Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Butterfly Moanin' (DUKE OF BURGUNDY and Faerie Bower Cinema)







DUKE OF BURGUNDY
(2014) Dir. Peter Strickland
"The sovereign being is burdened with a servitude that crushes him, and the condition of free men is deliberate servility." - Georges Batailles 
Emerging from its cocoon as a beautiful Shout Factory Blu-ray, Peter Strickland's Duke of Burgundy is a nod to the 60s erotic reveries of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, only without the vampires and knife-wielding sadists. Snaking forward in a steady hypnotic rhythm, it instead examines the dom/sub head games played by a pair of lesbian lepidopterists living in a dream world where it's always autumn, men don't exist, and the Gothic architecture is ever-fecund with overgrowth. The beautiful dusky purples and oranges of the butterflies and the house interiors match the women's clothes and skin textures as they move through cloistered scripts in an endless repetition.

As a throwback to the 'Eurosleaze' genre, only without its sleaze, Duke's dreamlike mood is at once boring and fascinating, eros and thanatos inextricably linked. Like Frnaco's and Rollin's films, it's best seen while falling half asleep (which its slow pace is guaranteed to help with). Less a forward phallic arc of a narrative, Strickland's film is more like a repeated lullaby or the same storybook read over and over to a child in its crib by the giant mommy goddess. And it's this repetition maybe that holds the key to all spirituality, carnality, and musicality. Chanting and ritual work not, as some think, to lull the conscious egoic mind into a trance but to annihilate it by boredom, the way a cigarette snuffs itself out once dropped in an empty bottle.  To deliberately court this annihilation is the core of masochism, at least in film. Warhol's films court it, all but proving that behind masochism is post-modern awakening and behind that, nirvana. Once the ego's been bored to death, the unconscious cautiously takes the wheel.

Scarlet Empress, The
Similarly the films of Josef Von Sternberg with their fetishistic veils, mirrors, and inert momentum, or the magical repetitive hypnotism of Kenneth Anger or, especially as its so clearly referenced in Strickland's film, the 1963 Stan Brakhage experimental minute-long Mothlight:


I'm a confirmed proponent of the masochistic gaze theory posited by Gaylyn Studlar and Steven Shaviro, so I knew what to look for in Darionioni Nuovo tremolare Strickland's Duke, otherwise I wouldn't have known my boredom was an artistic response. According to his interview in the Blu-ray extra, Pete Tombs (of Mondo Macabro fame), commissioned the film, wanting a remake of Lorna the Exorcist (a very long awaited Jess Franco title, for those who wait for such things). Me, I've learned that like Jean Rollin's oeuvre, the only way to enjoy Franco (for me at least) is while alone at dusk, falling asleep in your dad's easy chair as the sun sets. In all other ways, certainly as narrative, or any kind of genuine erotica, his films are epic failures. But in the right half-asleep malaise, they're genius. Until I screened SUCCUBUS for a bunch of half-asleep kids at a European horror film class, I hadn't realized just how sex drenched it was until they shifted uncomfortably at their desks --noting the genre offers little more than student film style sights of pretty girls in long white dresses walking up and down ancient castle staircases, and softcore soft focus sex. I explained my secret to enjoying these films (the secret to most art films) stems from my long familiarity with drunken black-outs: I always presume the lead character has amnesia and doesn't want anyone to know.

from Jess Franco's Succubus (1967)

After all, if a beautiful redhead, naked under a fur, comes over to my swinger apartment at four in the morning and gets into bed with me, I'm not going to say "who are you and what do you want?" though I probably should... At any rate in swinging Europe '67 that would be rude, maybe I invited her over the night before and just don't remember. And since I've been drunk and on drugs for years, it's only natural I'd assume she'd been invited, maybe we're even married, best to play it cool and act like I know who she is.

In the film theory aspect, this ties in with the post-war modernist frisson born of French-speaking critics watching liberated Hollywood films, most sans dubbing or subtitles (we'd stopped making them since the German Occupation), so not understanding anything that was going on in the plot allowed the critics the freedom from language's structuring of the images and sounds, leading to original conception of the phrase mise-en-scène.


Anyway, once I told the class to imagine the main character had amnesia I screened Succubus for the class again and they loved it - they 'got' it this time, the modernist frisson. That's the kind of magic Franco's best films provide, the mystery of how such a crappy film can get better with repeat viewings.  In the end that's perhaps why Fritz Lang 'got' the art of Franco, as did Welles, when most critics sneered at or ignored it. Because Europe in the 1960s-70s was the Capital of Amnesia and the tower of Babalon Working, a time when a producer, actor, and director may easily have no language in common and drugs were ubiquitous. And if you're in the drug crowd there's a rule: when you can't remember how you got there, or the walls are turning alive, you can make a big deal about it. You might draw attention to yourself as a square, a tourist. You might tip off cops or jonesers who'll start pestering you for a hit of what made you so messed up. You have to just ride it, ride the weird and roll along and let the mannequins assemble for the sacrifice, presuming that your unbridled arrogance will convince them that you're not the designated victim.



