Friday, February 28, 2014

Can't Stop the Music (1980): Gay Panic!

Can't Stop the Music (1980)
dir: Nancy Walker

Manufactured Bands have been around since the dawn of pop music. Bands have been constructed by managers and marketing gurus for ages. If it wasn't completely obvious to anybody, the Village People were certainly one of those pop bands that was crafted by a marketing genius, and were aimed specifically at the gay crowd that frequented the discos.

In case you weren't sure, the Village of the title referred to the then-gayborhood of Greenwich Village in New York City. The people were dressed as gay fetish icons of ultra-masculinity, including a straight-up gay leatherman. One would assume that Can't Stop the Music, a movie created to highlight and feature the Village People, would be queer as a two dollar bill. While it is campy as all hell, it was created to primarily assert the heterosexuality of the individual band members through far too long musical numbers (with one exception).

Can't Stop the Music is the fake origin story of our cinematic heroes the Village People. It tells the story of Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg) getting his big break by playing one of his songs at a disco night, but having the record producer say that he and his vocals weren't interesting enough. Instead of Morell getting to sing on the track, they create the Village People group to record the song and other songs which Morell may write.

Of course, the members of the Village People, by 1980, wanted to assert their heterosexuality, especially David Hodo. In fact, David Hodo gets his own overlong ode to his heterosexuality in the musical number I Love You to Death, which seems to go on and on, but is only 3:39. It probably seems like that because it only has about 15 words in total that get repeated throughout a prancing musical number set in a fantabulous sparkly brothel construction site where Hodo can dance around with a bunch of spangly-dressed women in order to say "Hey, I may be in a gay group, but I love PUSSY!!!" with jazz fingers and uber-macho moustache.

That duality sums up one of the basic problems with Can't Stop the Music. All of the musical numbers, save for Y.M.C.A. (incidentally, the only one of the Village People's actual hits that is in the movie...what the fuck is wrong with these people?!), are focused on showing either how famous they are or how straight they are. At one point near the end, they make a 3:30 commercial for milk with their song Milkshake...where you'll be surprised that the song is only 3:30.

This movie is over 2 hours long, with only a handful of musical numbers. The soundtrack features 6 numbers by The Village People, 2 by David London, and 2 by The Ritchie Family (another producer based group, only female). Probably about 30-40 minutes of this movie is music, and the rest is the god-awful plot with god-awful acting, including Bruce Jenner in short shorts. No, really, that exists. And, the only moment that truly actually calls to the gay culture that gay the Village People fame is the video for Y.M.C.A.

Now, mind you, Can't Stop the Music actually is a PG-rated adventure. But, Y.M.C.A. is all about athletes, exercise, swimming, and bathing...sometimes naked. Yes, Can't stop the Music is a PG-rated film with full frontal male nudity, albeit in fleeting flashes. So, I guess Nancy Walker threw the gay community a bone (entendre intended), and actually gave a few minute of homo-related activity. But, that's about it.

Can't Stop the Music was released in 1980, which is also the year that Cruising came out. Instead of being an counterpoint of gay positivity to Cruising's supposed negative gay stereotyping, Can't Stop the Music shoved the gays back into the closet and ignored everything about it. The problem being that Can't Stop the Music is also not a good movie. At all. It is a resounding failure on all levels, including most of the camp levels. It's barely bad enough to be good. And, by alienating the gay audience, it also alienates itself from the biggest connoisseurs of trashy camp classics. It would have been a slam dunk, if it wasn't so obviously pointed against its biggest audience.

Which is to say that Can't Stop the Music is nearly unwatchable by any standards. Oh, sure its one of the more fun trashy disco musicals, but its not that fun. It's not any good. And, it's way too long to be sustainable. That it sold out the gay crowd doesn't help its case. But, it makes a grand case for the excess of the disco era, and how ego can blind you to your failures.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Salome's Last Dance (1988): Staging a Stageplay

Salome's Last Dance (1988)
dir: Ken Russell

Ken Russell and Oscar Wilde shared a very simple thing: they were both provocateurs. It should be no surprise that Ken Russell chose to adapt Oscar Wilde's one-act play Salome as a piece of provocation. How Ken Russell chose to adapt it makes all the difference.

Salome is Wilde's most provocative play, expanding a short passage from the New Testament of 12 verses into a full one-act play filled with lust, incest, and murder. Salome, the daughter of the Tetrarch Herod and Queen Herodius, develops an infatuation for the new prisoner, John the Baptist, who is making prophecies about Jesus and against Herod and, especially, Herodius. Meanwhile, everybody else is infatuated with Salome, including Herod who demands Salome dance her Dance of the Seven Veils for him. In return, Salome demands and receives the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter before being killed herself.

Of course, it would be uncouth to set such a hypothetical play which greatly enhances and theororizes on the details from the bible passage nearly as long as the preceding paragraph. Plus, Russell was on a tight budget, with this being a movie made for then fledgling Vestron Pictures. Russell, to save on budget and to make this a Russell bit of modernist cinema, set Salome's Last Dance in a brothel, where Oscar Wilde would watch the people under the employ of the master put on the very first staging of Salome, keeping it slightly bawdy but never going far over-the-top...for Salome, that is.

Wilde, at the beginning of the film, Wilde comes in with his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (nee Bosie), discussing how both of them have taken a shining to the bootblack boy, who also played the brother to the head security guard. At one point, after the guard's suicide, the bootblack cuddles with Wilde and later they go to a secret place in order to play around.

Russell, of course, isn't afraid of showing off everything. He doesn't show any explicit sex in his films, but he does have the Dance of the Seven Veils be a mind-bending dance with multiple dancers, at least one male, all set to Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. He has Herodius get to banging the two security guards, one a chubby pale schlub, and the other a muscled bodybuilder who would become famous for being Wolf on the UK Gladiators (with short hair in the film!).  And, of course, everybody is leering at Salome, who is using it all to her advantage, being one of the key femme fatales.

Russell's ingenious non-fourth-wall reimagining of Salome, with the actors coming out into the audience (consisting of Oscar Wilde) breathes life into what could have been a cheap and stagey reconstruction. The blocking and staginess of the film is intentional as it is a staged play in a film. The meta-ness is merely there to comment on the homosexuality of Wilde, and his life story. Wilde, at the end of the film, is arrested for indecencies with a minor, turned in by his lover...a nod to Wilde being in prison while the original play was being produced, due to an ill-conceived lawsuit encouraged by Bosie.

While Salome's Last Dance gets off to a shaky amateurish start, the play soon overtakes the film, and the whole movie breathes with a new life that shows Russell's incredible talent, even if he is given to his own bits of tastelessness (such as an overly flatulent dinner guest). Salome's Last Dance may actually be the most undeservedly underseen and underrated film in Russell's catalog. It's a triumph of Wilde's language, and a mastery of bawdy theatrics. It sets the balance between Russell's aired period films (The Music Lovers, Women in Love) and his over-the-top films of excess (Lisztomania, Crimes of Passion, Lair of the White Worm). It's an accessible, easy-to-get-along-with film of biblical sleaze and gay sex.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Canyons (2013): Aging Out

The Canyons (2013)
dir: Paul Schrader

There's a fleeting moment in the opening scene in The Canyons where you suspect that it is going to be a zesty ironic takedown of youth culture and sexuality. This scene has Christian (James Deen) showing Tara (Lindsay Lohan) hookup profiles on some hookup app, while talking to Gina (Amanda Brooks) and Ryan (Nolan Funk) about Ryan's normative sexuality. Gina is Christian's assistant, and Ryan is the actor in Christian's current film project that nobody cares about.

If this scene was truly witty, Christian would have been checking out Ryan's profile on the hookup app, even as Ryan was pronouncing his true faith to Gina, with whom he barely has a connection. But, this is latter year Bret Easton Ellis, and this moment is passed up for a dull examination of boredom and the death of the...multiplex?

The Canyons credits overlays a bunch of still images which show movie houses and multiplexes in various states of decrepitude. Schrader and Ellis are mourning the death of the cinema, in some way, shape or form. But, what they're saying about the death of film is barely hinted at in the subtext. At one point during a conversation, Ellis stops the movie cold to ask "Do you still go to the movies?" He seems to be pointing to a culture where film is seen as a product rather than an art form, and the dull-as-dishwater drama that happens behind the scenes is probably more important than what actually ends up on the screen.

Hell, the behind-the-screen story of The Canyons makes this movie the pomo case study for that exercise itself. With Bret Easton Ellis' fawning over James Deen's cock, the Kickstarter-style non-personal-responsibility funding, the hiring of tabloid darling Lindsay Lohan, Paul Schrader doing his first movie in 5 years, and just a lot of hullabaloo including articles in the New York Times, the behind-the-scenes of The Canyons became more substantial and salacious than the actual movie itself.

