed in Crash would tell you, there are sometimes more important things than being safe.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115964/

Crash (1996)

;

Today’s cinema adventure: Crash, David Cronenberg’s highly controversial and disturbing feature about a group of car crash survivors and the obsessive sexual fetishism they develop around their experience. Based on the equally controversial novel by J.G. Ballard, it was banned from public screening in its country of origin (Canada) as well as in many other countries, and released in both an R- and NC-17-rated form in the U.S. Despite widespread protest and outrage over its combination of graphic sexual and violent content, it was widely acclaimed by critics for its bold depiction of an uncomfortable and unorthodox subject matter, as well as for the cinematic prowess of its director in bringing his twisted vision to the screen.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on James, a sexually adventurous film producer whose marriage to the beautiful Catherine is spiced up by the reports they bring back to each other of their mutual infidelities. After a traumatic automobile accident requiring a lengthy hospital rehabilitation, he becomes involved with a community of other survivors that has gathered around Vaughan, a charismatic and hyper-sexual figure who encourages- and participates in- the merging of their sexual impulses with their fixation on the crash experience; James draws Catherine into the circle to join him, and with the others they explore ever-riskier fantasies in the pursuit of their dark passions. Though there is a structural arc to the story, which involves Vaughan’s role as sexual mentor and the gradual transference of his obsessions to James and Catherine, the narrative takes a back seat, if you’ll pardon the expression, to Cronenberg’s perverse fantasia of sexual deviancy.

From the very first scene, in which we see Catherine pressing her exposed breasts against the fuselage of an airplane during a clandestine encounter in an airport hangar, Cronenberg sets up his motif, a juxtaposition of soft flesh and hard metal which strives to make the viewer’s experience as close as possible to a tactile one; as the film progresses, it moves through its brief interstitial scenes- ostensibly necessary for the advancement of the plot, but in actuality merely required for establishing the next sexual scenario- into one graphic encounter after another, each one pushing us further past our comfortable boundaries and deeper into an unfamiliar realm of extreme sexual fetishism. Taboos fall away one by one as we witness erotic acts between various combinations of genders, performed in private and in public, involving sexual and non-sexual body parts, and almost always in connection with cars. This saturation of sexual imagery is not gratuitous: Cronenberg’s aim is to turn us on, certainly; but by mingling blatant eroticism with the adrenaline rush of recklessly driven vehicles, the carnage of roadside disasters, and a heavy dose of the body horror he so frequently returns to in his films, he triggers our sexual response alongside our conflicting reactions of fear and repulsion- alerting us to the possible dark corners in our own libidos and making us paraphiles by association. It’s an effect that makes Crash a highly unique cinematic experience, a sexual horror film which completely removes the distancing elements between our shock and our arousal- the subject he shows us is the object of both.

Of course, this experiment in dysfunctional autoeroticism is not for the squeamish; even those comfortable with explicit sexual content may find themselves turning away from the accompanying depictions of twisted metal and disfigured body parts, and most especially the frequent merging of the two. Those who are able to brave it out, however, might find themselves in awe of the way Cronenberg uses his skill to manipulate their wiring, like some sort of mad psychosexual scientist, to elicit responses ordinarily deemed inappropriate in the face of such stimuli. At the very least, the film begets a grudging admiration for its director’s ability to exploit the basic similarity between the primal reactions to sex and horror, and to use it in a visceral exploration of themes usually handled in the realm of intellect- the role of social conditioning in defining “normal” sexuality, the aphrodisiac effects of dangerous or forbidden behavior, and the age-old psychological connection between sex and death.

