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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Beach Rats (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats” is unquestionably a potent piece of filmmaking.

After a glowing debut at Sundance early this year, it has claimed awards at numerous film festivals, including the prize for Outstanding Screenwriting in a U.S. Feature at Los Angeles’ own Outfest.  Now receiving wider release in movie theaters across the country, it continues to garner impressive reviews as it cements its status as the latest darling of indie LGBT cinema.

It’s also at the center of a blooming controversy which threatens to undermine that status.

A gritty, slice-of life drama, the movie documents a fateful summer in the life of Frankie, a closeted South Brooklyn teen who finds escape from his joyless life through anonymous online hookups with older guys he meets online.  As the narrative follows his efforts to mask his secret by posturing with hooligan friends and pursuing a romance with a neighborhood girl, it creates an astute portrait of internalized homophobia and the cultural pressure that breeds it.

The critical acclaim is not unwarranted.

Anchored by a breathtaking performance from the beautiful Harris Dickinson (an English actor, though you would never know it from his flawless depiction of a young Brooklyn “bro”), Hittman’s movie is sexy, haunting, and impressionistic.  It flows through a series of incidents and encounters with dreamlike detachment; its 16mm cinematography (by Hélène Louvart) creates a sense of disjointed aimlessness with hand-held camerawork, and oppresses our senses with the frequent use of extreme close-ups.  The overall effect is to keep us as completely “in the moment” as the film’s protagonist as he floats blithely along towards the inevitable collision of his two worlds.

It doesn’t all work as well as Hittman wants it to.  There are stretches when the movie’s meandering pace feels like a test of patience; its narrative is occasionally obscured by its impressionistic visual style; and one has to wonder why, in a film about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality, so much more screen time is devoted to his relationship with a would-be girlfriend than it is to his encounters with other males (no offense to the lovely Madeline Weinstein, who gives a luminous performance as the girl in question).

Ultimately, though, “Beach Rats” wields a cumulative power that grows out of its scattered moments of truth, leaving us with a clear picture of a young man disconnected from his sense of self by his own determination to be what he thinks the world expects him to be.  Frankie’s compartmentalization of his sexual identity is less about shame than it is about living up to a role in which he sees himself cast by his community.  It’s okay for him to have sex with men, as long as he keeps it separate from his “real life.” Thanks to Ellis’ subtly illuminating performance, it’s clear that his most truthful and authentic self comes to the surface when he is with his clandestine “tricks” – which makes it all the more devastating to watch him betray that self through the actions he takes to hide it.

The film’s insightful observations about such homophobic rationalization- made all the more impressive by the fact that “Beach Rats” is written and directed by a straight woman – are well worth the sometimes slow and rocky journey it takes to reach them, and would normally be reason enough to give it a hearty endorsement.

Unfortunately, ethical questions about the source of its content make such an endorsement problematic.

Though Hittman has stated in numerous interviews that her screenplay for “Beach Rats” was influenced solely by her own memories of growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood depicted in the film, the circumstances leading up to the story’s climax are suspiciously close to those of a real-life incident.

In 2006, a black gay man named Michael Sandy arranged a meeting online with a teen named John Fox.  When he arrived, he saw four young men instead of only one and decided to leave; soon afterward, however, he contacted Fox again and arranged to meet him alone for sex.  Lured to Plumb Beach, a remote location off the Belt Parkway near Brooklyn, he was ambushed by Fox and three of his friends – Anthony Fortunato, Ilya Shurov, and Gary Timmins – who planned to steal the marijuana he had promised to bring along.  Sandy fled onto the Parkway, pursued by Fox and Shurov.  The latter shoved him into the path of a moving vehicle, which struck and killed him.  All four teens were later convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime.

The events which transpire in Hittman’s movie do not play out exactly the same way; there is no overt depiction of a killing, although the outcome is deliberately ambiguous.  Nevertheless, the specifics leading up to them – along with numerous other factual parallels that are woven into the film’s entire structure – are so similar to the highly publicized case as to raise the eyebrows of New Yorkers who remember it.

The climactic scene was even filmed, in part, at the same location where the real-life incident took place.

One detail which is glaringly different, however, is the fact that Michael Sandy’s equivalent character in “Beach Rat” is a white man.  It is this factor that has drawn the most objection, particularly in light of a cultural climate in which acute awareness has developed to the “whitewashing” of the stories told in our popular entertainment and the subject of race in general.

For her part, Eliza Hittman has repeatedly insisted that her film was drawn from her own experience and observations; when pressed by a reporter from New York’s Gay City News at an August 27 Lincoln Center screening of “Beach Rats,” she refused to answer questions about the issue – though she clarified in a written statement two days later that she was familiar with the Sandy case (while still maintaining she had not intended to depict it in her film).

It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to draw inspiration from factual events, of course, nor is it unusual for them to change the details to suit the needs of their story.

To do so invites ethical debate about the responsibility of an artist to truth, and opens the door to controversies which may deflect attention from the work itself; but such conversation in itself can often be a pathway to wider awareness, and allows for the airing of grievances from affected parties.

To deny having done so shuts down that discourse; it casts a shadow over the film in question, tainting its integrity no matter the quality of the work or the nobility of the intentions behind it.  It also begs the question of “why?”

For the moment, at least, Hittman is steadfast in her denial.  Whether or not we can take her at her word is a matter of personal choice.

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.

Guys Reading Poems (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

“WHEN you have tidied all things for the night,
And while your thoughts are fading to their sleep,
You’ll pause a moment in the late firelight,
Too sorrowful to weep.”

So begins “Solitude,” by Harold Monro, one of 32 works that comprise most of the spoken words in Harold Lee Hughes’ new feature, “Guys Reading Poems.”  The mood it captures is tangible, and suggests the ideal state of wistful melancholy from which to appreciate this delicate cinematic creation.

The film tells the story of a boy whose unstable mother imprisons him in a puppet box and builds an art installation around him; to cope, the boy imagines a group of young men who read poetry to him, and these recitations echo through scenes of his past, his future, and his fantasies.  This ostensible premise serves as the centerpiece in a complex jigsaw puzzle charting the reverberations of a traumatic childhood, through which the resulting psychological fallout- fear and grief, anger and sorrow- is evoked both by the masterful language of the poems and by Hughes’ haunting black-and-white visuals.

It’s an ambitious undertaking to pack so much heavy emotional content into an average-length movie; many filmmakers have tried to channel these kinds of demons into some kind of celluloid catharsis, only to fall short of the mark.  Such efforts are often constructed either as overwrought psychodramas which offer trite resolutions for the sake of closure, or else as fantasies which obscure the issues behind mythological tropes and pseudo-symbolic whimsy.

Hughes has taken a middle path; “Guys Reading Poems” is both drama and fantasy- which means that it is also neither.  Instead, it walks a line between realism and artistic conceit; multiple layers emerge from each other as a progression of imagery takes us from past to present to future, through reality and fantasy and places in between.

