Friday, June 30, 2006

Limp Nostalgia and a Soulless look ahead: The Poverty that is Singer's Return

My mother raised me to understand the workings of our world with one simple aphorism. "Why," she would say "does a dog lick his balls? Because he can." Indeed. In the aftermath which followed the rather favorable reviews of Peter Jackson's King Kong, countless viewers lamented Kong's seemingly endless need for CGI meanies and pseudo-cinematic digital wizardry from T-Rexs and large, man-eating monsters which resembled uncircumcized penises to an attention deficit camera which flits from building to building, enough to make David Fincher motion sick. Having not seen the film, I cannot speak to its meandering digital lavishes. I can only respond to what I had heard/read. Halfway through director Brian Singer's newest incarnation of our man of steel, Superman Returns, I leaned over to the person who accompanied me to the screening and asked "is this what King Kong was like?" I was met with a sober nod.

Much ink has already been spilt (by myself, even) on why we need a Superman. What necessitated his return? Things are bad, yes, but are we, as a people, still capable of believing in a man who descends from the sky in tights to stop falling airplanes and catch crumbling statues? After watching the film, I'm still not certain that we could. We are to understand Singer's Metropolis as a present day city, yet as an homage to the previous films and comics, (which starts with the Seventies style opening credits) our contemporaries don 50's period dress. Basically, though people yammer on their cell phones and watch plasma TV screens, everyone looks as though they've wandered out of an era which understands the modernism which yielded Superman far greater than we ever could. A less jaded time. So much so that I am hard pressed to understand Superman Returns as being a completely contemporary film. Sure there's plenty of terrorist footage on Martha Kent's television, but there's something to be said about the fact that that same television is from the 70's.

Cast in the metallic glow that has come to be Singer's trademark sheen, not a moment passes when you aren't aware of the film's artificiality. There are certainly no characters to convince you otherwise. Superman(Brandon Routh, who in a creepily overt act of cinematic narcissism, resembles Singer) looks like a fuck toy just blown in out of some WeHo workout room. Slight on charisma and heavy on coiffure, he is hardly the strapping man from the comics (a group congregated as I left the theater joked taht he should have been called Supercurl, as, having plummeted from space to land in Central Park, his body was critically wounded but his curly lock of hair was perfectly in tact). But even more deficient is Bosworth's Lois Lane. Missing all of the complexities (and masculinities) of Miss Margot Kidder, Bosworth's vacant femininities do nothing but highlight Routh's. And that's the last thing we look for in our Steely saviors.

But all of the blame cannot be solely heaped upon our leads (though more charismatic casting would have helped a great deal). The writing is dimwitted and the direction painfully tactles. Not a single shot goes by without an educated viewer knowing, full well what will come, not merely in the following scene, but the next twenty minutes. From small touches (Lane's engagement ring - to someone other than Supe - is the same color as the emerald kryptonite which debilitates Superman) to gargantuan ones (the same paper which holds news of Superman's return also informs us of a precious Gems show at the Met. Hmmmm...) the plodding obviousness of the action becomes tediously debilitating. Though not as debilitating as the Rube Goldberg-esque action sequences which encompass the film.

Taking a cue from Kong, not only must Superman save the day, he must save it from calamity after calamity after calamity within a matter of moments. A tremor shakes Metropolis. Someone falls off a roof. Superman catches him. Then a sign falls. Superman catches that. Someone drops a cigarette which ignites a broken gas main. Superman must stop the flames before it hits the supply source, in time to return to his newspaper and catch the statue which is about to crush his sweet fatherly boss (Frank Langella). The absurdity of all of this CGI mayhem never goes unnoticed. Nor is it coreographed to be as fun as any offering by the likes of Besson. Spacey's Lex Luthor is fun and his lady in crime Parker Posey's Kitty have camp fun with their roles, but you slowly watch them realize they got the short end of the stick. Greed has replaced the darker, more brooding evilness of the nineties, and so they stumble about resembling more the nouveau Riche than any real badies.

What could have been an interesting investigation in our cultural needs turned into one more excuse to blatantly flash the capabilities of our visual technologies. All of this without really shedding the shimmer of its computer fabrication process. Just going to prove, yet again, why they unearthed this icon in the first place, well aside from the box office proceeds. Because they can.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Head Candy

Day five of Being Boring's coverage of the LA Film Fest (And the final OutFest Wednesday Screening)

Brothers of the Head is a new offering in a formidably familiar couple of overdone genres. The Rock biopic or merely Rock film has been done again and again, particularly in these recent years. Some, like Van Sant's Last Days and Haynes' Velvet Goldmine get to the heart of the matter in a poetic and essentializing manner. In the former, Van Sant humbles those songs and persons whose mythologies have far surpassed their humanity (and who better to represent this than Kurt Cobain) showing us that those songs which have become anthems to an entire generation merely begin with a man in a room with a guitar. Plain and simple. Haynes' film is a more complex creature which investigates the inflated persona necessitated by the Glam Rock era, basically, personal mythology and how that not only affects the performer but those adoring fans who see in each gesture a world of meaning and validation. Both are grand stories of enormous public acclaim.

Brothers is a quieter film, though one quite indebted to both aforementioned films. Fronting as a documentary, this fictitious retelling of the tale of two Siamese twin brothers who form the front of a cultishly successful punk band called the Bang Bang. It is a film in constant flux, from overtly simplistic (which would seem to be the fate of conjoined twin fiction - really, it is a genre in itself) to surprisingly complex. As a writer, who arrives to condemn the manager for exploiting the twins' deformity observes, instead of finding two weak victims, Tom and Barry are strong and reverent individuals who seem quite comfortable with their circumstance.

