Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Tale of Three Anti-Capitalist Musicals: HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM, BRIGADOON, MARAT/SADE

HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM
1933 -  Dir. Lewis Milestone
****

A pre-code salute to vagrancy, anarchism, and the days when Central Park was a bucolic Arden for the eloquent "books in the babbling brooks" breed of Depression-era homelessness. Milestone's delightful film is crammed with half-spoken Rogers and Hart songs lamenting the amount of work it takes to remain unemployed ("You own the world / when you don't own a thing"). There's enough economic savvy and cool Central Park set design here to make it both Brechtian and bucolic, an AS YOU LIKE IT with Central Park as Arden, Jolson as exiled king (he would not change it), and his men a bouncing band of singing bum types played with refreshing lack of hokey sentiment. Frank Morgan is the real mayor of NYC, the kind of duty-bound consciousness type that wistfully tosses change to Jolson's king tramp like he'd love to trade places - their weird symbiotic friendship creates a very cool core that gives the film bounce when it needs to avoid the snares of its second half's collapse into the usual Jolson-gives-up-the-girl City Lights-style melodramatics. Madge Evans is the girl in question: Morgan's neglected mistress, eh takes a jump off central park bridge into the surprisingly deep river where Jolson rescues her, completing the Shakespearean-Jungian geometry, which Ben Hecht has so cagily drafted (Naturally she comes to with amnesia and no place to sleep). With a cool black turtleneck and the swagger of a Bronx Maurice Chevalier, until he turns all plutocrat and schmaltzy, Jolson shows why he was once a box office draw. Aside from the eventual soup stock pathos, the only bad guy is a thousand dollar bill Jolson finds in the trash --the very rumor of which sends the park's once-happy denizens into violent riot. Oh capitalism, could you not spare this one tree? Imagine the Lubitsch touch on a SCARFACE spittoon and you have of course Warner Brothers. One of its many awesome little joys is hearing Frank "The Wonderful Wizard" Morgan saying "there's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home," six years early!  Capitalism may be the key to getting lovely things--and Evans is lovely, especially when covered in delicious Central Park creek water--but Joson must learn the hard way: sacrifice of happiness for spending power is not admirable! In the end, for all her loveliness, Evans is worse than a dozen thousand dollar bills!



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 BRIGADOON
1954-  Dir. Vincente Minnelli
**1/2

If you never thought a magical Scottish hamlet could be boring, you thought wrong. Vincente Minnelli shows he is not Ford, and thus has no grasp of what makes Scottish culture great, i.e. Scotch whiskey. Alcohol here is clearly associated with a crowded Manhattan bar Gene Kelly and sourpuss drunk Van Johnson inhabit before and after their trip to Scotland (to shoot grouse, like they'd know one if they saw one). Scotland is played by various uninspired sets on which Kelly climbs and taps and sings like a `silly monkey.

Minnelli stacks the deck by making everyone at the bar vulgarians and Kelly's fiancee a social climbing materialistic bitch - there's no redeeming value in the city and nothing but redeemable value in the country. But associating booze with big city shallowness does little to allay the dull piety of the mythical town itself, which is stranded in a fundamentalist annex of John Ford chaperone-and-plow malarkey but without Ford's magic touch (the only way, perhaps, to see the magic in the mossy glens is to be lit up from within by Glenfiddich. This ain't the Scottish musical version of THE QUIET MAN, much as it would like to be, and the widescreen formatting--meant for giant Cinemascope stretch screens-- eschews close-ups and fast edits (such things made audiences nauseous and disoriented on such large canvases) in favor of long shots on obvious stage sets, where, for example, everyone's dancing feet are at the bottom of the screen, and their heads at the top, duplicating a Broadway theater experience, perhaps (the screen matching the height and width of the stage), but in failing to explore the magical possibilities of its subject, even on the big screen it's enough to reduce you to napping in all the wrong places.


If you want something magically Scottish, check out I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING or LOCAL HERO. What you get from BRIGADOON is the dry notion that Scottish culture is so inhibited it makes Irish Catholics look like Haight-Ashbury hippies  Considering the awesomeness of the stars--Kelly and my favorite Cyd Charisse--there's some surprisingly awkward dancing amidst the finery, and the super sexy Cyd is barely recognizable: her legs hidden in thick skirts, shapely upper regions sheathed in a highlands sash. She's supposed to look wan and bonny but often just seems sad and hungover.

Meanwhile Van Johnson is the ugly American personified, grousing about how he came to Scotland to shoot grouse and making alcohol look bad as he drawls off his endless flask and shotguns treed locals. Why does Kelly insist on bringing him along? He's like Ronald Coleman's ungrateful brother in LOST HORIZON. Why go to Scotland just to deal with that kind of crap? Just don't hang out with him! On the other hand, does Kelly really want to eat haggis and smell burning peat moss and offal for the rest of time immortal? Why doesn't he just go back to New York and find a different bar? One less crowded and boorish? He's a grass-is-greener type is our Gene, aye, and sure'n the grass is no greener than in a wee place you can never get to except once every hundred years.

MARAT/SADE
1967 Dir. Peter Brook
****

Glenda Jackson stabs a guy named Marat during the French Revolution, while the Marquis de Sade looks on, delighted, and corrects flubbed lines--or are his corrections part of the play within the play? That's so Brechtian! Meanwhile the mental institution director interrupts too, but in rhyme, so is he part of the play or not? What are all these interruptions! Madame et monsieur, in the vein of Brecht et Artaud, I present la Revolution.

