From the editor and writers of Bright Lights Film Journal
Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
(Anthem Art and Culture), by Gary Morris (Editor), Bert Cardullo (Introduction), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Foreword). London and New York: Anthem Press, 2009.
"I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest."
David Hudson,
Stéphane Rideau and Mezziane Bardadi in Gaël Morel's Full Speed
Little Stabs of Happiness(and Horror)
Random Short Reviews of the Worthy and the Worthless in Recent and Old-School Cinema
"Turn towards me. I'll make do with your heart beating next to mine."
Fans of the gay porn documentary — of which there seem to be plenty these days, as if we're in a rush to release as many as possible before the Bush junta throws us all in prison — may remember Jochen Hick's 1998 film Sex/Life in L.A. Hick, a hunky porn fan from Germany, took us inside the gay porn world, interviewing stars like Cole Tucker and Matt Bradshaw, various hustlers, Madonna's ex-boytoy Tony Ward (who famously masturbates in a bathtub), and other denizens of this niche world. Now Hick is back with a sequel that updates us on some of the guys from the first film and tosses in a few new subjects. Cole Tucker seems to be a secretary now, Matt Bradshaw lives rather pathetically with his sister in the South (he survived post-porn by "decorating drug dealers' houses"). And the hustlers of the first film have been replaced by cyber-era counterparts: hotties in an Internet sex house rigged up with cameras all over to document their every little move.
Unfortunately, like its subject, this documentary soon becomes repetitive, and finally numbing as the same tired stories of "the hottest guy" and "that great orgy" appear over and over. Ultimately it's all about self-delusion and failed dreams, not to mention the tragedy of wilting hard-ons. Most of Hick's subjects are just not that engaging. But Jochen would no doubt argue that's the point — these are porn zombies, victims of their own willingness to become objectified for pay.
There's plenty of sex here, including penetration. Scenes in the Internet sex house and on the set of Hot Desert Knights' films show plenty of action, though it seems more perfunctory than passionate despite the illicit thrill of barebacking. The sense of futility and fleeting charms that ripples through this world is in fact everywhere evident here. Hustler Kevin Kramer spends endless time trying to hook up as his beauty begins to fade; the boys in the sex house talk vaguely about their dreams of fame; a cautionary tale documents one of porn's casualties, the gorgeous John Garwood. Hochen appears on-screen to lament the total commodification of gay sex through porn. He must know ‘twas ever thus, since the first commercial porn film was made. The pesky demon of capitalism took it out of the hands of horny amateurs privately documenting their hot trysts for the sheer joy of it and making it the empty business behemoth it became.
Dinner at Fred's (Shawn Alex Thompson, 1999)
This quaint, occasionally funny black comedy embodies all that's "minor" about independent films, but it does answer the nagging question of what happened to Kevin McDonald after his stint with the brilliant Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall. McDonald finally resurfaced as endearingly weird Fred in this low-budget combination of It's a Wonderful Life and The Old Dark House written and directed by Shawn Alex Thompson. Gil Bellows plays Richard, a corporate everyguy whose encounter with Fred's zany family — including Christopher Lloyd as a good-natured psycho on a snowmobile — gives him the courage to dump his boring job, his creepy boss, and his trophy girlfriend. The film tries to mingle absurd humor with a sweet, almost sentimental quality, but the scenes aren't sharp enough or sweet enough to succeed as either. The ubiquitous Parker Posey's here, but it's McDonald and his unique comic persona, a sort of distracted deadpan, who steals what there is of the show.
Full Speed (Gaël Morel, 1996)
In spite of its great popularity in the last decade or so, the ensemble slacker film has always been problematic at best. There's an undeniable pleasure in seeing conventional, conformist models of modern life replaced by grittier images of cynical youth drinking, fighting, and fucking their way through lives they believe are going nowhere. But too often these slackers, especially the American variety, tend to be brainless narcissists who take their cues more from reality TV than from the streets. Gaël Morel's Full Speed — ten years old but with a still very contemporary feel — quietly challenges this trend with an unsparing portrait of a group of French and Arab youth who go to desperate lengths to establish meaningful bonds with each other against a backdrop of French racism.
At the center of the drama is Quentin (Pascal Cervo), a social activist basking in the success of his first novel. He's presented initially as a positive character fearlessly attacking the reactionary elements of French culture. Early on, he disrupts a celebration in his honor by hauling one of his friends, a young Arab named Jamel, onstage and asking him to show the audience evidence of a racist attack. "Show your scar," he insists. "Let them see the promises of the far right!" Rather than thank Quentin, Jamel and his crowd are disgusted at being trotted out for viewing "like an animal."
