Saturday, November 30, 2013

I, A Man (1967): Women and sex

I, a Man (1967)
dir: Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey

While Warhol's Factory spelled the inevitable downfall of Cafe Cino, his production of film could be stood up against Andy Milligan's films. At the time of I, A Man, Milligan was making his first round of exploitation cheapies. In 1967 alone, Milligan directed The Promiscuous Sex, The Degenerates, Depraved!, Compass Rose, The Naked Witch, and The Gay Life.

Obviously, Milligan was going the straight up exploitation route, while Warhol and Morrissey were going the course of the art house. Though, later, Morrissey would make exploitative art house. I, A Man is Morrissey and Warhol's commercial take on the Swedish I, A Woman. Somebody suggested to Warhol that they wanted a sexploitation film in the vein of I, A Woman, and so he and Morrissey concocted I, A Man. They created the story of this male hustler who talks with and sleeps with a series of women over the course of the film.

The women are: a young woman who worries about parental acceptance of her sexuality, a woman who is on a couch, a woman with whom he does a seance, a woman who speaks French, a lesbian, and a married woman. Almost of these scenes seem to be totally improvised and just so bored.

Except, the most interesting part about I, A Man is also the most interesting scene of I, A Man. The second to last woman of the movie is Valerie Solanas, the subject of I Shot Andy Warhol, who would eventually shoot Warhol over whatever reasons you want to believe. In all the other scenes, the women may have some mild sexual agency, but they also possess this passivity that they think men desire of them. Morrissey does desire that of his females. But, then there is Solanas, whom Warhol had been fascinated with.

Solanas' role as a lesbian who loves squeezing the guy's ass is straight up arresting. She's taking control of the situation, and for once Tom Baker, the hustler, actually is acting in a passive vulnerable nature. She's squeezing his ass and asking how he keeps it so squishy. Valerie is telling him that she'd fuck him in the hall, but there was no way they were going to her room to fuck because her "roommate" (code for lesbian partner) was actually sleeping. This scene where Solanas takes charge and intimidates Tom Baker really is the stand-out of the movie simply because it is also the most different in terms of energy and female agency.

In the opening scene, the girl is trying to kick Baker out, but doesn't really succeed. In the final scene, Baker is pretty much controlling the conversation try as the married woman might to control it. And, then there is the goddamned seance where the woman undergoes fake hypnosis and starts chanting bullshit at Baker's insistence. Ridiculous and silly. But, Solanas doesn't let Baker get away with any kind of shit.

Which brings us back to Morrissey. He was fond of saying that he made movies in which he let people be who they are. He also said that he would find the people in his movies, and while they became Warhol's Superstars, he claims to have found them. Except for Solanas, who stumbled into the Factory on her own. The ideal women of Morrissey's films were all radically feminine. It's also why he loved having drag queens in his movies. But, his women were the opposite of the feminist dyke that Solanas represented.

The thing with Morrissey's films, especially compared to Andy Milligan's films, is that Morrissey actually takes a distance from his subjects. He doesn't really know his characters much. He doesn't care to know them. He likes them, finds them interesting, but he doesn't think they're all that abhorrent. His camera is neutral. He's content to let everybody be who they were. It achieves a more naturalistic feel to the movie, but it is all about surface. There is hardly anything in I, A Man that provokes any kind of true analysis of society or sexuality. Maybe there is something in the sexual dynamics of the married woman to the hustler, but whatever it is is very light. But, then there is Solanas' scene filled with the radical politics that Solanas interjected, and Morrissey couldn't care about. In the end, I, A Man is hardly worth your time unless you like watching bored women talk with a bored hustler and then fuck him.

Be aware: this film also makes use of a flickering edit that also uses a rewind track and makes use of subliminal 1-2 frame edits of closeups. It is subliminal and semi-interesting, and will be used in movies far down the road.

Friday, November 29, 2013

My Hustler (1966): I am a Meat Popsicle

My Hustler (1966)
dir: Andy Warhol
uncredited: Paul Morrissey

It's been said that My Hustler was Paul Morrissey's first bout of participation with Warhol's Factory, and it marks the departure of the Factory films from static images that are better as ideas to more narrative films. Paul Morrissey would say that he was responsible for My Hustler, and had to teach Andy Warhol how to move the camera. Of course, Paul Morrissey is a raving narcissist, but then so was Andy Warhol.

My Hustler was made in 1965, before Chelsea Girls, but released after that movie. The release of My Hustler shows more of a movement towards character studies and fascination with bodies compared to emotions and subjects. Before Paul Morrissey, Warhol's films were generally static shots of the subjects, like a close-up of the face of a man getting a blow job, or a multi-hour shot of the Empire State Building. Later, we started getting snap shots of personalities.

My Hustler is a character study of four people. At a beach house, an aging queen hires a blond hustler for his own pleasure. While the hustler is sunbathing, the queen's two neighbors - a rich young straight girl and an aging hustler - stop by to try to scheme on who will be getting the hustler in bed.  The first half of My Hustler is a 32 minute reel mainly leering on the body of the hustler sunbathing while the other three people talk about the hustler as a piece of meat. The second half is the aging hustler finding out that the young meat isn't really a hustler, and talking him into the hustling game; and then the aging queen tries to talk him into being his boytoy, and then the young girl tries to get him to live with her.

Originally, I had I, A Man in my Friday slot, but I moved it to a special Saturday post as I found My Hustler to be far more fascinating than I, A Man, for the pure fact that My Hustler completely objectifies a male of questionable sexuality. Paul America, the hustler in question, has maybe 3 lines in the whole first half of the 64 minute movie, but is always the object of desire. The camera is purely the gaze of the people who are desiring him.

Laura Mulvey, in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which I had brought up in my earlier essay of narrative with Vertigo, wrote about how the camera is inherently the straight male gaze, mainly because the director is usually a straight male (especially at the time she wrote that essay). She was wrong of course, in that the sometimes the camera takes on the personality of the characters, or has a more complex relationship to the audience. But, with that essay, Mulvey started to define how the camera retains the gaze of whomever is behind it. In the case of My Hustler, it turns out to be a gay male. But, I've noted in several other film reviews on this site, the camera has retained the desires of the director, man or woman, straight or gay.

If you'll indulge a bit of a detour, the works of David DeCoteau completely embodies how the camera retains the desires of the director and/or the intended audience. In DeCoteau's earlier works, like Sorority Babes at the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama or Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000, both the closeted DeCoteau and his intended audience cause the camera to act like leering straight men who objectify the female body. But, in DeCoteau's later works, like The Brotherhood, or the 1313 series, or even A Talking Cat?!?, the camera operates as a gay male viewer, lingering over and objectifying the bodies of the young muscular men in their underwear.  Similarly, lesbian cinema like Go Fish or High Art, made by lesbians and for lesbians, objectifies the female body in a way appreciated by women who lust after women rather than in a manner that is completely pleasing for men.

Of course, most of this intellectualization was all underground when Mulvey was writing Visual Pleasure. Besides, the whole purpose of the essay was to start a conversation about the proliferation of male directors and female objectification. This desire to objectify the female body is still common in movies made by straight men for straight men. Last Vegas, for instance, offers primarily female bodies to ogle. Only occasionally is young nubile male flesh offered as objects for the audience to ogle. That young male flesh is in the pool party in Last Vegas where the old men participate in judging a wet t-shirt contest while the mainly male crowd cheers them on.

As far back as James Whale, the camera has always been complicated by who is behind the camera. My Hustler, especially the first half, acts as a sort of thesis about how the sexuality and gender of the characters doing the visualizing, and also the sexuality and gender of the director, are key to the behavior of the camera and how it views the world. In the first reel of My Hustler, we're subjected to the camera swinging between the holders of the conversation - that of two gay men and a straight woman - and the object of their desire, Paul America. As such, the audience feels they are watching a young male, who may or may not be straight, be talked about as if he was just a young, dumb, hunk of meat.

In turn, the conversation is only that. The aging queen who owns the beach house, and also claims to have invited Paul America through a "Dial-A-Hustler" phone line, mainly bitches about how he invited Paul to the beach house, and he deserves to fuck Paul. The young girl insists that she has the goods that Paul wants. The older hustler goads the aging queen by insinuating that he's fucked Paul in the past, and that he might know Paul through the hustler channels. But, they never really talk about Paul's true desires or his life. He's just an object of their desire. Only the young female interacts with Paul in a way that doesn't call his sexuality to attention.