Dats real pretty, Glenda
Based on Peter Weiss's play-within-a-play about some drama therapy at the insane asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade, the full UK title is "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade." And since now you're watching a video of a movie of a play within a play about the French Revolution, you could add onto the title in your head at the end "and filmed by Peter Brook, screened on TCM and watched by me in the 21st century") there's guillotines, a whole maze of fourth walls, and long twisted half-sung monologues about walking through the bloody streets of Paris back when they were flooded by a river of noble blood, bath steam, and the special way syphilis makes you insane (antibiotics had yet to be invented) and hydrotherapy might help for the moment but there's no cure for the madness of trying to create a government for the people when the people are all corrupt, murderous, uneducated, unwashed and  ridden with brain-corroding STDs!  I used to intern in the creative arts therapy drama department at Bellevue, so I know the score, and this here's real! At least it was... on some level... onstage. Watch out Glenda Jackson doesn't reach right out from the screen and stab you too. In her weird swaying narcoleptic way, she's fucking sexy as hell.

Superb on every level, some of the songs are almost Fairport Convention-level psych-folkish but most wind their way into a weird madness that seems to slowly build from murmurings of the masses to become the sort of numbers that would send the entire cast of Les Miserables running for their lives to the safety of foreign ports. Enjoy the digital fruits of your capitalist bourgeois internet whilst you might, noble literate.  New Marats are born every day, or am I thinking of mallrats?

Either way, we're doomed.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Monster Capsules: GHIDORAH, PHANTASM II, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS

GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER
1964 - dir. Ishiro Honda
***1/2
I'd seen a lot of Godzilla movies as a kid but I never... until lately. Man, GHIDORAH is the best one! Maybe it's Akira Ifukube's great, blowsy ominous-cool bassoon jazz score, which imbues the heaviness of the monsters with Falstaffian hep grandeur as they stagger around and down volcanoes and bump into matchstick apartment complexes. Ifukube's cues repeat over and over but that's fine, they hold up. So it seems a bunch of scientists have been having nightly meetings with UFOs, so they invite a lady reporter to come check out how cool they are. When the UFOs don't come the night she's there, they accuse her of sending skeptical brainwaves out into the atmosphere and scaring the aliens off! Skeptical brainwaves! When the reporter dismisses the idea that brainwaves even exist, the scientists smile patronizingly. That's cool despite being sexist because it shows the easy way science can flip-flop on issues, condemning non-believers with an array of defense mechanisms, from witch burning to shows like Fact or Faked and Myth-busters. One day they sneer at the 'nuts' who believe UFOs exist; the next day they sneer at the 'cranks' who believe they don't. Look at the scientist's desk above and you see the way science might have matured had not events like Roswell been so effectively hushed up.The dubbing is solid. The framing and colors are comic book perfection. GHIDORAH: Number One!


Anyway, later that bad brainwave night, some hot princess of the mythical kingdom of Sergina (Akiko Wakabayashi) is abducted mid-flight from her private plane by a UFO right the instant before a terrorist bomb blows it to bits. The next day, scientists investigate a meteor that crashed in the mountains and left a huge Ghidorah egg. The princess appears at the dock, now possessed by a Martian (below) for a dockside press conference: "I come from the planet you call Mars! The Earth--your planet-- is on the brink of destruction, and you refuse to take it seriously." They laugh. And the hatching egg is their reward. Look who's come all the way from space to show you that three heads are better than one, and that killing whales, dolphins, and Nanking is wrong! Ghidorah functions here as a kind of anti-global terrorist bomb, sent to wipe out violent civilizations before they can become a threat to the Galactic Federation (which is a real thing, according to my in-the-know informants! Stop sending bad vibes!)

Of course, the glee with which Japan is wiped out time and again has become dampened by recent cataclysms, but can we doubt this scrappy dolphin-hating nation won't bounce back? So I got to go with Ghidorah on this one, even if those cute singing Mothra handler sisters are around to sing their little songs to get Godzilla and caterpillar form Mothra to unite against him. Then that Ifukube drunken bassoon score really stumbles into low, low gear, and the rumble atop the volcanic jungle is on, reminding me that as a kid watching Speed Racer I used to root for the bad guys; being a tot and inexperienced, I kept thinking "This time... this time they'll finally win." They never won! Like me, in kickball. Ghidorah, I want to Speed's Mach-5 rushed underfoot!

PHANTASM II 
1988 - dir. Don Coscarelli
***
Who knows where we go after we die? The Shadow and Don Coscarelli know, or at least he dares to look in the same trans-dimensional direction as fringe theorists like David Icke and Nick Redfern. Like its predecessor, PHANTASM II involves the adventures of an unlucky orphan lad (here James Le Gros) with mental problems and an ice cream man (Reggie Bannister) buddy, who comes to his rescue, or rather leads him into more trouble, this time by following the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) as he loots the graveyards of the western states for his neighboring dimension slave army. What the story really provides though is a very bizarre but consistent mythos that deconstructs down to reveal what it's like to see the warped mysteries of humanity's archaic funeral rituals, seen through the eyes of a young terrified child wandering the mausoleum while his parents cremate grandma and being freaked out by the glint of the fading afternoon sun on the shiny marble walls, imagining a flying metal ball coming around looking for him, to drill out his pineal gland (the home of the soul) for use in bizarre fourth dimensional enslavement rites. Also, there's the ingenious STAR WARS-associative use of Jawa fashions for the tall man's undead ghost-dwarf minions. And lots of bright yellow embalming fluid (which the Tall Man uses for blood). Paula Irvine plays the grown-up love interest granddaughter of the weird old psychic lady in the first film, and even Reggie gets a girl in the form of a groovy young hitchhiker they pick up named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips!). The scene where the two couple link up while crashing in a boarded up house in one of the decimated town is laden with termite psychometric details.


As in the first, the creepy Carpenter-esque music and sense of suburban ghost town desolation and ever-immanent nightfall make up for all slack. And then there's the underlying mythos.... considering all the bizarre accoutrements of the funeral trade, you can really imagine there being a hidden white room in each mortuary where corpses are compacted for rebirth in a dimension where the gravity is much stronger. The dimension itself, with the colors morphed, and the winds relentless, is seen sparingly for max. effect and eerily resembles near-death experiences of the unlucky ones who miss the white light. Such people report their astral body/soul floating up to the white light and then being snatched by hands emerging from the dark shadows along the tunnel's sides, yanked into this prison of Hell as they march along a long trail through a desert-like plain led in front by a flying saucer that seems to be harvesting elements of their souls! Part Moses and Yaweh leading the Israelites through the wasteland, part literal hell.

