Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Forgotten Men with Steam" (Pre-Code Capsules): GOODBYE AGAIN, ARSENE LUPIN, HE WAS HER MAN, THE BOWERY, HELL'S ANGELS

HELL'S ANGELS
1930 - dir. Howard Hughes (w/ James Whale, Edmund Goulding - uncredited)
***1/2

Hughes' infamously expensive Hemingway-wannabe saga of WWI pilots and the woman they love is actually pretty amazing; it holds up today as fresher and more cutting edge than say, Scorsese's The Aviator. It's only drawback is the ill-conceived casting and character of the Yank brothers who go to Oxford and stay for the war: Monte (Ben Lyon) is a cowardly womanizing douchebag; Roy (James Hall--a bloated mix of Richard Barthelmess and Bob Newhart) is a naive simp who expects nymphomaniac Jean Harlow (in the role that made her an instant iconic sex symbol) to live up to his goofy moralistic ideals cuz she kissed him once. If you're a pretty girl who gets around, you've probably had more than one dude like this moping through your alleys, calling you constantly to report on his latest six guesses why you haven't called him back since the last time he called. "Never love a woman," Monte tries to tell his simpering moralistic prude of a brother, "just make love to her."

The question is, who was the girl, Howard, who left you with such a high opinion of women? She must have been quite a gal...


While unconvincing as a ladykiller, at least Lyon does a decent job with his scenes of his being seduced against his very weak will by Harlow, who with her jet-black eyebrows and platinum wave almost steals the movie from the spectacular aerial combat. It's for her and the fighting we're here, not the dimwit brothers, so every scene of these two sibling muttonheads engaged in their worldly nonsense seems worthless unless Harlow is there, coming between them.

The thing about Hughes is, he at least walks it likes he talks it: there's a cool sense of uninhibited sexual congress with Harlow, as expressed keenly in one of the best all-time 'fade-outs' in the pre-code code. A scene of her and Monte making out on a couch, is crosscut over to naive brother Roy sulking back at the bunks having been blown off by her on his imagined date, and then back to the couch at Harlow's pad where the vibe has shifted from simmering to sullen. Suddenly Monte's ashen mood and Harlow's nonplussed attitude ("It seems colder in here now, doesn't it?) indicates that during the last crosscut, they had sex on the couch. When we cut back it's clear how much Monte now hates himself and worse, thinks she's a slut because, douchebag that he is, he lacks the self-awareness to realize his post-orgasm depression will pass, and at any rate is not her fault. Yo Monte! Every tru playa knows not to get all pissy and moralistic with the girl you were busting moves on 'before' shit got real. Even if now all you can think about is getting home before your wife (or brother) finds out, honey, that'll pass and if anyone's it's Ma Nature's fault not Harlow's.

I admit I've never been a huge fan of Harlow's work in later movies, where she often seems a bit shrill and broad, especially playing alleged society dames. But the Harlow on display here is like a whole different person than the one shortly to rule over at MGM. She's less a baby-talking brawler lounging around eating bonbons and babbling to her maid and more an upscale nymphomaniac whose love of sex is like a fierce elemental magick. She's thinner too, and younger than she'd look in just another year or so, and those fierce black eyebrows make her seem accessible. You can feel the hair on her arms tingling with a every carnal inhale. She's like a living electric sheet of fire. She's not perfect, just dazzling. (Compare to how kind of busted she looks just a year later in Public Enemy, below).


Second big bang for the buck here -- superb aerial action. This being the film that was begun silently and finished with sound there's a certain freedom to be found not worrying about sound in the lengthy aerial combat: all the sounds of all the guns and the humming of the biplane engines as they go buzzing about is of course post-synced and all strangely soothing, and most of the dialogue is in German so the inter-titles make a weird kind of sense, especially in a very long and riveting scene involving a German zeppelin attempting to drop bombs on Piccadilly Circus by lowering the bombardier down through the clouds on a cable (the zeppelin's only chance to escape getting blown out of the sky is to stay up where the air is too thin for the old school bi-planes). An aviator himself, Hughes delivers not just action thrills but a very clear and graspable sense of what was really involved in dogfighting and bombing - the mix of luck, patience, not freaking out or choking on the trigger, and just how damn slow those planes were compared to today. Riding to the rescue can take hours. Hughes went all out for this stuff especially with hand-painted color tints. And nary a word is granted the brave young airman lowered down on a cable below the cloud line from a gigantic German dirigible...


And as the German who first duels with Monte (before the war) and then later questions the boys after they're shot down behind enemy lines, Lucien Prival is a delight. A leaner feral version of Erich Von Stroheim, he steals the final chapter of the film. Don't forget the Germans weren't yet Nazis, there was still a lot of chivalrous, sporting blood between Huns and Brits-- they'd all been drinking and dueling together scant years before. Of all the characters in this filthy war, it's actually Prival who glows the hardest, seems the staunchest of fellows. Harlow also earns her bombshell wings and can make fans of even on-the-fence-about-her types like myself, but man, those chumps from Oxford...