And S/M in the end is really about that modernist frisson, the enslavement to the Other that finds true fulfillment in dream immersion. I know the drill. Like the older lady in Strickland's film I have been called onto to play dominant, and each time it was really the verbal descriptions of what I would do, as opposed to anything else, that did the job. The act never works as well as the threat, the speaking of it. It's about the show, the whispered declarations of power vs. humiliation rather than the practice, which ascribes now to the Gaylyn Studlar masochistic film theory vs. the Laura Mulvey sadistic proprietary male gaze theory:
"Studlar uses Deleuze’s treatise of masochism as a starting point for her article. Where Mulvey views the female as having no power, in a masochist reading, the woman is powerful due to possessing what the male lacks, so pleasure is not gained by “mastery of the female but submission to her” (1985:782). This is in direct contrast to Mulvey’s view, which centres on voyeurism and fetishistic scopophilia being a defense mechanism to castration anxiety. For Studlar, there is not always a connection between looking and control and therefore the process of looking, or obtaining pleasure from looking, is not always about objectification. If the viewer is getting pleasure through identification, then there is equality between the spectator and the subject being looked-upon." (Z- Mediated Musings)

Strickland understands these confusions of gaze; his film delves inwards to where the segmentation of a pupae abdomen circles into a set of winding fecund autumnal purple steps linking the look with the looked upon. Along with his post-giallo contemporaries, Strickland brings the modernist shiver of experimentalism into a head-on collision with the tenets of conventional narrative, letting their momentum derail each other and making something new from the train wreck, something that's neither formal/classical narrative nor avant garde/experimental, but a hybrid at once both invigorating and stultifying. In what could easily be the story of Mulvey and Studlar forever locked in a death/love staring contest, this wreck of a film shakes every pair bond to the core not through any particular eroticism but through the deconstruction of the kind of hermetic universe a loving couple creates within their shared space, a feeling of magic and second childhood, their honeymoon suite becoming an overgrown forest, a private world free of the constraints of time and outside responsibility. The stultifying comes once the outside has been ignored too long, the overgrowth chokes itself into mulch and dead leaves, leaving the stench of plant decay, what was once felt as protection and safety is now a prison, not through some shift of power, but through its own endless repetition.

In that and other senses of course it mirrors the fragmented masochistic obsessiveness of the films of Josef Von Sternberg (all those long slow meditative takes as Marlene walks around rooms, playing with this doll or that and shooting coy looks over her shoulder--as if stalling perpetually for time)--or even Bergman films like Persona (with the young boy in the experimental opening, trapped in the morgue as if reborn and tracing the blurry projection of Liv Ullman's jaw). And from there of course, The Ring and The Birds and my theory about Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child, i.e. the merging of the screen and the eye, the speakers and the ear, the
dialogue between one's unconscious and conscious mind finally becoming audible, recognizing the monstrous absurdity of one's own masochistic sex fantasies once translated into action. (See Taming the Tittering Tourists).


Color coding, From Top: Lips of Blood (Rollin, 75); Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (Gantillon, 71); Cries and Whispers (Bergman, 72)
In short, from my own perspective, I don't see a Mulveyan fear of castration in cine-masochism at all in these Eurorotica time capsules- but rather a longing for it, a longing which underwrites my own theory behind the heterosexual male's fascination with an all female or matriarchal world (ala Persona, The Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay), one that doesn't 'include' the male figures or allow for even a projection of one's own gender based locus into the narrative. If a male figure somehow gets a toe hold into this special universe, it's only as a eunuch servant, a blind man at the door who is not invited in, or an outmaneuvered future blood sacrifice ala Daughters of Darkness, the Blood-Spattered Bride, The Velvet Vampire, Girly and Vampyres.

This woman-centric film universe reflects the opposite of male-orgasm-based pornography, for the typical male sex fantasy doesn't last beyond the point of le petit mort. No men fantasize about women continuing to go down each other after they've already come. Men's sexuality, unless they are extraordinarily virile, dissipates immediately and drastically after orgasm, the fulfillment of the phallic hero's journey always ends in symbolic castration. This is why he begs and pleads but then, when there's no more barriers, hesitates; each orgasm a sort of suicide. The lesbian erotic scene, on the other hand, goes on and on, stopping time in its fairy tale tracks. The fairy bower's chthonic overgrowth ensnares and subdues narrative phallic linearity. It's something men just don't get to (or want to) see --we've already left the bed and headed for the kitchen to find a snack.

And so it is that these films show us a variation of sex we are fascinated by: we get to find out what girls are like when we're not around. It's something we'll just never know in real life, except through keyholes, screens (projections, paintings, pictures) dreams, and rebirth. In these films we finally understand, perhaps, why the patriarchy, the male gaze as per Mulvey, is so terrified of the female orgasm. I don't mean the little 'sneeze' girls get, or even the cherished involuntary vaginal contractions, but the one that comes later, and last forever, and increases and increases, feeding its own flame until the alchemical awakening of the Kali destroyer / creator goddess, a withering force as devastating to the phallic tower as a great flood. The male gaze is blinded in the flash, and not even Oedipus' stiff braille guide rope can help him find the door.