Whoa, hey! Too much? Then just enjoy this low key TERMINATOR-meets-EVIL DEAD thrill ride movie, with its periodic in-jokes (the name on one bag of cremation ashes is "Sam Raimi") and pretend you're in a car at a crumbling drive-in in the early 1980s, the world around you alive with youth, health, and bravado... all of which about to shortly crumble, like the drive-in itself, until your ashes are scattered to the wind at a sterile ceremony attended by an evil dwarf in a brown robe, texting furiously and all but ignoring the sympathy offered by your grieving friends. A poor thing but thine own, call that brat Ghidorah!

Tiffany and friend
KINGDOM THE SPIDERS
1977 - dir. John "Bud" Cardos
***

This loose remake of THE BIRDS, this spawn of the post-JAWS (hell you can't cancel the such-and-such festival --the town needs those tourists!) environ-amok (DDT's the devil!) genre stars the always underrated William Shatner as a small town Arizona veterinarian and the awesome Tiffany Bolling as a big town arachnologist sent in to help when toxicology on a dead calf reveals spider venom. Perfect in a feminist update on Melanie Daniels (she even has a convertible and driving gloves) she even has a worthy Annie Hayworth in the form of Marcy Lafferty (Shatner's real-life wife at the time). The Bolling-Shatner meet cute is at a gas station instead of a pet store, and the genders are reversed, but there's the holing up at the hotel bar (here a set of cozy rustic cabins), and a plane blowing up near the gas pumps (though I guess they ran out of fireball money because the fire just burns itself out). The big attack with people running around in panic with little creatures on them is adorable, and the Arizona scenery is beautiful with mesas like the ones in STAGECOACH, or rather the same exact ones. 

The first to get it is, wouldn't you know it, a black rancher (Woody Strode) fearful of losing his livestock in a quarantine-- "he worked for seven years to get that bull!" He's allowed much dignity and concern, so we're slowly climbing up the stereotypes from Best's cowardly manservant to this over-serious humble sobriety... Still a cliche, though, since he and his wife are the first to go, and his wife's so dumb enough she blows holes in her own floor and shoots her own hand rather than just sweeping the spiders out the door. That's some rancher's wife, a real self-reliant homesteader. It's also pretty dumb that the white folks decide to go on a picnic after finding the dead black couple lying in the grass covered with arachnid bites. Dumb... typical.

But hey, when a tarantula--with scary library music cues filling the soundtrack--slowly climbs up onto Bolling's desk and into an open desk drawer while she's in the shower, that's when this comes into a greatness all its own, because she finds it she just smiles like she's found a kitten, strokes its hair, then releases it outside. She's like if Jill Banner in SPIDER BABY didn't die but instead went on to get a doctorate in arachnology. I love the way she towers over Shatner, and gently mocks him when he tries to seduce her, all while still letting him continue to try with the same calm nonlocalized loving detachment with which she coddled the spider. Her reputation amongst the Psychotronic set is well-deserved. I instantly ordered BONNIE'S KIDS after seeing this, and rented TRIANGLE (1970) too (See my review of both: Bolling Straight). Bill Shatner earns his cult, too, especially when he does an awesome high-stepping dance to not step on any of the spiders. He sometimes does, of course. But hey, no hairpieces were harmed during the making of this movie.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Columbine Queen: PJ Soles in ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL

Part of the PJ Soles Blogathon on Day of the Woman



The blowing up of one's school was a sacred fantasy to us sugar-crazed kids of the 1970s: we imagined big explosions either after we left or before we actually stepped within blast radius. We imagined gym mats and sneakers raining down in slow motion all over town and everyone cheering in giddy rapture. It was long before ADD, Columbine, or Anthrax, a time when a little pyrotechnic destruction of one's school was expected, allowed, respected. Contained in fantasy, it was a harmless outlet for pent-up id aggression. That fantasy comes to life to a Ramones soundtrack in ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL and it's never since been depicted before or since with such strident rock defiance.  If ROCK was released now, well... it just wouldn't be released at all, so why even ponder? As it is, we'll always have 1979.

Vince Lombardi High School's fate is sealed with the arrival of a new principal (Mary Woronov, drawing on her experience playing cruel prison wardens in other New World films) who is determined to weed out the bad kids and their devil music. Ramones devotee Riff Randell (PJ Soles) meanwhile, is oblivious to this looming threat, Riff just knows if she can get her songs to Joey Ramone he'd sing them; she thinks he's dreamy (and if PJ Soles can think a hunched beanpole doofus like Joey Ramone is dreamy then there is surely hope for us all). Meanwhile an insecure jock (Vince Van Patten) pays for make-out lessons from the school's drug dealer, and Woronov's frequent co-star Paul Bartel is the cool music teacher who ends up joining the revolution, declaring that "if Beethoven were a student at Vince Lombardi, he'd be a Ramone!"


Well, though it was relatively unknown in my own hometown (all the bad kids were into KISS), it turns out the music of the Ramones provides the perfect pogo-ready soundtrack to the angsty arsonist years of high school; it infects the entire rhythm of the film, gradually pulling the narrative away from Riff and Co's high school persecution at the hands of scheming Woronov and into total celebration of rock and roll, and in particular, the album Road to Ruin, which Riff Randell plays while relaxing with a joint in her bedroom. She puffs and rocks so righteously that the Ramones even appear... Joey even serenades her in her shower!