GOODBYE AGAIN
1933 - dir. Michael Curtiz
***

Warren William is at his most frivolous in this Warner Brothers comedy, maybe even too much so, and I say this as a die-hard William fan. I even like Satan Met a Lady, that original Maltese Falcon adaptation where he hams it up so much he seems merrily cockeyed, a bit blitzed, not quite blotto or stinko, but buzzing. Here, as a bestselling romantic novel writer, he's even buzzier, but he has a weird cool chemistry with Joan Blondell as his (what else?) fitfully bemused secretary so we know we're safely ensconced in primo WB pre-code territory, in short, the wolf is in his tailored forest. Adding to the value: Helen Chandler is the unwelcome sister-in-law of his latest on-tour groupie/conquest (Genevieve Tobin), showing up to make sure she comes home, for the sanctity of marriage and reputationzzzz. In reality, Chandler was a notorious alcoholic who burnt herself up in a fire shortly hereafter, a fitting if tragic fate for a girl half in half out of this world (as in 1931's The Last Flight and Dracula). Wallace Ford--bespectacled!-- is cast against type as Chandler's litigious husband and fellow moral task force self-appointer. Dragging Tobin's estranged but relatively cool husband (Hugh Herbert) in tow, they set about following William from Cleveland to Albany on the sleeper train, hoping to nab him in the act. And there's a great scene where their presence in the next car all but forces William to sleep with Tobin, waiting in his sleeper in a sexy negligee. Pre-code gold! It all ends in William's Albany boudoir where he jumps around on the bed and generally carries on while Blondell is gradually revealed to be far more than a secretary but hitherto 'open-minded' to his dalliances with ladies such as Tobin - usually, but because Tobin's married and he's lying to her about it, she gets pissed. Is he gonna do the right thing? Are we kids or what?

That's about it --not much to write home about though the actors sure strive for a farcical peak. It doesn't come, that peak, but William is on camera every minute, almost, so it's tough to care about anything else, even though we realize that he needs more menace to be really riveting. Here he's coasting on his wolfish charm like he knows we'll love him no matter what. We will. Gotta love a confident man.

HE WAS HER MAN
1934 - dir. Lloyd Bacon
**1/2

Uh oh, morality creeps in, that old wholesome small town malarkey, though still done with tough guy WB grit. Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell play two small time grifters who hustle and flow from the Turkish baths of NYC to Chicago to Marina Del Rey or thereabouts before seeking refuge in a small Portuguese fishing community, the kind of Podunk town that showgirls and good-hearted Steinbeckian whores go for their second chances. You know, to be respectable, and marry some terminally decent, slow-witted townie (see also: Tiger Shark, Anna Christie, The Wedding Night, The Purchase Price, The Wind, to name merely a few) whose lunkheadedness is almost like one last dig at the sanctity of, as Blondell's heart-of-gold whore puts it, "good honest decent hardworking people, which you wouldn't know anything about, Dick Jordan!"


Believe it or not, the big surprise here is Victor Jory as the chump, the kind of guy usually played by Edward G. Robinson or Ralph Bellamy. Jory might not be as good an actor as those guys, but he does have a deep voice, looming height, the stoic poise of a stock company Sitting Bull, and gravitas that belies his then-lean years. He might have a bizarre accent and mangled fisherman syntax but he's no rube. Cagney and Joan might talk faster and hustle more but Jory's tortoise wins the race, legitimately. While such a result certainly pleased the censors (then looming ever closer), the film's subtext never sides with the forces of small town decency: the sanctity of marriage may prevail, but as Cagney walks off into the sunset, arm-in-arm with his killers, it's him we want to follow, even if that means going straight off a cliff.

THE BOWERY
1933 dir. Michael Curtiz
***1/2

Robust Raoul Walsh direction makes this turn-of-the-century New York City Darryl F. Zanuck opus The Gangs of New York-style farce to beat, with all the downtown warring fire brigades (they brawl in the street while burning Chinese laundrymen plead in vain out their second story window in a bit of sly callous racism), Tammany Hall corruption, nickel beer, sawdust floozies singing from laughing laps, tear-stained blubbering pathos, and freewheeling stunts the era can offer all rendered in a mise-en-scène so vivid you can smell the cigars and coal fires.

Wallace Beery plays Chuck, the big shot of the Bowery (the Bill the Butcher); Jackie Cooper is a racist version of his orphan self who likes throwing rocks through "Chink's winders"; Fay Wray is the good girl who ends up keeping house for the pair of them; George Raft is Chuck's rival, an up-and-coming sharpie with a saloon and fire brigade of his own. Chuck don't like that much, and he's so tough he saps a broad who drunkenly crashes his table, as illustration to Cooper that women are "only after yer spondoolicks" since Cooper's gone in for trading cigarette cards "from guinea kids." Yeesh! Cooper's presence is somewhat superfluous, but he does his best with a third wheel role that seems affixed to Beery like some kind of blubbering lamprey (he's still leagues cooler than Leo).

The problem with the whole motivation of Leo DiCaprio in GANGS OF NEW YORK was swearing revenge on a man who his father lost a fight to fairly and is commemorated by. There's no treachery involved, no injustice. It shows the extreme cluelessness that can result when a genius like Scorsese's every dumb decision is never doubted. We wouldn't expect the grandson of a fallen German soldier for example, to hunt down the American who killed his grandfather on the battlefield during WW2. Does Scorsese even understand how vengeance works? Well, alas, even The Bowery feels the need to fall back on a hackneyed arc: the usual auld triangle coheres from the crowded streets betwixt Wray, the jealous brute Beery and George Raft as his slick rival--yawn. A better plot thread has Raft jumping off the Brooklyn bridge on a wager for Chuck's saloon; he makes it but almost used a dummy in his place, so reversals of fortune are always happening on the Bowery, including an appearance of vile liquor-bashing Carrie Nation and her armada of shrewish wives, living examples of the evils of sobriety. For a country finally free of the evils of prohibition (it was repealed in 1933 - the same year of THE BOWERY's release), the drunkenness on display here is almost patriotic.

