Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Dr. Caligari (1989): Where Satire, Arthouse and New Wave collide

Dr. Caligari (1989)
dir: Stephen Sayadian

"I have beauty inside me. But, oh, when beauty is trapped, it gets ugly."

Picture this.  Burning Man.  2000.  Wandering around the festival, my friend and I stop in at a tent that was something like Bad Movie Camp. They were showing terrible movies all night.  Wandering around, half crazed because you've just been fried all day, and are now freezing your ass off, you stumble upon this tent, showing a movie you've never heard of, or seen a trailer for. This movie is surreal and bizarre and hilarious and fascinating.  It is in a grotesque toxic dayglo neon color scheme, with stilted, dramatic acting. Suddenly, they bring out a cake, and cut into it, and it has a pulsing blood thing.  Next thing you know, out comes Fox Harris in a Marilyn Monroe wig demanding to be called Babs.  And...yeah...I was hooked.  This totally-blitzed-out-of-your-mind, not-knowing-what-you're-watching mode is the best way to see this movie.


Rent it now.  Buy it from the porn website Excalibur films (which is the only way to buy the DVD).  Watch it before you  read the next sentence.  This may excite you in ways you have no idea you have ever had.

But, since you're here, I might as well tell you why this movie is so good, and why you should look into it.

Yes, this was my first venture into the world of Stephen Sayadian and his pseudonym Rinse Dream. And, also my first venture into the world of Jerry Stahl (you know, other than ALF).  Stephen Sayadian, as Rinse Dream, was a hit in the world of hardcore Gonzo porn.  Gonzo porn?!  Yes, gonzo porn.  His most successful film, including Dr. Caligari, was a sci-fi porn apocalypse flick called Cafe Flesh.  Unlike more porns, this actually had acting and a semblance of a thought out plot.  The titular Cafe was the result of a deadly accident that had severely hobbled the world, and made sex fatal for 95% of the population.  The remaining 5% were instructed to put on elaborate sex shows for an audience.  And, the elaborate sex shows include a guy dressed as a #2 pencil having sex with a woman while another naked woman is using a steno writing machine while repeating "Do you want me to type a memo?"  A different sex scene was sampled by White Zombie for the opening of More Human Than Human.

Sayadian and Stahl had first started working together on the gonzo porno Nightdreams, which had a woman who was oversexualized being locked up in a mental institution and having her dreams monitored.  This led to all kinds of weird surrealistic scenes which include a talking fish, and phallic masks.  The movie is best remembered for the scene where a woman fellates a box of Cream of Wheat while a piece of toasted Wonder Bread plays the saxaphone in the background.  No, it exists and is on the internet (NSFW, but not a porn blog).

But, I didn't know any of this at the time.  All I knew was this movie, which I found out was called Dr Caligari, was amazing.  I had to see it on my own.  And, I found it.  And, it was good.

Dr Caligari, like Nightdreams, is about a woman, Mrs. Van Houten, who is oversexualized and is forced into an institution for having an overstimulated libido which leads her to have overly symbolic hallucinations.  These hallucinations include making out with a giant flesh wall, baby masked guys in bubble baths with razors, or pulsating, bleeding sores that sprout up on her body.  She is committed to Caligari's Insane Asylum by her politician husband, who isn't even trying to have sex with her.

The CIA is filled with other freaky sex types, most notably John Durbin as a child molesting murderer.  Dr Caligari, the granddaughter of the Dr Caligari from the German expressionist classic, is doing weird experiments on her patients.  The other doctors, a family headed by Fox Harris, are planning a coup because of it.  But, before they can overthrow Caligari, she instutes a variety of brain transplants, which leave Fox Harris as a sex pot wanting to be called Babs, John Durbin as an effeminate bitch, and Mrs Van Houten as an oversexed criminal.

All of this is almost secondary to the experience of just plain watching Dr Caligari, which is like a surreal nightmare dreamed up at some intersection of Forbidden Zone, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Eraserhead, and 1980's New Wave love of neon and sex.  The sets are all German experessionist pointy and shadowed and representational. The acting is straight out of some weird sleazy European art film. The reality is as surreal as Dali or Lynch.  And, the plot is as political as it can get without being overt.

No, really.  Political?  A movie which has a woman getting her hand melted by a scarecrow's pants, and then anally raping her husband is political?  I mean just that sentence is political.

In American society, women are supposed to be asexual.  Women aren't supposed to have overstrung libidos.  They get called sluts and whores.  Even today, promiscuous women are still punished for their desire to have sex. And, in the world of Dr. Caligari, women are locked up by men for their overt desire for sex. Les Van Houten, Mrs. Van Houten's wife (who doesn't even get a first name in the credits), is a politician who worries she is having an episode, when all she wants is a bit of shagging. And, when he first calls Dr Caligari, she first starts drilling him on the sex that Mrs. Van Houten is actually getting, asking for number of orgasms and whether they're "clitoral or vag."  But, Dr Caligari accedes to the commitment anyways.

Later, Mrs. Van Houten's libido is transplanted with a murderer's impulses, because to be violent is better than to be horny. And, Dr Caligari is also playing with identity and agency in her own self.  She's wearing a yellow dress with giant metal balls as cups.  I'm sure it isn't a coincidence that this look would kind of be appropriated by Peaches in Peaches Does Herself.  It's a take on the tits as bullets, and almost as a warrior statement. Dr. Caligari is a woman who is ruling her sex and her life.  She's also seen getting cunnilingus from a patient.

The world of Dr. Caligari is completely against the sex negative culture of the United States. It mocks the point that we're restricting sex to those who are in control of it.  We don't know why Les Van Houten isn't giving Mrs. Van Houten the ol' in-out, but in the world at large, nobody cares.  Wanting sex is bad, and it is his wife that's at fault. But, luckily, Sayadian gives Les his just desserts in the end, by way of his wife.

The movie is Cult.  And, I mean Cult.  The only reason I found it on DVD was because I discovered somewhere that the producer was an owner of Excalibur Films, which does hardcore porno, and was distributing it on the DL exclusively through there.  They were also putting out Nightdreams, which I also highly recommend pairing as a two-set.  You won't find them that erotic, so don't prepare for a night of unable to control yourself handsiness.  But, they are intriguing in their satire of the world they were made in.

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