Elsie Wright -w/ Cottingley Fairies

Rose Bower (Burne-Jones)
The lesbian fantasias of Franco and Rollin aren’t really meant for the chthonic dead end of fairy bower lesbian stasis, but they do draw on the same chthonic morass torpor, the way Antonioni draws on Monica Vitti’s beauty, or Fellini on circus pageantry or Welles on Welles – as a thing fulfilling in and of itself that precludes or prefigures egoic deattachment from the mother. The sexuality of Fellini is--as in his best work-8 ½ and La Dolce Vita--exposed and recognized as infantile narcissism even while its being indulged; Antonioni’s is like Horatio’s worry Hamlet’s father’s ghost is one of those tricksters leading men to dangerous ledges; and Welles’ balloon of titanic ego is inevitably punctured by the realization of his own shortcomings --he can post-dub anyone in his films but a woman. Theirs are not the orgasm moments, the money shots, theirs are reminders that epiphanies, like male orgasms, are short and cheap and then life grinds on, oblivious. The trick with European reverie cinema is that this egoic puncturing never happens nor needs to. In a Rollin film, if a male character shows up who fancies himself the hunter-rescuer of the scene (as in one of Rollin’s endless string of jewel robbers) he’s peripheral --we’re invited to scorn him even as he tries to organize or tame the matriarchal nonlinear experimentalism of the hermetic female fairy bower. Like the forbidding father at the nursery he tries to shatter the fantasy of our total reunion with the mother, the memory of being an infant surrounded by gigantic adoring women, hearing their conversations as strange enigmatic words we do not understand, formatting the blank hard drive of self with ones and zeroes corresponding to the ebb and flow of mom’s attention. He tries to whip the women into linear order, but they of course devour him, like an egoic sandcastle in an incoming tide.

At this pre-egoic stage we don’t identify ourselves as separate from mother and are therefore ‘female’ regardless of biological gender. The need to differentiate and establish oneself as male and separate from mom is a traumatizing initiation these films undo. Their drawback is their lack of dramatic arc, their inability to finish the initiation and begin journey. The butterfly motif in Duke is the ultimate irony - the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, flies off and dies (male linearity) but here, with these lesbian lepidopterists, the butterfly stays fixed in time, punned on the board, etherized on the fairy bower table– the life cycle interrupted at its peak moment, from the safety of an eternally warm cocoon, or one just hatched from, full colors and all life ahead of it... or not. 

My favorite game to play with babysitters in the 70s

Maybe I'm keen on this subject because as a child I was never very coordinated or confident on the kickball field (and hence always picked last for teams, a daily humiliation). I always just wanted to hang out with the girls, I was in love with girls in general, no real sexual desire had cohered along my polymorphic jouissance ley lines, but girls made me feel electric nonetheless. I despised boys on principle. I had one little brother and no sisters, which might explain some of it. When some girl's evil mom didn't approve of my attention, tried to force me outside into the mud with their wild obnoxious dirty foul-mouthed boys instead of upstairs watching their sisters do Colorforms, it aggravated my delicate nerves. I hated those boys and their stupid mother! The girls were pretty and sweet and I was enthralled. I also adored all my female babysitters, like they were giant idols; there were these three cool female cousins who coddled me all through my infancy, and then --boom, they weren't around anymore. Never having had a lot of physical affection from my (Swedish) mother after, say, five, that affected me totally. I longed for three giant cute girls (relative to my size) and I didn't feel them again until stumbling on the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park (see my first film Erich Kuersten: A Poet's Journey)

Just the right size
As a child in the arms of a girl Alice size, I didn't need to exist, or get affection, or conquer any other phallic arc. I was, in other words, in the state of the passive masochist spectator. Of course this came back to haunt me later as I was often paralyzed when it came to busting the first move, afraid the girls I fancied would flutter away with some spiel about how 'I thought we were just friends.' And also the closer I got to said move the more my knees buckled and I felt I'd pass out. In short, sex and desire were too intense, I wanted to orbit the star, not crash into it - that was for the boys good at kickball.

Duke of Burgundy in a way operates on the same principle. The one hot sex scene is merely spoken, with the mistress struggling to keep her partner supplied with her custom-tailored erotic dom-sub fantasia. But again there's no ego formed, no linear thrust, which is why the film is so boring but that's part of the masochistic current, the Warholian love of boredom which is the result of undoing the need for ego and therefore yang energy and therefore lacking a narrative arc to guide and hone in our focus the way a child's polymorphous perversity gradually 'settles' in the genital region and then dissipates altogether after a few decades. But if we ignore that 'settling' there's freedom that comes with servility, the love of repetition and ritual (as in the repetitive alchemical rites in Anger's films). The oceanic experience the masochistic gaze in cinema mirrors what the Studlar's theory of masochism admits from the beginning is hopelessly unattainable. To attain it would end it.