This fantasy sequence has a surprising magic: Soles, in her foxy orange undergarments all the while, maintains an admirable mix of the edgy and innocent that's a perfect encapsulation of Arkush's special directorial gifts. A joint is no indication of sexual activeness in Arkush's knowing milieu: it's rock music that rules the holy trinity, not sex or drugs; and the band's too busy playing to ever submit to the petty lusts that drag other rock films down. Soles and her Ramones are puritans of punk, replacing sex with destruction--not of self, but of phony institutional restrictions, and when the Ramones come to the local rock theater, and Joey reads Riff's letter on stage, asking them to come play at Vince Lombardi, well, it seems natural he'd taker her request seriously. Of course they will show up at the school! Hey ho! Let's go!  While bouncy teen groupies are a fact of life on the road, we nonetheless admire how Randle's almost spiritual devotion to their primitivist rock energy transcends any rote deflowering--she's an incarnation of their music and they know it--it's a two way streak of muse-manship. She's like a punk Mary Magdalene and they become a groovy flotilla of leather jacket Jesuses.

The success of PORKY'S the following year (1980) alas undid the progress of Arkush's holy rock arc, and once again sex and boys were all girls were allowed to think about, back to becoming objects for smelly hormonal rapey teenage creeps to leer. In 1979 they understood that rock and roll is a holy thing - and rock is itself beyond gender, beyond the phony promises of adolescent biology and American advertising. When sex is sublimated into rock, everybody wins!

This is awesome because, without this kind of sublimation, the female adolescent fantasy cannot survive and teenage girls become mired in boytoy mirroring and anti-objectification/prurience dichotomies like LITTLE DARLINGS, FOXES, and FOXFIRE, where every man is abusive, groping, desperate, stalking, or a degenerate charmer out to steal their allowance, knock them up, and split to high-five with their boys (GREASE). But not here, baby. Under the Ramones' benevolent primitivist purity, the animus stays safe between the ponies of childhood and the human boyfriends of maturity. And these Ramones know it, and they're into it. Punk is their unified field, delivering them from harm amidst the chaos they wreak. With perfect love comes freedom from fear. Abuse that trust and you're no longer a rock god, just another sad lecher,

So what a joy to find this kind of thing in a rock film since--in addition to the verboten celebration of blowing up the school--letting underage high school girls around mature punk rocker skeeves would raise so many eyebrows today that the laws of self-fulfilling prophecy would take effect. Parents would protest a movie like this before it even came out, then secretly go see it and feel cheated when there's no gang bang.


All that is great, but what finally unmoors the movie from traditional sex comedy orbit altogether is the wild frenetic anarchy of the all-ages punk rock show centerpiece of the film. Director Alan Arkush had worked as an usher for the Fillmore back in the day so both this and his unjustly unavailable 1983 masterwork GET CRAZY capture that real-life sense of being there, of being caught up in the excitement of a real rock show, from back when rock shows were real.... smokey. Arkush's concerts are vivid alive affairs--they reek of pot, cigarettes, dry ice, and a thousand crushed-together perfumes, like real rock concerts smell. Hey! Hey! I watch these films and get a giddy sensation in my toes I don't get in any other rock movie. And the kids can come too, that's the important thing. The all-ages show is never taken lightly, Arkush respects and reveres the teenage need to rock --he finds the healing redemption in goalless anarchy. I saw many all-ages Ramones shows as a teenager (City Gardens, c. 1983-5) and can assure this one is better than being there. Arkush sustains the excitement most concert films (and concerts) only touch on scattershot, and he builds it up, and then farther up, to levels no other director can reach because they've never been there themselves.

Unafraid to be infectiously goofball rather than dully sexy, Soles, who so often played the best friend whose goofy, strident, horniness made ber blond danger (such as in HALLOWEEN)--lets fly as Riff. Her little lithe body bouncing around covered in the bright shiny colors that had not yet come to signify the encroaching 1980s, is sexy in its utter lack of sexuality. Her tendency to make funny faces, bug her eyes out, tighten and purse her already thin lips all help to keep her vivid as real-life teenager rather than jail-bait. Never adding more smarts than a normal teen would have, and twice as much heedless momentum, she's a tangle of sincerity, giggles, self-satire and genuine ferocity. I'd be scared to date her. But I'd want to be at parties she was at. That's the kind of girl every high school needs. And her kind would not come again.


All of which I say to preface the fact that PJ Soles rocks and if you have problems getting through the first bits of this movie, with ancient Og Oggleby as a school official in a boardroom and all the typical teen sexcom clownery, hold fast. Go pour a drink, and then return to let the rock of the Ramones work its magic. You might end up as I did, bouncing around your living room to their protean punk and PJ's awesome bug-eyed purity while your flatmates look at you with quiet annoyance. But hey, Riff's got a chainsaw with their name on it. Blitzkrieg Bop, and BOOM! Let the falling limbs and gym mats be as an absolving blackened blanket.


Friday, June 24, 2011

A Plea for Badder Elderly


The recent pair of "Bad" movies - BAD TEACHER and VERY BAD BOSSES - gives me hope for the cinema future. I've not seen either, but I have seen my cinema nation gradually morph from something occasionally edgy into this weird saccharine sarcophagi, where the only bad guys are cardboard super villains whose daddies didn't love them enough, or ourselves.

Another thing is old people. Were no female actresses born in the 1950s so we can have them play crazy old bat lunatics, like Bette Davis in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? That film set the bar, then Roman Polanski made them even creepier with Ruth Gordon in ROSEMARY'S BABY. Many followed her lead and though none captured her Satanic inevitability and none the horror of realizing you're old like Davis, all tried their best, if they weren't too drunk. They smoked, told dirty jokes, fooled around with unwary grips and rocked films with names like WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO, WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? and countful others--for awhile, in the late 60-early 70s, old people weren't tedious saints but terrifying spectres. Has there been any crazy old bats since these, from that golden rhinestone era? The era that brought us aging divas not only wrestling with impending mortality, but chewing its ear off and axing the referee in the crotch?


