Friday, August 30, 2013

Short Term 12 (2013): A prole movie invaded by a bourgeois plot

Short Term 12 (2013)
dir: Destin Daniel Cretton

Short Term 12 is a movie that suggests the even the troubled kids are alright, mainly because they have the troubled adults to guide them through the system stacked against them.

Destin Daniel Cretton had worked at a home for troubled youth when he was a younger guy.  He counseled them, watched over them, cared for them and about them.  It's kind of what happens.  It's what needs to happen when kids are abandoned by the communities they belong to.

As such, he made a very personal movie about this home for troubled youth.  He made a movie that feels so hard about its topic, and it is almost the cinematic equivalent of the decades long spate of emo/twee indie rock that invaded the indie scene and has overstayed its welcome.  At times, it feels like the Postal Service album, other times it feels like Sunny Day Real Estate, at even others it feels like...well anything that goes in these soft-spoken glowy genres. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The movie itself is about a home for troubled youth, and the troubled almost-volunteer counselors that watch over them.  These are kids who are in times of emotional turmoil, locational upset, or just abandoned by their parents on their way to somewhere, perhaps, a little better.  The group, as such, is a motley, multi-racial crew who clash and collide at each other because they weren't put into a group based on any similarities beyond troubled minds.

The group is watched over by two main counselors - Mason and Grace - and one new incomer, a middle-class vaguely ethnic dude Nate (he's Egyptian in real life).  Mason and Grace are dating on the down low, and have stories and connection aplenty, except Grace won't let Mason in, due to past trauma and blah blah you know where this is going.

The group gets a new character, Jayden, who sends Grace, with her hidden trauma, into a protective mother animal fighting to protect Jayden for some reason and it will all be reblah blah we know where this is going.

The main, and dare I say only, problem with the movie is all the blah blah we know where this is going.  The movie is at its strongest when it is just letting itself be.  When it is hanging around the home, or even just hanging around with Mason and Grace at home, the camera just watching these people act their characters is just fascinating, and emotionally honest and refreshing.  It's not judgmental.  It's not saying these people are good or bad.  It just is.

When this hanging around faux-verite indie film gets invaded by the Jayden/Grace plot, the movie derails.  It becomes a predictable by-the-numbers execution of oh, we know where this is going, and there are very few surprises.  Which is so depressing because, even when Short Term 12 derails, it is still fantastically constructed.

The technical aspects of the film is genius. The acting is phenomenal, emotional, and heart-wrenching.  What Brie Larson and Kaitlyn Dever (who hasn't been given enough credit in the reviews) have done with their characters is nothing short of stunning.  The editing is quite talented, the music is good (though rather twee at times).  The camera work and color choices are brilliant.  The characters are strong and thought out.  It is a well executed movie that was on its way to greatness when it got hijacked by the plot.

Which brings us to problems with cinema itself.  I'm going to take a bit of a lift from Peter Greenaway, and say that film is entirely too dedicated to the printed page.  I don't think it's nearly as destructive as he believes, but this is one movie where less dedication to a book-style narrative is purely detrimental. This is a movie which could have, and should have (IMHO), just been an open window into the lives of these characters. And, it seems that it was headed there for a long time.  But, then we get bombarded by the coincidences in life that do exist, but aren't necessarily the important fodder for a movie of realism, such as Short Term 12.  It's almost as if Cretton didn't have enough faith in his own subject material to do away with the plot and just let the movie be.

Should this bit of bourgeois plot make that much of a dent in such an otherwise excellent film?  Depends on your take on it.  I've seen people who need the A-B-C plot to enjoy, but I'd rather have just had a window into these people's lives. And, Short Term 12 was trying to feel like a window, even as the Hallmark Channel-lifted plot was being telegraphed in.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986): High School and Nuclear Waste

Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986)
dir: Lloyd Kaufman

"One day they're a bunch of clean cut preppies, and the next they're a bunch of violent, perverted cretins!" - Class of Nuke 'em High

Class of Nuke 'Em High isn't the first film to talk about punk rock, high school, and youth.  It is the first to wrap it in nuclear fears.

OK, as you probably know, this is a Troma film, and one of its early classics.  It's a comic book posing as a movie that is basically an excuse for grotesque special effects and rampant sex, drugs, and violence.  It's whole message is an ironic The Kids Are All Right., even as it poses the kids as mutated cretins from another planet.  Sure, these may be morphing balls of hormones one doesn't even recognize as their own, but they're a-OK.  Class of Nuke 'em High is actually a little headier than it lets on, and it is kind of a sly subversive take on the high school gross out film that had been set up by Porky's and would later be refreshed by American Pie.

Just to put this movie into a time/culture context, Hollywood was going through a High School glut.  1985 brought us The Breakfast Club, Back to the Future, Just One of the Guys, Mischief, and Secret Admirer.  1986 brought us Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Lucas, Hoosiers, and Pretty in Pink. I think it's telling that not one of these featured mutation, punks, or rampant and random violence. Things had changed a lot since the 1982 films of Porky'sFast Times at Ridgemont High, and The Last American Virgin.  The closer is the ass tape humiliation story you only hear about in The Breakfast Club.

The era of the punk was in the process of morphing from its early 80s incarnation of hardcore into its late 80s of provoking extremism on its way to the 90s ska and pop punk.  GG Allin was just starting up, with his performances of extreme offensiveness, anti-authoritarianism, and extreme offensiveness.  It is no mere coincidence that Troma movies reflected this underground current of grand guignol mixed with a fuck you attitude towards everything.

Class of Nuke 'Em High concerns a high school in Tromaville, the setting for all early Troma classics, that is situated near an unsafe nuclear power plant.  The nuclear power plant has started leaking waste and some of the student members - most notably the honor society - consume it or touch it, and turn into a local gang of waster youth punks, goths, and new wavers called The Cretins.

Semi-outcasts Warren, Eddie and Chrissy (Warren's girlfriend) go partying, and smoke some nuclear waste tainted weed from The Cretins.  Chrissy gets preggers with a monster that she orally miscarries by throwing up the mutated spermy into a school toilet, which gets flushed into the system.  Meanwhile, Warren gets super strength and starts killing people.  Eventually, the spermy turns into a monster, and it all leads to the destruction of the high school.

Intriguing to Class of Nuke 'Em High, but not unique, is the acknowledgement of of a clique system, but without setting up a caste system of "cool."  Everybody makes everybody else's life hell. Warren is a goody-two-shoes footballer.  Eddie is a weird arty dropout (sort of a stoner cross between Ducky and Heather's Veronica).  Chrissy is a cheerleader.  The Cretins were once the honor students. They pick on everybody, including old ladies on the street. In the '80s, high school was presented more as 1000 cuts of pain, rather than people who ruled the school.  Even in Fast Times, everybody was still rather cordial to each other, even if they weren't in each others' cliques.

These 80s cliques more closely resembles the way I remember high school.  We were all cliques of fucked up groups, but no one group dominated the school.  My high school experience was definitely closer to this representation than that of Heathers, Jawbreaker, or G,B.F. which all had high schools with "ruling cliques." Or, maybe I just ignored the "rulers."  Maybe I just dismissed my the caste system.