Never quite settling on what you expect, the film is at once a condemning parody of the contemporary Biopic, a mutivalent exploration of collaboration, a love letter to the punk era, a visually driven non-narrative experimental film and an all-too conforming doco (even though it's not really). I'm not convinced that it should have presented itself as a documentary. That would seem to be the one great flaw in the film. The "source" footage being so beautiful, one is slightly irked when the camera returns to the talking head which he already knows to be a falsity. This critic, of course already admirously familiar with the cult director Ken Russell was pleasantly surprised at his appearance at the film's opening. Russell, the film would have you believe, followed his (actual) Tommy with a biopic called Two-Way Romeo which the film presents in small segments (though it is quite obviously not a Russell film)

To claim that Brothers was free of flaws would be completely incorrect. They are quite prevalent throughout, but I am hard pressed to recall a film whose aesthetic was as tight and breathtaking as Brothers of the Head. A fictitious documentary film crew shoots the "archival" footage from which this film has been assembled. It is some beautiful footage, grainy and sensual. There's one shot of the brothers bathing themselves in a darkened room. The smoky haze of "dated" filmstock renders the scene with a pictorialist sumptuousness. Light cascades over the lens as the brothers practice in a window-lined sitting room. We never truly believe that the twin actors are conjoined - mainly because of the directors' endless efforts illustrate their dependence. They do cartwheels together. They run together. They play guitar together. Overcompensation works oppositionally. Yet toward the end, you stop caring and give yourself over to the story. It's one that's terribly original, but so beautiful that I found it difficult to tear my eyes from the screen.

Immediately following the Screening of Brothers I attended a preview screening of the filmic prequel to the cult television show, Strangers With Candy. While it did not live up to the terribly high expectations I held for the film, neither did it disappoint. Strangers With Candy, the show, had about 10 jokes, but they were damn good ones. Embarrassing scenarios repeated themselves with varying results. Mostly, they proved to be some of the more reverent moments of TV history. We see those same jokes played out here, this time on the big screen. They are still funny, but without a serial progression, the film loses something in translation. Scenes of Jerri in prison are funny because those who have followed the show already know Jerri Blank. We know her reputation and are finally treated to the "before" which was always merely alluded to.

The film follows Jerri's release from the state penitentiary and, in an attempt to revive her comatose father (Dan Hedaya), restarts her life from the very moment it went awry - namely Highschool. But shedding 30 some odd years of debauchery and drug addiction becomes more of a challenge that it initially seemed. The original crew is reassembled, mostly. Of course Steven Colbert and Paul Dinello (who also serves as a rather unsteady Director) revive the melodrama of their homosexual affair, though both seem strangely preoccupied. (Dinello's distraction can be pinned on directing, but what for Colbert?) As is usual, Greg Hollimon's Principal Onyx Blackman (you guessed it, he's a tall, deep-voiced black man) nearly steals the show and supplies the best chemistry when pitted against (not with) Jerri. The countless celeb cameos are mostly throw away. Sarah Jessica Parker's grief counselor is a new high in low, as is her hubby, Matthew Broderick, as Colbert's arch nemesis.

Priceless are the moments like the final sequence in which Sedaris dances around in Bali drag while Megawatti Sucarnaputri, in black face with painted-on white beast fangs, writhes in a cage. The film, like the show, is never one to cower in the shadow of political correctness. Quite the converse. The message of the film turns out to be "We're all racist," and really, wasn't that all that Crash was trying to tell us. I'm not sure whether I want to call Strangers With Candy a parody or a alternative to Crash, but for God's sake, at least the film has the balls to really tell it like it is, without leading us through every moment. There is an equivalent amount of misses as there are hits in this mostly impeccably written script. A lot of the spunk is gone from the original. But still, when likening it to everything else out there, it's a hell of a good time.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Monsters and Mayhem! They Shoot Subtlety, don't they?

Day Four of Being Boring's Coverage of LA Film Fest

The school at which my boyfriend teaches is a progressive liberal private school. Since we're in Los Angeles, there are quite a few Jewish student in attendance. The assignments vary in many ways, yet there is one which I keep returning to. In the middle school, students are required to make Nazi propaganda posters in order to understand why, exactly the German people executed the largest attempted genocide of the modern era. The project allowed them to form far more complex thoughts than "Hitler was evil." Was Hitler evil? Yes, if one were to use such a blanket term, I suppose Hitler is one of the better figures to whom that term could be attributed. But what is vital is that we understand why he did what he did. More so than merely understanding he was "evil."

Stanley Nelson, director of the new documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, is in dire need of such a lesson. Nelson's artless, by-the-book doco recounts the evolution of the People's Temple from Indianapolis to their infamous resting place in Guyana. It also, by default, must focus on Jones. As it recounts the events of his youth, you start to feel the editor's hand on the material and here the filmmaker saying, 'Oh, that'll make him sound more evil! Throw in the sensational part about the dead cat!' As no one really had anything good to say about Jones (mostly, 'I knew there was something not quite right about him's), one is hard stretched to see Jones as the enigmatic speaker that he obviously must have been in order to amass the thousands of followers who would eventually make up People's Temple.

By the time Jones moves the temple from San Francisco to Guyana and slowly begins to lose his grip on reality, Nelson has completely lost interest in Jones as a person, dismissing his actions with slight asides on drug addiction and alcoholism. Absent are the discussions on how a man of such modest means became the powerful "monster" for which he will forever be remembered. Instead, Nelson's documentary becomes (and though I will admit that this analogy is in rather poor taste, it is neither inappropriate where this film is concerned) a porno, supplying enough fodder and build up to make the end as horrific cinematically possible.

I would wager that Nelson has not seen Werner Herzog's magnificent Grizzly Man, for the immense power of the unheard is lost on him. Not only are we supplied with the intense wails of those who meet their infamous fate, pitted against Jones' "monstrous" sermons, but these horrific bits are place alongside photographs of those who are dying during happier moments of life. A smiling family with their baby. Two women laughing into the camera. Screams. Guttural moans. "It doesn't have to be this way! We're dying for peace!" More moans. Death rattle. Boom! A picture of the after math. Bodies. Bodies. Bodies. Cue melancholy music as an anonymous letter from one of the deceased is read aloud. You get the idea.

