“God made us all perfect, truly he did!”
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982)
In some rareified circles, Karen Black is best known as the inspiration for the Grand Guignol nudist band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, but cinephiles treasure her for an unusually long and varied movie career that plumbs the depths (who can forget Hell Kitten or House of 1000 Corpses?) and the heights (Five Easy Pieces, Nashville). Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is one of Altman‘s middling works, but engaging enough in its crawl through a claustrophobic “womanspace.” The women in question are the “Disciples of Jimmy Dean,” gathering for a 20-year reunion in a failing Woolworth’s in a forgotten Texas town. Of course, each has a deep dark secret that the film painstakingly exposes, but attentive viewers will nail them all well before the end. Much of the action is stagy, and the hothouse dialogue often reeks, but diva watchers will be well rewarded with pointed performances by a stellar ensemble: Cher as a lively, aging sexpot; Sandy Dennis doing her delusional neurotic shtick to wonderful excess; Kathi Bates in an unusual nouveau riche role; and of course Black as The Ambiguously Sexed Intruder Who Brings Ugly Truths. While Dennis is the standout, Black is at her most voluptuously horrific in her Kansas City pants suit and Porsche as she dashes every dream of her heartland sisters. Hard to believe, but this is not in print on VHS or DVD at this writing.
Existo (Coke Sams, 1999)
The “political camp art musical” is a rare bird indeed, and perhaps justly so; as a movie’s genres multiply, so surely must the problems. But Existo has so much manic energy it works, despite having the intermittent feel of a metastasizing performance piece. The title character is a hyper idiot-savant who looks like a demented janitor with greasy hair and a worn-out suit. In this bizarre post-apocalyptic world, the religious right has taken over but a pack of revolutionaries — artists and queens mostly, it seems — led by Existo stages “illegal” performance pieces and “drive-by art events.” Song titles include such ditties as “Hegel’s Navel,” “I’m a White Bread Poodle,” and the hummable “Fuckin’ A,” which features Existo bouncing up and down on a big beach ball screaming the title phrase to an audience of jaded scenesters. Existo is the multitalented (and quite mad-looking) Bruce Arnston, who also wrote the fun music. The cast appears to be a lot of performance artists and queens from Nashville, including the late Jim Varney of Ernest movies fame. There’s lots of rude imagery, dildos every few minutes, snipes at the lunatic right wing, and plenty of drag, and the filmmakers ultimately keep the chaotic fun rolling right along with the cultural critique. Inexplicably, an early cut of the film featured a great opening number cut from the DVD release. It’s the memorably vulgar “Just Do Me,” warbled by a fat drag queen who looks like Jonathan Winters genetically spliced with Rae Bourbon. Don’t believe Amazon or the Internet Movie Database. There is a DVD; click the film’s title above.
Fucked in the Face (Shawn Durr, 2000)
This heady mix of camp, sex, and queer serial killers features “Henry Normal” as a pathetic little hunk who follows his coke-riddled nose and aching dick from one seamy encounter to another. He’s in love with a wanted poster (which, via the film’s digital video technology, comes to life and talks) of a queer murderer who “has a list of all the gay icons of the 20th century!” that he plans to kill. Poor Henry’s also up against a roving band of dykes who chant “I hate cock!” and murder queens in back alleys. (They also hate Martha Stewart, referring to her as “a “cocksucking tranny with a big fat cock.”) Durr’s John Waters-like dialogue demands quotation: “If I get fucked in the face one more time this week, I’m gonna die.” The bright video look and endless fetish sex scenes add weight to a film that’s not so much badly acted as non-acted, simply amateurs screaming their lines at each other. The film even has a message, cloaked in rude camp, about repression and queer self-loathing, if you can see past the candy-colored carnage. There’s a hilarious interview with director Durr here. Sample quote: “On my 32nd birthday Andrew Cunanan — in my book, the cutest of the ’90s era serial killers — shot and killed Gianni Versace. From that moment on, I was smitten.” Not available on video at this time. Shawn?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1967)
Talk about your global village. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was produced by Italians, shot in Spain, and features American stars in a Civil War western. Though “village hardly captures the sensuous sprawl of Leone’s widescreen Technicolor masterpiece, appearing in a polished new print circulating through the arthouses. A key work in the spaghetti western canon, GBU is a classic picaresque, with three charismatic criminals double- and triple-crossing each other in a search for a hidden cache of gold. So much is memorable here — the choker close-ups (especially of Lee Van Cleef’s sculptured face); the ingenious riffs on the criminal collaborations of Tuco (Eli Wallach) and the amusingly named Blondie (Clint Eastwood); and unexpected moments of tenderness, as when Tuco and Blondie blow up a bridge to honor a dying alcoholic captain who befriended them. There’s a strong antiwar message for those who care to look, but most viewers will be mesmerized by the killer story, fabulous performances, sunbaked landscapes, and of course Ennio Morricone’s gloriously stark, “screaming-bird” score.