The movie itself is mainly our five characters, including the actress cum yoga instructor/fuck buddy Cynthia, having romantic interludes and fits of jealousy over the course of three days. They're all shallow jaded shells of characters, even for Bret Easton Ellis. Which would be fine or something, except they're all written as late 30/early-40 something jaded characters. These characters are empty before their age, even for LA.

Bret Easton Ellis is generally well known for writing for characters his own age. But, with Ellis pushing 50, and Schrader pushing 70, writing for characters half his age is unnatural at best. These characters are mid-30s, at least, and the oldest actor is 32. Though, Lohan does look like she's in her mid-30s at the tender age of 27, this emptiness doesn't befit her.

Why should you care? You shouldn't. Ellis isn't at the top of his game here, merely proving his own facile thesis that that the back story was more interesting than the film. Maybe he's meditating on the how the goal of money has superseded even the goal of fame or love. But, I think he's still in the famewhore business, so he may not even believe that himself.

The Canyons isn't a self-contained film. The film content barely even matters. Sure Lindsay Lohan and James Deen have a stupid foursome in the middle of the film, where it doesn't even look like anybody is doing anything. But, who cares? Nobody does. Least of all Ellis, and least of all the audience. A 99 minute film that feels like its 130 minutes of nothingness isn't a success.

But, as an experiment about the world, it's a success. People cared about The Canyons for one brief year, before it disappears into the deep archives of Paul Schrader failures and Bret Easton Ellis failures, simply because of the backstory. And, that's interesting. In a way.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

1313: Night of the Widow (2012): Shirts and a script!

See?  They have a wardrobe!!
1313: Night of the Widow (2012)
dir: David DeCoteau

Previously, I've assumed that 1313 was a weird experiment in homoerotic minimalism on the cheap. Like an Andy Warhol for the genre picture. But, then David DeCoteau has to throw a curveball like Night of the Widow into the mix.

DeCoteau starts out Night of the Widow with a shock. There isn't 10 minutes of establishing shots. Instead, we get right to the meat of the 1313 series: a hot guy wandering around the DeCoteau mansion in his underwear. Within a minute, we're already watching a hot guy sleeping in his white briefs, and then he wakes up and wanders around in his tighty whities. OK, this is the 1313 we're used to!  Eventually he finds his wife, dressed like a black widow already, who raises a butcher's knife and squeaks "I want a divorce" then TITLE!

Humor, and fast pacing? DeCoteau, who are you and what have you done with David?

In all reality, Night of the Widow feels like one of DeCoteau's pre-1313 movies, in which characters talk a lot, there's a script, confusion, fun, and blatant and hilarious homoeroticism.

In the next scene, we get the set up of Michael (the dead guy)'s friends showing up for his funeral. They used to be in a band or something, and abandoned him 5 years ago. No explanations are offered for their absence from his life, which we learn later is because they really haven't abandoned him. everybody plays a part.

The set up is that Michael is some sort of rich orphan (huh?!) who has hidden a key to his fortune somewhere in the house. And, whoever finds it gets the fortune and can split it however they want. Which, normally, would be a set up for everybody, one by one, to strip down to their underwear wander around half-assedly looking for a key, probably while calling out "KEY! Where are you, Key?!" and then getting murdered by the black widow.

But, DeCoteau is always a violator of our expectations. We get a talky history of Michael as seen by his friends as they look for the key. These history scenes give some semblance of motives for possibly murdering Michael. Or, not as his ashes actually go missing midway through the movie. One of the scenes is Michael playing football with a male friend, who is telling him to dump his wife, leave his fortune and run away with him to a foreign homo. Or another is a guy having a lengthy shower scene in Michael's house, and then Michael coming home to find his wife in the bathroom as well (but not in the shower).

In the end, there are the usual twists that we can kind of see coming a mile away. Which is also unusual for a 1313 series film, which usually don't have enough plot to actually have twists!

1313: Night of the Widow is the most entertaining of the DeCoteau series, namely because it doesn't obey the endless repetition of a random guy wandering around, ends up in his underwear then dead. This is more of an Agatha Christie movie that has lots of homoerotic subtext thrown in, and a bunch of shirtless flashback shots. If you have been wanting DeCoteau to make an actual movie in the 1313 series, Night of the Widow is your best bet.

That being said, it isn't a GOOD movie. It's low-budget entertainment, and something that doesn't actually bore you. But, if you want homoerotic, cheesy-as-hell, sub-par Agatha Christie, then you'll want to watch Night of the Widow.

Monday, February 24, 2014

I'm So Excited (2013): Hiding the Gays in Full View

I'm So Excited (2013)
dir: Pedro Almodovar

Pedro Almodovar is openly gay.

I have to open with that statement because I had to remind myself of this at certain points during this film, as it seems almost as if he wasn't.

I'm So Excited! is Almodovar's return to the sudsy soapy farce that he made his name with in the 1980s. With a plot that is lighter than air, and a touch that waffles between soap opera and farcical hilarity, Almodovar has created what would normally be one of his signature films, this time as a bottle episode.

The bottle in this case is an airplane. I'm So Excited focuses on a plain going from Madrid to Mexico City, but early in the flight they notice the landing gear will not be able to deploy, and they're going to have to do an emergency landing, and so they're circling around Toledo until they land.

The meat of the movie is how the 3 gay business class stewards are going to entertain the irritated business class passengers, and the pilots. Also, how personal issues on the ground need to be dealt with, and love lives that happen on and off the plane. It's all very light, very sudsy and doesn't mean much. Either you're pulled in to the drama and laughing with the crew, or you're not going to find much to chew on.

Through the personal lives, Almodovar deals with his usual litany of issues, especially all things sexual. There's an actress/singer/dominatrix on board. The head steward is having an affair with the pilot, who was just caught cheating on the steward with the supposedly hetero co-pilot, who later has sex with another steward. There's the actor who has a personal life that gets dealt with, then he gets shuffled to the back of the movie.

It's all very witty and gay...except. Yes, there's an except in here. The first issue is an issue of sexual assault. All of the second class passengers have been drugged for the movie, as well as their stewardesses. But, the first class denizens get drunk and high on mescaline, and then get horny and fuck each other. One woman, who apparently can't get either the bank guy nor the actor to fuck her moves to second class, and proceeds to blow then fuck herself on a drugged, unconscious guy's dick. It's all supposed to be very light and funny, and the scene is played out for laughs. But, it's kind of risky and gross like Almodovar hasn't played for light laughs in awhile.

The second issue is less damning, and much weirder. During this orgy of ribald first class sexuality, the straights have fairly explicit sex. I mean, it's not full on penetrative, but bodies are certainly banging and riding each other. But, the gays are pulled off screen practically. We see the co-pilot get a blowjob, but we never see the head moving of the steward. And, the 69 he comments on later is totally not shown. And, the pilot and head steward having make up sex, are shown behind closed bathroom doors. They are literally having sex in the water CLOSET.  The gays, for all the openness of the movie, are whisked away to hide their sexuality.

Almodovar seems to not have a problem with this. Which is weird, to me. If we're getting banging heteros, why can't we get a bit of banging homos too? This is a movie made by a gay man, who is basically getting light laughs by hiding gay sexuality in a movie that seems to celebrate all forms of sexuality otherwise. Not to mention, the co-pilot is so deeply closeted that he doesn't even know he's gay. The pilot has to tell the co-pilot that the co-pilot LOVED the dick, and is actually gay.  Plus, the pilot is bisexual and married to a lesbian. The lesbian and the head steward have an arrangement, and this is ok with both of them, even though the pilot thought that he was having a secret affair.

What the fuck is this? The 80s?!  Gay relationships have to be closeted, and shown under a layer of foam? Hetero hookups are celebrated, even if they're rapey? And, woman on man sexual assault is OK?  What is Almodovar trying to say? I know he set this as something retro with his colors and the interesting almost samba music, plus a cabaret interlude of I'm So Excited, but he's not condemning anything. He's practically celebrating the way things used to be. Is that his point? Is this a movie of "weren't things better back then?"

Barring all of these weird sexual hangups that openly gay Pedro Almodovar brings to the table, I'm So Excited! is actually an entertaining movie. Like The Brass Teapot, this is a fun movie even though it had some really nasty politics buried within it. With The Brass Teapot, those politics were nasty racial stereotypes and class issues. But, with I'm So Excited, its even worse as it is practically telling gays to go back in the closet and women that its OK to molest strange men. Can I recommend it? Not with good conscience. It's a fun movie, but damn does it set back sexual politics by a few decades.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Poison (1991): Rage Against the Closet

Poison (1991)
dir: Todd Haynes

It's been 23 years since Poison was made. 22 years before that was Stonewall. 20-26 years before that, Jean Genet wrote three French novels dealing with homosexuality (which wouldn't get English translations until the 60s and into the 70s).

Looking back on Poison from the same distance that Poison relates to Stonewall, which is the same distance from Genet's original sources seems to be important, not only to look at what has changed since the creation of Poison but, also what has stayed the same.