In bringing Ballard’s novel to the screen, Cronenberg (who also wrote the screenplay) updates it from its original 1970s setting and transposes the action from London to Toronto, but the underlying feeling of participating in something you shouldn’t remains the same, as does the tantalizing use of the author’s last name for the leading character, though Ballard denied any autobiographical connections (which didn’t stop eyebrows being raised when he was seriously injured in a car accident shortly after the book’s publication). To add another coincidental wrinkle, the character shares his first name with the actor portraying him, James Spader. Cronenberg’s shrewd casting adds another layer to the motif of contrasting textures, with outwardly cool, aloof performers- Spader and Deborah Kara Unger (as his wife)- colliding with the hot, rough, seething energy of Elias Koteas as Vaughan. The sparks are palpable; Koteas exudes raw, musky sensuality in every scene, making it clear how this underground sexual prophet attracts his furtive, broken followers. As a fellow survivor of the same crash, whose affair with James is the first step on his journey into dangerous obsession, Holly Hunter gives us a straight-laced, almost asexual surface that belies the ravenous carnal appetite underneath; and Rosanna Arquette, as another of Vaughan’s acolytes, is the ultimate embodiment of the film’s grotesque fantasy, a mangled sexpot encased in a set of rigid metal braces, beautiful and terrifying as some sort of steampunk sex robot- the perfect object of paraphiliac desire.

Rounding out the total package is the moody cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, which somehow gives a glossy, candy-shell shine to the dark and shadowy atmosphere of the film’s environment; and the background score, by longtime Cronenberg colleague Howard Shore, which underlines the director’s dominant concerns with a piercing, metallic guitar sound that manages to be both dissonant and harmonious.

Crash is one of those films that falls definitively into the category of cinema as art; there are doubtless many viewers who would disagree, citing its subject matter as unworthy or its deliberately titillating sexual content as exploitative. It’s a film that challenges us, that makes us uncomfortable by forcing us to cross boundaries we accept as sacred, and the first response to such material is often to dismiss it as trash. However, just like controversial works in other media- such as “Piss Christ” or “The Human Printing Press,” or the writings of the Marquis de Sade- there is a powerful voice behind this movie, one with a purpose and a need to express something about the human experience that can enlighten us despite our defensive reaction to its form. That said, it should be duly noted that Crash is not meant as entertainment, at least not for the casual movie-goer; though it is loaded with sex scenes and car chases, they are not in the nature of the ones which normally make for box office appeal. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie- I’ve had a much better time watching other Cronenberg films, disturbing though they usually are- and I’m not even sure I can say it enriched me, in any way. I can, however, say that it forced itself into my consciousness and made itself a permanent part of my psyche, for better or for worse, and that in itself is enough for me to recommend it highly, at least to those adventurous cinemaphiles who are willing to be disturbed, or even outraged. It’s not safe cinema, but then, as the denizens of the secret world portrayed in Crash would tell you, there are sometimes more important things than being safe.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115964/

 

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Sebastiane (1976) [Warning: some images may be NSFW]