ARSENE LUPIN
1931 - *** - dir. Jack Conway

Karen Morley is at her warmest and most mature in this pre-code MGM caper: The romance between her and John Barrymore starts with his discovering her naked in his bed during a party (he insists on being in the room while she dresses - with the lights off and it's pretty sexy... for he is no gentleman!). And since this is Paris, he doesn't have to go to the gallows to spare her having to confess she spent the night with him. He doesn't believe her story about being an exiled Russian countess, but he still likes her. So do we. There's is a relationship of mature equals and that's a rarity even in pre-code, or screwball for that matter. I'm not a huge fan of John's brother Lionel (he plays the head of the French Secret Service, sworn to bag Lupin before he retires - and as always is fussy and mannered) but the pair have a more interesting rapport here than in all their other films together. Enticing dabs of old dark house mystery atmosphere helps, with great Cedric Gibbons art direction.


Even if, by the end, it's really not too much at stake and it all kind of resembles the later THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (i.e. no deaths), right down the daylight hour museum theft, so what --it was here first. And despite its rough treatment in the theft, the Mona Lisa is none the worse for wear. In fact, the only real crime is Karen Morley not being in more films or better known. Appearing only sporadically after she left MGM (due to disputes over her private life, and later the blacklist) we have but a handful of films with which to treasure her mature sexual openness and the way she more than made up for actorly limitations through charm, wit, assertion and icy laugh. So there's this film, PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD, SCARFACE, MASK OF FU MANCHU, DINNER AT EIGHT and, well, they'd all be worthwhile anyway, but with her... sublime. She's got such mature allure in LUPIN kind of melted the keys in my pocket. We wouldn't see sexual confidence like hers again until... well, Renee Russo in the THOMAS CROWN remake. MGM's devotion to classic literature and plays was such that it overrode their provincial morality, to all our benefit, sometimes, and Morley's liberation here is primo example. Cherish her always.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

All you need is holes: WONDERWALL (1968) and the Entomological Mystery Tour


Thisbe and Pyramus loved through a hole in a wall, and that made it to Midsummer Night's Dream, so surely there's room for a 1968 Britpop film called WONDERWALL that's really more about "all the lonely peepers," like Prof. Oscar Collins (Jack McGowran), a waterworks entomologist who collects bugs and peeps through a microscope eyepiece-sized hole in the wall at neighbor and fashion model Penny Lane (Jane Birkin). She's got a very trippy pad, a photographer (Brian Walsh) who dresses in Apple Records green, and a two-timing boyfriend (Ian Quarrier, who tries to get her into a menage a trois with Anita Pallenberg) but Birkin is so gorgeous and young, with such heavenly legs and crazy fashions--that we want to see her all the time and less of old Collins. But mostly we see her only in a round hole intercut with long stretches of Collins' little rat face peering, the round light coming through the hole from Penny's apartment illuminating one of his round spectacles. It's creepy, man, a grody PEEPING TOM who thinks he's a Paul McCartney lyric / color-coded cavalier. When Quarrier visits him to borrow ice for a party it's clear he needs an older man's counsel, but Collins, dressed in a tux as if hoping to be invited over, cannot provide even that, and it's very, very dispiriting. It becomes a helluva slog, this film. It drags and drags. Collins doesn't see the less glamorous moments at his neighbor's pop art flat, like Penny's shaving her legs or drying her socks in a jar by the door, or visiting the doctor or eating cereal, as if that's supposed to somehow de-ickify his displeasing addiction (it's for educational and scientific purposes only). Will Quarrier help raise his forthcoming baby? Will the professor ride to the rescue? I mean in some capacity other than cocking his head quizzically as might a beagle trying to understand its master's complex command?

Whatever the motives, the soundtrack is a nonstop feast for the chemically-enhanced ear, an entomological freakfest, with George Harrison's psychedelic melange of sitars, guitars, harmonica, tamboura and Indian horns howling, tinkling, and buzzing like an array of electric insects nearly nonstop.  The cumulative result of it all, music + a dysfunctional wretch watching pretty people pose, makes WONDERWALL a kind of no-talking Beavis and Butthead if they were just one guy who watched vintage Joi Lansing Scopitones through round holes in a wall instead of Heavy Metal on a TV set. The bug analogy is borderline impressive --only Norma Shearer in RIPTIDE (1934) and Isabella Rossellini in GREEN PORNO (2008) come close (but no spider ala Lansing's "Web of Love" to provide a threat) and Harrison's buzzing tamboura and sitar hovering deep inside the ossicles are like a bee in the ear.

From top: Joi Lansing, WONDERWALL, RIP TIDE, GREEN PORNO

The source story is by Gérard Brach, who wrote REPULSION and CUL-DE-SAC and THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who penned VANISHING POINT (1972). One gets the impression of Brach's earlier work that he never meant Professor Collins to be any kind of Monsieur Hulot-Chaplin type whimsy generator but a skeevy older version of Terence Stamp in THE COLLECTOR. He's saved from needing to abduct pretty young specimens for his killing jar because one lives right next door, and old Collins has drilled plenty of air holes. The idea that Collins loses himself and begins to demolish his apartment to better make a million holes in the wall to peep through is creepy in itself, but doubly so when filmmaker Joe Massot films these actions to a bouncy polka and double projection speed ala Harold Lloyd or Benny Hill. Instead of laughs, what Collins needs a good slashening by Catherine Deneuve's razor, especially once he makes it his business to break into Penny's pad and start nosing around her underwear drawer (imagine if Chaplin did that as the Little Tramp) and presumed we'd think he was just being irrepressibly, innocently curious?). That's the fundamental problem, or maybe solution, to this film --that young Penny just happens to be trying to snuff it right at the same evening he busts in. Good old Collins!