Poison was the first feature length film from Todd Haynes, and also an early entry in the New Queer Cinema movement that happened from the 80s into the 90s. Unlike most of the NQC films, Poison doesn't take its notes from the French New Wave. Haynes was never really interested in that movement. Poison, instead, takes its stylistic notes from pulpier sources: television tabloid, 50s monster movies, and claustrophobic grindhouse films.

Poison is constructed from three disparate stories. Hero, a tabloid expose about a severely antagonistic and abused 7-year-old boy who shoots his father then "flies away." Horror, a 1950s monster movie about a doctor who manages to distill the human sex drive into a liquid form, then drinks it and turns into a leperous killer. Homo, an arthouse grindhouse film about a gay prisoner who falls in love with a new young inmate.

Separately, they tell stories of homosexual life. But, together, these three stories are not just exposing what it is like to be gay in a heterodominant culture, but raging against the closet that these atmospheres create. In Hero, the kid is constantly abused by schoolmates, by teachers, by his parents, and won't or can't stand up for himself. Horror exposes the feeling of being gay in a culture that condemns homosexuality, and the feeling that everybody can see you for what you are even as you try to hide it. Homo exposes the dangers of falling in love while surrounded by a community that will slaughter you if they find out.

While Poison is a work of 1991, it is also a work informed by the original source materials written by Jean Genet in the 1940s. Jean Genet was an interesting early gay icon. A vagabond, a thief, a prostitute, a liar, and a homosexual, his works were the first sources of homosexual identity, and also came with heavy senses of irony, elevating evil to levels of respect, and also having a perverse sense of sadism and power struggles. Genet was one of the first playwrights that Andy Milligan would produce when he was a director in the early 1960s.

Given that Genet was writing in the 1940s, the closet and a condemning culture also figure heavily into his works. Genet himself was arrested and jailed for prostitution and lewd acts, as well as thievery, vagabondage, and fraudulent papers. In his works, people always existed in the face of an oppressive class, whether it is due to homosexuality or just general class struggles.

Sadism/masochism, power struggles, irony, the closet, and an oppressive culture are themes that Haynes would come back to time and again throughout his works, many of which explore through various aspects of the past. Haynes would constantly explore these themes through the pulp medium of American culture as well. Exploring homosexuality through the 1950s lens of a monster movie informs of the hysteria that would frequently accompany the fear of the homosexual. At that time, homosexual bars were being raided (though they were out of the public eye), and homosexuals were also being counted as communists in the great Lavender Scare that accompanied the Red Scare in the 1950s. The communists of the red scare were frequently the metaphor of the monster in the 1950s b-movies, so it makes sense that Haynes is setting up the metaphor of gay sexuality and monster movies, especially given that Haynes was making a movie during the height of the HIV/AIDS scare, which is informing the leprosy of the monster.

In the 1970s, homosexuals were starting to come out of the closet, but were still acting in secrets. Which is informing the story of Homo, where the prisoner is starting to come out in public, but the public is trying to come to grips with it. The warden of Homo writes down homosexual, but asks if it is one word or two. But, then the homoerotic tortures of the prison gangs are intertwined with the homosexual advances between the actual gays in search of love. There is also the abuse of school children for homosexual behaviors, accounting for a bullying trend which would later get mirrored in adulthood.

In the 1980s, homosexuals were starting to die and disappear, just as they were starting to get accepted. The homosexual abuse victim son would save the day, then disappear from life. The TV tabloid format wasn't really perfected until the 1980s, in which it would become a dominant form of expression. Homosexual youth suicide is one of those statistics that was strong in the 1980s, and suicide in general was one of those 1980s themes of high school. But, not only that, the 80s were the start of the HIV/AIDS crisis, where the gays started disappearing from life due to death of a mysterious disease. They didn't jump out of a window, and fly away to a mysterious nowhere. They fucking died.  And those that didn't die, ran away to the big cities, instead of living in the suburban nightmare they grew up in.

The worldly themes of these three films - bullying, HIV/AIDS scare, the closet, mass condemnation, systematic abuse - were all massive issues in the homosexual community in 1991. Still fighting for rights, due to the hiccup that the HIV/AIDS epidemic created from the late 70s into the 90s, the gay community was just now coming back to the activist behaviors that defined its moves into the public in the early 70s. Poison is one of the products of this return to activism. It points to a rage against the homophobia of the world. And, it isn't pretty about it. Poison actually is a toxic movie raging against the life.

23 years later, these issues are still being fought, but there has been significant advances from 1991. Bullying has become one of the nation's hot button topics, time and again, especially with homosexual teen suicide. HIV/AIDS has been reduced to being akin to "gay diabetes" and HIV rates are skyrocketing, especially among the young homosexuals, and moreso in the urban communities that are still resisting homosexual acceptance. Mass acceptance has started, but there is still a huge backlash against the homosexual "agenda." And, celebrities still have to come out of the closet because they're default thought to be heterosexual, and feel the need to hide their homosexuality in order to gain more financial security. But, things are getting better. The poison is starting to get sucked out of the system, but it's still pooled in our culture.

Poison is still a toxic movie, though it doesn't deserve it's NC-17 rating. The movie is a perpetually negative toxin about the ills of American society through the kaleidoscopic viewpoint of American pulp culture. It's ADD in its intercutting, which slows the movie down a bit, and Haynes is still mastering the camera. It's still a cultural milestone of independent cinema, and in the New Queer Cinema, as a form of raging against the machine that is both a product of its time, and an examination of the time past.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Interior. Leather Bar. (2014): Being a Minority

Interior. Leather Bar. (2014)
dir: Travis Mathews, James Franco

I wonder if the gay community that protested Cruising in the 1980s would have protested if they knew that 34 years later Cruising would be used as the basis for a meditation on heteronormativity.

William Friedkin, the director of The Boys in the Band, is a straight man who made an underground thriller about a murder spree set among the gay leather scene of the 1980s. Al Pacino, also a straight man, played a heterosexual cop who has to go undercover in the gay leather scene to catch the murderer. And, of course, Pacino gets caught up in the scene, has sex with the men, and everything gets twisted.

In 1980, of course, gays were far more sensitive about their deviancy than they are now. When a mainstream heterosexual director, who previously made a movie that was condemned by the community for being a negative stereotype, announced his plans to make a movie about murderers in a sexually deviant community, of course the community is going to rally against the movie for fear of it being yet another example of negative stereotyping of a community.

Beyond the protesting gays, Friedkin had to face the MPAA, who slapped Cruising with an X-rating (the NC-17 rating still being a decade off). Friedkin stated that he had to send Cruising back 50 times, losing at least 40 minutes of footage, which is now completely lost as UA has, apparently, destroyed the footage. The footage has been speculated to be mostly scenes in the leather bars that had a lot more hardcore action than what remains in the R-rated film.

James Franco and Travis Mathews have taken it upon themselves to re-imagine what those 40 minutes might have looked like. They didn't have the budget to fully recreate the 40 minutes to the point where they could reincorporate it into a film. They barely had a budget to pay the participants in the film. But, Interior. Leather Bar. isn't even the 40 minutes of footage that they recreated to stand in for the symbolic 40 minutes of footage. That 40 minutes of footage is too heavy a symbol to be recreated in any satisfactory manner (especially since they're not nearly as talented of directors as William Friedkin).

What Mathews and Franco have created is a meditation on what it means to be homosexual in the world of a exploring what it means to be heterosexual in the world of the homosexual. Interior. Leather Bar. is a movie examining what heteronormativity (a term Franco almost uses, but decides to keep things on a more populist level) and the constant bombardment of heterosexual images actually means in terms of the world that's created.

Interior. Leather Bar. centers around Val Lauren, a heterosexual actor who is hired by James Franco to portray the Al Pacino character in the Leather Bar scenes. The character of Val is scripted as a heterosexual who is uncomfortable portraying a homosexual, and who is also uncomfortable with the hardcore homosexual activity that he is being surrounded with. Throughout the film, he deals with his own feelings of being uncomfortable with the sexual activity, as well as with his ideas of what the purpose of this project actually is.

Mathews, who also wrote the screenplay, has created a fictional movie that acts like it is a documentary in order to examine the behavior of hetero people when put in an environment where they are the minority. James Franco, Val Lauren, and a couple other guys are surrounded by gay guys who are doing gay things, including sucking, fucking, paddling, licking boots, and other kinky behavior. Of course, kink and public sex isn't necessarily normal or average for the gay community, which is why he includes the role of an experienced Dom to educate and teach a gay couple on how to act domineering in the part. Kink is as deviant in the gay community as it is in the straight community; it's just a bit more accepted in the gay community as one part of our community.

The main thesis of Interior. Leather Bar., as explained by James Franco, is to burst out of the heteronormative vanilla bubble that is constructed for most people. He opines to Val that Freidkin set Cruising in a dark dirty place in order to make the movie darker and dirtier than normal. Franco says that Pacino had to face his sexuality on the set in these dark places from a distance of seeing the gay leather community as an other. But, Franco then tells Val that he and Val are facing these other constructions from a happy, open, healthier place. That he wants to embrace this other sexuality from a place of openness, even if he isn't perfectly comfortable with the actual acts because they aren't part of his sexuality.