Received wisdom calls Disney, Warner Bros.’ Termite Terrace, the Fleischers, Winsor McKay, et al. the giants of animation, but parallel to them were women innovators who have never been properly acknowledged. Lotte Reininger’s captivating 1926 Prince Achmed, for example, predates Disney as the first animated feature. Another pioneer whose career has as much variety and invention and certainly longevity as any of her male counterparts is Faith Hubley. Born in 1924, Hubley was raised in the legendary cultural stewpot of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, a setting that no doubt fueled some of the fabulously varied imagery of her later films. A political radical and gifted artist, she was at least conventional enough to marry. Hubby John Hubley was an ex-Disney animator and a cofounder in the late ’40s of the UPA cartoon studio, which freed commercial animation forever from the tyranny of the fluid line and the linear narrative. After their marriage in 1955, the Hubleys created their own studio to take complete control of their work. As always in such unions of powerful personalities, there were artistic clashes and compromises, most notably in having to make TV commercials to fund their more avant-garde projects. These projects typically were experimental shorts that melded simple, vibrant imagery reminiscent of Klee and Miro with playfully absurd storylines.
While the partnership was proclaimed as such by the two, Faith Hubley was viewed suspiciously as the lesser talent. It didn’t help that their joint films were typically credited as her husband’s alone, or done “with Faith Hubley.” But her work after his death in 1977 shows that hers may have been the real sensibility behind the Hubley Studio. Cosmic Eye (1965), Hubley’s only feature-length film (well, 72 minutes), is a dazzling distillation of world mythology, creation myths, Jungian dreamscapes, whimsy, and froth told against constantly changing watercolor backgrounds and punctuated by world beat music. One of the film’s many delights is an improvised dialogue between Father Time (Dizzy Gillespie) and Mother Earth (Maureen Stapleton). My Universe Inside Out (1996) packs a lifetime — Hubley’s own — into its 25-minute running time. Hilariously told by the filmmaker herself, it samples her quirky childhood (“I’m an outdoor baby raised with Billy the dog”), later traumas (overcoming “terminal” cancer), and pleasures (“I feel loved, and loving, and a little bit bubbly”). Hubley views the world as a living body rife with color and change, and her simple, stylized characters limn that world in a few enchanting lines. Hubley died in 2001.
The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (Jerry Aronson, 1994)
A life as colorful as Allen Ginsberg’s (1926-1997) has many obvious markers on which to hang an exciting narrative — the publication of his seminal poem “Howl” and its subsequent obscenity trial; his role as the merry prankster of the Beats; his unapologetic advocacy of LSD before Congress; his assumption of the mantle of Walt Whitman as the poet laureate of homohood; his well-publicized nonviolent protests; and his eventual canonization as the patron saint of freethinkers and the closet-free life. And unlike in Whitman’s case, there’s an enormous amount of filmed material available to refine the image, from Ginsberg’s innovative 1950s poetry readings to quirky TV appearances in the ‘60s and ’70s.
