FIVE FROM THE FIRE #7

christopher funderburg & john cribbs

 

<< continued from FIVE FROM THE FIRE #6 >>

john:

What is it with Pizza Huts anyway? Why are they always storing entire filmographies next to them? Cuz at a Pizza Hut across town (you know, another town in Texas), there's another fire raging: one that endangers the ENTIRE FILMOGRAPHIES of...

Alfred Hitchcock    Billy Wilder    Bernardo Bertolucci

Charles Laughton    Rodman Flender

Lucky another handsome, bearded bastard is enjoying his lunch there...

 

christopher:

How did I end up in this dingy nowhere Texas hole? For starters (and for enders) there's an archive here inexplicably housing the complete works of several noted directors. I can hardly believe it, but this place supposedly has not only every 35mm and 16mm copy of every English language version (subtitled and dubbed) of these films, but the original language negatives as well. And all the foreign language negatives. And so I'm here to establish a relationship with the owners (some goddamned Texan and his wife from Manitoba) and see if I can swing a loan or two from the archive to the JBFC. But that can wait. It's 12:03 when I roll into town.

Lunch buffet at Pizza Hut. My safe haven in the direst of settings (and, trust me, this infintesimal Texas dust pit is as dire as settings get), the Hut is always there for me and it would be rude not to stop in and pay my respects. The gigantic, strapping, boot-wearing, ten-gallon hat-sporting waitress (the people of this state sure love living its cliches) brings out a thin crust pizza and, paydirt, it's covered in Italian sausage. Nothing could ruin this day, I take the whole damn thing back to my table (the waitress: "Excuse me sir, you can't-" but I wave her off) and sit down to dig in. I inhale deeply, wanting to savor the aroma of melted cheese and spicy pork, but... is this thing burned? Did they burn this pizza? I lift it up and check the bottom. Nope - perfectly crisp, but still a little greasy and savory and succulent. I inhale again. Is there some kind of electrical fire here in the restaurant? Where is that smoke smell coming from? I glance back at the kitchen. Everything's cool back there.

And then I look out the window.

It's an inferno. Tell me that's not the print warehouse? It's not. It's the rodeo supply/semi-literate Tea Party signage store next door. And it's gone up in flames. Some Texan threw out his cigarello and the store just went up like a pile of dry straw. Which, incidentally, the rodeo supply store has in spades.  The fire licks the side of the print warehouse, but it's a well-concieved storgae facility designed to maximally retard fire. Or that's the assumption I'm working from, anyway. Jeez... it, um... it really looks like it's starting to catch on fire. Is anybody going to do anything? I look around. Just a bunch of slack-jawed Texans do-nothings gaping at the fire. I look down at the thin crust, Italian sausage pizza in front of me. Fortunately, pizza from the Hut is good even cold.

I spring into action.

Now, off the top of my head, I know this place has Hitchcock, Wilder and Bertolucci - that's why they sent me down here. Three undisputed Titans of Le Cinema, cornerstones of the medium without whom the history of the moving image could scarcely be written. But let me check the print catalogue and see if that's all that's here. And I'll be damned: they also have the complete directorial works of Charles Laughton. So, that's an easy choice: I consult the catalogue for its location and without hesitation I grab the collected directorial works of actor-turned-filmmaker Charles Laughton. I set the print of Night of the Hunter down on the dusty Texas street. It's a paved street, but the general windblown brutal dryness of the area means that it almost resembles a dirt road. How can anybody live like this? Why would anyone want to spend 5 minutes in such a shitty, hot nothing of a place? And how did they get all these prints?

At any rate, Night of the Hunter remains one of the greatest films of all time. I guess. I personally love it to death, but the canonization of Night of the Hunter encapsulates the entire problem with canons altogether: it's undeniably a visually inventive, technically astounding masterpiece of cinematic stylization. But it's also an exceptionally strange film, a sort of Dixie Gothic fairytale where a little girl with a misshapen head is trying to outsmart Robert Mitchum. Mitchum's sleazy, knuckle-tattooed, wife-muderin' preacher is deservedly one of cinema's most notorious villains, but he's a very strange character, wrapped up in a very strange performance in a very strange film. The film is not just singular for being Laughton's only directorial effort, but for its place in cinema in general - an improbable melding of the Brothers Grimm with European art cinema given a Hollywood sheen. If it's in the (or any) canon, it must be recognized that it's not an example of anything so much as a wicked, peverse counter-example. It's great.

