Monday, September 30, 2013

Swoon (1992): Avant-garding the past

Swoon (1992)
dir: Tom Kalin

In the late '80s and early 1990s, there was a cinematic movement of sorts that came to be dubbed New Queer Cinema.  This was marked by an outburst of films that were made by queers for queers, whether they were gays, lesbians, trans, bi, fluid, or any of the other letters in the LGBTQ alphabet soup of inclusion (though mostly gay men).  Two directors came from the scene and into the mainstream:  Todd Haynes, who started with Poison and would go on to make Far From Heaven and I'm Not Here (and was also an uncredited script polisher on Office Killer), and Gus Van Sant, who made Mala Noche, but would go on to make Good Will Hunting and Milk. Other films included Gregg Araki's The Living End, Rose Troche's Go Fish, and Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning.

New Queer Cinema was simultaneously rebellious and demanding of acceptance.  It was about the explicit rejection of cultural norms, while wanting to be embraced by the mainstream as normal.  The Living End, for instance, concerned a pair of HIV+ gay men who decide to go on a murderous criminal rampage in a fit of rage against their position in the system.  Poison was inspired by the works of Jean Genet who expressed gay themes through lurid subjects like horror and the murder of parents. Paris is Burning documents the drag and transgendered balls in Harlem and the illicit behavior that is required to sustain such a lifestyle in New York at that time.

Swoon retells the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two gay socialites in the 1920s who would become lovers and commit a series of escalating crimes, culminating in the murder of an 11-year-old boy.  The Leopold and Loeb murder was most famously the inspiration for Hitchcock's Rope, about two implicitly gay men who murder a friend of theirs and throw a party while the friend rotted in the trunk in the living room.  The Leopold and Loeb murder was sensationalist because it was committed by homosexuals, it had significant power dynamics, it was particularly gruesome (they used hydrochloric acid to try to dissolve identifying parts of the body), and it was essentially a thrill kill.

With Swoon, Tom Kalin takes a second look at the murder and subsequent trial with a modern set of eyes.  Throughout the first half of the movie, Kalin deconstructs the relationship between Leopold and Loeb and reconstructs it with modern sensibilities.  In the second half, he does the same with the ensuing trial.  Kalin reconstructs the whole story in a way that is reminiscent of the foreign art house directors of the late 60s and 70s.  French New Wave like Godard and Truffaut, and Fellini can be seen in the stylistic edges and artier-than-thou acting and direction.

Kalin is removing the artifice of reality in an attempt to force people to realize that what they know about the crime is false, and what they are watching about the case is also an artificial re-enactment that is not getting at the heart of the crime, but at the themes of the crime.  Those themes being homosexuality in society, rebellion, and bored socialites.

Throughout the first half of Swoon, we watch Nathan and Richard manipulate each other into doing as the other wants.  Sometimes it's for money.  Sometimes, it's for sex.  Sometimes for love, and sometimes for the thrill.  At one point, Nathan tells his psychologist that he fantasizes himself a king, and Richard as his slave.  At another point, Richard offers himself as payment for Nathan's participation in a crime.  They write kidnapping letters on a typewriter at a party.  They exchange rings. They're intrinsically tied to each other, and they are both as responsible for the crime as each other is.

The trial of Swoon gets even more stylized as the court recounts the immorality of the homosexual relationship.  At one point, in the middle of the trial, Nathan and Richard are making out on a bed put in the middle of the courtroom as the lawyers talk about their devious sexual acts.  Even though they both turn on each other blaming each other for the crime (so romantic), they're both still tied to each other.

Swoon is challenging what we know about the trial because everything we do know was colored through the biases and judgments of the era.  They were biased against homosexuals, so the homosexuality was really up for trial.  The murder is never shown as being false, however.  Kalin never suggests that it never happened.  Kalin never suggests that they were railroaded for that crime.  He mainly is making the challenge that everything we know is colored by the biases that the era held.

By association, Kalin is also suggesting that the biases that we have now also color how we view the events of the modern era.  As such, morality is relative.  Sure the murder is brutal and despicable, but what we think about it is colored by who we are and who we were.  Any crimes that we hold judgement on are inherently colored by the way we judge the people involved in the crime.  If we inherently don't like somebody, we will rule against them, and if we do like somebody we rule in favor of them.  This type of emotional response is manipulated by the lawyers all the time.

Swoon, while full of fascinating morality and an interesting take on a lurid and compelling crime, is not a great movie.  It is too artsy by a factor of at least 10.  The acting and direction is reminiscent of what Dr. Caligari was mocking in 1989.  While it sees everybody else with a distinct view of irony and derision, it has no such views of itself.  It's technique is super serious and Kalin almost thinks what he is doing is as serious as it is humorous.  There is no winking.  There is no easy way out.

If you can take the technique, then I can recommend the movie.  If you can't, than I can't...even if I do find the movie completely compelling in its ideas.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Office Killer (1997): Social satire, horror, and surrealism...not always a good mix

Office Killer (1997)
dir: Cindy Sherman

You'll have to indulge me (as if you haven't been indulging me already).  An office-based horror comedy that came recommended courtesy of Netflix's Max (the PS3 interactive recommendation engine) based in the category "Goofy."  It stars Molly Ringwald, Carol Kane, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. It was directed by a woman. The script was written by two women, and two men who were part of the New Queer Cinema movement in the early '90s.  One of those men (who is actually uncredited in the film) is Todd Haynes, writer director of Far From Heaven, I'm Not There, and the HBO remake of Mildred Pierce. He also created a strong female role with [Safe] for Julianne Moore.  Of course I'm going to watch this movie.

It isn't good.

Office Killer is set in the offices of some magazine (Constant Consumer, if you're curious) that is on the downfall.  Constant Consumer, under the rule of Virginia Wingate (who seems to be some sort of Ariana Huffington caricature), is downsizing many of its employees and reducing much of the staff from full-time hires to freelancers who have to work from home. One of the victims is the quiet office worker bee Dorine Douglas, played mousily by Carol Kane.  The responsibility for the downsizing is credited to Norah Reed (Tripplehorn), who is also close friends with the hip office worker Kim (Ringwald).

Dorine, who has gone crazy due to killing her molesty father and crippling her mother in a car accident when she was a teenager, now has to work at home with her crippled mother (Alice Drummond).  The result of this change in atmosphere is that Dorine goes a bit crazy.  Just a bit.  She accidentally kills serial harasser Gary, then proceeds to start killing everybody else in the office, and keeps their bodies in the basement.  And, for some completely unapparent-to-me reason she also kills a pair of girl scouts and steals their cookies.

And that's the whole of the plot.  The movie tries for some sort of social commentary on downsizing and toxic office politics. It suggests that downsizing is due to Norah's embezzlement from the company rather than greed from the owners/executives or a downturn in readership.

It also goes on a bit about sexual harassment, but its strange in that it almost seems like everybody doesn't mind being harassed or harassing each other, demonstrated by the rampant passing around Gary's cold through kissing.  Given that the movie completely sympathizes with Dorine (even letting her live in the end), obviously it is saying that office romances are icky.  There is also the bit about Dorine's molesty father, and how she killed him. But, it doesn't dwell too long on that side topic of incestuous molestation.

The best thing this movie has going for it is the level of surrealistic gross-out that the movie attains in Dorine's basement with her collection of dead bodies.  Dorine cuts off hands, cuts open cavities, and pulls off fingernails.  She sprays down a rotting corpse with Windex and uses packing tape to patch up his body. She uses fingers on her clocks, and a hand as a paperweight.  It's straight out of a much better horror movie, like a homespun Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a Crispin Glover indie film.

The tonality of the film feels like a lesser version of the Steve Martin vehicle Novocaine, where it doesn't quite know what it is, and ends up muddled in some lost tonality between comedy, tragedy, horror, and surreal.  It might be considered goofy, but it definitely isn't goofball.  It might be considered horror, but its not really tense or scary.  It might be considered comedy, but it isn't that funny.  It might be considered tragedy, but we are rooting for the murderess.  Recommended only for the extremely curious.  EXTREMELY CURIOUS.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Brass Teapot (2012): How far will you go?

The Brass Teapot (2012)
dir: Ramaa Mosely

America's financial crisis is still affecting America's youth. The upcoming Cheap Thrills forces us to take a look at the form of our financial system, under the guise of asking how far would you go for financial security. The Brass Teapot asks us directly how far we would go for a couple dollars, and who would you hurt along the way.  It also gives the Gen Y argument for bowing out of the rat race.

The Brass Teapot centers around a couple of Gen Y college graduates, John and Alice, who are married but poor. Alice just finished getting a bachelor's degree in Art History. John is working as an underpaid and overworked computer insurance salesman/telemarketer.  Alice is trying to break into management, but can't get a job, and so the money woes keep rolling in.  Then, Alice steals a teapot.