Quentin's capacity for abuse suggested in that scene is fleshed out in his brutal relationship with the film's gay character. Samir (the mesmerizing Meziane Bardadi, above) lives in the memory of his dead boyfriend, "Rick," who appears through Samir's bittersweet reminiscences and some home movies of the two of them cavorting on a Tunisian beach. To gather material for his next book, Quentin dredges Samir's brain for every painful detail of his lost affair, in effect destroying the one thing that Samir, displaced like his Arab friends in a culture that hates him, could call his own. Desperate to relive the intensity of his relationship with Rick, Samir falls in love with Quentin. But in one of the film's most resonant scenes, the two are naked in bed and Quentin, having gotten what he wanted from Samir, turns his back on him. Unable to ask for sex, Samir begs him, "Turn towards me. I'll make do with your heart beating next to mine." Morel pushes this scene to its dramatic limit by having Samir retreat to the bathroom to furiously masturbate, an act Quentin greets with revulsion.
The film takes a sophisticated — I'm tempted to say European — view of the characters' romantic and sexual politics. Quentin's girlfriend Julie (Elodie Bouchez) bonds with Samir over their mutual difficulties with Quentin, Julie sensing without being told that Samir is also in love with him. When Julie leaves Quentin for Jimmy (Stéphane Rideau), Samir is welcomed into their scene. Intense alliances are forged during casual encounters and, in one case, through a blood bond that hints at a violent end to the group's fragile scene. Morel's naturalistic direction of the actors gives an almost documentary feel to some of the scenes. The Arab characters — with the exception of Samir — are a shadowy presence in the film, but this is not a criticism; Morel convinces us that this is their role in French society.
Three of Full Speed‘s major players — director Morel, Elodie Bouchez, and Stéphane Rideau — migrated from Andre Techine's Wild Reeds. It's been suggested that it's only because of this connection that Morel was able to make this film, but Full Speed stands on its own as a surprisingly mature work by this young director. He's consistently made good on the promise of this second film, particularly in his most recent effort, the fine Three Dancing Slaves, which covers some of the same territory from a different angle.
The Great Pink Scare (Tug Yourgrau and Dan Miller, 2005)
One of the more distressing episodes in queer history occurred in 1960, when three professors at Smith College, close friends and gay, were harassed, humiliated, tried, fired, and more or less destroyed when their preference was revealed. The case is laid out in an excellent (though disappointingly short at under 60 minutes) documentary that links the event to the anti-communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era. Fortunately, two of the trio were alive at the time of filming, and much of the story is told through their vivid, still bitter reminiscences, along with those of other Smith professors and students who were there at the time.
Newton Arvin, 60, had just won the National Book Award. Joel Dorius (above), 41, was a loved and respected English professor. Ned Spofford, 29, was a well-regarded Classics teacher. Unlike their heterosexual counterparts at Smith, none showed the slightest romantic interest in their students, preferring deep friendships with each other and trysts with men outside Smith. As the film shows, they shared intellectual qualities but were different in other ways. Dorius delighted in engaging with his students; Arvin was brilliant but emotionally remote — and as it turned out, a tortured closet case. Spofford was a well-adjusted gay man until his arrest and exposure.
The lethal combination of a snoopy Post Office, an aggressively homophobic police captain, and the professors' naïve assumption that living quietly, under the radar, would save them conspired to ruin these men. When the police learned that Arvin was getting "obscene material" — actually, tame physique magazines like Tomorrow's Man — in the mail, he was arrested and, apparently without hesitation, ratted out his friends. Dorius and Spofford were rounded up and sent to trial. Despite wide support by an appalled Smith faculty, Dorius and Spofford were fired and Arvin, who seemed to view his arrest as deserved punishment for being queer, was allowed to retire at half-salary. Arvin (who had a long affair with Truman Capote) died in 1963, Dorius in February 2006, but the scars, particularly on Dorius and Spofford, remained.
The Great Pink Scare clearly sketches the multiple dark forces at work in this perilous time for gay people. But it's most impressive as a character portrait of two incredible men who devoted their lives to teaching others and hoped only for a secure private life in return. Newton Arvin's brutal betrayal, as recounted here, remains a shocking event and an object lesson in the many ways the closet has victimized those who live in it.
Hu Du Men, aka Stage Door (Shu Kei, 1996)
Hu Du Men stars Josephine Siao Fong-fong as Sum, a Chinese opera star famous for her skill at playing male roles. Sum is as enticingly butch as any of Brigitte Lin's characters, but she's in fact a wife and mother devoted to her family. Her artistic and home life are threatened when her daughter appears to be having a lesbian affair, and a child she abandoned twenty years earlier has reappeared as the boyfriend of her acting troupe's new ingenue. This film is based on a common conceit that goes back at least to ancient Greece — that stylized gender-busting, women acting as men or vice versa, is fine as long as it doesn't spill over from the stage into real life. Sum is fantastically authoritative in breaking up a fight between two men much bigger than her, but becomes teary-eyed and pathetically maternal when confronted with her grown, abandoned son. Watch for a fascinating lesbian bar scene in which Sum uses her wiles to outwit her daughter's female lover.
