Bright Lights Film Journal

Quickies: Random Short Reviews from Al Adamson to <em>Doing Time, Doing Vipasanna</em> to Scopitones

“Love tramps — seduced by creatures from the grave! Yesterday they were cold and dead —— today they’re hot and bothered!”

Revisiting Al Adamson (American director, 1929-1995)

For hipsters bored by the lounge, there’s a new cultural space to reinhabit: the grindhouse. A trip to your local video store resurrects at least the onscreen fun of those rank, dank movie palaces of 1960s Times Square and their cousins, the malaise-drenched drive-ins in the stix. Al Adamson was a prime player in these realms, offering cinematic sludge like Satan’s Sadists (1970) and Angel’s Wild Women (1972) to glassy-eyed teens and aging perverts who patronized the venues. Adamson’s an endearingly clueless auteur stolidly mining every cultural byway of his era, from the perils of drugs to “social menaces” like biker gangs and feminism. These films give themselves away with titles like The Female Bunch (1969) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), and they live up to that promise with nonexistent production values, drugged-out actors, and sub-garage band scores. Camp followers will find much to love in the teary-eyed go-go girls, dope-crazed hippies, drooling bikers, and dime-store monsters who make up le monde d’Adamson. And the acting — by a stock company that included the director’s wife, various miscreants, and once-respectable actors like John Carradine, Russ Tamblyn, and Lon Chaney, Jr. — samples every known style from Method to dinner theater. In a scenario that sounds like something he might have dreamed up, Adamson was murdered by a handyman and buried under floorboards where, appropriately, the corpse rotted for months. Typical tagline for Dracula vs. Frankenstein: “Love tramps — seduced by creatures from the grave! Yesterday they were cold and dead — today they’re hot and bothered!” Readily available from trashier video venues everywhere.

Body Without Soul (Wiktor Grodecki, 1996)

The title of Wiktor Grodecki’s follow-up to his similarly themed Not Angels But Angels (1994) comes from the self-description of a teenager, one of the film’s young Czech rent boys. This grueling documentary shows us Pavel, a police coroner, enthusiastic performer of autopsies, and producer-director of innumerable gay porn loops and features for export to Germany, Holland, and other European countries. The boys, still in their teens, talk as if they were a hundred years old — their lives are over, they have no friends and no future, and they know it. Pavel’s exploitation of these economically desperate kids is thorough and ruthless; while he cries poverty himself over the cut he gets from distributors, he laughingly tells of assaulting the kids and forcing them not to use condoms, “because the Germans don’t like seeing them.” Grodecki is a dispassionate interviewer who lets Pavel and the boys speak for themselves, no matter how disturbing the words. He intercuts footage of Pavel gleefully ripping the intestines out of a corpse with hardcore excerpts of the boys in his films. Ultimately, Pavel emerges as the sickening product of a system of exploitation that demands the consumption of these handsome, hopeless kids. Available through the usual sources.

Doing Time, Doing Vipassana (Eilona Ariel, Ayelet Menahemi, 1997)

In America’s disastrously crowded, increasingly privatized prisons, “rehabilitation” has become a dirty word and “prison reform” an oxymoron. Not so in India, as this brief (52 minutes), beautiful documentary shows. In 1994, Israeli filmmakers Ayetelet Menahemi and Eilona Ariel were granted unlimited access to study the introduction of the ancient Buddhist meditation technique of vipassana into Tihar, one of India’s largest (10,000 inmates), most notorious prisons. Western cynics might dismiss as loony the concept of armies of thieves and killers — many from opposing religions and castes — sitting together in silent thought for ten days, but the film offers strong evidence that it works in interviews with prisoners, guards, and administrators. Some of the changes are almost unimaginable — a triple-murderer begging forgiveness of the relatives of the people he killed and pledging to protect and support them for life, a hysterically crying prisoner being unabashedly comforted by a guard. Returning a sense of self-worth to society’s discards and reminding all that prisoners are still people points to the possibility of a worldwide reform movement. Indeed, encouraged by the successes in India, advocates of vipassana have already brought the technique to a prison in Seattle, where early results have been encouraging (watch for another film on this subject at some point). With any luck the strategy will spread and America’s love affair with incarcerating, dehumanizing, and killing vast numbers of its citizens — while a few profit handsomely from the process — can meet its well-deserved end. Not commercially available at this time.