The titular brass teapot is an ancient teapot that gives you money for pain and suffering.  In a striking fit of racism, the teapot is adorned with the Star of David on both sides, and had previously rescued from a Nazi concentration camp. You know, because, Jewish people are the foundations of greed and will do anything to get money.  The reason it was in a concentration camp was Hitler was trying to find the teapot, but the Jews wouldn't let him find the source of their money.  Alice steals the teapot from an old Hasedic Jewish woman who causes car accidents to get money.  And, throughout the movie both Alice and John are continually beaten and robbed by the Hasidic sons of the old woman.

Leaving aside that troubling racism, John and Alice bring the teapot home, where Alice, by accidentally burning herself with a curling iron, figures out that she can get money from the teapot.  John loses his job, and so they resort to hurting each other for money. A lot of money, actually.  They buy a nice house in a nice neighborhood.  They get nicer clothes.  They go to decent restaurants. They start hobnobbing with the friends who became successful after high school.  They start ignoring the friends they had when they were poorer (one of whom is working a second job at the mall to make ends meet).

In trying to learn the origins of the teapot on Antiques Roadshow, they attract the attention of somebody who knows the origins of the teapot.  In yet another, less troubling, fit of racism, we're introduced to the one Asian character in the film.  This is the Asian mystic who knows the origins of the teapot and is coming to save John and Alice from its powers through his benevolence.  The only other minority character in the movie is Alia Shawkat, the half-Iraqi actress best known for playing Maeby Funke, the daughter of two white folks on Arrested Development.

The Asian mystic tracks down John and Alice, and tells them that the teapot will ruin their lives, which they summarily dismiss because they have money and they can control themselves.  Meanwhile, the Hasidic descendents of the old lady track down John and Alice and start taking the money, which they say was supposed to be their inheritance.  They also warn of the dangers of the teapot, but John and Alice dismiss them too. And they keep hurting each other to get money.

But, the teapot gives less and less.  And, Alice discovers that the teapot actually responds to emotional damage.  So, they first start out by inflicting emotional damage on each other.  Revealing affairs, lust for other people, magnifying each other's faults, etc etc.  But, soon, they get greedy...again...and then inflict their damage on other people.  They reveal other people's affairs and other such things.  And, as such, the stakes for greed get higher and higher.

In the end, they give up the teapot, sell their belongings, give their money to their poor friends, get pregnant and move to Mexico on nothing more than their love.

Wait...what?  Oh, right. It's an allegorical ending.  John and Alice, horrified by the greed which they display, decide to give up everything consumerist and reject the American Dream.  Aside from the still completely troubling anti-semitism of the origins of the pot, the movie is only filled with white folk because that is still representative of "mainstream" America.  Even on television and in movies, it is hard to get a minority character who isn't playing a servant, a victim, or a criminal.  But, some at least acknowledge that stereotyping actually exists even as it is doing it (see Breaking Bad and its character Hugo).

As a critique on the current state of the American Dream, The Brass Teapot stands with Cheap Thrills in trying to get society to re-examine how it gets its riches.  It is off their own pain and suffering?  Could it be from the pain and suffering of others?  Perhaps even their death?  The Brass Teapot isn't concerned as much with the classism concerns of Cheap Thrills. It is mainly trying to articulate the Gen Y's growing dissatisfaction with the inability to get ahead by hard work alone.

Now, for a movie about pain and suffering and inflicting it on others, The Brass Teapot takes a bright effervescent tone compared to Cheap Thrills' down and dirty shock techniques.  Where Cheap Thrills goes for the jugular, The Brass Teapot goes for a refined, almost twee, tonality that runs counter to the actual content of the movie. It's kind of like how Third Eye Blind's Semi-Charmed Life was a poppy upbeat song about the depraved roller coaster of being a methhead. Yeah, it's exactly like that, except for occasional downturns where John and Alice check in with their morality until they realize they're OK with what they're doing and then we're back to bouncy!

If you like your comedies dark but peppy, The Brass Teapot is really entertaining, if a bit long.  At 101 minutes, it is a little flabby on the sides and could use a bit of trimming.  But, then there's the troubling racism and white privilege that completely pervades the film (and I haven't even gotten to the weird classist portion of how John and Alice's first landlord is a trailer trash ex-classmate who also has a bitching and expensive new 4x4 truck). And, if it wasn't for that anti-semitism and the rest of the white middle-class privilege, this film would be a knock out.  As it is, you have to take the good with the bad, maybe?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

One Nation Under God (1993): Foundations of the Gay Agenda

One Nation Under God (1993)
dir: Teodoro Maniaci, Francine Rzeznik

"And we'll hear about Burton's slip into temptation as he was misled by the unrelenting homosexual cabal." - Mr. Show

Exodus International, a 37-year-old coalition of Christian communities who promoted the "ex-gay" movement was "dissolved" this year.  Some have said that it dissolved in order to continue its work under different names, others said that it was to escape financial troubles.  Indeed, a group called Exodus Global Alliance, which was initially derived from Exodus International, still exists even though Exodus International was formally shuttered in 2013 by Alan Chambers, then President.  Alan Chambers made the official announcement at the conference, and also made an "apologetic" show with Oprah on OWN.  Regardless of the current status of Exodus International, it did a lot of damage, and will remain one of the chapters in Christianity's history books.

Exodus International was founded in 1976 by a group of ministries who believed in the ex-gay movement.  What is ex-gay? Ex-gay is a movement in the christian community where homosexuals are trained, or bullied, into changing their orientation from gay to straight.  Many ministries still practice this belief today.  In fact, U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann's husband, Marcus Bachmann, still runs a psychiatry business where at least part of their practice is ex-gay therapy (last verified in 2012).

In 1979, two founders of Exodus International, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, left the coalition in order to live together as lovers.  In 1982, they exchanged rings and vows.  One Nation Under God explores their relationship, the work of Exodus International and its various sub-ministries, as well as briefly touching on the histories of homosexual oppression (going back through the Nazis), and the various methods of ex-gay therapy that America has gone through.

One Nation Under God is now 20 years old.  When it came out, it was a relatively fringe-y documentary that aired on PBS.  Now, One Nation provides an imperfect time capsule into the state of gay relations in 1992.  The film opens with the documentarians interviewing people off the street in New York City whether they thought homosexuality was a sin.  Even in the liberal New York City, there was still a decent percentage who would say, on camera, that homosexuality was a sin and that the gays needed to repent.  And, if NYC was thinking this...well, let's just say that the rest of America wasn't as pleasant back then.

The early '90s were an interesting point in gay rights activism.  AIDS drugs were coming online in the late 80s.  Reagan started acknowledging AIDS as a need in 1987.  ACT UP was still going strong. It's impossible to understate just how big of a disruption AIDS was in the gay political progress.  In the documentary about Rev Troy Perry, Call Me Troy, Rev Perry acknowledges how key to the gay movement the lesbians were as the gay movement had been devastated by the AIDS crisis.

In the 80s, there was a military ban on gays, which had challenges to the ban in 1990 and 1991.  In 1993, Clinton signed the first compromise of Don't Ask Don't Tell, which was actually a compromise from the outright ban that had previously been occurring.

In 1989, the gay marriage debate was really coming online.  Denmark had OK'd same-sex marriage. New York's highest court said that two same sex members counted as a family unit for rent control purposes. Andrew Sullivan had written a piece called Here Comes the Groom, about the coming divide in the gay community between the need to rebel and the need to belong. In 1990, Baehr vs Miike was initiated.  This was the lawsuit arguing for same-sex rights that would win rights in Hawaii and ultimately lead to 1996's DOMA.

Against this political backdrop, the ex-gay movement was gaining strength, and the religious right was also gaining strength in the Republican party.  In 1990, Orson Scott Card, long before he would serve on the board of NOM, wrote an article titled "The Hypocrites of Homosexuality" that called for states to not repeal sodomy laws, which had been used to persecute homosexuals at the time. His view was not uncommon in that time period as the fight for keeping the government out of the bedroom was kicking into high gear, and would continue well into the '00s (and, indeed, is still continuing with politicians still trying to put anti-sodomy laws on the books).

Right in the midst of all this comes One Nation Under God. A political time capsule that shows a pivotal era where the gay rights movements were gaining strength and the religious right was also  still, gaining power, marking the a great check-in point for the current era where certain states have ratified gay marriage, the federal government has started recognizing same-sex marriage for tax purposes, and some states have even begun banning ex-gay therapy.

One Nation Under God spends most of its time in the debate around the ex-gay movement.  It interviews leaders of the movement such as Sy Young (a former transsexual and homosexual who has a history of sexual trauma, and was President of Exodus International), Joe Dallas, and Elizabeth Moberly.  It also interviews and features Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper and their relationship.  We hear from Christian leaders and psychiatrists who fall on both sides of the debate.  We also hear from ex-gays and former ex-gays. And, both sides are given equal credence.  That's where we were in 1993.

As a documentary, One Nation Under God could use an editor.  It is trying to cram in way too much in 82 minutes.  Because it wants to focus on the ex-gay movement, and surreptitiously be a document of the gay rights movement, the structure of One Nation Under God is scattershot and random.  We jump from topic to topic in an almost stream-of-consciousness format where we're flitting over the history of gay rights for 6 minutes here, then ex-gay movement for 4 minutes, then back to gay rights for 5 minutes then to gay history then to ex-gay then to...and we keep bouncing for the whole movie.  It almost fears that if it stays on topic for longer than a few minutes, it will be labeled incorrectly.

