1/31/7 - 2/9/7
In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Max Ophul's The Earrings of Madame de... to lesser films by great directors like Richard Linklater's It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books to idiotic dreck like A Night at the Museum. In sections spanning 10 days at a time, The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance.
<<click here for 1/21/7 - 1/30/7>>
1.31. F is for Forty Shades of Blue.
Melodrama in Memphis concerns Dina Korzun as a Russian mother pouting and moping around the house of husband Rip Torn, perfectly cast as an ape of a music legend, before getting involved with his estranged son Darren E. Burrows (Ed of "Northern Exposure" fame). I honestly can't tell what the film wants me to think about Korzun's character, but if I'm supposed to care about her then the film is a complete failure. Every time she's on screen, sulking like dog who wants attention, I wished something bad would happen to her and the fact that nothing does is a bit intolerable. It's another case of Little Children-style lament: I'm supposed to sympathize with a character because of bad life decisions that are entirely of her own making. Torn's character is a self-centered lout, but he's hardly abusive and even quite loving towards her (though he gets drunk and ignores her, she certainly makes no attempts to engage him emotionally on this point). So what we're left with is two people having an affair (Burrows is also married) and brooding unrelentlessly. Not that many Sundance favorites have stuck out in my mind of late, but Forty Shades of Blue is particularly uninvolving. I'd actually be curious to hear if women relate to it or if they agree that Korzun is either intentionally unlikable (and therefore morally vacuous) or if she's supposed to evoke compassion (in which case the movie misses its mark).
2.1. G is for The Girl Can’t Help It.
Tom Ewell introduces the film by pimping its Cinemascope photography and De Luxe color scheme, so I was probably missing out watching an old pan and scan video copy. He sets up the film as "a story about music," but it's got much more in common with the classic pajama comedies (director Frank Tashlin made the most famous one, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) that reveled in Hollywood Code fence-balancing innuendo, the least subtle in this movie being Jayne Mansfield holding two milk bottles against her magnificent chest. "Everyone figures me for a sexpot," she complains, claiming that she just wants to cook, clean and raise a family: like Marilyn's most famous characters, she couldn't be further from a feminist. Which is fine, since her gift is being statuesque (one kid quips, "If she's a girl, I don't know what my sister is!")
Her Jerri Jordan, so uninterested in becoming the celebrity that mobster Edmond O'Brien is grooming her to be, also couldn't be further from the real Mansfield, an infamous publicity hound who'd hit town shilling signed glossies of herself and turning heads just walking down the street in a fashion that's probably only slightly exaggerated in the movie (scenes of which obviously influenced John Waters to have Divine flaunt herself down the sidewalks of Baltimore to classic 50's tunes in his films). The music in the film comes courtesy of a slew of a cameo performers like the Platters, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard and Julie London, appearing as a specter of herself to haunt an alcoholic Ewell. My favorite lyric from these acts was "I love your eyes/I love your lips/They taste even better than potato chips." A montage of mob hits on jukeboxes predates the famous wiping out of the Five Families in The Godfather.
2.2. H is for Heavy Traffic.
I'm finally ready to commit myself to saying I'm a Ralph Bakshi admirer if not a fan, per se, of his work. He's made it difficult, with his films' tendency to dissolve into muddled incoherence by their conclusion, leading to more of an appreciation of the technical novelties than the possibility of taking any of the plots or themes seriously (his typically grumbed old man arrogance in interviews hasn't helped). But his work is usually at least a fascinating mess (not American Pop and Cool World, which are just boring, derivative messes). He is undeniably a provocateur and earnest pioneer in the always struggling field of animation.
His more famous movies are either adaptations (of R. Crumb, J.R.R. Tolkien, the Uncle Remus folk tales) or collaborations (with Vaughn Bode, John Kricfalusi, Frank Frazetta), so Heavy Traffic, his most original and personal favorite that seems influenced equally by Hubert Selby, beat writers, Help magazine and Robert Frank, seems quinessential to his filmography. It's overflowing with his favorite subjects and motifs: WWII footage, Christian imagery and Jewish upbringing, Harlem culture, Rabelaisian freaks, pinball machines, horny guys, busty girls, gutter trash and street scum, fantasy and science fiction. The lead character, mordantly named Michael Corleone, delves into a life of street crime with sassy bartender Carole, all the while in confrontation with his greasy father, mafia chieftains, a legless tough and Snowflake the transvestite. The "Mother Pile" story pitch, ending in the new messiah killing God, is the best sequence Bakshi's ever produced.
2.3. I is for Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion.
Part of the Film Forum's excellent Ennio Morricone retrospective, this Elio Petri film starring Gian Maria Volonte (the same team behind The Working Class Goes to Heaven, which tied for the 1972 Palme d'Or with Francesco Rosi's The Mattei Affair, also starring Volonte) feels like The Conformist - released the same year - if it had been made by Luis Buñuel. Volante is chief of police in a fascist state who murders the beautiful Florinda Bolkan, then playfully sets about seeing how much he can implicate himself in the crime wihtout being accused of it. It appears to have directly inspired the end of Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man, where Francesco Dellamorte goes on a killing spree yet is blithely unsuspected by the local police. The movie creates a compromise of dark, Kafkaesque political absurdity and a broad, light goofiness underscored (and sometimes overwhelmed) by Morricone's bouncy soundtrack. In his quest for control over his co-workers, young rebels and his emasculating mistress, Volonte's nationalist mentality uproots a sexual impotence that would make him an ideal subject for Wilhelm Reich (not that the movie is commitedly Marxist). Although the film is not completely successful, it is always entertaining, and Volonte is amazing.