The storytelling is elegantly simple, and almost entirely visual; a prologue depicting the courtship of father and mother plays like a lovely pantomime of archetypes, and the rift which develops between them later- as well as the conflict it creates in their child- is eloquently communicated by body language and artful cinematography.  As for the reciting interlopers, they may be somewhat disorienting, at first, but soon become a comfortable presence; like a Greek Chorus, they give voice to the soul of the story.  It’s largely due to them that the film’s elevated stylization can yield an authentic emotional connection, allowing both plot and purpose to be revealed like a lotus flower blossoming in a dream.

The array of poems incorporated includes works by Blake, Whitman, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Yeats, and WeHo poet laureate Steven Reigns, among many others; no less crucial, however, is the visual poetry achieved by Hughes and cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah.  Lushly lit and richly photographed, “Guys Reading Poems” is a movie that revels in its black-and-whiteness, evoking a noir sensibility that pays homage to its cinematic heritage and makes every frame feel like a deeply imbedded memory.  Combined with a flair for artistic design and a deft use of symbolism (which avoids heavy-handedness without sacrificing clarity), this results in a movie of distinctive style and beauty which lingers in the mind’s eye long after viewing.

As for the onscreen talent, they face the task communicating complex relationships mostly without the aid of dialogue, and they succeed admirably.  At the center is young Luke Judy as the boy, moving and endearing in a performance as refreshingly natural as any of his adult co-stars; but it is Patricia Velasquez as the mother- brooding and cold, yet vulnerable and tragic- who, appropriately, dominates the screen.  Rounding out the principal cast is Alexander Dreymon as the father; charismatic, and impossibly handsome, he balances tenderness with a hint of swagger as he provides an embodiment of the elusive masculine ideal.

Of course, the movie is called “Guys Reading Poems,” so the true stars of the show are the ensemble of young men who fill those title roles.  Their soulful delivery provides the movie’s beating heart, and gives weight to what might otherwise be nothing but a succession of pretty vignettes.  Each of them provides a differing perspective, standing in for various aspects of the young protagonist’s psyche as he makes sense of his experience- and each of them, like Dreymon, are stunning examples of the male aesthetic.

In fact, the preponderance of maleness, along with an underlying current of unrequited yearning for masculine affection (piercingly established with the departure of the boy’s beloved father), inevitably suggest a gay subtext.  This tale of a boy locked away in childhood provides an unmistakable allegory for a life shaped in the closet; the isolation from family and society, the entwined longing and resentment, the combination of loneliness and self-sufficiency- all these themes have deep resonance within the LGBTQ community, and all are intricately woven into every fiber of “Guys Reading Poems.”  Never overt, but vivid nonetheless, it’s a layer of meaning that makes this a full-fledged addition to the queer cinema canon.

Even so, Hughes’ film has a universal appeal.  By channeling the pain of damaged youth into a unique filmic meditation, he has created a touchstone for anyone who struggles to reconcile these psychic scars within their own life.  It’s an interior landscape that can be recognized by almost anyone, of course; and by treating it with candor, acknowledging its dark beauty, and honoring its inseparability from identity, Hughes has given us a movie which illuminates the path to transcendence.

“Guys Reading Poems” is unequivocally an art film, and as such unlikely to achieve widespread success at the box office; but for those of us who appreciate the bravery required not only to confront these difficult issues, but to explore them in such a public and honest manner, it is a much-appreciated effort and worthy of being sought out.  It deserves to be called essential viewing.

Viva (2015)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

There’s a comparatively high level of visibility for drag performers on the entertainment scene today.  Not long ago, they were known only to the LGBT community and a few savvy “straights;” now, thanks to widening acceptance, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone not at least marginally aware of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” or of movies like “Kinky Boots.”  While still not exactly mainstream, drag has emerged from the gay bar and planted its cha-cha heels firmly on the stage of popular culture.

Most of the time, we are treated largely to the finished product of an artist’s long struggle towards triumphant self-expression.  This is as it should be; drag deserves to be celebrated for its own merit.  Still, it’s been decades since “Torch Song Trilogy,” and the time seems ripe for a new story about the offstage life of a queen.  Thanks to film director Paddy Breathnach and screenwriter Mark O’Halloran, we need wait no longer.

Set in the slums of Havana, “Viva” follows Jesus, a gay eighteen-year-old who supports himself by styling hair for his female relatives- and the wigs of the queens at a local drag club.  Given a chance to perform himself, he is just beginning to blossom when his father Angel- a “local hero” boxer who abandoned him at the age of three- suddenly returns to his life.  Angel- a homophobic macho man- insists on moving in with his son and refuses to allow him to continue working at the club.  Torn between his longing for a father he never knew and his new-found self-expression, Jesus must forge a relationship with this stranger and attempt to build a bridge between their seemingly incompatible worlds.

From its very first scenes, “Viva” promises to be the story of an awkward gay boy’s evolution into a fabulous queen.  It delivers on that promise, but not by taking the expected route.  Though it starts us through familiar territory- the trying on of wigs and outfits, the catty dressing-room banter, the obligatory jokes about tucking- it suddenly (and literally) stops us in our tracks with a punch to the face.  From that point forward, Jesus’ story is less about the outer trappings of drag and more about the inner journey that will eventually bring power and passion to his stage persona- and give him the strength and integrity necessary to live truly as himself.

We’ve seen the hard-knock, emotionally dysfunctional background of such a character before, of course, but in the past it has usually been portrayed as something to rise above, with drag as both protective armor and triumphal raiment.  Here, though, Breathnach and O’Halloran give us a new take, in which their protagonist embraces his hardships instead of enduring them.  It’s a subtle change of focus, underscoring a shift into a new era in which there’s a chance for those who don’t conform to societal “norms” to be true to themselves without having to live a life apart.

The key reason that “Viva” has resonance at a societal level is that O’Halloran’s script avoids politicizing or pontificating and instead focuses on an intimate relationship between father and son.  In their negotiations, Jesus and Angel serve as stand-ins for their respective generations- and if these two men can gain acceptance from each other, there is hope for us all to do the same.  Director Breathnach understands where the strength of his movie lies; other than making sure that the Havana location (described by Angel as “the most beautiful slum in the world”) is magnificently captured, he wisely keeps his cinematic styling simple and direct, allowing his cast to dominate the screen.

It helps that the actors- especially the movie’s two handsome co-stars- are up to the challenge.  The movie naturally belongs to Héctor Medina; the young actor combines sensitivity and strength, his expressive face allowing us to experience Jesus’ journey with him, and caps it with a climactic performance in which he brings the film’s title character into a full, electric life of her own.  As Angel, Jorge Perugorría embodies the hubris of culturally-bestowed entitlement, yet infuses his character with the humanity necessary to invite love and compassion.  Providing an important third perspective to their dynamic is Luis Alberto García, who elegantly avoids stereotype as “Mama,” the drag club owner who takes Jesus under his wing.

