Bright Lights Film Journal

Quickies: Random Short Reviews from Blue Spring to Wisconsin Death Trip

“Old fruit, you’ve got it!”

Blue Spring, aka Aoi haru (Toyoda Toshiaki, 2001)

Based on a popular manga, Blue Spring is a satisfying variation on the ever-popular theme of Japanese schoolboys who spend their time disobeying authority (they actually run the school) and beating the hell out of each other. Director Toshiaki’s critique of Japanese society begins immediately with the image of a stylized school that looks exactly like a prison, and it just keeps going from there with one of the more intriguing bands of malcontents in recent memory. Ryuhei Matsua, famed for his role as the queer, murderous samurai boytoy in Gohatto (1999), plays Kujo, stylish gang leader, teenage nihilist, and occasional gardener. Kujo’s high status — which he’s almost entirely indifferent to — depends on his skill at the “clapping game,” a deadly activity that determines the leader by whoever can be dangled off the school roof and clap their hands the longest without falling to their death. (It doesn’t help that this psycho-ritual must be constantly re-enacted to maintain his power.) The film wisely de-Miike-fies the proceedings, managing to impart a sense of blood and gore without actually showing that much. Don’t look of severed hands, heads, or feet on display, though imaginative gorehounds will relish the teeth smashing, head stomping, and baseball bats to the balls that are happening just offscreen. Blue Spring has been compared to Lord of the Flies (and of course the notorious Battle Royale), but it has its own charms thanks to strong performances and a scorching attack on dehumanizing Japanese consumer culture. The widescreen DVD from ArtsMagic has enough extras to take this off the wish list and onto your shelf: two on-camera interviews with the director (one about this film, another about an earlier effort, PornoStar); an excellent running audio commentary by Tom Mes; as well as filmographies, biographies, and an art gallery. The IMDB shows this available only on DVD. Is this the end of VHS as we know it?

Blush, aka Hong Fen (Shaohong Li, 1994)

Westerners sometimes view mainland China as a monolith incapable of critical analysis of its own history. Some viewers may be surprised then at Li Shaohong’s Blush. Set in 1949 at the beginning of the the transition to communism, the film opens with the takeover of a Shanghai brothel and the “re-education” of its whores. Two of them, Qiuyi (Wang Ji) and Xiaoe (He Saifei), are best friends who follow separate paths — the intense Qiuyi becoming the mistress of a rich man, Lao Pu (Wang Zhiwen), while frivolous Xiaoe labors for the state in a textile mill. After Lao Pu fails to defend her against his mother, the intransigent and now pregnant Qiuyi shaves her head and joins a Buddhist monastery. Ironically, Xiaoe ends up in a miserable marriage with the father of Qiuyi’s child, Lao Pu, forming a lethal love triangle. Blush is based on a popular novel by Su Tong, of Raise the Red Lantern fame, but the film, with its strong period atmosphere, striking performances, and sometimes subtle attacks on the excesses of the Revolution, clearly belongs to this talented director. Available on VHS from the usual sources. A zany fetishist for bald women has documented the film’s convent head-shaving for like-minded pervs here.

Dario Argento’s Phantom of the Opera, aka Il Fantasma dell’opera (Dario Argento, 1998)

This is the gazillionth remake of the cinema perennial. Argento hit his peak a couple of decades ago with the masterfully weird Suspiria, and it’s been mostly downhill ever since. His Phantom is the weakest film in this series, a typically incoherent exercise in atmosphere that deviates from other versions in having its title character handsome and maskless instead of haglike and hidden. In interviews Argento always says he’s interested in “cruelty not blood,” but there’s a parade of horrors here that will sate the appetite of the most demanding gorehounds: a finger chewed to the bone by rats; a scene in which the Phantom, a la Fuad Ramses, bites the tongue out of a hapless woman; and of course plenty of impalings, head-bitings, and other staples of the Argento canon. Ennio Morricone’s score uplifts some scenes, but the film has the cheesy feel of a Penthouse layout. Argento’s daughter Asia mugs her way through the part of the na\xEFve diva, and Julian Sands makes a tacky anti-hero, eventually succumbing to dialogue that sounds like a bad translation, to wit: “You will not sing tonight if you value these big breasts.” OK, maybe it’s supposed to be funny. A hyperactive cast of dubbers helps keep the laughs coming. Readily available on DVD and VHS, unfortunately.