Follow Me Home (Peter Bratt, 1996)

Agitprop and allegory would seem to make strange bedfellows, and that’s certainly the case in this intriguing self-styled “radical road movie” by San Francisco writer-director Peter Bratt. A group of four racially diverse, politically minded street muralists embark on a quest to “paint the White House in vibrant colors.” The trek from Los Angeles brings them in touch with the darker elements of the heartland, specifically, a group of murderous middle-aged white men dressed in Civil War drag as part of a historical reenactment. Bratt’s social critique is least convincing where it’s most blatant, as in some of the confrontations between the artists and the easily despised — and dismissed — hicks they encounter along the way. More interesting are the magic realism sequences that continuously rupture the narrative. The best of these beautifully shot black-and-white “dreamtime” scenes — one where a smiling young black girl describes being killed in a drive-by shooting, another where the group uses a joint trance, driven by sensual drumbeats and wails, to confound their white attackers — show the poetic power of a spiritual response to racism. Unavailable at this writing.

Horns and Halos (Michael Galinsky and Sean Hawley, 2002)

While anti-Clinton biographies became a cottage industry for the right wing during his tenure, Bush profiles until recently were mostly hagiography — no surprise at a time when the government views free speech as downright unpatriotic (unless you’re a corporation, of course). The most infamous bio of Dubya, the 1999 Fortunate Son, pioneered what has evolved into a cottage industry of Bush-bashing. Author J. H. Hatfield (right in photo) , whose credits included, appropriately, a Lost in Space trivia book, meticulously detailed Bush’s trashy history as a cokehead and draft dodger. Alas, the messenger was undone by his message: unmasked as a felon, Hatfield was dismissed by the mainstream and his charges, despite their apparent truth, vanished with him until their recent revival. Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley’s documentary Horns and Halos mixes up an archetypal cast — the arrogant ruler, the doomed challenger (Hatfield killed himself), the crusading publisher — in a grimly fascinating précis of much of what is wrong with contemporary America. Available in a special edition DVD with tons of extras from Go Kart Films via Amazon and many other sources.

Kim Ki-young (Korean director, 1919-1998)

In a just world — or one with better international film distribution — Korean auteur Kim Ki-young would be ranked in the upper tier of the B-movie pantheon with Sam Fuller or Roger Corman, whose films recall Kim’s in their bracing blend of artistry and sleaze. In the mid-1950s, Kim began a prolific career as a writer-director toiling in the netherworld of Korean commercial cinema. Originally a dentist, he went into the movies courtesy of his wife (also a dentist), who agreed to finance his new career. One can only imagine her reaction to what her money bought — films like The Housemaid (1960), a wild black-and-white melodrama about unbridled lust, suicide, abortion, infanticide, and a strategically placed bottle of rat poison. Kim traps the film’s characters — weak, horny music teacher; greedy, ambitious wife; crippled child; violently insane nanny — in some of the most suffocating mise-en-scene on record, and adds to the tone of nervous hysteria with relentless, nerve-jangling background music. Scenes like the housemaid crawling like a dog across the floor to lick the exposed leg of her goody-goody employer, who’s paralyzed with lust and guilt, give a kind of timeless squalor to the proceedings. Promise of the Flesh (1975) is a remake of a Korean classic called Late Autumn, but true to form, Kim emphasizes lust over lyricism in the story of a no-exit love affair between two prisoners on a train. As in all his films, there’s a social critique for those who aren’t distracted by the admittedly enthralling sex and violence; impersonal camera surveys of gigantic rotting buildings and dream homes filled with rats say as much about postwar industrialized Korean society as the images of desperate people undone by fate. Fans of fractured subtitles will also find much to love here in passionately zany dialogue like “He’s the social pest; a trash!” It’s hard to say definitively if any Kim ki-young videos or DVDs are available without extensive research. Even Korean video sites don’t seem to offer his films. I suggest inquiring with (or petitioning) Video Search of Miami and other such marginal-film sites and checking the exploitation bulletin boards and chat groups for possible sources.

La Ciénaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2001)

Shot in a near-Dogme documentary style with touches of Chekhov and Bunuel, Lucrecia Martel’s stark drama plumbs the literal depths — “ciénaga” means “swamp” in Spanish — of Argentinian middle-class life. The matriarch Mecha (Graciela Borges) sets this brilliantly acted film’s dark tone in the opening scene when she’s injured during a drunken fall at a pool party, an event that guests, and her husband, are too drunk themselves to notice. While her children do manage to get her to the hospital, they’re almost equally distracted:15-year-old Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) thinks she’s in love with the much-abused maid Isabel (Andrea Lopez); treasured son Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu) is obsessed with mud wrestling and going to bed with one of his mother’s friends. More complications occur when Mecha’s old friend Tali (Mercedes Moran) brings her children for a visit, and the household becomes an increasingly claustrophobic space where people reach but never touch and tragedies are ignored in favor of more pressing issues like who will fetch the ice if Isabel quits. Shocking to say, not available at this time.

Marching into Darkness (Massimo Spano, 1995)

One of the pleasures of ’90s film was the increasing de-ghettoization of homosexuality. While reactionary feel-good fables like The Bird Cage still littered the cinematic landscape, a movie like Massimo Spano’s Marching into Darkness showed it’s possible and surely desirable to integrate queer motifs into a larger tapestry of universal concerns. Saro (Flavio Albanese) is a sweet, naive young soldier whose sergeant, Tricarico, falls in love with him. A fight between them results in Saro being brutally raped by Tricario’s superior, Captain Roatta, in league with a decadent businessman, Scarpa. Saro sues his assailants, a move that threatens to destroy both Roatta and Scarpa and by extension the two corrupt mini-empires — the military and big business — they represent. Director Spano nails a number of worthy targets — the pathological repressions of military life, a class system that makes country-boy Saro an acceptable victim, and the horrors of the basic patriarchal unit — the family. Still, Spano gives us cause for hope in the volatile relationship of gay Tricarico and straight Saro, a vision of love that transcends the strictures of gender. Not available from the usual sources at this time, though it may have been released in Italy.

Pippi Longstocking (Clive Smith, 1997)

What to make of Pippi? Many a future riot grrrl was raised on the Swedish superbrat heroine of Astrid Lindgren’s best-selling children’s books, but whether modern kids will take to her is questionable. Her bizarre image — spray-gunned freckles; shellacked erect pigtails; a loopy, vacuous grin — may strike some as more disturbing than empowering, even in the disbelief-suspending world of an animated feature. After a shipwreck that supposedly leaves her orphaned, the too-resourceful Pippi takes up residence in a small town with her pets, a talking horse and monkey. There she spends her time breaking dishes, throwing pancake batter on the walls, picking up adults and throwing them to the ground, and generally reveling in her considerable destructive powers. Director Clive Smith hedges his bets by adding a Disneyesque Broadway-style score to this painful animated feature. Grating numbers like “My Name Is Pippi!” and other tired tunes are screamed at the audience as the unhinged imp gleefully dismantles the town. Sadly — available!

Push! Push! (Park Chul Soo, 1997)

At least one critic has noted the similarity of this raucously funny “dramedy” to E.R., but Push! Push! makes the TV show’s theatrics look tame indeed. Director Park Chul Soo seamlessly melds seemingly incompatible genres — medical drama, problem picture, social satire, farce — into a witty assault on Korean sexual mores. The film, which takes place entirely in a frantic women’s ob/gyn and abortion clinic, offers a panorama of refreshingly low-brow comic types: a couple who take a breather from their violent assault on each other to bow to and thank the doctors who are watching them; an aging housewife who pleads for “cutie surgery” and hymen reconstruction; and a man who’s humiliated into donating his two shots’ worth to the clinic’s dwindling sperm supply. Where Push! Push! does resemble — and surpass — E.R. is in its graphic depiction of medical matters — not only in the raw images of real-life delivery but most startlingly in what is surely a film first, a point-of-view shot of a gawking doctor from inside the womb. Not available from the usual sources, but try here..

