Monday, March 20, 2006

The Extinct Creature Known as the Adult Film. *and I don't mean Porno...

There was a time when Hollywood made movies that made you think. They labored under the assumption that you had, in fact, read more than three books (and no, I'm sorry but the Davinci Code does not count). The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater is holding a mini festival titled "Return To Hollywood" which they interpret as more minor works of the 60's and 70's Hollywood narrative that have been overlooked in terms of home video distribution, but they still maintain as "revolutionary cinematic treasures that could not have been released without the go-for-broke atmosphere of the letting-it-all-hang-out New Hollywood."

The most epic of these films (and those which screened first, as both evenings that I attended were double features) were the Joan Didion novel, adapted for the screen by Didion and her late-husband John Dunne, Play It As It Lays and the film based on Sue Kaufman's Diary Of a Mad Housewife. The former being a much more literary film than the latter, followed Didion's book (go figure) very closely. The editing was far more experimental, and not in some Momento-esque schtick-y way. The camera dashed from stop light to sky to parking garage in a wonderfully gracious hand-held sweep that would make today's viewers run for the hills screaming for lack of specificity - for not showing them, specifically what they are supposed to be looking at. In one sequence, the superb Tuesday Weld relates in voice-over the details of her upbringing. We rest on a shot of a small town hotel as she tells us of the tiny home town that no longer exists. "This is not a picture of [my home town]" (I forget the name, presently). In keeping with Didion's more non-fiction texts, she trapses into the realm of semiotics - questions our need to associate image and idea. She breaks the consistency that is film language.

Didion initiates you into a world already developed, dense and complicated without any (now)typical easing into the characters. You are shot into a world as it is, rather than experiencing the characters slowly, familiarizing themselves to you. It is a shock to the lazy contemporary viewer. "They expect me to discern?!" you catch yourself thinking, and then chide yourself for doing so. This is what films were like in a society of thought. The language is, of course, a rare and special treat. Parodying her ex-husband who has claimed he has captured in film what is "existentially a performance" - using the buzz phrase coined by someone else regarding his work on a television talk show - Weld's Mariah repugnantly jibes him with the retort, "existentially, I'm getting a hamburger." It is a film that spells very little out for you. It is one that could NEVER be made today, and for it we are the more worse for wear.

Diary of a Mad Housewife, which is made by the same director, Frank Perry (who infamously cremated his career with the laugh riot Mommie Dearest) is in earnest what Mommie Dearest is in its misintentions. An excruciating comedy from start to finish, Diary follows a phenomenal performance by Carrie Snodgress as a thoroughly sophisticated (if not a tad up-tight) housewife whose painfully irritating husband and hellaciously bratty daughters drive her to fall into the arms of the pretensiously misogynistic writer, played by Frank Langella, who opens in her a sexuality which she never imagined. Played for comedic value (as well as tragic), the film is a powerhouse of criticality, letting no one off the line, least of all Snodgress' Tina (though we do sympathize with her). The film's nastiness renders it, too, another film that could never be made.

Our "adult" comedies are fueled by toilet humor and sexually humiliating situational comedy. Sex, now, is something that will lead to laughter and debasement. If Matthew McConaughey sexually desires Sarah Jessica Parker (god knows why he would) it is a desire worthy of great ridicule - one which we know shall result in vaudvillian emasculation. Our culture cannot handle the sexuality that Diary wields completely, well... for granted is perhaps the wrong word here. There's a scene where Tina's daughter criticizes her for wearing a top that "makes her boobies fall out." Tina chastises her daughters use of prudish vernacular in place of more mature words like breasts and vagina. One cannot help but realize that our culture has become this sniffling brat, running about saying ta-tas and cooter and spitting out oysters because they are not that which we are accustomed to - rather, that which we wish to face. The daughter wretches the oysters which Tina includes in the Thanksgiving turkey stuffing. "I like oysters in the half-shell, by themselves, but IN THE STUFFING?!?" This sounds frightfully familiar. In our genre-laden times of "everything in its right place," this excruciating comedy has no place as it neither takes stand as comedy nor tragedy, but strategically places its psychologically compelling traumas on the fence, between the two. And again, it is our loss, as Diary of a Mad Housewife is a deliciously wicked piece of cinema.

The other two films, (also by Frank Perry) The Swimmer and the Bergman-esque-Americana of Ladybug, Ladybug were more moody evocations of loss. The protagonists' inability to cope with their present situations (the loss of one's family and nuclear war, respectively) lead them to drastically desperate actions that horrifically reflect human nature. The Swimmer is the only of these four titles on DVD and is well worth a watch. Ladybug, Ladybug can be found here, though I can't vouch for the quality. It was a rather sad event, in that our culture is so far removed from these fascinating works of film, so much so that they have been ostracized from access. If you ever run across a screening of any, I could not recommend them more. The screening continues through next weekend for all of you LA readers.


Blogger randomcha said...

Wow, it would have been great to see them on the big screen. "Diary ..." is one of my all-time faves; I've worn out 2 VHS copies (out-of-print and hard to find). Defeinitely one of the most neglected films of the 70's.

5:54 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home