“All that’s missing is a death-bed blowjob.”
Roger Vadim’s vulgar valentine to his then-wife Jane Fonda is a sort of kitsch Candide, with its “superinnocent” heroine, now in space-age fetish garb, bravely navigating through a decadent future society. Actually, Terry Southern’s novel Candy, a comic inversion of the Voltaire, is a more obvious influence. Southern, who adapted Barbarella (1966) for the screen from a famous French comic strip, specialized in satires of modern mores and the so-called sexual revolution. Vadim, on the other hand, constructed ponderous, sleazy showcases for his various child brides (including Bardot). Barbarella, for all its gaudy, colorful sets, looks like it was shot in the bowels of the Playboy mansion — especially our heroine’s space ship, with its fur-lined walls that reek of ’60s softcore chic. The brainless plot and self-consciously startling imagery — vampire dolls, orgasm machines, semi-nude “rock people,” a giant water pipe with a man swimming inside — fail to bring this empty exercise in low camp to life. Fonda’s wide-eyed shrieks of “Oh my goodness!” and belabored T&A display don’t help. Joseph Losey did it better with Modesty Blaise, also based on a French comic strip.
Yes, kids, there was a time when gay bars didn’t have windows, trannies weren’t a staple of daytime TV, and leather queens didn’t shop the local Safeway in full squeaky regalia. Director Greta Schiller, aided by archivist Andrea Weiss and producer John Scagliotti, resurrects this queer prehistory (from about the 1920s to 1969), in Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community. This 1986 documentary is still the best resource of its kind, covering vast cultural acreage in its attempt to mine a history that remains to some extent underground. The cast of characters includes the known — activists like Allen Ginsberg and Harry Hay — and, more appropriate perhaps to the closety time it covers, the unknown — anonymous queer soldiers, lesbian bookkeepers, swaggering bull dagger bikers, and drag queen bar divas whose anecdotes show that history’s made by individuals not “great men.” In tantalizing archival footage, brave queers dance furtively in early enclaves like Harlem and San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, and the armed forces in World War II emerges as a hitherto unsuspected gay breeding ground. The closet as coffin is a major subtext here, but there are surprisingly gutsy moments, as when dyke Johnnie Phelps stands up to Eisenhower’s demand that lesbians be “expunged” from the WACs and convinces him to reverse himself. A few curmudgeonly commentators like Daniel Harris have lately lamented the loss of this “exciting” period of repression when camp flourished in the midst of chaos, but even a truckload of tiaras couldn’t convince some of us to go back.
This recent (2003) documentary about the BDSM community is certainly earnest enough. Neatly arranged by fetish, and interspersed with the German filmmaker’s questions (“What is sex?”), Beyond Vanilla surveys SM players and professionals, all highly articulate and well adjusted, about what they do, how they do it, and what they get out of it. A mix of demonstration and discussion, some of it quite raw, the film has the clinical feel of an instruction video, or perhaps an infomercial, as some have suggested. We learn, for instance, about “the four quadrants of the buttocks,” that transcendence can come from fisting or being beaten into a “vegetable state,” that some bondage routines require extraordinary (and exhausting, it seems) amounts of work with pulleys and ropes. The film succeeds as a look at the elite of this subculture and their endlessly complex routines, but fails to give a rounded picture of a world that surely has some darkness along with the oft-remarked “transcendental” light.
R&B fans have long lamented the habit of certain white performers of the ’50s (think Pat Boone) of “covering” — i.e., sanitizing — the songs of black artists (think Fats Domino and plenty of others). Two decades later, blaxploitation helped reverse the trend in another genre by reworking successful mainstream movies as low-budget black actioners. Case in point: Black Shampoo (1976), née Shampoo. (Of course, like most such films, this one ultimately can’t escape the Curse of the Honky Hands — it was made by a white-owned company, the super-sleazy Dimension.) Black Shampoo, written and directed by Greydon Clark, refashions Warren Beatty’s libido-drenched hairdresser into John Daniels’ “Mr. Jonathan,” a good-natured “sex machine” in safari shirts and jump suits who’s equally adept at wash-and-sets and writhing naked with his female customers on tacky satin sheets. The plot of this hilariously bad but endlessly entertaining slice of schlock centers on Mr. Jonathan’s attempts to rescue his secretary from some dastardly criminals. The film is a veritable catalog of trashy design motifs from the period — the leopard-lined salon wouldn’t be out of place in a John Waters movie, and the couture runs to elephant bells, gold lamé, and K-Mart striped wallpaper. Black Shampoo blissfully rejects verisimilitude — the Beverly Hills matrons Mr. Jonathan’s screwing look suspiciously like grindhouse whores — and the stereotyping is rampant. (Check out the literally screaming queens employed by the broad-minded Mr. J.) But who can resist a movie that has a hero with a blow dryer in one hand and a chainsaw in another?