Mathews is sly, though. Through the surrounding of heterosexual main characters with homosexual behavior, he's making a statement about what it means to be gay in the world of heterosexual behavior. Also, a pattern which comes out of Franco's mouth, though not nearly as explicitly as possible. In this one scene, in which he outlays the "thesis" of the film, Franco is laying out Gender Studies 101 theses while also dancing around the terminology to bring the behavior patterns to a more populist audience.

What Franco dances around is that the world that's been constructed for him and Val is a world in which hetero sex, or couples, are used to sell everything from cereal to soap to cars. And, by facing a world surrounded by homosexual behavior, he is, in turn, experiencing what it is like for gays to be surrounded by straight behavior. The world constantly asks homosexuals to participate in hetero behavior. Neil Patrick Harris practically sent this up with his NPH creation in the Harold and Kumar series by having his NPH character be a drug-using, woman-using, straight celebrity. Other gay men are frequently asked to act as heterosexuals in films and television just to make a buck. However, when a straight man is asked to participate in gay behavior, its generally met with fear of a stereotype (especially from agents), and can be faced with "hey, I'm straight. I'm just playing gay!" comments, even from established actors (glaring at you, Michael Douglas).

Mathews sends up the pressure for heteronormative behavior as well. Not only by having Val talk to his girlfriend constantly, but he also scripts a call from Val to his agent. The conversation of Val and his agent is all about how gay sex is pornography, and that many people will see this as a porno, and that Val will be associated with this porno for awhile. Which not only informs of the internal struggle to be completely straight, but also the external pressure to act straight even if you're not.

Along with Kink, Franco is trying to burst America out of its rigid bubble of sexuality. When I reviewed Kink, I commented on how Kink was mainly focused on female alternative sexuality, and tended to distance itself from the male kink perspective. Not necessarily because Kink was afraid of the male sexuality, but because the director was a female and focused on what intrigued her about the project. Interior. Leather Bar. also isn't focused on the whys of the male alternative sexuality, but instead focuses on the internals of male straight and vanilla sexuality. The connection that both movies share, however, is a push toward the normalization of alternative sexualities, and a creation for the sexuality rainbow.

But, and there's always a but, both movies are explicit. Far beyond what would garner either movie an R-rating. Of course, sexuality has been a hiccup for the MPAA in general, and Mathews through Franco comments on that too. Mathews, of course, has been a creator of movies about gay relationships with explicit gay content. His last movie, I Want Your Love was co-produced by the gay porn site Naked Sword, and has been labeled as a split between porno and gay romance. It was also denied screening in Australia. But, gay sexuality has always had a troubling history with the MPAA, guilty of the idea that gays can be shown to adults but not seen fucking. In both Weekend and Keep The Lights On, they were released Unrated. Whether they got slapped with NC-17 ratings, or just bypassed the MPAA altogether is unclear, but they decided that the films would be better released without an MPAA sticker on it than by even thinking of having to cut out the not-that-explicit sexuality that is a key part of either film.

Interior. Leather Bar. and Kink are both confronting the adult fear of sexuality in general. Mathews, through Franco, hoists the usual petard of Americans are OK with seeing violence, death, torture, etc on green-band all-audience trailers, but as soon as you show a hint of gay sexuality, then all hell breaks loose. Even straight sexuality is slapped with R-ratings for anything under the clothes, but a guy getting shot is A-OK. This isn't explored much, and just more of Mathews wanking around with college level 101 critiques of American culture.

The big question of Interior. Leather Bar. is what is it trying to say that Cruising didn't already express 34 years ago? Looking at Cruising, the hypothesis that Mathews through Franco posits is that Cruising was looking at gay alternative sexuality as a deep dark place full of sinister sleaze. As a result of this viewpoint of gay leather as the other, which Cruising never really resolves, Friedkin makes a safe haven for heterosexuals to shun the gay leather community, even as their hetero cipher Pacino is trying to save them from the murderer. Gay leather people may be people who you can't relate to, but certainly they deserve somebody to save them from being killed, right? And, bless Pacino for sacrificing his sexuality to delve into these dark places.

Of course, that was the old viewpoint, still held by many in the community. No disrespect to them, but that viewpoint has changed quite a bit, considering Friedkin's usual misanthropic viewpoint. Friedkin is no less damning of the gay leather community as a dark, sleazy place as he is of southern culture, Washington families, or motels. It's a setting full of people doing things that frequently look sleazy and scary, in no small part because that style turns people on. Friedkin was merely reflecting what he saw.

So, is Interior. Leather Bar. merely deconstructing Cruising in an attempt to attach college-level sociological language to what people will actually experience while watching Cruising? Or, is Franco and Mathews actually creating more of a safe space for Val to explore what it feels like to dive into gay sexuality, and gay culture? Did Franco and Mathews create a movie that expands upon the inversed fish-out-of-water story that was Cruising, or did they merely simplify and deconstruct? That may depend on where you're coming from.

Which brings us to the problem of Interior. Leather Bar. Who's the audience? If I had my way, I'd force every straight person in America to watch this. Every single one of them. It provides a hard look at the culture they live in, and maybe some will be self aware enough to realize that the feelings they're feeling are felt every day by the people who don't share their sexuality. But, it is hardcore gay sexuality as well. So, most straights won't go out to see it. So, is it for the gays? Certainly, gays will go see a movie about gay leather sexuality, especially if it is explicit. But, most gays don't need to be versed in sociological wankery about heteronormative lifestyle, and the straight guys' reactions become more of a comedy than a mirror for their own lifestyle (especially since most of us have had decades of being surrounded by straights). So, will the straights see it just because of James Franco? Who knows.

What I do know is Interior. Leather Bar. is a peculiar provocation of a film that is penetrating and asks the same old questions in new ways. Even if its intended audience will skim over it in the search for their next Adam Sandler film, Mathews and Franco have tried to advance the culture simply by peering into the soul of everyday straight person, and asking them to do the same. By inverting the question, they're simply asking for acceptance of that which you may not like. And, that, is all the difference.

Required viewing.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Keep The Lights On (2012): Cracked Relationship

Keep the Lights On (2012)
dir: Ira Sachs

In my review of Weekend, I lamented that I wanted more mature queer films that didn't reflect my life. I wated ones that told a story of somewhere I wouldn't go. Ostensibly, I was hoping for quality genre films, or other sorts of films that weren't just generic gay characters falling in love. In actuality, I love the type of movie that Keep the Lights On actually represents. The Leaving Las Vegas / Lifetime Original Movie obsessive relationship ruined by drugs genre romance that dictates the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship that exists, but that I would never actually be a part of.

When I say that the relationship actually exists, Keep the Lights On is the emotional braindump of Ira Sachs, who fictionalized his own relationship with Bill Clegg. And, to be fair, Clegg wrote about his own life in the memoir, Portrait of a Young Addict. For his part, Ira Sachs has faith and devotion to the relationship still, and it shows through his sensitivity to the subject matter at hand.

What Keep the Lights On focuses on is the creeping influences of drugs and infidelity to a multi-year homosexual relationship between Erik (the Ira Sachs character) and Paul (the Bill Clegg character). Paul and Erik meet over a NYC party line in 1998, where Paul is recreationally smoking dope and introducing Paul to drugs as well. Both being successful white gay men, they fall into a relationship.

By 2000, the edges are already starting to show. Paul disappears for long periods of time. Erik catches him on the party line again while he's out of town. Erik finds Paul passed out in the middle of the hall. They conduct an intervention. Paul goes to rehab.

But that isn't the end, and these two people keep orbiting each other. Obsession. Addiction. AIDS. Life. For another 6 years, they run in and out of each other's lives. Until the end.

Where Weekend felt like Generic Gay Life 101, Keep the Lights On is a very specific movie exploring what it means to actually love somebody who is possibly one of the worst possible people that you could be around, and that could be around you. Sachs is trying to explore, on screen, what it meant for him to love an addict and how hard it was to figure out what the right thing to do was, nevertheless to do those things.

My main concern with Keep the Lights On is that Erik isn't a saint. Sure, he's not the drug addict and the catalyst of all the bad actions in the film. But, Erik's possible enabling in the first two years is glossed over, heavily. Frequently, throughout the film, Erik is shown as the martyr for his love. Even when he's being humiliated in a hotel room, or taking revenge drugs, he is shown as nothing but compassionate.

Keep the Lights On actually does address a huge lifestyle problem in the gay community: crack and speed. While this is also called party and play, or pnp, this is currently seen as a major component in the current rise of HIV among gay youth in the population. But, Keep the Lights On doesn't turn into an after school special suggesting that the addict will spin into a hellish descent, a la Requiem for a Dream. Instead, Sachs keeps things melancholy, and creates a lament for a relationship that was ruined by a chemical.