In turn, Paul only can be the object of desire. By not even giving him any lines, Morrissey and Warhol neuter any agency that Paul has in the film. Paul becomes the object of lust to the audience in the film, the director, the camera, and the audience of the film. He is the piece of meat everybody desires. However, in alignment with Hitchcock's Vertigo, much like Madeline, Paul actually has the agency to be the object of lust. Paul knows that he's being lusted after. In the opening, Paul is being reprimanded that he did not arrive dressed in leather because he is wanted for more S&M practices. Consequently, he is essentially instructed to go suntan on the beach while the aging queen watches. Then while the young girl watches when she comes over. And, finally he knows the aging hustler is watching because the hustler first interacts with Paul and gets called back by the aging queen. We are not objectifying a reluctant object. Paul isn't unhappy with being objectified. Instead, he knows that he is the object and is willing to be the object to please the customer.

The dialogue and acting in the first half is about as casually degrading as it can get regarding Paul. It's about his dick size, his status as a top/bottom, his virginity, his past, etc etc But, the second half gives Paul agency as well by being the active subject of desire.

The second half, as mentioned earlier, is a static shot of, primarily, the two hustlers grooming and talking in the bathroom. The aging hustler is trying to talk the younger hustler into going into prostitution, and also taking a role as the aging hustler's protege. This line of conversation is plausible because Paul is being coy by claiming that he wasn't bought by the aging queen. during the course of the conversation, the aging hustler is telling Paul that Paul has the body to be a hustler, and can actually make a living off his body. It's half a ruse for the aging hustler to get Paul into his bed free of charge, and half a discussion about how johns are good only to fill in their pockets. It's also about the happiness and freedom of living life as a hustler, and being able to make bank off your looks while you have them. Because, really, if you can you should.

The hustlers are mainly shirtless in this reel, though we get glimpses of their asses, and a brief couple shots of the aging hustler's genitalia. But, the camera is all about the leering shots of these two glimpses of the hustlers grooming, and the aging one occasionally pawing Paul. Sometimes he'll just pet, and at one point he rubs Noxzema into Paul's back, saying it is good for the skin, even though it is mainly an excuse for the aging hustler to rub Paul's back.

At the end of this half, the aging queen comes back and desperately tries to get Paul to be his boytoy in the future, promising him cars, trips to Europe, the allowance of having girlfriends, and money. It's such a desperate ploy for this straight body, it almost reads as self-deprecating. And, it is self-depricating and desperate even though boy toys are also status symbols in the gay world. This is a trait as old as time. It is the gay version of having a trophy husband, only without he legalities. Think Behind the Candlabra. Finally, in the last couple of minutes, the young rich girl also makes a last minute pitch to get Paul in her bed long term, but that's practically a non-starter, as it is barely pitched and runs into repetition before her less than 4 minute segment is even finished.

What makes this far more fascinating than I, A Man is that there is gay agency in My Hustler. In My Hustler, there is active objectification of the male body, there is female agency, and there is even competition for the object of desire. While the camera definitely lingers on Tom Baker's body on occasion in I, A Man, it is primarily about objectification of everybody, and how almost everybody on Earth is an object of desire to everybody else. On the other hand, My Hustler implies that there are definite power structures in sex, and that they are all upturned by hustlers. Even the discussions of S&M activities and macho activities are all implying that there are definite power structures at play with money and experience having far more agency than the younger non-experienced hustler.

The appeal of the film is definitely related to how much the idea of 2 long takes of people objectifying another human being in desperate attempts to find connection, sex and love appeals to you. To me, it was fascinating in multiple fashions, obviously. But, it definitely tests your patience.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Chelsea Girls (1966): Happenings are commodified

Double Woronov = Double Fun
Chelsea Girls (1966)
dir: Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey

It's nearly impossible to review Chelsea Girls from 47 years in the future. After 47 years, there have been movies that have ripped off Chelsea Girls, used techniques that it used, and imitated many of it's semi-faux-verite arthouse style.

On the other hand, it seems like a copy of the type of cinematic underground experimental work that other dadaists and surrealists like Salvador Dali had been doing for years. From almost 50 years later, Chelsea Girls almost seems like it is the commercialization of the happenings. It seems like its goal is to bring the progressive drug culture to the masses.

It is impossible to discuss Chelsea Girls without discussing Andy Warhol or Paul Morrissey. Chelsea Girls is Andy Warhol's cinematic keystone, though Paul Morrissey says Warhol's participation was negligible. Regardless of who is most responsible for Chelsea Girls, Warhol's name is on it both as director and producer. And, Chelsea Girls is almost Warhol's thesis. It feels as artificial as Warhol ever felt. Which can be the point of Warhol.

Chelsea Girls is 12 different videos, each about 35-minutes, run through side-by-side projectors. The sound would be flipped from side to side, and rumor has it that it once had Velvet Underground playing at times as well. All of the videos are stagings starring Warhol's superstars, most notably Pope Ondine and Mary Woronov (*swoon*).

The first video starts on the right, and is Nico (yes, that Nico) in a kitchen. The first video on the left is Pope Ondine with some woman who isn't enthused about him.

The second video on the left is a drag queen named Brigid holding court, where she rants about drugs, injects speed, and generally abuses everybody around her. The second on the left is Boys in a Bed, where two guys, an older guy in a bathrobe and a younger guy in his briefs, lounge on a bed as they're visited by women and men, who play with the younger boytoy.

The third on the right is Hanoi Hannah (Mary Woronov) abusing her friends in a faux-Vietnam POW camp style rant. The third on the left is Hanoi Hannah with the same friends in the same clothes on the right, but also a couple more people.

The fourth on the right is the boys in the bed getting serenaded by a drag queen, then being visited by more people. The fourth on the left is some woman yelling, and beating a bed with a riding crop while a young guy and a young girl look on.

The fifth on the right is an actor who looks like he just took LSD. The fifth on the left is just the cast standing around having random colored lights shone on them for 35 minutes.

The sixth on the right is Pope Ondine giving a speed-fueled rant. The sixth on the left is Nico getting the colored light treatment.

This isn't a random assortment of videos. Nico starts out grooming on the right, and ends up being glorified on the left. The boy toy scene flip flops from left to right. Brigid is analogous to the yelling woman. And, Hannoi Hannah is on both sides at once. The fifth pair is like having a shitty happening right in front of you.

All in all, it just feels soooooo...obvious. While it is interesting to see if you're watching where the voices are, or where there is more action, or where there is boy nudity, or if you're just listening, it doesn't really add up to much at all. Sure, Hannoi Hannah is an obvious silly play about war. The S&M, drugs, and homosexuality is all there because it was all so shocking back in the day. It's like the most commercial version of selling everything that was happening in certain circles at the time.

Which brings us back to Andy Warhol. It's arguable that his pop art and the Factory were largely influential, especially in the commercialization and popularization (leading to the commodificiation) of the rebellious art scene. But, he was almost commodifying commodification in the most basic obvious sense one can imagine. It can be impressive in large, but it all adds up to little.

And, that's what Chelsea Girls feels like. It feels like Andy Warhol calling to the people who may find it interesting but haven't seen what has really been going on, even though Dali was featured in Life and other sorts of magazines. It's the artistic underground movie that is engineered for the artistic underground crowd. And, it feels as artificial, or as Authentic, as Andy Warhol's art ever did.

I could dive into the meanings of everything a bit more, but that feels almost like it would be giving Chelsea Girls too much credit. At least more credit than it is due. Hell, to me, 1968's Head feels more authentic because its artifice is put up front and center because it stars The Monkees. Take that for what you will.

Add in that Paul Morrissey currently denies that any of his films were political. Currently, Morrissey is playing as a staunch Republican religious conservative who is railing against liberals in all standard senses. And, he says that all of his movies are just silly pieces of work that were meant to entertain. Whether he is actually a conservative, or if he is actually pulling an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt of trolling matters not. He's both right and wrong. The movies are silly pieces of art that are meant to reflect the detritus within the sprocket holes, but they aren't created in a vacuum. In doing research for upcoming review of The Point!, I discovered that Nilsson makes the assertion that everything has a point, even when it doesn't. That meaning applies as much to Chelsea Girls as it applies to any other movie you can think of. Still, Chelsea Girls doesn't add up to much.

Ed's Note: Be aware of the Italian Roma disc. There have been comments that it wasn't produced by the Andy Warhol foundation. It features a 24 minute section of pure silence, where there isn't even the sound of open air. They say you should at least play some Velvet Underground during that section. It may help.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973): I Hate New Yorkers

Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973)
dir: Andy Milligan

In 1973, Andy Milligan would direct his last X-rated sexploitation feature, Fleshpot on 42nd Street. This swan song to the genre is, like any of Milligan's other movies, less about the tawdry and more about the people. And, like any of Milligan's other movies, almost all of these people are assholes, bitches, jerks, dicks, and otherwise people who you should be hating but find yourself to be kind of loving.