The Eternal, aka Trance (Michel Almereyda, 1998)

This film proves what we’ve suspected all along — every house in Ireland has a 2,000-year-old bog witch slabbed out in the basement. A visually impressive mix of the generic and the artful, The Eternal follows New Yorker Nora (Alison Elliott) and her family to the Emerald Isle, where they encounter a bizarre cast of characters including said witch, who promptly shape-shifts into Nora’s vicious doppelganger. The film doesn’t always make sense, thanks in part to too many hallucination/memory sequences. And dialogue like “It was the Iron Age \x85 you had to do a lot of nasty things just to get by” sounds more campy than creepy. (Of course, I suppose the Iron Age may have been more difficult than some other Ages…) But The Eternal’s mood-drenched Irish coastal landscape and unsettling sense that these are real people trapped in an unreal, terrifying world make it well worth the watch. The film’s intermittent incoherence may be due to the indie company that financed it; faced with Almereyda’s original cut (reportedly better), they freaked and hacked it up. What’s left is still a powerful work that deserved a better fate than the dreaded straight-to-video. Available on DVD and VHS from the usual sources.

A Galaxy Far Far Away (Tariq Jalil, 2001)

Before there was Lord of the Rings there was Star Wars. The first entry in that series movie premiered in 1977, but for many fans, as with the Ring series, the film quickly became a religion, complete with gods, devils and angels, priestly raiments, and a monsoon of sacred icons in the form of action figures, puppets, comics, posters, games, and more curious relics. In this pithy documentary, non-fan Tariq Jalil tries to make sense of the phenomenon by interviewing a Felliniesque gallery of ageless boys and girls who devote much of their lives to it. It’s not exactly a monolithic group — some giddily wait 42 days on Hollywood Boulevard, braving bad weather and the scorn of passersby, for the premiere of Phantom Menace; others scoff at the notion as they lovingly finger a Yoda doll. Jalil’s puzzlement and witty comments (“Is The Force a religion or something to move large objects?”) offer an amusing contrast with devotees like hip-hopper “Jam Master Jedi,” a crotch-grabbing “Dancing Stormtrooper,” and a legion of Princess Leia look-alikes complete with sticky-bun coifs. A few stars — Meatloaf, Andy Garcia, Joe Pesci, Roger Corman — drop by to give their rather prosaic thoughts, and Portland, Oregon’s Star Wars band Twin Sister kicks out the jams. Best of all is the scary geek with coke-bottle glasses whose main complaint about Star Wars is the lack of “big tall superstrong muscular female characters!” How true. Easily found on DVD and VHS.

Holy Ghost People (Peter Adair, 1967)

The late Peter Adair (1943-1996) is best known in the queer community as one of the auteurs of Word Is Out, the first documentary about gay people that found a home in the mainstream. An outsider himself as a gay man, Adair was apparently drawn to other outsiders. His first, and in some ways best, film explored a distinctive American subculture. Holy Ghost People is a 53-minute documentary about snake-handling, strychnine-swilling members of the “Holiness” church. Rightly hailed by Margaret Mead as one of the best ethnographic films ever made, and a staple of classes on anthropology and documentary film, this study of a little-known sect who put their lives on the line for their religion still packs a wallop three decades after its release.

The film opens with a gliding camera elegantly surveying the squalor of the area around Scrabble Creek, West Virginia, setting the stage for and to some extent explaining the allure of, the Holiness movement. An offscreen narrator gives a brief and enticing pr\xE9cis: “thousands of holiness churches scattered through the hills of Appalachia,” “literal bible interpretations,” “drinking poison, handling snakes, speaking in tongues.” The starkness of the setting, a rural area of obvious poverty, neither city nor town, provides a dramatic backdrop for the outr\xE9 activities of these edgeplayers, who seem at times to be drunk or drugged on their religion. The Holiness way is the polar opposite of those dull, dutiful Sundays in middle-class churches; it provides both an irresistible high and a respite from the limited lives of its believers. Adair is sensitive in rendering this difficult material, neither judging nor ridiculing nor trying to become a part of the scene. His only intrusion is in the opening narration; after that, he lets those directly involved tell their story.