In addition to this look at the caste systems, Class of Nuke 'Em High is an exaggerated look at the fears adults have toward high school students. When parents were just starting to get over their fear of punks (which had already been starting to implode), and getting back to their worry about drugs and bullying, Class of Nuke 'Em High ridicules these fears by heightening them to ridiculous levels.  Kids are going to rebel, but at least they're not like these cartoon caricatures, right?  *nudge nudge*

At the same time, it also is a sort of proto-Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which all of the fears are made supernatural, by way of nuclear contamination.  Sure, it doesn't tackle any serious issues in any serious ways, but there is something to be said for the in your faceness of the sperm vomit posing as warning against teen pregnancy and drugs.  It has its cake and eats it too by monsterizing a normal concern while also satirizing through extremity.

In any case, Class of Nuke 'Em High is a silly movie from our friends at Troma.  It's one of Troma's original greats, when it seemed to have nothing but entertaining on its mind, but actually had something to say underneath it all.  Required viewing.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

G.B.F. (2013): Growing up post-Ellen

G.B.F. (2013)
dir: Darren Stein
wr: George Northy

Can you believe that it has only been / already been 16 years since Ellen Degeneres came out in her show?

In my opinion, 1997 was the year that the gay dam broke into the mainstream with Ellen.

Sure, we'd had gay episodes on heterosexual TV sitcoms before (notably Maude, and The Golden Girls), and even Soap had the gay Jody Dallas as a main featured character.  But, Ellen was the first time that a gay character had been played by a gay person and was also the lead of his or her own television show on network prime time.

In 1997, Ellen caught a lot of flack that was still coming around at that time.  JC Penny and Chrysler pulled their advertising for the episodes.  Wendy's pulled out of the show altogether.  Ellen was aired with parental advisory warnings after the episode.  Laura Dern wouldn't get work again until her role in the amazing October Sky.  Ellen would be cancelled after the spring season of 1998.  Will and Grace started on NBC later that fall.  In 1998, Matthew Shepard would be brutally murdered, making one of the highest profile cases I can remember.

The reason I bring up all this history is that anybody born in 1997 would be a high school junior this year.

G.B.F. is, ostensibly, about high school life in a post-Ellen world.  This is a world where gays are more and more accepted on television, and almost fetishized as the new minority. This is especially true in more populous areas. The culture post-Ellen is a culture where gay people are common place in mainstream media.

In the Everytown USA world of G.B.F., there is a GSLA but no out gay teenagers.  Gays have become a commodity, if only they would exist.  They are seen as trendy, and also reviled by the religious.  But, nobody is out to accept the prize.  Yet.

G.B.F. concerns the high school life of two fa-laming gay boys who are outcasts at their school, even though they're steadfastly in the closet...and nobody can tell they're gay for some reason (maybe Will and Grace didn't air there).  This suspension of belief is symbolic of the suspensions of disbelief that the rest of the movie requires, which is really the movie's main downfall.

The various cliques of high school are at war with each other, and they all have simultaneously come up with the idea of having a Gay Best Friend as the be all and end all of high school queendom.  As the GLSA is on the search for an out gay person to cherish, they stumble on the idea of checking out a hookup app, on which they discover the ID of one of the two afore-mentioned gay guys, and track him down to force him out of the closet.  And, as such, he becomes the object of attraction for all cliques, and the target of the religious group.

G.B.F. then parades down a road of generalities and cliches in order to end up at, you guessed it, the prom. The three princesses fight over the GBF, and the GLSA tries to woo him as well, while his closeted friend also gets outed to his family, but refuses to come out at school.

G.B.F. owes a lot to Jawbreaker (Darren Stein's first movie), Saved!, and Mean Girls (the latter two of which owe a lot to Jawbreaker as well).  Jawbreaker owes a lot to Heathers and music videos.  In turn, G.B.F. feels entirely derivative by now, and also has all of the suspensions of disbelief we have in the post-Ellen, post-Will and Grace world in which we live.  It feels stiflingly old, almost like an adult trying to seem hip and fresh but coming out kind of stale.  The only decent scenes worthy of any sort of surprise are the eagerness of Megan Mullally, as one boy's mom, and the nonchalance of Jonathon Silverman and Rebecca Gayheart, as the other boy's parents, to their kids' coming out scenes.  Also, Natasha Lyonne is in it, who almost qualifies as a gay icon, if only she'd do a bit more charity work as well.

The topics that G.B.F. is attempting to tackle are fairly interesting and new, even if it fails to do so in a compelling way.  In the post-Ellen world, being gay isn't seen as being a bad thing, necessarily.  Especially if you're a gay man, who is seen as trendy and hip by some. G.B.F. is trying to wrap all of that in to the Jawbreaker style universe of bitchy Queen Bees who rule the school, or something.  G.B.F. follows the setup of Jawbreaker to a tee, except the factions are against each other with separate cliques.  And, *yawn*

Growing up post-Ellen seems fascinating in terms of the dynamics of high school.  It's too bad this isn't actually representative of all Everytown USA high schools.  In 2010, The Advocate reported on lesbian students facing aggression from the institutions in Oklahoma.  Meanwhile, gay and lesbian couples have also been popping up in homecoming courts.  It's a completely transitional time for the gay population. Sadly, G.B.F. is not the film to comment on this, or satirize it with any semblance of teeth.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ticked Off Trannies With Knives (2010): Tranny as Victim and Victor

Ticked Off Trannies With Knives (2010)
dir: Israel Luna

This could also be better known as Day of the Tranny.  While Ticked Off Trannies With Knives is an amazing exploitation title, Day of the Tranny would be better because a) it acknowledges the deep deep debt it owes to I Spit On Your Grave, originally titled Day of the Woman and b) it doesn't reduce the victims to mere exploitation punch-lines. While the title is certainly sensational, it also belies the actual subject of the movie, which is a rape/murder-revenge fantasy that mirrors I Spit On Your Grave in terms of its harrowing nature and its possible empowerment messaging.

I could basically just write ditto on yesterday's I Spit On Your Grave review, and it would be completely accurate.  Well, not completely.  This has a bit more style, pizzazz, and personality than I Spit On Your Grave, which works to simultaneously humanize the victims, and actually be a better movie.  Oh, and I would have to replace Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel with GLAAD.

Ticked-Off Trannies is about a group of trannies - drag queens, transvestites, or transgendered people; in this movie, its more the first two - who go off on dates with a group of bio-gendered men, only to be drugged, beaten, raped and murdered, leaving one survivor.  This survivor and two more of her friends set traps for the rapist-murderers in order to exact bloody revenge.  Much like I Spit On Your Grave, that's the thick and thin of the plot.

Because of the title, Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives received a LOT of undeserved attention for being reductive of the perils that come with being a drag queen, transvestite or transgendered person.  In real life, they usually sit on the outsides of life, and are the target of bigoted attacks or murders.  One prominent example was in the movie Paris is Burning, a documentary about the Harlem ball culture of the underground LGBTQ scene, where one of the prime subjects of the movie, Venus Xtravaganza, was found strangled underneath a bed four days after she was murdered.  This is not a punchline.

And, Ticked-Off Trannies, despite its title, does not treat this situation like a punchline.  Much like I Spit On Your Grave, this is a harrowing, gut-wrenching experience which scars your soul.  It brings attention to the situation of violence against trans people, and also alludes to the idea that there is no justice for the outsiders of the world.  Much like I Spit On Your Grave, Ticked-Off Trannies alludes to the idea that the best justice is your own justice.

Luna acknowledges his owing to the movies of the '70s, as well as his inspiration from the Rodriguez/Tarantino movie Grindhouse. He rips through this classic exploitation flick and stylizes it like it came out of the grindhouse of the '70s.  Luna does have some gags to speed the movie up, like a missing reel gag, which brings a bit of humor to make the harrowing experience a less bitter pill to swallow and make it slightly more appealing to the masses.  Slightly.