Using footage, interviews, and voice-overs, Jerry Aronson’s The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg effectively covers all these incarnations (though, inexplicably, not the obscenity trial). Aronson devoted ten years to this project, helped by the cooperation of family and friends and a wealth of archival footage of Ginsberg. The result is a rich, sometimes too reverent but mostly engaging picture of a charismatic figure who helped usher in, and preside over, some of the most important postwar counterculture movements. Ginsberg could spot the zeitgeist a mile away, and he delighted in riding it. Some choice moments among many include his early reading of “Howl” (“who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy”); his deft demolishing of William Buckley’s puzzled-aristocrat pose in an interview in which the Beat Man plays the harmonium and giddily describes writing poetry “under the influence”; his “vow of “celestial heavenly fidelity” with lover Peter Orlovsky; and the time he turned tragedy — his mother’s lifelong mental illness and his grim role, from childhood, as her confidante and caregiver — into poetry with the shimmering “Kaddish.”
Lightning in a Bottle (Antoine Fuqua, 2004)
Talk about timely. With the recent completion of phase two of the Republican coup d’etat, at least half the country is singing the blues. But to hear it done professionally, you might check out Lightning in a Bottle. This documentary is a record of the 2003 “Salute to the Blues” at Radio City Musical Hall, celebrating 100 years of a peculiarly American art form. A few historical clips offer vague context, but most of the action is live-on-stage music by old-school legends like B. B. King, Buddy Guy, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, mixing it up with younger talents, some of them a woeful mismatch. Robert Cray’s okay, and even Steve Tyler of Aerosmith does a credible “I’m Your King Bee.” But what on earth are Natalie Cole, Chuck D, Macy Gray (slaughtering “Hound Dog”), and perennial unwelcome guest David Johansen doing here? On the upside are the exceptional Shemekia Copeland’s blistering take on “I Pity the Fool,” Mavis Staples’ riveting contralto on “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” and Buddy Guy’s smokin’ version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” with vocalist Angélique Kidjo (above). These bits give this film enough fine moments to forget the irritating failures.
A Real Young Girl (Une Vraine Jeune Fille) (Catherine Breillat, 1975)
This film was originally released in 1975 but caused such an uproar that it was censored and then banned, remaining unreleased until recently, perhaps riding the wave of Breillat’s increasing notoriety for art films that include hardcore sex. Fourteen-year-old Alice (Charlotte Alexandra ) returns to her family for the summer from boarding school. Daddy lusts after her, at one point exposing himself in lurid closeup (size queens may demand a refund), though she doesn’t pay this or anything else much attention. Daddy has a philosophical bent (“All the girls give their asses and there’s nothing left!”) that Alice has inherited. She spends much of the film in eloquent self-analysis (“I can’t accept the proximity of my face and my vagina!”), processing teenage-girl rituals like puking on herself (“I sat up, liberated by the vomit’s warmth. Disgust makes me lucid.”), and wandering around the house tempting one of her father’s employees (hunky Hiram Keller from Fellini Satyricon) and wearing her panties around her ankles, as so many teenage girls tend to do. A Real Young Girl clearly predicts Breillat’s later hardcore work and in a way is even more disturbing, with its images of Alice sticking a big spoon up her skirt and compulsively masturbating. Breillat takes a clinical, “real-time” approach to this very dicey material that subtly sucks the viewer into its depressing indictment of bourgeois life.