The ending is the same either way. Death is just the sign on the door through which the audience exits the theater into the lobby; the sign 'Birth' is on the other side of the same door, from the lobby coming in. The only way to avoid going in our out of that door is to become etherized, frozen and pinned to your seat. Either way, the cinema is the same; the movie playing never changes. And its that element of inert sameness, the repetition, that works to make Duke of Burgundy both boring and artsy and maybe proves that calling something boring and artsy is redundant, and maybe it even proves that calling a film the realization of the insatiable appetite for repetition is to damn it with high praise, something only fellow post-giallo filmmakers like Helena and Bruno understand (as in the endless variations of the same scene in The Strange Color of your Body's Tears). But who likes it? Almost no one, for longer than 10 minutes at a crack. Still, in this inert symbolic re-death eroticism Studlar's masochistic gaze is spot-welded to a Crash-style car and sent over a cliff into to the kind of Jungian ego annihilation, liberating the libidinal desires that formulate the structure of the differentiated self, which is really just a nice way of saying it's boring as fuck-all. Don't miss it. Oops you did.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ten Reasons THE LEGACY (1978)

In interviews Sam Elliott called THE LEGACY, the weird 30s old dark house 70s devil movie hybrid in which he co-stars with future wife Katherine Ross, "fifteen years behind it's time." Well, as so often happens, thirty years later and we're all the way around again to where it's right of the moment, like the eternal gleam in Sam Elliott's cowboy eye. Trailing Satanist glory as it descends the stair, THE LEGACY (1978) has been given a genuinely gorgeous Blu-ray upgrade courtesy Scream Factory and like Elliott's sturdy mustache, it turns out to be right painterly, the kind of film any man would be proud to hang behind his gun rack in the den.

I'd never seen this film until this Blu-ray, never heard anything but bad reviews. I remember seeing the spots for this a lot on TV as a 12 year-old kid back in '78--the white cat, the pool, Sam's 'stache--all burned into my sponge-like childhood memory (though I remembered Sam as blonde like Nick Nolte). It came around the same time as BURNT OFFERINGS commercial and it just seemed like we were being saturated in gory supernatural thrillers with big casts and old weird houses with pools. Later if it came out on video I never saw it. I never looked for it because so many critics had said it sucked. Those people were wrong! Turns out I love most everything about this great terrible movie. 

What helps it a lot is what it doesn't have: there's a minimum of the usually ubiquitous thriller scenes of the heroine in a nightgown padding around the darkened mansion investigating strange noises, and even fewer soft focus dream sequences. Instead is a roster of British and German eccentrics, libertines, war criminals, and rock stars, and they start dropping like flies in various OMEN-like ways almost as soon as Ross and Elliott are shown their room. Far from the dreary 10 LITTLE INDIANS x OMEN English drawing room gore slog it's been painted as, this turns out to be a treat for anyone who loves James Whale's OLD DARK HOUSE, Hammer's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (Charles Gray), and ROSEMARY'S BABY, in that order. 

1. Katharine Ross

Never more beautiful or assured, with that great long straight chestnut hair and autumnal wardrobe, she's like the 70s incarnation of Cleopatra Nefertiti Babalon Marjorie Cameron Isis Scarlet Woman. And unlike so many of the 70s iconic beauties, she could act when the situation demanded it, and knew when not to.  She looks great here but she also looks mature (she was 38!) and intelligent, swept along in this weird tide with her man Sam. There's no whining about her wanting a baby or not having one or getting too much sex or not enough. She's equal partners with old Sam and when she inherits her legacy her whole face seems to change shape, expanding into an uncanny extra dimension of glacial stillness which shows why she was so effective in THE STEPFORD WIVES.

2. Sam Elliott

This is the era of some real strides in depicting assertive hot women who can believably order men around and sleep with them without emasculating them. If their mustaches were on straight, and they'd smoked enough to get a nice deep live-in voice, their men could even forge a new path, one of true equality based on individuality and mutual respect. So here's Elliott, singlehandedly bringing his character back from the brink of British black magic feminism's total wash-out of the straight American white cowboy male. A foreigner at a strange party he can never leave, yet is considered superfluous and expendable, mere arm candy for his woman. At first his crankiness seems to indicate he's destined for death or irrelevance, or that his macho genes are straining at being considered the weaker sex. Smashing through windows and wrecking equipment at the big climax, he becomes almost the monster of the piece, like he's going to rain on the parade of his lady in order to ensure she doesn't outgrow him.

Well, I should have given more credit to old Sam. A warrior from the Iron Age of cowboys and the Kris Kristofferson / Jon Voight school, a group of men so cool and badass they blazed a whole new trail of how to be macho while helping, by not hindering, the breakout of women's lib, which was erupting all around them like a myriad black hole tentacle whirling of tossed Mary Tyler Moore hats. These dudes might feel left out and sidelined as whole swaths of their power changed hands but, instead of staying sulky, they recognized their sulkiness as immaturity rather than something they needed to act on in order to preserve the status quo. At the same time instead of being completely whipped and beaten, they had guts enough to throw down and smash their way back to parity, Mary Tyler Moore-style.

3. The dusky beautiful cinematography 
brought to vivid 3-D clarity via the Shout Blu-ray

The 3D clarity and glistening deep colors are perfect for the setting, a big weird English mansion called Ravenhurst, with a very bizarre pool room which I remembered clearly all this time from the TV spots. There's a few moments when the couple's wearing white on white in the white room, when you think perhaps we're in heaven, or a halfway house, ala CARNIVAL OF SOULS. And sometimes the waxiness glistens too much, but overall the dusky great Allan Hume / Dick Bush photography is given full resonant expression, with a lot of magic hour deep blacks and the extreme angles. The vertical and diagonal POVs inside the mansion are hypnotizing, lots of looking down from ornate stairs, the creepy nurse's face bleeding into the myriad portraits. I usually hate the way rural England looks in daytime shots--the uniformly sickly grey sky, the landscape all washed out, dreary and depressingly still. But in THE LEGACY, that same landscape and sky looks plenty ominous, sexy, and cool. I'm so happy to finally make my peace with British exterior shots! You don't even know how I suffered. And that Bentley is hypnotizing in the pristine HD cleanliness.