The Salt Mines/The Transformation (Susana Aiken, 1990/1995)

In the late 1980s, filmmakers Susana Aikin and Carlos Aparicio became friendly with a group of homeless, crack-addicted transvestite whores living in the “salt mines,” a storage area for salt for New York’s snowbound streets. The result is two exceptionally powerful documentaries. The Salt Mines introduces Sara, formerly Ricardo, a disillusioned Marielita who longs to return to Cuba. Equally constrained but far more optimistic is Giovana, whose solid drag identity helps her survive her life: “I’m a transvestite to the end.” Equally compelling, The Transformation, made five years later, describes in chilling detail the resurrection of Ricardo from the ashes of Sara, as an evangelical group convinces Sara to become a born-again, heterosexually — if not happily — married man. Aikin and Aparicio are unobtrusive observers of these social cast-offs, who unblinkingly reveal the terrible limitations on their lives. The evangelicals catch them at their most desperate moments, a dynamic Giovana understands and rejects: “I’m not going to change because they bring me food.” Not available commercially at this writing.

Scopitones (various directors, 1950s-60s)

Camp and kitsch collide in one of the most fascinating — and, until recently, forgotten — phenomena of the 1960s. The Scopitone was a seven-foot-tall video jukebox with a TV screen on top and a selection of three-minute musical numbers available for the price of a quarter. The concept wasn’t new — there were plenty of “soundies” in the 1940s that used a similar technology — but the content certainly was. Scopitones were invented in France in the late 1950s but soon became fixtures in America’s strip joints, tiki bars, and gambling parlors.

What could you get for your two bits? How about lounge lizardette Jane Morgan, she of the glamorous overbite, singing “C’est si bon” in a cheesy faux-Paris? Or Stacy Adams and Her Pussycats (who look like local whores) demonstrating the jerk, the monkey, and the twist at a tacky Vegas motel? Or third-generation blonde bombshell Joi Lansing (after Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield) crooning to a queen in a cobra costume while she’s “cooking” in a jungle cauldron? These wacky, often surreal numbers were shot everyplace from the local zoo to minimalist sound stages to colorful cardboard sets standing in for Bombay, London, Hell, or less identifiable realms.

The accent was mostly on pop-rock, but the Scopitones were generous in their reach — you can find early r&b (the Exciters’ “Tell Him”), satirical folk songs (George McKelvey’s godawful “My Teenage Fallout Queen”), unlikely protest numbers (Debbie Reynolds wailing “If I Had a Hammer”), even breeder-male surf rock (Vince Taylor’s “Shaking All Over”). Along with each song the viewer was treated to a now-hilarious parade of period pop couture, from Mondrian dresses to string bikinis to vinyl go-go boots.

The French were mostly modest with their numbers, lots of angst-drenched ballads by divas like Francoise Hardy and covers of U.S. rock hits by Sylvie Vartan and her hubby, Elvis imitator Johnny Hallyday. When the U.S. took over, the Scopitones got sleazier — and more interesting. True, there were still plenty of “respectable” acts like Vic Damone and Kay Starr, but the Mafia’s secret takeover of the ‘Tones made sure there was also plenty of cheesecake and beefcake. The format was also surprisingly queer-friendly. Besides their unmistakable air of camp, practically all of the numbers have at least one queen (and often several) cavorting or being serenaded by a clueless straight chanteuse. And they’re a treasure trove for grrl-watchers of all sexes.

The Scopitone screens went dark forever in 1969 when the mob connection was uncovered and a right-wing Republican folk group called the Back Porch Majority sued over some “vulgar” footage inserted into their number. The Back Porch Majority is now mercifully forgotten, but the Scopitones, which can be found periodically on so-so tape collections on ebay and in a much better sampling from curator Dennis Nyback, are enjoying renewed popularity as one of the more endearing excursions into ‘60s trash-camp culture.

Shopping for Fangs (Quentin Lee and Justin Lin, 1997)

This slight, good-natured “Generasian X” indie (made for less than $100,000) draws equally on Hitchcock and Wong Kar-wai in its dual plot of a Filipino accountant who thinks he’s becoming a werewolf, and a bored married woman who may or may not be having a secret lesbian affair with a Brigitte Lin lookalike in sunglasses and a blond wig. Writer-director team Quentin Lee and Justin Lin go easy on the identity politics (though it’s there for viewers who care to see it), and play up the comic aspects of sexual repression, busybody relatives, Christianity, and interracial lust. The story sags in places, and the characters are more charming than profound, but the L.A. location shooting adds grit, and Jeanne Chin, as the confused possible secret lesbian, enchants with her lingering blank stare and scary monotone. Available from the usual sources.