Fleshpot on 42nd Street, more than any other Milligan movie, is a sour ode to the New York of old. The New York which was completely populated by trannies, junkies, hookers, pimps, and deviant corrupt businessmen. The New York surrounded by the school of hard knocks, and the people who hustle to get by. This isn't the sanitized, expensive, Manhattan that is currently pushed as the norm full of bright lights and show business. This is the New York where everybody is out for themselves.

At the center is Dusty, a hustler from frame one. We're introduced to her as she's sitting on a chair in a dirty filthy apartment. The guy with whom she's been living is pissed because she doesn't work, pay rent, cook, or clean. The only thing she can do is fuck. And, she counters that she's been paying plenty with her ass.  They fight, fuck, and then he's happy and goes to work. As soon as he's gone, Dusty robs the guy's place and hawks his goods at the pawn shop, where she also fucks and robs the married pawn dealer.

After this savory setup, we meet up with the sour soulless heart of the film, Cherry, a somewhat chubby, older, drag queen with a tongue sharp enough to cut hair. Cherry also hooks to make a living. Upon arriving at Cherry's place, Dusty takes a trick from Cherry. The trick likes it rough, and proceeds to whip her with a belt. After fucking the S&M trick, Dusty and Cherry go to a bar to drink, and have catty shouting matches with a couple of catty broads, the Simmons Sisters. Eventually, Dustyhooks up with a nice guy, who romances the shit out of her. Dusty falls in love. There is no happy ending.

While this movie did originally exist in softcore and hardcore formats (and is currently only available in the softcore with all of the sex scenes cut short), Milligan is far more interested in showing just how hard and shitty people are. As usual. At one point, Dusty is talking about her pimp boyfriend who has been sent up the clink for five years, and laments how he was a really good pimp. Or, when Dusty picks up a trick, Cherry leers on with admiration as she works faster than you could smoke a cigarette.  Later, Cherry shows her prowess by working a guy with the same amount of speed. Cherry follows the guy to his truck, and things go well until he pushes off his wig and almost beats her.

This isn't a happy-go-lucky porno. This isn't Deep Throat where it could ostensibly be about pleasure, or Behind the Green Door where the sex is performed for high class people in exotic situations. The sex in Fleshpot is barely even about anybody's pleasure. The sex in the softcore version makes the sex seem even more like a necessity than something that either party wants. Dusty is doing it for the money. The johns are doing it to get off, and don't care what they stick it in. Fleshpot provides a lusciously unsavory and unerotic portrait of an era now past in New York.

Milligan's neuroses are on full display in Fleshpot too. His hatred for women, and for men who act like women are at the forefront...again. Dusty is a manipulative thieving bitch. Cherry is a catty good-for-nothing drag queen who will stab you in the back for no good reason. The Simmons Sisters...well...all they do is bitch. But, most of the men fare no better. The first john is an easily-duped-by-pussy moron who gets his ass robbed because he dared suggest somebody clean. The other johns are largely violent and almost psychopathic. The only one who seems any good doesn't have things turn out well for him.  This is Milligan shitting on the world in which he lives. In both Butchers and Werewolves, Milligan had escaped to Britain to create period pieces that hid his world, but in Fleshpot it is in full on display.

Even without the hardcore scenes, Fleshpot is a definite watch. The dichotomy between the sex scenes and the drama is jarring at best as it is. Suddenly, the cliche 70s porn flute kicks in, which then changes to dramatic music as the sex goes violent. It's a jagged pill to swallow as it is, and with hardcore sex thrown in, it may even rip your throat out as you try to figure out what Milligan is doing. And, it's fascinating but soul-searing to be inside one man's sour little world for 80 minutes.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972): Family is Toxic

The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972)
dir: Andy Milligan

Andy Milligan's origin in directing abusive plays is on full display in this gothic play-posing-as-a-movie where the horror is other people.

With a title like The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!, one would be forgiven for thinking this was actually a movie about either rats or werewolves. In actuality, the rats make a fleeting appearance, and the werewolves only exist in the finale. What the movie is actually about is the damages that a family can do to each other regardless of role in the family.

The film is actually about the interpersonal dynamics of the Mooney family, a family of semi-werewolves where the werewolf trait is genetic and varies from character to character. The main thrust of the film is how the dynamics are disrupted when the youngest daughter, Diana, returns to her family's estate with a new husband in tow. She had been away to medical university to study medicine so she could develop a cure for her father's deadly disease.

Diana's older sister, Monica, is a crazy psychotic mean bitch of a woman who incessantly taunts and abuses her brother Malcolm, who is kept chained up due to his status as a permanent half-werewolf with animalistic tendencies. Her mother, Phoebe, is hiding secrets from everybody, and trying to keep relative peace in the family so that the father doesn't die. Then there is Mortimer who is an older brother who is treated like a butler, and also may be having an affair with Phoebe, his mother.

What this movie lacks in supernatural tendencies, it makes up in soap opera cruelty. Monica pours hot wax on Malcolm for the hell of it. She burns Diana's clothing. Monica buys rats from an animal dealer, pointlessly tortures them, gets bitten, then tries to return them. When the animal dealer won't return her money, she burns his store down. Meanwhile, Phoebe's reveal is that Diana actually isn't her daughter, but the daughter of Pa's second wife who was poisoned shortly after birth.

The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! opens with a shot of a group of people mindlessly torturing what looks like a retarded boy. That boy is Malcolm who is quickly rescued by his family only to be immediately tortured by them. It's better to be tortured by family, because it is inevitable. This sets the tone for the whole movie. The whole movie is about people mindlessly abusing themselves and each other. They're being burned with crucifixes, taunted with food, and throwing fights about everything. The majority of the dialogue is a fast-delivered screaming match about the shittiness families can do to each other.

Milligan's movies are frequently views into the soul of a damaged man. His movies are as cruel and abusive as he could be. He has a very misanthropic viewpoint that everybody is terrible, even if they post as "good people." Milligan, however, holds special abuse for women, believing that they have a special capacity for cruelty, deviance and manipulation.

Andy came from a troubled family, and it comes through loud and clear in this movie. His mother was emotionally abusive and his father was an alcoholic. He blamed his mother for his father's behavior. All of this is easily read in The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!, but whether or not this knowledge adds to the movie is completely debatable. To me, the movie stands up on its own as an incisive view into a dysfunctional family. This type of family dynamic, with comedic abuse and ancient secrets, will be exploited for comedic effect in this Christmas' August: Osage County. And, of course, both of these films owe a significant debt to Tennessee Williams' southern gothic family portrait plays. Though, few of the gothic family plays are as cruel as they are when depicted by Andy Milligan.

Is it good? Well...that depends on your tolerance for no budget filmmaking by somebody who worked better without a camera. The acting is on a level of early John Waters, and there is very little humor in the movie to get you through the shouting and the amateurish camera work. But, once you get past the student film aesthetic there is something that is undeniably pulsing about the content in this film. You just have to have a black soul to find it.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970): The beginning of the reclaiming of Sweeney Todd

Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970)
dir: Andy Milligan

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is actually an older story than most realize. Sweeney first appeared in a "penny dreadful" serial from 1846-1847 titled The String of Pearls. The famous operetta version by Stephen Sondheim, which revamped the story from being a horror story with a dastardly villain into a revenge story about an anti-hero, wouldn't make its appearance until 1979.

But, in 1970, Andy Milligan created Bloodthirsty Butchers, an exploitation version out of the sordid and cruel little tale of chopping up people and serving them as meals. Of course, Milligan's version is more Milligan than it is the penny dreadful. Milligan's version has enough sex and violence to retain the R-rating, but it ultimately focuses more on the sex and less on the pure and utter violence of the story. What sex, you may ask?

Well, Milligan's sordid London underworld is chock full of sleazy people who are fucking everybody they want. Sweeney Todd is screwing every woman on the block, several of the women are already married and cheating on their husbands, their husbands, in turn, seem to be cheating with other women, and it becomes angry hornet's nest of soapy sexual connections with hardly a moral or narrative center to the drama. Everybody is screaming at each other how one person disappoints the other, or how one girl isn't really putting out like she used to. A stage girl complains about her costumes. Nobody is happy.

With Bloodthirsty Butchers, The Other Films comes to the world of Andy Milligan. Milligan is an underground almost untalented filmmaker who had no idea on how to make a movie, but every idea on how shitty people are. He made movies for $10-12k each, on equipment nobody should have been working on, with actors who had little time to rehearse, making his own costumes, doing everything on the fly, and generally making crude movies that had no real mark on the world.

But, his movies do have a certain something that will appeal to those who can get past the amateur filmmaking, and cheap-as-fuck aesthetic. The screenplays are all originally undeniably Milligan. They have the hallmarks of Sartre's old saying, "Hell is other people." Everybody is out for themselves, and Milligan is too. He doesn't pass judgement on anybody so much as he's putting it out there that everybody is shit, and he's right there with them.