That said, don't judge by the pics here which I scrounged around the web, for you, Marianne!

Guts, glory... Ram
4.  Michael J. Lewis' Score
Orchestral and at times predictable, Lewis incorporates synths too, and it doesn't get too up into the helicoptering Korngold-John Williams style. His score percolates and oozes with sly menace in the Carpenter carpet style and sometimes browses around a giallo vibe with echoing female vocalizing and twangy guitar octaves. In other words, Lewis keeps it simple and cool rather than showing off his symphonic training every five seconds. And there's even a great tacky 70s theme song sung by someone named Kiki Dee.

This is from DEVIL RIDES OUT, but you get the picture
5. Charles Gray
He's the guy so good as the high priest Mocata in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and as Blofeldt in Bond films and in everything - those steely blue eyes, that face like a disguise he's about to tear off, the rolling highbrow sophisto (but immanently down for a fight) voice. He's grand here as a man "decorated three times by the Nazis." When he's shooting his crossbow with fellow unholy ringbearer Lee Montague while noting Eliot's arrival as 'the uninvited guest' you'll be reminded of Lugosi and Karloff playing chess while David Manners sulks around trying all the usual means of departure in THE BLACK CAT. That's two great horror films in one single ten reason entry. 

 6. Old Dark House Ambience + Giallo-esque Deaths
 A mysterious dying monster behind a white curtain (like the old witch in SUSPIRIA --which came out the same year of THE LEGACY and has more than a few similarities) announcing only one of the assembled six will wield the ring of ultimate black magic power (a Tolkien boom was also in full effect); Katharine Ross it seems is the designated one, and 'Satan's power' isn't just the vast and unfathomable wealth of his sprawling estate, if you get my meaning.

7.  Hauntological British Occult conspiracy and Telekinesis

Reincarnation, witchy past, unholy ghost power, telekinesis, remote viewing, and a refreshing lack of viable Christian options or outright clarifications of just what sort of black magic is at work (no hail Satan chants and goat horns); it's left to the imagination without being too concerned with subtlety either. A rare combination to get right: bombast and class. Even the weird white nurse cat thing is done without obviousness and Margaret Tyzack brings just the right mood of calm professionalism.

And to cement the British Hammer link, Jimmy Sangster co-wrote the screenplay!


8.  Roger Daltrey chokes to Death

And then there's the weird elfin gnome-ishness of Daltrey: this strange being with the tiny body and huge head and wild mane of hair. And he's playing a rock icon much like himself, whose links to this weird ghostly mansion estate indicates black magic got him where he is today. Clutch, because it's believable. I've met him and man is he ever short, like a little hobbit with tiny hands. And leave it to a nouveau riche ex-Acton street rat like Roger to give us most of the exposition on how rich and powerful everyone there is. So naturally he dies! It's gratifying. THE LEGACY is actually second film from the 70s I've seen where someone dies from choking to death and no one gives him/her the Heimlich maneuver. My own grandmother knew to give me the Heimlich when I was just a child; she saved my life with it, years before this movie was even made! So it was not unknown, at least in Sweden, though according to CNN:
"In August 1974, editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association contacted the doctor who had developed a new method to save someone from choking -- then a major cause of death in the United States. His new technique was saving lives across the country, and they wanted to tell him they were publishing a story about it, and were going to name the procedure after him" (CNN)"
Either way, watching Daltrey choke to death at the buffet table is twice as agonizing as everyone just stands around freaking out. Is that really what they did back then? Heimlich, you saved my life a dozen times, me alone!

9. Town and country weapons and adventure
There's some solidly imagined escape attempt sequences with the estate vividly depicted from the towers down to the stables. All the rustic one lane roads lead back to the mansion; they try to escape via horses, saddled on the sly which Sam does with a relaxed quick assurance of the real cowboy, and their mad ride to freedom manages to be 70s rustic lovely while also scary (the way the score slowly shifts from an orchestral western-style ride along back to menacing again is letter-perfect); the near mauling by the hunting dogs, the crossbow vs. shotgun duel--all very town and country (where double barrel shotgun and crossbow must be continually reloaded as they would be in real life, a truth which seldom engages less imaginative screenwriters). The weapons all fit the location perfectly, creating a much tighter unified whole than EYE OF THE DEVIL which loped along a similar track but--the Sharon Tate scenes aside, was a snooze.

10. Great Ending
 I can't spoil the ending but let's just say that no one fucks with the kid, whatever that means. I really liked all the directions it was going, I didn't know whether to hope for Sam's bloody death or root for him, the last thing I wanted was to see him instill some last minute bad faith 'better my girlfriend be dead than a Satanist' edict, or convince her to return unto old patriarchal hierarchies because all she really wants in life is to be bossed around and gotten pregnant. It didn't happen! This was the age of feminist horror and this fits the bill admirably.

