“Ah’m no freak! They ah disgustin’!”
The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926)
The Black Pirate is a rarity, the first film shot entirely in two-strip Technicolor. Michel (Douglas Fairbanks) is a Spanish duke whose ship is captured and destroyed by pirates. When his father dies in the process (in a wonderfully tender scene), he takes it out on the pirates and in the process saves “the Princess,” played by Billie Dove. It’s a typical Fairbanks vehicle, a rousing adventure played tongue-in-cheek and calculated to show off the star’s athletic prowess, evident despite his age of 43 at the time of production. Fairbanks predates Jackie Chan in his insistence on performing dangerous stunts himself, seen here as he fearlessly bounds up and down the ship’s rigging. Dove is mostly decorative under the uninspired direction of Albert Parker; not an ungifted actress, here she mainly rolls her eyes in sorrow, grimaces at the importunities of her pirate captors, and gazes longingly at Fairbanks, a pretty sight himself in a ripped, muscle-exposing blouse and thigh-hugging culottes. Equally fetching for certain segments of the audience will be the sight of all that pirate flesh, amply displayed in torn pantaloons and plunging necklines as the boys pursue their mischievous agenda of rape ‘n pillage.
Filmed off Santa Catalina Island, The Black Pirate was shot in muted color tones, not only because of the limitations of two-strip Technicolor but to satisfy Fairbanks’ wish to make it look like an N. C. Wyeth painting. In that regard the film succeeds nicely. Even critics who thought it lame cheered its look, with The Film Daily noting that “some of the shots are like the paintings of old masters in the beauty and splendor of their composition.” Curiously, they didn’t say a word about Fairbanks’ middle-aged beauty and splendor.
The Eldritch Influence: The Life, Vision, and Phenomenon of H. P. Lovecraft (Shawn Owen, 2003)
Even fans of Lovecraft (1890-1937) might wince at the title of this amiable if rambling documentary tribute to the master. Words like “eldritch” have cemented HPL’s reputation among critics (including Edmund Wilson and Ursula Le Guin) as an overwrought and overvalued melodramatist in the horror/sf field. But the filmmakers and the many fans on view here have no such qualms; for some of them, Lovecraft is a religion, and the famous “Elder Gods” and “Old Ones” he invented are as real as any other deities. Director Shawn Owen corralled plenty of well-known aficionados — contemporary Lovecraftians Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, and Neil Gaiman, filmmaker Stuart Gordon of Re-Animator fame, and Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi — along with typical obsessed fans to talk about Lovecraft and his considerable influence on everyone from other writers, artists, and filmmakers to role-play gamers to Midwestern cult priests.
The general outline of Lovecraft’s life is here — his incredible precociousness, his father’s death by syphilis in a psych ward, his demented mother’s monstrous description of him as “hideous,” along with his gradual discovery of his place in the world through amateur journalism and the network of lifelong friends it brought, his adulation as a cult pulp writer, and an ill-fated marriage to an ambitious entrepreneur.
But Lovecraft’s profound friendships, his personal charisma, his humor and self-deprecation (including frequent bemused assessments of most of his work as “pulp junk”), and his extraordinary knowledge of such disparate fields as antiquarianism, history, literature, architecture, and astronomy aren’t really demonstrated. And no wonder, with so much screen time devoted to the indiscriminate gushings of puerile characters like Luther Saunders, a self-styled cult priest from “the Order of Dagon,” and various middle-aged RPG geeks enacting allegedly Cthulhuian scenarios of cosmic doom. Lovecraft’s brilliant letters (estimated at 75,000, many running dozens of pages) are barely touched on, though they’re arguably his greatest achievement. His troubled relationship with his wife (who said HPL was so terrified of sex he wouldn’t even kiss her) isn’t explored, nor are his racism and reactionary politics in any depth, though Joshi mentions them in a deleted scene on the DVD.
That said, director Owen deserves praise for eliciting insightful comments particularly from Joshi, who’s very articulate on Lovecraft’s vision of a vast, unknowable, indifferent universe and his atheism; Ramsey Campbell, who offers reasoned commentary on Lovecraft’s oft-maligned publisher August Derleth; and Neil Gaiman, who comments wittily on a variety of things Lovecraftian. HPL-inspired artwork and snippets from short film adaptations are well displayed here, as are shots of where he lived and some of the locations that inspired him. Aficionados of Lovecraft will find this a generally useful if sometimes narrow take on “Grandpa Theobald,” as this playful genius who died too early to see his enormous success sometimes called himself.