The lure of these dangerous, sometimes lethal rituals becomes clear early on, in interviews with some of the participants. One young woman describes the pleasure of the trance she enters when possessed by the Holy Ghost. With a glassy stare says, “It seems like nothing in this world can bother me.” There’s rough poetry in their words. One man who joined the movement after a prison stretch says “I could feel the quickening power of the holy ghost . . . I would dance under the power, and the quickening power would get on me.”

Adair’s camera dispassionately records this “quickening power,” which takes over the members even during interviews outside the church service as a kind of ecstasy state. Inside the church they can give full play to their emotions, shrieking, flailing, crumpling to the floor, talking in tongues, drinking poison, and handling snakes as the ultimate test of their faith. Striking indeed are scenes of the group working itself into a frenzy, all the members bowed and praying loudly with eyes closed, until one, then another, then others leap out of the group gyrating, wailing, or grabbing one of the rattlesnakes or copperheads sitting in a box nearby.

It would be easy to dismiss these people and their primal ways as cranks and fanatics; it’s hard to imagine anyone these days believing enough in something to risk their lives for it. But Adair’s respectful, nonsensational approach precludes this. He lets the purity and raw power of this do-or-die religion speak for itself. And it’s far from the huckster-capitalist paradigm of Falwell and his ilk. The “holy ghost people” are unpretentious, and ask for little. Egalitarian in surprising ways, they have no minister, relying instead on anyone rising out of the crowd with an inspiration to lead the service. And the money is obviously secondary. At the end of the service, a mere $53.59 has been collected. And most welcome, some of the men greet each other as they do the women, with a kiss. Not available on video at this writing; demand it from your local library. Take a large, venomous snake and a bottle of strychnine with you in case the librarian isn’t cooperative.

It (Clarence G. Badger, 1927)

Aficionados usually associate the cinema “shopgirl” of early cinema with Joan Crawford, but Clara Bow did Crawford one better in It. Bow plays Betty Lou Spence, the quintessential working-class flapper out to make the boss. Written by Elinor Glyn, this breezy 1927 comedy is loaded with period charm, including such dialogue as “Sweet Santa Claus, give me him!” and the witty dinner invite “Shall we gnaw a chop at the Club tonight?” There’s plenty of pathos too in Betty Lou’s loving friendship with single mother Molly, whom she defends against a pair of battleaxes trying to take the kid. There’s even a coded gay character, queeny alleged straight Monty (William Austin), who, assessing his dubious sex appeal in a mirror, declares “Old fruit, you’ve got IT!” The film’s mix of sophistication and sentiment proves an ideal vehicle for Bow, whose earthy sincerity always shines through. Contemporary audiences must have seen her that way too, because It made Bow an international sensation. Six years later, she was finished with film and fame, undone by apparently insurmountable emotional problems that are nowhere evident in this sweet divertissement. The DVD has some good features and extras: commentary by film scholar and teacher Jeanine Basinger; orchestral score by Carl Davis; a stills gallery; and a DVD-ROM featuring director Clarence Badger on the making of It!

Maciste All’Inferno, aka Maciste in Hell (Guido Brignone, 1926)

Now for a must-see for musclequeens of all sexes: Maciste All’Inferno (Maciste in Hell). This epic was the last in a series of silent sword \x91n sandal spectaculars starring former Genovese dockworker and aging hunk Bartolomeo Pagano. This homely stud spends half the film in a heavy woolen suit, looking more than a dimwitted butcher than a bodybuilder. Fortunately, true to the title, he does go to hell, where he’s assaulted by demons, propositioned by seminude demonettes, and finally stripped to his overample but still fetching flesh. He keeps busy during his sojourn leading a demon revolt and battling a dragon too large to move very much. Director Brignone pulled out all the stops for this comic-Boschian vision of hell, with what looks a cast of thousands of demon-extras spilling off the screen. Fellini claimed Maciste inspired him to become a filmmaker, and the air of amusing depravity, seen to full advantage in the rare restored print that occasionally circulates, would seem to confirm it. Not yet available on video. Can it be long?