With Keep the Lights On, a move towards mainstream filmmaking, as well as quality filmmaking, is still apparent, as with Weekend. But, what it presents is a move to reinclude the lost danger that queer cinema had when the LGBTQ community was on the edges in the 70s, 80s, and even into the 90s. The edginess of films like Taxi Zum Klo or The Living End or even Mala Noche have made way for more mainstream acceptability, and the community is finally coming back to be able to tell the stories that may not be acceptable in the hetero mainstream.

Still, Ira Sachs created a heady, romantic, lamenting for a relationship that he has been trying to get over. In doing so, he also created a siren call for the community at large. The drugs that have taken over several aspects of the community. But, largely, Keep the Lights On is a well-made relationship drama which laments the way that drugs affects people's lives.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Weekend (2011): Normalization of Homosexuality

Weekend (2011)
dir: Andrew Haigh

And so, it's come to this...

This is exactly the type of movie I have been resistant to including in this blog. The only reason to include Weekend is because it is about the homosexual lifestyle. In the most normal, boring, manner that pervades heterosexual movies, Weekend makes a movie about two gay dudes who fall in love over the course of 2 days before one goes off to Oregon for a couple of years.

If this set up sounds familiar, it's because it is the type of time-sensitive plot that has been happening in hetero movies for ages, most obviously in Richard Linklater's Before Midnight.

These two gay guys come together over a weekend, fuck, talk, fuck, talk, go out, do drugs, fuck. They both have their own issues. One is an artist who makes taped recordings of all his conquests as an "art project" though its almost a way to distance himself from his conquests. The other writes about the dudes on his laptop as a way to prove he's living. They both have feelings about coming out and gay marriage and the normalization of gay culture.

And, blah blah blah.

This is a movie for people who like to watch people who act like people do things they could be doing themselves. There isn't any real exploration of relationships here. The comments of the world seem to be a sort of How To Be Gay 101, for people who haven't learned how to work that into their lives yet. Maybe it is made for straight people, in order to shove gay sex romance into their faces and see how they respond. But, as the artist says in the movie, gay people just want to see dick (Tom Cullen never shows his), straight people don't care about gays. And, so, it's just two normal-ish people doing normal things for 12 hours.

I remember when Kids came out, and everybody was all "ZOMG." I saw it, and was like "yeah yeah, blah blah blah. Why wasn't I doing this while watching this movie?" Same for Weekend. My whole feeling coming out of it is "This movie reflects life well enough, but why am I watching it instead of actually going out and hooking up myself?"

I wish it didn't feel so much like Gay Basics class, where the two characters are overexplaining every aspect of gay life. As a gay man, that sort of thing is already covered, and has already been covered, by the coming out genre in the 90s and early 00s. Especially with Beautiful Thing and Get Real, or any number of other gay movies that have come out since then. I have been wanting gay movies about gay lives that aren't so squeaky clean and honest. Weekend doesn't fill that need.

Is it good?  Sure, it's subjectively good. It's well paced, it's gorgeously shot, it has 2 beautiful men having sex, its an honest story, it's well acted. It has a lot going for it. It's just not what I want.

Monday, February 17, 2014

LA Zombie (2010): Fucking the Status Quo

LA Zombie (2010)
dir: Bruce LaBruce

Bruce LaBruce is a provocateur, first and foremost. His films have, traditionally, ridden a punk line between political statement and pornography, with both vying for screen time. Most of the political statements are of the anarcho-punk nature, but they always seemed to be more pointed to a solution than to the ills of society, and the sex was there to make you take note.

With L.A. Zombie, Bruce LaBruce isn't providing any answers. But, he's seeing a hell of a lot of problems.

First off, any reader should know there are two versions of L.A. Zombie in existence. A 67-minute cinema and film festival edition, and a 103 Hardcore edition. You'll know which one you're watching because, LaBruce retitled the full movie to LA Zombie Hardcore in the credits. And, there is a lot of gay hardcore sex (a lot).

The movie centers around a being who emerges from the Pacific Ocean as a zombie with vampiric fangs and a gaping red mouth. Throughout the movie this being changes into a regular homeless man, and also a beast with huge teeth or horns, and an modified fantasy cock. The essence of this character, played by Francois Sagat, could be that he's a schizophrenic homeless man. And, he could also be a zombie and a monster, which is how society regularly sees our mentally ill homeless population.

Homeless Zombie Monster, once out of the ocean, hitches a ride with a guy, who promptly crashes his truck and dies with gigantic gaping holes and a heart on the outside of his body. HZM then proceeds to fuck the gigantic gaping holes with his deformed fantasy cock, and ejaculates black semen in order to bring the driver back to life and in order to have a full-on hardcore sex scene with the living, but still completely injured, driver.

Much like David DeCoteau with his 1313 series, this pattern repeats itself rather ad nauseum. Guy dies. HZM sees the dead guy. HZM fucks dead guy back to life. And, then they have hardcore sex. Repeat.

With almost no dialogue whatsoever, Bruce LaBruce is forcing us to watch the images and see if we actually care about this. The sex, for the most part, isn't shown as erotic, being largely overlaid with somber boner-killing music that makes the sex almost dirge-like. The one exception to that is a 4-person leather orgy which is punctuated by men making manly gay sounds of passionate orgiastic gay sex.

The characters that HZM runs into, though, are actually symbols of the ills of society that we're constantly ignoring, or not caring about. The truck driver represents the ills of driving. There is a business deal that goes bad, with the business man surrounded by his white collar crime money. A black gang member who is dumped, dead, in an alley. A homeless guy who died alone in his refrigerator box home. And, four leather guys who are killed in a drug deal.

The film ends with HZM crying tears of blood as he looks over societies ills, before he digs the soft dirt over a grave marked "Law" as a storm brews overhead. Whether LaBruce is saying that the law of the land has created these horrible conditions, or whether he's saying that HZM wants to fuck Law back to life to fix these things is unclear. HZM never finds the body of Law to fuck it back to life. And, law never returns to the land.

Bruce LaBruce is creating a weird pornographic blend of political commentary that is pointed straight at the materialistic heart of society, namely American society. He isn't fetishizing these ills. He shows that he has the ability to create hardcore porno that's kind of hot when he actually shows us the pre-death 4-man leather orgy, which is the only scene I found stimulating. LaBruce is exposing these ills in society to the gay art house audience.

But, his main problem is that he puts in a lot of hardcore sex into this film. I mean, A LOT. We're talking about 10+ minute scenes of semi-unerotic blowjobs and fucking. Given that LaBruce cut out these scenes for the festival circuit, it leads to the question of why film them like this at all?  What's the statement he's trying to make, if any? Is he trying to say, "if you're bored of this, imagine if you were living like this?" Or, is he just trying to provoke some sort of shock value out of gay sex, but ending up with boredom?

LaBruce isn't a master filmmaker. Never was. Never will be. He's a punk filmmaker. He knows how to shock, or get a reaction. When you watch Sagat's unadorned cock starting to probe the shotgun wound in a guy's head, you're still a bit shocked, even if he's penetrated many other wounds before that. LA Zombie is almost Cronenbergian in its obsession with blood, wounds, and sex and the intersection thereof. Blood and open holes exist so that HZM can fuck people in their wounds back to life. But, LaBruce is no Cronenberg. His set ups and shots are like mid-level porn quality in the mid-90s. And, his editing is mildly atrocious.

But, does it provoke? Does it communicate his intention? Not as well as he hoped. And, it is in this that LA Zombie is ultimately a failure. Sure, I just spent an inordinate number of words talking about LA Zombie's cataloging of society's ills, but a lot of movies do that. LaBruce brings nothing much to the table, except, possibly, that we're killing ourselves. It's a sour note, in part because its a sour message that you have to give some credit for trying.

But, I do miss overly punk LaBruce.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Devil's Carnival (2012): Aesop's Fables for Goths

The Devil's Carnival (2012)
dir: Darren Lynn Bousman

At a certain point in The Devil's Carnival, I thought "this would be awesome, if I were watching a community of amateurs doing this for free in a tent in the desert." Frequently, it seems like director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw 2-4) called his group together to say "Can you guys come help with this? It'll be fun! Not much money in it though. But, really, I won't take much of your time."

The whole genre of The Devil's Carnival fits Bousman's last film Repo! The Genetic Opera. Bousman's motley group consists of goth-industrial "singers," comic book artists, non-singing actors and actresses, and probably some array of actual burlesque and carnival folks. He had used many of this cast in Repo!, but had more success with the different singers at the focus of Repo!, including the now absent Sarah Brightman. But, without that powerhouse, we're left to listen to a bunch of non-singers warble their way through atonal circus-inspired carnival musical songs.

The Devil's Carnival is merely an excuse to string together three of Aesop's Fables. There is The Dog and His Reflection, The Scorpion and the Frog, and Grief and His Due. Since Aesop's Fables are generally short and to the point, we have to fill time with framing device.