Ice Men (Thom Best, 2004)
I wasn't expecting much from this film, which slipped under the radar and onto the video store shelves like many a forgettable indie. And the tagline wasn't the most promising: "At a Remote Cabin, Guns, Booze and Testosterone Lead to Trouble." But director Thom Best and screenwriter Michael MacLennan have fashioned a well-wrought variation on The Big Chill with a strong homo inflection. Handsome, uptight Vaughn (Martin Cummings), bitter after a recent break-up with his girlfriend, has invited some of his friends up to his cabin for a weekend of male bonding and to celebrate his best friend Bryan's (David Hewlett) birthday. Also along for the ride are macho Steve (James Thomas); gay, semi-closeted photographer Jon (Greg Spottiswood), and a couple of unexpected, and unwelcome, guests. The latter include Vaughn's wildman brother Trevor (Ian Stacey), and Vaughn's ex-girlfriend.
Bantering and bickering starts almost immediately, promising not a happy-go-lucky exercise in male bonding but a lot of grim emotional fireworks that will change these relationships forever. And the film delivers as a slew of secrets, infidelities, and betrayals slowly emerge. In one of the best scenes, Jon, forced to bunk with Steve, lets his fingers do the walking over the latter's fetching flesh, thinking he's asleep. Typical of the film, the reaction is not the expected one from Mr. Hot Straight Boy.
Ice Men makes the most of the dramatic setting of the Canadian woods in the dead of winter, especially effective in a scene where a drunken Trevor plunges through the ice. The acting — almost always the undoing of the failed indie — is variable, with occasional lapses into melodrama. Greg Spottiswood, though, is a marvel to watch as the gay boy, unerringly finding the character's sensitivity without slipping into bathos. But even when the acting falters, or contrivances peep through in what is essentially a highly theatrical movie, these troubled, sexy guys keep us engaged.
In the Dark (Clifton Holmes, 2000)
In this ultra-rare, nightmarish low-budget mix of existential horror and noir, Jane is a bored librarian who starts getting mysterious notes from "MOG" (an unseen Master of Games) paying her to do various strange things. The money, which begins at $50, is doubled with each demand, and the seemingly sensible Jane becomes dangerously compliant as she watches her bank account grow and the notes become increasingly bizarre and insistent. Director Holmes makes limited use of DV's possibilities by shooting in black-and-white, but this ultimately works to the film's advantage in limning a bleak world that inexorably closes in on its denizens. Based on Richard Laymon's 1994 cult novel of the same title, In the Dark‘s ingeniously plotted story, reasonably credible acting, and unsparingly nihilistic worldview are perfectly married to the spiraling-noir visuals, making it clear what's important in a movie regardless of the technology involved. Unfortunately, In the Dark, which played to good reviews at a few minor festivals including the Chicago Underground a few years back, appears to be practically a lost film at this writing — an unbelievable and unforgivable state of affairs given the tidal wave of junk that clogs cable TV and direct-to-video shelves.
Jon Jost is one of cinema's true independents, insisting on living and working authentically regardless of the costs. And these have not been inconsiderable. An army brat born in 1943 who grew up in the U.S., Japan, Italy, and Germany, he was expelled from college in 1963 and later spent more than two years in jail for draft dodging. After prison, he helped form a leftist filmmaking collective and then moved on to making his own films. Long before Dogme 95, he was writing, photographing, directing, and editing highly personal shorts, features, documentaries, and an uncategorizable hybrid of the latter two using nonprofessional casts and absurdly small budgets (his 1977 feature Last Chants for a Slow Dance allegedly cost $500). These works, which show a highly developed sensibility in total command of the formal elements of filmmaking, are rarely screened outside museums and universities, the only exception being All The Vermeers in New York (1991), which played a few theatrical dates and on PBS.
Historically, Jost has used his films as platforms to assail America's murderous middlebrow culture, taking on everything from the violence in the family and interpersonal relationships to money worship and consumerism to the brutalities of the country's ruling elites. Jost doesn't make his critique easy for audiences to decipher or accept. Bell Diamond (1986) is typical, presenting a disintegrating relationship by foregrounding an unwatched TV blaring away while the ghostlike figures of the doomed couple move mysteriously, and only occasionally, in the background. As so often with Jost, the individual falls apart against a backdrop of social decline, as in Bell Diamond's seemingly abandoned industrial landscapes. There's also a strange combination of ego and self-criticism in films like the "essay-fiction" Speaking Directly (1973), which shows him being reviled by a girlfriend, then talking about his penis, then masturbating in close-up for some minutes. Not exactly the stuff of PBS, or even the Sundance Film Channel. Since 1993, Jost has lived in exile in Europe; since 1997 he's worked exclusively in the dream format of the impoverished auteur, digital video.
It's a little surprising, then to see Jost's late work drawing on his technical brilliance and poetic imagination, with the provocateur/polemicist receding into the distance. 6 Easy Pieces shows increasing evidence of the director preoccupied with the timeless rather than the timely. Even the title is playful, a witty (and typically misleading) reference to Bob Rafelson's classic counterculture film. 6 Easy Pieces was shot in Portugal and Italy from 1997 to 1995, according to the endnote, "using Sony DX700 and 1000 cameras and edited on a PC using Premiere 5.1 editing software," and "released" (presumably meaning copyrighted) in 2000. Despite the technospeak, and indeed the sophisticated visual manipulations, this is an emotionally charged work that derives much of its power from its sense of discovery, whimsy, and an awareness of the indifference of the universe to the individual.