Naji Al-Ali: An Artist with Vision (Kasim Abid, 1999)

Challenging the idea that the Palestinians speak with the single voice of the PLO, this incisive bio of Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali ends with his murder, still unsolved but presumably due to established interests reacting to his slashing critiques of the PLO, which he saw as corrupt and self-serving. “I’m biased and I don’t deny it,” Al-Ali once said, but the bias was humanist. Politicized from a young age — he was deported from Palestine in the late \x9140s by the Israelis and raised in dire poverty in the refugee camps — he found solace in his artistic ability. He would perfect his style of visual agitprop early, “simplicity which was intuitive and deadly,” as one critic said. His most powerful motif was the placement of a small boy in the cartoons, his back always to the viewer as he faced some cataclysmic horror. Interviews with those who knew him, including his widow, along with archival footage and a selection of his cartoons, paint a memorable picture of this gifted man whose work deserves a wider viewing. Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary, 1999 Arab Screen Independent Film Festival (London); and the Journalist’s Choice Award, 2000 Basic Trust International Human Rights Film Festival (Ramallah & Tel Aviv). Available on VHS at institutional prices (ouch!) from First Run/Icarus Films. Request it instead from your local library.

Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)

Circus geeks — those lowdown human wrecks willing to bite the heads off live chickens for sensation-seeking crowds — aren’t exactly au courant on the entertainment circuit these days, but there’s a doozy in Nightmare Alley. Though he’s only seen in shadow, his creepy image and maniacal laughter dominate this rarest of film noirs, unseen for many years in any format due to a rights problem. Set in a cheesy carnival, the film presents an unforgettable gallery of grotesques whose lives intertwine romantically, criminally, and, ultimately, fatally. There’s a con-artist drifter (Tyrone Power), a phony mind-reader (Joan Blondell), her alcoholic husband (Ian Keith), a brutal strongman (Mike Mazurki), and an unscrupulous shrink (Helen Walker), all players in a dance-of-death, shadow-drenched scenario of infidelity, mayhem, and murder. The grim atmosphere, razor-sharp dialogue, and sordid doings are rendered in high studio style courtesy of waspish director Edmund Goulding, who worked with Garbo and Crawford; screenwriter Jules Furthman (To Have and Have Not); and Dietrich’s cinematographer, Lee Garmes. The author of the source novel, William Lindsay Gresham, eventually committed suicide. You’ll understand why when (if) you see the film. Not available officially on video at this writing, though it does appear on ebay in prints of dubious quality and in rep screenings in stunning 35mm occasionally.

Peter Pan (Herbert Brenon, 1924)

This was the first version of J. M. Barrie’s play and the one officially sanctioned by the author, who personally chose 17-year-old Betty Bronson for the role. Barrie’s decision to bypass such luminaries as Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford in favor of an untried teenager proved more than sensible: Bronson literally soars in the title role, beautifully capturing the character’s alternating strains of puckishness, petulance, and occasional melancholy at the prospect of growing up. Every version of this story has genderbending undertones — inescapable since Peter is almost always played by a female. But this time the actresses playing Wendy (Mary Brian) and Peter are about the same age, giving their relationship a sexy simpatico. Their scenes together, which include dialogue like Wendy’s “I’ll give you a kiss, Peter, if you like” (which she does), look a bit like a babydyke dress-up party, Wendy in her dressing gown, Peter in his dashing adventure-boy duds. Ernest Torrence’s Captain Hook adds to the gay merriment, prancing around his ship wearing black sausage curls and a Dame Edna-like scowl. For viewers indifferent to such conceits, there’s still much to love here: a mermaid colony; fabulous sets; fine photography by James Wong Howe; and a wonderfully fey performance by George Ali in a dog suit as Nana, the Darling children’s nimble dog-nursemaid. The film was a huge success at the time of its release and then vanished, resurfacing many decades later and now restored to 35mm glory with original tints. Kino Video‘s DVD is loaded with features and extras: the new transfer; an orchestral score by Philip C. Clari; an essay by historian Frederick C. Szebin; a photo gallery, production stills, and promos; and reminiscences by actress Esther Ralston.