Though it’s an Irish-made movie, “Viva” is spoken in the Spanish appropriate to its Cuban setting.  This might be a challenge if you are subtitle-averse, but to skip seeing it would be a mistake for anyone who longs for world-class LGBT-themed cinema.  By eschewing heavy-handed tactics, it takes a story which, in the not-too-distant past, might have been a tale of despair and tells it instead as parable of hope.

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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

 

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 feature by director Stephen Frears about the short life and brilliant career of English playwright Joe Orton, whose rise to success in the theatrical scene of mid-sixties London was cut short by his brutal murder at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell.  Based on the biography of the same name by John Lahr, the film approaches Orton’s life with a macabre sense of humor much like that found in his plays, and features superb performances by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina (as Orton and Halliwell, respectively); it was greeted by enthusiastic reviews by critics upon its release, though its popular appeal was, naturally, somewhat limited by its subject matter- particularly outside of Britain, where Orton’s name is less familiar.  Nevertheless, it achieved relative box office success due to the wave of interest in British imports during the eighties, and, along with the previous year’s Sid and Nancy, helped to secure Oldman’s place as one of the most promising- and sought-after- young actors of the decade.

The screenplay of Prick Up Your Ears– penned by Alan Bennett, another renowned playwright whose own career dates back to the same era as Orton- is expanded from the book upon which it is based by the inclusion of author Lahr as a character, using his research and writing of the acclaimed biography- particularly through his interviews with Orton’s agent and close friend, Margaret Ramsay- as a means of framing the story.  This device allows for a non-linear exploration of Orton’s life, centered around the notorious murder-suicide which brought it to an end, that reveals key moments of the playwright’s history as it makes a more in-depth examination of his relationship with Halliwell.  In this manner we are given a narrative which chronicles Joe’s life from his working class youth in Leicester, where he pursues an interest in drama despite the intentions of his parents to educate him for a career as an office worker.  He manages to earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he meets and becomes involved with Halliwell, an older student attending the school through a small inheritance.  The two take a flat together, and begin an unsuccessful, decade-long attempt to collaborate as writers; Joe also indulges in an almost daily habit of anonymous sexual encounters in public places- mostly men’s restrooms- and writes about them in his diary.  The two are eventually arrested (for defacing library books) and serve short jail terms, during which Joe writes- on his own- a play that he submits to BBC Radio; it is accepted and produced, marking the beginning of his rise to fame- and also of the deterioration of his relationship with the jealous, insecure Halliwell.  As Joe becomes the toast of the London theatrical world, with smash hit plays and an offer to write a screenplay for The Beatles, Ken becomes increasingly morose and frustrated at being kept out of the spotlight, even after the couple spends a lengthy vacation in Morocco; finally, no longer able to face a life lived in the shadow of another’s success, Ken kills Joe as he sleeps, beating him savagely to death with a pall peen hammer, then takes an overdose of pills to follow his lover into death.

As a rule, I generally find film biographies to be somewhat unsatisfying; though, at their best, they can be a showcase for tour-de-force acting, superb direction and magnificent scenic and costume design, at their core they often suffer from an impossible desire to somehow encapsulate a person’s entire life and essence into a two-or-so-hour time frame, or to interpret their motivations and actions in a way that casts them in a particular light.  In truth, of course, even the strictest documentary cannot avoid inserting a subjective viewpoint, but biopics, at their most banal, make a deliberate effort to deify- or vilify, in some cases- their subjects, resorting to the manipulative tactics of melodrama and completely ignoring or altering facts in order to tell a more “satisfying” story.  The most artistically successful examples of this genre are those that use their subject as a means to communicate ideas about universal experience, or simply to entertain us with a little-known story from our past that may, hopefully, encourage us to learn more on our own.   Prick Up Your Ears does both.

Frears’ movie is blessed with the participation of numerous talented individuals with a clear affection for- and familiarity with- Joe Orton and his work, and they have here taken pains to create a picture of this influential and iconoclastic figure that presents his life in a manner that is, if not 100% factually accurate, at least true to his own vision of the world in which he lived.  Much of this is made possible by the use of his diaries as a source of information, both for the original published biography and for the screenplay; through this remarkable document, which has since been published in its own right, we are granted unprecedented access to Orton’s most private thoughts and experiences- most obviously his frequent and adventurous sexual escapades, recorded with particular pride and relish- and allowed to see the author’s own perspective on himself and his life.  Of course, that perspective- dark, cynical and full of deliciously salacious humor- comes as no surprise to those familiar with Orton’s plays, brilliant farces which skewered traditional theatrical forms while undermining and exposing the hypocrisies of social convention and the ugliness hidden behind the all-important facade of so-called “decency.”  Bennett writes the story of Joe and Ken as if it were itself penned by Orton, peppering the dialogue with lines that seem as if they were lifted directly from his writing and presenting the people that surround the two central figures as if they were characters in one of his plays.  This approach makes for a truly Ortonesque experience of Orton himself, but it also has the shrewdly observed added effect of showing how the playwright drew inspiration from the people and circumstances of his real life; seeing the world as Joe himself saw it makes it clear that his particular genius came simply from transcribing what he saw around him into his work.  The farcical absurdities of his real-life experience fed his writing, and the fact that they are here no less believable for their absurdity suggests that very little exaggeration was required to translate them to the stage.

Joe’s perspective is not, however, the only one brought into play in Bennett’s and Frears’ vision of his life.  The film is also, of course, heavily informed by Lahr’s biography, which casts a more detached and empirical eye on the playwright- in particular on his relationship with Halliwell- and allows us to see him in a more humanistic light, perhaps, than that toward which he might have been inclined.  This does not mean, however, that Prick Up Your Ears takes any kind of moral stance on Joe- or Ken, for that matter- in its depiction.  On the contrary, the movie takes pains to portray the pair as they were, without imposing judgment, and allows us to draw our own conclusions; though their end was undeniably tragic, and a good deal of the film can be seen as an examination of the factors that led up to it, there was more to Joe and Ken’s connection than their horrific final destiny, and Frears and Bennett make sure we see as many other facets as possible of their lives together.  Finally, in exploring their relationship, and the changing dynamics created by collaboration, success, fame, and failure, the movie also explores the way these factors are reflected in John Lahr’s marriage, and by extension, suggests certain observations about the nature- and the pitfalls- of mixing creative endeavor with romantic attachment.