The problem with having a youth-obsessed pop culture for too many generations has become apparent in every empty gesture of our rom com heroines, every vacant slackjawed stare of our actors playing shaven hunks trying to maintain just-sex relationships with hotties from THE BLACK SWAN while their hairy bros tell dick jokes and wallow in a post-FREAKS AND GEEKS adolescence while the women comediennes roll their eyes and try to make the best of whatever few dumb lines they have. They're lacking substance, the substance that can only come from being made miserable by live-in relatives.

If they bothered to not only live with their parents but bring in the grandparents and all live under the same roof like families did in brownstones and Victorian 4-10 bedroom houses before the World War Two, then they'd actually see more old people, and on long enough a basis to be so creeped out they'd have to make movies about it. And forget Hollywood, where old people are all farmed off to Palm Springs, never to be seen again. The rest of us see the old ones on holidays when they are on their best behavior, and in hospitals when they're sucking our future social security up their IV tubes. Gimme that IV tube old lady! Have a Lark.

Don't blame me, a simple messenger, blame the pre-fab tract house suburbia boom that followed WW2. Soldiers came home from the war and balked at suddenly being expected to adhere to centuries-old curfews after three years of genital freedom. Since the rocket-pocket 1950s we've been bred to associate fleeing the nest with being the first step to true fun and freedom. It's only later, much later, that you get the bill for this luxury, and by then you're far too old to benefit from the lesson; you don't know how to act once you crest 30 because you live only with younger people. You haven't changed, it's just that now there's only one generation ahead of you, and more creeping behind you all the time, younger and younger... and ever more clueless with only the facts of the internet to guide them, and not the shaky logic and maddeningly repetitive and racist stories of their great grandparents.


I'd love to see, for example, a film about a crazy old lady who lures young men to her mansion then drugs them with sticky candy and makes them listen as she reads the bible, or kills them. But nooo, old people won't learn to use the internet, so we'll have to wait til my generation's old enough to crave company. Our actresses will be needing work once their plastic surgeons have finally said "finis! There is no more I can do." So maybe they'll be down for it. I know I am. Will BAD TEACHER lead to this crazy old axe murdering bat renaissance? If AA has taught me anything, it's no.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE vs. The Destruction Company


A black magic-dabbling Hollywood star from the 1930s named Lorna Love (Marianna Hill) reaches from beyond the grave to fuck up a couple of her married biographers in this priceless 1976 made-for-TV film. Kate Jackson and Robert Wagner play the couple, who move into Love's crumbling mansion (i.e. "Love House") to soak up the atmosphere and groove on Love's mansion full of mementos. With all the spooky stuff going on--including a ghostly projector showing Love's old films on the wall, and a ceremonial knife that appears and disappears from random drawers--their book takes forever to get started. Like any self-respecting writer, Wagner uses the thick atmosphere as an excuse to to drink and brood over the portrait of Lorna (painted by his own late father, cementing his connection to the subject) rather than write. Like Dana Andrews before him, he's falling in love with a dead woman. In a sublimely macabre Hollywood Babylon-worthy touch, Lorna's still-beautiful corpse is even kept on display in a glass case out in the backyard. Kate Jackson better get crafty, and hope there's no Mrs. Danvers skulking about the grounds in jealous guardianship of all their dead mistress once surveyed.


Relegated mostly towards being the gaslit innocent, terrorized by a phantom in a purple devil worship ceremonial robe waving around that curved sacrificial dagger, Jackson looks quite sleek in her silk scarves and slacks, her straight black hair extra long, her youth all but crystalizing the air around her with fuzzy magic. A smart sweater worn over a collared shirt adds nerdy class to her beautiful 'smarts' and nurturing soul. We feel her pain, then, as she's way too sweet to be deserve being menaced by a phantom in a pentagram-covered purple robe who's either trying to kill her or just scare her out of Love House, and then to have her legit fears dismissed by dumbass husband Wagner.

He thinks it's her imagination, but it's his that's out of control. As he drinks booze in the den, moons over the Love portrait and screens her old films over and over via a home projector on the wall, he winds up distracted by conveniently-timed hallucinations of ghostly Lorna whenever Kate's in danger in another room. In the most awesome moment, Lorna comes to life in a slow motion, gold-tinted mirage, smiling and calling his name from inside the film he's projecting! As someone who--as a child--believed he could make Kate Jackson fall in love with him if he stared hard enough at her pictures in Teen Beat, I caught the meta frisson from this scene, big time.

But then, in real life at least, adulthood supplants our naive, hopeless wishful fantasies. Once we understand the way these fantasies are structured on the bedrock of their never coming true, the bedrock dissolves and we're set free to find a new illusion. But alcoholism returns the writer to the land of fantasy; the more Wagner drinks, the ruder, more patronizing, and dismissive of Jackson's legitimate worry he becomes. He thinks she's faking that someone is trying to kill her and has left a Satanic knife in her drawer and cut her own face out of their author's photo in order to get his attention. As Kate is so rational and intelligent, you start to imagine what Charlie's Angels would be like if every suggestion, clue, or even event the Angels reported was dismissed by Bosley and Charlie as womanly hallucinations and hysterics. Ick, right? They'd need more than an hour to solve the case, that's for sure...

Anyway, despite all that, the pace is brisk and there's a whole cavalcade of pre-war Hollywood stars in cameos: John Carradine shows up all evil-like as Lorna's old Svengali-style director; Sylivia Sydney is the nicotine-voiced housekeeper (prefiguring her hilarious turn in BEETLEJUICE); Joan Blondell is a deranged fan (and Love's fellow coven member); Dorothy Lamour... OK, I forget what she does. And holding her own as the ghost of Lorna is a leggy tall blonde named Marianna Hill. You may remember as Fredo's rebellious strumpet of a wife in GODFATHER 2, and she's in tons of other shit too, including a couple of STAR TREK episodes, RED LINE 7000 and MESSIAH OF EVIL. Hot damn.