Let's see what else they have in here. Just Laughton, Bertolucci, Hitchcock, Wilder... and am I reading that right? Rodman Flender? Aw, shucks. Flender's best known film is most likely Leprechaun 2, which in the UK was subtitled "One Wedding and Lots of Funerals." For better or worse, it provided the blueprint that allowed the series to continue: pungent mixture of comedy and gore, all too ready to acknowledge that it was, after all, a terrible idea for a movie: killer leprechaun cracks teeeeerrible one-liners (he's sort of a pseudo-Freddy Kreuger in that regard) and tears people to pieces. Story follows the Leprechaun as finds the human women he's been waiting for lo these many years to be his wife (one wedding) and when she resists him, he kills a guy with his a suped-up leprechaun-themed go-cart (necessitating one of the many funerals.) The go-cart was created using his ancient leprechaun magic. To say that Leprecahun 2 is by far the best of the Leprechaun films is probably damning it with faint praise, but the movie definitely works as far as that sort of thing can work. It's the sort of success that just never happened with a direct-to-video sequel to a truly terrible early 90's horror movie (e.g. it's way better than Sometimes They Come Back... for More or I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.)

Flender's only other even semi-well-known movie is Idle Hands, a film that extends Evil Dead 2's "possessed hand" sequence to feature length. It's most notable for introducing the world to Jessice Alba and her ridiculously amazing body. She's still a teenager in the film, but Flender has the good sense to let her cavort about, to and fro, all the live-long day, in her skimpy skin-tight pajamas. It also features Seth Green in a minor role and Elden Henson, that fat kid who was in everything for a while. Also featured: Devon Sawa, that ugly kid who was in everything for a while. So, the cast is Alba and unattractive dudes, which is a crime, if you ask me. Seriously, take note Hollywood, if you're going to feature Alba on screen (and you should) make sure she's opposite a dreamy superhunk like Paul Walker. Anything else is a disgrace.

You might not have guessed it, but Rodman Flender is (in a roundabout way) a personal favorite of mine. I clearly have no intention of saving Idle Hands or Leprechaun 2: One Wedding and Lots of Funerals, but I can't deny I'm more than a little sad to see them go. They're not great movies and they probably aren't even good movies, but they are interesting movies. They're the type of crap that made going to the video store a fun experience; it was worth your while to rent 3 movies and give something like Idle Hands a chance. Most times I rented a couple movies for the weekend the 3 picks went like this: big budget blockbuster, classy thing, wildcard. I'm come home with, say, Stallone's Assassins, Hal Hartley's Trust and Leprechaun 2. With the first two films, you more or less knew what you were getting. With the wildcard, you honestly didn't know just what the hell you were getting yourself into. The video box art was most likely deceptive (e.g. a bitter, hard-to-classify drama would presented as an off-beat comedy or a touching drama about sisters coping with cancer would seem like a lesbian erotic thriller), the movies were almost never undiscovered gems and frequently the film got turned off 2/3rds of the way through... but the wildcard added a spice and excitement to the whole process of renting a film. In a way, it's what made the whole video store experience worth while.

In the new "every film is accessible, every movie has been reviewed endlessly on-line" reality, I haven't quite figured out how to bring the wildcard back into play. Because on a fundamental level, the wildcard needs to be an after-thought, but also something you don't really know about - something you can't really know about. If you're staking your weekend (or even a couple hours of your time) on the wildcard, you're just going to be disappointed. The truly interesting ones, the films in which Rodman Flender specialized, are so few and far between that any moderate connoisseur of dtv garbage quickly picks up on names like Rodman Flender and Fred Olen Ray. Get your hopes up: Flender, Fred Olen Ray. Get your hopes way down: Lloyd Kaufman, Gregory Hippolyte. Unwatchable crap-or-sleazy genius roulette: Jim Wynorski, Wayne Crawford. There were waves and waves of an ocean's worth of terrible wildcard picks out there: rubber-monster movies, barbarian epics clearly filmed in Southern California, softcore police procedurals, ill-conceived action-comedy vehicles for athletes-turned-failed-actors. Space Westerns. Space Vampires. Leprechauns in Space. So many, many wonderfully terrible movies that when one was more or less good, you had to sit up and take notice.

And at some point, I'll get to the film I will be saving, Rodman Flender's masterpiece. But hold your horses till then because I want to mention Flender's debut film, a nice little hot-button thriller called The Unborn. Because if I don't tell you about these films, you can be certain that no one else will. The Unborn dials into a current issue (fetus rights in 1991) and employs said issue for a genuinely creepy horror film. Flender got his start working for Roger Corman and clearly learned from the master how to balance tight-budgets, knowing comedy and genuine cinematic competency. Like Corman, even Flender's best films are a little cheesy, but they're constructed with a sturdiness and intelligence that means the cheesiness never undermines the moments of real, thrilling fear and intelligence and sexiness and intentional comedy. Flender's films, as they say, play - and The Unborn is no different. It stars Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven - which, incidentally, is not as good as The Unborn) as an infertile woman impregnanted in-vitro as part of an experimental program... an experimental program masterminded by power-mad, psychopathic scientists! It's a very solid premise that does the Corman thing of knocking off the idea from a superior big budget film (Rosemary's Baby's "holy shit, does a mother love even a monster baby?" notion), giving it his own twist and not sweating the technical details. Plus, Lisa Kudrow is in it for two seconds and the film used her brief appearance as a major selling point after Friends blew up a couple years later. Classic.