Jost's "brave new world" appears in the first sequence, a nighttime drive through "the justly fabled fogs of the Venetto." Here the legerdemain of the digital is employed to make a simple driving trip both an abstraction, by fuzzing the image into a kind of pointillism, and palpable, a painting in motion. Writer Edoardo Albinati's text, subtitled in English, evokes what Jost shows as a kind of cosmic construction whose beauty will outlast the human presence: "Edifices arising as crystal, erupting as extravagant growths, excreted as stalagmites from the thin ethers of mind and spirit…"
This compelling blend of the concrete and the abstract pervades the film, most effectively in the simplest sequence: images of water in a Venice canal with Jost's voice in the background. The effect of the shimmering water is heightened by digital manipulations, which make it hypnotic as the patterns shift, stop, and start, lulling the viewer into a feeling of peace, even transcendence while Jost carps in voiceover about the Venice Biennale. The triumph of nature over the filmmaker's petty complaints is a major thread here, and evidence of Jost's increasing maturity as an artist. Water is also the ruling element in a lovely sequence in which two young women, mostly unseen, talk about their plans and their lives while swimming.
One of the most startling sequences features a split screen. On the right is a woman methodically loading and discharging a rifle. On the left is that dreaded creature, a mime, this one naked no less, and like so many mimes these days, actually talking, though mostly in grunts and monosyllables. Jost brilliantly mixes the menacing with the sardonic as the mime multiplies into several images, gesturing, dancing, and muttering inscrutable phrases like "fall … a sadness … an absence … an improbability…" The contrast between the sharpshooter's rigid silence and methodical, compulsive behavior and the mime's garrulous self-expression makes this a riveting dance between characters occupying different cinematic spaces but the same screen. 6 Easy Pieces shows Jost at his most exciting as both the mime and the sharpshooter, the artist and the technician, occupying different cinematic spaces but the same screen.
Phil Karlson (1908-1985)
The standard image of the 1950s as an era of unfettered achievement and optimism tells only part of the story; that decade's film noir narratives, popular at the time and enduring today, speak of different, darker things. And there's no better spokesman for the latter than Phil Karlson. This cinematic equivalent of Jim Thompson is rightly considered by noir aficionados the key architect of the brutal postwar gangster flick.
Karlson's America in films like Kansas City Confidential (1952, above), 99 River Street (1953) and The Brothers Rico (1957) has a disturbing similarity to contemporary society despite the distance of 50-odd years. Shadowy syndicates led by perverse but successful middle-aged white men (read corporations and government) run complex webs of corruption from their plush digs. Inevitably, some average Joe — often an ex-soldier or washed-up "contender" in some realm — steps out of line or into the syndicate's line of sight to disastrous effect.
In these films, nothing is predictable — a simple walk in a garden can end in murder, a policeman sworn to protect a witness tries to engineer her demise. Karlson's world is one of double- and triple-crosses, though the baroque plots are always completely intelligible, with no mysterious body counts or contested killers. Films like The Phenix City Story (1955) and Tight Spot (1955) brilliantly exploit real locations — Phenix City is based on an appalling case of corruption in the South and features both actors and the real people they're portraying. And while he never stints on the violence — witness the vicious killing of a little black girl in The Phenix City Story or actor John Payne's face used as a punching bag in 99 River Street — there are also surprisingly ambitious touches like Kansas City Confidential's surreal mask motif (undoubtedly the inspiration for Reservoir Dogs' color conceit), or 99 River Street's brilliantly Brechtian sequence involving a stage, a duplicitous actress, a confused cabbie, and a body that may or may not be dead. Karlson has not been a big beneficiary of the DVD craze, but dedicated diggers will uncover these masterful films from gray-market video companies online.
Keep Not Silent: Ortho-Dykes (Ilil Alexander, 2004)
Western queers have made it (loud and) clear that visibility is a key weapon in the survival arsenal. For the subjects of Keep Not Silent: Ortho-Dykes, it's quite the opposite. These Israeli women are in a deep struggle for their basic identities as lesbians and human beings. Ilil Alexander's shortish (50-minute) Israeli documentary features wives and mothers living orthodox Jewish lives who belong to a super-secret lesbian group called Ortho-Dykes. They're speaking out here for the first time, letting viewers into a rare world even their families and friends may not know about. The director takes an unusual but necessary visual strategy in filming her subjects. She shoots them at meetings, on video monitors, at their homes — all in silhouette, through obscuring latticework, in darkened rooms, or with their faces fuzzed out of recognizability. These are strikingly literal images of the closeted, "invisible lesbian." Their world is harshly limited by the homophobia that courses through fundamentalist Judaism. Such women have everything to lose, personally and socially. Miriam-Esther says her children will be reviled, perhaps taken from her, and her family will ostracize her. "I was in deep fear," she says, and "fear takes a lot of energy." In one wrenching scene, a young woman named Yehudit tries hopelessly to argue with a bigoted rabbi who insists she must either change or "live alone."