Transsexual Menace (Vor Transsexuellen wird gewarnt) (Rosa von Praunheim, 1996)

In this documentary made for German tv, director Rosa von Praunheim counters the tabloid image of trannies as hopeless wrecks and self-deluded freaks, instead probing the wide range of mindsets and physical types that exist in this community. He intercuts medical footage (including a reconstructed penis in close-up) with little-known facts — e.g., “almost 50 percent of trannies are female to male, though they are much less visible.” Most telling are the interviews with the trannies themselves, along with the health-care professionals who help them through a process that’s grueling for some and surprisingly simple and immediately rewarding for others. One female-to-male trannie amusingly recounts the ultimate genderfuck story: he and his partner started as a lesbian couple; changed into a married hetero couple when he became a male, and ended up in a “gay male relationship” when his lesbian “wife” also became a man. von Praunheim doesn’t skirt the casualties: in a grim encounter, a jilted, angry wife and confused daughter confront a husband, a former cop, who became a woman. Transgender activist Leslie Feinberg has the last word, positing a world in which gender is entirely fluid: “I’m a person who’s more complex than the two pronouns that exist…” Not available at this time.

Under the Domin Tree (Eli Cohen, 1994)

Trapped inside what looks like an ad for an Israeli boosters organization is a reasonably diverting kids’ movie. Eli Cohen’s (The Summer of Aviya) film describes a group of lively post-Holocaust teenagers at an Israeli quasi-kibbutz (actually a state-run boarding school) in the early 1950s. Individual stories of loss and awakening are told against a background of agrarian collectivism, with the kids’ attempt to cultivate the barren area where they live symbolic of their own need to survive a grim history. In his pointed, lingering use of close-ups, director Cohen ironically recalls the agitprop of Maoist and Russian communist artists for whom the larger-than-life, strong peasant face signified prole aspirations and power. Adults will be less than thrilled by the film’s superficiality, sentimentality, and subtle propagandizing, but kids will see it as simple and engaging. There’s one brilliantly unsettling image that shows why this film won the Palme d’Or. In a scene reminiscent of Icabod Crane, an unhinged older teen is seen galloping through the grounds at midnight with another boy on his back, screaming. Available on VHS but not, apparently, on DVD.

The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)

Cheryl Dunye’s first feature also has historical significance: it’s the first feature by an out black lesbian. Dunye plays a Philadelphia video jockey and budding filmmaker obsessed with uncovering the hidden history of the title character, a fictional 1930s actress who specialized in mammy parts, had a second career as chanteuse Fae Richards, and had an affair with a white female director apparently based on Hollywood dyke director Dorothy Arzner. Dunye’s film mixes archival material, both fabricated and real, with interviews and analysis, including a witty take on the “positive cultural meaning of the mammy figure” by Camille Paglia. Along the way Cheryl bickers with her best friend Tamara (Valerie Walker), has a steamy affair, and cons her way into the lives of those who knew the elusive Fae. Watermelon Woman slyly comments on issues of race representation without being too heavy-handed, though Dunye’s relaxed rendering of the title character is less than convincing. A highlight is one of Cheryl’s pals demolishing Minnie Ripperton’s shriekfest “Loving You” at a local club. How this promising director went from Watermelon Woman to the appalling My Baby’s Daddy eight years later is a mystery. Available on DVD and VHS.

Work (Rachel Reichman, 1996)

The destruction visited on the working class during the Reagan-Bush years (and, let’s face it, hardly mitigated by the spineless Mr. Bill and the downright evil Dubya), remains largely taboo subject matter for mainstream filmmakers. As always, it’s up to the independents, working with limited means, to tell the truth. Writer-director Rachel Reichman does this in Work. Without resorting to simple-minded agitprop, Reichman shows us a typical hamstrung working-class family, a couple, Jenny (Cynthia Kaplan) and Will, who live in a sort of extended family with their black neighbors. While Will tries to save his job by appeasing both his bosses and his fellow workers, who think he’s been co-opted, Jenny alternates her time between half-hearted job searches and her growing affair with her neighbor June (Sonja Sohn). This relationship gives Jenny a respite from her uncomprehending husband and the futility of her life, and the film comes alive in the secret conversations and erotic encounters between Jenny and June, whose plan to leave for college threatens to unhinge Jenny. Reichman records the quiet, almost hopeless voice of the heartland in these cast-off characters with grim accuracy. Available here.