Flender has settled into a life of tv work, at this point: a triology of early 90's films constitutes the bulk of Flender's feature film career. The Unborn and Leprechaun 2 form the bread of a direct-to-video sandwich in which In The Heat of Passion is the spicy chicken patty.  Unborn and Leprechaunare interesting wildcards;* In The Heat of Passion is a seemingly mythical creature: the direct-to-video softcore flick that's actually, completely, genuinely, totally awesome. It's a great movie. I know you will never believe. You just won't. And when I let Rear Window and Some Like It Hot burn (don't worry, it's coming!), you will be even more infuriated and indignant about how much time I'm spending on Rodman "episodes of Arli$$" Flender. But that's the sad fact: a movie like In The Heat of Passion could be fantastic - both exemplary of and far surpass its genre - simultaneously crystalize the form and shatter it (to steal a phrase) and no one will ever know. Or care. It's a direct-to-video erotic thriller driven by many torrid, excessive sex scenes featuring a shameless Sally Kirkland.** No one will ever give it a chance.

The plot is great: a struggling actor spends his days working as a car mechanic. He manages to land a somewhat demeaning acting gig portraying a rapist in the crime re-enactments on an "America's Most Wanted" style "bring 'em to justice" show. And, then, everywhere he goes, people keep mistaking him for the actual rapist. Eventually, he ends up working on the car of Ms. Sally Kirkland, a busty housewife in a miserable marriage. She recognizes him as the rapist and is turned on. She seduces him, he gets caught up in the whole and at one point (of course) he impersonates a cable tv repairman and they get it on, on the tv while her oblivious husband hangs out downstairs. It's actually a great, sexy, funny, weird scene that culminates in the type of explosive, intense fucking that say, Double Indemnity, would have to imply. Kirkland is hot as shit and rails him like a train. So, you can understand when he gets suckered by the next part of her plan: kill the husband.

You see, she thinks he's a highly wanted criminal with nothing to lose, already on the block for several life sentences, why wouldn't he add the murder of a scummy, deserving wife-beater to the mix? It's a perfect film noir set-up and what makes the film truly brilliant is how it uses the prerequisite softcore elements to its advantage: the cable-guy wants no part of the murder, but he really, really doesn't mind playing along for now at least because, Jeebuz Cripes, did you see what she did to him in that bathroom stall?! The graphic, hot sex scenes make the point in a way that innuendo never could: Flender is able to create (and actor Nick Corri to portray) a character unlike anything we've ever seen in film noir because they are able to be more direct, more raw and funnier about the situation. The contours of his reactions and dialog and manner can all being something slightly different than they ever could be if the intense sexual connection existed only in implication. I'm not making a case for directness over innuendo or creating a "this vs. that" battle or some such non-sense, just explaining how a different approach (a more sexually graphic approach) can give an entirely different, fresher, more interesting, more unique spin on shop-worn material. Isn't that the definition of artistry, for God's sake?

Plus, Carl Franklin (his last role before he directed the unassailably excellent One False Move) and Lisa Kudrow (again!) are in it. And the actor prepares for his rapist audition by reciting lines from The Unborn. This movie is awesome. Case closed.

The sad thing is, this warehouse fire didn't need to happen to destroy the evidence of ITHOP's greatness. It was never even released on dvd. It missed the dvd era, which is now all but over, and there's very little reason to think that it will make it into the blu-ray era. Maybe there's some chance it will pop up in the netflix/hi-def-tv hybrid era (named Dren) that's just around the corner. I still hold out hopes that the "Video Store in your TV!" era will lead to an expansion of options, but since there's no clear indication of how that system will work, there's no reason to get my hopes up (or down.) We'll have to wait and see. But if In the Heat of Passion wasn't rolled out in the "holy shit, dvd's are so profitable, let's just put everything out on dvd" moment, then I don't know what will have to change to give it new life. I find it hard to believe that 35mm prints of it ever existed. Even without the fire, I'm afraid the film is already all but gone.

* That's why Unborn and Leprechaun 2 are the bread, not just because they are the chronological brackets, but also because they are similar in texture and slightly more bland than the spicy chicken patty.

** Not to get too far off point, but has any actor ruined their career more quickly than Sally Kirkland? In 1987, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (Lead Actress!) for Anna. By 1990, she was doing a cameo as a sexy gypsy in a horror omnibus film by Romero and Argento. By 1992: direct to video softcore.

    (continued on PAGE 2)

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