Also, like I Spit On Your Grave, the rape/murder is excruciating, but it also comes back to identity.  As a member of the LGBTQ community, I found it harrowing and easier to identify with the victims.  And, it is the victims' story.  Luna doesn't allow the rape/murder to be intentionally vicariously enjoyed. He makes it as brutal as tense as one can in a horror movie.  But, that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed by the sick portion of the population who are determined to enjoy the torture and rape of another human being.

Is this problematic?  Again, it's up to you to decide that.  This is decidedly not a movie to encourage or make light of the violence the Ts face in everyday life.  This is a movie that brings this to attention, and doesn't even give the pat justifications of a movie like Boys Don't Cry, where the FTM transgendered person lied to everybody around her.  Ticked-Off Trannies gives a full-on exploitation experience that brings attention to the issue, and also gives a revenge fantasy when it could be needed.

And, I repeat, due to its stylization, it is less soul searing than I Spit On Your Grave, but not much isn't really.

Monday, August 26, 2013

I Spit On Your Grave (1978): Woman as Victim and Victor

I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
dir: Mier Zarchi

In 1978, a movie was self-distributed titled Day of the Woman.  Later, it was picked up for slightly wider distribution, and re-released as I Spit On Your Grave. The impact of this film was both solid and null, thanks in large part to its graphic nature. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel rallied against this movie, calling it depraved, and immoral.  They considered the violence to be purely exploitative, and just as damaging to women due to their perception of the exploitative nature of the rape.  They were wrong. Maybe.

I Spit On Your Grave is one of the most disturbing and harrowing movie experiences one could find.  I remember the first time I encountered the movie.  In my film class, we had just finished watching Last House on the Left, the old Wes Craven rape-revenge movie that Americanized and politicized Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring.  I had commented that Last House wasn't as shocking or brutal as I had been expecting, and was softened by the comic relief of the police, the hick music, and that the torture was way more psychological than I had been expecting; the result of the politicization of the subject matter.  My professor handed me a semi-bootleg of I Spit On Your Grave, and this had been the movie I had been expecting.

I Spit On Your Grave is a raw, amateur rape-revenge movie that does not flinch from nor does it glorify the act of rape.  It is a 100-minute movie, but it has no plot development beyond big city female author comes to backwoods, gets gang raped, and exacts bloody revenge.  But, the tonality of the film sets it apart from other files of its ilk, like Last House on the Left, The Accused, and Ms. 45.  

I Spit On Your Grave features a grueling and excruciating 24 minute sequence of Jennifer, the main woman, being repeatedly trapped, raped, and freed by a group of four men.  There is no soundtrack.  There is no joy in this sequence.  There are amplified volumes of the woman screaming.  There is no silly thwaping sound that would reduce the horror, or hint at any eroticism, on screen.  There are distorted close-ups of the faces of the male rapists, not distorted enough to be cartoonish, but enough to be frightening.  It is a harrowing experience from the victim's point of view.

Then, we get a bit of downtime before we get a 30 minute sequence of Jennifer ensnaring the men and then brutally murdering them.  Unlike the rape scenes, this is filled with semi-heroic imagery and are primarily from the perpetrator's point of view: that of the woman.  These are much more filled with victory and resolution than the rape, which is filled with horror and dread.

As such, I Spit On Your Grave is intended to be almost a feminist fantasy tract where it shows how brutal men are to women, and it also shows that a woman is perfectly capable of extracting her own revenge.

It's problematic in its text, but it isn't nearly as problematic as Lucky McKee's The Woman.  In The Woman, McKee is attempting to take a point of view of a judgmental third party, but mainly focuses on the "civilized" family.  We have a lot of point of view shots from both victim and aggressor.  It becomes seriously problematic in terms of how to process the crimes we are seeing on screen.  Are we supposed to be encouraging the misogynist?  Are we supposed to be empathizing with one party over another?  Only by going over the top has Lucky McKee achieved any level of distance between the viewer and the aggressor.

In I Spit On Your Grave, Zarchi never gives us the point of view of the rapist.  We never lust over Jennifer's body.  There aren't long lingering shots that romanticize the woman's body during any of the rape sequences.  These are raw and brutal acts that pierce your soul, if you're watching it right.  On the other hand, due to the nature of film, it is often a third-party camera.  There is a way, if you're sick enough, to enjoy this rape sequence for the act of rape itself.  I'm sure there are people who watch it and say "yeah, that's how it should be done" even though it is another person suffering.

Therein lies a rub.  Should an act be depicted if somebody else can get vicarious pleasure from it?  Should the depictions be more like Natural Born Killers, where we can take the viewpoint of the killers, even as Oliver Stone is trying to condemn our consumption of the act? As in Irreversible, should these brutal acts be depicted in an distant way?  Should it be more like Fight Club's final edit of Angel's face breaking, where the act happens mainly off-screen, denying the viewer any vicarious thrill from it, and leaving it to the imagination?

These are actual questions that will always be up for debate, and have answers that probably differ between people, and between acts, and between movies and intent.  But, in the case of I Spit On Your Grave, Zarchi didn't make this movie for the pleasure of showing rape.  He made it to depict a revenge fantasy.  He wanted a strong woman in it to exact her own revenge.  And, once the revenge is done, the credits roll.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Woman (2011): Text vs Subtext

The Woman (2011)
dir: Lucky McKee

The problem with indulging in the text as you're condemning in the subtext, is that sometimes the condemnation message is lost in the actual commentary.  Spring Breakers suffers from that a little.  Natural Born Killers suffered from the rampant indulgence in lurid violence while trying to condemn it.  And, then, there's The Woman.

Given that the majority of movie goers, especially horror watchers, will rarely indulge in seeking out the back history of a writer or director of certain movies, it is necessary to take movies out of their authorial context, and analyze it on its own merits.  Lucky McKee is a writer and director of many movies that have affinities for women.  May, for instance, is a movie about a girl who is strange, and can't deal with the friends who have masks. If we lean on McKee's strong feminist tendencies, then we have an obvious answer about what the movie is trying to say, but it still requires parsing out whether the subtext of the condemnation supercedes the actual text of the movie.

The title character of The Woman is a feral girl who is found in the woods by Chris Cleek, a family man and lawyer, who is also very controlling and demanding of his family of 2 daughters and a son.  Cleek sets up his backyard cellar to hold The Woman hostage, under the auspices of "civilizing" her.  As per this formula, Cleek sets upon destroying The Woman to try to bring her to his idea of womanhood, which is passive towards men and everybody.

From the outset, Cleek is a raging misogynist, while his wife and teenage daughter are living in mental prisons of passivity.  His littlest daughter is still in the formulation stage, and his tween/teen son has already picked up Dad's bad habits towards humanity.  

And, as we watch the movie, we watch Chris chain The Woman, shoot her, strip her, power wash her, rape her, and otherwise abuse her.  Later, we see the aftermath of his son torturing The Woman with a pair of needlenose pliers while pleasuring himself.  We also see Chris beat women left and right, and his son do petty pains against girls for little reason.  Textually, The Woman is a movie that consistently indulges in men beating or raping girls or women.  It's always presented in a "horrific" tone, but it does little to diminish that almost all of the abuse and violence, except for the final scene of the climax, was perpetuated by a man.