As a time capsule, though, One Nation Under God is AMAZING and required viewing.  Even though its structure and form leave something to be desired, it is astounding to see where gay rights were in 1993, and to compare that to today.  And, since many of the topics being broached in One Nation Under God are just now coming to fruition in today's political world, it becomes a document that should be essential to historians.

I will leave you, after the jump, with the best satire of the ex-gay movement from 1995.  Mr Show with Bob and David, in their 2nd episode, did a moment of Good News featuring an ex-gay member and his continual slips into homosinuality.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

American Mary (2012): Feminism through Independence

American Mary (2012)
dir: Jen and Sylvia Soska

Last month, we had a variety of rape-revenge movies directed by men.  There was The Woman by Lucky McKee, I Spit On Your Grave by Mier Zarchi, and Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives by Israel Luna.  Ticked-Off Trannies had men either in drag or identifying as women getting raped, but the other two are women getting raped.  We explored the differences between them, and how the point of view of The Woman makes it much more problematic than I Spit On Your Grave, even if it shies away from the actual acts.

In 2012, Jen and Sylvia Soska made their second horror movie, American Mary, a rape-revenge horror movie they combined with the body horror genre, the Giallo genre, and the coming of age genre.  While the end result of this genre mashing isn't disturbing, scary or intense, it is moody, gothy, tense at times, and wholly fascinating.

American Mary refers to Mary Mason, a young medical student studying to be a surgeon of some kind. She has financial difficulties, and is targeted by her professor for various minor indiscretions, such as a phone ringing in class or missing a lecture. While the audience may think that some sort of reprimand is justified (letting your phone ring in class is just plain rude), Dr Grant seems to take special delight in making the reprimand seem personal and harsh.

In order to make ends meet, Mary applies to become a stripper, but due to a last minute circumstance, ends up performing surgery on a guy who has been tortured for whatever reason.  The motivations of a strip club owner torturing guys and removing their eyeballs is never made completely clear, but the owner says "no questions" and the movie just lets it flow.

Following this surgery, she is contacted by a stripper named Beatress, who has been getting plastic surgery to make her look like Betty Boop (if you squint your eyes).  Beatress has a friend, Ruby, who wants to be turned into a doll.  And, by "turned into a doll," Ruby wants to have her nipples and labia removed, and her vagina closed up as much as possible.  This is because Ruby wants to be idealized and not sexualized.

Meanwhile, at her residency, Mary is noted for her professional bedside manner, and is invited to a late-night after-hours party by Dr. Walsh...where she is drugged and raped (onscreen, briefly, but clothed) by Dr. Grant.  For whatever reason, she doesn't go to the cops, but drops out of med school, and decides to go into underground body modification surgery, where she eventually develops a good reputation under the name Bloody Mary.

But, first, she must exact revenge on Dr. Grant by performing her first BME surgeries (without anesthetic), including teeth filing, genital mutilation, tongue splitting, and amputation.  Weirdly, this series of surgeries happens offscreen, with a flourish of a body-mod hand drawing.

Bloody Mary becomes a bigger and bigger success in the BME community as time goes by.  She earns a reputation, and puts together a website, as well as does a series of surgeries on a pair of twins who run an influential website, or something.  The cops come snooping around the missing Dr. Grant.  But, they find nothing.

At some point, the movie mildly treads water in a reverse CSI mode, where we think the cops keep getting closer. When the movie has padded it's running time enough, it decides to kick in the finale. Finally, after all this time (which seems like weeks, if not months...especially since her reputation needed to develop), Ruby's husband sees the surgery she had, and kills Ruby, beats Beatress, and then attacks Mary, stabbing her.  But, Mary sews herself up to die of internal bleeding. Yeah, it is a bit out of the blue.

Outside of the completely left field ending, the movie is well executed and just plain moody.  It may be disturbing to people not into BME, but to those used to it, it is mainly just a picture about a girl who does surgery for awhile, with some detectives following her.  It's almost Giallo-esque, but it doesn't have the blood and gore scenes to back that up.  It's very body horror, but it rarely gets close to the surgeries to be in that horrific.  But, what it is is political.

In interviews, the Soska sisters have said that they started out as actresses where they would end up with bit parts that sounded like a Vivid resume.  Hooker #2 this, or Call Girl that. And, they wrote Dead Hooker in a Trunk to mock that.  Then, they wrote American Mary as a response to the idea that there really was no big named horror villain that was a female.  There was no real female equivalent of Jason or Freddy. And, in the vein of American Psycho, they chose to make the whole movie about the villain.

As such, they've made a movie about rape, rape culture, and feminine power in the face of it all.  While there are 5 speaking male characters, 3 are rather rapey (Billy Barker, Dr Grant and Dr Walsh) while 2 are rather nice.  And, Mary's only 2 "victims" are Dr. Grant and a security guard who comes across her and her post-surgery Dr. Grant.  Mary isn't a psychotic serial killer.  She just does body mods, and she is doing things her way.

The movie is also notable for its female point of view.  Some of the strippers who are at the club want to be strippers.  Beatress, looking like Betty Boop, seems to be making shittons of money stripping.  She is able to just randomly throw thousands of dollars on her friend's surgery ($12,200 to be exact) and provide some cocaine on top of it.  How?  I dunno!  And, the camera looks at female bodies, but is only lingering when a man is in the room.

It is all about the female perspective.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Gravity (2013): Video Games as cinema

Gravity (2013)
dir: Alfonso Cuaron

Why would The Other Films review a movie that has an $80m budget, and stars both Sandra Bullock and George Clooney?  Well, this movie is science fiction (we have a certain love for that), and it is, weirdly, a big budget movie that is slated to be released in the no man's land of October.  Unfortunately, though not entirely unexpectedly, I hope this movie stays delegated to remaining outside the mainstream.  Because Gravity, while having a lot of style, panache, and technical achievement, is essentially an empty-headed video game of a movie.

In the '90s, there was a series of adventure games that were point and click adventure games that really were interactive movies, or interactive movies that really were adventure games.  Among these games are The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour, the Tex Murphy series, and the Phantasmagoria series.  Most notoriously was Tex Murphy: Overseer (the 5th in his series) where he retold the story of Mean Streets (the first in the series) and reformatted it as a pre-destined movie in which you had to solve a bunch of puzzles, but ultimately your character couldn't die nor have any conclusion outside of the foregone ending.  Sometimes you had to answer a series of action trees to get out of danger, and get to the conclusion.

Gravity feels like that. Worse, it feels like you're watching somebody else, namely Alfonso Cuaron, play that video game. The challenges are all pre-determined. You need to make sure you grab that fire extinguisher to try to battle the upcoming fire. Make sure you press that series of buttons. And, don't forget to release the chute.  You have a feeling that you're going to be watching these characters for the length of the movie. And, the tension starts to stagnate by the end.

What makes it more lifeless is that it is a bottle movie, with 1.5 characters.  At certain points in the film Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are separated, and Ms Bullock is left to carry a movie on her own, which she, thus far, has not been able to do.  Even in the highly overrated The Blind Side, Ms Bullock couldn't carry the movie.  Unfortunately for Ms Bullock, Mr Cuaron, and the audience, Sandy has to pretty much carry this movie all by herself.  To carry this movie, Ms Bullock utilized her usual array of high pitched hyperventilating and histrionics that I think she trademarked in Speed.

The story of Gravity is a bunch of space degree from the Russians shooting a satellite careens around the planet, and destroys everything it its path.  In its path are a bunch of satellites, including some station that people are getting data from, the ISS and some Chinese station.  Apparently, all of these are in geo-synchronous orbit, and all on the same linear path.  And, apparently, all of the space debris is only going in one direction along one path.  But, leaving those physics out of it, the space debris is The Ticking Clock.  You have to get out of its path before it comes back again, in 90 minutes (keep in mind that the 90 minutes in the film is not 90 minutes of the film).

Anyways, this Russian debris takes out the first satellite where George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are working.  And, Bullock goes careening off into space, hyperventilating on cue.  Clooney has to rescue her and they have to get to the ISS and then to the Chinese station in order to fly the escape pod down to earth.

That's the whole movie.  There are minor character details that could trigger something deeper.  An early conversation shows Bullock having lost her son, and the movie is empty enough that it could be about the stages of grief.  Or, the debris was caused by a rash action by the Russians, and wham its a political allegory.  But, ultimately, the movie is none of these.  It's a simplistic vacuous video game about trying to get from place to place and trying to rescue your avatar.

Is it well made?  Yes.  It has some really fine cinematography. There is a 13 minute opening shot that is spectacular.  The visuals are far more sumptuous and fulfilling than anything else in this bobblehead of a movie.  However, the score is god-awful and in your face, and very intrusive to the movie during the action scenes.  In the pre-film requisite literary reference card, the soundtrack starts quiet, and amps up to deafening volumes before it cuts out completely into silence.  This motif is repeated over and over and over and over.  It's more annoying than tense.  It's more self-aware than invisible.  You're aware this is a movie score, and will be heard!  And it will be silent!