It also makes sense that Elliott and Ross met on the shoot, married, had a kid and went on to a groovy life, and are still going strong. I'm not sayin' it takes occult magic to keep a Hollywood couple together for so long but to use one of his LEGACY lines back at him, whatever he's doin'.... he's doin' it right.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Tantrums and Tarantulas: THE EDITOR, DEATH LAID AN EGG, EVE OF DESTRUCTION

THE EDITOR
(2015) Dir. Adam Brooks
***

 In the beginning there was just the poster. with a lot of strange fake names like Ally Gunning and Ahab Bricks and an image of a moviola running a reel of segmented human intestine or spine or something through the sprockets, it was a kind of EC Comics final twist panel for a movie as yet unwritten. Commissioned for a Canadian "Nonexistent Film" poster art show, the poster was intriguing enough to commission a trailer, and then, finally, a feature was commissioned from the trailer. That order may seem strange but the crazy horror genre is used to it; Val Lewton famously was given the titles for his films by RKO brass, then had to write a film to go with them --and today they're all classics! And now, comes to DVD/Blu-ray, THE EDITOR.


A zippy, blood and nudity-primary color drenched satiric whirlwind that makes Rodriguez' PlANET TERROR seem pretentious and talky by contrast, its frenetic pace, along with inextricable layers of cinematic self-reflexivity and metatextual breakdown, can make for quite a blurry ride until repeat viewings bring it all into focus, sussing out split personality nuance and allowing room to savor the Argento's INFERNO-esque colour palette, the 70s-80s bedroom racing stripes of a thousand Canadian-present-merging with-Italian yesterdays, and the irresistibly old school analog synth score. Will you make those multiple trips to the Astron-6 quadrant? Will you take my hand, and return it to its rightful owner?

The weirdest thing about this final 2014 film of THE EDITOR perhaps is that it's almost as much a satire of the post-giallos made today as the old ones made yesterday that have become classics and been largely forgiven and absolved from charges of misogyny (charges I too once levied). As DVD and HD widescreens have given visually and aurally psychedelic color-saturated Italian giallos from the 70s and slasher-horror from the 80s a second life--making their films demand re-evaluation by once-sneering critics (such as myself)--they seem newer than most 'new' stuff being churned out today. So it stands to reason there'd be an emerging slew of imitators, just as there were back then. And so Moloch bless us everyone, in our glorious Blu-ray age, great companies like Blue Underground, Code Red, Scorpion, Synapse, and Scream Factory make 70s-80s Euosleaze, giallo, and horror films seem like miracles that still carry a nostalgic jouissance-tingling currency for a generation too young to actually see the originals at the time, but too old to not remember, and be traumatized by, the TV spots and second-hand synopsizing from adventurous babysitters. Those brief glimpses into the fiery sex-death bowels of weird older adults-only horror movie frisson cut our soul deep, like initiatory tribal scarring. So now we watch our DVDs of them over and over, half out of a warped obsessive-compulsive disorder, half out of cargo cult-style reverie. Naturally now we want to make our own totemic effigies, just to feel that childhood thrill of terror again, or at least hear some colors and see sound.


So lo and behold, a whole new breed of horror film is erupting, the post-giallo thriller--either straight, artfully fragmented (Peter Strickland, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani - as seen in my curated Netflix festival entry, Post-Giallo Nightmare Logic ala Netflix) or--as for THE EDITOR--respectfully satiric. Canadian 80s-obsessed filmmaker collective Astron-6 use fake mustaches, intentionally "off" macho dubbing, too-watery blood and a layered post-modern style that incorporates such eye-popping post-modern sights as a man climbing out through the screen of a moviola. The vibe is heavily misogynistic but no more so than BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and it has the Asia Argento-Jennifer Tilly hybrid of the moment, Paz de la Huerta (above), who does batshit busted ass crazy pretty well. She would make a grand Martha in a horror movie update of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF or SCORE! Here she plays the sexually supercharged and big-lipped wife of the star, the titular editor, Ray Ciso (director Adam Brooks) and she makes Edwige Fenech seem like Annette Funicello.

Whoa, is that reference too inside? You don't know Fenech from Funicello? Then you may be the wrong audience for THE EDITOR. Best you go home and watch CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS and BEACH BLANKET BINGO in alternating DVD chapters until they bleed together as CASE OF THE BLOODY BLANKET or BLOOD IRIS BINGO. We'll wait.... right here, with our massive finger collections drenched under grueful kliegs.