Frisk (Todd Verow, 1995)
In her seminal work The Scum Manifesto, the late Valerie Solanas complained that men were so desensitized (by their own masculine energies) that even corpses were fair game for screwing. Todd Verow’s Frisk, based on Dennis Cooper’s novel, offers ample proof that Valerie had it right. Frisk‘s plot — really a string of ultraviolent set-pieces — is so indescribable that even the production notes handed out at early screenings offer little clue to what’s going on, using phrases like “addresses the language of compulsion… interrogates the power of mass culture to cannibalize difference.” This kind of pretentious lingo is also the film’s curse, and it’s a real question whether the relentless string of lovingly detailed sadomasochistic murders is being addressed, interrogated, or sensationalized. Lead character Dennis (Michael Gunther) is so alienated he wants to find out what’s “inside” other people in the most unappetizing way imaginable — by strangling, knifing, and disemboweling them. He has accomplices in this — a sort of “Killers’ Club” of equally whacked-out slackers (including former indie goddess Parker Posey) who stand around grim apartments, smoke, and scheme. Flashbacks show us Dennis’s first encounter with “snuff pornography” (scenes filmed San Francisco’s store The Magazine) and parallel his development with that of a masochist played by Craig Chester, whose flirtations with the demimonde get him ritually murdered.
Frisk‘s narrative is nonlinear with a vengeance. Verow’s background as an experimental filmmaker is everywhere evident, in discontinuous editing, jarring time shifts, and overlapping characterizations (it doesn’t help that the actor playing “young Dennis” also plays Dennis’ first victim). Characters are seen without being introduced as part of the film’s heavy interiorization. While not the unmitigated disaster it’s rumored to be, Frisk is both too arty and too relentlessly grim to find much life outside cinematheques and Midwestern torture chambers. Gay audiences — and there won’t be any other — understandably bristled at the conflation of queer sadomasochism with snuff in this creepfest.
Harry and Max (Christopher Munch, 2004)
This quietly subversive feature presents a taboo subject without a hint of sensationalism. Harry (hunky Bryce Johnson) is 23, straight, a drifter on the downslope of success as a member of a fading boy band. His brother Max (Cole Williams, son of Paul) is 16, gay, and a rising teen idol. The film opens with the two of them embarking on a road trip for some brotherly bonding that turns out to be quite literal as they find in each other what they fail to get from family, friends, and lovers. What reads like an episode of the Jerry Springer Show becomes a probing look at the far fringes of love, distinguished by an almost-documentary shooting style and nuanced acting. The film occasionally drifts into psychobabble as the two lead characters attempt to talk their way to enlightenment, but this is minor carping given what director Munch, also responsible for the New Queer Cinema classic The Hours and Times, is attempting here.
The Knowledge of Healing (Franz Reichle, 1996)
In western coverage of China’s unceasing brutalization of Tibet, we hear mostly about the human casualties. But there’s another victim, less obvious but no less distressing: Tibetan medicine. This holistic healing tradition, codified in the 11th century but stretching back two thousand years, uses complex combinations of herbs, plants, and minerals to treat every conceivable physical and spiritual malady — and with some success, according to Franz Reichle’s fascinating documentary. Reichle’s camera is as unobtrusive as its subjects as it follows a pair of elderly Tibetan doctors during their house calls to patients in Dharamsala in northern India (the seat of the Tibetan exile government), Ulaan Ude, and Mongolia. Their beneficiaries include a paralyzed car accident victim, an elderly man with a host of ills, and, most chillingly, an ailing Buddhist nun who speaks with piercing eloquence about her torture by the Chinese. Scientists in Austria, Israel, and Switzerland corroborate the “mysterious” efficacy of the Tibetan approach, but it’s the old Tibetan doctors, with their enormous simpatico and casual wisdom, who offer the real proof.