The events that occurred at Jonestown were horrible. Horrible beyond my wildest fears. But such horrors do not legitimize this sort of manipulation. To quote from Pare Lorentz's Good Art, Good Propaganda, "Thus, while I am in favor of the Chinese winning their own country away from the Japanese and while I personally was horrified at the Nazi invasion of Poland, I do not feel that just because a man has made a picture dealing with these subjects he has made a good movie." Think about that the next time you step into the theater to see one of the countless Liberal Docos that seem, as of late, to be invading like Romero's zombies.

Jonestown is not a theatrical documentary. It deserves its place, but that place is on the TV screen, alongside those other works of overt illustration which air late at night with over-zealous narration. The film certainly has its moments. Take the Peoples Temple member who weeps and says 'I was just sad that it didn't work out.' Complex moments like these seem to be lost on Nelson. Instead he guffaws Jones homosexual encounters with "Family" members. And what a pity. The Peoples Temple was, in theory, a wonderful thing. At some point, something went horribly wrong. I don't know what, and this film brings me no closer to understanding.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Abnormal Love

Day Three of Being Boring's Coverage of the Los Angeles Film Festival

The Los Angeles Premier of Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. There's a long(ish) line of mostly forty-something white folks in colorful clothing. Things are starting late. 'Technical difficulties,' we are informed. We bide our time. Tap our feet. Divulge in gossip. The Indian, college-aged student behind me (UCLA Theater?) says to his friend, 'we don't fit in here.' Some more time passes. 'Maybe,' he muses, 'maybe this is the movie.' Indeed.

Smith is a bizarre character. That goes without saying. He lived his art in the way that few people could ever dream. His apartment was Atlantis, every wall a glowing hue and every inch draped in veils. He put on plays there. A play might have been promised at midnight, but would be staved off until 3am. People would certainly have walked out. Smith called them the scum of Baghdad. Eventually, the play would begin. As did the film, though our circumstances would have pleased Smith. As it was, we only waited for an extra half hour, so we kind of earned our show.

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis is a very good documentary. I'll say that up front. It has a consistency and narrative flow which is greatly admirable, particularly considering the material. And that is its strong point. Its success lies in its use of the source material. On its countless clips of Smith... well, doing his thing. Smith was a magnificent performer, an artist, a photographer, a filmmaker, an actor, an escapist, an idealist, an anti-Capitalist... but his contributions (assuredly painstaking for director Mary Jordan) were all left (intentionally) unfinished. Smith loathed "products." They were the ideal of Capitalism, or, in Smithian terms: Landlordism, lobsterism. Flaming Creatures is his only finished film, and of course, a print of wonderful quality is present here.

The talking heads of the film are a veritable who's who of the New York art/film scene, then and now. Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, Holly Woodlawn, Nayland Blake, Mike Kelly, Robert Wilson, John Zorn, Gary Indiana, Taylor Mead (in his infamously squalid apartment), (an unusually bland) John Waters make up just a few names on the list of gabbers. It is in these scenes where Jordan's hand is most obviously felt. The camera attempts to imitate Smith's. No dice. Smith was a master at what he does. Jordan's flailing DV cam is cute, but not effective in the way she desired. But we can forgive her. I've been researching Smith for the past 4 or 5 odd years now, and most of what I learned she packs into a trim 94 minutes. Mostly avoiding typical Doco structure, the opening sequence is so beautifully assembled, I would almost dare call it a video piece in its own right. The computer animated title effects work wonderfully, in all of their art deco glory. Sontag would have been proud.

Jordan joined us after the film for a Q and A. There's a visual biography in the works. The estate is on ransom. Someone asked if you could rent the films. No, dear. But this is why Jordan made the picture. So you could see them (albeit, fractured). I'd say that's as good a reason as any.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

'Take This, Longing'

Day Two of Being Boring's coverage of the Los Angeles Film Fest.

Ever catch one of those 'late nite' 5 minute infomercials for a compilation CD featuring off renditions of the songs which you know and love? Did you ever wonder what those (long) 5 minutes might feel like if they were stretched into a feature length work of cinematic ineptitude? If you are at all masochistically curious to find out, by all means, Lian Lunson's Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man is your film. It is the sort of picture that you feel even obscure cable channels had passed on, even though the sophomoric direction seems akin to that of an E! True Hollywood Story (yet never even gets that far). Apparently Lion's Gate films put up the money before any filming took place. I mean, the idea sounded vaguely interesting.

An evening of Cohen songs performed in Australia with a wet-dream line up of Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Antony, Beth Orton, Anna and Kate McGarrigle, the Handsome Family and the irritating family... oops! I mean the Wainwright family with the filmed interjections by Monsieur Cohen himself! Sounds choice. The resoundingly converse happens to be the case, however, as each song is skinned of its nonchalant majesty, only to be reworked as a shmaltzy tribute ballad. It's that sort of melodramatic approach (well, not to mention some unworldly vocal cords) that allows Antony to steal the show with his humbled rendition of 'If It Be You Will.' The rest, sorry Mr. Cave, either turns these unassuming songs into bawdy cabaret numbers, or, my apologies Mr. Cocker, strained Leonard Cohen impersonations.

But all of that could be beside the point had this been a decent film. I find it rather a stretch to label this work as film. It feels more like some sad TV special with some big plans that an undergrad had the fluke privilege of taping with a borrowed 3-chip Camera. The editing is sickeningly obvious - at one point U2's Edge likens Cohen to religion, cut to the McGarrigles talking about how Cohen would have grown up seeing nuns in habits walking about Canada, cut to Bono talking about the religious undertones in Cohen's work, cut to Orton's performance of 'Sisters of Mercy.' You get the idea. A glittery red curtain is superimposed over much of the footage (because one layer of image is never enough in documentary film) and iMovie sound effects even accompany certain key photographs. All of this, never once separating from the True Hollywood editing style that has become the hallmark of our 21st century Doco production habits.