Back? Good. Now you can love THE EDITOR, to a point. I forgot to tell you to see THE BEYOND while we're at it. But how can I tell you to see something I don't particularly like? I love about 1/2 that film but after the third minute of watching unconvincing gore close-ups of tarantulas pulling at skin-colored latex, well, it cheapens my love of the genre. Once gore loses its punch, its shock value, what the hell good is it? It's just abstraction. But I do love those white eyes on that girl in the middle of the road with the dog, the overall oppressive vibe, the contrapuntal score, and the existential ending. I'm not surprised the Astrons so clearly know THE BEYOND by heart: its strengths and weaknesses are theirs as well: pure dream logic sensationalism at the loss of coherence; gleeful reveling in ugly excess that eventually deadens its effect; a mirror reflection whirl of gruesome splatter, unconsciously puritanical sex, overwrought abstraction and 80s aerobics, BUT I love EDITOR's Franco Nero mustaches, and the Negaverse' alternate shadow reality populated by ghosts of the slain, severed fingers, FROM BEYOND-esque air eels, and swirling black mists. Man have to be blind not to love that. Though having been to some similar places in my 'ahem' travels, I assure you one thing: the real DMT-verse has more spiral fractals, and the FROM BEYOND-esque air eels are endlessly intwining in a double helix that encompasses the breadth of your now widened third eye perception! Deal with it.

From top: The Beyond (1981); The Editor (2011)


There's only one real main flaw, for me, that undoes some of the good: the tawdry misogynistic strip club brazenness (and by misogyny I don't mean the great scene where the cop shows up at his quarry's table during an argument to slap his wife for him--that's hilarious) that's at odds with the more laid and repressed-but-sexier Italians of the era depicted. In other words, I feel fine showing SUSPIRIA or TENEBRE to a hipster feminist, but wouldn't feel comfortable showing her THE EDITOR. Maybe I'm just the prude, I feel the same way about GAME OF THRONES and most of the other shows on HBO everyone seems to love. And I can't help but feel all those layers being peeled here should produce a feeling of disoriented self-reflexive paranoia the way it did in THE STUNTMAN or MULHOLLAND DR. But hey, aside from that, good on ya, mate, cuzza Kier!!

The marvelous Udo


-----------------------
The gorgeous Jean-Louis Trintignant and gorgeous Ewa Aulin in Italian Guilo Questi's qua giallo
DEATH LAID AN EGG
1968- Dir. Guilio Questi
***

While sensitive souls wait for the day that factory farming is regarded as one of humanity's worst atrocities, for writer-director Giuliu Questi (Django Kill, If you Live... Shoot!) and co-writer Franco Arcalli that day came back in 1968, the same year as Argento's groundbreaking Bird with Crystal Plumage. With weird dialogue that sounds like some kind of enigmatic code --the way Belmondo and Karina sometimes talk in that half-recited way in Pierrot Le Fou ("Moi aussi, Marianne")--there's something kinda magic about DLAE. The underlaying weird horror subplot concerning the accidental production of a headless chicken, a hoped for mutation (ala 'Mike') guaranteeing the horrified coop owners a heftier profit margin (and the occasionally conscientious Marco (Jean Louis Trintignant) a nervous breakdown) is just the nadir of an already twisty morass of lofty scheming of the bed and boardroom. A kind of glorified trophy husband (he's never been more beautiful), Marco vents his frustrations at being under the sway of his older woman chicken magnate wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) by cutting up prostitutes in a secret hotel room and covering scarves with Zodiac-esque symbols. Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin, Candy herself) is Anna's hot secretary, and it's implied she might be having an affair with Anna as well as Marco, and whomever else wants to go for the seven minutes in heaven during one of their cocktail party games. During their regular cinq-a-septs Marco keeps pressuring Gabrielle to run away with him, filling her jaded ear with petulant declarations. She worries he'd too broke to keep her in scarves without access to Anna's pockets. "What different does that make?" he asks. "We can always steal, can't we?" Ever the Lorelei Lee, our Gabrielle cautions him: "Love is a luxury." But Trintignant's playing an Italian, and they don't like to be put off their feed, so he takes it out on the prostitutes, but even he draws the line at the headless chickens created inexplicably by the accidental introduction of Anna's wrong-stepping dog into the seed grinder. "This is the beginning of those mutations I've been working for!" says the scientist, taking credit where it ain't or maybe is just partially due. "It will bring radical changes to production." Even if the chickens don't turn homicidal like the cats in The Corpse Grinders, the monstrosity of it all drives Marco into progressively more desperate, quasi-humane fury!



Questi's seemingly benign tale is rife wtih weird flashbacks, twists, and ragged editing of an almost Bill Gunn-style sideways termite-Eisenstein off-the-cuff brilliance. Bruno Madera's patchwork soundtrack plunges down in the atonal piano mash abyss one scene and sashays up in bossa nova and Anton Karras zither the next, with shoutings in German over Brazilian violins during the lovemaking, adding to the off-kilter vibe. Bruno skulks around the all white henhouse, the office, the boudoir. There are egg-related objets d'art-decorated offices and plenty of real eggs in rows. Gabrielle and Anna start dressing up like whores and frequenting Bruno's secret haunts to try to get to the bottom of his mysterious tomcatting. Or do they?