Being a confirmed sadomasochistic Charlie's Angels fan as a child in the 70s, poring, Sternberg-like, over images of their loveliness, you can imagine how I longed to see DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE, which was mentioned on occasion in TV Guide, along with Kate's other big 70s TVM, the equally awesome sounding SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, both TVMs that came and went before I was aware of them due to my parent's strict bedtime laws. Their unavailability made imagining them all the sweeter; I desperately wanted a job at any school with a name like Love House or Satan's School for Girls. I'd even brush their hair for them, and do their toenails. Can you even imagine my weird semi-sadomasochistic / pre-empathic, prepubescent jouissance?

In the pre-Xerox, pre-video 70s, the only way to acquire pictures of your icons was to take them with a camera yourself, off the TV, or buy the magazine and cut the pics out, or trade them (i.e. Charlie's Angels trading cards, Tiger Beat spreads, etc.), or steal them (I'd rip the pics out of newsstand copies when the 7-11 camera had rotated the other way). If you had real money you could send away for real glossies. but they never seemed that cool to me.

As for owning films in the 70s, the best you could do (if you were a kid) was to get a super 8mm projector and buy little condensed reels from the camera store. They had one or two key scenes from the film edited together and running maybe five or six minutes. There was NO other way to see a movie other than at the whim of the TV channel or theater programmer and even then it was contingent on bed times and parental preferentiality.

I mention this for a simple reason: to stress the power of the image in the 70s. It was a power that its proliferation in our current era has decreased. Now one merely thinks of a name and they can find every picture ever, immediately -- we can download them and keep them forever. Kids today take that for granted but the older of us remember maybe how that inability to 'own' movies-- the sheer lack of access --made images more sacred, more ephemeral.

There was no way my parents would let me stay up until 4 AM watching some rerun ghost TVM, at that age. but I was far from tired at 9 PM... so I was forced to lie in bed in a prepubescent miasma, imagining Kate Jackson in all these ghostly, Satanic, and love-death situations. If I knew about how good booze in sufficient quantities would have made me feel, I'd have been drinking like Wagner. But to me it was just gross stuff adults drank that made them act like dazed idiots.

 

Instead of going the child lush route, we obsessive, morbidly image-obsessed pre-teen pagans used our pent-up energy to dream DVD and the internet into existence. But, like booze, these image multipliers constitute a devil's bargain. The ensuing unbearable surplus--the vast expanse of internet sites, online books, streaming films, etc.--saturates the eye to the point of numb despair, robbing us of our grand masochistic longing, decreasing the value of everything.

Sooner or later, all our deepest fantasies end up in the $1.99 Used -- Very Good bin at Amazon.


So Lorna Love died, for there were no more image-starved minds to conquer.  The center couldn't hold and without that externalized desire. The subject imploded under its own horrid weight.

Don't believe me? Look at these recent revolting news stories about 'the Destruction Company' - where dumb rich kids pay someone else for the right to smash their own TV sets, and you see how universal availability forces a crisis of desire. The more stuff we have, the less it has value... and for the person who constructs their whole identity around ego and ownership this is a truth too horrible to face. The race is lost since you downloaded the finish line before it began. So rather than go back and bet on devout Non-Attachment in the Third, you just buy the horse that already lost the race and pay for the right to shoot it.

Such suckers are what DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE is all about. Rather than admit they can't get their youth back they try to stop time and freeze themselves in amber. They hope to go rigid in their glory rather than let go and flow in the current of anonymity, to relish the disillusionment that comes with attaining your desire in order to move into egolessness. Meanwhile, the aging stars from the golden era all show up as groundskeepers, real estate agents, and neighbors. They collect their checks, and shamble off back into the shadows. They're old and irrelevant, but man they know the score.


Of course, you can always pick your obsession more wisely - find something very hard to attain. Pine with me, then, for that legendary original edit of Orson Welles' MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), yet to be unearthed in some Brazilian vault, if it even exists.

As you may know, Welles' finished an original three-hour cut of the film while in Rio for the war effort. The new management at RKO who received it butchered it down to under two hours and dumped into theaters. Allegedly they used their own print and didn't touch his Rio copy, so maybe it's hidden somewhere in some Brazilian vault? While the version that sometimes shows up on TCM seems boring and indulgent, and leading star Tim Holt plays a drab and uninteresting fop. I pine and long for the day when the original cut is found... that is my film geek grail.

But! Confident they'll never find it, I'm spared the anxiety of having to actually buy it for $39.99 on Criterion Blu-ray if it is ever is found, and since I paid so much I'd have to endure all three hours of claustrophobic late 19th century sound and shadow. AMBERSONS is Welles' AMARCORD, his FANNY AND ALEXANDER, his STAND BY ME, but with the selfish rich brat who taunts Spanky in OUR GANG as the star, the type who would surely join 'The Destruction Company' so he could buy and then wail on Joe Cotten's prototype horseless carriage.

And what is that crazy translation of the Baudelaire poetry Wagner's reading? We get a long look at the page in his book:

Kisses will I give thee, chill as the moon
and caresses shuddering and slow,
as a writhing serpent uncoiling a tomb.
Like angels with bright savage eyes
I will come treading phantom-wise
Hither where thou art wont to sleep
Amid the shadows hollow and deep.
Alas, the only DVD version of this film--or SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS--comes from the odious Cheezy Flix DVD label. These rats with their douchebag logo release hard-to-find films on Public Domain multi-generational dupe-quality discs for premium prices and that's a disgrace. Occasionally some color shows up unfaded, such as the the succulent purple of Lonra's bedroom chamber (below), but mostly its awash in faded, sad mud.