I am an admirer of Leonard Cohen's music. Not an adamant one, but an admirer regardless. Instead of wasting money and time on this listless work of musical approximation (not to mention rather desperately competitive career building on Miss Lunson's behalf), might I suggest doing what I did, to cleanse my palette, after this atrocity. Put on 'The Best of Leonard Cohen,' and just listen to the source. It's why you're there in the first place needs no real explanation at all.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

It's A Killer!

Day One of Being Boring's Coverage of the Los Angeles Film Festival

Today, in our numbed cultural mores, it is exceptionally difficult to imagine how a film like Jaws could affect a whole era of people, making our parents afraid to go in the water. How Psycho could make their parents afraid to shower. And though this analogy has been used for countless B horror previews, typically without warrant, believe me when I say, 'I will never, for the rest of my life, go spelunking.' The thought of sliding through thick rock tunnels barely larger than your person is enough to get me squirming out of my skin. And I will admit, I am rather susceptible to hype. I ducked my way through 28 Days Later (to later rewatch it and find a deeply flawed film) and was completely traumatized when I saw The Blair Witch Project on a preview screener VHS, more inspired by the petrifying 'Is this true?' website which used the ambiguities of the dawn of internet technologies to sell their one-time-only movie. These sorts of films have become part of a large cultural ritual. But The Descent, I assure you, is one terrifying film which harks back to an older time when the film itself was the clincher. It's the kind of nail biting film that, when it finally unleashes its all (which, believe me, is quite a lot), you wonder how much more you can physically take.

The premise involves six thrill seeking ladies who, in search of a greater rush, descend into an uncharted cave. Things quickly become very problematic for our tough, while still uber-feminine heroines. Some egos inflame. Someone gets stuck. Someone breaks her leg. A passage collapses. And then, there's the crawlers.

Of course, the film is to its viewers what spelunking is to its ill-fated protagonists. It delivers a rush of exhilaration so extreme that I am hard pressed to find a comparable film with which to liken it. So dense is its tension that, when the women who remain begin to fight back, it arrives with such wanted gratification that I could not help but yelp and holler along with them as they wrestle, hack and gouge at the beasties. The film, impressively sure of its construction, takes great glee in the lavishness of its grostesqueries. In those fantastic moments of frenzy(films like Resident Evil could learn a great deal, here), the viewer, who is so unfathomably wrought with tension that the assaults come at them, just as they do the protagonists(but we, as viewers have the fortune of keeping our intestines, however knotted they may have become throughout the course of the film).

Director Neil Marshall possesses a seemingly casual finesse of the horror genre. Today, a typical horror film seeks more to startle its viewer than to scare them. Tension has become the new foreboding. You know the moment. A girl looks out of the window to investigate some spooky noise. In that relieved moment of calm, an owl beats its wings against the pane and the music crescendoes. You jump. It's a cheap ploy that is not scary. Unnerving, perhaps, but not scary. And though The Descent has its share of jumps, it seldom includes them without excusing itself for patronizing. Here, when you leap only to friend a friend, animal or non-crawler, it is almost always followed by some sort of visual pun, making fun of its own formula.

The establishing sequence, which carries its own load of trauma, starts the film off with an assured confidence, reminiscent of early DePalma. It becomes quite clear that this analogy is self-imposed as Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), resembling a young Sissy Spacek, at one point emerges from a pool of blood in a complete visual homage to Spacek's most famous scene in Carrie. It is Marshall's remarkable knowledge of Horror film history that makes The Descent eligible for inclusion in such a lineage. It is, dare I say, the best horror film to come out of this decade. The Descent is certainly not for the faint of heart, but then, what horror film is?

The Descent, which has been picked up by Lion's Gate Pictures, hits theaters August 4th.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Festival Fun

So, I'll be covering a handful of titles during the LA Film Fest screenings (whatever I could squeeze on my modest budget). Right now, you can expect a review of the British horror film The Descent which has received rave reviews and built up a cult following in the year since it was released in its native land. Then, there's the new Leonard Cohen doco which has taken quite a while to get from cutting room floor to the big screen Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. And in keeping, I am thrilled to be in attendance at the LA premier of Jack Smith And The Destruction Of Atlantis, a new documentary about the little known grandfather of Camp (he would hate that moniker). Following the 25th anniversary and publishing of numerous volumes of bio's and letters, Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple arrives at an interesting time. As does Brothers Of The Head which apparently breathes life into the pseudo-doco genre in this tale of conjoined twins who become punk rock legends. Finally(and not in conjunction with LAFF, but with OutFest - more to come on that), I will see the long awaited big screen incarnation of Gerri and the gang from the short-lived but hellaciously funny Strangers With Candy. There may be more depending on my schedule. But keep checking in for reviews on these films and perhaps more!

Black Magic: Josephine Baker's role in the Exotic Trend of 20's and 30's world Cinema.

What happens when we watch a "racist" film? Well, what happens when I (or you, perhaps?), a gay, white male sits down with a film from the 30's which now reads as raceploitation rather than the rags to riches exotic star vehicle it functioned as in its hey day. The other night, I indulged in Princess Tam Tam. It's a slight variation on a story we've heard a hundred times or more. A novelist vacations in Africa to observe the "savages" and finds a charming peasant girl who he decides to Eliza Doolittle up (for the sake of the novel)and masquerade as an African Princess. It almost goes without saying that the "impoverished" scenes are absurdly stereotypic. One scene depicts Baker dancing amid Roman ruins with dozens of clapping adolescent street beggars, shaking her booty in such a way that makes you wonder how far we actually have progressed in terms of "faithful" representation.