Puppets Who Kill, Season 1 (Shawn Alex Thompson, 2002)

Perverse, vicious homunculi are nothing new — whole genres (the Chucky series, Gremlins, etc.) have grown up around them, and there’s even a canon for those who care to look: the two Devil Dolls (1936 and 1964); the Michael Redgrave episode of the 1945 British omnibus Dead of Night; episodes of The Twilight Zone; the so-bad-it’s-fabulous Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984); and so on. To this list can be added the Canadian TV show Puppets Who Kill, which began in 2002 and, replayed on America’s Comedy Central, has survived for two seasons to date. The stars are four puppets of varying types and temperaments, living in a halfway house presided over by a tubby, clueless social worker named Dan (a human). Bill is a wooden Charlie McCarthy knockoff who’s killed 58 partners. Cuddles the Comfort Dog is a hand puppet who serially murders. Rocko the Dog is a chain-smoking ex-children’s TV host plush toy who’s “never killed in anger but hopes to do so one day soon.” Buttons is a sex addict toy bear who’s fond of “widows with trust funds.” The DVD features the entire first season, 13 episodes, that find the four scamps in every imaginable sort of scrape. In “Cuddles Gets Laid,” the title creature, reviled as asexual by his pals, becomes a sadomasochist, complete with vibrating butt plug and human dominatrix. “Rocko’s Telethon” collects money for “impaled people.” There are puppet-human blowjobs, lobotomies, a film noir satire (“The Payback”), and a faux-queer romance between Dan and Buttons the bear. Whether you respond to this kind of material depends more on personal taste than on the show per se. It’s undoubtedly juvenile, the humor is far from subtle, and the voice talent isn’t particularly distinctive. Still, these characters and their absurd adventures show a nasty penchant for growing on the viewer. Because Puppets Who Kill was made for Canadian TV, words like “fuck” (and variants like “mercy fuck”) pepper the script, and since Comedy Central often exhibits “demographic paranoia” in this regard, it’s best to get the DVD if you prefer your killer puppets straight up. The DVD from Music Video Distributors has plenty of extras: character likes and dislikes, cast and crew bios; episode commentary with director Shawn Alex Thompson and writer John Pattison; the featurette “A Day in the Life of Puppets Who Kill”; and an outtakes reel.

Pyrokinesis, aka Kurosufaia (Shusuke Kaneko, 20002)

Director Shusuke Kaneko’s filmography includes Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris and Haunted School 3, but the cartoonishness suggested by these titles is employed to excellent effect in Pyrokinesis. This live-action anime imagines a Japan in which a few seemingly ordinary citizens have ESP and more deadly powers. Junko (Akiko Yada), a 20-year-old mail worker with emotional problems, can cause instant, immolating fires through sheer force of will. When her boyfriend’s sister is raped and killed, Junko goes after Kogure (Hidenori Tokuyama), the murderous son of a powerful businessman. Against a backdrop of political intrigue, police corruption, and her own tortured history, Junko brutally exacts her revenge. The film gets considerable mileage out of the contrast between the character’s sweet, doll-like face and her lethal powers, which are so strong they threaten to overwhelm even her. The special effects have a cartoonlike charm in some scenes, and skirt the gruesome in others. The female pyro motif isn’t new (Firestarter did it in 1984), but Pyrokinesis, with its high anime style, makes it seem so. Readily available on VHS and DVD.