In the real world, there are three characters who are about to die, and actually do die, each representing the three different stories. The first is a guy who locks himself in a bathroom, depressed, and then slits his wrists mourning his son. The second is a woman who is being chased by the cops. And, the third is a woman who is being beaten by her boyfriend. When they all die, they get transported to Hell, where they have to suffer through a short couple of songs based around their respective fables.

The woman being chased by the cops is a thief and always looking for material goods. Her story chases after bigger and bigger jewels, and when she sees a person in a mirror with a large amount of jewels, she dies. The woman being beaten goes from bad boy to bad boy, always trusting even though it doesn't benefit her. And the guy is looking for his dead son, but ultimately finds redemption.

Ultimately, in this movie, women are actually evil. Both women suffer through punishment for their transgressions. The greedy gold digger is also a liar. She doesn't escape. The habitually abused spouse is blamed because she trusts too easily, and her boyfriends are never punished for being bad boys (which, actually, goes against The Scorpion and the Frog, where the Scorpion stings the frog midway across the pond and they both die). But, the suicidal father is forgiven. So, no men are ever punished.

Besides the hideous streak of misogynistic patriarchal moralism, The Devil's Carnival is only passable in flashes. Sometimes, especially when Terrance Zdunich, Nivek Ogre, or Ivan L Moody are on screen, the carnival singing and music actually are sonically acceptable. They have a professional knowledge of tonality and atonality that the rest of the movie seems to not be able to reach with its non-professional singers. The sets are great for an amateur-style setup, creating more of a stagey feeling to it.

Which brings us to the question of "how much community feeling is acceptable?" In my review of Go Fish, I gave a lot of lee-way to the amateur community nature of Go Fish because it felt like a low-budget film that needed to be by a community. Sure actors flubbed lines, probably unintentionally, but it felt more home-style. Yet, for The Devil's Carnival, the amateur but we're trying nature grated on my nerves. Perhaps, it is because I enjoyed Repo! The Genetic Opera on an actual sonic level as well as on an entertainment level, thus my expectation levels were higher. Or, maybe the production levels of low-budget have gotten so professional looking that movies which would have previously looked like Go Fish (in black and white 16mm) now look pseudo-professional. Or, maybe its because I expect more from a director of 8 other films.

But, in any case, I can't get past that feeling like Bousman wants us to forgive the mistakes or off singing in order to really like this community film. It's a really high hurdle. Combine that with the misogyny of the film which condemns all females to hell, and you have a short film that is a bit toxic, and not in the good way.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Strange Circus (2005): The Circus of your Mind

Strange Circus (2005)
dir: Sion Sono

Readers of Japanese Manga should be used to the type of subject matter contained within this film. Watchers of Takeshi Miike might even be used to it. But, Strange Circus will be no less shocking to those who think they should be accustomed to the content.

What is in Strange Circus? Incest, rape, murder, violence, dismemberment, paralysis, and psychosis. You know? Disney fun for the whole family. And, it's handled with all the subtlety and sensitivity that any Japanese over-the-top movie brings to the screen.

Strange Circus opens with a carnival/circus where a drag queen invites a 14 year old girl to be executed on the stage guillotine. The girl accepts his offer, and comments, in voice over, that she thinks this is where she was born. But, the carnival is only a metaphorical framing device of the story within the film. The story is about a daughter who accidentally sees her parents having sex, gets caught by her father, then is molested, and raped by her father. Her father grooms her in grotesque ways, like locking her in a cello case with eyes cut out to watch her father have sex with her mother.

The story is disconnected and dreamy, with the mother and daughter frequently interchanging positions. The mother is jealous of the daughter's new sexual position in the family. The daughter accidentally kills the mother during one of the mother's jealous rages over an earring.

But, all of this is the latest manuscript of an author, played by the same actress who plays the mother in the stories. In this reality, the author is attended by a new editor from her publishing house who waits on her hand and foot while also reading through her manuscript.

You'd be more than a little forgiven if you thought this has the same types of themes as Miike's Audition, which is also about a father figure who auditions young girls to be his lover, only to be tortured for his abuse of the system and falling into the lamentable pattern of seeing women as objects for his sex or love. And, really, that movie was one of Miike's first films that seems to be a nuclear weapon aimed by the new generation of Japan at the old cultures of Japan. It seemed to rip open the old school ideas of sex and dominance, while forcing its own values on the screen.

Sono's Strange Circus, participates in the same knee-jerk cinema that also seems to be about how the old customs of Japan fucked up the new generation. Especially with it's conclusion, which doesn't exactly come out of left field but reaches a fever pitch normally seen in anime and manga. Sono seems to be saying "look at how you raped and fucked up Japan, assholes." Though, at times, one also checks in with the Natural Born Killers-esque question of "Can you condemn without also indulging?" Sono lingers over the various sexual abuses quite frequently and, while not completely and penetratively graphic, still graphic enough to be disturbing. It's still almost on a Showgirls rape scene level graphic. Which led to the question, is he indulging as he's condemning, or is he only indulging for entertainment, or only condemning? And, does it even matter?

The long form continuation of rape in this movie is really squeamish, and also leads to one wondering if this is almost a normalization of rape. Even if it is disturbing, the sheer amount of it almost has a numbing effect, even if Sono ultimately condemns it.

As a piece of shock cinema, however, Strange Circus certainly is shocking. It is also a frequently beautiful film. Sono makes the film look as lush and gorgeous as he can. The lushness takes away from the impact that a more raw, less stylized film would take, for better or worse. If you like shock cinema, this is one of the entries that you may need to watch. But, it will push your buttons, and maybe for no real reason.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hotel (2001): Losing Your Mind On Screen

Hotel (2001)
dir: Mike Figgis

Hotel, upon its release, baffled everybody. Critics wondered what it was, and tried to pigeonhole the movie into one genre. Audiences avoided because it looked, sounded like, and was a more complicated extension of Figgis' easier movie Time Code.

From the standpoint of 2001, it was hard to figure out what was going on. Figgis didn't offer any clues either, probably because he didn't quite know. He declared it a work of art. Some said it was pretentious crap. Others saw it as a movie trying to be every movie. They're all right. They're all wrong.

On the surface, Hotel is like five separate movies all competing with each other. It starts out with a cannibal horror movie (movie 1), when John Malkovich checks in to the hotel, is treated to a final dinner, and then is presumably killed to become food. But, this plot is mainly dropped for the majority of the next two hours.

The main thrust of the movie is watching a cast and crew attempt to create a Dogme version of The Duchess of Malfi (movie 2). There are also scenes from the movie they're making of The Duchess of Malfi (movie 3). At one point, there is also a documentary filmmaker intending to do a feature on the Dogme movement, who is making the documentary of this movie (movie 4). The executive producers also seem to be involved in an erotic thriller of some sort with hookers and assassinations (movie 5).

A horror film, a behind-the-scenes, a Dogme movie, a pop documentary, and an erotic thriller. None of these genres blend together. Indeed, they almost seem to fight each other, as if there is some death struggle for control of the audience's attention.

So, what is this movie, really?  It's actually a document of watching somebody lose his mind behind the screen.

In 2001, Mike Figgis was still in his art house darling mode. He had a lot of good will attributed to him through his success with the traditional Leaving Las Vegas, and had followed that up with a good/bad run including the critically liked The Loss of Sexual Innocence. In 2000, he came up with the experimental four-camera single story Hollywood film Time Code. While the four camera split-screen technique was applauded, the story was seen as basic and undeserving of the experiment.

With the general dismissal of Time Code's story (which wasn't the point of the movie), Figgis seemed to finally say, "fuck it" and lost his damned mind. Then, we get this movie, Hotel.

After Hotel, Figgis did a few episodes of Television, with one last attempt at traditional filmmaking with Cold Creek Manor, a terrible revamping of Straw Dogs. Otherwise, his disenchantment was obviated, and in Hotel, it was actually on screen. But, nobody knew that it was the end of Figgis' line at the time.

Everything about Hotel is a specific aspect of Hollywood, and probably one that Figgis himself hated. The people who run the hotel are shown as cannibals who will dine with you and indulge your feckless stories, even as they're getting ready to dine on your corpse. The director (Rhys Ifans) of The Duchess of Malfi is an egotistical backstabbing asshole who yells at everybody because he can, and makes mincemeat out of his producer (David Schwimmer) in front of the cast. The executive producer will make business calls while paying for women to do weird sexual tricks for him (like dunking her breasts in champagne glasses of milk), while also trying to patch things up with his wife. There is also an assassination attempt on the director, who spends 15 minutes bleeding out on the floor in a coma as the producer and actors come over to try to talk to him without realizing he's been shot.

The documentary filmmaker is the worst of pop-internet culture, and is being hosted by a perky bubble-gum snapping Hispanic hotty who seems to trade on her breasts as much as her intelligence. Dogme is what was becoming a huge phony filmmaking trend (championed by Lars Von Fucking Trier) and something people went gaga over even though it was a waste of attempting to get something real and sincere on screen. Which is why the use of a period piece in Dogme is hilarious. In the end, the producer finishes directing the movie himself, when suddenly the director wakes out of his coma to (probably) take the full credit.