One must remember this is a French production and the French are, however progressive in countless other aspects, quite guilty when it comes to racist tendencies. That being said, Miss Baker does her damnedest to transcend all of this seedy exoticness (worlds apart from that glamorous exoticism personified by the likes of Dietrich and Garbo, even Anna Mae Wong, to a certain, limited extent). She has a remarkably amiable personality. It is one that is infectious, allowing the viewer little choice but to adore her. And in those moments when the Tam Tam (tom tom) drum belches forth its ravishing rhythm, Baker also has her moment... ahem, in the sun. More limber and lively than most other "dance" numbers I have seen in these sorts of pictures, Baker on all fronts (those not familiar with her miraculous voice should rectify that a.s.a.p.) proves her case as a tremendous entertainer.

But how should one react, here? Of course, we don't cast aside Birth of a Nation for its seething racism. But a vehicle like Princess Tam Tam is so inseparable from its racially charged brand of stereotyping that one wonders how it should be studied. Certainly to look at this as a piece of kitsch, however appealing, is in poor taste. In a boating scene, when an Arab? servant (who is portrayed by a white actor in black face) grasps the oar, the camera holds on that gesture as it mimics the immense penis the shot would insinuate the Arab? to possess.

I am not one for shying away. My first reaction is to clasp a hand over my mouth in bewilderment. But what next. Refusing to yield to liberal guilt, (otherwise I might have considered Crash best movie of last year) I suspect the only way to take this is in the political and cultural economy of its time. Baker was "other" in a time when "other" sold like hotcakes. I have been tracing this trend in 20's and 30's world cinema recently and, admittedly having done no reading on it, whatsoever am completely baffled as to why, as tensions began to rise, escalating in WWII, people would look to the "other" for their source of amusement. Other, Miss Maria Montez has shown us, is a brand of absolute escapism. That I understand. But many of these vixens and starlets were powerful, thinking women. Many were scheming, though Baker was not. I suppose it is wrong to include Baker in the trend of the Dietrich, Garbo, Wong paradigm. So is it, to a lesser extent, to include Wong in the former list. Each figure, though exotic, was still completely associated with those stereotypes associated with their race. It was not a clump of "others" as I had suspected. Dietrich was masochistic and impenetrable. Wong was conniving and elusive. Baker was just a happy savage. It's rather sad (I guess) that the film is mostly pleasurable. Perhaps that's not the sad part. Certainly it is unfortunate that she could never be cast to play any other part (one not exclusively linked to her blackness). I guess the most denigrating thing is the fact that this obviously pleasant and accepting woman was never given the space to shine as anything but a novelty. That is was taints so greatly in something like Princess Tam Tam. And even more disparagingly, I don't see our contemporary cinema as being a whole lot better.

Flaming Shadows: on Flamingo Road

In perusing an article by Rudolf Arnheim titled "The Film Critic of Tomorrow," I found great contempt placed on that film reviewer who "discusses films no one has been able to see in ten years or more (and about which they can say everything and nothing) with people of his own ilk." While I completely understand this gripe (and on frequent occasions would have to agree with it), part of me does not care, cherishing (or perhaps merely assuming) that you, dear reader are of my "ilk," and therefore, care. So I will trudge on with an OLD film which took me to one place or another as I curled up on the couch just the other day. (Furthermore, Mr. Arnheim's thesis is slightly mute when considering the invention of home viewing technologies - the essay was written in the thirties, or at least this is my presumption) What does it mean (if anything) that I look back? Let this question be a nagging thread at the back of your head as you continue forward.

Well into her career as a social and erudite maven, Joan Crawford, post-Pierce reteamed with that crew whose support delivered her sole Oscar. This time, but four films after the gold, Crawford, having successfully weaned herself of her impertinent mannerisms (having started as an amateur dancer, descended from a Vaudevillian bloodline and receiving her first big break from the type of film that, if mentioned here, could possibly attract legal repercussions from her estate) Crawford's rags to riches is quite believable.

Flamingo Road is the film, and it is one that harks back to a slightly more nuanced time. ('Is it possible to feel nostalgia for a time you never experienced?' a friend inquired last night. Indeed.) Like a certain more socially respectable version of The Naked Kiss, Road recounts the story of a carnival dancer named Lane Bellamy who deserts the carnival to begin life anew in a quaint little southern town. Of course, there is a dark underbelly to this quaint little town (as it would seem all Southern towns are neither really quaint nor benign). As she falls for a potential senatorial candidate named Fielding, the plump sheriff who rules the town with a corrupt iron grip has Lane sent up the river on prostitution allegations. Having served her dues (of course she was framed) she returns to the town to work at the local (oh-so respectable) roadhouse run by a maven of a different sort entirely. Lutie Mae is a character one happens upon repeatedly in such films. Candy from The Naked Kiss in certainly a Lutie-Mae incarnation(which, to give Road credit, was made 15 years later from this rather prevalent formula). Lane finds her paramour who yields considerable power, dons some furs and bedazzled, reaches for the reigns. The tides have already turned, however, and that this would happen, we knew all along.

There's something to be said for the film's use of shadow. Seldom have I seen a film of this sort (it's not quite a noir, nor is it a Women's film) use shadow so aptly. Instead of the air of aristocracy which slowly informs Crawford's face (though, for the actress, it would seem perpetually, neurotically plastered there) as she ascends in the social hierarchy of the town. That mug which is most frequently graced with infallible lighting is shrouded in shadow, foreboding. Seldom does a scene occur in sunlight. More common is the night shot in which no party is readable, instead cloaked in the night which envelopes them like the horrible fruition which we all know will come to pass. Two cameos in the dark.