Set in the Arab communities of Paris, Road to Love opens with straight sociology student Karim (Karim Tarek) puzzling over what to do for a class project, finally deciding on a documentary about homosexuality in the Arab world. He interviews various gay men, from a Tunisian guy who likes being painted with henna (“I want my lovers to turn me into a living work of art”) to Mohammed, who explains that for Arabs, the macho inserter is okay, the passive acceptor is not. What Karim uncovers — tidbits like the fact that marriage between young Egyptian men existed until the second half of the 20th century — seems to hold more than academic interest. He’s given a present by one of his interviewees, Farid — a book by Jean Genet with a revealing inscription that frees him from his girlfriend when she discovers it. Soon Karim and Farid are traveling to Morocco and pay a pilgrimage visit to Genet’s grave. Shot in a deceptive verite style that gives it the loose feel of a home movie, Road to Love has its share of sweet moments, but a slight story and too leisurely pacing ultimately conspire to limit its interest.
More effective is the documentary I Exist, a strong survey of diasporic queer Arabs in the U.S. Using interviews with lesbian and gay men and their families from Armenia, Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Sudan, the film covers what might be familiar territory in its coming-out and staying-in stories, with the typical repercussions that range from acceptance to resignation to physical assaults and banishment. All these reactions are indeed described here, sometimes in wrenching detail. (Death is in there too; one man says, “Some people are killed for this transgressive sexuality.”) But there’s also a bracing quality about I Exist because the subjects are so articulate, and they face a double challenge as exiles from their home countries and their families/communities. There stakes are enormous: “Coming out means running the risk of losing family and community and the economic, cultural, and social support that these provide,” says one young dyke. One of the men vividly expresses the tenuousness of his situation when he says, “I feel like I’m in this web, and every time I make a move, the web shakes.” A dyke named Huda recognizes the dangers of succumbing to the pressures of family, which she calls “a way of control.” But equally heartening are the parents of a Sudanese gay man who say simply that his coming out “brought us closer to god and to our son.”
Satan Was a Lady (Doris Wishman, 2001)
Wishman died in 2002 at age 82, leaving a considerable cinematic legacy of sleaze that’s sometimes easier to discuss than to watch. Best known for her Chesty Morgan films like Deadly Weapons featuring a worn-out porn hag with 76-inch tits, Wishman this time turns her cracked lens on whore Cleo Irane (Honey Lauren), who lusts after the Good Life and blackmails a businessman who looks like he just got out of chemo. Wishman was known for her narrative discontinuities, and she devotes insanely long stretches here to maudlin “hip” crooner Ed Baines (Gly Styler), who serenades us into entropy with songs like “Come Cry with Me!” Still, this film is surprisingly memorable, with some trashily vivid scenes like Cleo in dominatrix drag angrily whipping the hell out of Mr. Businessman. Viewers unfamiliar with the Wishman oeuvre may find Satan disconcerting — what’s with the crippled cat? why are those actors staring at the wall? — but like all good outlaw art, it makes up in authenticity what it lacks in sense.
Stander (Bronwen Hughes, 2003)
Set in the tumult of South African apartheid — specifically the Soweto massacre of 1976, when police killed hundreds of peacefully protesting blacks — Stander is based on the true story of one man’s curious rebellion against an impossible society. Police captain Andre Stander, sickened by the brutal suppression of 85 percent of the population and his own part in it when he kills an unarmed protestor, turns to bank robbing a la Butch Cassidy. Stander’s expert, inventive robberies make him a folk hero, of course, and the movie gets comic mileage out of the many disguises he adopts, which include an orthodox Muslim and a hippie. Director Bronwen Hughes challenges the cliché that women can’t direct action films in this gritty, fast-paced, well-photographed film. But most impressive is Thomas Jane, of Punisher fame, who’s riveting as a principled but confused man rushing headlong to self-destruction. Jane should be a major star by now, and maybe Stander, which wisely includes several nude scenes of his fetching flesh, will finally do the trick.