Yet there are glimmers of connection and compromise here that give the women — and the viewer — hope. Ruth's husband Boaz doesn't object when she insists on spending two nights a week with the woman she loves more than him. But Ruth's daughter, shamed and disgusted, runs away from home when she learns who her mother really is. The film makes heartbreakingly clear what is at stake and what these women are losing on a daily basis. That they are as brave as they are in trying to build a community based on who they are — the film shows a secret lesbian wedding sequence complete with crying, simpatico relatives — is near miraculous. Keep Not Silent deserved the Israeli Oscar it won for best documentary.
Lonesome Cowboys (Andy Warhol, 1969)
Andy Warhol's legendary western (supposedly the last "Andy Warhol film" he directed before Paul Morrissey took over) won't be recognizable to too many Budd Boetticher or Anthony Mann fans, or those who've visited Monument Valley, but it's certainly timely in light of Brokeback Mountain. Ridiculously expansive and meandering at 110 minutes, this film showcases cowboys with different problems than those that trouble Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar. The focus here is on a ragtag bunch of drag queens, fag hags, and queer cowpokes who spend their time wrestling, pinching each other's nipples, practicing their ballet steps, and looking for a hairdresser under every tumbleweed. In a word, modernizing — and homosexualizing — a classic American icon. Taylor Mead is screamingly funny as Viva's perpetually stoned male nurse, who tries vainly to "protect" (too strong a word) her from the "attentions" (though they're hardly that) of Joe Dallesandro, Eric Emerson, Tom Hompertz, and the rest of the Warhol stable of hunky queens of the range. Even the sheriff (played by Warhol irregular Francis Francine) can't be relied on to enforce law and order; he's too busy fretting over his makeup and girdle. This demented rethinking of the Old West caught the attention of the FBI when locals complained that somebody was being raped. And if you're not paying attention — certainly a possibility — there might seem to be a rape. Not to worry, though — as in all of the Warhol/Morrissey oeuvre, these "boys" can only get it up for a mirror.
Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984)
"Independent" cinema, like "alternative" music, is increasingly difficult to recognize these days. The indie movement has its own set of conventions that make it as much a copy of as a challenge to its alleged nemesis, the mainstream. It's only a few mental steps from the Hollywood star to his or her slacker variant. Raging egos, star fits, ruthless self-promotion, and unabashed greed are as omnipresent in the alleged underground as in the mainstream.
Nowadays, cinematic innovation is easier to find by looking backward. A fine case in point is John Cassavetes' last film, Love Streams, made five years before he died. Cassavetes wore his reputation for intransigence like a crown; he simply refused to bow to the endless reshaping and recutting of his films that would have made him a beloved and successful hack. Instead, starting in 1960 with Shadows, he turned out a wrenching series of closely observed melodramas — critiques of romantic and sexual relations in modern American life — that still seem fresh today. The rarely screened Love Streams is among his longest, least compromised, and most demanding works. It's also one of the most rewarding.
The film is a series of extended vignettes, some of them improvised to varying degrees, centering on the disintegrating lives of two people — the driven, abusive novelist Robert Harmon (played by Cassavetes himself), and his sister Sarah (a brilliant Gena Rowlands), who's in the midst of a bitter divorce and a nervous breakdown. Harmon spends his days gathering "material" for his fiction — in reality, desperately indulging himself with hookers and booze, while misusing a string of ex-wives and a pitiful abandoned son he meets briefly for the first time. Sarah's life has become a series of hysterical interludes — collapsing at the divorce lawyer's or at a bowling alley, and in a memorably comic-pathetic scene, bringing several taxis full of miniature horses, goats, chickens, and other fauna to her brother to give him "something to love." Not every director could make such melodramatics ring true — and there are even more over-the-top dream sequences — but the film offers such a richness of emotional detail in its pictures of Robert and Sarah and those around them that we eventually uncover the humor and humanity behind these damaged lives.
The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller, 1963)
The opening sequence of The Naked Kiss is justly celebrated as one of the most unnerving in cinema. The story just starts, no credits, in the midst of a brutal attack on a pimp by one of his whores. The lack of credits is typical of writer-director Sam Fuller (1911-1997), who liked nothing better than to disorient his audience. He magnifies the sense of a world out of whack with shaky, hand-held camerawork and a screaming saxophone riff. But it's the imagery that's most unsettling: while the whore is bashing the pimp's face with a high heel, her wig falls off to reveal that she's bald. This increases her rage and accelerates the assault; finally sated, she inexplicably pauses to collect a small amount of money — "just what you owe me, eighty dollars!"