But maybe it's also because this weird pro-scopophile schizodimensional angle that it's ultimately interesting beyond its basic function as a pretty eye-popping light show showcase for Birkin's heavenly gams. If you go in expecting it to be a dull story of a dweebish ratfaced peeping tom scientist shuffling around his apartment in his pajamas, a reverse-gendered REPULSION tale of mental disintegration coupled to some old nudie cutie comedy like THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS, then the pop art YELLOW SUBMARINER tangents will throw you left afield; if you go in expecting a pop art whimsy-fest, be prepared to be rather unnerved by the inordinate amount of time we watch Collins watching said fest and cocking his head.

So the big question is, just how did this creepy cluess Massott ever get George Harrison on board, as well as the Beatles'/Apple affiliated haberdashers and pop artists The Fool to work on this vile travesty of countercultural values? The reason should be obvious, Harrison wanted to get more things on record, to promote his Indian music penchants beyond one track per Beatles' album; Wasn't Harrison at all spooked by the thought of recording a score for a film about a sick little man who spends every waking hour spying on his flashy Apple Records-affiliated rock star neighbor's sex and drug life? Apparently all that meditation made George blind to the skeeve beside him. I would think George would have read the script (slid under his door probably, written in creepy Henry Darger longhand) and as been as creeped out as if it had been pictures of him and his wife sleeping in bed.
Then again, there's some evidence he may have just recorded an album with insect buzzing tamboura and let Massot use it as he wanted.

In the end Massott comes off as being an incompetent probably with some private funds that afford him the means to make films and hang out with pop stars (he got SONG REMAINS THE SAME by living next to Jimi Page and because Page knew he'd worked with George Harrison whom of course he admired). The result is a mix of Polanski/Powell film critique and pop art made by a guy who thinks he's doing a mix if SHERLOCK JR. and WALTER MITTY. Dear old professor Collins is a Mr. Jones / Father McKenzie bowler hat type Brit flouncing around in a student art film, a REAR WINDOW's Jimmy Stewart if he had no friends and didn't even know Grace Kelly, but spied on her and no one else, and we were somehow expected to root for him, a creep too shy to even realize how creepy he's being, figuring a movie about him watching old Grace Kelly through a hole was enough of a movie subject, especially with his imagining having a big duel with her boyfriend for her hand, using as weapons things like giant oversize pens, lipsticks, and cigarettes while the lime green photographer snaps pictures, all just so she can load his hookah while he stares off into space. Who pictures themselves as an old square duffer trying vainly to look hip? That defeats the whole purpose. Something is happening here but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Collins? Dear Mr. Collins, you should really be in jail, or a nice rest home, chasing butterflies with  a little net.

Now I should preface by saying I adore Michael Powell but I'm too skeeved out by PEEPING TOM to ever see it again, ditto THE COLLECTOR, and I can't stand Monsieur Hulot and all those damned (in my mind) terrible Jacques Tati comedies. And when it comes to the Beatles I'm more a Harrison-Ringo-John fan, and find some of Paul's songs insufferably cheeky and guileless. Paul was always trying to bring in the lonely old timers and bouncy children along on the picnic, dumbing shit down so they understood, while John and George were about leading the brave young adults into the future (and scaring the shit out of Paul's children and old folks).

So here, while the score is all alien and strange and Harrison-Lennon, the bouncy Paul- there's that same bouncy children vibe here -- the colorful psychedelic whirligig is seen at arm's length while the foggy London codgers are front and center, the way, say, the Beatle's MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (below, above left) tried to be cheeky fun for one and all but instead was kind of like the dream of a kid who fell asleep on a dusty couch to his mom's afternoon BBC kitchen sink soaps while home from school with a high fever. Just look at the drab washed out image of the four of them in their animal maskies below - as creepy as the brown bear man in THE SHINING or the citizens of Summer's Isle. It's creepy, is what it is, am I right, Sir? Not at all for children, sir.

From Top: MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, SHINING, WICKER MAN
It's sad too that Jack MacGowran, the great Irish Beckett interpreter, a titan of the stage capable of great oratory, who was fantastic as the gut-shot bank robber in Polanski's CUL-DE-SAC, is stuck playing a silent observer peeping tom scientist role, his mellifluent orating voice for naught. Even happening to be in a position to come to her rescue, he hangs way back and lets the bobby get the glory and the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (meant to resemble making out, all the better to agitate old Professor Collins, my dear). The whole film has the queasy vibe of someone trying to paint a DayGlo PG patina of scientific inquiry on something he knows deep down is prurient, puerile, and pathetic. Penny has to almost die for the prof to have a chance to kiss her without it being creepy (i.e. mouth-to-mouth resuscitation) but even then he just hovers near her and does nothing too scared to remember even how to use a phone for help (beseeching the audience instead). So really the idea a woman lives or dies by the whim of a timid man too wussy to even fantasize outside the tiniest of boxes is almost too sexist and objectifying to bear. If I am drowning I hope my life guard isn't some shy ugly girl with a crush on me who lets me die rather than risk, you know, it being weird or something, by giving me mouth-to-mouth.