Milligan is a true misanthrope, and Bloodthirsty Butchers puts it on full display. Sweeney Todd is the perfect vehicle for it too. It's a sordid tale where there are no heroes, nor any real villains. The String of Pearls was never the Sondheim version, where Sweeney Todd is back to get revenge and rescue his daughter from a corrupt judge. Sweeney Todd started his life as a murderer with Mrs Lovett as his accomplice. With the only close to humane people being Johanna, who was the girlfriend to a victim of Sweeney's, and her boyfriend, Milligan is free to fill in the blanks with deviant sexuality, cheating, and general assholery.

Which makes Bloodthirsty Butchers even more compelling than what it should be. As it is pre-Sondheim, this is a far different Sweeney than most people now are used to. The story had been quiet in the adaptation realm for years, when Milligan unearthed it to re-adapt it. Bloodthirsty Butchers is also darkly sardonic and cruel, but never a comedy. It's a horror of the soul, as most of Milligan's scuzzy underworld movies are. There are no real heroes in Milligan's works. And, there is no real great ending in his movies. Which is why Bloodthirsty Butchers, bringing you a familiar story told as a period piece is a great introduction to the work of Andy Milligan.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Branded (2012): Marketing is Brainwashing and other revolutionary ideas

Branded (2012)
dir: Jamie Bradshaw, Aleksandr Dulerayn

What. The. Fuck?!

This is a movie that opens with our main character being struck with a lightning bolt. The middle has a bloody ritual sacrifice. And it ends with a constellation cow.

I am completely sure that, based on those three scenes, my reader has no idea that this is actually about the damage that advertising does to society. Thus is the insanity of Branded.

Branded primarily intends to use existential absurdity as a primal scream against the cultural domination and omnipresence of marketing and advertising filling in every space that we look. Branded wants to be a crisis moment against the use advertising in EVERYTHING, like children's films as in yesterday's Foodfight!

On the other hand, Branded also frequently seems like a movie made by a paranoid schizophrenic. Or, at least that seems to be its intent. As a result, of this split personality, Branded is singularly batshit insane.

The first half of Branded is about a guy who had been struck by lightning to become a marketing executive. He is controlled by a council of high level people (including Max Von Sydow from The Virgin Spring) who want to make Fat People popular due to flagging interest in fast food. So, the marketing guru's show about extreme plastic surgery actually ends with a fat chick dying under the knife, sparking a reactionary fat phenomenon, and the guru goes into exile.

In exile, the guru crafts an ancient bloody sacrifice, which allows him to see the effects marketing has on seeing the brands as large scary inflatable creatures growing out of people. Then, he makes a large business by creating stronger brands, and having real world Transformers-level fights between icons and brands, waiting for the last brand to survive. And, it has all been controlled by a giant constellation cow.

No, I am not hallucinating this. And, yeah, I'm actually removing some of the even crazier details of the movie to make it seem at least semi-sane. Where Foodfight! is a terrible misanthropic acid-trip nightmare of ugly nonsense, Branded is a crazy misanthropic acid-trip nightmare of well-rendered nonsense. Foodfight! wants to hook kids on branding and iconography. Branded is warning people about how they're being controlled. Foodfight! is aimed straight towards the people who are easily duped, and it fails miserably. Branded is warning anybody who will listen, and fails spectacularly.

Branded is required viewing in the world of insanity gone wild. And, it is also a star-studded affair. The main guy is Ed Stoppard, son of Tom Stoppard. It also stars Leelee Sobieski, Jeffrey Tambor, and Max Von Sydow. It has visual interest beyond most low-budget means. It is a product of love and determination, and it's goals are admirable. If only it wasn't so fucking crazy.

Also, I'm not saying "if only it weren't so fucking crazy" lightly. This movie is fucking batshit. It takes left turns every 5 minutes, and I didn't even add in the forbidden love story between Stoppard and Sobieski. It's just one left turn followed by another, and by the end, you're left holding your head just wondering what it all means.

In that sense, Branded fails at being a warning siren against marketing. It's too crazy to take seriously, though it is trying to have a serious point. I think. Maybe it is being a satire of people who say that marketing is a conspiracy theory. But, it doesn't work on that level as it seems almost earnest about it. Maybe it is trying to be an ironic Foodfight! by saying that anybody who thinks marketing is evil and controls the world is this fucking nuts.

In any of the ways to watch this movie, Branded is pure mind-bending semi-irony awesome. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Foodfight! (2012): $65m down the drain

Foodfight! (2012)
dir: Larry Kassenoff

Sometimes there are no words to describe a movie. Sometimes there are too many. Sometimes I'm not sure if there are too many or too few, and all of the words want to come out at once while also staying in my brain.

Foodfight! is my new favorite awful, awful, terrible movie where everything that could ever go wrong does in every possible way. This is a movie that cost 65 million dollars. This is an animated movie that has Charlie Sheen, Eva Longoria, Hillary Duff, and Wayne Brady as the lead voices. This is a movie that took 9 years to make. Foodfight! is a movie that is border incomprehensible, is ugly beyond words, inappropriate beyond measure, and is only appropriate for watching while drinking with your jaw agog and your eyes bulging out as you get a headache from the visuals that look like a acid-induced nightmare. And, I think that sentence is being polite.

Foodfight! wants to ride the coattails of Toy Story, but instead of animating beloved toys, it would animate the marketing icons everybody tolerates into a heroic story against the generic brands, while also reminding you that prunes are icky. But, Foodfight! fails in every way shape and form. All of the real world brands are delegated to background characters, while incomprehensible original icons are given the jucier roles. The new icons are some cereal-selling dog that looks like McGruff the Crime Dog, a chocolate-hawking squirrel that is suffering from some disease that makes its cheeks look like testicles, and some raisin saleschick who is also part cat who looks like she's straight out of Yiffy porn. These characters are voiced by Charlie Sheen, Wayne Brady and Hillary Duff, respectively.

Sunshine Goodness, the yiffy kitty is introduced as the interspecies love interest of McGruff, who is the crime-fighting detective of this grocery store icon subworld. Just as McGruff is about to propose to the kitty, she disappears. 6 months later a generic Brand X is introduced into the supermarket by a stupidly distorted madman voiced by Christopher Lloyd. Brand X, despite being generic with a black box, has a blisteringly hot female spokeswoman icon for some reason I haven't figured out. This woman spends her time dressing like Britney Spears or Jessica Rabbit with the intent of seducing a dog and a squirrel.

Of course, Brand X just wants to be the only brand on the shelf, and is slowly killing all of the other icons, who are also the lifesource of their products. In walks the Nazi iconography and even more inappropriate sexual imagery (see above). Since this is a family film, McGruff and pals figure out Brand X's plan, and foils it with a...terrible foodfight.  But, the twist is that the hot Brand X spokeswoman is actually an ugly fat spokeswoman for prunes which had been discontinued for not selling well. After the rejection, the ugly fat spokeswoman went to Brazil for plastic surgery and is now out for revenge. And, the audience goes...HUH?!

No, really...there was a brand of prunes which had been cancelled that had a zit-covered fat lady as their spokeswoman. Who went to Brazil to become a spokeswoman for Brand X.  Huh?

Obviously, this plot is already on notice for being so fucking brain damaged that it hurts. But, that's only the beginning.

The movie, for costing $65m, at times looks like it was made for the Sega Saturn. Or, maybe just the Genesis. Look at the frightening image to the right. If that rendering of an average shopper doesn't scare the living shit out of you and haunt your nightmares, I don't know what frightens you. But, if you manage to look closely, you will probably notice that the modeling is generic and boxy, with repetitive texturing and nightmarish skin tones. This is a basic lack of talent. This displays that the director didn't know the capabilities of his employees, nor how the software functioned. Of course, rendering humans is notoriously hard, especially since there is that hideous uncanny valley. Looking at the photo, I think I can easily call this the uncanny pit of hell between too close to real and not close at all. The use of what looks like a fish eye lens sure doesn't help things much. These are new depths to that uncanny valley. And, this is just one example of the terrible animation.

Take a look at this incomprehensible image. A wallpaper of noses in a segment of the movie featuring an ally that is a giant doctor nose. This weird repetition gives the whole scene a weirdly surreal depth that feels like a hypnotic acid nightmare.

When the movie isn't being brashly, obnoxiously ugly, it is being brazenly offensively inappropriate. An example is the first screencap that combines The Graduate's sexiest come on image with Nazi imagery with planes coming out of her crotch. It's not just visuals that are inappropriate either. At one point, Gruff tells the hot chick "I'm not the one who's going to be puppy-whipped, you cold-farted itch." No, I did not typo anything in that line of dialogue.  To top it off, the climax is a chick fight between the hot nazi chick and the yiffy kitty.