The malevolent Titus, corrupt sheriff and vile personality is the other uncompromising strength of the film. Rarely are the baddies so egotistical and deliciously wicked. When he goes about doing wrong, it is at once both personal affront and guiltily satisfying. He is black to the core and all the better for it. When Crawford slaps him in the films first few reels, we give a completely gratifying gasp. As he wolfs down pie after pie at the local diner, the bus boy retrieving milk, pitcher after pitcher, we understand the dirty gluttony of this twisted officer (who rather resembles Welles' corrupt policeman in Touch of Evil). You want him to pay, and you know he will. When Crawford finally shows up and unwraps a pistol from her furs, we are at once justified and sad to see him go.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Death and Dishonored

"Do you have a looking glass?" The Officer unsheathes his sword so that she may fix her hair in its reflection. "Will this do?" Ah Marlene. This seldom mentioned jewel even passed me by, until now. It is the only V.S./Dietrich film not on R1 DVD in one form or another(there's at least a bootleg of Shanghai Express). But do not be fooled, this is the team at their most masochistic. Well, this and Scarlet Empress, but that's another post entirely. In this one, she's a spy. X-27. She's in love with the most unbelievable man. So unlovable. And since she's a woman, she's gotta die. But boy does she die! This is not the insinuated, glossed over death of Morocco (which might not be a death, though you know it is). You see her fired upon. Hit. Of course, perhaps I shouldn't be telling you this. The glutton in you wants her to live. Even the lieutenant won't let them fire on her. She points those eyes at him. Those eyes. With a smile that rivals her victory smile in Scarlet Empress she goes to her death in Dishonored. She wants her death. It is a glamorous one. But really, it is a moment of high drama for Dietrich. The last moment of some fictitious wench's life is golden ground for the team, and they use it. They use it for its intensity and its sobriety, as she dies just like anyone else, gets hit by the bullets and falls flat in the oh, so white snow. Dead.


Okay. So 20th Century Fox just put out suped up DVD versions of both Valley and Beyond Valley Of The Dolls, but why now? I mean, don't get me wrong, I LOVE both films (well, let's say rather that I admire Beyond). But why on God's green earth would Fox venture to suggest that they are both "Cinema Classics." You talk to any snob-nosed Film advocate and they will tell you what trash the films are. They don't get that goodness and badness are completely beyond the point. Completely.

So, on the one hand, the extra features on both DVDs would have you accept (appreciate) both features as high Camp (with some very flimsy and catered definitions of the word, I might add). It joins the ranks of the other "Cinema Masters Collection" which seem to be nothing but Beach romps - one even stars good old (or young, at the time) Joan Collins. Classics? Yet treat them like classics they did. Adorned with slipcases and brightly colored clamshells, these double disc sets even include Lobby Card reproductions kept in ever so tasteful envelopes from 20th Century Fox. It almost makes up for the fact that they took so damn long to come out with the damned things in the first place!

But what of the film? How does it hold up, function, live now? Well, for one thing, this is one great time capsule. If nothing else (and I'm really only going to talk about Valley, here. Sorry Beyond fans, it's just better.) the film serves as an all too apt expose of the sixties. Cast to play 1960 - 1967 is Peyton Place (the TV show, not the movie) star Barbara Parkins who is thrown into the swinging sixties of Miss Sharon Tate, who, as we all to well know will forever endow a more sinister charge given that whole multiple homicide thing. Patty Duke is the girl who gets caught in between (NEELY O'HARA!!!). Hot off the tails of 'The Patty Duke Show,' Duke is innocence and naivete colliding with decadence and proclivities. Allow this to serve as your narrative. Forget the story. Jacqueline Suzanne's trash tome is not really a story - even less when you distill it for the screen. Instead it is a half-assed attempt at piecing together life experience and attempting to fabricate some filler scenes with a brain which could hardly come up with a single poetic analogy, no matter how many of the red pills it is clouded by.

So, if we look at Valley more as a trashy histrionic, some wonders may be gleaned, but forfeit of all critical quandaries is, at times, essential for getting swept up in the rapturous inanity of the film. Cause it functions, as any good Women's film does, through its ability to evoke estrogen charged empathy. Take Dionne Warwick's practically illiterate Greek Chorus theme song which weaves its way through the film like a tapestry (call that simile a Suzanne homage). Once we get to the bottom of our emotionally charged string of adverbs (in a sentence which she almost never seems to complete: "When will I... how will I... where will I...") it hardly matters. Since this is a women's film, we must enter with our hearts on our sleeves. The first tear at the first "How" and you're good to go. Swoon. That's how you get through Valley.

Now, by none of this do I seek to insinuate that the acting is good or the direction tight. The scenario is a tad too long, yes, but forgive it its short comings. There are so few of these big budget, big screen atrocities that entertain. Something like a 60's Showgirls, Valley is a heartfelt piece of nostalgic trash that deserves its place with the best of them simply because the film is a terrific feat. It covers so much leeway, so much drama, so many taboos. It is the film which both launched Tate's short lived career and sank Duke's (NEELY O'HARA!!!!!). It is essentially the last great performance by one of Hollywood's strongest leading ladies (Miss Susan Hayward) before her premature death (cancer). It is shmaltz as we could never again dream of shmaltz. It's got the sizzle and, however colorfully masked, the steak. As it may not seem to striking for the time but most of the ground covered in the film was exceptionally taboo for the time. Of course all of that would go out the window in the years which followed, but look to Valley to find the moment which left these conservative mores in its decadent dust. Perhaps that's why it has come back to us now. Applaud we should.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Say Goodbye To Love: Dietrich plays Von Sternberg

Why on earth would I write, spend so much time expanding upon, revisiting and dissecting 30's film icon (ikon?) Marlene Dietrich? What might at first seem typical and quite, well... gay of me, is really far more elaborate and dynamic than popular culture would give credit. We've all seen them, the poster prints or coffee table books of the angelically lighted Dietrich, exhaling cigarette smoke that cascades in plumes about her head. That image from V.S.'s Shanghai Express where she leans against the door frame and looks up into the light - however magnificent the image may be composed - is marred by prevalent culture's (mis)use. It, rather than illustrating a toxic beauty or languid decadence (Wiemar), becomes an 'I Spy' of a historically loaded image - similar to viewing the "real" 'Starry Night,'which has so long ago ceased to be a painting.