Hector (Brad Hunt) and Dorena (Cyia Batten) hide in an abandoned farmhouse where they plan to cook up a huge batch of crystal meth that they’ve stolen from former associates. Their pal Merle (Patrick McGaw) floats in and out, sampling the goods and bringing them food. Of course, their pot of gold quickly tarnishes as they find they can’t just say no. Before they can say “Chrissy,” in fact, they’re in paranoid delusion mode, egged on by the drugs, Merle’s ghost stories, and past personal traumas that won’t stay buried. Director Dan Mintz milks this unsavory material for all it’s worth, expertly orchestrating jackhammer editing, a thumping soundtrack, creepy-evocative lighting, and fine acting with the ragged reality of improv. The result is a grimly effective, if overlong, mix of cautionary tale, ghost story, and psychological thriller. Seasoned students of the psycho-tweakers-in-a-haunted-house genre will wallow in Cookers (2001); less hardy souls had best pack the thorazine. (Note: At this writing, the Cookers homepage — we’ll spare the reader the link — has been hijacked by a porn site that opens with a rambling, indeed tweaky discussion of topics like “Dogfart sluts.”)
In the ’60s and ’70s, Europe was viewed in some corners as a kind of sexual Shangri-La, an idea brought home in the steady imports of European erotica to the grindhouses of America. Radley Metzger was the best of the many art-porn auteurs who tilled this fertile field, and his faithful adaptation of an infamous French s&m novel, The Image (1975), plays heavily to American fantasies of a “shocking” foreign culture where all is permitted. The film is narrated by Jean (Carl Parker), a typical Metzger “sophisticate” who chronicles his adventures with a dominatrix friend, Claire (Marilyn Roberts) and her bloody, beleaguered slave Anne (Mary Mundum). In a series of elegant environments instantly recognizable as Metzger-land — a haute couture store, a gleaming dungeon, an elaborate rose garden — the three play complex sex games that involve everything from whips and watersports to blood-letting and blowjobs. Like Score (at least some prints), The Image has hardcore moments and plenty of full-frontal male and female nudity. Ultimately, though, Anne’s endless degradations get a little too real for comfort, and the director’s misogynist tendencies puncture this coldly beautiful canvas.
While the western enjoyed a brief resurgence in the ’90s, another classic genre — the musical — was nowhere to be seen. It remained for the fearless French to resuscitate this hoary form, and the results suggest that some dogs are better left lying. Fans of fluff like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg may appreciate this 1998 movie about a sexy young Parisienne who abandons her sexually profligate life to settle down with “le garcon formidable” — who happens to be dying of AIDS. Others will find the level of smarm suffocating, as every plot twist occasions a self-conscious musical outbreak, with the characters tunelessly expressing every little thought in their heads in song. Directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau attempt to inject a political consciousness into a form that by nature resists it, but they’re sentimentalists at heart, corralling every cliché about lost love and mortality in sight. The sex scenes are surprisingly upfront, but with a fatal maudlin edge; all that’s missing is a death-bed blowjob.