Notes from Underground (Gary Walkow, 1995)
Dostoyevsky, associated with epic torment and souls in peril, might not be on an indie auteur’s shortlist. But this minimalist version of Dostoyevsky’s more interiorized novella Notes from Underground works surprisingly well. The unnamed “underground man” is a curdled intellectual trapped in a mindless job and filled with self-loathing. He’s also a mass of contradictions, desperately playing up to more successful ex-schoolmates and then verbally and physically assaulting them. An attempt to redeem himself by “saving” a whore from her limited life leaves both of them devastated. Lacking material means or spiritual sustenance, he clings to his integrity: “Maybe I enjoy being unhappy if it means I’m honest.” Walkow updates the original with a video motif (the film is a long taped confession) while maintaining fidelity to Dostoyevsky’s sketchy settings: a sterile government office, a dark bar, a seedy basement apartment. The use of minimalist backgrounds works to the film’s advantage, defining the world as a zone of psychic fragmentation and allowing us to focus on the underrated Henry Czerny’s (The Boys from St. Vincent) brilliantly concentrated lead performance.
Other Voices, Other Rooms (David Rocksavage, 1995)
One is tempted to add a third phrase, “Other Movies” — as in, pick one of those. Southern Gothic is a tricky genre to translate from print to screen, particularly with a minor practitioner like Truman Capote. Rocksavage’s version of Capote’s overcooked first novel, a veiled autobiography, doesn’t improve on the source. David Speck plays Joel Samson, a “sensitive” (read: future homosexual) 13-year-old who comes to visit a father he doesn’t know in a rundown mansion. The sheltered Joel’s introduction to life comes in the form of a gallery of grotesques: Daddy (Frank Taylor), a mute invalid; Amy (Anna Thomson), a collapsed belle who presides over the ruins, both architectural and human; and Randolph (Lothaire Bluteau), a tired opera queen who’s tormented by memories of an ill-fated love affair with a Cuban boxer. Like who isn’t. With its swamps and snakes and Randolph’s array of gaudy dressing gowns, the film has plenty of atmosphere but is so restrained in its treatment of the dramatic potential of the material that it fails to come alive. Capote once called his novel, written at age 23, “an attempt to exorcise demons,” but the movie version would have gained by leaving a few of them in.
Paris Was a Woman (Greta Schiller, 1995)
Few literary or artistic movements have been considered the province of women, but in the case of the “lost generation” of Paris in the ’20s, this is a narrow, if not downright wrong, reading of history. While the acknowledged stars were men like Hemingway and Joyce, it was mostly women, and for that matter lesbians, who laid the practical groundwork and produced much of the movement’s enduring work. Bookstore owners Sylvia Beach (American expatriate) and Adrienne Monnier (French) innovated the bookstore as salon, publishing house, and lending library by opening their own bookstores to both struggling and established writers and artists. Gertrude Stein’s salon has been acknowledged as a pivotal artistic space, but Stein’s groundbreaking experimental (if often unintelligble) writings have been seen as less important than her role as a sort of butch grandmother who gave encouragement to “greater” talents like Piccaso and Hemingway. Djuna Barnes has been largely written off as a gifted eccentric rather than a brilliant manipulator of language on the level of Joyce.
Paris Was a Woman tries with varying degrees of success to redress some of these imbalances. Director Greta Schiller has assembled some exceedingly rare live footage, audio clips, and still photographs that include Beach, Monnier, Stein and Alice B. Toklas (above right), Barnes, Nathalie Barney, and Josephine Baker. In spite of all this rich source material that makes the film well worth seeing, Paris Was a Woman has the air of an academic exercise and a discursive one at that, never quite tying together its disparate footage. The section that begins with the title “Djuna Barnes” wanders all over the place before returning to its nominal subject, and the extraordinary Barnes remains a somewhat shrouded figure. And crucial controversies are glossed over or omitted — most tellingly, Gertrude Stein’s still hotly disputed (at least in Stein circles) relationship with the collaborationist Vichy government that allowed her to thrive as a Jew in occupied France.
The Raspberry Reich (Bruce la Bruce, 2004)
Bruce’s prior films like Hustler White and Super 8-1/2 mixed crude social satire with hard-core sex. With The Raspberry Reich he polishes the crude and, if anything, ratchets up the hard-core, to hilarious effect. The director finds his métier in this parody of radical chic inspired by Germany’s notorious Baader-Meinhof gang. This “Reich,” unlike Hitler’s, is run by a woman, dominatrix/fag hag Gudrun, who considers heterosexuality a social construct and “a tool of the oppressor!” She forces her band of sexy “straight” minions to go gay for the cause, which they do without so much as a peep. It’s certainly easier than being revolutionaries. (In one memorable scene, a kidnapper accidentally handcuffs himself to his victim, at which point both shrug and climb into the trunk of a car.) The film’s barrage of onscreen text from famous Communists, post-dubbed dialogue that makes all the characters sound like idiots, and the boys’ inability to remember their radical politics when confronted by a naked boy make this one a must-see.