Gravity is ultimately lacking that extra something that makes it worth seeing.  It's not deep, or interesting, or even all that new.  It isn't being released in the summer as a good movie for escaping from the oppressive heat into the coolness of space for some vacuous enjoyment.  It is an October release, and its very vacuous even for that. And, though the visuals are grandiose, the movie is ultimately a loss due to a terrible score and a dull as dishwater script.  Skip it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Rashomon (1950) and Vertigo (1958): Using and abusing the first person narrative

Rashomon (1950)
dir: Akira Kurosawa

Vertigo (1958)
dir: Alfred Hitchcock

There are two movies whose long long shadows have been looming over this week's posts, which I have been completely avoiding to wrap it into this post.  Both have had many articles written about them, and even specifically about the issue of perspective that all of the movies this week have utilized in their own way.  One has an effect specifically named after it, and the other was used in a feminist article about cinema coining a separate term which became influential, even as it was wrong.

The first is Rashomon, which has had The Rashomon Effect named after it.

The second is Vertigo, which Laura Mulvey used as an major example of The Male Gaze, a concept she developed in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

Each of the preceding four movies rolled around, toyed with, and otherwise came face to face with both of these concepts, which I think are worth diving into here.

Even this image is a lie

Rashomon is a major work of Japanese cinema, and the first film of Akira Kurosawa to gain attention around the globe.  In 1950, Rashomon won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, amongst other film festival awards.  That it was more poorly received in Japan itself is of interest.

Rashomon is based on the short story In A Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, first published in 1922.  Both the short story and the film concern a thief spotting a samurai and his wife, and then the thief having his way with the wife and the husband ending up dead.  Both media tell the story of what happened through four completely contradicting stories with 5 plot points remaining consistent:

1) A thief spotted a samaurai and his wife
2) The thief rapes the wife
3) The husband dies
4) The thief and the wife depart separately
5) A valuable dagger from the scene is missing

Everything between those plot points is negligible and up for debate in the trial.  There are four witnesses in the trial - The Thief, The Wife, The Dead Husband (through a medium), and A Woodcutter - and all of their stories are completely different with matters of ego and plainly coloring their tale.  In the end, there is no truth other than the five undeniable facts.

The thief told the story that he fought the husband for the right to have the wife, then the wife tried fighting the thief and lost.  And, in his finale, the wife begged him to fight the husband, as only one person could know her shame.  And, the winner could keep her.

The wife told the story that the thief tied up her husband, and had his way and left.  But, then the husband judged her, even as she begged him not to.  Then she took the dagger, and fainted...and somehow the husband was stabbed.

The husband told the story that, after the rape, his wife told the thief to kill her husband.  The thief then asked the husband if he wanted the wife dead.  The thief released the husband, left the grove, and the wife leaves.  The husband then kills himself.

The woodcutter told the story that, after the rape, the thief begged the wife for marriage. But, she refused.  The thief then freed the husband, who sulked because his wife was now spoiled. The wife, enraged, then calls the husband and the thief not real men and they should fight for her love.  In the end, the thief wins the fight by accident, and flees.

The trial is then RETOLD by the woodsman and a priest to a commoner while they are taking shelter in the city gate called Rashomon.  Meanwhile, they're tearing down the city gate for warmth and survival to create a fire to dry out while waiting for the torrential downpour to stop.

The idea of using four unreliable narrators to tell the same story over and over again is called The Rashomon Effect.  It obviously was developed before 1950, as it was used in the 1922 short story. It was a technique developed by modernist authors in the 20s and 30s, at minimum.  Notable literary examples of unreliable narrators include Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.

In cinema, The Rashomon Effect is relatively rare, though not altogether unheard of, with one of my favorite examples being the deconstructionist method of it in Reservoir Dogs and One Night at McCool's.  It is far more used in television, having been used in a wide array of sitcoms and dramas from All in the Family to The Simpsons.  The use of a single unreliable narrator is slightly more common in cinema, with two key recent popular movies being The Usual Suspects and Memento.

The audience as Scotty looking at Madeline who is
making sure that she is performing and that
Scotty (and, thusly, the audience) is watching. 

Vertigo is about one of Hitchcock's favorite subjects: voyeurism.  In 1954, Hitch directed Rear Window, a movie about the assembling of a story which you are only given one perspective on. In Rear Window, we're given the story of L.B. Jefferies, who is busy assembling a story of backyard detective work where he suspects a neighbor killed his wife.

Vertigo is considerably more complex. It is two completely different movies that are experienced completely differently from the first viewing to the subsequent viewings.

The first viewing: In Vertigo, John "Scottie" Ferguson is an out-of work officer following an accident where he fell from a roof.  He is hired to follow Madeline, an old friend's wife, whom the friend has claimed to be haunted.  Madeline and Scottie fall closer together, but Madeline then kills herself off a roof.  Scotty falls into a depression, and is hospitalized for awhile. When Scotty gets out, he meets a woman, Judy, who reminds Scotty of the long lost love, Madeline.  He makes up Judy to look like Madeline to ease his soul. In the end, Scotty figures out that Judy was the woman he had been following, and had set him up to fake the suicide of Madeline.

The second viewing: The second viewing, if you're watching more holistically (against the first person perspectives), Judy is hired to pose as a man's wife to set up Scotty.  Judy is hired to wander around San Francisco as Madeline, and pose in various spots related to Madeline's story. Judy as Madeline falls in love with Scotty, but must finish the ruse and fake Madeline's suicide, because Madeline has already been murdered.  Much later, Judy changes her appearance, and runs into Scotty again.  Still feeling in love, and feeling pity for his loss, Judy deigns to have Scotty dress her up as the lost wife again, until he figures the story out. And, she dies.

The beauty of Vertigo, and what makes it a masterpiece, is that these two separate movies exist through the one perspective of Scotty. Every time you watch Vertigo, after the first, you can transpose between the two movies and have to marry together the two realities. The audience watches Scotty watch somebody who is watching Scotty watch her.

The Male Gaze, as Laura Mulvey wrote about it, regards the protagonist of the film as being male and the director being male as well, which was the vast majority of the movies in her time, and is still the vast majority of the films being made now.  The theory says that the audience is forced to watch the stories trough the eyes of both the male director and the male protagonist, and we are thus defaulted to male, even if the viewer is a female. The theory also sets the woman as usually a fetishistic object of the director and the protagonist.

Laura Mulvey then expounds on Vertigo as though she had only seen the movie once.  She later admitted that she was wrong about her interpretation of the movie, but her misinterpretation of Vertigo is fairly fascinating as it is the interpretation we are told to watch on the surface.  Mulvey writes about Judy only performing for Scotty's pleasure in the second half of the movie when Scotty is recreating Judy in Madeline's image.  And, she draws a parallel from that scenario to actresses performing for the scopophilic voyeuristic pleasure of the audience.  Mulvey has, in turn, missed half of the movie, in which Judy is actively working to gain Scotty's attention, and actively working to get Scotty to look at her in order to manipulate Scotty.  For good reason, as that is the movie that is told in a post-modernist way by telling it at the end or through the sides.

The Effects

Obviously, the four movies discussed earlier this week have ways of manipulating the first person narrative nature of cinema.  Schizopolis, Triple Fisher, Bibliotheque Pascal and Tucker and Dale Vs Evil are all related, in theory, to the narrative manipulations that were encapsulated by Rashomon and Vertigo. This may be to varying results and with varying techniques, but I think its interesting to at least see how they relate to these two earlier classics.

Schizopolis used a Rashomon like effect by telling the story of the same day from three different perspectives.  Rashomon was completely all about lies, even as Kurosawa refused to tell the actors and actresses what the true account was because he was exploring the nature of multiple realities.  Schizopolis, however, accomplishes the result that Kurosawa was trying to accomplish by having multiple realities overlapping in sequential order.  Schizopolis' effect was having every one of its narrators telling the truth, but it is their version of the truth.  And, in turn, this makes it a stronger concept for differing perceptions and overlapping realities.

Schizopolis also makes the Vertigo used of multiple layers plain and visible. Much like Judy's story of being hired as a Madeline look-alike completely affects Scotty's story, Mrs. Munson's affair with the dentist is totally affecting her perspective of Mr. Munson's story, and how that whole story is working out.  Unlike Vertigo, Schizopolis lays that second and third layer out explicitly, even though it isn't overlapping the original story.  Whether it makes it easier or harder to figure out what exactly Soderburgh is trying to accomplish is determined on how dedicated you are to Schizopolis, but its usage is reminiscent of Vertigo.

Triple Fisher, like Rashomon, is a story told by multiple narrators, all of whom are lying. The main difference is Triple Fisher's used of montage compared to the retelling of the narrative from each different narrator as Rashomon did.  Some people accuse Rashomon of trying to get at a deeper truth that can't be told with a single camera, but Rashomon is full of liars and unreliable narrators.  Triple Fisher, however, is trying to balance three unreliable narrators who may or may not believe that what they are telling is the truth.  Or it might just be sensationalist lies.  Either way, Triple Fisher and Rashomon are intrinsically tied through technique.  And, yes, Amy Fisher, Joey Buttafuoco and Akira Kurosawa are now in the same damn article.  You're welcome.  Please don't haunt me Mr. Kurosawa. Quick research shows I'm not the first to make this connection, which makes me happy to no end.