Of course, for most people who have even heard of Joe Orton- outside of theatrical and literary circles, of course, and often even there- the lurid and scandalous circumstances of his death are far better-known than his work.  Frears and Bennett make certain that their audience knows, right from the start, that this event is the central focus of the film, a sort of epicenter from which everything else radiates.  The movie opens with a glimpse into the final, terrible moments, followed by the discovery of the bodies and the subsequent invasion of the bloody scene by the authorities.  We are, however, given only a peek, so that for the rest of the movie, we are left to hope for the kind of graphic, gruesome detail we want to see- and we do want to see it, as Joe himself would likely understand better than anyone.  Indeed, it is this gory revelation that the director uses as bait, like a carrot dangling before us as we make the journey through Joe’s life and times, motivating us to stay with the story so that we can get that nasty payoff at the end; and Frears gives it to us, alright, in a harrowingly real depiction of the brutal murder and its aftermath that is likely to affect even the most hardened viewer and leave nightmarish, lingering visions for some time afterwards.  Yet even this dose of cold, hard realism in the midst of the film’s wacky theatricality is in keeping with its dedication to the flavor and spirit of Orton’s work; his writing, for all its juxtaposed sophistication and irrepressible rude-boy naughtiness, carried at its center an acute awareness of the ugliness of human experience, an ignoble convocation of bodily functions- sexual, scatological, and otherwise- which makes ludicrous all attempts to dignify it with pretense or affectation, and is made all the uglier by the mean-spirited cruelty with which we treat each other.  Orton’s brutal death at the hands of his lover- the ultimate bodily function as a result of the ultimate cruelty- serves as a reminder of the nihilistic truth of which he was a champion.

The darkness that underlies all the glib merriment, though, is only a part of the Orton mystique; though he was bent on exposing the inherent nastiness of the human condition, he also derived a great deal of fun from it.  He was a literary rebel, using his wit as a weapon against the stifling social conventions that made him feel like an outsider; he was a master marksman, and his wicked skills gave voice to a new generation that despised the stodginess of their moribund culture as much as he did.  More to the point, though, he had fun doing it; Joe Orton was all about having fun, an obvious fact to which his hedonistic lifestyle plainly attested, and the glee he felt in skewering the pompous and the conventional was almost certainly his main (if not only) reason for doing it.  That glee comes across in his writing, and is readily shared by audiences who see his plays, which are still frequently performed today.  It also comes across in Prick Up Your Ears.

Aside from Bennett’s screenplay, the movie benefits greatly from Frears’ steady, assured direction.  Noted for his skill in handling stories about socially isolated people adapting to new circumstances, a theme which runs through most of his films from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, he shares with Orton an origin in Leicester, a fact which no doubt helped to solidify his understanding of and connection to the material here, and has a long collaborative history with Bennett.  He crafts his film with a perfect balance of the cinematic and the theatrical, creating a blend of gritty realism and heightened style enhanced by flourishes from both media; he also exhibits a showman’s knack for storytelling, managing to form a cohesive and unified narrative which engages our interest and remains easy to follow throughout its non-linear structure.  He is aided by meticulous production design which smartly re-creates the atmosphere of London in the swinging sixties, contrasting it with the mundane and utilitarian environment of working-class Leicester, as well as with various institutional settings and scenes of the seedy sexual underworld that arise within Joe’s checkered story.

Most importantly, though, Frears’ film is blessed with the magnificent performances of its two stars.  Oldman and Molina are electrifying, offering layered, chameleonic portraits of the cheeky, good-natured rude boy and his arch, affected lover that reveal the traits, both positive and negative, in both without sentimentality or comment.  Oldman truly seems to channel his subject, not only bearing a strong physical resemblance to “the most perfectly-developed playwright of his day” but capturing the particular seductive swagger that is evident in photos and the few films that survive of Orton; it’s not mere mimicry, however, for he also infuses the doomed writer with a palpable humanity that allows us to truly involve ourselves with him emotionally, and understand why even those who thought him shocking and indecent found him irresistible and endearing, nonetheless..  The more difficult task, though, is Molina’s; he gives us Halliwell in all his insufferable pomposity, and takes us through his deterioration without varnish, and yet he, too, finds the human element here that makes poor Ken as much a tragic figure as Joe- a man of intelligence, wit, and emotional generosity, clearly affected by psychological issues that might have been more readily understood and addressed in our modern day, but which, at the time, were subject to as much stigma and shame as his homosexuality.  Molina gives a heartbreaking performance, and it is largely thanks to him that Prick Up Your Ears succeeds in capturing the full ironic scope of the Orton-Halliwell saga.  In the third principal role, that of legendary theatrical agent Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay, Vanessa Redgrave is, as always, superb; her glittering charm and sophistication light the screen, but she also gives us a clear view of the character’s opportunistic and manipulative aspects- she, like Joe, is “getting away with it,” but that doesn’t make her any less likeable, in the end.  Redgrave’s presence also adds an important pedigree that links the film directly to the world it portrays; she is, of course, a member of one of Britain’s great acting dynasties, and was deeply immersed in the London theatrical scene during the era in which Orton was active.  This connection is, perhaps, immaterial in terms of practical application to the execution of the film, but it does contribute a sort of authenticity to the proceedings that does seem, to me at least, to have an effect, however intangible, on its sense of validity.  Wallace Shawn (another renowned playwright) uses his familiar nerdy intellectual persona to good effect as biographer Lahr, Frances Barber has a touching turn as Orton’s sister, Leonie, and Janet Dale provides a memorable illustration of classic Ortonesque caricature as Joe and Ken’s doting landlady.  In smaller, cameo-style roles, familiar English character actors such as Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, and Margaret Tyzack bring their considerable talents into the mix, contributing much to the overall perfection of tone and style that makes Prick Up Your Ears such a delightful marriage of film and theater influences.

It’s pretty obvious, by now, that Prick Up Your Ears is a highly recommended cinema adventure, as far as I am concerned.  The fact that I am personally a great admirer of Joe Orton is really not a factor in my enthusiasm for the film, except in the sense that my expectations of any work dealing with him are stringently high, making Frears’ movie all the more impressive to me for its worthiness to the subject matter.  I am confident that this smart, stylish and accessible piece will be an enjoyable experience for almost any mature viewer, whether they are fans of Orton or have never heard of him; even if you have no interest whatsoever in theatrical history, British or otherwise, Prick Up Your Ears offers up a fascinating story that is no less entertaining for being true.  That said, it should be mentioned that it is a film in which homosexuality plays an integral part, and it does include extensive, if not graphic, depictions of gay sexual behavior; if such matter is uncomfortable for you, for whatever reason, then consider yourself warned.  This subject brings up an important point concerning Prick Up Your Ears, and indeed about Orton himself; though the playwright was not overtly involved in any form of struggle for gay rights- his death took place two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, after all- and though the film does not address or take any sort of stance on the issue, the subject is inseparably woven into the fabric of this story.  As gay men living in a society that criminalized and ostracized their kind, Orton and Halliwell lived their lives as disenfranchised outcasts, forced to suppress their true nature in order to avoid persecution and even imprisonment; though it was the older Halliwell who helped Joe to accept and embrace his sexuality, it was the younger man who would go on to live an audaciously open life in the face of societal disapproval, and despite his efforts to bring Ken along, he was unable to overcome the obstacles of shame and insecurity that would eventually result in the tragic conclusion of their love story.  Each man took a different direction in reconciling his sexual identity with cultural expectation, and though this was clearly not the only factor in the murderous frenzy that took their lives, it is beyond question that it played a substantial part.  In this way, though on the surface it seems only a parenthetical circumstance that defines the two central characters, homosexuality- or to be more specific, the rejection of homosexuality by so-called “normal” society- is the issue at the core of Prick Up Your Ears.  Those with a more militant bent might wish that Bennett and Frears had taken a more direct assault on the social injustice that marked the cultural landscape of Orton and Halliwell’s England; but the story, like Joe’s plays- and Joe himself- speaks for itself.  Joe Orton chose not only to be open about who he was, but to flaunt it; he simply was, and the strength of that assertion was sufficient to make him an icon.  Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of that bold spirit, and it tells Joe’s story in a voice very much like his own; that makes it not only a testament to the lasting mark he made  in his short life, but also a bloody good time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093776/?licb=0.2046471543502929