Today’s cinema adventure: Derek Jarman’s 1976 debut feature, Sebastiane, a fictionalized vision of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, presented less as a meditation on spiritual themes than as a homoerotic fantasy in which the soldier Sebastianus, after falling from favor with the Roman Emperor Diocletian, is exiled to a remote oupost in the wilderness, where his refusal to yield to his commanding officer’s obsessive lust eventually leads to his ritual execution by arrows.  A work that is historically significant not only for being the first film produced in authentic Latin (and as such, the first British-made movie to be shown in England with subtitles), but- more importantly- for the prologue featuring an erotic dance by legendary glam-era performance artist Lindsay Kemp and his Troupe, and its inclusion of an early score by electronic music pioneer Brian Eno, Sebastiane was never anybody’s idea of a mainstream film, not even its creator’s.  Like most of Jarman’s films, it’s not big on story, but despite its shoestring budget, it is lovingly and beautifully shot, each frame artfully crafted so that the final result resembles a Renaissance painting in motion. The extensive nudity (all male, of course) was explained by Jarman as being because they “couldn’t afford costumes” (sure, Derek, sure… we believe you), and needless to say the film was highly controversial at the time of release; but although many viewers may fixate on what often seems like gratuitous nudity and sexual content, Jarman is not merely concerned with exploiting or even celebrating the male form; he has much to say about the issue of homosexual shame.  On the surface, the film would seem to comply with the traditional Catholic assertion that homosexual behavior is a sin to be forsworn, and that Sebastianus’ fate is to be sacrificed to that ideal, destroyed by unrepentant sinners for his refusal to debase himself- a decidedly conflicting message, when one considers the fact that the film is heavily laden with imagery clearly intended to elicit homosexual fantasies.  Certainly these themes of religiously-fueled guilt are in play within Sebastiane, and Jarman undoubtedly wrapped some of his own spiritual struggles into his film; but like most art, the true nature of the themes expressed lies beneath the obvious details.  Sebastianus’ rejection is of the flesh itself, regardless of sexual orientation: it is his devotion to a life of the spirit that makes him an outcast and a martyr, and it is the jealousy and pride of those who fail to understand him that leads to his death; in the end, sexuality is irrelevant here, and Jarman’s true indictment is against the base and brutal tendencies of stereotypical masculinity, the hypocrisy of judgement and violence against those who do not conform to the status quo, and the arrogance of those who choose to subvert their own spirituality to their egotistical desires and insecurities.  In short, the film is more about homophobia than homosexuality, and its abundance of homoerotic imagery is as much to incite as to excite.  Of course, that same imagery is sufficient to ensure that the majority of religious bigots will never see this film, so in a way, Sebastiane is a prime example of an artist “preaching to the choir;” and, truthfully, the copious amount of it ultimately displaces Jarman’s higher purpose, so that his inaugural cinematic excursion ends up being more stimulating on a decidedly lower level.  My own reaction: it’s a very pretty movie to look at, and probably one of the most erotic ones I have seen (much more so than porn, actually); but at times I couldn’t help being reminded of those soft-core late-night “Skinemax” flicks I would sometimes catch my Dad watching at 3 in the morning… slow motion photography of someone taking a shower, with the frame cropped in just the right place to keep it from being obscene, that sort of thing, except instead of beautiful women, here it was beautiful men.  I can’t say I had any complaints, but I was ready for it to be over about 30 minutes before it actually was.  It might have helped if the actors (Leonardo Treviglio as Sebastianus, supported by Barney James, Neil Kennedy, and Richard Warwick, among others- none of whom had significant careers afterward) had delivered performances that were as beautiful as their bodies… but I guess we can’t have everything.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075177/

Eating Raoul (1982)

Today’s cinema adventure: Eating Raoul, the dark 1982 low-budget satire which became a surprise hit and helped to start a wave of goofy “camp” comedies that pervaded the rest of the decade.  Director/co-writer Paul Bartel, an exploitation cinema veteran, also stars with longtime friend and frequent co-star Mary Woronov as a married pair of sexual squares who lure “swingers” to their Hollywood apartment and kill them with a frying pan in order to finance their dream of opening a restaurant.  Macabre as the premise seems- and in spite of a plot which features such elements as rape, serial murder and cannibalism- the film is kept light and fun by a healthy dose of good-natured kitsch and by its ridiculously over-the-top portrayal of the lurid “swinger” culture and its sexually liberated denizens.  Bartel and Richard Blackburn’s screenplay is loaded with pseudo-shocking dialogue which exploits the ridiculousness of both prudish repression and extreme sexuality, peppered with great deadpan one-liners, and thematically unified by an exploration of the depravity hiding just under even the most respectable-seeming surfaces.  Clever writing aside, the primary factor in the film’s success is the charm of its leading players: Bartel is somehow likeable and endearing despite his pompously indignant and über-nerdy persona; former Warhol “superstar” Woronov is a complex confection, undercutting her character’s uptight austerity with smoldering sensuality and a girlish vulnerability; and the chemistry between these oddball stars is palpable- they are clearly driven by the same skewed vision.  Rounding out the main cast is Robert Beltran, equally charming and sympathetic as Raoul, the hot-blooded Latino hoodlum who attempts to blackmail and come between the couple- and whose ultimate fate is foreshadowed by the tongue-in-cheek title of the film.  In addition, there are some delightful cameos by comedic masters such as Buck Henry, Ed Begley, Jr., and the incomparable Edie McClurg.  The sordid proceedings play out against a now-nostalgic backdrop of seedy Los Angeles locations, accompanied by a quirky and eclectic soundtrack and driven at a brisk pace by Bartel’s quietly masterful direction.  Don’t get me wrong here- Eating Raoul is by no means a masterpiece, even in the world of underground cinema- it lacks the anarchic, subversive edginess of a John Waters film, and its “shocks” are pretty tame, even by 1982 standards- but it is nevertheless a delight to watch, perhaps because for all its satirical snarkiness and its unsavory subject matter, there is an unmistakable sweetness at the center of its black little heart.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083869/