Dietrich is V.S.'s dirty bitch, a whore of the highest caliber. Though, a whore never quite divorced from her childhood fantasies. This can be seen many times, though it takes a scrutinous eye to not merely be swept up in the flood of shadow, silk, smoke and lights that paint a V.S. movie like Versaille. More. Well, really less, but V.S.'s camera lenses wandered the squashed field of focus, never betraying the limited parameters of the "actual" setting. (This becomes the real world, and it is irredeemably vast) Her hesitation can be found in the Dietrich's playful (while surprisingly mortal) pregnant pauses. You watch her think. She's never quite as bright as you want her to be, but then neither are the movies. And though this may be a detractor to most works of cinema, it proves V.S.'s greatest asset; narrative absurdity makes these works all the better. Blonde Venus is so boring when it seems it's earnest. It's not(well, Dietrich was a little, but really, who cares?). In the moments of falter, when the pesky plot on which we're anchored fade, meta-character (or visage, persona) and set may take full reign. And those are the glorious bits!

But you have to forget the "Glamour Girl" and the 'La Vie En Rose' chanson be-furred glitz Toss the fashion photos (they're beside the point, really). There's a reason for the appeal and it runs more than skin deep. She wasn't just beautiful (and neither was she really a good actor). She was a feminine persona for V.S. (who, in many ways would just as well played dress up - though this might have gone over rather poorly on Hollywood audiences). She was his anima. Mostly, you must forget Dietrich without V.S., V.S. without Dietrich. Mostly.

Need some economic escapism and Wiemar decadence, see Dietrich. She would corrupt the most demure. She had teeth in the vagina which V.S. could not stop reminding us that she had. These were sizzlers, pot boilers. She wasn't respectful! Never!

Watch just one of the V.S. / Marlene movies. Then watch it again. Then again. You'll be surprised, I promise you. There's more to it than ALL of that which meets the eye. V.S. was a master aesthete, but he also (a) knew the wonderful nuance which might evade the cluttered eye and (b) possessed the cynical attitude that you - the Hollywood viewer - expect to be slightly more kind than it ever really turns out to be. When she kicks off her shoes in Morocco and walks behind her paramour in the fierce desert, she does it more to crush the rich benefactor who courts her ceaselessly than to fill the desire that rests in her not quite pitch black heart. And she'll die. V.S. makes that quite clear. When the cold and daunting sound of the wind outlasts the swelling orchestral score, you know that the same end will find Amy Joly.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Cinematic Trends toward Political Pacifism

I've been noticing a bizarre trend as of late. My last week (or more) of movie watching has been solely dedicated to action fare; those mostly either starring Milla Jovavich or made (in some way) by Luc Besson, which, really is, in many ways, faces of the same coin. Of course, Jovavich's latest offerings have had the astronomic budget that now-Bresson can only recall nostalgically (5th Element). But her latest films (please recall I had the displeasure of sitting through Ultraviolet) all present some sort of socially conscious ideology without ever allowing the viewer the spare time to ruminate on the interesting thoughts posited in these otherwise mind-numbing motion pictures.

Take Ultraviolet for instance. The plot involves a governmental conspiracy in which a blood virus (an HIV analogous) swept the country, causing a purging of those "infected." In the outlining "ghettos," which are, of course, partitioned by a large impenetrable wall, the "Hemophages" plot to overthrow or infect the inhabitants. The interesting turn of events is the casting of Jovavich as one of the Hemophages, rather than the "normal" folks who are under siege. Draw your own conclusions, yet might I remind that the vampire (which the "Hemophages" are revealed as being comparable to about halfway through the film - when the production designers got the memo about Beckinsdale's vampiric return in Underworld: Evolution, perhaps) has long been associated with the homosexual in countless films and critical essays. Now, though the action film has always loved the underdog (Die Hard) this pseudo-revolutionary plot - one which draws its purpose from those concerns which the seat-dwellers would be seeking to avoid. I went to see Ultraviolet thinking it might present a bizarre sort of HIV parable with Jovaich as the AIDS mascot. Though the movie had this potential, it involved itself too greatly in gravity defying motorcycle chases across the sides of downtown building. Of course, who wants to go see a mega-budget Hollywood feature which preaches for equal treatment of HIV positive persons - even if it is just those with severe bangs and color-changing lycra bodysuits.

The Resident Evil movies, too, have the potential as politically conscious parables, though they lose this consciousness in zombie mayhem. The uber-corporation Umbrella Corp. Accidentally infects their workers in an underground compound called "the Hive." What serves quite potently as an anti-corporation film numbs its political "intents" (and assuredly, this is a suggestion more for sub-plot geared towards creating a artificially conscious narrative tension whilst catering to action's underdog tendencies) with bullet barrages and flesh flaying. Even in the sequel, where the corporate faces become even bigger baddies, the macho, machine-gun wielding Hellraiser-esque "Project Nemesis" monster distracts attention from the suit-donning corporate monster. But with explosions and lots of painted latex, who wouldn't?

What is perhaps the saddest example of distractedly feigned-concern lay in the most recent installment to the X-Men franchise. Replacing the wonderful Brian Singer (whose prior two installments were both visually spectacular and apt social parables), Brett Ratner's X-Men 3:The Last Stand formulated the question, if there where a cure to genetic mutation (which Singer made quite clear to represent Homosexuality), would you take it? Singer's X-Men 2 was a film about coming out to your parents (mostly). It allowed you extended moments in which to ponder the social ramifications involved in coming out and coming to terms with you Mutantism / Homosexuality. Ratner's world is all humungous explosions and CGI sensationalism. The film's exhaustive use of editing, extraneous and plethoric character line-up distracts from any lengthy consideration of the dynamic question which should drive the narrative. The moments in which you feel you have the breathing room for consideration are blasted away with exploding cars and fireballs.