Above, I put two videos of what happened at a Sundance screening in 2011.  I had not heard this before I watched the movie, but watched the movie because I find Lucky McKee fascinating as a filmmaker.  The first video has an introduction by Lucky McKee, an audience member bursting into a rage after the movie ended, and then parts of the Q&A after the outbursting man had been escorted out. The second video is the conversation that happened with the upset man after he had been escorted out of the theater, and he further explains his views to an disinterested third party. Other walkouts had happened during the movie, but this was the most captured and commented on.

The man's visceral reaction to the movie, especially at the end, was based exclusively on the text of this movie.  This man's reaction was all about how the movie was nothing but a vehicle for the steady and systematic abuse of women to be enjoyed by an audience.  And, to a point, he's not wrong.  On the surface, this movie only has two strong women, The Woman and the teacher of the teenage daughter, and even the teacher is destroyed by the masculine forces in the movie.

The subtext is what we're supposed to be reading into it.  The subtext is that men can be, or are, raging misogynists and that this is not OK, and that is why it is a horror movie instead of a comedy.  It is showing us that men can be completely evil, and exposes the masking that people wear to pass through life.  This isn't exactly a new concept.  It almost reminds me of the story of Jaycee Lee Dugard, a girl who had been kidnapped for 18 years, and even worked at the print shop of her kidnapper.  This man was a raging misogynistic control freak, and it was definitely a horror to her.  And, his wife had either been passively accepting of the kidnapping or actively involved in it.

In the subtext, this is a radical feminist film about the evils men do to women, especially since the only two male characters are the ones doing evil and providing the horrors.  This is a film that punishes women for existing.  The teacher is an aggressive but polite woman, and she is punished.  The wife is a passive woman, and she is punished.  The Woman is punished for being an aggressive woman, though at least she survives.  The daughter is the only one who has been spared any punishment, except for the pregnancy she has which may or may not be due to incest.

So, what does this actually say, beyond "men are assholes?"  I can't tell.  It revels too much in the torturing of women, especially since it was written by two men and directed by one of them, in order to make a clear case for its feminist trappings.  It does make a stronger case for a meditation on civility vs feral.  But, it's point, other than to shock, seems to have been lost even on the filmmaker.

In the end, The Woman is a grotesque and offensive film which is well made.  If you're watching to have your stomach churned and your morality challenged, this is a movie that was made for your night.  But, if you want to watch and have an understanding of its commentary, you may be in for more of a challenge.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Spring Breakers (2012): Cultural Teardown through Feminist Empowerment

Spring Breakers (2012)
Dir: Harmony Korine

The gun has frequently been a symbolic representation of the phallus.  In cinema, it is rare for a woman to fetishize a gun, because a woman doesn't have a penis.  Spring Breakers fucks that all up.

Now, its not to say that Spring Breakers is the first movie to have a woman and her gun.  Off the top of my head, there was 1989's Blue Steel, 1991's Thelma & Louise, 2/3 of the movies that Angelina Jolie stars in, and also, to a lesser extent, in 2011's Bridesmaids.  Let's also not forget the empowerment of the gun in Planet Terror (the first half of Grindhouse), where a woman gains her force and also gets a gun as a leg.  But, It is safe to say the majority of loving one's gun is depicted a masculine trait in cinema, representative of one's agency and manhood.  One of the most blatant would be in 1987's Full Metal Jacket.

The thing about Spring Breakers that few of the above movies have done is allow the girls with guns to be girls.  Angelina Jolie frequently becomes "a man with tits" in tight clothing.  The other half are masculinized and have the duality of a man and a woman thrust upon them.  But, Spring Breakers takes it the other way.  It is about a group of girls who subvert and abuse the usual masculine norm by taking it for themselves without giving up the identity of a woman.

In Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine has created a collision course of everything that is being marketed at youth.  The myriad of inspirations are: hip hop culture and its appropriation, Scarface (which has been appropriated as gangster), Britney Spears in both Disney and rebellion form, MTV Spring Break and its later inspiration Girls Gone Wild, techno videos (Aphex Twin and Prodigy's Smack My Bitch Up most significantly), video games, bad girl tv shows, and youthful killer movies, most strongly Badlands.  Instead of letting any one of these dominate the conversation of as a genre, Harmony has put them all, undiluted, into a melting pot and created a highly toxic and potent mixture that is at once critique and reveling.

Spring Breakers is about a group of economically deficient girls who hold up a restaurant to get money for going on a spring break trip to Florida.  There, they party it up by drinking, doing drugs, and having sex at their leisure before being sprung by Alien (James Franco), a Scarface-cum-gangster who revels in excess and pulls them out of their comfort zone, until the more rebellious ones take control of the situation and become gangsters in their own right.

Harmony Korine has also stepped out of his comfort zone to make this saga of pop culture gone terribly terribly wrong, and terribly terribly right.  Where most of Korine's other work has been rough and raw depictions of humanity at its most fucked up, this is Korine recreating the romanticism and allure of all of society's youth marketing and presenting it in a dreamy fantasy, which is at odds with the condemnation we should feel towards this.  Korine realizes this, but doesn't pass judgement on it either.  It is at once completely alluring and toxic.  Energizing and disheartening.

The main reason it seems so freshly toxic to most is that Korine gave the agency and fragility to four young girls, at least one of whom was a Disney superstar destined to be changed out for another one.  Instead of a gangster movie being about men, it focuses on young girls, who also reveal their vulnerability throughout the film.  Most in society want to hug and protect the fragile girls and have them act like objects without their own strength and power.  If this movie had put college boys at the forefront, it would have been seen as purely distasteful boys will be boys.  But, by putting girls in the roles, and letting them be girls as well, Spring Breakers creates a wholly new dimension of feminism.

Korine, in the main Korine touch of the film, seemingly has no interest or invested meaning beyond "this is the state of what exists."  His script for Kids passed little moral judgement, even as a young teenage boy who had AIDS was going around fucking virgins and infecting them, even raping one passed out girl in her sleep.  It didn't celebrate this violation, nor did it condemn it.  It merely presented it as a thing that might happen.

In not passing judgement, and in choosing genres that celebrate rebelliousness, objectification, and empowerment, Korine is able to give four young girls agency, while frequently showing, in slow motion, guys pouring beer on topless girls' breasts.  His indulgence in these objectifications are at once to show that girls can be complicit in their own objectification, and that these girls can and do lead their own way.

In the second act of Spring Breakers, things get a bit hairy when Alien lets the girls out of jail.  He brings them to a party filled with black men, where the camera allows the little white girls to be leered at and they are shown to be uncomfortable in this objectification.  Here, Spring Breakers is also showing the racism that is present in culture, as well as the differences between wanted and unwanted objectification.  For the previous 20 minutes, we had been witnessing this group of girls, among others, show off their bodies and invite the leering gaze of other young, white, college-aged men.  Once we get into people who are twinged with blackness, though, things get a little worrysome for awhile.  The girls are somewhat pressured, but never accosted or pawed.  They are more safe in this party than they probably were at the spring break party where they were arrested.  They are in control of their facilities (given they didn't take any drugs), they aren't sources of sex for testosterone laden men.  But, the otherness of the black element adds to the tension that the girls, and, by extension, the audience feels.

Eventually, once at home with the showboating Alien, and dwindling the numbers as they send one girl back home, the girls take their own agency and pick up Alien's guns as their own.  They play with the guns, and even use them as phalluses on Alien, as shown in the photo.  Here, women are taking control of their own agency and controlling the penis as well.  Is Korine trying to say that the penis/gun is the only way to get all power and agency?  Or that the penis is merely a collective cultural symbol for power and agency, and that any woman who wants to take control of their own destiny is free to do so?  Or, is Korine playing with heady fetish imagery and possibly inverting the gender for maximal impact?  Could it be all three?  Are we as turned on by women wielding a phallus at a guy as we are at a guy wielding a phallus at a woman? If this movie wasn't presented as pure fantasia - by way of repetitive dreamlike voice-overs, repeated footage, time lapses, and over lush cinematography - would we have less of a problem with it, or more?