Watching Hotel as a single contiguous story is an attempt in futility. Watching Hotel as a satire on Hollywood and the chaos that it perpetrates is the only way to make any sort of sense of Hotel. It's like a metaphorical tin hat tract of paranoia. Figgis pulls no punches, either. He's scathing in this, leaving no body untainted. Once you settle in to imagining yourself at the center of this film, and that all these things are forces acting on you, you'll find it a hilarious, angry, bitter, raging asshole, primal scream of a film. Trying to make something coherent out of it will leave you crying in a corner.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Frances Ha (2013): Losers Dancing through Life

Francis Ha (2013)
dir: Noah Baumbach

Let's open with this statement: I hate this movie.

Not just hate, but HATE. This movie is about whiny white people who do stupid shit yet have no consequences.

Take Frances, for example. She is pressured into moving in with her boyfriend, but her loyalty to her "best friend" keeps her from taking the leap, and she breaks up with him. Because her boyfriend needs to be answered right then and there. Jesus, he's a fucking spouse abuser control freak waiting to happen. But, then her "best friend" doesn't even tell Frances that she is looking for another place to move to.

Then, Frances moves to the couch with two guys, who seem gay but apparently aren't. One is a cute guy who seems into Frances but they move themselves into the Friend Zone. The other is a guy who seems to not be able to stand her because she's fucking annoying, and he's fucking self-centered. Both of them are trust fund babies.

Of course, Frances is depending on being in some Christmas Show. Which she fights to wedge herself into despite it being obvious she isn't wanted. And, because she isn't good, she's dropped. So, she goes home for the holidays, then off to Paris to stay in a friend of a friend's pied a terre. That apartment's owner had only met her once, so of course they offer it for free to Frances.

Meanwhile, the "best friend" is in a relationship with a sweet rich dude, but she's so bitter and angry that it never lasts.

Frances, out of pride, declines a front desk job in NYC at her dance company to move out to Poughkeepsie to work as a server?!  And, then, somehow, she moves back to NYC and gets a job that she can live on and becomes a mildly successful choreographer. Or, at least successful enough to live in her own apartment. Which is the key sign of success or some rot.

Are we supposed to feel anything for these people who just need to stop talking? Frances can't say anything right, and is utterly and constantly focused on herself and how everything affects her life. And, she tells lengthy stories of no interest about friends who had hooked up in college, though nobody cares because she doesn't tell us why anything is interesting. It is as boring as she is. And, her dance is as stupid as this movie is. It's supposed to look like a mistake, because, as she glibly puts it, she "likes things that looks like mistakes." Because they resemble her mistakes.

In essence, this is the story of an annoying terrible dancer, who goes to California, Paris, Poughkeepsie, and back to NYC in order to face up to the fact that she'll never be a famous dancer, and has to "settle" for being an acceptable choreographer. Poor baby.

Of course, this is representative of the hipster lifestyle. It's OK to be as annoyingly self-centered as these assholes and to use and abuse wealthier pseudo-friends in order to make your own life easier until you can't stand them anymore. Frances sees herself as poor, but the one Friend Zone guy tells her that's insulting to poor people, or something. It's all about entitlement, and trying to move past it. But, Frances Ha skims over the line between being entitled and getting to the solution. She just, somehow, makes it happen. Magic or something. In NYC. Yeah.

Besides that, there is the hipster aesthetic which is the chewing up of the past in order to vomit out something seen as cool because it references something else. Baumbach is trying to emulate Woody Allen's Manhattan, or Francois Truffaut, in many of his moments. But, frequently, his shots are just basic, boring, ugly, bland, and have no sense of depth. The cinematography is as flat and lifeless as the characters that inhabit the frame.

Fuck this movie.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Theatre of Blood (1973): Using the Stage for Revenge

Theatre of Blood (1973)
dir: Douglas Hickox

Rarely has a b-movie had such a high intellectual price of entry. This movie is custom made for fans of Shakespeare who also really like Vincent Price, and bloody low-budget horror movies. Given the amount of death in Shakespeare's tragedies, one might think that this has some crossovers.

Vincent Price is Edward Lionheart, a terrible Shakespearean actor who held a final season of Shakespearean tragedies, in which he played the lead and was panned for all of his performances. At some pre-film awards ceremony, he expected to get a "Critic's Choice Award," but was humiliated instead, and subsequently attempts suicide. He survives to exact his revenge on the ones who deserve it most: the critics. He starts killing the critics using the methods of various Shakespearean plays in the order he performed them in his last season. During the sequences, he also performs the choice speeches that surround the murder.

In order to fully appreciate this movie, it helps to have a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare. And, by cursory, I mean, knowledge of no less than 8 Shakespearean plays: Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Henry VI Part 1, Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Titus Andronicus.

Why do you need all of this knowledge? Because the death scenes are made into absurdist weird set pieces that seem like obscure oblique ways to kill people without any knowledge of their actual origins. Even with the knowledge of their origins, but without knowing the actual plays, the scenes are still rampant odes to some of the most famous scenes, and some of the least famous scenes, in Shakespeare with the dialogue stolen wholesale from the plays.

I can't imagine people who don't enjoy Shakespeare finding much enjoyment out of this movie. It seems like a prank in order to get you to eat your vegetables. If you find Shakespearean language dense and impenetrable, especially when parceled out at a spoken speed, you'll probably hate this.

Those who have studied Shakespeare sometimes are appalled by the sheer amount of violence in Shakespeare's plays, and this isn't for them either. The horror-comedy tropes are in full spectacle here, using and abusing all of Shakespeare's most violent tendencies.

But, for the crossover market, this is a perfect evisceration of both the supposed politeness of Shakespeare, and also a way to watch people get their secret jollies out on screen. Shakespeare was never polite. He was always just dense. But, his plays were always brutal.

But, then there's the second half of this movie, which is watching Vincent Price murder all of his critics who were so hoity-toity they couldn't appreciate him in the likes of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, or Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, just to name a couple of his then-recent films. And, as such, he was going to hoist them on their own petard, so to speak. If it's Shakespeare they want, it's Shakespeare they'll get!!!

Plus, he always wanted to do Shakespeare, and he got to chew the scenery as he always loved to do and was so good at. But, that almost takes backseat to getting revenge on the critics for their need for high culture in film.

Will you enjoy it? Do you like Shakespeare and b-horrors? It's the most fun you can have watching Vincent Price, unless you don't get Shakespeare. And, that can be a high price of admission for many people. If you have that, it is amazing.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Martyrs (2008): The world is corrupt

Martyrs (2008)
Dir: Pascal Laugier

If you're going to watch Martyrs, its best to go in blind.  With that in mind, don't read this review. It will be spoiler filled, and probably rambling, as I try to come to terms with the movie.

No, really, I'm serious.  The movie works best if the only thing you know is nothing. If you haven't seen it, skip this review. And, if you have, please join in.

Last call.

Martyrs. The only torture porn movie that I've been fighting with for a few days. It almost seems as if it has a point. But, it may not be. It almost seems as if it is a cosmic joke played on the viewers of the horror genre. But, it may not be. And, therein lies the theme of the movie.

Just in case people aren't going to actually WATCH the movie before reading this article (and I don't blame them), I'm going to go through a walkthrough of the movie as, there are going to be themes that parallel in both halves.

Martyrs opens with a young girl, Lucie, escaping capture in the middle of an industrial park, running, scarred, and screaming. She is rescued, and taken into the custody of a group, but is haunted by an abusive female ghostly being stolen from any litany of J-horror, like The Grudge or Ringu.

Fast forward 15 years. We're thrust into a middle-upper class familial scene of two adults and two kids. One kid is a slacker boy (played by young indie genius Xavier Dolan), and the second is a medal-winning swimmer girl. The boy just dropped out of college because he didn't want to get a law degree. They sit down to breakfast and we get a sense of this family.

A knock on the door interrupts breakfast. Father opens it, and it's the older version of Lucie. With a shotgun. Which she uses to quickly exterminate all four members of the household.

After the extermination, Lucie calls Anna, her best friend from the group home whom had also been her confidant, and Anna comes to comfort Lucie while cleaning up the mess. Lucie is still haunted by the earlier spectre, who physically slashes her. Which causes Anna to question whether Lucie actually killed the right people. Eventually, Lucie kills herself, and, as Anna is still cleaning up, because now her fingerprints are everywhere, she discovers a rabbit hole under a cabinet leading to an icy lair of rooms.

And, this is where the movie takes a hard right.

Anna discovers a scarred and emaciated girl in the lair, chained up, with a heavy metal headpiece stapled to her head. She takes her out, cleans her up, removed the headpiece with a great amount of gore. And, just as she's leaving, a group of people in black clothing invade and kidnap Anna, taking her down to their lair.