 

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/

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bride of Frankenstein, the classic 1935 sequel to James Whale’s Frankenstein, once more directed by Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the iconic monster and Colin Clive as his creator, as well as featuring Elsa Lanchester and Ernest Thesiger in new roles.  Though it did have its detractors, it was mostly seen as a triumph even upon its initial release, and it is widely hailed today as one of the few movie sequels to surpass the original, not only representing the artistic pinnacle of Universal’s cycle of horror films, but considered by many to be the defining masterwork of Whale’s short career.

After a sumptuous prologue in which Mary Shelley- author of the original Frankenstein novel, for those who don’t know- regales her husband Percy and their friend Lord Byron with the continuation of her macabre tale, Bride of Frankenstein picks up where the first film left off, at the smoldering wreckage of the windmill in which, after throwing his creator to an almost certain death, the monster has presumably been burned alive.  As the mob which had trapped him there disperses, the parents of a child he had murdered linger to assure themselves of the creature’s demise, only to make the fatal discovery that, having found refuge in the mill’s flooded basement, he has survived after all.  Meanwhile, after being transported back to his baronial castle, Dr. Frankenstein is also found to have survived, much to the joy of his fiancée Elizabeth, who vows to nurse him back to full health so that they may finally celebrate the wedding postponed by the rampage of his marauding creation.  His recuperation is interrupted by a visit from his former professor, Dr. Pretorius, who reveals that his own experiments in the creation of life have also met with success and insists that the two join forces in order to continue the work; Frankenstein, despite the horrific experiences that resulted from his previous efforts, is fascinated and drawn in by the possibilities.  In the outside world, the monster wanders the countryside, seeking safe haven and experiencing disastrous encounters with terrified townspeople.  Eventually captured and imprisoned, he breaks his chains and escapes into the woods, where he finally finds refuge with a lonely blind hermit, who treats him with kindness and teaches him to speak and to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.  This idyllic respite is short-lived, however; a pair of hunters discover the creature, the hermit’s cottage is accidentally set ablaze in the ensuing struggle, and the forlorn fugitive flees as his new friend is led away to safety by the interlopers.  With the entire countryside on his heels, the monster hides away in a dilapidated crypt, where he unexpectedly encounters none other than Dr. Pretorius.  The scientist befriends him, and promises that, with his help, he can persuade Dr. Frankenstein to make a new creature, a female that will at last offer the lonely outcast the companionship for which he longs.  When the good doctor, newly married and about to embark on his honeymoon, refuses to cooperate, Pretorius instructs the monster to abduct Elizabeth, and promises Frankenstein her safe return upon the completion of the new creation.  Though he has been forced into participation, the doctor becomes enthusiastic about the project in spite of himself, and soon- thanks to some unsavory assistance procured secretly by Pretorius to find a suitable heart for the new creature- the experiment reaches its successful fruition.  The original monster’s intended mate, however, has a mind of her own, an unexpected development which leads to disastrous complications.

Following the success of the original Frankenstein in 1931, Universal was eager to produce a sequel; they publicized their intention to make one almost immediately, but director Whale was uninterested in returning to the material, feeling that he had exhausted the possibilities with his first effort.  It took several years for the pieces to come together, during which time the filmmaker was persuaded to helm the project as part of a package deal- he was given the chance to direct another film in which he was interested (the now-virtually-forgotten One More River) in exchange for accepting the assignment on the Frankenstein sequel, over which he was also promised absolute artistic control- and work commenced at last on the long-awaited film.  Whale believed, however, that a sequel would be unable to surpass his original movie, so he decided to take a different approach; seeking to turn the film into a black comedy, he rejected several scripts before settling on an adaptation by John Balderston (who had adapted the first film for the screen) of an episode in the original novel in which Frankenstein is coerced into building a mate for his creation.  Another writer, William Hurlbut, was brought in to add the macabre touches of humor desired by Whale, and it was ultimately his screenplay from which Bride of Frankenstein was made; it is clear, however, that he worked in close collaboration with the director, for the film bears Whale’s unmistakable stamp on every frame.

With his background in design and direction for the theatre and his taste for the techniques of German Expressionism, James Whale was an ideal choice as a creator of gothic horror films, something Universal- and its chief executive, Carl Laemmle, Jr.- fully appreciated; the director himself, however, was bored with the genre by the time he made Bride, and frustrated with being pigeonholed into the category of “horror director.”  This conflict seems to have created the perfect foundation for Whale’s precocious creativity to manifest itself on film.  With the rare artistic freedom that was his price for doing the job, he turned the project into something more interesting for himself than just another A-list shocker.  His movie is rich with subversive subtext, taking the accepted conventions of horror melodrama and slyly turning them inside out; he infuses the plot with sly social commentary, finding a sense of the absurd in every scenario and exploiting it for dry comic effect even as he takes delight in its horrific elements.  The representatives of decency and normality are presented as grotesque caricatures, exhibiting ignorance, intolerance, hypocrisy and cruelty at every turn, while the film’s outsiders are treated with dignity and sympathy; whereas in the original film, Frankenstein himself is the main protagonist, a misguided but well-intentioned visionary who takes on the role of Prometheus, in Bride of Frankenstein there can be no mistake about the fact that it is the monster who is our hero.  The angry mobs- a cliché ripe for satire even in 1935- are here the enemy, and the unfortunate victims of the monster’s wrath are merely collateral damage in a reactionary war against the unknown and misunderstood.  As for the doctor himself, he is now an overwrought, uptight coward, denying his true nature to pose as a bastion of decent society; he has been supplanted instead by Pretorius, a figure of dubious motivation but possessed of an undeniable charm which makes us like him despite the shadier aspects of his character.  Pretorius is clearly bent on the destruction of the status quo, and given the unflattering portrait we are given of the society around him, such a goal cannot help but seem reasonably understandable; thus he, like the lonesome creature he befriends and ultimately exploits, becomes a focus for audience identification.