Spring Breakers, has all of these messages, questions, and more compressed into a tight and electrifying 93 minutes.  If you want to see a statement on sexual politics in the mainstream, this is the movie you need to be watching.  It is as exploitative as all get out...but so is youth culture.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Peaches Does Herself (2012): Rock Show as Meta Examination

Peaches Does Herself (2012)
Dir: Peaches

Fuck the pain away...

So goes the chorus of Peaches' most famous song. Couple that with the knowledge that the frame next to this paragraph is the closest I could get to a provocative image without featuring frontal nudity, and you have an idea of what you're probably in for when you see Peaches Does Herself.

Peaches is an electroclash musician who is a provocateur and sexual pioneer and exploiter.  Her sexuality has always dominated her art, and her persona has always been about the liberation and acceptance of sexualities from all sexes and all walks of life  She's also lewd, crude, and in your face.  And, her fans wouldn't have it any other way.

In Peaches Does Herself, she doesn't disappoint with shock value, message, or music.  It's chock full of full frontal nudity, sex toys, simulated love and sex, giant vulva costumes, strippers, transexuals, and gender crossing.  Even as you're done being shocked, it still manages to give you one last twist of the knife.  It's a full on art show posing as a concert, or a concert posing as an art show.  And, Peaches Does Herself is the concert film of that show.

Peaches Does Herself is Peaches' life story.  She tells the story of her sexual and musical development from when she was a teenager learning how to diddle herself to the end when she's destroyed all her experimentations to become something new to show the world.  Along the way, we meet all sorts of people, from an aging stripper comfortable in her brazenness to a transsexual who had top surgery but not bottom.  All of these people have profound influences on how Peaches develops.

At one point, Peaches, in her discover, tries on a giant gold cock, and makes it part of her self.  She dons an outfit of gold, with a gold phallus, and exposed golden breasts.  She takes on this masculine and feminine sexuality in order to give possess the agency that she, and culture, perceives men as exclusively possessing.  She wants to be the objectifier.  She wants to be the one in control.  Peaches, thus modified, meets her mirror, the slim and graceful Danni Daniels, whose height is accentuated by exceedingly tall heels, giving Danni an even greater difference of appearance.  She's the model for Peaches to embrace, until she isn't.

It's these combinations of breasts and cock that makes the most interesting commentary on society.  But, addressing female sexuality, male sexuality, and trying to give women the sexuality that men have without denigrating men or women is something profound.  It shouldn't be.  But, Peaches is saying that women have the power to embrace their own self and give themselves everything they see men as having, if they want it.  It's empowering without destroying.  Even in the ultimate scene of demasculinization, Peaches seems to be saying that one doesn't need to look like a man to have the agency of a man.  And, she hits the road, leaving the theater, while changing "fuck the pain away" showing off her new self to the wilds of Berlin.

Peacher Does Herself is hilarious, and rude.  And, it's everything you expect with a greater message of accepting non-traditional walks of life.  Its also of being comfortable and owning your own personhood and sexuality.  And, it's generally a blast.

But, it isn't perfect.  For a show that seemed to have amazing visuals designed for the stage, the cinematography only showed flashes of genius but was otherwise amateur to inept.  Most of the camerawork is flatly presented with the framing of a high school student.  Once in a blue moon, it has flashes of striking genius, but it really falls flat in a show that is designed to be heightened in visuals.  It ultimately distracts more than it stays invisible (which I think was the goal), and it definitely doesn't heighten the experience.

In the end, Peaches Does Herself is more like a purer, undiluted, less commodified, less commercial Lady Gaga that isn't ready for the masses, despite its need to be seen by the masses in its purest form.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Source Family (2012): Documentary as cultural analysis

The Source Family (2012)
Dir: Maria DemopoulosJodi Wille
Archivist: Isis Aquarian

In my experience, surprisingly little seems to have been written about the state of subcultures in the strange post-1969 America.  People discuss a general post-Altamont disillusionment with the hippy movement, and the splintering of society into a more cynical era. It's generally accepted that counter cultures were self-destroyed by their attachment to drugs and political rebellion.

To me, the most famous, and most poignant, dissection of the counter cultural state in the early '70s was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Originally written in 1971, and centered between two centers of excess - Los Angeles and Las Vegas - Fear and Loathing was at once lament, dissection, self-reflection, and anger at a society that was now lost to the temptations of consumerism and conformity.  It has a nihilistic rage that has the feeling of an old grizzled guy at a bar lamenting the state of life and how we got here.

Outside of the world of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there is still the story of those who were left behind after the collapse of the 60s.  Where were these communities and children to go, now that they didn't have a mainstream community support them?

One answer is provided by the documentary The Source Family, which outlines the life of Jim Baker, later to be known as Father Yod and later still as Ya Ho Wa, founder of The Source restaurant and leader of The Source Family, a cult commune that lasted all of six years.

The Source started as an all natural restaurant, which was a huge hit among celebrities and regular people alike.  As a restaurant, it made such an impact that it was even featured in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, on Woody's trip to LA.  But, Annie Hall, released in 1977, was made 2 years after Jim Baker died, and The Source Family officially disbanded.

Jim Baker was an eclectic, womanizing, aggressive mountain of a man who had been in the military, studied martial arts, and later moved on to naturalistic foods and eastern meditations and religions.  When he started The Source restaurant, he had been married twice, leaving both, and convicted of murder prior in his life. The blessing of The Source Family is that it doesn't shy away from these facts, and presents them as statements of power or influence.

Upon the founding of The Source Restaurant, Jim Baker also started collecting workers who moved into a house he was renting in the Hollywood Hills.  He started leading the group as a spiritual leader of sorts, and made a post-1969 communal cult with rules that were taken from seemingly all religions and common sense.  Like, respect the sacred herb (marijuana) and don't stay stoned all day.  No caffeine after 5pm.  Eat in moderation.  Largely, it was a hell of a lot of good advice.  There were also meditative exercises, and a lot of just general acceptance.

He collected a large motley crew of youths who were seeking something more out of life and found it in Father Yod.  It wasn't a cult that people were held against their will.  It wasn't even that large of a community.  What it was was a community of people who were following what they believed was right, and a leader who really liked having a following, and all of the perks that came with it.

The Source Family was a group that focused on sex, love, drugs, and rock n roll. The Source Family released several albums that are now coveted by collectors of psychadelic rock, and even mentions Billy Corgan as a collector of these albums.   The women in The Source Family were empowered to choose their mates, except for Baker, who is portrayed as being an object of lust by every woman, and he got to choose among them all.

There was a book about The Source Family, also collected by Isis Aquarian, which archived all of this information and collected opinions by former members of The Source.  Not all members of The Source were as positive about the family as this movie portrays.  And, one of the benefits of the book, and, to a lesser extent, the movie is that it allows for everybody to have their own experience and for those experiences to be as valid as everybody else's experience.

The documentary follows the growth of The Source Family, watch as they get evicted time and again, live life, play concerts, and then up and move to Hawaii, San Francisco, and Hawaii again.  You watch Jim Baker start to suffer because his final creation is also dependent on Jim, where Jim had previously been able to just up and leave whenever he had wanted.  As he had up and left his families prior to creating The Source, and leaves his girlfriend/wife while in the throes of The Source, he eventually seems to want to up and leave The Source Family that he is now the patriarch of.  But, the machinations of the family cause this to be harder, and instead of leaving, Jim merely transports a dwindling number to various other cities in an attempt to set them up with something secure.