For all that, again, WONDERWALL can't be dismissed easily -- it has a lot of British fans like Liam Gallagher at the band Oasis. And I imagine if you discovered the film at four AM on BBC-4 while coming down off LSD in your London hotel after a gig, then well then you might write a song about it, too. And seeing it all swanky with pop art colors exploding off of the screen on the Blu-ray while Harrison's music flows remastered and earthy-ethereal in a gorgeous remix, there can be no doubt it has druggy pop art allure: Both apartments eventually look amazing thanks to set design by The Fool, and Birkin is progressively more and more gorgeous. So on the proper chemicals I imagine and with no expectations I suppose it would be quite the thing, and for the rest of us can certainly provide some help in the old spatchka department.

Then again, me, I can't stand Oasis.

But this guy Prof. Oscar Collins is half the show and that's 100% the trouble. If we come to the Blu-ray, we come for a psychedelic plasmatic gorgeous pop art happening, presumably, not a sad lonely ratfaced entomologist, and that we do end up with just such a one addresses the lingering need of British counterculture to address the problem of the judgmental old duffer in their midst, his bowler hat and imperious chin and jutting umbrella as he waits for the morning train, the type Peter Sellers loved to freak out in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN but Paul McCartney would bring on tour, citing just how clean he is. We just shush them away now, but in swinging London there was only the BBC and the cinema, and British cinema has always been a mixed collar bag, with a socialist streak, a hard-lost sense of labor/whig dichotomy, stodgy propriety and a penchant for turning nearly ever genre of film as dishwater grey as an English sky. And if an older fella really wanted to know what was going on in the swinging bird's pad, he risked the chance of letting his 'no sex please--we're British' bourgeois prurience get him in a stiff upper liplock. He might feel he has a right to move in and arrest them all if things look suspiciously salacious through the keyhole (and he can't admit to himself he too wanted to smoke hash with a naked Marianne Faithful on a bearskin rug or that he shouldn't have been peeping in the first place - he saved that girl, whether she thinks so or not!)

For all his criminal faults, an American filmmaker like Woody Allen at least understood that basic truth of viewer psychology. Woody's going after girls young enough to actually be his daughters isn't something he feels we'd root for, yet he at least is honest about how its his repressed incestuous longing that's the very core of his comedic art, an elaborate disguise for something too twisted to convey any other way. In real life, Polanski is on the run, but Allen strides free, and WONDERWALL is somehow convinced it's Allen when it's Polanski, the way Michael Jackson was convinced he was Peter Pan instead of Captain Hook; each believing that their artistic drive is coming from somewhere other than the drive to create enough distracting noises to cover up the hideous heartbeat of their buried desire. Allen's years of analysis have given him enough awareness to understand that it is the beating of his own hideous heart, his guilty conscience, and so his distracting noises are conveyed as self-aware comedy. And Polanski's awareness comes from feeling the need to film the tell-tale heart directly, that the heart is all he can see and so forgive him if he doesn't even deign to make distracting noises. But Joe Massot's WONDERWALL is so distracted by his own distracting noises it forgets all about the heart, and so mistakes its beating as the sound of butterfly wings, and so it is Massot never asks himself the tough sordid Flannery O'Connor question: isn't every butterfly collector more liable to sniff through his prey's old cocoon drawer than save her from self-immolating? And isn't chloroform handy for both abducting girls and killing insects... painlessly?


By the end of the film we more or less resolve this sad salacious episode in Collins' life, but for the rest of us we can't help but feel like Woody Allen trapped on that sad sack train at the start of STARDUST MEMORIES, if the entire movie was spent with him stuck in his Kafka-esque hell car watching Sharon Stone blow kisses through a window. 

But hey - it was 1968! The director, Joe Massot, had one more trick up his sleeve. In 1976, he was hired to make Led Zeppelin's SONG REMAINS THE SAME. He was Page's neighbor and had been pestering him and manager Peter Grant about it and they'd all knew WONDERWALL, his only other film, had Beatles mystique behind it (and they hadn't seen it, though I imagine it would have been a dealbreaker if they ever did). And so they hired him work unseen for SONG (and then fired him halfway through). I first saw SONG for the first time on TV after a wild party, with no expectations, and a bunch of friends of some girl I was halfway hooked up with (a tale for a different post-here!), and tripping on too much acid to find fault with it, and I loved it. So set and setting are everything, but most importantly, no Professor Collins, no Monsieur Hulot, in SONG, just the crazy, violent, talented, dangerous, beautiful young adults of the Zeppelin. And while WONDERWALL is a tolerabe curio for Beatles fans and Britpop lovers, I'd rather not be reminded how long ago that wild party was -and that I too am just a peeper now, a spy in the house of love, a fool on on the hill. So take your concern for the bowler hat chaps and shove it where no one comes near. All the lonely people hate looking at images of lonely people looking at images of pretty young people--it reminds them of their loneliness which is like taking an aspirin to enhance your pain. Cut out the middle man, the mediary who'd pin Jane Birkin's wings to the wall so you can pay him for a glimpse, and free her with thine own electric eyes! If she never comes back, you never really saw her to begin with, and so, Monsieur Collins, adieu! J'snooze!


from top: Song Remains the Same,
Stardust Memories, Wonderwall

Monday, April 21, 2014

Antichrist in Translation: UNDER THE SKIN, HABIT

Showing off scars, from top: Under the Skin, Habit
Under the Skin (2014), the new slick dark green opus from Brian (Birth) Glazer, is a film that links up one's panic attacks before and after itself (as seen by you, the viewer) and signals the future of cinematic horror-science fiction as less about acting and thrills and more about the viewer's brain dissolving itself in a pool of black oil in the middle of a dark forlorn forest, wondering as it fades how it hears the rain and sizzle without ears. 2014's first official trans-humanist off-world 'chance to begin again' at that Crystal Peak moment of post-modern social decay, the screen on which it's showing as permeable as a jet black oil-filled swimming pool, Skin is not just mercury mirror from ye auld Cocteau Orphee, not just the menstrual matrix of Shauna Macdonald's Descent. It's the next step deeper. Just don't expect to climb out in the same skin you wore when you dove or were sucked in, because you're not just wet but changed. You emerge as different from your old tar pit-stuck self as a tetrapod is from a placoderm.