Whale’s film is filled with deliciously subtle wit, even in its most horrifying scenes- Pretorius is a major source of the verbal comedy, although other characters deliver some intentionally unintentional zingers, such as the stodgy burgomaster’s assertion that it’s time for decent men and their wives to be in bed.  This kind of tongue-in-cheek naughtiness is largely responsible for the film’s status as a “camp” classic, which further has given it a reputation for having a heavy homosexual subtext.  Whale was openly gay, and other members of his cast and crew were either known or rumored also to be so; it is not surprising that a connection could be made between the movie’s dominant theme of social ostracism and an expression of gay experience in 1930s culture, and the film’s ironic tone and anti-social perspective certainly suggest an alternative sensibility.  The most obviously gay element, of course, is the prominence of Dr. Pretorius, whose arch attitude and fey demeanor go beyond the level of the typical codified “sissy” characters of the period to make him clearly identifiable as gay to all but the least sophisticated audiences, even in 1935.  Many of Whale’s contemporaries have vehemently dismissed the notion that he deliberately intended the film’s content to be read as “gay,” either overtly or by inference; watching Bride of Frankenstein, however, it is hard to imagine that a director of such obvious intelligence and command of his art would be unaware of the implications inherent in many of the movie’s situations.  Perhaps it is an overstatement, based on a retro-fitting of modern ideas, to interpret (for example) the extended sequence of the monster’s relationship with the blind hermit as an allegory for same-sex unions; but it seems equally unlikely to think that Whale and his associates were not aware of the obvious metaphor of an “unnatural monster” being persecuted and driven to the fringes of society to find acceptance.  Of course, social isolation is a universal experience, and one of Bride‘s great strengths is the clarity with which it is portrayed; Whale’s acute personal connection to the monster’s plight no doubt played an important role in his ability to bring it to the screen with such powerful resonance.  Like all great artists, he drew inspiration from his own psyche to infuse his work with a conviction and authenticity that is accessible to all.

Whether or not the supposed gay subtext was intentional, Bride of Frankenstein contains a considerable amount of sexual innuendo which most definitely was meant to be there.  Nevertheless, these elements were not the source of the film’s difficulty with the Hays Office; rather, the censors objected to the film’s heavy use of religious iconography and its extreme (for the time) violence.  Whale loaded his movie with crosses and crucifixes, at one point even featuring a scene in which the monster, captured by the irate villagers, is lashed to a post and raised is an unmistakably Christ-like pose before being loaded into a cart for transport to a jail cell; while much of this material remains, the Hays censors insisted on the removal of some even more overt scenes which they deemed to be blasphemous.  The director was known by his colleagues to be irreligious, but even so it is doubtful he intended disrespect by including these aspects in the film; more likely, it was a pointed observation on the irony of the decidedly un-Christian treatment visited on the monster by the supposedly righteous mob, and perhaps also, subtly, an inversion of the Christ story, in which a being raised from the dead is persecuted and rejected by an fearful and inhospitable populace.  As for the violence, it probably goes without saying that it is hard to see, by today’s standards, how there could be any objection to the few brief moments in which the monster dispatches yet another irate villager; there is no visible bloodshed, we are given no gruesome close-ups or buckets of gore, and most of the killings are over before we even realize they are happening.  Still, the body count in Bride of Frankenstein is considerably higher than that of the original film, and quick as they may be, some of the murders are admittedly disturbing on a psychic level that has nothing to do with the gross-out factor which has today replaced the deeper shocks favored by horror filmmakers of old.  Consequently, extensive cutting was necessary to obtain a passing certification from the Hays Office, and at least one new scene had to be hurriedly added before release in order to bridge the story gaps created by these edits.  Thanks to Hollywood’s self-imposed decency standards, therefore, Whale did not quite achieve the complete artistic control he had been offered; indeed, the studio also reneged on its promise in one key instance, demanding a happy ending (and one which might facilitate the possibility of yet another sequel) to replace the one Whale shot, in which (“spoiler” alert) all the principal characters perished.  Consequently, new footage was shot at the last minute, depicting the escape of Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth (who is technically, of course, the actual title character of the film); however, due to budgetary constraints, it was not possible to reshoot already finished footage of the exploding laboratory, so that in the final version, the good doctor can still be seen pressed against the wall as the room collapses into rubble.  Though this was contrary to the director’s plan, there is a certain ambiguity to the hollowness of this tacked on reprieve, which evokes questions of how this hopelessly scarred couple can ever hope to free themselves of the nightmarish experiences they have lived through- particularly the doctor, already a visibly broken man, who was at least partly responsible for the preceding events having ever taken place.  In any case, the survival of these two characters does nothing to alleviate the sense of tragedy which permeates the film’s final moments; if anything, it underscores the sadness we feel at the fate of the film’s true protagonist.

Analytical discussion aside, there is much to praise in Bride of Frankenstein; Universal considered it one of their most important productions, having established a lucrative domination of the horror market and fully anticipating a major hit with the eagerly awaited continuation of one of their most popular films.  Consequently, the production values are sumptuous, from the elegant period decor and costumes of the Romantic Era prologue to the elaborate blend of gothic futurism that dominates the laboratory in the movie’s climactic scenes.  The special effects were top-notch for their time, and black-and-white cinematography (by John J. Mescall) is a glorious example of the bygone aesthetic of light and shadow that made films of this era such a magnificent, ethereal beauty.  Franz Waxman’s eerie, unresolved score provides a darkly romantic atmosphere throughout and drives the story relentlessly towards its cataclysmic finale.  Whale’s skill as a director manifests itself not only through his overseeing and coordination of all these elements, but in his edgy visual style; with rapid cutting, extreme angles, and a highly mobile camera, he manages to build a film that keeps the viewer breathlessly off balance, ensuring that it works as a horror movie independently of the black comedy that simultaneously exists for those audiences savvy enough to see it.