The final steps of The Source family happen in Hawaii, in 1975, when Jim Baker takes the ultimate way out. On his fateful final morning, he decides to try his hand at hang gliding with no lessons.  He climbs to the top of a mountain, and eventually plummets to his, ultimately, fatal destiny.  We watch the family care for his broken body, mourn his passing, and be released.

The one part in The Source Family that is missing is the follow-through.  The Source Family is ultimately Jim Baker's story because he was the patriarch.  It is also Isis's story, as the archivist.  But, missing from the movie itself is what happened to the children after Baker dies.  In a follow-up Q&A at the screening I attended, with a few of The Source Family's original members in attendance.  There, they said some went on to be successful, some went in search of another family, moving up to the PNW to find somebody else to follow, others dropped out.  It's the usual variety of a big family.

In the end, The Source Family provides an amazing sociological view of people who need something to be.  The Source provided a home to those who were looking for something that did not exist anymore.  It provided stability until it didn't.  It shows the struggles of a counter culture in a world that is constructed against them.  It does all of these things without being overt about any of it.

It plays like a flip side to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Where Fear and Loathing lamented the destruction of the past, The Source Family is the counter culture that tried to make it succeed.  Where Fear and Loathing raged against the machine, The Source Family did their things despite the machine.  Apart they provide takes on what changed from the '60s to the '70s, but together they provide a potent duality that displays what happened after that flash burned out.

The Source Family collected a LOT of archival footage, making the documentary constantly moving and never dull.  The psychological and sociological implications of the film are never explicitly addressed, much to the benefit of the film.  It gives you enough information for you to make your own observations, while it is affirming its participants and also giving the flaws.  This is a document almost as raw as it should be, allowing everybody to take exactly what they want from the movie, but coming back with a deeper understanding of the time period.  The Source Family makes a perfect, and perfectly flawed, documentary of an era we have little about.

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back." - Hunter S Thompson

Monday, August 19, 2013

Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (2012): Montage in the era of snippets

Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (2012)
dir: György Pálfi and seemingly every other director ever

There is a current phenomenon that is being revived in the era of YouTube and Vine: the supercut.  

What's a supercut?  A supercut is any video that edits a wide variety of disparate elements into one montage of varying elements.  The most common utilization of this method seems to be clips along thematic lines.  A supercut of one-liners that occur before somebody dies, zombie headshots, famous people playing themselves, temper tantrums, etc etc.  These are pure distillations of these clips.

The earliest instance I have encountered of the supercut was when I had the pleasure of seeing Joe Dante's 4.5 hour cut of his touring The Movie Orgy, a supercut of b-films, ads, television spots, and other detritus that originally was edited live on tours with several different projectors.  With the advent of the digital, non-linear, editor, and then the distribution of digital films, the supercut became easier and easier to do.  Indeed, even Joe Dante's The Movie Orgy was probably tightened to the point of being amazingly witty at its 4.5 hour mind bending assault.  

In this era, György Pálfi decided to create his form of the ultimate supercut movie.  This is movies upon movies edited together to create a new story of everyman and everywoman falling in love, having lovers quarrels and eventually coming together in the end.  

The previous attempt at this type of storytelling could be seen in Mark Z. Danielewski's novel Only Revolutions.  But, where Danielewski was so overly fascinated with puzzles and post-modernism in order to create something new and individualistic, György Pálfi wants to make a movie which will resonate with everybody in the exact same way.

Really, the effect of the supercut montage as an entire movie is breathtakingly beautiful, at least to the film geek who could probably name about 2/3 of the films based on the single flash at any given moment.  And, this isn't a film that goes for just the easy targets.  This is a love letter to all of the movies Pálfi has ever seen.  It uses scenes from classic, well known, movies like Metropolis and Gone With the Wind, and it dives into the cult using the likes of Subway and THX 1138, to even using TV shows like 24 and Northern Exposure. With 450 different sources (at under 90 minutes), Final Cut never sticks with any one movie for long enough to get bored with it.  

Final Cut is well assembled, romantic, exhilarating, and a complete love letter.  It never gets boring, and is ultimately an education in the art of vision.  As a purely visual feast, it is a wonder of modern editing systems. This is a must watch for anybody who has any passion about film new and old.

The main problem is that is it "for educational purposes only" because, much like the YouTube era, Palfi never got permissions from all of the 450 copyright holders.  This is an illicit film in terms of creation and availability, especially in the U.S.A.  That isn't to be said that you cannot see it in the USA.  It has been shown at various film festivals like the New York Film Festival, and was shown earlier this month at Cinefamily in Los Angeles.  Random screenings in big cities will probably pop up periodically, and it would behoove anybody to catch this on the big screen if they could.  And, while piracy seems to be the ultimate solution for this work of art, seeing Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen on a big screen in a movie palace would be the best possible way to see it.

Find it.

Watch it.

Love it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Kink (2013): Sexual Politics Documentary as Advertisement

Kink (2013)
dir: Christina Voros
pro: James Franco

San Francisco is home to The Armory, a Moorish Castle which now serves as home to Cybernet Entertainment, the proper name for the company that owns, an internet-based adult film company which specializes in...wait for it...kinky videos.  They've owned the Armory since 2007, which had been empty since the '70s.  This movie isn't about The Armory itself, but the building itself is a fascinating creature. makes both hetero and gay oriented kinky films.  The majority of's content is in the traditional female submissive oriented films, but there are categories for femdom and for gay male videos.  This is also a movie directed by a woman, Christina Voros, who is trying to seem interested in sexuality and the reasons behind why these models would want to be exploited or degraded.  Christina Voros mainly is interested in female sexuality, who dominate the film's all too short 79 minute run time.  More than that, Voros is interested in justifying kinky porn and female participation in it.

At one point in the middle of this female dominated documentary, a woman ironically comments, "I guess females have this sexuality thrust upon them."  She is implying that women in porn is completely taboo compared to it being acceptable for men, and this focus is a type of slut shaming.  Then, the movie proceeds to focus on women for the majority of its length, in an effort to say that women in porn shouldn't be so stigmatized.

Given that Kink wants to legitimize porn, for the most part it avoids the tough questions that linger around the whys and wherefores.  Some of the women are legitimately into kink, but some of the submissive models seem like they're OK with it but mainly doing it for the money.  And, the audience probably notices this up until a hard interview with an experienced dominatrix towards the end of the movie.

This interview, I believe it was with Matrisse Madeline, confessed that the industry runs through people fairly quickly.  Sometimes it is empowering to people who want to try it as a lark, and some people are doing it because they're down on their luck, but most, in the end, don't stick around for long.  She also confessed that if her children wanted to get into the industry, she would probably have a problem with it because it might mean they were in a tough place.

This was a fleeting moment of realism in an otherwise really shiny documentary about a company that pushes its image of being a porn studio that checks, double checks, and triple checks its validity with its models.  In certain videos that depict sex committed against the model's will, the videos are frequently preceded and followed by interviews with all models involved stating that they happily and willingly were participating in the videos. is trying to go the extra step to say that these depictions are acceptable displays of sexuality and objectification of men and women by men and women is OK as long as it is wanted and accepted by all participants in said behaviors.