Bibliotheque Pascal is also directly related to Rashomon, but only in so far as it has an unreliable narrator.  Both Rashomon and Bibliotheque Pascal have constructed whole movies out of lies and fabrications from the characters. Both movies were also constructed out of stories told out of ego and the urge to save face.  All of the stories in Rashomon are told because the storytellers had something to hide, or wanted to be proud of something.  Bibliotheque Pascal's narrator tells her story because she wants to disguise her past into something more than what it was.  And, Vertigo's influence can be seen in the knowledge that there is a second movie underlying the first.  But, where Vertigo's film is from a different character, Pascal's other film is just a boring film that needn't be told, again.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil is Vertigo ineloquently reused.  Vertigo hammered two movies into one movie, but was able to make it slick enough to tell it through the one narrative.  Tucker and Dale has the two movies but explicitly tells the two movies by splicing them together.  Much like the later horror comedy, Cabin in the Woods, Tucker and Dale intercuts between the two movies to chop at each other's roots.  But, Vertigo slickly and slyly told you that one was an incomplete story without showing it as incomplete in an explicit manner.  Tucker and Dale, to its credit, is a b-movie that its creators may have thought it was lucky to be watched once, and was trying to tell you everything in the first viewing.  It is a b-movie, after all.

With this week's look at the manipulation of narrative in the modern indie, foreign, and b-movie, I hope to show how sometimes the movies that may seem to be trashy or stupid might have something more going behind its wheels.  It isn't all surface for some of these b-movies and they shouldn't be dismissed straight off.  Are they classics like Rashomon and Vertigo.  Probably not.  Only Schizopolis and Triple Fisher is pushing the elements of what cinema actually is, but Triple Fisher is probably inessential viewing.  The classics are casting shadows on the modern b-movie, and this is why even a b-movie lover should be watching and educating themselves on the classics.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010): Inversion of Other Demonization

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)
dir: Eli Craig

"It doesn't matter what happened. It only matters what looks like what happened." - Tucker

There is a whole sub-genre called Hicksploitation (or Hixploitation), in which there is demonization of the hick or the hillbilly by city folk.  It's all about being on the wrong side of the tracks, and how the horror movie wants you to be on the right side of the track.  Significant examples include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Wolf Creek, House of 1,000 Corpses, Redneck Zombies, 2000 ManiacsWrong Turn.  That list is not complete.  Every single one of those movies cashes in on the target audience of middle-class big city white people, mostly teenagers or college kids, who end up in a hellscape created by the poorer backwoods folks. In those movies, the hick is generally posed as purely evil demons who only want to kill.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil uses those classist expectations and tropes, and uses them to turn it all on its head through the use of perspective.  Tucker and Dale are the hillbilly title characters on vacation who come into contact with a bevvy of college kids who are going camping in the woods.  Tucker has just bought a rundown cabin in the woods, and is planning on cleaning the place up by sawing down trees, cleaning, and making everything pretty, but at first it is one of those cabins that horror movies present as creepy murder cabins.  Meanwhile, the college kids are freaked out by Dale due to his ineptly trying to hit on the college kids at the beginning of the movie while holding a scythe.

The first half of the movie is presented with the two different perspectives as two different movies flowing between each other. When Tucker and Dale are night fishing, one of the college girls slips on a rock out of view from the other students and falls unconscious into the water.  However, what the college kids see is Tucker and Dale hoisting an unconscious friend into their rowboat and shouting "We got your friend!"

The movie continues as the college kids try to "rescue" Allison and end up killing themselves in increasingly horrific ways.  Meanwhile, Tucker and Dale are trying to do work on their house, and protect Allison, and also inform the kids that they need to come get their friend.  And then the kids start dying all around Tucker and Dale.

When Tucker and Dale's split fades away as both movies start to confront each other, and comes out as an all out war, the movie loses half of the tension it had in the first half of the movie.  Even though it becomes a horror movie with the college kids as the antagonists, and it retains its comedic sensibilities, the tension between the warring perspectives evaporates and we're left with a little more straightforward of a movie.

As Tucker observes in the middle of the movie.  "It doesn't matter what happened.  It only matters what looks like what happened."  Where this movie differs from most horror comedies, is it doesn't just lampoon or abuse tropes, it turns them inside out.  It shows how certain events could be mis-perceived as something completely different based on expectations and tropes.  Effectively, you're watching the movie as a buddy comedy, who keep getting invaded by a hixploitative horror movie with college kids.

Tucker and Dale is heavily political as well.  While it is upending cliches through the dual perspective, it is also confronting the classism that hixploitation movies perpetuate through using the hillbilly as the "other" in the horror movie.  In today's America, there is a split of the cultures that has been accomplished through the Republican's Southern Strategy in the 1960s. In the 1960s, the Republicans were losing ground as the Democrats were embracing the racial progresses that were happening through the Civil War.  In order to regain power, the Republicans sold out their party to better represent the values of the Southern conservative values.  In the 50 or so years since the southern strategy, the Republicans have not abandoned their southern strategy, and most voting maps are split between rural and big city, and north/west and south.

Frequently, the northern media has depicted the southern conservatives as hicks and others, and have labeled some of the states as "flyover" states.  These states, for the most part, were part of the confederacy of the Civil War.  And, as such, the south is demonized as being stupid hicks unworthy of having political opinions because they're racist and full of ultra-religious beliefs which should not be allowed due to separation of church and state.  Its like they're yokels.

Kevin Smith further added to this discussion in 2011's horror movie Red State, where he depicted two teenage boys picked up by a church about to use these sinners as part of some sort of sacrificial ritual. It demonizes the religious as an "other" worthy of being villainized. The religious were a more specific reference to Westboro Baptist Church, the group who goes and protests various funerals and protests in order to spread its message of whatever.

Tucker and Dale is basically saying that everybody has the potential to be demonized.  The college kids are the "other" to Tucker and Dale.  This is shown by them frequently calling out "college kids" in order to get their attention.  The antagonists in this movie are educated, young, mostly white, and middle class.  As such, the message of Tucker and Dale is that everybody deserves to be heard, and that your side may not be right just because it "sounds" right.

In any case, Tucker and Dale is actually a hilarious movie that deserves to be found by more.  It's violent and gruesome enough to satisfy the gorehounds, and hilarious enough to entertain everybody else. While the movie loses steam in the second half, it's first half more than makes up for that loss of momentum.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Bibliothèque Pascal (2010): Storytelling as Survival

Bibliothèque Pascal (2010)
dir: Szabolcs Hajdu

Bibliothèque Pascal would not be possible without Terry Gilliam.  Terry Gilliam is a consummate storyteller fascinated by the concept of storytelling. While he even had a Trilogy of Imagination - Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen  - many of his films deal with charletans, storytellers, liars, flights of fantasy, dreams, and downright delusions. From The Fisher King's medieval fancy to Tideland's fantasies of escape to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' incredible machine of generating storytelling, Gilliam has always been fascinated with stories where we're dealing primarily with the imagination of one main character.

Certainly, other movies made by people other than Gilliam have dealt with the imaginations of a single character.  Recent notable examples of these other movies include Pan's Labyrinth, The Fall, and The Cell.  All of these movies include flights of fancy, and the former two are fantasies to escape the reality of the world in which they live. The Fall even concerns a storyteller weaving a fantasy in order to entertain a little girl to entice her to get him drugs.  But, they all owe a great deal of debt to Gilliam, who, in turn, also owed a debt to Fellini though definitely not nearly as overtly.

Like all of these movies, Bibliothèque Pascal is all about storytelling. (Warning: full plot breakdown ahead, including spoilers) The movie opens with a young woman, Mona, in Romanian child protective services office trying to win custody of her child who has been taken away from her. Mona had left her daughter with her aunt to take care of while Mona was away. Subsequently, her child was seen performing for money, and subsequently was taken away from Mona's aunt.  Mona, back in Romania, is now trying to win her child back with this interview.  The CPS agent asks Mona what happened, and we're launched into a technicolor fantasy of her creation for the majority of the movie.

Years ago, Mona, who seems to be a Romanian gypsy or wanderer of sorts, leaves her cheating and jealous boyfriend to a different city, with a beach.  While on the beach, she is taken hostage by a wanted criminal who has recently murdered a man solely for being gay and kissing another man in public. This criminal is also a dream projector, in which he projects his most vivid dreams onto other people. During the kidnapping, he projects a love dream onto Mona, who is so enthralled she has sex with him before he gets assassinated the next morning.

Fast forward and Mona has a daughter.  She is making a living telling stories with puppets at fairs.  The story shown is an allegorical retelling of her history so far, with the above criminal being represented by a scorpion. With it, we learn that her mother died when she was young.