I collaged this image/s together/m and are real prowed
I know how it is, bro. I began the weekend with a terrible panic attack. Friday crashed down around me in hailstorms of at-work red tape hot potatoes, allergies, depression, and free-form anxiety based on the need, ignored for years now, to take my girlfriend anywhere other than our couch in front of the TV, realizing the pressure was on. She wanted to go out to the movies this time. My blood ran cold and I shook like the gallows pole was sliding up me arse when I got home from work, trembling on the floor in a ball 'til she tossed a half-a Xanax down in front of me and like a good dog I went scrambling after it. And so we caught the late show of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin down at the BAM. Wandering back home afterwards, up Flatbush around midnight, through half-deserted and strangely-lit Good Friday-empty Brooklyn, cutting through the uphill haze of alienated liquid light Flatbush Ave reflection, stale popcorn nausea and post-half Xanax glow wobbliness pulsing through our hamstrings, we knew something weird had happened. I couldn't quite get past the feeling Glazer's film was more of a video art installation swerving towards an And then the Darkness detour than an actual movie, but it was certainly art. Instead of a flow there is--buried in mossy 'membrances of Basil Twist-y underwater shirt twirlings--the sense of drowning in place, and that's all art can ever hope to convey. The darkness of the theater swallowed my soul right up behind itself, each block behind us falling into Blitz-era blackout, and even as we floated up to the smoky safe squalor of our flat, it was still there, the cord between the Twisty twirling and my body stretched to G sharp and Carpenter-ominous.

The paranoid terror red hot potato Poe-level paranoia was waiting, at home, arms crossed,  workplace anxiety-focused fury unabashed, for that X-half to wear off.

I felt half digested, like it.


Then, I realized where my paranoid terror was coming from: it was coming from Mad Men.

It was related to rewatching all six seasons of in prep for the new and final season and realizing I'd mixed up Don Draper's forced hiatus from Sterling Cooper with my own at-work woes. So it's true, then. I'm already half-sunk into the black oil image, I can't always remember where I end and TV begins - since I live in NYC I get confused too and think people I know from TV or movies are people I know from work if I see them on the street (there's a lot of traffic through each).

But when things get too intense at home, by which I mean onscreen, I can move to the kitchen to fix a drink or go to the bathroom and repeat to myself, "it's only a movie, it's only a movie." To our cat we at home must look often like statues, frozen in seated positions on the couch, before the glowing square, awaiting our orders.... hours and weeks at a time pass in addled bemusement.


But away from the safety zone of our apartment, the world is cold, dark, harsh: Glazer lures us into a dark and alien theater on the power of Birth and the sexual allure of Scarlett Johansson, and suddenly we're not even safe in our own simulacrum. Set mostly in and around the dark shroud of Glasgow, Skin is rich with bleakly beautiful panoramas of bowling alleys, cobblestone streets with sad pubs, panic attack strobe dance clubs, drenching rain over misty mountain moors and lashing surf rolling and crashing down in fast accelerations on a family at play (at first), sucking them all into their presumed deaths in a chain of failed rescues. Sans suspenseful music or any indication they've drowned, leaving only a screaming infant behind, it's so harrowingly existential it kind of crawled inside my stomach like a nightmare I had as a child and suddenly all the layers of assurance and support that nothing bad can happen to an infant onscreen were swept away with nary a sympathetic string to let us know that the filmmakers, too, are horrified rather than mountain-level indifferent. We're not given any indication Glazer cares about the fate of anyone, even himself, even his film's success or failure, and that kind of ambiguity is chilling, and even somewhat original. And there's also working class yobbos: their slang as indecipherable as an alien tongue, setting up a class divide against Scarlett's posh Londoner accent and... damn, I can't move on. How do you get back to a film's familiar Devil Girl From Mars plot after seeing that poor bereft toddler screaming, abandoned to the incoming tide on a deserted stretch of beach as the sun sets down around him like an evil shroud? This poor kid's screams hang like a torture-tricked sucker punch cheap shot over the remainder of the film, until the sheer weirdness of the deformed lion boy pick-up throws us yet another mickey. Whole reels seem to have been edited out, though based on our familiarity with films like La Femme Nikita and The Man Who Fell to Earth we can deduce those missing pieces, but why should we have to if it's only so Scarlett can suddenly turn compassionate Ann Bancroft at the Lynchian epidermal symbolism carnival moment? I'm not an animal! See me! Feel me! Touch me! I'm dreaming. Take the shot, Miss Moneypenny.  Glasgow is for drunks and junkie loo divers but too dangerous even for a black oil seductresses. Run forest-ward for safety! Wrong way! Take the shot - melt into the forest couch so Robert Carlyle can't find ya. I'm no great lover of children, but to let that child get sucked off to its death purely to illustrate your hard ambivalence one minute makes me not care that you suddenly care the next, even if you are the divine Miss ScarJo.