That's not to say that Kink is all about women.  The film is bookended by behind the scenes of gay BDSM videos, whose category is generally produced by, and sometimes starring, Van Darkholme.  There are some interviews with a hetero male submissive and a couple hetero male dominants. There is also an interview with a set construction guy, secretaries, and directors. The majority of these interviews are, obviously, supportive of the behaviors and justifying the morality of  And, many of these interviews are about the female submissive behavior that director Voros is so fascinated by.

Kink serves almost as a pro-sex primer into the world of female sexuality, BDSM, and porn.  It is practically made to tear down the sex-negative and objectification-negative aspects of some tenets of feminism.  Kink wants to show you that it is OK for women to own their sexuality and to willingly submit to men or women if that's what they really and truly want to do.  Whether it succeeds in these lofty goals is hard for me to judge, as I have always supported women in owning their sexuality and being able to act like men without the repercussions that women who act like men generally face.  But, what it does succeed in doing is being a great advertisement for

Final note, to those that were wondering, yes there is hardcore sexuality featured in this documentary.  There is full frontal nudity (male and female), some penetration, toys, and explicit kink in fair amounts.  If you are not able to handle homosexual sex, kinky sex, female nudity, male nudity, or graphic depictions of non-romanticized sexuality, this movie is not for you.

Fasinatingly, the only still of five in the press kit that has a woman as a submissive is the one shown below the break.  The other four stills are male submissive, and only one of those is male submissive in an explicitly femdom scene.

Ed's note: As of 8/16/2013, I believe that Kink has not found a distributor.  It is not a poorly made documentary, and should probably be seen by many people.  I believe that it's explicit content is what is keeping Kink from finding a theatrical, or even a VOD/streaming distribution.  Kink's official website seems to have been created exclusively for Sundance festival, and maintained through Sundance.  I saw the film at SIFF in 2013.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Cheap Thrills (2013): Subversive shock as critique

Cheap Thrills (2013)
dir: E.L. Katz
wr: David Chichirillo, Trent Haaga

Cheap Thrills is an upcoming black comedy that is far more subversive than A Serbian Film, less generally taboo, and far more shocking as a result.  Where A Serbian Film has the intent of thrusting all sorts of offenses at you and screaming at you that you need to be offended, Cheap Thrills pulls you in, and almost makes you implicit in the system that will, in the end, destroy what you held dear.

While I am comparing Cheap Thrills to A Serbian Film because that was the last film reviewed here, the real comparisons could be closer to Funny Games or The Cabin in the Woods in that it condemns the audience as much as it brings the audience in.  That Cheap Thrills will make you laugh far more than any of the films mentioned, and ultimately make you feel dirtier and grimier, is a testament to its strength as a film.

The plot of Cheap Thrills is simple, and also similar to A Serbian Film.  Two down on their luck guys are paid by a rich man to participate in a series of escalating dares.

Pat Healy plays Craig, a down-on-his-luck family man who is married with children who has just been laid off at the start of the film.  At a dive bar, he meets an old stomping ground friend, Vince (played by an unrecognizable Ethan Embry), who is also down on his luck.  Vince and Craig had been punk rebellious teenagers in this seemingly rust belt town.  Vince got into trouble, went to prison, and became somebody rough around the edges, while Craig tried to sand off his edges, became a family man, and toed the line as he got older.  Regardless of which path they took, they ended up at the same bar both with financial troubles.

So, we have the broke line-toer, and the broke rebel.  Then, they meet Colin (David Koechner), a rich man taking his hot young wife, Violet (Sara Paxton), out for her birthday.  To liven things up for the distant-seeming Violet, Colin starts paying Craig and Vince to participate in dares.  Things start innocuously enough, with dares such as harassing the female bartender, and escalate quickly.

Cheap Thrills is a comedy at first that makes you laugh as Craig and Vince get punished and paid for participating in dares, become hilarious, and quickly move into territory that is simultaneously horrific and hilarious.  And, eventually, becomes just plain horrific.  While I am not going to detail all that happens during the course of the movie, I will say that "if you're not offended, you're not paying attention."

First time director E.L. Katz has helmed a movie that confidently moves the emotions from hilarious to horrific.  He created an in-your-face punk-as-fuck masterpiece, that will probably be released without as much fanfare as it deserves because of the extreme content that is held within.  Katz doesn't waffle between comedy and horror because he isn't sure where you need to be.  Katz makes everything funny and everything horrific in order to manipulate his audience with his message.

This is not an empty-headed lark of a movie, which is why it makes you feel as dirty as it does.  And, though it is sledgehammer subtle, it is actually more sly than it may first appear.  This is a commentary on the state of economics in America.  You have the worker who has toed the line and done what was expected of him, and a rebel who has ended up in prison, but neither of them are better or worse than the other.  The worker believes himself to be better than the rebel, but the rebel insists that the worker is just as shitty.  Both of them are clawing at each other to beat the other one to the rich man's money, who lauds it over them.

Just watching The Daily Show, Fox News, or even reading newspaper sites, one probably has come to the realization that America has been eating itself.  The workers are fighting each other for the slice of the pie which has significantly shrunk in size.  We're not even fighting the ones in power for it, or when we do, we get hammered down because of it.  For instance, less than 6 months before the film was released, Hostess Bakery went under.  The first reports were that the Bakery went under because the unions went on strike, and everybody blamed the unions for it.  The unions killed the Twinkie.  However, as the reports continued, people found out that Hostess had been failing for years, had raided and stolen from their employees' pensions, had mandated that the employees pay into those pensions, and had given the board and CEO raises as they were demanding pay cuts from the unions.  The damage had already been done, and there are still many people who point to unions as evil for destroying a whole company.

Cheap Thrills, at first, makes you sympathize with the worker, and continues to make you side with somebody as you laugh while this whole macabre theater plays out.  At a certain point, you side with the rich man for awhile because he's playing the two actors by providing their motivation.  At a certain point, you side with the worker who is fighting tooth and nail to provide for his family.  At a certain point, you side with the rebel who is just being honest about why he's doing what he's doing.  By the end, you realize that you were completely involved in the action, and that you are just as at fault as any of the players for letting the situation happen.

That's the point of Cheap Thrills.  Much like Funny Games or The Cabin in the Woods, Cheap Thrills entertains as it condemns.  :Like A Serbian Film, Cheap Thrills is condemning the culture in which it was made.  It does a really good job of doing all of these things.  It is highly entertaining, and will make you wish you hadn't participated.  It will make you feel dirty and wrong and it offers no recourse in letting you off the hook.  This is a black comedy that doesn't let up.

Cheap Thrills is possibly the most vital and important movie I have seen this year.  That really doesn't say much, but it feels immediate, urgent, pressing, and a scream for help.  Everybody should be watching it, while not everybody will be able to handle it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Serbian Film (2010): Temper Tantrum as Critique

A Serbian Film (2010)
dir: Srdjan Spasojevic

When an artist throws a temper tantrum, sometimes the results can be amazing.  This is not that film.

A Serbian Film is a film created by a rich Serbian as a damning critique of the state of Serbian culture.  This isn't about the Balkan Wars, nor even allegorical for it, except to Western eyes trying to seek out some deeper meaning in a post-modern contextual manner.  If it is about the Balkan Wars, and the atrocities committed during the course of it, it is only in the most tangential of ways, in that they gave first-hand knowledge of the kind of horrors one human can commit against another.

Instead, A Serbian Film is a film directly commenting on the state of Serbian sociological culture in general, and film and arts culture in particular.  It is a film that is decrying the diminishing of Serbian cultures in order to fund and churn out art that is aimed directly at Western - read: American - audiences.  A Serbian Film is a torture porn film exaggerating what I call suffer porn.  