The Naked Kiss was Fuller's follow-up to Shock Corridor, and it's every bit as tabloid-theatrical as the opening implies. The whore, Kelly (Constance Towers), leaves town to escape the wrath of her bloodied pimp. She settles in "Grantville," fucks the town cop, then decides to give up prostitution for a job at a hospital for crippled children, where her program in self-reform flourishes. She thoughtfully teaches the children to sing mournful ditties about their disability ("Why can't I fly? Tell me why."), rescues one new friend from a life of whoredom, and pays for another to have her kid rather than abort. In short, she transforms herself and the town; Grantville becomes a paradise of Old World morality, with Kelly fanatically righting every "wrong" she sees, usually violently. Eventually she repeats what she did at the beginning, with more tragic results, when she discovers that her fiance, the beloved, wealthy Grant, has a very nasty secret.
Fuller leavens these dark proceedings with a kind of hard-boiled humor that approaches camp, and makes the operatic plot compulsively watchable. Absurdly terse character names like Griff, Grant, and Buff abound. And then there's the local whorehouse, run by an aging shrew called "Candy"; everyone refers to her girls as "bon-bons" but they answer to names like "Hatrack" and "Marshmallow." But Fuller's primitive poetry resonates throughout, and lines like Kelly's warning to a young girl contemplating prostitution — "You'll be sleeping on the skin of a nightmare for the rest of your life" — recall, and rival, the work of lit-noir masters like Jim Thompson.
The Nameless (Jaume Balagueró, 1999)
H. P. Lovecraft has become an increasingly popular subject for filmmakers after a smattering of exploitation efforts starting in 1960s — e.g., AIP's Dunwich Horror and The Haunted Palace — and cruising through the ‘80s with the Stuart Gordon films and onto a very mixed but weighty bag of indie interpretations from the '90s to the present. Less prominent, but in some cases equally intriguing, are adaptations of the works of HPL's many protégés. From Spain comes The Nameless, based on a novel by Lovecraft disciple Ramsey Campbell. Campbell is Britain's leading horror writer. Like Lovecraft, he specializes in hidden horrors that must be unearthed by some pathetic Everyman, who pays dearly for penetrating the mysteries. In this case it's an Everywoman, Claudia (Emma Vilarasau), whose six-year-old daughter Angela vanishes mysteriously. Five years later Claudia gets a phone call, seemingly from Angela, pleading for rescue. Thus begins a compelling if Byzantine tale of a secret society linked to Nazi atrocities and their attempts to plumb the depths of evil. Balagueró's command of this dicey material, which sails over the top in some extremely gruesome imagery, only falters at the end, when the revelations come at such a dizzying pace the viewer is left more confused than creeped out. Cinematography is first-rate in this color film that often looks black-and-white, and the acting throughout is solid, giving credibility to a story that on paper may not have had much.
Night and Day (Chantal Akerman, 1991)
Chantal Akerman has cited Godard as a primary inspiration for her films, but surrealist painters like Paul Delvaux, de Chirico, and Magritte are more credible sources for the hypnotic quietude, painterly compositions and lighting, and nagging sense of the subtle multiple oppressions of daily life in her work. Like Magritte, Akerman was born in Belgium but works in Paris. She can be roughly grouped with a small number of French filmmakers like Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas who have spent the last last decade or two resuscitating new life into a cinema that cynics say peaked several decades ago with the nouvelle vague.
Night and Day might have been titled The Sleepwalkers; the characters wander through their small, suffocating world as if in a dream, even referring to it openly in such terms. The film begins with a portentous Hermannesque musical motif that hints at dire, dramatic things to come. This idea is immediately undercut by what seems to be the coziest of love nests. Jack (Thomas Langmann) and Julie (Guilaine Londez) have recently moved from the provinces to an airy flat in Paris. During the day the two of them make love, discuss how happy they are, and ponder the most narrow details of their present lives and future possibilities. At night Jack drives a cab and Julie wanders through the streets in a mysterious search for something never directly disclosed.
The apartment where they spend most of their time is more than a mere dwelling space; Akerman treats it as a psychic zone in which the two constantly test and act out their feelings and beliefs. Jack dreads the void represented by their somnambulist existence, which threatens their lives together. "When I sleep, I don't live," he says mournfully. At first Julie agrees with him, but as the film (and Julie herself) progresses, she realizes she's untroubled by the emptiness that Jack fears: "Most of the time I think of nothing," she says.
In an artful update of Jules and Jim, a third party enters their lives, another newcomer to Paris named Joseph (Francois Negret). He is the daytime driver of Jack's cab, and he and Julie begin a secret affair. The remainder of the film chronicles their romantic/sexual merry-go-round as the self-possessed Julie tries to juggle both men and all end up dissatisfied to various degrees.