Then, there's the actual brands that got used...which are supposed to be the movie's raison d'etre. Mr Clean gets shat on by a fucked-up looking frog in the opening scene. No, I'm not joking. He's also apparently great at stickball. The California Raisins do play in a band. And, um...there was Charlie the Tuna and the Twinkie guy. But, they do nothing much. The only icon to get used appropriately is Mrs. Butterworth attacking people with pancakes (because she's a syrup! Get it?). Every other icon is sort of there. And, it's just lame as hell. There's also some shirtless spokesman with giant muscle tits and a thong. And, the Brawny dude. I don't even know.

This movie's complete and utter density of failure, combined with its reprehensible ambition to fill a kids movie with as much advertising as one could possibly condense into a movie makes this the perfect movie to hate watch. Sure, you're laughing at Larry Kassenoff's dreams go down the drain. But, his dream was completely offensive in trying to get kids hooked on marketing while they were growing up and impressionable. It isn't merely good that he failed, it's great that he failed with such a miserable goal.

Required Viewing. It must be seen to be believed.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Virgin Spring (1960): Arthouse does rape-revenge

The Virgin Spring (1960)
aka Jungfrukallen
dir: Ingmar Bergman

Throughout this website already, I have been cataloging the varieties of the rape-revenge genre. The movies have had different purposes: a feminist take (Descent), a desire for female agency (I Spit On Your Grave), a genderqueer primal scream (Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives), a sociopolitical teardown (The Woman), or completely exploitative desires (Thriller: A Cruel Picture). For the majority of these movies, the final goal of the film is to get to the revenge, and because rape is such a violating act, the victim is exonerated from any vengeful act they participate in, regardless of depravity of the vengeance. Descent is the obvious exception, in that Maya eventually realizes that her revenge is not as satisfying as she wants it to be.

Given the age of the above movies, one might think that rape-revenge is a rather new genre. But, the rape-revenge genre is older than old. One can look to the Roman story of Lucretia, whose rape, and subsequent suicide, led to the vengeful overthrowing of the Roman Monarchy that led to the development of the Roman Republic.

The Virgin Spring has origins in a murder-revenge ballad from 1673, Tore's Daughters in Vange. In the ballad, Tore's 3 virgin daughters were on their way to churc, when they were murdered by herdsmen, and a spring developed where they were murdered. The herdsmen continued on to Vange after the murders, and sought shelter in the home of the parents of the daughters. Upon discovering what the herdsmen had done, the father, Tore, killed the two older herdsmen. Before Tore could murder the youngest Herdsman, Tore asks their identity and discovers that the herdsmen were his sons who were returning home. So, three guys killed three virgins, who happened to be their sisters, and then were killed by their parents out of vengeance. Upon this realization, Tore asked God for forgiveness, and built a church on the site of the spring as retribution.

The Virgin Spring re-develops this framework to change it from an familial story of non-identity and murder to a rape/murder-revenge story about violation and grief. Bergman has also crafted a story of envy, religion, sin, redemption, shame, and guilt. That the story is set in medieval Sweden focuses even more of the story on the classic themes it portrays instead of trying to claim it is a story of modern sins.

Bergman opens the movie with a shot of a demonic-looking woman. She is visibly very pregnant, and she is opening up the kitchen for the day, while also praying to Odin for help in her situation. In the next scene, her family is openly worshiping a Crucifix, posing as a duality between the Christian masses and the polytheistic worshipers of the Gods of old. As soon as they finish praying, the Christians start figuratively putting more yokes on the pregnant woman, Ingeri, who is also their half-daughter and is also pregnant out of wedlock. The proceed to slut-shame her for her indiscretions, and tell her how much of a burden she is. Meanwhile, their good and blonde daughter Karin is busy sleeping away the day after dancing so long the night before. Being a maiden, she is supposed to be taking the virgin candles to the church, but she is too busy snoooozing while her mother is making excuses. After waking, and agreeing to delivering the candles, Karin demands to wear a specific dress, and also demands to have Ingeri accompany her on her journey to the church.

In the first act, Bergman has already set up Odin vs Christianity, Ingeri (sinner) vs Karin (virgin), envy, nepotism, family dedication, and the shame of out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But, Bergman has also set up the innocence and naivety of Karin as she constantly witnesses her parents' oppression of Ingeri and, feeling sympathy, wants to give support Ingeri as a human being.

Ingeri and Karin set out on their journey to the church. As they travel down the path, Ingeri pretty much calls Karin a slut for dancing with everybody the night before, and tells her that she's gonna get raped behind some bushes. Meanwhile, Karin is all "I just am asking around for your benefit, and I think that I can fight guys off."  Ingeri, frustrated that she couldn't get Karin's goat, ditches Karin and visits the cabin of Odin's real world analogue. The analogue tries to rape Ingeri, but she runs away from him and his assault.

On the other side of the narrative, Karin comes across 3 herdsmen with whom she shares the picnic which was provided to her. After eating, the herdsmen rape and murder Karin while Ingeri looks on from a cliff. At first, Ingeri looks happy that Karin is getting violated. But, as Ingeri witnesses the brutality, she starts regretting her desire for Karin to be violated. The youngest herdsman, who is just a wee child, also looks horrified at what he just witnessed.

The herdsmen take all of Ingeri's belongings, including her special dress, and make their way to the residence where we began. At first they're taken in by the family, until the herdsmen try to sell her dress for money. Upon identifying the dress as Karin's, the parents fret, grieve, prepare themselves, and then murder the highwaymen. In the end, looking upon the murdered boy herdsman, the parents start to realize what they had done. But, they have to find Karin, whose body is still in the field. Upon finding the body, the family begs forgiveness, and believes that the building of a church is the best form of atonement for the crimes they committed out of revenge.

What The Virgin Spring retains that most of the other films do not is that need for a post-revenge redemption. The Woman attempts a perverted redemption by having the Woman take one of the children as payment for the suffering inflicted on her. But, really, that isn't nearly as redemptive as the idea of doing something altruistic in a place where so much evil has been done. Building a church out of a sincere sense of self-knowledge of one's evil acts is morally redemptive, and actually builds something constructive out of the mess.

Last House on the Left, the American kind-of adaptation, eschews the rebuilding of community for a scorched earth finale. Last House attests that the situation has irrevocably changed this family, and is not interested in any guilt of the family over their revenge. But, Last House on the Left is also political in nature. Craven has argued that Last House is about the Vietnam war. And, by participating in the act of aggression and revenge, America had never apologized, and so his characters do not need to apologize.

Still, the changes of The Virgin Spring from the original ballad inform the audience that Bergman was less interested in the sordid and more interested in the morality. By not making everybody related, and removing the incest and kid-killing twist at the end of the ballad, Bergman places the focus squarely on religion and shame for the course of the movie. Even immediately after the violation, Karin is walking around shell-shocked, traumatized, and crying before she is murdered by a blow to the head. She is ashamed and violated, but is offered no chance at redemption or forgiveness.

The Virgin Spring is not graphic by today's terms, and Bergman's methodical pacing extracts the horror from the onscreen acts. The horror is replaced with a studied distance at the immorality that surrounds the piece. The multi-layered nature of the film, delving into emotions and religion among other issues, makes the film still vital. Add in a bit of shame and guilt and The Virgin Spring is still an essential entry into the rape-revenge genre.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Very Bad Things (1998): Purposefully misconstruing a movie

Very Bad Things (1998)
dir: Peter Berg

I've loved Very Bad Things since it came out in theaters. It was savaged by critics upon release for its myriad of issues regarding gratuitous violence, black as black humor, and even attempts at seeing it as a racist movie. Yes, it very much is gratuitously violent, as it is a horror movie dressed in comedy clothing. No, it isn't racist, fuck you very much Roger Ebert.

One thing I noticed after watching the movie post-financial crisis is that this movie could easily be construed as a financial crisis allegory. Now, obviously, this is a completely wrong interpretation as the movie came out 10 YEARS before the financial crisis reared its ugly head, but if you indulge me I'm going to misconstrue this movie in every possible way in order to see something that's definitely not there, but I found fascinating nonetheless.

First thing's first. This is a bachelor party movie that also has a wedding in it. The party consists of five guys, and we're introduced to most of them at or through their jobs. The bachelor is Kyle Fisher (Jon Favreau), who works in banking or finance. He works with two brothers, Michael and Adam Berkow (Jeremy Piven and Daniel Stern). The best man of the wedding is Robert Boyd (Christian Slater), who is introduced by way of his real estate sign. The last partygoer is Charles Moore (Leland Orser) who is a blue-collar mechanic.