At the fair, she meets up with her father, who is shown hanging around the fair. Her father is a prostitute dealer, and needs to replace a girl he was going to sellt. He is first shown being rejected by a one of the hookeriest hookers you could imagine because London trade is rough.  When he meets with Mona, he tricks Mona into being the replacement by feigning an illness and the need to see a doctor in Germany. And, so she is sold to human traffickers who, in turn, sells her to Pascal, an affable chap who runs a swanky nightclub and brothel, Bibliothèque Pascal.

Inside the brothel, the sex workers (3 women, a man, and a boy) act out different literary scenes for their clients.  There is a Lolita, a Pinocchio, a Dorian Gray, a Desdemona, and Mona's first story: Joan of Arc.  As Joan of Arc, she has to act out the scene of penance with a subsequently forced sex scene acted out.  She is drugged between acts, and bites the tongue of Pascal when he tries to kiss her, causing her to be placed as Desdemona, in a rubber suit, to get suffocated and raped.

But, she is rescued by the dream projection of her daughter, which is the street performance her daughter was doing.  Her daughter was sleeping, and dreamed of creating a marching band, led by Mona's father, to rescue Mona from the library.  And, scene.

When the CPS guy doesn't believe her (for obvious reasons), she recants and tearfully tells her real story in short sentences.  She met the father on the street, but doesn't know who he is.  He gave a false name and job.  She had the kid anyways.  She had to work odd, menial, jobs to survive.  She thought she could make more money and a better living as a prostitute in Britain, and left her child with her aunt promising to pay her from her wages.  But, she couldn't make a living in London, and couldn't send her aunt any money.  Thus, to cover costs, her aunt made the child perform.  And, that gets her her child back.

The film closes with her and her daughter having a fantasy dinner, and her daughter happily eating and drinking air in a gorgeous technicolor kitchen. And, Mona subsequently puts her daughter to bed, where she tells a story about how all the princes and princesses in fairy tales had disappeared, and now they had to deal with reality instead of being allowed to live in their fantasies which added color and zest to their life.  And, we pull back to discover that this touching scene is actually in a model setup in a department store.

And, so, Hajdu has created a movie about a woman weaving and embellishing, or entirely fabricating, her life story in order to escape the mundanities of reality.  It is a movie that isn't even ambiguous between whether or not it is lying, but instead asks you if you'd rather hear another sad tale about single mothers and sex trafficking and sex work, or if you'd like this fantasy story where the good people are good, and the bad people are bad.  The sex work is horrible, but the brothel is fantastic (in terms of fantasy, not in terms of good).

In the flights of fancy, the sex work is brutal and abusive.  In the flight of fancy, Desdemona is suffocated to the point of unconsciousness or death before she is fucked by two strange men in rubber suits.  In the flight of fancy, there is also the auction of women of sorts for the johns to buy and sell. And, in the reality, Mona says that the work was lousy, the wages were pathetic, the rent was high, and the pimp took way too much of a cut of the profit, rendering it unsustainable.

The one thing it might get wrong is that it suggests it was easy for Mona to leave the pimp and the sex work when she was frustrated by it.  She just ups and leaves to return to her daughter.  Considering that she went to sex work willingly, this might be one type of reality, but it also ignores the reality of sex workers who are trafficked from foreign countries and forced into sexual slavery.

It also is an interesting painting of a woman's story as told by a man. Hajdu's wife is the star of Bibliothèque Pascal, and much of the inspiration came from her sitting in a Hungarian jail cell, on a vehicle registration charge, with a prostitute who would spend her time spinning bizarre yarns about prostituting in London.  These are the worlds we create in order to survive.  These are the worlds we create to escape how humdrum the struggle for life for some actually is.

The main problem people will have is the sex work, and the sexual violence are all in the fantasy.  Unlike, say, Pan's Labyrinth, Mona isn't escaping a violent fantasy world which is marked by war and murder.  Mona is embellishing to make her life seem less pathetic.  And, as such, it is presented pretty unabashedly.

It also is a tad rapey, and I can't get around that.  Even though the whole story was a flight of fancy in order to get away from rehashing another boring, pathetic life, the story was also meant as an embellishment to create sympathy from the CPS agent.  No, my daughter wasn't performing just for money.  Her performance was also a dream projection meant to rescue me from this horrible brothel where I was raped in the worst way possible!  This wasn't just any brothel, this was the most fantastic brothel you could imagine, with the most horrible rapey sex ever, including rubber sex.  Can you imagine?  The movie never portrays the rape in a good light, and it almost always portrays it from a third party camera view in the first person storytelling.  But, it is rapey...and it is almost rapey as a throwaway device, which is, ultimately, kind of a fault of the movie.

This is a sultry movie which goes through its paces of fast and slow.  It's like the jazz music that populates the movie.  Sometimes its slow, and almost lulling you to sleep, then it can be eclectic, and sometimes it can be zippy or bombastic.  It is also visually stunning, owing much to Tarsem's The Cell and The FallBibliothèque Pascal is a gorgeous work, immaculately framed and conceived.  It's borderline messy in its plotting, but aren't all flights of fancy?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Triple Fisher: The Lethal Lolitas of Long Island (2012): "Based" on a true story...the supercut

Drew Barrymore, Noelle Parker, and Alyssa Milano
as Amy Fisher
Triple Fisher: The Lethal Lolitas of Long Island (2012)
dir: Dan Kapelovitz

"Only they know what happened." - Disclaimer at the beginning of Amy Fisher: My Story.

In 1996, Schizopolis presented a world where everybody's point of view was considered to be valid and just part of the story.  It was educating the world in the lesson of "there are three sides to every story" using just one single movie.  But, right around the new year of 1993, American audiences were given their own crash course in viewpoints through three movies of the week.

Starting on December 28, 1992, television networks released a series of movies based on the notorious yet relatively inconsequential story of Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco.  For those who may not know, Amy Fisher was a 16-year-old girl who started having an affair with a married, much older man, Joey Buttafuoco.  When she was 17, she went to Buttafuoco's home, and shot Joey Buttafuoco's wife in the head.  While those are the basic facts to the story, there are many different ways to tell the story, and tell them they did.

The first movie to come out was NBC's Amy Fisher: My Story (eventually retitled Lethal Lolita) on December 28, 1992.  Starring Noelle Parker as Amy Fisher, and Ed Marinaro as Joey Buttafuoco, My Story focused on Fisher's point of view, showing her as a minorly rebellious but altogether more innocent character involved in the shooting.

The second and third movies both came out the next Sunday.  One was The Amy Fisher Story, airing on ABC, starring Drew Barrymore and Anthony Dennison.  The final movie was CBS' Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story, starring Alyssa Milano and Jack Scalia.  The Amy Fisher Story was supposed to be a third party retelling based on both sides, while Casualties of Love was completely out of the Buttafuoco's side of the story.

Just to reiterate: Noelle Parker (with punky hair) was from Amy Fisher's side. Drew Barrymore was the "neutral" side, and Alyssa Milano was the Buttafuoco's story.

In My Story, Amy Fisher was an innocent but damaged and rebellious girl who fell head over heels in love with a Joey Buttafuoco who was just as infatuated with her. In The Amy Fisher Story, Amy was a sleazy girl who was having a sleazy affair with a down-and-dirty sleazy Joey Buttafuoco who may or may not be taking advantage of her.  In Casualties of Love, Joey Buttafuoco was an innocent man who was rampantly seduced by a wanton selfish slut named Amy Fisher, even though he resisted the whole time.

When American audiences were watching this all fall down around them on national television, they were given the choice of whose view they wanted to watch.  And, at least with the neutral and Buttafuoco movies, American audiences were able to flip between channels and get different takes on the exact same events.  Where Schizopolis was cramming it all sequentially, many American families were doing the same thing with their remotes.

20 years later, Dan Kapelovitz, still obsessed with the Amy Fisher movies, if not the whole Fisher/Buttafuoco saga, assembled all three movies into one tight supercut.  It presents the three movies intercutting and weaving between each other in order to capture all of the events, and to try to get closer to the global truth, while also commenting on the ways that value changes can effect the way a movie is made.

An example of how the three can show the same scene in a completely different waw is in the shirt where Amy attains a t-shirt from the Buttafuoco auto repair shop.  In one, Buttafuoco gives Amy a shirt in a passionate manner.  In another, Amy hounds Joey to give it to her until he gives in.  But, all three versions are presented to let the audience decide how it might have gone down.  Some scenes are intercut as they go.  Some movies had scenes that weren't in others.  Many scenes were deleted altogether.

Triple Fisher does also blows the lid off the world of "based on a true story" that used to be the hallmark of movies of the week, and are now the calling card of oscar bait and horror films.  Everything nowadays seems to be based on a true story.  A butler version of Forrest Gump?  True story, they cry!  A movie about a girl with a demon?  True Story!!  A homeless man who is a violin prodigy?  True story, they say.  A seal dressed up in beach clothes?  Truth!  They can get away with claiming truth by hiding behind "based on" or "inspired by."  And, the words become completely meaningless and trite.