Night and Day has the sweet, sad air of a fairy tale, complete with names that sound like they came from the Brothers Grimm (they all begin with a "J"), an omniscient female narrator who comments on the action as if she were telling a story, and a feeling of almost supernatural doom. But the film is far more than a formal exercise. Akerman is one of the cinema's most focused observers of human behavior, and one of the many pleasures of Night and Day is her delicate treatment of Julie, Jack, and Joseph as both puppets of an unknowable fate, and human beings capable of wit, pleasure, and poignancy. In one scene, Jack laments running out of things to say to Julie. "I hope she can read great things beneath my silence," he says. During one of her many nighttime walks through town, Joseph can barely keep up with her. "What's the hurry?" he asks. "I'm hurried by life," she says. Characteristic of the almost cruel honesty these characters are capable of is Julie's reply to one of Joseph's many pleas for her to leave Jack: "I can't imagine life without you, yet you're in my way." In another scene, Joseph calls her "brutal" for her abrupt departures every morning to be with Jack. "We can't part in little pieces," she reminds him.
In a conversation with Jack, Julie calls their lives "a story with no drama." But Akerman builds the film's drama precisely from such comments, extrapolating a vast interior world through these characters' relentless probings of themselves and each other.
Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)
John Boorman's annihilating crime thriller doubles as a vicious satire of corporate America. This one has it all — Lee Marvin's almost supernaturally capable hitman; John Vernon's hunky, oily middle-level gangster; Angie Dickinson's world-weary sex kitten; Carroll O'Connor's neurotic, befuddled corporate criminal. Marvin's "Walker" (no first name) is double-crossed by his gang, robbed of his share in a deal, shot and left for dead. Resurrected through what seems to be sheer force of will, he cunningly kills his way to the top of "the Syndicate," a thinly veiled symbol of the corporations that were already clogging the American landscape in 1967. Boorman's strategies are innovative and breathtaking, from the sterile, suffocating textures of modern life — marbleized floors, flocked wallpaper, glass walls everywhere — that trap his characters to the complex structure of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and dream sequences that smash narrative continuity as surely as Lee Marvin's fist connects with a jaw. Critics are still arguing about the ending (is the whole film a dream?), but not about Boorman's achievement.
The Proprietor (Ismail Merchant, 1996)
Merchant and Ivory are known for their literate but bloodless historical dramas from high-tone sources like Henry James and E. M. Forster. One might assume that Merchant without Ivory might only be half as bad, but in the case of The Proprietor, the problems are magnified, due in no small part to Jeanne Moreau, whose self-absorption and ego overwhelm the film.
Moreau plays Adrienne Mark, a French expatriate novelist in New York. Haunted by memories of her Jewish mother being taken by the Nazis and disgusted by the increasing violence of New York, she decides to close up shop and move back to Paris. She has a black maid, played by the late Nell Carter as a slavishly grateful Mammy figure, to whom she gives her prize possession, an extremely valuable painting. Eventually Adrienne gets to Paris, where she reconnects with ex-lovers, ex-husbands, ex-directors, and an ambitious American movie exec played by Sean Young, who wants to remake one of Adrienne's acclaimed novels. On the sidelines is young filmmaker William O'Hara (Josh Hamilton), who follows his idol around like a lapdog, trying to be noticed.
The film careens wildly into a variety of subplots and set-pieces, many of which seem to have nothing to do with each other. Sean Young's character does a barefooted fountain dip while her boyfriend serenades her with a French-inflected "If I Didn't Care" that sounds lifted from a 1968 Merv Griffin Show. Characterizations are sketchy and wavering — in one scene, Adrienne's ex-director Franz Legendre (Jean-Pierre Aumont, looking mummified), is slabbed out on what appears to be his death-bed; in the next, he's running around regaling guests at a party. Sean Young starts out hard as nails, but morphs quickly into a zany airhead, invading strangers' weddings and prancing up and down a stage. Adrienne's wannabe lover, William O'Hara, doesn't even register; he's just an empty mirror for Adrienne's "greatness" — a status he unwittingly defines by calling himself "the friendly ghost."
Nell Carter's character Milly is a classic racist construct. She's the wise, sheltering, and ultimately redeeming mother-figure who very tangibly sacrifices herself for the good of her "friend" Adrienne, who pats her on the head when she sings a Wilson Pickett song. Unlike Adrienne, whose digs are lavish to put it mildly, Milly lives in what appears to be straitened circumstances — still, against the protests of her family, she sells the painting Adrienne gave her for $250,000 and gives all the money to Adrienne, who can then afford to buy back her vast apartment in Paris. The film seems blissfully unaware of the heavy class injustice here, and presents this morally squalid event as an almost spiritual exchange between two "friends."
The film — whose title is still inexplicable when the end credits roll — also takes great pains to deify Ms. Moreau. Perhaps as an antidote to the wizened, bile-spewing bitches of some of her '90s films, here she is almost nauseatingly dignified, extending her largesse in every direction. She registers liberal-minded horror at the racism of a French taxi driver, apparently too stupid to see how hypocritical this is in light of her relationship with her maid. The film tries unsuccessfully to build audience sympathy by showing her pain — hallucinations of dead relatives, images of racial injustice which send her tsking — and her modesty, as she stoically accepts the endless praise that pours out at her from every corner.