Made before--or concurrently with--Argento 'animal trilogy', Egg follows its own pre-giallo boilerplate, neither Louis Malle or Chabrol style nouvelle vague noir nor Argento/Bava candy-colored killer roundelay, so hey man, just roll with it and let it's clever rearrangement of soon-to-be familiar tropes lead you far afield. Enriched with the kind of narrative feints that crack the facade of the 'red telephone' boardroom-to-bedroom Dolce Vita shell (there's even a sexy parlor game for the decadent bourgeois revelers at Anna's party) it seeps with glistening honey traps that throw us off the scent with masterful twists and then it... kind of just stops on a gotcha. The Streaming on Amazon Prime cut is reasonably decent quality for non-HD (I took the above the screenshots therefrom), which makes it worth seeking out if you've high on an early pre-giallo kick and already re-watched all your Argentos and Fulcis like so many reps on your quads. 
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Once upon a time there was much variety in action movies and then.... there was Beverly Hills Cop, which made so many dump trucks full of money it became the only kind of movie Hollywood would ever make again. That's why in every post I've ever written I talk about the post-BHC and the pre-BHC era. And in the post BHC era, i.e. the 80s. There was also The Terminator, and Robocop, and there was Lethal Weapon... and of course, Flashdance. And so, it was natural to come along and quadrangulate the four--the cool fast-talking black guy, the buddy cops who hate each other at first, the killer automaton, the Jennifer Beals getting wet in spandex and fuzzy legging while hoping to be a real dancer--together they made more money than Hollywood ever knew existed. So they heeded the words of the Italian drive in Cannonball Run, "what's behind me... is not important."

Once again from the top: Murphy, Beals, Gibson, Schwarzenegger. And if you want to get technical, Jamie Lee Curtis in the willfully forgotten misfire Perfect (1985 - above left). If those involved with it have their way, you will never see Perfect in your lifetime, for it bombed something terrible. To crunch the above triptych tomcat tomboy bull roster, consider this as an alternative... even if it is made ten years too late:


EVE OF DESTRUCTION 
(1991) Dir. Duncan Gibbins
**1/2

There's an 'out-of-sync with its era'-vibe to this 'cool black cop and MILF engineer vs. amok lady android' genre entry.' Can it be explained by knowing that its director died two years after it came out while trying to rescue his cat during the 1993 California wildfires? Not that such tragedy should affect our affection (or lack of) for such a flatly filmed but fascinatingly proto-Carol Cloverian thriller about a chick robot, who--as in all terribly written Robocop clones-- finds street crime wherever she goes, forcing her to kill and/or get a robotic concussion which disrupts her neural network, sending her on a one woman vendetta against all the men who wronged her sexy maker (since said maker uploaded her own brain to said robot). Tyrell gave Rachel his niece's memories in Blade Runner, so just imagine this is Rachel gunning for the spider who scared her as a kid, or the boy who showed her his but she chickened and ran.



On the other hand, no mere Blade Runner comparison can explain the presence of Gregory Hines, whose 80s tap dance career somehow qualifies him for leading a SWAT team against indestructible irrational chick robots. An actor not about to stick his neck into the wildfire by embracing a dumb action movie cardboard character, Gregory seems to have forgotten there are no small roles, only small actors. And man, he fits the bill. Which begs another question: why was Hines even cast? Oh yeah, he's black, has done comedy, and people know his name, and Beverly Hills Cop being part of the holy 80s quadrangle hitherto mentioned, if this film's about a tall Germanic white chick it demands a black male star counterpoint. Hines was once the new Sammy Davis Jr. the way Savion Glover would now be the new Hines (there can be only one prime time tap dancer a decade). With his trim little line of a beard, oversize suit, and face that looked like someone pulled his nose way way out and then snapped it back, it seems like he's a little elf wearing the skin of a larger man, making his berating a bunch big-armed mesomorph SWAT guys after they underperform in a hostage rescue exercise the highlight of the film. Shouting at the top of his lungs, voice barely cutting through the thick testosterone, Hines sounds more like a fussy choreographer rather than a tough FBI instructor. Is not cracking up part of his team's SWAT training? Amok Eve VIII (Renée Soutendijk) should be easy to find and wrangle after that test. All Hines has to do is tell his SWAT guys where to shoot and follow this crazy 'bot down the traumatic memory lane of her 'image and likeness'-style designer, also played by Soutendijk who shares his helicopter. Too bad that--even after all that fussy beration--his men can't shoot (or duck) for shit, so EVE VIII ends up decimating entire ambush parties with a single Mac 10 clip. Next time you want to train some inept SWAT guys, call R. Lee Emery.

Soutendijk, a Dutch actress, was in some Dutch language Paul Verhoeven films neither you or I have probably seen, but have long wanted to (they're OOP in R1 or on youtube without subtitles).  She's the girl holding the scissors in that Fourth Man poster (left) and does a good job believably decimating an array of supposedly competent armed men and sleazy studs. It's pretty cathartic when she blasts them all to hell. Verhoeven should be proud.

I admit I recently bought the Blu-ray of EVE, mostly out of loyalty to a drunken half-remembered night when my brother and I caught it halfway through on cable and laughed and cheered ourselves senseless. It's not quite as good sober, but what is? Still, if you're craving a witless so-cliche-it's-classic Terminator-Robocop-style pre-CGI 80s flick from the early 90s, look no further... than Dark Angel (1990).

If you're still hungry after that, pour on the Hines. And PS: Going back into a raging inferno to rescue your cat? One hundred percent badass. Even if you didn't make it out alive, or make a very good movie, you, Duncan Gibbons, are a man for me.

Hines, with tired eyes that convey 'how did I get into this shit?'
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