Somewhere in the annals of lowbrow culture, the innocent pronoun “she” became a prefix denoting feminized versions of monstrosity and evil. Grindhouse cinema abounds with she-beasts, she-creatures, she-devils, and she-wolves. Exploitation producer David Friedman and director Byron Mabe add their $.02 worth to this phenomenon with She-Freak, a chintzy update of the 1931 classic Freaks, complete with carnival backdrop and a haughty buxom blond (Claire Brennan) whose denigration of those less well endowed than she triggers her grisly transformation into a pizza-faced snake woman. Typical of Friedman, almost nothing happens in this film until the last ten minutes, and his opening disclaimer — “any resemblance to actual persons” — was hardly necessary given the quality of the actors, who make Casper the Ghost look like a Tolstoy character. Still, the dialog provides steady laughs. When the future she-freak’s husband insists the freaks are “just like you and me,” she screams, “Ah’m no freak! They ah disgustin’!” Producer Maurice Levy takes us into wilder territory with She Mob, a black-and-white “roughie” that appears to have been cast with various washed-up whores, johns, and dominatrixes living in the Texas town where the film was shot. In a remarkable dual role, dumpy but charismatic Marni Castle plays both “Big Shim,” a dominant dyke who walks around in leather-cone bra and hip boots, and wealthy executive Brenda McClain, who wears gold-lamé business suits. (Perhaps this was suitable business style in Texas at the time.) The leather dyke kidnaps Brenda’s live-in stud, Tony, who proceeds to run off with one of Big Shim’s prison-escapee girlfriends. But Shim has her revenge when she dresses the stud in bra and fishnets and has her girls bullwhip him. A female detective with a pet ocelot (a la Honey West) and a jumpsuit with the ass cut out adds sleazy spice.
Sir: Just a Normal Guy (Melanie La Rosa, 2001)
Running nearly an hour, Melanie La Rosa’s Sir: Just a Normal Guy follows butch, married straight woman Jay Snider over a 15-month period of transition from female to male, exploring the changes that occur as increased doses of hormones kick in and Jay finds new relationships and a new community for support. Medical details and accoutrements are treated casually and thoroughly; the film discusses “STPs” (stand-to-pee devices used by FTM’s to replicate a man’s way of pissing); hormones (400 milligrams of testosterone per month); breast-binding material prior to mastectomy. But Jay himself becomes aware of something he didn’t expect: the closer he gets to being a man, the more deeply he experiences the sense of unearned privilege that goes with it. His girlfriend finds some aspects of Jay’s attitude in this regard troubling, and viewers may too — she rolls her eyes at “the daily inventory of Jay discovering each new hair.” Such self-absorption undoubtedly goes with the “voyage of discovery” motif in any journey into trannyhood, but it’s also provocative in showing that today’s hip “transgendered butch” can be tomorrow’s middle-class, sports-playing, girl-grabbing, self-absorbed, got-it-all-but-want-more white male.
Uum Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt (Michal Goldman, 1996)
Uum Kulthum is not exactly a household word here, but diva collectors and world music fans will welcome Uum Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, a portrait of the most famous classical singer in the Arab world. Based in part on Virginia Danielson’s book of the same title, the film meticulously reconstructs Kulthum’s rich career, which spanned the 1920s, when she arrived in Cairo as a peasant and caused an immediate sensation among both the hoi polloi and high society, to her death in 1975 (four million people attended the funeral). In thrilling concert and movie footage, along with quotes from Kulthum and her admirers, director Michal Goldman gives a bracing picture of a woman who was not only a great artist but also gave spiritual impetus to Egypt’s struggle to rid itself of British colonial rule. Despite her obscurity outside the Arab world, Kulthum’s CDs aren’t too hard to find as imports. Omar Sharif narrates this excellent, and unfortunately difficult to see, doc.