Suffer porn?  Huh?

Suffer porn is the genre of small foreign films which are all completely about somebody suffering at the hands of an evil culture or government, and either dying at the end or overcoming the atrocities.  It's all about emotional suffering under the guise that it teaches you something about the culture it is depicting.  The first time I noticed this was the American movie, Not Without My Daughter, which depicted the horrors of the Islamic culture against women, but was primarily about some woman who was suffering indignities in order to rescue her daughter.

The first link I selected from Wikipedia's Cinema of Serbia page under "Famous movies from Serbia", was When Father Was Away on Business, a story about a young boy trying to survive while his dad is sent to a labor camp, falls in love with a girl who is taken away by ambulance, and witnesses his father's mistress attempt suicide and his uncle is diagnosed with diabetes.  Life is a Miracle is about an engineer with a mentally unstable wife and a son who wants to play football, but is recruited for the Balkan wars...then the engineer falls in love with a Muslim hostage.  Every movie I've clicked on has been people suffering.

Which brings us back to A Serbian Film.  

A Serbian Film is about an aging porn star, Milos, with a huge "talent" that is married with a wife.  Milos, strapped for cash, gets one last well-paying gig, by a rich filmmaker, Vukmir, with Western interests, though Milos never hears what the film will entail.  

Milos' first shoot is at an abandoned orphanage, where he witnesses a mother physically and mentally abusing what looks like a fairly legal teenager.  Then, we get Milos' porn scene where he gets oral sex from the mother while watching the daughter lick a lollipop.  The scenes escalate from there, and include him physically abusing the mother, him killing the mother with a machete while having sex with her, him getting raped by a security guard, and more.  Yes, it's graphic, yes it tries for realism, and no it isn't sensational about any of it.  

At first, it is a straight-forward movie about one last gig, but by the end of the first hour, the movie firmly ensconces itself in Inland Empire territory, where things are half-remembered, half-dreamed, days are skipped, timelines go back and forth, and there is even video playback.  Basically, the film loses its mind with Milos, who goes crazier the longer he's involved with the movie.  

The movie is intended to shock.  The whole point of the movie is "I'm offended, why aren't you offended?"  It isn't a glib black comedy like Man Bites Dog or a facile torture porn movie like Hostel.  It isn't nearly as easily dismissable as either of those.  While the movie certainly does revel in the graphic depictions of gore, violence, sexual violence, sex, rape, and everything else, the movie is looking onto it with a bit of horror.  

And, I'd say its point was sledgehammer obvious, if I hadn't read so many opinions completely missing the point.  There are whole scenes where Milos is physically abusing women while the Westernized filmmaker is screaming "YES!  This is FILM!  This is ART!"  There are scenes where the filmmaker, even after being beaten, is saying how "this is TRUTH." There is a scene in the middle of the movie where a woman gives birth in a dark room, and a guy has sex with the newborn baby right out of the womb.  Milos storms out, disgusted, while the Vukmir is proudly proclaiming "NEWBORN PORN! NEWBORNS!"

On top of Spasojevic condemning the Westernization of Serbian film and culture, he is also condemning the government's participation of said film and culture.  *warning: spoilers and a description of the final scene* Milos' brother is a police officer who is ostensibly helping his brother out.  He promises to investigate Vukmir, and then tells his brother that Vukmir is a child psychologist with an interest in film.  You can trust him.  

The final scene has Milos being taken to a warehouse where he is told to have sex with a body that is laying under a sheet with a towel over its head.  And, then a masked man has sex with another covered body lying next to the first.  The masked man is uncovered, revealed to be his brother the cop, and then the bodies are revealed to be Milos' drugged son - with whom his is having sex - and his wife - with whom his brother is having sex.  This leads to a bloody blowout while the filmmaker is screaming this is TRUTH!  And encouraging the rampage, which includes a depiction of Milos penetrating the eye socket of the cinematographer.

Basically, Spasojevic is implying that the government (in the form of his brother) is very involved in the Western filmmakers' figurative raping and pillaging of Serbian culture, through financing, in order to find suffer porn for American audiences to feel bad about.  He wants the Serbs to have their own culture and their own film without having to kowtow to the needs of the wider global culture.  And, he laments that, because of the Serbian economy, that the Serbs cannot afford to have their own blossoming film industry independent of the West.

But, is the film good?

That question is not as easily answered.  Is a film good, if it shocks and it's intent is to shock?  Is a film that says "If you're not offended, you're not paying attention" successful if it offends the audience, possibly even beyond the point where they'll actually receive the message you're trying to send.  As I mentioned before, it is a temper tantrum of a film.  It's a primal scream parodying (not humorously) the suffer porn industry by turning it into torture porn.

One can pose the question as "is it art?"  But, that's almost like asking "Is Serrano's Immersion (Piss Christ) good?  Is it art?"  Is it valid if the point is missed?  What if the point is as explicit as one could possibly make it, and the point is still missed because you amped it way too loud, and people can't even understand it?  There is a whole scene where Milos is calling himself the victim, while everybody else suffers around him, kind of like the plot of When Father Was Away On Business, where the boy is there while everybody else suffers.  It can't possibly be any more direct without being a non-fiction essay.

So, that decision is up to you.

The one problem I have as a westerner, and as a human, is the sexual politics of the film.  The film is very brotastic in its mentality.  The biggest indignity that is suffered before the climax of the film is not Milos decapitating a woman while having sex with her.  It isn't the newborn porn, which actually almost has the humor of a dead baby joke.  It isn't teen rape, abuse, or any of the other indignities.  It is Milos getting raped, while drugged, by a security guard.  And, it is so offensive that we don't even get that in detail.  We only get a close-up of the security guards face close to Milos' face.

The women in A Serbian Film are violated the most often, the most graphically, and also are subjected to the majority of the graphic violence as well.  The one scene that is graphically depicted that isn't of a woman is the eye socket rape.  Everything else is violence against women.  One wonders if that is the point of the movie, and that was intended by the writer/director.  If the suffer porn frequently has women suffering around the male central character, and A Serbian Film just took that depiction to the extreme.  Or, if it really does have abominable sexual politics.  

In any case, A Serbian Film is not necessarily the evil that others make it out to be.  It is graphic, shocking, offensive, and it intends to be.  It isn't Chaos where it has nothing new to say about a topic.  It is moderately well filmed and made, even though I completely detested the Inland Empire style filmmaking of "is this reality, or is the main character going crazy?"  I feel that that was an attempt to lessen the blow of the violence, while still being able to keep it as depicted.  The pacing is decent.  But, the movie can even be quite dull.

So, is it good?  Is it bad?  Can it even be thought of that way?  

One thing it isn't, really, is dismissable.

American Availability: Uncensored on Youtube, Limited Edition Uncut DVD by Invincible Pictures, FlixFling, Censored DVD and Blu-Ray.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The First Post

Hi all.

Welcome to my film blog.  This one features my twisted view on films, and will probably have more of a focus on the films that are on the edges of the mainstream.  Although, forgive me if I can't help but comment on the periodic geek fetishes like the latest Sci-Fi or Superhero blockbuster.  I'M ONLY HUMAN.

Anyways, this is meant to be a conversational blog as well.  Currently, I'm going to be the only author, and I'm going to put up some of my better fledgling reviews from a decade ago and see how they have held up.

Comment, let me know how I'm doing.  Writing in a vacuum is, well, weird.