To paraphrase the ending credits, a good cast is worth mentioning, and no discussion of Bride of Frankenstein would be complete without mention of its star, Boris Karloff, whose fame and popularity were so great at the time that he was billed simply by his last name.  The pathos which he brought, somewhat unexpectedly, to his portrayal of the monster in the original film, is here brought to the front and center of the proceedings, and he provides genuine heart to the story, which prevents the loopy comedy from undermining the movie’s seriousness and keeps the sensationalism of the horror elements from overpowering its deeper message.  It is well-known that the actor objected to the creature’s development of speech within this movie, feeling that it would create an awkward and jarring effect that might alienate the audience- or worse, make them laugh; even so, he rose to the occasion well, delivering his stilted, remedial dialogue with as much conviction and sincerity as he performed the physicality of the monster.  The addition of speaking did have a somewhat unfortunate side effect, in that Karloff was unable to remove his dental plate as he had in Frankenstein, which meant that the formerly sunken-cheeked monster had a fuller face this time around; but the iconic makeup (designed by the uncredited Jack Pierce) was adapted to reflect the damage caused by the windmill fire that ended the original film, so the change was perhaps less noticeable than it might have been.  As for Colin Clive, the other returnee from the first film, his severe alcoholism had progressed considerably, and its ravages were plainly visible onscreen- the actor looks considerably older this time around, and his distraught, unfocused persona is a far cry from the clear-eyed drive and passion of his former appearance as Dr. Frankenstein.  His deterioration was doubtless made all the more evident by the fact that he broke his leg in a horseback riding accident shortly after filming began, requiring him to be seated for most of his scenes and in excruciating pain for the ones in which it was not possible.  Though this was obviously a tragic state of affairs for Clive, who would die at the age of 37 just a few months after the release of Bride, it gave him a decidedly convincing edge in his nerve-wracked, tormented performance as the unfortunate doctor.  Replacing Mae Clarke, who was battling health problems and unable to return as the hapless Elizabeth, was 17-year-old Valerie Hobson, whose melodramatic performance, while hardly memorable, adds an appropriate touch of the hysterical to the mix; and the aforementioned Ernest Thesiger, an English stage actor of considerable reputation who was a friend of Whale’s, makes one of the most memorable appearances in the history of horror as Dr. Pretorius, dripping with prissy irony and presenting a veneer of good-natured gentility which magnifies, rather than masks, the malevolent intent behind it.  As for the justly famous appearance by Elsa Lanchester as the monster’s would-be mate, it is without question the film’s electrifying highlight- not just because of the iconic design of the character, with her Nefertiti-inspired lightning bolt hairstyle, but because of the actress’ brilliant, jerky performance (which she said was based on angry swans), punctuated by shrill shrieks, deadly hissing, and other sub-human vocalizations.  Often overlooked, however, is Lanchester’s other performance as Mary Shelley in the film’s opening scenes; she sets the tone for the entire movie, offering up a demure and delicate persona with the unmistakable glimmer of a twisted and demonic imagination underneath it.  Rounding out the cast is the delightful Una O’Connor, as Frankenstein’s busybody housemaid, whose encounter with the monster early on is another of the film’s highlights; she provides comic relief, of course, but there is an undercurrent of ugliness within her character that continually reminds us of the small-minded baseness of the common throng.

Bride of Frankensteinin (which was referred to in publicity material with “The” in front of the title, though the word is absent in the credits), by today’s standards, is not a scary movie.  Modern audiences expect much more gruesome and explicit shocks, and the lingering Victorian morality which pervades horror movies of the past now seems quaint and laughable.  Nevertheless, it is, by any standards, a superb movie.  Once its conditions are accepted, it offers a compelling and surprisingly affecting story while laughing with us at the ridiculous conceits the genre requires.  Regardless of whether Whale intended it or not, it contains a rich subtext that reflects both his personal experiences and the larger social fabric of the time, and touches on a universal nerve that is timeless in its relevance.  Most importantly, it contains a treasure of rich, indelible images that transcend the material itself to become icons of the popular cultural imagination.  On top of all that, it is what Whale himself declared it would be: a “hoot.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026138/

Gods and Monsters (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gods and Monsters, the 1998 drama by Bill Condon about the final days of legendary film director James Whale- the man responsible for, among other things, the iconic 1931 Frankenstein and its 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Based on a novel, Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, it offers a speculative scenario about the events surrounding Whale’s mysterious death in his own swimming pool at 67, years after his retirement from Hollywood, and enjoyed much critical acclaim- particularly for the performances of Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave, and for Condon’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay- as well as achieving a relatively impressive amount of popular success (for an independently-produced, non-blockbuster feature, that is) due to the appeal of its subject matter for fans of the classic horror genre, its exploration of one of Old Hollywood’s most notorious and enduring mysteries, and- undoubtedly- the presence of then-heartthrob Brendan Fraser in the co-starring role.

Whale’s 1957 drowning took place a decade after his departure from active filmmaking, a choice taken after studio interference made it increasingly difficult for him to realize his edgy and slyly subversive vision in his work; though he maintained his Hollywood residence and was still well-known by his friends and former colleagues in the industry, his name had slipped into obscurity within the larger public consciousness. After a series of strokes left him weakened both physically and mentally, plagued by excruciating, near-constant headaches and prone to blackouts and periods of disorientation, he became a near recluse in his home; Gods and Monsters uses this period as a springboard into its narrative, blending fact with fiction to present an imagined reconstruction of the director’s last few weeks.  Isolated in his Hollywood home, Whale fills his time drawing and painting, tended by his German housekeeper, Hanna, who is fiercely devoted to her employer despite her vehement- and vocal- disapproval of his open homosexuality. Bored, fighting depression, and haunted by memories of his youth and his Hollywood heyday, his interest is piqued by the arrival of a new gardener- Clayton Boone, a young, virile and handsome ex-marine. Though Clayton is reluctant at first, he is persuaded by Whale to sit for him, posing for sketches and reminiscing about the director’s past experiences; despite the derision of his blue collar friends and his own homophobic insecurities, he is drawn into an uneasy friendship, partly by his employer’s former fame and glory, but also increasingly by the connection that develops between them. Whale’s condition, however, continues to deteriorate, and his new relationship with Clayton triggers more and more painful memories- of his poverty-stricken childhood, of the tragic loss of his first love in the trenches of WWI, and of his former days as a filmmaker; in his torment, he attempts to manipulate the young man into providing relief for his suffering- but the results of this scheme take a different form than either of them might foresee.

Bram’s novel- and therefore, Condon’s screenplay- takes several flights of fancy from the real story surrounding Whale’s demise, most significantly in the creation of Clayton, an entirely fictitious character (though he may have parallels with a chauffeur brought back by Whale from one of his trips to Europe, several years before the events depicted here). In real life, when the director’s body was found floating in his swimming pool, a suicide note was also found; it was, however, kept undisclosed by Whale’s longtime partner, producer David Lewis, until shortly before his own death 30 years later. Whale’s grieving lover made this decision out of respect, wishing to avoid the scandal and stigma that so often accompanies celebrity suicide- especially in the 1950s- but the absence of a note fueled years of whispered speculation about what had really happened.  Although the drowning had been ruled a suicide, rumors of foul play continued to emerge until the revelation of the note put an end, at last, to the mystery. By the time of Bram’s novel, the truth had long been out, but enough unanswered questions remained to warrant ongoing interest in this morbid Hollywood legend, and the fabricated (but plausible) relationship between Whale and Clayton provided a means of reconciling the facts of the case with the kind of salacious gossip which grew around it.