Yet, perhaps that's for the best, again, for when desires are examined under a Blu-ray HD stethoscope, they tend to dissolve like million dollar ice sculptures in the fires of our hellish gaze. So at least we can still long for a 'better' edition of DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE and SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, the way Wagner longs for Lorna, and the way that longing drags her back from the grave, trailing blurry tracking-streaked clouds of shuddering, slow serpents (uncoiling from the tomb where thy parents think thou ought to go sleep, since it's four AM), shambling like a 'Very Poor (VP)' quality first printing of her own sad fanzine, a dupe of a dupe, hollering for her Usher ushers, her worshipful acolytes, and sweet, sorry Fredo.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On the Perennial Rebound: DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (1971)


This ingenious 1971 Hammer film, long unavailable on DVD in the States, acts as a kind of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN Victorian era all-star murderer cast, with the implication that the Jack the Ripper got started when Burke and Hare were lynched by an angry London mob, thus depriving Dr. Jekyll of fresh girl glands for his experiments in prolonging life, so somehow... naturally, he switches gender. Directed swiftly and smartly by Roy Ward Barker, it stars Ralph Bates as the Jekyll side, who reasons that in order to prolong his life, so he has time to cure all diseases in the world, it's okay to murder prostitutes for their glands, cutting them up so it's not easily apparent what organ he was after, Ripper-style. That's two of the London Victorian Age House of Horrors tableaux down right there!

In the true Hammer tradition, DJASH has a cynical detachment from the evil he doth. We root for the result of his glandular tests since it means he gets a sex change and morphs into the fabulous Ms. Hyde, played by Martine Beswick, who at least is open about being a cold, calculating sexy killer and not merely some deluded hypocrite with a yen to make it in the history books.


Martine Beswick was one of my dad's favorite science fiction actresses growing up. She was the hot Neanderthal rival of Raquel Welch in 1000 YEARS BC (1967); She was a hot CIA agent working with Bond in THUNDERBALL (1965); she tore it up as a bitchy queen in PREHISTORIC WOMEN. She was everywhere sexy British cinema needed to be. Her sexuality was robust and uninterested in flattering or teasing weak men. And woe to her girl rivals! She is what I love best about imperious British (and Commonwealth) women, as seen today in Kate Beckinsale, Kate Winslet, and Judy Davis,

As Ms. Hyde, her astonishment at her awesome breasts during the first transformation is hilarious, reminiscent of Ellen Barkin's first scenes in SWITCH. And when s/he notices her hair's grown substantially longer in the few minutes of transformation you feel her conveying a slight comical mirth about the nature of fantasy, shrugging it off as the whims of her unseen director. Why bother explaining how one's hair can grow six inches in a matter of seconds? And be shiny, sexy, and well combed, make-up on perfectly? Drag queens who labour for hours to look pretty must be miffed at the ease with which pasty old Jekyll becomes this bombshell. Imagine just drinking your hair long and silky smooth!


Adding to the all-Victorian splendor is a Nicholas and Kate Nickelby style family upstairs, with the elderly mom (Dorothy Allison) at the piano, and the hot sister Susan (Susan Brodrick), longing for the cold Jekyll while Nicholas-y Howard (Lewis Flander) longs for Hyde, who is "a widow," as Jekyll explains, passing his alter-ego off as his own sister! She gets a big Italian soap opera piano cue when she materializes, like it's love at first sight in the mirror. Meanwhile his professor mentor (Gerald Sim) tells Jekyll "get a good woman and one day you'll look in the mirror and see a changed man." Haw Haw! Alas, rather than the hoped for lesbian seduction, Hyde's desire leaks over into Jekyll, resulting in Bates making a kind of unconscious pass at Howard. Right there, that's four stars. Now get thee to Blu-ray!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some Kind of Mushroom: GO ASK ALICE


It's a heavy trip, being addicted to 'drugs.' In the case of the 1973 TV movie version of the 'anonymous diary' GO ASK ALICE, drugs are a vague mix of cocaine, amphetamine, quaaludes, Valium, marijuana, but mainly--weirdly enough--LSD. Moron says what, now?

Do you know how hard I tried to be addicted to LSD in the 1980s? It's impossible. Those of us who tried to do it on a daily basis (in my case, every other day), wound up in many a psych ward, but there's nothing physically addictive about it, and the idea of junkies shaking and scratching as they turn tricks to pay for their next LSD hit is ridiculous. Heroin or meth, crack or coke, sure - I've never been there but I can believe it. LSD and DMT are totally different, it's like comparing whiskey to coffee, in fact LSD was used in the 50s as a cure for alcoholism. But 'acid' pills are clearly the drug of choice in GO ASK ALICE. There's no mention of heroin, and when she's introduced to speed it's in pill form, which is the same thing as an upper, i.e. amphetamine, which she'd been taking long before that. So what the fuck?

the 'big' money
I remember certain scenes from this film from when I saw it for an elementary school health class in the seventies: Alice (Jamie Smith-Jackson, who's excellent) in her cool hippie hat, blowing off her nerdy high school friend to hang out with the cool kids; Alice and her fellow druggie runaway on their knees in some twisted sadomasochistic game run by an older couple to make the girls beg for capsules of some drug, which I hope is not acid. Can you imagine wanting to do acid with leering adult perverts? Everyone seems like a leering adult pervert on acid to begin with. 

For all that, though, this perv swinger couple flashback scene has some extra heavy grotesque nightmarish resonance, like a promo for a dark drive-in film ALICE's target audience was still too young to see. But, as with the drug references, it's very (intentionally?) muddled. What pill exactly does the creepy sadist have in his hand? What sick game is he proposing in his muffled voice, and why does one girl lunge at him while another spins around and races into the other room screaming? The effect is unsettling - as if the film is a nonsensical dream deliberately trying to upset and confuse us while making the crimes depicted impossible to duplicate, scrambling the details to an almost surreal David Lynch-esque degree (Lynch's similarly dislocated idea of a dark sex-and-drugs underbelly in TWIN PEAKS, for example, has a similar after school special-run-amok lack of logic).