Every review I read of V For Vendetta, this spring's big budget action offering which this critic decided to skip, described its completely political plot as politically motivating as a Che Guevara Swatch. Political consciousness has become a pop culture trope, a commodity. If you're cool, you wear a Che Guevara shirt or the same sunglasses worn by the Baader-Meinhof. Bruce LaBruce's hilariously poingant (and recently litigiously reprimanded) film The Raspberry Reich is a great companion piece through which to consider this trend of trite politicality. In it, a bunch of nostalgically devotional "revolutionaries" fail miserably at a political kidnapping scheme because of their inability to separate themselves from the past and rise above their surface considerations.

Can this feigned political Action-flick activism be a contemporary tactic to lessen the viewer's political considerations by lite-ning the process of political recognition to mere passive spectator sport? Is this seemingly subversive trend more a tactic by which the industry may use to indoctrinate a more blindsighted approach towards politicality? In most cases, the glossing over of these concerns yields an eventual victory by the dominating force(that force which the film would seem to subvert). Milla is always recaptured by Umbrella Corp. Rogue de-mutantizes to pacify her physical needs. What's more, none of these seeming cataclysmic culminations are treated as absolute failures - more minor losses. In our current political climate, this approach is indeed quite suspect. By teaching the masses you can never win in the face of great adversity is horrifically detrimental. That the films initially gain your consideration by their seeming political density is a coy approach to cloak and dagger which may ultimately prove defeatist. Be wary, dear reader. Very wary.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Fast and the Frenchiest

Like a coked up David Fincher or someone who learned subtlety from Sharon Stone, the (not really) newest film to flow from the pen of Luc Besson, District B-13, is a predictably good time with a tad too much purpose in its intent. Don't get me wrong, I will sing till the cows come home when it comes to the Transporter movies. I love me some stupid action. But to actually attempt at moral musings on genocide is a bit too much to ask of an action audience if you ask me. At least when it comes to the kind of spectacles that gloss over every opportune moment of Besson's canon.

In this case, the story doesn't work as well as some of his prior creations (Sadly underused here is Besson's absolutely fetishistic adoration of speedy automobiles). Too much exposition leads into a story about as flawed as stories come - which is all near coincidental if those pulse-racing moments of action mayhem deliver. The good news is, for the most part they do, and there's a bizarre amount of homosocial activity going on. Yet, as I have already mentioned, the amount of cause to the film just leaves a taste of ulterior motives that sober the intoxicated glee of something like Transporter 2. In the final act, a poor plot decision cripples the dramatic tension leaving the rest of a film a let rather than come down. Thank god for the French and their Bad musical taste, because, without Da. Octopuss' trashy meth-like score, I don't think the film would have been nearly as good.

How Fortunate the man with None

I have always loved Orlando yet never really considered it a good film. Of course, there is the fact that it is a Tilda Swinton vehicle. That always helps. I must say, the other film I have witnessed by Orlando's director, Sally Potter's Yes, was exceptionally dreadful. Orlando's clever casting of its two secondary stars is quite exceptional. Casting Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth 1 is perhaps one of the boldest, yet most apt decisions of 90's independent film. Billy Zane, tool extroadinaire, is also truly wonderful here. Peppering the film are wonderful bit actors whom you may recognize from other independent efforts; actors who might portray a slight character in another film, here are given strong supporting character roles. Then there's the costuming!

Sally Potter, a Jarman descendant whose creativity lead to larger productions and bigger budgets, until, eventually an Oscar descended for her work on Shakespeare in Love, not to mention 6 other nominations (including an additional nomination that same year for Velvet Goldmine and one for Orlando). Though the shoestring budget is at times quite evident, the costuming is the main deceiver. At times - if one decides not to focus on the background, whose limited extra head count betrays the budget - the costuming convinces the viewer of whatever time the sequence may belong to. As the premise of Orlando rests in the fact that Swinton never change, the costuming becomes essential. Swinton, yet another Jarman heir (really, in many ways, this could have been a Jarman project, though, in his hands it would have lost much of its complexity) and Potter's love affair with her face is really what drives the movie. Swinton, who, as you may know is intended to be both male and female throughout the course of the films 400 year narrative, convinces more the latter than to the former, yet never begrudges us with disdain for looking. On the contrary, it could be argued that Swinton has built a career around that face, and for that, Orlando is her best advertisement. Just look at the film's final shot, as the camera holds on Swinton's face, her stare rivaling ours, her face seems to change, but does it? Is this altered countenance a shift in lighting, make-up, or am I merely seeking change where there is none? Swinton's face seems capable of anything, so change is a small feat for her.

Gender, which many people feel is the film's riding theme, is really more an arbitrary element to the greater purpose of the film. As Orlando is an aristocrat of the greatest pedigree, the perils of his life are trivial to those less fortunate. In one scene, as people make a slippery trek over the ice that covers the ground of Orlando's province. They fall and look the fool whilst Orlando, in a sled led by 6 struggling skaters, courts a novice Russian queen. The affront to the English people aside, Orlando recognizes not the follies of those who surround him, but is so invested in his own woes that the surroundings, times, even genders melt away without making the slightest effect on him. This is the state of the bourgeois. So self-involved, integral aspects of life: survival, gender and life, all fall by the wayside for whimsy and woe. If Potter's film (as opposed to Swinton's film, as it is both) succeeds anywhere it is here. The lord (or lady) Orlando, though our protagonist, never quite ceases to appear the fool.