Toro, aka Live Show (Jose Javier Reyes. 2000)
Toro is one of those films whose reputation and tortured history (censorship, banning) outweigh its value as cinema. Gritty but sentimental versions of the bi sex worker story are a popular, if usually censored, genre in the Philippines. The late Lino Brocka was a pioneer in this realm with his Macho Dancer, along with Mel Chionglo’s later and very similar Midnight Dancers. Such films are always chopped up by a government that doesn’t like to admit that its treasured sons are out bumping and grinding at night, but a censored film isn’t necessarily a good one, and such is the case with Toro. The story is an interminable exercise in bathos, with a stereotyped cast of noisily dying matriarchs, anguished hubbies forced into bisexual prostitution, angel-faced child hookers, et al. At the center of the story is gorgeous Paolo Rivero as the head hunk; alas, he’s as boring as he is beautiful, with a single expression at his disposal: mild consternation. (The director drastically misjudged in giving him closeups in which he dispenses tired homilies directly to the camera.) The sex scenes — mostly hetero in spite of the abundance of supple male flesh and the presence of assorted trannies and queens — have the cheesy air of a Penthouse layout, with obvious soft-core simulation as our hero and his pals gyrate with their partners before an audience of blasé voyeurs. Available on an Asian DVD under the re-release title Live Show.
Turned Out: Sexual Assault Behind Bars (Jonathan Schwartz, 2004)
If television is any index, and surely there’s no better one, America’s fascination with crime, the legal system, and its trappings — as seen in a wide variety of series and specials from Judge Judy to CSI to pumped-up “inside prison” documentaries to exhaustive treatment of the Scott Peterson case — is at an all-time high. But not every byway of this obsession has been equally explored. Prison rape is one of the most enduring of America’s unreported narratives, despite being a virtual epidemic. Experts estimate at least 20 percent of the country’s 2 million inmates — that’s around 400,000 people — are raped during their prison stay. A confluence of factors, from the shame associated with straight men being “unmanned” to the prison industry’s increasing refusal to allow cameras inside, have contributed to this silence.
Turned Out is a rarity in turning the camera on this subculture within a subculture, both victims and perpetrators. Shot in Alabama’s infamous Limestone penitentiary, this brief (50-minute) documentary examines sexual assault against a backdrop of Limestone’s intricate social system and underground economy. Director Schwarz interviewed five inmates who’ve formed a kind of family whose initiation rite is rape. Mark, who heads the group, is unabashed about what he does to survive and on his own terms thrive: “Your boy, or your sissy, is like your wife on the streets. The more boys I got, the more I want ‘em.” “Boys” like David Mendenhall Jr. (aka “Mindy”) are also extensively interviewed, describing in brutal detail their “induction process” but also revealing the emotional pressures that drive these relationships: “It’s really not just a sex thing. It’s about having a companion, somebody that you know is your friend.” Schwarz also interviewed helpless family members outside, as well as a warden who accepts rape because “vices keep them busy” and helps the prison “keep control.” The warden’s statements, even more than the raw revelations of the inmates, explain why this documentary has a special importance as potentially the last one of its kind.
Visitor Q (Takashi Miike, 2001)
This typical effort from Takashi “No Limits” Miike begins with the perennial question, “Have you ever done it with your dad?” A black screen opens to reveal a middle-aged man and a teenage girl having sex (dad and daughter, we learn), the first in a series of increasingly demented tableaux. This family is strange even by Miike standards. Dad is a TV reporter who screws not only his daughter but also the corpse of his co-anchor. Daughter is a runaway and a whore. Mom’s a punching bag for their psychotic teenage son as well as a heroin addict and a prostitute. In the film’s crazed pecking order, everybody’s under attack by those nearest and dearest. Sonny boy is terrorized by his peers, who also assail the house nightly with fireworks. Miike gets in digs at the media, the Japanese penchant for pattern and regularity, censorship (despite the gruesome happenings, genitals are optically censored), and assorted other targets. But most of the venom here is spewed on the family. Surprisingly, Miike pulls a number of nervous laughs out of these outré events, as when Dad gets “interviewed” by the bully boys who stick a microphone up his ass, or when he gets his dick caught in a cadaver, a dilemma dutifully addressed by Mom, who pours vinegar in the bath to unstick him. Mom also has one of the film’s most memorable sequences when she projectile lactates for what seems like hours, creating a veritable lake o’ milk in the kitchen. This heartwarming family drama was shot on digital video.