Triple Fisher pulls back the curtain on these disclaimers, showing that "based on a true story" is one-sided at best, and a complete fabrication at worst.  It shows that everybody could come up with a different way of telling the same story without having the same take on it.  Giving the characters different implications and motivations, each movie causes the viewer to have a different perspective.

This year, we are getting at least two major Steve Jobs movies: jOBS and a currently untitled Aaron Sorkin movie (presumably where Steve Jobs stands in for Aaron Sorkin as a monomaniacal asshole who talks and talks and talks).  They won't depict the same events, as of now.  They will have different perspectives.  But, they have to deal with the same person, and will be different takes on the character. Triple Fisher prepares us for these competitors, and entertains us at the same time.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Schizopolis (1996): Going Backwards to Re-educate

Schizopolis (1996)
dir: Steven Soderbergh

I introduced myself to Schizopolis in quite possibly the best way possible.  I was doing a sleep study drug test for research, and had to stay in a psych ward for 72 hours.  I didn't socialize much at the psych ward, and was the only person there for "research."  So, I watched movies and tv on DVD all day.  Schizopolis was one of those movies.  And, in my mind, there is no other way to experience this movie, which is quite possibly the closest experience anybody could ever have of a nervous breakdown without actually having one themselves.  And, yet, this is only the surface of the movie.

I'm sure you all know Steven Soderbergh.  This was a man who came on strong with his first movie, Sex, Lies and Videotape, but got sucked into indie Hollywood hell of a string of rather uninspired crappy non-movies for 7 years.  Then, after he divorced his wife, he came out with Schizopolis, which is simultaneously a student film by a then-not-so-major director, a clarion call for help, and a learning process.  After this movie, his career rejuvenated and he started making popular and/or award-winning movies, and has continued to do so to this day.

Schizopolis is the story of three nights and days in the life of three characters told from different points of view.  The first two characters are Fletcher Munson (Steven Soderbergh) and his wife, Mrs Munson (real-life ex-wife Betsy Brantley).  After the death of Munson's co-worker, Fletcher is assigned to write a speech for his boss, a pseudo-L. Ron Hubbard type for the book Eventualism, but struggles with it.  His wife, however, has been having an affair with our third character Dr Jeffrey Korchek (Steven Soderbergh, again)...who is also trying to seduce Attractive Woman #2 (Betsy Brantley, again).  As the days go by, and the speech gets finished, and the affair is totaled, Schizopolis finally gives us a fake fantasy ending of happiness that it doesn't share with the real life couple.

Intertwined in this are two separate tales, whose tales move linearly out of sync with the Soderbergh stories.  The first is that of Elmo Oxygen, a pest control agent who goes door to door to seduce women, and is hired by a reality TV show team to assault people.  The second is that of Nameless Numberhead Man who is unhappily married to Attractive Woman #1, because she used to be fat but has lost all of her weight. So, while she's having affairs with the likes of Elmo and possibly Dr. Korchek, he's seducing an insurance agent who is much larger in size.

Soderbergh structures Schizopolis in 3 acts, each act telling the same set of days from a different perspective.  It's very Go before Go.  But, it is post Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  The first act is told strictly from Munson's point of view, in which he is so bored with his usual marriage that he doesn't even hear their conversations in real sentences.  All he hears is "Generic Greeting" and "Generic Greeting returned".  Basically, the framework of all our routine conversation to maintain our lives, even though it seems inconsequential.  Meanwhile, he has to suffer through work by masturbating in the bathroom, while writing shitty speeches and getting phone calls offering him money to be a mole.  He doesn't even notice that his wife is obviously cheating on him.  And, he barely notices that she left him on the second evening.  Also, in this first section, we first see Elmo seducing women using a Burroughs-esque cut-up nonsensical language.  And, we learn that Nameless Numberhead Man is depressed by his wife.

The second act is told from Dr. Korchek's point of view, which is fairly mundane and straightforward but observatory in ways that Munson's story isn't.  He also acknowledges that this may be the same character but a completely different personality.  At one point, he remarks "I'm having an affair with my wife."  In this section, we learn that Korchek is in love with Mrs. Munson and asks her to move in with him.  But, when she does move in with him, he rejects her out of the possibility that he has fallen in love with Attractive Woman #2.  The second act also has Elmo, now hired by a different reality tv crew, assaulting random people for his show.  And, we watch NNM seduce the rather large secretary as he mildly belittles Attractive Woman #1 for losing weight, telling her to eat something.

The third act is told from Mrs. Munson's point of view, who only hears herself in English.  She hears all the men in different, unsubtitled, foreign languages.  She hears Fletcher in Japanese, Korchek in Italian, and when she reconciles with Fletcher post-Korchek rejection, he is now in French.  The new information presented is that she actually leaves Fletcher.  And, after she is rejected by Korchek, Fletcher comes and rescues her from a coffee shop and they go home together.  They have sex, the speech is finished, and everybody is talking in normal English once again.   The third act is missing Elmo until he shows up in the epilogue.  And, Mrs Munson finds a video tape meant for NNM which is really large women who are having sex with small men.

So, in reality, this is a screaming reality check by Soderbergh for himself.  He started shooting with no script, and this is the movie that came straight out of his head.  It may seem like it is a psychotic movie about personalities and points of views that is further confused and obfuscated by Soderbergh playing two parts and Brantley playing two parts.  It may seem like the whole point of the film is story as therapy.  Especially when you add in that the speech sections came straight out of notes from executives on Soderbergh's scripts.  But, really, I don't think that was the purpose of this movie at all.

Schizopolis reminds me of Man Bites Dog, in that this was a movie that really wasn't about its subject.  Man Bites Dog was a movie about the making of movies.  Sure, it happened to be a movie about the making of a movie about a serial killer.  But, it was intended to be a movie about making movies.  It just had a sick sense of humor. Likewise, Schizopolis is mainly a training ground for Soderbergh to experiment on the effect of cinematic points of view, and in turn, to teach the audience on how to watch movies.  That it is also a bit of masturbation on affairs and marriage, just after he divorced his ex-wife, is incidental mind-fuckery.

Soderbergh was teaching himself what a point of view was in a film, and how the different ways you tell a story can have different effects on the story itself.  Since we don't follow Mrs. Munson at all in the first act, we don't really know that she's having an affair, even though the audience suspects it.  We see how following this character affects what the audience knows about the story, and then when we follow Dr Korchek, we learn more about the affair.  And, when we follow Mrs. Munson, we get the final pieces.

In the process, the audience learns that the language to the scene is incidental, even though the language used is far from incidental.  While one character is hearing things as a generic script filled with replacement place holders, the other is hearing the same conversation in two completely different languages.  Teaching us that we may not actually be hearing each other even if we think we're listening.  Also, teaching the audience that the words in plays and movies barely even need to exist as long as we learn the various attitudes of the characters through their dialogue.

Where the A-story is mainly an experiment in structure and form, the B-stories (that of Elmo Oxygen and NNM) are an experiment in style.  Elmo jumps from genre to genre.  From weird detective movie to sexpot movie to 60s drug out movie to reality tv show to, eventually, assassination thriller.  NNM is a straight up generic romance. Each different style is showcasing how every movie structures their camera shots, lighting, and editing to achieve a different feel for every scene.

Schizopolis played at Cannes to a legendarily bad reception.  Nobody knew what to make of it.  It played as a "surprise" film, and had no credits. The title is presented as a word on the shirt of a bottomless man, and ends with a single frame blip of a copyright. The movie, moving extremely fast with its overly complicated plot, operates at a pace where it is years ahead of its first-time audience at every scene.  Just as an audience thinks it may have caught up, wham its a different movie.  People were still catching up on the timeline experimentation that was Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  Variety had a particularly scathing and clueless review, saying "No narrative is developed on a comprehensible level, nor is any single idea fleshed out to meaningful dimensions."

As I said, though, Schizopolis is a training ground for both Soderbergh and for audiences alike (even though nobody saw Schizopolis).  In 1997, Tarantino would reuse this type of multiple viewpoint narration for his movie Jackie Brown, and Soderbergh would totally fuck timelines up with Out of Sight in 1998.  In fact, five of his next six movies would deal with points of view or timeline fuckery that Soderbergh developed here in Schizopolis.  Those movies: Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven, and Full Frontal.  They also dealt with genre styling in a way that Soderbergh developed in Schizopolis.

There are a lot (a lot) of valid criticisms of Schizopolis. It's intentionally confusing. It's too fast to keep up with. It's too compressed with too many ideas. It's pretentious and self-indulgent as all get out. It's amateurish. It feels like a student film thesis project. It's disconnected. It's obvious. It's obtuse. In a sense, this movie doesn't work for a lot of people not willing to put time or energy into a film.  On the other hand, it is a blisteringly funny take on relationships, communication, and how to watch movies in general without feeling lecture-y about any of it.  This is one of The Other Films' Required Viewings.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Popatopolis (2009): The state of the B-movie through behind-the-scenes

Popatopolis (2009)
dir: Clay Westervelt

"To do a low budget movie would take three weeks or a month.  Then, it became two weeks. And then they started shooting them in...a week..." - Monique Parent

Jim Wynorski.  A name which would live in infamy, if only he didn't have so many damn pseudonyms.  This is a man who has directed a minimum of 94 movies in 30 years.  He started out doing amazing schlock like yesterday's Chopping Mall, and The Lost Empire (a Ninja/Woman In Prison/Cop/Sci-fi/Killer Ape movie) and went through a decent B-movie phase noted by Dinosaur Island where a lost tribe of women worship a dinosaur.  Finally, he ended up in ultra-low-budget z-movie hell doing soft-core Skinemax porno the better part of the '00s.  The b-movie market had bottomed out, there was no money, and so Wynorski, with his love of the breasts, found himself doing the late night movies like The Bare Wench Project series, or The Breastford Wives.