Sabu (Takashi Miike, 2002)

Some directors are as branded as any product on a Wal-Mart shelf. The name “Tarantino” automatically conjures a certain hip irony and liberal replaying of ’70s genre stylings. “Spielberg” heralds an “innocent” middle-class family or youth besieged by a mysterious evil “other.” Mention “Miike” and a flood of images come to mind: projectile-lactating breasts; sex with corpses; body parts neatly sliced off by piano wire; sodomy during noodle-eating; and of course, geysers of blood. But as desirable, and perhaps necessary, as it is to be a brand, there’s always that contrary urge to defy it, to do something utterly contrary to the clich\xE9. Miike’s Sabu reveals the director’s sweeter side, with barely a bruise to identify him. This film was made to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a Japanese TV station; perhaps that’s why it seems so denatured — and not only by Miike standards — and so dull. Set in the Tokugawa Era (1600-1868), the story tells of two very different childhood friends: toughie Eiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara of Battle Royale fame), who’s wrongly accused of stealing and sent to the Ishikawa Island workhouse; and his pal, softie Sabu (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who goes to masochistic lengths to clear Eiji’s name and free him. The scenes of prison life are standard stuff, and our boys both vie for the hand of Osue (Kazue Fukiishi) in one of many of the film’s clich\xE9 conceits. Sabu feels like the kind of lifeless “quality” cinema that could have been made by any competent auteur. The film fails to realize the promise of the startlingly beautiful opening image of a young woman, a suicide, hanging from a tree in a forest of unearthly beauty. Perhaps if Eiji had been taken to a different kind of prison, one where, say, all the prisoners engage in necrophilia and limb-lopping and projectile lactation, the film would have been more distinctive. The DVD transfer, from ArtsMagic, is fine, and the extras — a “making of” featurette, interviews with Miike and several of the actors, movie and TV trailers — give some heft to this otherwise undistinguished work.

Shanghai Ghetto (Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, 2002)

The global village sometimes makes for strange bedfellows, never more so than in the influx of 20,000 Jews who in 1939 escaped the Nazi death camps on ships to Shanghai. Unlike indifferent Britain and America, Shanghai accepted waves of these forced immigrants, who settled in the poorest section of this Chinese city occupied by the Japanese. There in the midst of poverty, squalor, and sometimes near-starvation, they created a community that included schools, medical facilities, soup kitchens, synagogues, and even a kind of caf\xE9 society, under the watchful eye of the Japanese and what one Jew who lived there at the time called the “benign tolerance” of the Chinese. That little-known chapter of WW II history is the subject of this moving documentary, a well-modulated mix of archival footage, expert commentary, and interviews with a small group of survivors, who vividly evoke this heady past. Every homely detail of life in an impoverished exile community is conveyed, along with a strong sense of the driving spirit that kept these people going against all odds. Most intriguing is the film’s portrayal of the surprising relationships and alignments that arose among the oppressed Jews, the even more oppressed Chinese, and their Japanese masters. The refugees lived and worked with their Chinese hosts with mutual respect if also confusion; and even the Japanese defied the clich\xE9 of unalloyed evil by, for example, giving instant medical aid to Chinese and Jewish victims of the U.S. bombing of the city. Incredibly, this film is not available on video, but check their website periodically for a possible release.

Wisconsin Death Trip (James Marsh, 1999)

This wintry docudrama turns the myth of the happy, successful American immigrant on its head in a reconstruction of a ten-year period in the life of a small, remote Wisconsin town from 1890 to 1900. Under an alarming confluence of pressures — diptheria epidemic, punishing weather, economic collapse — widespread mental illness, suicide, drug usage, rape, and murder erupted. Inspired by Michael Lesy’s cult-fave book of the same title, Director James Marsh drew on a vast archive of original photographs, combined them with convincing re-creations, for this artful exercise in anti-nostalgia. Images such as the 13-year-old-boy in a white hood murdering a local hermit, then engaging in a standoff with the town posse; or Mary Sweeney, a wild-eyed dervish who made periodic raids on the town smashing every window in sight; or a neat row of dead babies in tiny coffins make this an unforgettable portrait of a town and a culture in chaos. There’s even a queer element here. Town elders lamented the “moral decline” of the youth, and one bit of evidence of this is surprising indeed given the time and place: it’s an authentic photograph of two teenage boys in the happy throes of moral decline: they’re kissing. The DVD is available from Amazon and elsewhere for as much as 30% discount. Extras include a Commentary by the director of photography; deleted scenes; a featurette “Midwestern Gothic: The Making of Wisconsin Death Trip”; and an essay by Greil Marcus.