That's the problem with this film, though I respect others who love it. Lourde knows I would have followed Miss Scarlett anywhere, even over to the commercial multiplex wherein she's seducing Captain America and kicking ass instead of playing Venus Flytrap to some juicy soccer hooligans. It's strange and scary but her alien here seems to have very little real power and decays in ways that make us hope Lars Von Trier is waiting in the wings to snatch her from the Kubrick coldness and douse her in the Charlotte Gainsbourg womb of old testament Griffith vengeance. Instead all we're left with is the unsettling and dispiriting idea that Scotland's working class might be collectively more dangerous than any carnivorous alien sexually hypnotic prowler.

Still, I saw some things I don't usually get to see at the movies - things so weird they're like the dark rural cousin to Matthew Barney's Cremaster. But I guess I'm on the fence (after one viewing) as to whether this is a real movie, a work of staggering foresight and genius that will one day be regarded as the 2001 of our era, or just a long experimental hot mess like 2001 when you're not in the right mood for slowmo "Maisie."


The string of previews BAM showed before the film included something for Locke, which is set entirely inside Tom Hardy's car in real time as he talks on the Bluetooth. A whole hour and a half no doubt of artsy glistening street lamp reflections on rainy dark streets looking like luminous watercolors dripped on a black canvas whilst techno throbs hypnotically and family members and work acquaintances shout their panicked exposition at him via Siri's surreptitious signals and strings. Is this preview meant to prepare us for the endless driving shots and slow loop to nowhere repetitions of Under the Skin? It seemed an ill omen. If you want a real movie that does real things these days, you need to stay home and just imagine it. Movies are now about big screen compositions set within cars and the minds of predators --they don't expand your horizons but shrink them until they tighten around your neck like a dominatrix dog collar. If they don't tighten 'til you're gallows engorged, they're worried you won't feel anything at all - like we're a collective addict of autoerotic asphyxiation - or whatever it's called if you don't actually die.

The next stage will be where you spend your ten dollars just to sit in your car and think about what the movie you paid to see might look and sound like if it was ever made, while you drive around, furious that it would subject you to such violence, that are such awful people in the world. Dig, the movie is you, mate! Ten dollars anyway.

Locke 
Another problem with TRANSlATION: what's with the mean male handler (Jeremy McWilliams) with the motorcycle humpsuit? There's a kind of icky chauvinist undercurrent--like male filmmakers aren't comfortable with castrating Venusian bitches (or Ingrid Pitt) unless there's a man in charge of her/them (see my expose of cinema's pimps both before and behind the lens). Scarlett's voluptuous body, stripped to black bra and skintight black jeans, becomes the whole show, just her and the black box rooms with the wet floors --so we really don't give a shit about this handler with his smug countenance. Ain't right. The first film of this ilk that transcends the pimp factor head on and smashes it? Daughters of Darkness -- the most recent -- Neil  Jordan's Byzantium!

All that aside, Under the Skin tries hard to puncture some hidden and vital vein in our culture, the way any sense of a dislocated universal all-seeing perception dissolves when one is alone in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere. When no one can hear you scream, you're not screaming. So Scarlett's webmobile rolls slowly through Scotland, trying to snare figures of hunched over men, pummeling their way on foot through the darkness, on their way home from shopping or working long after normal people go to sleep. This Scotland seems as abandoned as some lifeless corner of the galaxy. She's all alone. From the darkness of an experimental intro that's just drones and a pinpoint of light, onwards to the rainy woodsy finish, it's hard to get a straight bead on anything. We're used to that pinpoint of light becoming a tunnel, but it's not going to be so easy this time. Aside from 'in Scotland' we never know where we are, except that we're treading the line between modernist ambiguity and hedging indecisiveness... Glazer indeed.

In his debut, the Kubrickian Birth, we had a real soul in Nicole Kidman, rupturing all his attempts to modernize her. Beautiful with her Rosemary buzz cut and with Anne Heche as a brassy Lady Macbeth that colored the painting of our fear that nothing was true, it was more Kubrick than Eyes Wide Shut on some level, but still it lacked the feeling of being aware of one's planetary orbit. In The Shining and 2001 you can actually feel the world turning below the feet of the Steadicam operator, the orbit of the Earth spinning around the sun and the longer orbit of the sun around the lip of it's galaxy as the universe expands outwards, and how orbits meet and eclipse each other until both disappear, the sense that any kind of stasis or stillness is an illusion, which it is, even if it's not a Bela Tarr movie.

Under the Skin has only one decaying orbit, and lots of flashy editing tracks and scars are displayed out from under its sleeve, including an extended melange of overlapping images through which Johansson's strange and lovely face gradually appears, but when the spell's broken there's nowhere to go but towards macroscope finality. It's the kind of film that depends on Wikipedia and summations of the original source novel for its post-mortem autopsy translation. My GF read them to me afterwards but I was sick off too much stale popcorn, and was coming down off that half doggie Xanax, and the terrors of bureaucratic power mixed with Mad Men bleed-over finally besting me and my office fuckup DTs. My weekend was ruined... forever minus two hours. 

At any rate, I appreciate a film that needs a drive or walk to and from itself to cohere. But if even then there's no real coherence, except that which we give it out of longing to not disappoint sweet Scarlett, then it's not even itself.