In MGM’s 1952 kitschsterpiece Million Dollar Mermaid, an impresario says, “Movies are growing bigger every day!” He was right — the early ’50s was the era of Cinemascope screens, Technicolor, 3-D, Smellovision, and all manner of desperate experiments designed to fend off television’s siren song. Esther Williams, the only actress who ever built a movie career on swimming, deserves her own category in this regard. Blessed with an athletic frame, an unshakably chipper attitude, and a smile as fixed and imposing as a skyscraper, she became a cause celebre for her combination of grace and guts as she leaped and glided her way through the vast pools, fire pits, and aquaria of the MGM sound stages. Her career was short — a mere dozen films from 1942 to 1961 — but she’s as oversize and impressive in her own way as any of those ’50s gimmicks. In Mermaid, she’s especially brazen, regally rising from an obscenely spurting tower of spray, swan-diving through choking multicolored fogs, and slithering suggestively into a giant clamshell in the world’s biggest fish tank.
Williams’ cinematic aquacades have held a place in the canon of camp since their release, not least because of the influence of her willing accomplice, legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley. Their few numbers together (two in Million Dollar Mermaid) etched a memorable image of the larger-than-life, absurdly cheery postwar gal — Rosie the Riveter with water wings. The film itself is an enjoyably lachrymose melodrama based on the life of Annette Kellerman, who survived childhood polio to become a world-renowned swimmer. And while the movie proper is a respectful biography, Berkeley undermines it by dolling up the apparently agreeable Williams (she called him a “genius”) in aluminum tiaras and gold lamé bodysuits and foregrounding her to some of the decade’s nuttiest mise-en-scene. On the flip side, she almost died during one of these routines thanks to a spell of vertigo (the alcoholic Berkeley ran off to drink his lunch while she nearly drowned). But the smile that apparently got her through such moments must have been real; her juicy autobiography, also called Million Dollar Mermaid (1999), shows a woman who’s surprisingly grounded and droll. The book — in which she giddily recounts Jeff Chandler’s transvestism, Victor Mature’s sexual prowess, Joan Crawford‘s dementia, and her own experience with LSD, for chrissakes — makes an ideal adjunct to a home video festival of her oeuvre.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea (Matt Cimber, 1976)
What was it about the ’70s that inspired so many dominant women films, from the dominatrix Ilsa series to Roger Corman’s women-in-prison films to the wave of rape-revenge grindhouse dramas (I Spit on Your Grave) to Matt Cimber’s recently restored castrating-female epic The Witch Who Came from the Sea? A reaction to, or logical extension of, the feminism in the air at that time? The counterculture opening more cultural airwaves to the postwar tough woman trope as exemplified by man-hating dykes in sleazy paperback novels, the work of fetish artists like Bill Ward, and underground publications like Exotique? Whatever the reason, the decade was awash with whip-cracking, razor-toting, castrating power bitches as close as your neighborhood arthouse or porn bookstore. Witch is a curious entry in the genre, more a variation of the Repulsion narrative than a raw femdom fantasy, with Millie Perkins laying it on thick as a woman whose childhood incest trauma triggers castration ‘n’ murder sprees against football players and other hapless males. Written by Perkins’ husband Robert Thom (of Wild in the Streets fame) and shot by John Carpenter’s DP Dean Cundey, Witch seductively captures the torpor of Southern California life in the mid-’70s in dreamy shots at the beach and slo-mo sequences of mayhem. The subject matter — swingers, incest, castration, insanity — is the bread-and-butter of exploitation, keeping things hopping even when Thom’s toxically portentous dialogue (“God made us all perfect, truly he did!”) or the actors’ often stilted performances start to grate, as both do early and often. Cimber would direct Pia Zadora five years later in the infamous turkey Butterfly, thankfully his last major credit.