So, 3 financial workers, 1 real estate agent, and a mechanic.  Kyle is getting married to Laura Garrety (Cameron Diaz), and Adam is married to Lois (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Adam also has two kids, one who is angry as fuck and the other who is a crippled kid. Laura is introduced in a government office waiting with Kyle to sign their marriage certificate and stating demands and rules while constantly demanding validation of their connection. Lois is introduced watching over the group with a camera and also setting rules for the group (No Smoking), which Boyd flagrantly breaks in front of her.

It's easy to see this as an allegory where we have the financial and real estate sectors with a token blue-collar friend. And, two of them are married or getting married to the government. And, the two kids represent America and its future.

This group of financial and real estate sectors go to Las Vegas to celebrate the inevitable further tying of finance and government. While in Vegas, they drink, party, do drugs and talk about things from the dumbing down of the future generations ("I'm not going to force my kids to learn"), how to manipulate the next generations through marketing tactics ("Don't eyeball your kids"), delusional paranoia, and Scorched Earth Scenarios while watching WWF wrestling. Then, as they're partying down, the hooker comes in.

The hooker, like Moore, is representative of the workers in America. She knows what she is, and she does what's asked, but charges for it. Moore is blue-collar while the hooker is more white collar. Moore is more middle class, but the hooker is lower-class (despite her charging exorbitant amounts of money). The lower class seduces the upper class, sort of in a game. And, she pays for that by being killed on a towel rack through the head. So, the financial sector used the lower class, didn't pay them for their work, then ultimately killed them while fucking them. Simultaneously, the middle class is rough and tumbling with the financial and real estate sectors, and almost kills himself by jumping through the glass table.

Uh oh. This is not good. Everybody starts to panic, but their fearless leader tells them that they can hide this. And, then the security guard shows up. The security guard is like the pathetic arm of the government that wants to enforce the laws and make sure everybody is going OK. Maybe get a little hand out as long as nobody is dead. The cops are corrupt. And, when he gets a glimpse of the dead lower-class, and starts to ask about it, he gets killed with a corkscrew. So, now the finance and the real estate sector together have killed the lower class, had the middle class hurt itself for its entertainment, and then killed an enforcement or regulatory agency.

They then chop up the bodies, and hide them to clean up their crimes. Of course, they are going to bury them in the desert, but you can't bury the lower class with the regulatory agencies. They'll find out about each other. So, they get buried in separate packages. On their way home to the government, they get cleaned up and go through a slight remorse that lasts for the total duration of the ride home. There's no real guilt. There is mainly the worry that they'll get caught. And there's mainly the worry that the security guard has children who will increase the likelihood for the search.

They return home, and the government-as-wives are waiting to see them with open arms and wanting to make sure everything is OK for their press that will happen in a couple of days. But, Adam, the financial sector already married to the government with two kids who are the future generations, catches the fear. In a gas station scene where he is filling up his minivan while the family is waiting, Adam isn't wanting to talk to anybody about anything for fear of giving up the game, meanwhile the future is starting to ring in his ears. The government distracts the next generation with a new shiny: Whizzers. But, the government can't get them for the kids, so the financial sector has to get it for them. When he can't produce the pacifying candy due to his distracting paranoia, he almost gets into a car accident, damaging the surface of the government.

At the rehearsal wedding dinner, which normally happens the night before the wedding, the family financial sector, who owns a minivan aka the American symbol of family, loses his cool, and fights with another financial sector, his brother. Michael is intent on insulting the families and future of America ("your kids are one crutch away from a telethon"). But, Adam is steadfast in his beliefs of the union of finance, government and the future. Still, Michael in his SUV (a symbol of emptiness, testosterone, and waste at that time), wants to kill the old ties by way of killing the minivan. Adam gets in the way, and down goes one financial institution at the hands of another. And, to display how untouchable these people are, in the hospital, the police don't even arrest Michael.

The widowed government gets hints of what has been down, but doesn't have the details. So, she calls everybody into a hearing to try to figure out the facts. First the boys pull the wool over her eyes by telling her that Adam had played with the lower class (fucked a hooker), and that he had a habit of fucking the lower class. She breaks down and tells them, impotently, that she doesn't believe them, half because she can't, and have because she doesn't want to.  But, then Boyd kills half of the government by fighting with it, and strangling it. Then, Boyd kills the second financial institution, Michael, and makes it look like the now-defunct financial sector and that part of the government killed each other.

Meanwhile, Cameron Diaz government has been looking after the future who are pissed as fuck. They destroy her well laid out plans to have a happy celebration by throwing a basketball on it. Then Diaz and Fisher find out they're responsible for looking after the future by themselves. So, the whole financial sector has been consolidated to one person, looking after the future.  The future goes from one financial sector/government pairing to another. And, there was no real win for this transaction as the money has been leached out of the supposed payoff.

You may have noticed that the worker, Moore, hasn't been killed yet nor has he been talked about much since Vegas. In reality, he doesn't really do anything from the hooker scene until the climax. Oh sure, the worker is still hanging around, but does absolutely nothing throughout the course of the movie until the very end. Because, you can't kill the workers completely, otherwise you have no product.

At the wedding, the government puts the final nail in the real estate sector. The worker tentatively checks on him when the real estate leaches on to him. Thusly, the knot between government and finance is tied and at peace. Until the government wants to make sure that none of the bodies are found and demands that the financial sector re-bury them in the desert, kill the worker, and the dog.

And, it's only here, in the finale, where the details turn from allegorical summation into revenge fantasy. In the real world, the financial sector would have killed the worker and lived with the government happily ever after while keeping an eye on the crippled future of America. That's how it really would have ended had Peter Berg not wanted to make this a morality tale. And, to be honest, most black comedies are morality tales. Most of the times, the morals come together in the bad people getting their dues and morality living on, but luckily we don't get that either.

In the movie's ending, the financial sector, realizing that you can't completely kill the worker, lets him live. Until they get in a car accident, crippling both the financial sector and the workers. Which leaves a now commoned and ugly government to try to clean up the mess. And the future of America is either angry and crippled, or just angry. One calls the government "your bitch wife" while the angry one pointedly asks "Is the bathroom clean? It better be spotless."  The worker is now paralyzed in a wheelchair doing circles. The financial sector lost his legs. And, the government freaks out and trying to kill herself in traffic.  Which isn't that bad of a guess either, all things considered (government stoppages, etc).

Of course, none of this is really there. It's all a little like looking at Nostradamus' predictions and trying to assign value to their words and placing the warnings on the phrases after the events happened. See? He was trying to tell us that there would be an Earthquake! See...Peter Berg was subliminally preparing us for the oncoming financial and real estate crisis that would be happening. It could be a little PKD'ish if this were true. Or, maybe it's more Room 237 where people are seeing things they want to see.

Even though this allegory is very much not true, I love Very Bad Things. It's one of the bleakest most horrific belly laughing comedies that was never going to make the mainstream I have seen. It ranks close to Man Bites Dog with its blend of horror and gallows humor.  But, unlike Man Bites Dog, Very Bad Things ends with a scene of passive-aggressive revenge that doesn't sit well with people who want the bad people to suffer.  Recommended.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986): Envy or Vengeance

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986)
dir: Phillip Saville

When people mention She-Devil, most Americans automatically think of the Susan Seidelman-helmed movie starring Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep. Some think about Fay Weldon's novel, and a rare awesome few know that there was a BBC-produced mini-series in between the two.

Seidelman's version is a truncated version of the novel and mini-series, which all but eliminates two of the main themes of the book: love can be toxic and beauty trumps all. Seidelman's She-Devil is a Barr vehicle that makes the case for "women doing it for themselves" and that men suck, which is actually a theme in Seidelman's career.

Saville's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is much more complex than Seidelman's version, and it skews far closer to the source novel. Saville's She-Devil deals with sex, appearance, money, power, envy, vengeance, faith, and almost everything under the sun. Instead of being Seidelman's rather simplistic, but effective, feminist revenge fantasy, Saville created a whole world for the she-devil to rage against.

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is Fay Weldon's feminist screed about a pointedly ugly housewife, Ruth Patchett, who is married to accountant Bob. Bob falls for the much more attractive Mary Fisher, a famous scion of trashy romance novels. After a series of disappointments, Bob leaves Ruth with their two kids to go live with Mary Fisher in her mansion by the sea. In the process, Bob calls Ruth a She-Devil, and Ruth takes that to heart proceeding to exact cunning and brutal revenge on Bob and the rest of the world.