Before that, there was Larry Fessenden's 1995 low rent horror opus, Habit (Netflixed after admiring his friend Wingard's You're Next) in post-Blank Generation style and Liquid Sky content, Fessenden wears all the hats and stars as Sam, a bartender and witty drunk from the era of the 90s. Hey I drank the same way, at the same time, in his same neighborhood (he bartends at the Hat, the great Mexican restaurant in the LES with the super strong take-out margaritas, though in parts it looks like Ludlow Bar, and Max Fish rolled together.) I think I've even used his great line about booze and cigarettes being a form committing suicide on the installment plan. And, with his wild hair and missing front teeth, Fessenden is a great shaggy antihero, of the rare type where intellect and the ability to succinctly share one's inner feelings is not the mark of a square, nor missing teeth the mark of a townie scrub. He must have been really drinking 'cuz I think he's amazing here, and I dislike him in other things (like The Innkeepers). And there's some really great drinking scenes, where his friends' concerns, about his new girlfriend Anna (Meredith Snaider)'s habit of sucking his blood during sex, come out organic and low-key as any normal conversation, neither forced, melodramatic or otherwise.... and she doesn't need a pimp to wave his wand and 'allow' her to feast like in The Vampire Lovers. Fuck that.


Fessenden also has a great gift for framing within the tight confines of small realistically dilapidated apartments. The Halloween party early on is a masterpiece of tight economical framing. We've been to that same party before, it feels like, and the low key conversational tone is also a marvel; Fessenden, sounding like an early Jack Nicholson but not trying to, navigates his way through the start of a sexy relationship and into a rapidly downward spiraling series of options, as boozers often will. The hand job in Battery Park with Anna was one of the hotter punk rock sex scenes I've witnessed in some time, too, for being so sudden, realistic, intense, and out of left field, i.e. real. It left me bleeding psychic energy from out my limp imprisoned genital matrix in a way I've not been bled since Lydia Lunch in Kern's Submit to Me Now!


All that said, there's still the issue of the horror, the weakest element of this otherwise strong and moving film. The vamp fangs are clearly the two dollar plastic variety and while that could have worked --like if he was too drunk to tell if she's just joking or really trying to bite him -- plastic or real - etc., they play it straight and by then the film's run on kind of long. There's still no denying this is a significant and impressive low budget work; if the climax is a let-down it's only because the rest of it is so much better than it has any right to be.


The main issue with both these films' femme fatales of course is the weird dichotomies: Scarlett rocks the posh accent but dresses like a waterfront Lars Von Trier prostitute, and why is her spaceship an SUV? And as vamp Anna, Meredith Snaider is too short to be scary; I would have liked to see her taller, or more mature, played by a real gravitas-bearing actress who somehow seemed separate from the murky twentysomething slacker low-key characters in the film, none of whom emerge from the murk to become any archetypal vampire types (the one kid tries to be a Van Helsing rescuer of sorts but it never pans out though he does get in a great stream-of-babblelogue about the real vampire being all around us in the choking overreach of society and popular culture). So in the end it's not as effective as a horror film but does work as an authentically booze-engulfed LES twentysomething denizen depiction, wherein the sense of world-weary isolation is so acute that the vampire metaphor is almost redundant.


The reverse is perhaps true for Under the Skin, which has a few striking visuals involving black goo (are the aliens merely tar babies drawn from this murk, as in they're all one giant amoeba that occasionally splits off and dons a pelt like a wolf in sheep clothing?) and in one climactic shot we're able to realize the way even the most horrifying sight can blend in perfectly with twisting sunless old growth forest. Critics have noted the way Earth becomes so easily alien and terrifying through Scarlett's eyes, and how inherently alien she looks to begin with, and the weird similarities between these alien seduction / immersions and the reality of reported alien abductions, and the similarity between these aliens and the weird eye thing in Liquid Sky. While I get all that I'm still not convinced. Were my expectations too high? I wasn't high at all... just poisoned by panic... was that it?

Days later I'm still thinking about it, and the film did help strangeify that long walk uphill from BAM to our Park Slope digs on a late night Good Friday, half the locals seemingly gone upstate to visit relatives for Easter, leaving the neighborhood feeling very abandoned and surreal like an alien world. I guess, that's the best movies can do if they want to be both artsy and get us to not wait for video. To get us to trek out there into the dark foreboding night and pay over ten bucks to spend a couple hours parked next to strangers, our purse and coat pockets easily accessible to bed bugs and junkie fingers, the film has to seamlessly link up to all those things, to forge a doorway between our lives, where we are inside our own skins and their outer furs, wherein our seeing the film, and the film itself, become merged. If a film can't make the walk home resonate through a different pair of eyes than the ones we came in with, then why did we ever leave the safety of our homes to begin with? Films from the 90s like Habit, on the other hand, go the other way, to link up to our memories of being in our 20s in Manhattan proper in the 90s (when it was still cool, yo), when trekking to the neighborhood video store in the wearying sunshine of a hungover Sunday afternoon used to help create some kind of anticipatory context, some ceremony, even for old favorites back at home in my VHS collection if we never could pick a title. Both those trips -forward to theater and back to the rental place, are forgotten in favor of Netflix, the delivery system that sluggens down to a slowmo swim our escape path through the tar pit black quicksand stasis of reality. One day maybe soon we won't even need our own memories, our own darkness, our own seat, speakers, ears, ossicles, neurons. We'll be the viewer and the viewed in one looping orbital motion, the entirety of our senses transferred onto a stack of DVDs on a dusty shelf, and hopefully none of them, not ever, will be Transcendence. 

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