In 2005, Jim had accepted a deal to make a movie in 3 days.  This movie would be The Witches of Breastwick, another softcore porno of negligable quality, mainly so due to budget and time constraints.  See, in Wynorski's ultra-low-budget hell, there is only time for minimum crew, minimum auditions and casting, minimum script writing, minimum equipment, and even sets.  This movie was filmed in 3 days around one house which did not have food or towels, and was out of range for cell service.

Popatopolis takes us behind the scenes of The Witches of Breastwick to show us that...making a softcore porno movie in three days with no towels and food really really sucks. Jim Wynorski doesn't care about this movie.  He cares about getting it done.  The movie is just a product, or a challenge, to him.  Which is a vast difference from when he used to care about his movies.  Or, at least when they seemed like he cared.  In 1994, he started making and releasing movies in bulk.  First four a year, then 6 a year.  His last movie not released among 2-4 others of his year was 1997's Against the Law starring Richard Greico and Kelly LeBrock.

Due to the time constraints, Wynorski is a short-tempered agitated, quippy man.  He is like a less tempered, but more rigid version of low-budget director Lloyd Kaufman of Troma fame (if you've ever watched one of those behind-the-scenes).  Unlike Kaufman, Wynorski knows where to direct his frustration, and how to finish a movie.

There are significantly memorable scenes in Popatopolis, such as the opening scene of Wynorski getting frustrated at an actress being late, and then going on a misogynistic rant about late actresses. Or, Julie K Smith not getting her lines dead on, and Wynorski not pausing to let her learn her line, but feeding it to her and then filming immediately.  He would repeat this for a very uncomfortable long period of time until she landed the line.

The whole process is a painful low budget excursion that really made for a not-memorable film.  But, it shows the state of b-movies in the mid '00s.  There was no channel for b-movies for awhile.  The home video market had dried up, and Netflix schlock hadn't picked up yet.  Syfy (then Sci-Fi) was just starting to come on board with their brand of schlock that has become infamous now with Sharknado.  B-movies were in dire straits.

After The Witches of Breastwick, Julie K. Smith would retire for a couple of years.  Wynorski would eventually go on to direct Cleavagefield (a particular favorite of mine, particularly for the song Pussy Pussy Bang Bang), Dinocroc vs Supergator, and Pirahnaconda.

If you want to see what happens when a man loses his taste for his passion but still has to do his job, this is the movie for you.

But, there's another aspect to Popatopolis that I have been slightly touching on but not delving into.  The undercurrent of misogyny and sexism that regularly occurs in porn, soft-core and hardcore.  At one point, while reading the script, Julie K Smith comments, "Whoever wrote this has a real problem with women." That comment actually has four layers to it: the viewpoint that The Witches of Eastwick is about women who are witches and need a man to survive, that soft-core and hardcore porno regularly objectifies and reduces women and men to sex objects, that Jim Wynorski is actually a misogynist, and that Ms Smith may be projecting part her frustrations with Wynorski onto the script.

In watching Popatopolis, one gets the idea that Wynorski can be a misanthrope when he's working.  He hates anybody who is pissing him off, either actively or not.  He screams at women and men constantly. He has negative things to say about everybody. But, he does have a tendency to also attack women with female-specific targets.  He objectifies women as part of his job on a soft-core porn set, but he also objectifies women in real life too.  It doesn't seem like he was always like this, though.  He used to have movies that contained strong women than didn't go around bewitching, drugging, and raping completely unrelated men for no reason.

The Witches of Breastwick has a plot consisting of a guy (played by Joe Souza) who is haunted by nightmares of three big breasted women who want to have sex with him.  He eventually goes to confront them, and they drug him and his wife before banging them. possibly against their will.  Which has almost nothing to do with The Witches of Eastwick, in which three divorcees share a man, whom they think may be the devil until he marries somebody else and they give her cancer.  Really, the book is truly problematic.

The Witches of Breastwick also has the side problem of being a soft-core porno made by a guy's guy aimed at guys.  It is meant to be a male fantasy aimed at reinforcing male fantasies about women.  In this case, a fantasy about three women who are so needy they will haunt your nightmares and then drug you to have sex with you.  Which leads credence to Julie K Smith's comment's that the writers have real problems with women.  In part, it isn't a healthy movie because it is a completely male point of view, with nothing to withhold the maleness, and even an incentive to maximize the maleness of the movie.

In the end, the movie, like any good documentary, is working on a bunch of different levels.  At the surface its a behind the scenes of The Witches of Breastwick.  Then its a character study of Jim Wynorski, and a review of his career.  Below that is a lament for the state of the b-movie.  And, worked in the edges is the sexual politics that comes with working as a female in soft-core pornography.

It's highly recommended, especially if you're fascinated by behind the scenes and movie making in general.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chopping Mall (1986): Robots vs Teenagers

Chopping Mall (1986)
dir: Jim Wynorski

"I'm just not used to being chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots." - Linda

Here at The Other Films, we have a long love affair with Mary Woronov.  From her start as a Factory Girl, with a part in Chelsea Girls, to her career with the Cormans, following up with her long pairing with Paul Bartel (whom we also love), and her late career moves in throwback films The House of the Devil and The Devil's Rejects, Woronov has always lit up the screen and elevated a b-movie above its current state.

Her best movie has always been Eating Raoul, where she and Paul Bartel play the Blands, a couple who seduces and murders swingers in order to attempt to fund their restaurant. Less known, however, is that the Blands make a cameo in the beginning of Chopping Mall, a B-movie about a bunch of teenagers getting killed by security guard robots after hours in a mall.  The Blands' cameo adds up to little more than harassing the presenter of the killer security guard robots, but it is a nice addition.  It also gives you the fantasy of a sequel that has killer robots roaming around a small country cottage restaurant, which, let's face it, we'd all watch the hell out of.

While this is a great example of cheesy 80s drive-in fare at its finest, Chopping Mall is most infamous for being one of the strongest examples of great 80s poster art that promised far more than it delivered.  Look at the example on the right.  With a name like Chopping Mall, with its bloody slasher logo treatment, and a severed pseudo-robotic hand with a bag full body parts that has a head peeking out of the bag, one might be inclined to think that there was some actual chopping to be done at this mall, perhaps by sexy lady cyborgs with long fingernails. But, instead of lady cyborgs with long fingernails, the robots are something like a Dalek had sex with Johnny 5, and then stole Geordi LaForge's glasses. And they don't chop, they shoot darts, electrocute, and sometimes make people's heads explode.  

Originally, Chopping Mall was titled Killbots, with completely different art that featured the actual robot, and looked more like an action science-fiction movie.  This art is more upfront about what the movie is, but if you saw that movie when you discover that the robots are essentially stand-ins for the slasher in your generic 80's horror movie stalking them through a mall, you'd probably be disappointed as well.  At least, with the Chopping Mall art, you know you're probably being lied to. Roger Corman suspected that the Killbots poster made the movie look like it was tied to Transformers and was actually a kid-friendly movie.  But, it was an R-rated sci-fi horror comedy, and the advertising didn't communicate that.

Chopping Mall is the usual fare of robots stalking and killing teenagers who hang get the keys to a mall department store to drink and have sex after hours.  There's nudity, sex, and explosions, and exploding heads, plus the Blands, all packed into 77 minutes.

There really isn't much to say about Chopping Mall beyond HOW AWESOME IT IS.  The virgins survive, everybody else dies, and really, Chopping Mall knows its delivering schlock on a high level. Every fan of cheesy sci-fi horror should watch this movie now.  I'm actively not commenting on anything because...why spoil the fun?  But, there is an interesting note here.  The director of this piece of awesome is Jim Wynorski, who is known to B-Movie aficionados for being a hugely prolific dealer of schlock containing frequent large exposed breasts.  In Chopping Mall there are large breasts on display, but there is also beefcake on display, sometimes past the point where it would seem the guy should put a shirt on.  So, Wynorski is an equal opportunity exploiter in this movie, which is more than you can say for some other films.

Jim Wynorski would go on do The Return of Swamp Thing, Dinosaur Island, and Munchies before the budgets for B-movies would dry up, and he would resort to doing soft-core Skinemax porno on the dirt cheap.  But, you'll find more about Jim Wynorski in tomorrow's review of Popatopolis, aka The Making of The Witches of Breastwick.  Meanwhile, go watch this pure piece of cheesetastic goodness that I'm purposely trying not to say anything about beyond robots killing teenagers in a mall.  Go watch.