Two Dyke Docs: Red Rain (Laura Plotnick, 1998) and Scent uVa Butch (Soshana Rosenfeld, 1998)
Yet another traditionally male space reclaimed by aggressive women is amateur boxing. The one-hour documentary Red Rain focuses on Gina "Boom Boom" Gidi, a sunny, butch blonde who was the women's welterweight champion of the world at the time. Gina gets it from all sides — Ms. magazine refuses to cover her story because "there's nothing feminist about two women hitting each other," while she's reviled as a dyke in other quarters. But this loving tribute shows just how the discipline of the sport united her family, pulled her out of drugs and booze addictions, and won her the support of most of both the gay and boxing communities. As questionable as boxing is as a rather wretched tableau of mostly poor people pummeling each other for leering public consumption, the charismatic Gina sails through it all with spirit and style and well-honed sarcasm. "The gay community's going to love this," she says, uncharacteristically picking up a needle and thread, "seeing me sew."
Expanding the canvas, Soshana Rosenfeld's Scent uVa Butch offers a wonderful half-hour visit with a startling array of butch dykes. While gay men pioneered genderfuck, it looks like lesbians started puling ahead in the gender redefinition sweepstakes by the late 1990s. Here we meet dykes of all stripes: a Clark Kent nerd wannabee, a Latina "gentleman butch," a tough mechanic, butches in evening gowns (which they call "drag"), a leather dyke who moons over the femmes, and in a dizzying mix, one who laughingly calls herself "a kind of nelly faggot butch!" These women are pushing hard at every boundary, refusing to accept definitions of who they are not only from straight society but from other gay people. Even the flesh must bend to the will of these playful pioneers. As one says, "I feel like my body either has curves or it doesn't according to what I feel like that day."
Small Faces (Gillies MacKinnon, 1996)
Before Trainspotting, American audience exposure to disaffected Scottish youth was mostly limited to Mike Leigh's Naked, where a Scotch slacker's impenetrable brogue became a mini-metaphor for social collapse. Gillies MacKinnon's Small Faces, set in working-class Glasgow in 1968, also challenges viewers' ability to understand the dialogue, but in this case — perhaps more than in the attitude-drenched Trainspotting — it's well worth the effort of careful listening.
Small Faces focuses on the MacLean brothers. Bobby (Stephen Duffy) is a "head case" who has violent nightmares and runs with one of the local gangs. Alan (Joe McFadden) is a gifted artist who wants to escape the violence around him. Thirteen-year-old Lex (Iain Robertson) is a pubescent mix of his older brothers' traits — he has Alan's drawing ability, but he's as pigheaded and petty criminal-minded as Bobby. The three live with their widowed mother Lorna (Clare Higgins). When Bobby gives Lex an airgun, he accidentally shoots the leader of the Tong gang, Malky Johnson (Kevin McKidd), starting a spiral of gang warfare that pits brother against brother.
At the center of this chaos, and its chief victim, is young Lex, who travels, sometimes unwillingly, through all the film's separate worlds — his fragmented family, the warring gangs led by Malky Johnson and the evil aesthete Charlie Sloan (Garry Sweeney), a bar ("The Low Roof Club") that becomes a major battleground, the bleak wasteland of "Tong Territory," and, in one of the film's most unsettling moments, a local theatre where Lex joins a sea of younger kids in a sing-a-long, in a desperate attempt to reclaim his boyhood. A defining moment occurs when Lex's much-admired pal Fabio (David Walker), a gay artist, is brutally beaten. Because the gang behind it "belongs" to Charlie Sloan, Lex makes a furious attempt to join his (and Charlie's) nemesis, the Tongs, an act that proves fatal to one of the boys.
In the midst of the violent encounters and sad cityscapes (much of the film was shot around the high rises and muddy wastelands of Govan, near Glasgow) are striking moments of quiet charm. In a fine scene, Charlie Sloan captures the "wee man" (Lex) and lowers him into a museum after dark. There he forces Alan to sketch his (Charlie's) face into one of the artworks. Even death has a kind of aesthetic resonance, as when one of the characters dies in a skating rink and his body is dragged along the ice, leaving in its wake a perfect thick red stripe.
Director MacKinnon (with his screenwriter brother Billy) expertly captures the angst of lives limited by youth and poverty and disappointment. The acting is uniformly fresh, even in sketch-characterizations like David Walker's gay artist or Lex's other friend, the self-styled pacifist Gorbals (Mark McConnochie). The standout, though, is Iain Robertson as Lex. Robertson is a surprisingly subtle actor at only 13, fixing his alternately glowering and pitiful character from the first shots and never letting up. In a startling flash-forward, he talks with poetic intensity about the terror of dreaming he'd become a man — a terror well-conveyed in the nightmarish events of the film's record of a boy's daily life. "I dreamed I became a man," he says, "with body odor ... and strange uncontrollable impulses. Luckily when I woke up I was still a boy."
Note: These "stabs" are affectionately dedicated to — and modeled on — the pithy capsule film reviews pioneered by Calvin T. Beck's deservedly legendary Castle of Frankenstein magazine in the 1960s. Thanks, Cal, wherever the hell you are!
August 2006 | Issue 53

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