Fritz the Cat (1972)

Today’s cinema adventure- Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 feature debut, his adaptation of R. Crumb’s underground comic, Fritz the Cat.  The first animated film to earn an “X” rating, it met with a lot of resistance and outrage from the mainstream, and Crumb hated it, disowned it, and tried to get his name taken off the credits- but it ended up being the most financially successful independent animated feature of all time.  Written and directed by Bakshi, the film follows Fritz as he takes a personal odyssey from a life of “hanging out” and looking for a good time through a drug-inspired pursuit of revolution- with plenty of shockingly permissive bad behavior along the way.  Voiced by Skip Hinnant (known for his work as part of the ensemble on the classic educational show, The Electric Company), Fritz is hardly a typical cartoon hero: far from cute, barely likeable, and nobody’s idea of a role model, he indulges in one ill-advised misadventure after another, motivated by selfish hedonism even when he is ostensibly acting for what he views as the greater good.  He serves as a sort of counter-cultural Candide, a naïve fool who fancies himself a sophisticate, and as such is at the mercy of a world more corrupt and complex than he imagines; in short, he is the kind of phony that the truly hip despise, and his journey of self-discovery in this worst-of-all-possible-worlds is a vehicle to expose social and political hypocrisy from every source, including (and especially) from our hero himself.  This ambitious agenda may have been beyond the scope of Crumb’s original work (he certainly thought is was), but for Bakshi, it was important for the film to make a statement, which it most certainly does- in between scenes of anthropomorphic animals having sex and taking drugs, that is.  Not that his intention was to shock: geared towards a drug-friendly youth culture, loaded with tons of juvenile sexual, political and racial humor, and mercilessly critical of both the radical left and the extremist right, the film is clearly aimed at an audience who shares his uncensored sensibilities.  At the time of its release, it was one of those films that generated protest and controversy from people who more than likely never saw it, and was cheerfully received by a target audience hungry for the kind of frank, turned-on content it offered.  Forty years later, most of its shock value and its topicality are long gone (one can see comparable content on any given episode of Family Guy today) and across the gap in time much of the film’s anarchic zeitgeist seems more than a little tiresome- as I suspect, to the more mature viewer, it did even then.  Still, as a piece of history, it is fascinating to watch: the animation, though primitive and almost quaint to modern eyes, was innovative and ground-breaking at the time; it presented adult subject matter and content never before seen in animation and completely changed the industry, breaking the stereotype of cartoons being only for children; and it vividly captures a particular social strata of 1960’s culture that is often ignored by popular memory.  I won’t say that you’ll enjoy it, but if you’re intrigued by looking through a window to a bygone era- and you’re open-minded and adventurous- you’ll be glad you watched it.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068612/

Peeping Tom (1960)