Liquid Sky (1982) is one “cult classic” that deserves the name. Russian emigré filmmaker Slava Tsukerman’s first and last-to-date feature recasts Weimar Germany — with its attendant androgyny, drugs, and general air of apocalypse — as a New York New Wave nightmare. It seems that those scenesters who aren’t shooting up, club-hopping, or gyrating to Fairlight synthesizer music are being obliterated by aliens during orgasm. Who knew? The star of this scintillating show, besides Tsukerman’s haunting music, is the glorious Anne Carlisle in a double role as both haute bisexual deb Margaret and Jimmy, the Bowie-esque “boy” who slaps her(self) around and steals her drugs. Carlisle, who also co-scripted with Tsukerman, has tremendous presence and the most shocking thing about the film is that she didn’t have a bigger career.
Murray Lerner’s cinematic record (1997) of the historic 1970 Isle of Wight festival stands a little apart from other, more soothing rock festival movies like Woodstock and Monterey Pop, with their cheery sense of innocence and expectation. Whittled down from 175 hours of footage to a little over two, Message to Love brilliantly details a major cultural movement in dizzying decline. The big draw here are rough, spacey performances by rock’s ragged aristocracy of the time — the Doors, the Who, Hendrix, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues. Standout numbers include Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” and the Doors’ apocalyptic ditties “When the Music’s Over” and “The End.” But producer/director Lerner also documents the endless posturing and infighting among the ego-drenched festival promoters, the bands’ managers, and the artists. Only 50,000 of the 600,000 attendees were paying customers, and the tug-of-war between the moneyed interests and the sea of hostile hippies outside the gates eventually overwhelms the good vibes. The film hits all the usual targets — the gyrating, drugged-out, naked hippie chick dragged away by security; the droll “shithouse interview” — but reaches the heights of counterculture craziness when an overwrought Marxist hippie storms the stage and screams, “This is a psychedelic concentration camp!”
Leslie Asako Gladsjø and Richard Curson Smith’s documentary Pandaemonium! explores the literally cutting-edge work of men (yep, all men) like Mark Pauline (of Survival Research Labs), David Therrien, Stellarc, and Chico MacMurtrie. Therrien constructs elaborate technological tableaux that trap his willing human volunteers; Stellarc flies through the air on the end of a crane with multiple meat hooks in his body; MacMurtrie creates witty scenes of strangely poignant automata in leisure and work modes; and Pauline — whose own hands now resemble robot claws after nearly being blown off by one of his creations — stages complex, brutal rituals using rickety robots, jets of flame, and cows’ heads. Pandaemonium! brilliantly explores the nihilism, narcissism, fetishism, and homoerotic impulses that drive this art. (Unfortunately, this film is not commercially available. Pester your local arthouse for a revival.)
The “AIDS movie” has established a shaky foothold in modern cinema, too often collapsing, like many a film about physical or mental afflictions, into the maudlin and the bathetic (think Bent or Love! Valour! Compassion!). Unfortunately, Bernard Salzman’s 1997 feature does nothing to counter this trend. Christopher Cavetelli’s dying wish is for his brother, lover, ex-wife, and best friend to go on an AIDS ride, correctly assuming it will be a kind of therapy session on wheels that will transform their lives. As the widower, Stephen Spinella regurgitates his patented screaming queen routine from Love! Valour! Compassion!, obnoxiously upbraiding his companions for things like unsafe sex or not achieving their potential to the point where you pray they’ll slug him or push him off a cliff. Hunky Danny Nucci tries to get by on his admittedly seductive smile, Lea Thompson fails to breathe life into her predictable character as the wife, and Vincent Spano succumbs nobly to the script’s rampant cliches. Fans of the Lifetime cable channel or mush-brained problem dramas may appreciate this sentimental slop; others are warned.
Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s timely documentary (2003) digs deep into the workings of these “romantic revolutionaries.” Sympathetic without being sycophantic, the film deftly blends strong interviews with W.U. legends like Mark Rudd and Bernardine Dohrn with balancing commentary by FBI agents and disgruntled ex-lefties like Todd Gittlin, who dismisses his former comrades’ activities as “a children’s crusade gone mad.” Much of the film’s fascination comes from the group’s unusual blend of idealism, intelligence, practicality (how to ensure those pesky bombs don’t explode in your hands or kill anybody else), and the Quixote-like “madness” of zealots whose radical activities, however confused (or, later, repudiated), paved the way for less violent but still effective direct-action groups like ACT UP.