This surreal melting extends to non-drug interactions too: one day Alice walks in on her boyfriend to find him in bed with someone else (see below) My fellow schoolmates argued over whether it was a boy or girl in bed with him, for months! Watching it now I can't help but think the vagueness is deliberate, to muddy the waters, to depict the druggie world as it must look in the brains of children for whom adult realities are constantly shifting and getting harder to navigate, letting their fuzzy imagination run warm and weird (looking closer with the video, we can see it's a deliberate switch: first a very dark-haired girl then a boy). Either way Alice steals his money and grabs a bus to San Francisco with her Kay Lenz-ish friend. And I remember her outburst at a drug counseling group when a fellow addict seems to be enjoying his tales of glue-sniffing just a little too much (and then he offers her something called "a mixed bag"): "He's getting high just talking about getting high," Alice says, after storming out of the circle. "And you're getting high off of his high, and I'm getting high off of your high. And it's one big contact high!" That line seemed to me at the time, seeing this in first grade, as the one kernel of truth, and it haunted me all through my first AA meetings. In fact, remembering this scene kept me out of AA for longer than it might have otherwise. The grainy TV movie image of her walking away triumphant from the myopic addict circle was my badge of resistance against AA's cult reputation.

What Alice Sees before leaving
What we see after Alice leaves
One area wherein this ambiguity and deliberate fogging device works (to promote childhood playground discussion perhaps of what really happened?) is family dynamics: The parents are oblivious to how zonked the kids are at Alice's birthday party, even giving them champagne. Later they prove blind to Alice's pain, and dismiss her real concerns about druggie reprisals (after she rats out a tweaked babysitter) with rote speeches about standing up for herself.

The result: someone doses her soft drink while babysitting (we're tipped to her being drugged when Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" starts playing on the soundtrack while she's still feeding the baby) and you know how the rumor goes about babysitting on acid. Alice locks herself up in a closet to resist the temptation (apparently overwhelming in 70s babysitters) to put the baby in the oven and the chicken in the crib. Luckily the lock holds and the baby is saved. When she comes out of it her hands are all bandaged from having tried to claw through the door, Poe-style. It's pretty ridiculous, putting herself through hell (rather than just watching TV and letting it pass) and leaving the infant unattended, rather than risk some abstract hazard, like now that she stopped doing it for awhile she suddenly believes the parental hysteria flame-fanning urban legends of the parent-baiting newscasters.

comes a straightedge
But for all that--the parents aren't the bad guys, which is sooo 70s. Parents were expected to have their own lives, and help their kids best they can, but not become dicks about it, or get all micro-managing and helicoptery. William Shatner is there for that. Fake mustache or no, he's actually pretty wise, assuring her there's no easy answers, no specific thing she can just eliminate to get her life back on track. It's going to take ruthless self-honesty, work, and time.

In the end, though, Alice's trip to Wonderland here is too vaguely sketched not to draw a smirk from anyone remotely 'experienced.' Her first trip occurs when she's passed a soft drink at a party. The kids around her chant "button button - who's got the button?" as they put the white cap-like object in their mouths. The cap, I guess, was acid. Alice notes in the diary voiceover later that night that once she let go of fear and symbolically died she felt, for the first time, beautiful. It's the first and last time her experience seems believable. That's what really happens! Alas, it's all downhill from there. Seconds after writing in her diary that she has no interest in ever doing it again, her new boyfriend calls and she goes running down the stairs and out the door and starts doing coke. A scene later and she is 'hooked' on a regimen of her mom's tranquilizers, speed, and acid. The confusion over what drugs she's doing might not be in the book, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is.
 

Oh yes. That really is Robert Carradine, above, as the sleazy druggie boyfriend. Allow it.


In the end, for all its vague twisting and avoiding the gritty details, GO ASK ALICE was a major cultural touchstone seen by nearly everyone my age and that's enough to make it 'important' as a factor in the larger teen drug equation. It's the movie that taught us to fear psychedelics as much as heroin, coke, pot, etc. and in the process taught us that our parents knew even less about drugs than we did. Yet for all that ALICE still works: the performance from Jamie Smith-Jackson is spellbinding -- she goes through so many changes so fast she barely seems like the same person from scene to scene (the closest comparison I can think of is De Niro's Travis Bickle) -- and there's no quick short happy ending, just one trial after another. It's because of these trials, though, that Alice endures, even grows as a person. Like the Airplane song goes, she is some kind of a mushroom, and so is the film surrounding her --both have adapted to find nourishment even in the mire of after-school message bullshit.

For if drugs were legal, Alice wouldn't be having these problems - that's the thing. If the deans just passed LSD out at graduation then the evil kids wouldn't have any more power to seduce, hypnotize, and destroy. Until adults stop demonizing what they don't understand, older kids with drug savvy will always have the most power; but if the parents have the drugs, and the kids want some, then forget it --they'll behave like angels.


As it is now, even if you have the most beautiful, spiritual experience in your life on acid, even if it brings you out of suicidal depression, you can't tell your parents because they'd just send you to rehab or call the cops. So the creeps who gave you the stuff become the only people you trust, the only ones who know the score, so when they say heroin and coke are even MORE beautiful, well the only thing holding you back are warnings from adults who warned you off LSD too. If you're taught to think all drugs are the same, and all bad, then all drugs become good once you have even a single good experience. And they're not. Some are downright evil.


I believe that if psychedelics and pot were legal a whole new shift in the drug war would take place and the scummy leeches like Alice's boyfriend would be down to just the nasty shit like crank and coke to make their living. Hell, I'd be anti-drugs then. But as long as you make spiritually transformative chemicals like DMT, psilocybin, and LSD as illegal and as demonized as the evil shit, it's like you're giving a bunch of grotty hairbag scrubs the powers of Jesus and then wondering why no young people are snoozing through monotone sermons at church rather finding God for themselves in some rock venue parking lot. Go ask Alice, I think she'll know... that you played yourself, America. You gave up logic and proportion, and instead trusted the media, the shadiest drug dealer of all.
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