Today’s cinema adventure: Peeping Tom, the controversial 1960 thriller directed by Michael Powell, who was one of Great Britain’s most revered and respected filmmakers- that is, until the savage critical lambasting received by this feature effectively put an end to his career.   Photographed in garish color reminiscent of the lurid under-the-table pornography of its time, this tale of a disturbed young recluse who films women as he murders them was such a flop upon release that it was barely shown outside of England.  Over the succeeding years, however, it became a cult classic, growing in critical estimation and championed by such heavy hitters as Martin Scorsese (for one), and it is now generally acknowledged as a ground-breaking, underappreciated masterpiece of the genre.  On an intellectual level, I can see why: director Powell thoroughly explores the theme of voyeurism as it applies to cinema, forcing the audience from the very first frames to identify with the killer, and using the film’s story as a vehicle to manipulate our sympathies, uncover our own guilty voyeuristic tendencies, and confront us with our darkest fears just as his protagonist does with his victims.  There isn’t an extraneous or gratuitous moment in the film; every scene, every frame, every shot is calculated and geared toward the purpose- a testament to Powell’s mastery of his cinematic medium.  Despite the high score on an academic level, however, the film falls short for me on the more visceral level of emotional response; part of this may be due to the fact that, after 50 years, the film’s shock value (and body count) has been far surpassed by countless other horror movies and, by today’s standard, seems fairly tame (albeit still quite unsettling on a psychological level).  But I think the primary problem lies with the casting of Carl Boehm in the central role of the homicidal cameraman: not only does his German accent seem out of place for this decidedly English character, but his performance is stilted and unconvincing, making it difficult for us to sympathize with him- a necessary element to the transference of guilt to the audience which Powell works so hard to achieve.  The rest of the cast is excellent (particularly the young Anna Massey and the film’s biggest star, Moira Shearer, whose small but pivotal role is the centerpiece of the film’s most masterful and harrowing sequence), but with Boehm’s wooden presence in the middle of the proceedings, the film’s overall effect is muted: it stimulates the brain, and disturbs the psyche, but the heart remains aloof.  Still, it has much to recommend it, and it’s definitely worth the effort to check out a movie which, flawed or not, remains as an important footnote in cinematic history.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054167/

Woman in the Dunes/Suna no onna (1964)

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Today’s cinema adventure: Woman in the Dunes the strikingly photographed 1964 avant garde feature by Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara,  Adapted by Kōbō Abe from his own novel, it’s a deceptively simple parable about an entomologist on a field expedition to collect specimens at a remote beach; when he misses his return bus, he seeks shelter for the night with a young widow in a local village- only to find himself trapped into remaining as her companion in a life of endless labor, shoveling sand from the quarry in which they live, both for their sustenance and to prevent their house from being buried.  Within the framework of this premise are explored a multitude of giant, deeply reverberating themes, ranging from the contrast between the masculine and the feminine to man’s role in society to the very nature and meaning of existence itself- all of which plays out against the backdrop of the monumental, ever-shifting sand dunes, emphasizing the inexorable dominance of nature and the universe and transforming the primal landscape into a central character of the drama.  The performances of the two principals (Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida) are superb, helping to create the delicate balance between realism and symbolic fantasy that propels the film- but the true star here is the magnificent black-and-white cinematography of Hiroshi Segawa, which not only captures the fluid, omnipresent sand in remarkable, crystalline detail, but conveys a sense of tangibility to every texture in the film, from the salty grit which covers every surface to the smoothness of the players’ skin, making the viewer’s experience highly visceral- and erotic.  One of those world cinema classics that is a staple in film classrooms around the world, the artistry of Woman in the Dunes is indisputable- some audiences, however, may find that its blend of existential absurdism and Zen austerity creates a cool detachment that prevents emotional involvement in the action.  Nevertheless, as an intellectual and philosophical exercise- and as piece of stunning visual artistry- it’s a film which packs more than enough power to make its 2 ½ hour running time seemingly fly by.  A must-see for any serious film buff- but you may feel like you need a long shower to rinse off all that sand.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058625/

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