Saville's She-Devil opens with Mary Fisher winning an award, and meeting Bob at an after party before getting him to take her home before seducing him. All in front of Ruth. Bob and Mary develop a relationship, and Bob steadily becomes distanced. During their anniversary dinner, at which Bob's parents are in attendance with Ruth having made dinner, the dinner is destroyed and Bob berates and humiliates Ruth in front of everybody. It isn't the first time he has humiliated her, either. At an earlier point, Ruth was making dinner, something minor had broken down, Ruth broke down with it and Bob screamed at her. Anyways, at the anniversary dinner, Bob humiliates Ruth, but even his parents side with Ruth and start to reprimand Bob, until Bob's father tries to dominate his mom. And, by the end of the night, Bob left Ruth permanently to start seeing Mary Fisher permanently.

In this scene, we start seeing the complexities that were smoothed by Seidelman. The sexism and male domination are not just a result of Bob and Ruth's toxic relationship, but they are also time-tested attitudes which Bob had been raised around. His father subtly abuses his mom, and tries to dominate her constantly. It's a system of patriarchy that Weldon displayed and is railing against. And these sexist attitudes are passed down by the generations, even though they have always been subtly challenged. The challenge of equality is growing from generation to generation against the will of men like Bob and his father.

Of course, in both versions, Ruth is as ugly as can be. She has a gigantic mole, skin conditions, bad teeth, limp hair, and is largely overweight. In Saville's version, Ruth is also 6'2" as yet another contrast between her and Mary Fisher, which becomes important by the end. Ruth is the opposite of Mary Fisher; thus, Ruth is the opposite of what society has deemed to be conventionally attractive, and she suffers for it. Saville and Weldon constantly harp about how Ruth is an ugly hideous woman and that she has a much, much harder life because of it. Ruth even soliloquizes that ugly women, as they get older, frequently get harder from the constant pressures and disappointments that they face while waiting for old age to equalize everybody.

And, so, the main thrust of the movie is Ruth's actions after being left for the younger, richer, single, childless, Mary Fisher. Ruth's first revenge is blowing up the house, telling the insurance company that she was at fault, and dumping the kids with Mary Fisher and Bob in their love nest before disappearing.

Ruth then dons a gigantic red wig and has sex with an ugly older man with an eye infection as a way to get hired into the old person's home where Mary Fisher's mom is. As she's fucking the old man, she kisses the eye infection, and connects as a pointedly ugly people romantic sex type thing, which is also a pointed counterpoint to the beautiful Mary Fisher fucking the average Bob (which is even more defined in Seidelman's version as her Bob is kind of hot).

At the rest home, Ruth hooks up with a nurse who eventually leaves to work at a psych ward. And, Ruth sends Mary's mom to Mary, while also working to have Mrs. Fisher banned from the nursing home. Ruth then reconnects with the nurse at the psych ward, and they develop a plan to steal money from Bob's clients and start up a temp agency business. The first round of embezzlement is sizable enough to start the agency. And, here is the first huge difference between the versions. In Saville's edition, Ruth embezzles money to herself through an ATM, causing her to be extremely wealthy. But, Seidelman's Ruth gets the money for the employment agency from the nurse.

As Ruth is both setting up Bob and stealing from his clients, she also hooks him up with a married secretary who also starts sleeping with him. The secretary's excuses for not getting what she wants out of her marriage sound slightly similar to Bob's excuses for sleeping with Mary. She's bored, and not getting what she wants.

And, it's here that Saville's version starts really departing from Seidelman's. In Saville's world, women aren't just oppressed victims. Sometimes they can be the criminal. The secretary is completely cheating on her husband. And, that she gets fired while Bob got hired for it is more evidence of the patriarchical construction of the world than that men are sleazier than women. In a man's world, it's OK for men to sleep to the top, but it isn't for a woman. But, in Saville's and Weldon's world, both men and women have the capacity to be equally terrible. Instead of it being an unfair game that men are constantly cheating on women, the secretary is also cheating on her husband, and it stops being so one-sidedly sexist. Sure, Bob slept his way to the top by hooking Mary Fisher's account through sex; while the secretary gets fired. But, both parties are being just purely icky.

At this point, Bob is getting arrested for embezzlement, partly set up by the vengeful secretary. And, as such, Ruth disappears again, to reappear as Polly Patch, as a militant nanny to the Judge ruling on Bob's trial. She develops a relationship with the judge on the judge's terms. She isn't scared of the judge, as his wife is. When the judge is stressed out, he abuses the wife. His wife is also completely scared of Polly.  But, Polly eventually manipulates the Judge to going harsh on Bob, in no small part by being the willing subject of his S&M bedroom games. Saville is spelling out the corruption of sex and justice.

Ruth disappears AGAIN, and shows up as a maid to a priest. The priest is the leader of the church where Mary Fisher has started going back to as a crisis of faith. Ruth semi-seduces the priest, who is now prepped to be seduced by Mary Fisher. Meanwhile, Ruth's kids have all but disappeared, and are now not a part of any of the equations.

Ruth's final act is to get a series of expensive plastic surgery with the money she embezzled. Her goal is to have herself completely made up to look like Mary Fisher, including getting 6 inches lopped off her legs. Mary Fisher, who had been fucking the priest, falls out of her window and dies after the priest ditches her. This leaves her mansion up for purchase. Now Ruth, looking like Mary, buys up the mansion, picks up Bob when he's released, and fucks guys in front of him. The end.

Throughout both version's of She-Devil, Ruth is constantly envious of Mary Fisher's wealth and love palace. She's always commenting on it with a source of sarcasm and derision that betray her true desires of wanting to be Mary Fisher. She wants her husband on her terms. She wants Mary's wealth. She wants Mary's good looks. She wants to have Mary Fisher's life, and she's willing to go to any length.

And, with Saville's finale, she is completely participating in the system that oppressed her. She had 6" cut off her legs, and had to learn to walk again. She would be in complete pain for the rest of her life. She would be on blood thinners to prevent clotting. But, she wanted the looks she was denied. And, she wanted the house that Mary Fisher had. And, she wanted the money that Mary Fisher had. And, she doesn't care that she's participating in the oppressive system to get there; this time around, Ruth is the oppressor.

Seidelman doesn't want to indict Ruth, really.  At least, she doesn't want to indict her nearly as hard as Weldon and Saville do. Seidelman wants to create a feminist revenge scheme where she crafts a completely happy ending by oppressing the male oppressor (Bob) while letting the independent woman win. Seidelman even lets Mary Fisher off the hook, by giving her a serious work to finally write, and letting her achieve success in the serious lit world instead of the trashy romance world

Seidelman's version is all about letting women succeed in the face of patriarchy, and she makes the story purely a revenge fantasy.

Saville's mini-series is far more scorched earth.  Ruth is an envious self-made bitch who doesn't care about the advancement of women so much as the advancement of herself. She's no better than any of the men in the novel. Mary Fisher is a bitch who insults Ruth at every turn. Her mom is a bitch who tells Mary that she wasn't wanted. Bob is an asshole because he's Bob. The secretary isn't innocent. Everybody sucks. It's far far darker of a revenge fantasy that hits on so much more of the system.

What's intriguing is that one is tempted to say "well, Saville is a dude, and Seidelman is a woman, so of course Saville is more apt to demonize women in turn." Except, no. Fay Weldon's novel isn't nice to women either. It doesn't let anybody off the hook. So, Seidelman's version is merely pointing towards a more purely feminist version than a real world adaptation. It's an interesting contemplation on what the differences are, except Seidelman had also made the weird Making Mr. Right in which a woman teaches a male android emotions.

While Saville's mini-series is deeper (of course, it also has a 3hr49mn run time to do it), and darker, it isn't as purely entertaining as Seidelman's simpler diatribe. It's a different experience. And for different results. With Saville's version, the acting is decent, and the production starts off typical BBC but advances to be better than BBC but still not cinematic quality. Saville's version is deeper, but it isn't the passive feminist entertainment that Seidelman's is. Saville's version is better. It just isn't lazy Saturday afternoon rewatch with belly laughs.

Added note: Saville's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is not available on DVD in the US. But, it is available on DVD in Britain, as well as on Youtube in a playlist that was taken from a well-worn VHS copy. Indulge.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Philomena (2013): The Long Term Effects of Shame

Philomena (2013)
dir: Stephen Frears

The subjects of shame and religion are deeply entwined in cultures deeply steeped in Judeo-Christian religions. It's been said that the Jews invented and encoded guilt, and all subsequent religions have been following in their footsteps.  Religion, or the lack there of, are distinctive parts of one's personality, and faith is deeply embedded in some of the kinder souls of this world.

Allow me to get personal here for a minute.  My family is Catholic on both sides.  One of my grandmother's was deeply Catholic.  She went to mass daily, took the kids to mass when she could, and tried to instill the best values of Catholicism in the blood of the family.  Of course, people being people, this led to varying results from kid to kid, but she was deeply religious throughout.