Condon’s movie, however, is no mere piece of sensationalistic pseudo-biographical fluff; though he takes a rather straightforward approach to telling his story, he infuses it along the way with subtle but thought-provoking explorations of larger themes and social issues- attitudes towards class and sexuality, the long-term damage of war on those who fight in it, and the isolation that results from striving to be extraordinary in an ordinary world.  Layered into the mix are also some observational parallels between Whale’s life and his most famous creations, with his own isolation and status as an outcast reflecting that of the misbegotten monster of Frankenstein as well as the famous Dr. Pretorius of Bride, and his relationship with Clayton echoing both Pretorius and Dr. Frankenstein himself.  All these and more provide fodder for Condon’s character-driven psychodrama, and though it comes in the guise of a Hollywood tell-all, Gods and Monsters cleverly rides a deeper undercurrent, emerging through dialogue and the well-placed interpolation of Whale’s brief-but-vivid flashbacks, which we scarcely even notice until its cumulative power hits us in the bittersweet final scenes. It’s the kind of unassuming filmmaking that is often overlooked, but it makes the difference between a genuinely affecting movie and just another pretentious, self-important “prestige picture.”

These thematic conceits may be an important factor in Gods and Monsters, but it’s a film that works splendidly on the more immediate level of storytelling as well; it’s not big on action- the plot reveals itself more through the development of the characters and their relationships than through events- but it nevertheless captivates us and keeps us engaged as it unfolds what is ultimately a sweetly sad portrait of an unorthodox and unlikely relationship between two misfits, and the unexpected gifts it bestows upon them both. One of the primary reasons it sustains our interest, of course, is the work of its fine cast, led by the brilliant Ian McKellen as Whale. Long one of the foremost thespians on the English- and, sometimes, New York- stage, at the time of Gods and Monsters he had yet to achieve the international screen stardom that would come with his portrayal of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his performance here deservedly garnered him universal acclaim and numerous award nominations; his own natural elegance and charm, as well as his wickedly sly sensibilities, blend into the persona of the troubled director and infuse him with the air of a genteel and lovably eccentric (if somehow vaguely dangerous) man of depth and humor, but he also captures the inner turmoil and confusion that allows this stately veneer to transform suddenly into ugliness and rage.  Providing a rougher, more youthful energy is Brendan Fraser, who also brings his natural personality to the role of Clayton, making it clear from early on that his brutish facade conceals a more sensitive nature than he wishes to reveal. The chemistry he displays with McKellen is palpable and infectious- the two actors became close offscreen, as well- and if his acting skills are not quite the equal of his co-star’s (few can lay claim to that level of ability), he more than makes up for it in heart, and together they are well up to the task of carrying the film.  Rounding out the principal trio is Lynn Redgrave, another English veteran, as the hard-working and hard-edged Hanna, who accomplishes the remarkable feat of embodying what amounts to an over-the-top caricature- an earthier, more modern version, perhaps, of Una O’Connor’s shrilly opinionated housekeeper in Bride of Frankenstein– while still finding the deep humanity that makes her a compelling and viable participant in the story rather than simple comic relief.  Spouting admonishments in a harsh German accent, her expressive face oozes unconcealed disapproval all along the way, but she exudes compassion behind every grotesque grimace; it was, sadly, to be one of her final screen appearances, but for many it was her crowning performance, and it provides a necessary grounding force to the drama.

For those seeking an exposé of Old Hollywood’s dirty secrets or an extensive recreation of its environment, Gods and Monsters is likely to be a disappointment; most of its action takes place within the confines of Whale’s timelessly elegant household, and though the costume and scenic designers have done a fine job of appointing it with the appropriate trappings of the period, these elements take a back seat to the emotional and psychological landscape that is Condon’s main focus.  Even so, there is a short but meticulously realized flashback to the set of Bride of Frankenstein, in which we see Whale in his creative prime, staging the iconic scene of the female monster’s unmasking; and late in the film there is an extended excursion to a garden party honoring the visiting Princess Margaret, hosted by Whale’s fellow gay filmmaker, George Cukor.  In this sequence we are given a brief-but-potent glimpse at the politics of gay Hollywood, where the famously open Whale is treated with wary discomfort by his former colleagues- who, while not exactly closeted, are careful to maintain the semblance of proprietary conformism- and the once respected director is only of interest as a curiosity of the past, posing with his former “monsters” for photos of an uncomfortable and unwanted reunion.  It is at once a nostalgic look at a bygone era and a pointed reminder of Hollywood’s shallow and eternal fickleness.

For obvious reasons, Gods and Monsters has a strong appeal for gay audiences, centered as it is on one of classic cinema’s most well-known homosexual figures; but while Whale’s sexuality is decidedly germane to the plot, and plays a major part in the psychic makeup of his character and the journey he takes, it is not, ultimately, the main concern of Condon’s film.  Rather, like the period accoutrements which establish the movie’s backdrop of time and place, the issue serves as a factor to inform and color the proceedings, which are finally about the universal human need for connection- to the past, to the future, to other human beings, and to one’s own true self.  In a world which relentlessly strives to define us according to the lingering standards of a rigid status quo, those who are different- and we are all different, at heart- face the isolation and shame that comes with the stigma of not fitting in; in this way, at least, Gods and Monsters has much in common with Whale’s aforementioned cinematic masterpieces, which derived much of their power from the outcast monster’s search for acceptance and companionship.  As Condon attempts to make clear, however, Whale is no monster, no matter how much he feels like one, and neither is Clayton; rather, they are misunderstood, great-hearted men, trapped by the conditions of their lives into a cage from which they yearn to be released.  Through their strange communion, they each find the strength they need to free themselves- not from each other, but from within.  It’s a surprisingly spiritual message for a film about an unrepentantly irreligious and iconoclastic artist, but it is the kind of humanistic spirituality that springs from real life experience rather than the esoteric dogma of religious orthodoxy, and it gives the movie an all-encompassing appeal and makes it an accessible, moving experience for any audience- gay or straight, believer or atheist, intellectual or Average Joe.

It’s impossible to say whether James Whale himself would be pleased with Gods and Monsters; though it makes no effort (beypnd a few deliberately constructed fantasy and dream sequences) to emulate his own directorial style- which was full of expressionistic light and shadow, dramatic angles and editing, and a rapid, restlessly fluid camera- it does share his macabre wit and dark sense of irony, and its sympathy most definitely lies- as did his- with those outside the norm, for whom the inhabitants of the everyday world appear hypocritical and cruel.  However, just as Condon’s movie is not really about Hollywood, sexuality, or the 1950s, it is not about James Whale the artist, either; though it uses him as its central character, and uses thematic ties to his work to help tell its story, it could be about any one of us, facing the end alone and desperate for a kindred spirit to help make sense of the fears, the regrets, the doubts and the sorrows that make up the history of our lives.  It doesn’t sound very cheerful, but it offers up some food for thought and reminds us all of the importance of making contact- and thanks to Bill Condon and his magnificent cast, it’s also a lot more fun than you might think.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120684/