They explain that they are a cult in search of the afterlife. They have discovered that, through extreme pain and suffering, some people can become "martyrs" and they can see the afterlife while they are still living. Women have a better chance at it than men, which is why they only torture girls. But, most girls are only "victims" in which they suffer and then go crazy, sometimes seeing things or fearing things that aren't there. As with Lucie and her haunted spectre of the girl she left behind.

Through this, Anna becomes the next subject of the experiments. She is fed disgusting gruel, which she constantly refuses to eat and gets slapped for it. She then is beat by a taller, stronger man, who wakes her up every time she passes out in order to beat her again. Then she refuses to eat and slapped again. Then beat again. Then has her hair forcibly cut. Then starved again. And the cycle goes on.

Finally, Anna sees Lucie who tells her to let go. Let go of her fear. And just accept it. And, through this advice, she stops fighting, and starts accepting her fate. The torture amps up until she is skinned alive, until all that is left is her face.

Yes. You read that right. by the end of the movie, Anna is skinned with only her muscles showing, exposed to strong sun lamps, and through this, she sees the afterlife. This is shown to the audience as a series of abstract light dances. She whispers to the head of the cult about it before she dies. When the head is supposed to tell everybody about it, she unmasks herself. Taking off her eyelash, and letting down her hair. Wiping away her makeup. When she is retrieved by an assistant, the following conversation happens:

Leader: "Can you imaging the afterlife."
Assistant: "No."
Leader: "Keep doubting."

Then, she shoots herself. End.

And, that's what Martyrs is. Two movies hammered together with little more but a rabbit hole or a hinge to link the two. Stylistically, the two movies are also night and day. But, they hold each other in a way of wrapping their arms around each other.

The first film is much more of a sub-Alexandre Aja film. It's feels like a lamer attempt at a High Tension style extreme horror. There's the questioning of what reality is, whether Lucie is wrong or right, the tension of Anna having to control herself, clean up the house, and keep Lucie calm and/or sane. The mother even revives at one point, only to be re-murdered by Lucie. It's a half-assed attempt to recreate the success of High Tension, but never stands up to the quality of film that Aja created with High Tension (even if that movie was more obvious).

But, then the second film flips to Hostel as directed by Michael Winterbottom. Martyrs takes as much of a distance towards what's happening as Anna's captors take to her torture. It becomes sterile, and brutal, with much punching and beating. But, it happens, and it is inevitable. The only way out is through. And, the length of the sequence numbs the audience to make us feel that the only way to finish the movie is to survive the infliction.

In both halves, however, Laugier neuters the hope of everybody. Lucie is seeking salvation from her haunting by the systematic murder of the family whom she remembered as her captors. But, she is ultimately murdered by her figment. The cult leader is also seeking salvation for her inflicting of the abuse, but is ultimately murdered by the knowledge. There are no answers that make it suitable to create such an atmosphere.

Revenge is wrong, as it doesn't erase your memories. Abuse for information is wrong, as it isn't really the answer you want. And, in the end, nobody is any happier with the end result. In a way, the movie is about the atmosphere of the time it was made. While this is a French movie, this is also still while Guantanamo Bay was at the forefront of international talks. And, America's war on terror was still be discussed by many, especially in our relentless pursuit of Osama Bin Laden.

Martyrs offers no answers. No solutions. It doesn't offer up a moralistic "treat people OK" as Anna, who only wants to help Lucie, the murdered family, and the victimized girl she discovers, ends up being skinned alive. We have no idea if she actually saw anything. "Keep doubting" is a strange translation, if it is direct. Maybe there was nothing after. Maybe it all was a cosmic joke. But, Anna suffers, and the only person who "benefits" takes the knowledge with her. Will the cycle go on? We're not told.

In a way, Martyrs is an extension of the new wave of French literature that has been coming across into America. The writer I associate most with it is Michel Houellebecq, in that both seem to see society as ultimately diseased. It all started with the eradication of industry in the Western world. Then, there was a bunch of rich people who torture people under whatever guise you choose. They torture for philosophical knowledge. Or, perhaps just for some vague sense of safety for the country. Yet, everything that they do is empty. And, sullen.

You leave Martyrs disgusted, which is nothing new for something this brutal. But, there is a profound sense of sadness. Which is something new. It is a melancholic film along the lines of the recent Lars Von Trier films, of late. But, yet, the finale is almost the ultimate of knee-jerk "Fuck you." And, your initial reaction may be that the world is all one sick joke. Sort of akin to the feeling left by Melancholia or even A Serious Man. And, perhaps one may suspect that the joke is by Laugier.  But, there's something else at work. And, you think.

And think.

And think.

Martyrs sticks with you. Not for the sheer violence. Not for the graphic imagery. Not for any of the usual horror elements. But, for the metaphor. It's a movie by a guy who sees the world as diseased. And, it offers no exit. Is it worth it? Is it good?  Well, both movies aren't what you're expecting. They're not scary, so much as disturbing. And, isn't that what you really want? Maybe not. But, at least it will make you think.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Tulse Luper Suitcases Part 3: From Sark to Finish (2004): Writers are corrupt

The Tulse Luper Suitcases Part 3: From Sark to Finish (2004)
dir: Peter Greenaway

In the previous 2 movies, Greenaway has taken the time to explore each stop of Tulse Luper's episodic life. He would spend 40 minutes on each station, and linger on each stage to explore the themes each episode reveals. But, for a reason I haven't entirely fathomed yet, Greenaway turns up the pacing in Part 3, rushing through the final 10 episodes in one 2 hour blast. Some of these episodes seem to be 2 minutes in length, while he spends an extraordinary amount of time both on Sark, and near a border between the East and West that developed in Europe.

After Tulse Luper's escape from Northern France, he finds himself on a coast on the island of Sark, which is just outside of Normandy. On Sark, he develops himself as a writer, writing stories on the cliffs of the beach in which he is now trapped. There he is visited by three sisters, each of which lust after him, and then decide that none can have him.

Sark itself, is an island that belongs to Guernsey, a British dependency off the coast of France, which also has its own parliament. This is an island that is 2.1 sqmi in area, and also has a population of 600.  This island exists. And, from 1940-1945, it was occupied by the Germans during World War II. But, unlike other significant locations, Greenaway doesn't even explain what Sark is.

Greenaway's focus on storytelling, and the three sisters, explores the difference between Parts 1 and 2, and Part 3. Part 3 begins to explore the sick rotting interior of the writer. Its an attempt to focus on both propaganda and the dangers of fiction. The rivers of Europe were beginning to fill with corpses, as World War II was coming to a close. The Nazis, believing they were doing the right thing, were killing the corrupt (Jews, homosexuals, dissidents, etc) in 3s. They would tie them up, and kill two of them, then throw them into a river to let the third drown. At least, in Greenaway's world.

Finally, Tulse ended up at a border between the west and the east, as a prisoner (as usual). There, he was forced to write 1001 stories for the guard's wife, whom he was also schtupping in order to give her a child. Eventually, many of the still surviving characters end up at this gate, in an attempt to get him across. And, in the end, he makes it.

Ultimately, in the final episode, we discover this whole 3 movie epic is actually an in-movie fiction. Tulse Luper actually dies in Episode 1, and the other episodes have been a fictional character created by that friend mentioned in the beginning, Martino Knockavelli. Sure, Martino would pop up periodically to involve himself, but the whole movie is a fiction within a fiction.

Greenaway, by exposing this whole history, and pseudo-documentary, to be a complete meta-fiction, is engaging in a conversation about the corruption of documentaries, as well as the corruption of the screen, and the corruption of writers in general. He focused much of this part on Luper's writing, including his 1001 fictions, and his cliff writing, but Luper didn't exist, and those stories were actually the fiction of Knockavelli. As such, the documentaries are the works of the victors, and the ruling class.

Part 3 completely rewrites the understanding of Parts 1 and 2, which had been hinted at by the out-of-time Moutessiers in Part 2. And the unverifiable Mormons of Part 1. Greenaway is having a lark, and playing a game, which is in line with the cinema he engages in. He exposes trappings, boredom and also tries to subvert our expectations at every turn. After a 6 hour investment, we don't expect that our whole story has been a lie by Greenaway.

How does the audience deal with this information? What are we supposed to do with this/ Is it all a complete lark, as it seemed to be in The Holy Mountain? Is Greenaway making a gigantic F for Fake that kind of fails because of its sheer scope before you get to the punchline? Was this perfected in his Rembrandt's J'Accuse? The main takeaway I got from this whole windup is don't believe anything. Don't believe what's been constructed. Don't believe the fictions. Don't believe the victor-written histories. Don't believe the loser-written histories. Everything is false. The very act of writing is a corrupting act.

Does that make this watchable? Worth it? Is it a lesson we need repeated? Is that even the lesson? Greenaway's movies cause us to ask so many questions, it is totally fascinating for me to watch, but is probably an exercise in frustration to the usual audience, who probably could use the lesson most.