Sometime in the 1970s, I believe, my grandfather left my grandmother, and ran out of state.  I only met the man once (amusingly at my First Communion), and this story is not about him.  But, my grandparents were never officially divorced.  Worse, their marriage was never annulled by the Catholic church either.  Between the years of 1884 and 1977, a divorce or separation without annulment led to excommunication in the American Catholic church.  If you were divorced without annulment, you could not participate in the Catholic church, you were not supposed to receive Communion, and you could not be considered a Catholic.

In 1977, this was changed by the National Council of American Bishops and the Pope, but before that you were excommunicated for separation.  Especially if your ex-spouse remarried outside the Church, which my grandfather did, I heard.  

Since these events happened before 1977, this tore my grandmother up.  She always was deeply religious, and was hurt that she had to be excommunicated.  But, she never lost her faith.  She attended Mass, and participated as best she could and as much was allowed.

Because religion is so important to so many people, including to many of the people who don't believe, a large portion of the audience are going to be bringing their own experiences into Philomena, and the viewing will be colored by people's experiences.  And, this should not be discounted as part of the movie going experience that Stephen Frears is constructing.

Philomena is the fictionalization and personalization of the true story of Philomena Lee, Michael Hess, and Max Sixsmith.  The personalization of the story comes courtesy of Steve Coogen, who seems to be playing his own version of Martin Sixsmith, and also wrote and produced the movie. 

Philomena Lee, played by the infinitely watchable Dame Judi Dench, is an older Catholic woman who is looking for her long lost son, who was taken from her 50 years prior.  As a teenager, she had become pregnant by a chance relationship, and was disowned by her father to a Catholic Abbey, where she gave birth and worked in the laundry to pay for her debts.  The nuns raised her child, as well as the illegitimate children of other teenage girls, while she worked.  However, this abbey had a habit of selling off their children to rich families and not notifying the mothers.  

Even though Philomena starts off as a usual sob story of keeping your religion in the face of terrible leaders, and hunting for a long lost child, it changes into a deeper movie about anger, faith, devotion, and hiding.  This isn't merely about faith and devotion to religion, this is also about faith and devotion to anything that doesn't really want you as a member.  It asks the question of what do you do when the thing you believe in stabs you in the back.

Stephen Frears and Steve Coogen mask the layers of message in a sledgehammer blunt movie.  In Philomena, the nuns are all evil, angry and resentful of people who live life. In Philomena, the owner of the newspaper is eager to exploit a real life tragedy for weekend news. Martin Sixsmith is angry at religion in general, a reaction from his rejection of religion. He is also bluntly rude, and aloof to everybody around him.  The treacly score swells when you're supposed to tear up, and the parceling of information is calculated to pull your heart strings.  It is Oscar Bait to a maximal degree.  

However, beneath that is all the complexity of life and faith.  I'm about to get spoilery to a major degree, so just take it on faith that I liked it despite the hammer bluntness on the face, and go watch the movie.  Michael Hess was a homosexual who died of AIDS.  He was also a member of the Republican National Party, who coordinated gerrymandering, and was appointed as chief legal counsel to George Bush, Sr. He worked his way up the ranks in the GOP as Reagan was denying funding to AIDS research and ensuring that the republicans stayed in power even as they were rejecting him through policy and rhetoric.

Michael Hess was also looking for his mother starting in 1977.  He never felt at home with his adoptive family, and was looking for his homeland and his mother that he half-remembered from his first three years of life. Michael Hess visited the abbey several times, even as Philomena was also going to find him.  When he died in 1995, Michael Hess was so dedicated to this hunt that he was buried at the convent in order to be found by his mother, if she should ever go searching for him.  

The Catholic Church had a policy in the 1950s and 1960s that single mothers should not be allowed to raise their children.  Obviously, this came out of a terrible faith that a two-parent family was better than a single mother.  And, their policy continued to be that any mother-child they separated, they would never bring back together.  They steadfastly refused to bring anybody searching, even if they were both looking for each other.

Despite all of this, Philomena Lee never really lost her faith in the Catholic Church, even though they stole her son and lied to her.  And, Michael Hess never lost faith in the Republican party even as they were actively persecuting him.  And, in my life, my grandmother never lost the Catholic Church despite being excommunicated.  The movie isn't exploring the validity of religion.  It's exploring the depth of faith. As the nuns are evil, how could somebody stay faithful?  And, yet, Philomena tells a nun, who was seen in a photo with Michael, "I forgive you."  Sixsmith says he could never forgive them. 

Where the movie really fails is its steadfast refusal to plumb the depths of the policies that led to the movie, and only makes passing mention of the devastating effects.  Philomena fails to mention that the Catholic Church's policies effected the policies of the Irish government. The Irish government took it as policy to let the Catholic Church take the children of these single mothers and sell them for profit.  The Irish government also PAID the Catholic Church for the care of these mothers and children. And, the government also took it as policy to force single mothers into these convents.  The unwed mothers weren't just single teenagers rejected by families.  Some were taken from families.  This led to thousands of children stolen from single mothers.  

In the end, the movie works so much better when it stops playing everything so broad and lets the facts hit their emotional center. The overly broad relationship between Sixsmith and Philomena never rings as real, given how broadly they're drawn.  But, when Judi Dench soliloquizes about her memories, or when she's confronted with Michael Hess' family, or confronted with the death, the emotions are less broad and feel honest in comparison to the rest of the film. If only Coogen and Frears had gone more for honest and less for stereotype-filled message film. All the themes discussed above that make the film amazing are naturally in the story, and would be present in a better, less obvious, movie.

But, its still interesting and watchable despite itself.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Threads (1984): Nuclear War, Straight No Chaser

Threads (1984)
dir: Mick Jackson

In high school, many American students were subjected to the 1983 film The Day After during their lessons on the 80s cold war segment. It was a combination of cold war paranoia, nuclear war fears, and American melodrama. The Day After's focus on melodrama neutered the impact that it would have on emotionally scarring high school kids.

Threads pulls no punches. Threads is stylistically reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick (notably, The Killing), Truffaut, and Altman...sometimes all at once. Threads is a cold, horrific, detailed account of the events leading up to the nuclear bombing of Britain and the aftermath, both short and long term.

Threads opens on a couple at make out point, with Johnny B Goode blaring on the radio. They switch the radio and we start hearing about the moving of Soviet forces into Iran and the US being pissed about it, but it is brief, and quickly turned off so the couple can screw and get accidentally pregnant. The first 20 minutes of the film is an accounting of the first couple of weeks of May when this Iranian crisis is background noise to the accidental pregnancy of young love.

The next 20 minutes start to detail the oncoming panic that the UK feels as they finally start focusing on the crisis. The citizens hold disarmament rallies, loot stores, and move out of the major cities for the countrysides. The pregnancy and apartment renovation of the new couple takes a back seat to the paranoiac reactions, the preparations of the Sheffield war government, and the ongoing developments of the US government's movements toward the Soviet Union.

The next 20 minutes detail the day of the bombings, and the effects, which includes the killing of the boy, the starvation of the people, and the movements of the people and the dead.

The final hour doesn't go into melodramatic detail of hospitals and taking care of people. The people in the blast radius are left for sick or dead. They're denied food and medical care. The injuries and sicknesses effect everybody. The people are left to start learning how to work and how to farm because there are no more stores or manufacturers. And, we watch this through our surrogates: the young love woman and her daughter.

This is not The Day After which is all about the bombing and the day after. Threads is a harrowing experience showing how the attack will start as background noise, then encompass life. This shows people dying, dogs feeding on corpses, people burning, cities on fire, and the necessary callousness of government towards the survivors. There are no makeshift hospitals with E.R. level dramas. Threads is a dog-eat-dog movie.

Threads will break you. It won't make you cry, it doesn't make you care for anybody in the movie. You can relate to the surrogates as you want, but they're not treated with any sort of cloying emotion. The main characters are tools within which to walk through the details of the nuclear devastation. Threads isn't interested in the intimate. Threads is interested in the large-scale personal. In having much of its post-blast runtime include still photos of corpses in the streets amidst factoids, Threads doesn't limit what may happen. It coldly tells you that food is scarce and people are happy when others die because it means the food will last longer. It coldly tells you that typhoid is among the illnesses that will readily occur after a bombing. It coldly says that there are 10-20 million bodies that are rotting in the streets because people need to start growing food and have no time to bury the bodies en masse.

Threads doesn't want to make you cry. It wants to make you scared. This is a full on horror movie. Deeply affecting, and deeply disturbing, you really don't expect it. Required viewing.

Sidenote: Threads is not available on DVD in the US, but is on YouTube at the time of this writing.

Sidenote 2: This is getting especially harrowing again because of yet another Iranian crisis. In real life, we're just now claiming, again, that Iran is progressing with their nuclear program. I don't think I have heard Russia coming in on this, but nuclear war is obviously what this latest scenario is about.