2.4. J is for Jigoku.
All the classic Japanese horror films come off more than a little hokey by nature (a tradition newer movies like Ju-On and The Eye have dutifully upheld), but Jigoku, which is interesting and high-concept, flies over the top in a way that the more elegantly-handled (and similiarly Criterion-released) Ugetsu, Kwaidan and Onibaba manage to avoid. Shiro, fleeing a guilty past, ends up at a sanitarium where everyone has a similarly sinful secret to hide. Tormented by Tamura, a demonic doppleganger in the Tyler Derden fashion, Shiro anguishes over his crime until he and the other characters experience the various layers of the Japanese underworld.
The sheer number of accidental deaths is kind of ridiculous and incredibly tacky, and when the film goes to hell (about an hour into things) it becomes a prisoner to its insane visual schemes, sort of the ending of The Black Hole directed by Lars von Trier for thirty minutes, although there's no denying delightful lines like "This is the pus wrung from your festering carcass" enhance the proceedings. Yoichi Numata's performance as Tamura is truly creepy, but once again the inherent absurdity of the genre intervenes by giving his voice the "whooooo" ghost reverb. I'm absolutely convinced the director (Nobuo Nakagawa) accomplished what he set out to do, but what he did is a more than a little dated.
2.5. K is for Keetje Tippel.
When Chris Funderburg and I were fighting in Toronto over which of us deserved to see Zwartboek, Paul Verhoeven's first film made in his native Netherlands in over twenty years, I think I won the argument by saying, "Come on, I sat through Keetje Tippel!" Upon reexamination, the movie is nowhere near as forced and artificial as I remember: it suffers from comparison to Turks Fruit, being its follow-up movie with same stars Monique van de Ven (looking with her cropped blonde bangs like a young Sally Kellerman) and Rutger Hauer (playing the early Harvey Keitel part in this movie). Whereas Fruit and its outlandish sexuality works because of the loose structure and modern locale, Keetje is confined by the rigor of its historial setting and Tess-like naturalistic story elements (which is interesting since Showgirls would combine the modern setting and Tess-like naturalistic story elements).
This basically feels like Verhoeven's Pretty Woman, with a headstrong immigrant from Stavoren to Amsterdam in the late 19th century turning tricks briefly before being swept up by a dashing high society roller (the difference being that Julia Roberts wasn't pimped out by her MOM). It's due to the film's period epic feel that things like an innocent game of shadow puppets interrupted by the silhouette of an erect penis feels less intentionally tongue-in-cheek than, say, Hauer tracing his dong as a souvenir for the broad he's just used up in Turks Fruit: it comes dangerously close to over-the-top goofy costume softcore (which probably isn't the intention of the movie or the scene, since it leads to a rape). Still, I viewed it this time with a less serious attitude and appreciated some of the film's Verhoeven tricks, like an early version of the infamous Basic Instinct ceiling mirror shot, and realized it's just as enjoyable as Turks Fruit and as epic as Soldier of Orange, although Verhoeven and writer Gerard Soeteman have obviously moved on from this kind of playfulness with the much more straightfaced Zwartboek. My favorite part is still when Hauer gut-punches the asshole who insults his lady.
2.6. L is for Leolo.
I'm going to try and tread lightly here...I have the feeling this film is a favorite for a lot of people. Jean-Claude de Lauzon's Leolo is a milestone in the category of truly overrated "underrated" movies. It's popped up on lists of varying prestige and reliability (example: Time magazine's "100 Best films of All Time," a selection as dubious as its title - makes me wonder what Film Comment would pick for "100 Greatest Military Coups of the 20th Century") and been name dropped by several filmmakers, mostly fellow Canadians like Guy Maddin and Denys Arcand (who appears in the film). Much as I have no intention of offending our Canadian friends (here's a short list of Canadian films I happen to like a lot: Speaking Parts, Last Night, Videodrome, The Decline of the American Empire, Kissed, Roadkill, Hard Core Logo, The Sweet Hereafter, Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy) or dishonoring the memory of the movie's director, but this feels like burlesque disguised as high art.
With its aimless, undisciplined jabs of Chaucerian humor - laxative treatments, masturbation with meat - it's like Kusturica with ADD. The story is supposed to be about a child in Montreal (like the protagonist of Breaking Away, he wants to be Italian) and his escape into fantasy. He imagines that his mother was impregnated by a semen-stained tomato and that's fine, but nothing after that very Tin Drum-like introduction save the movie's best scene (an attempt on his horny grandfather's life) lives up to the high stakes the film sets for itself. The dry narration lags the pace, the Fellini-esque characters are over-the-top: just nothing works, not as well as more recent delve-into-imagination films like The Science of Sleep and Pan's Labyrinth. "Because I dream... I am not" the narrator constantly reiterates. Well, I can't pretend to be a fan of Leolo because I dream I am not.
2.7. M is for Mademoiselle.
Mademoiselle begins with Jeanne Moreau releasing water from the stuice gate of a well, flooding the farmland of her small town below, the most blatant image of released sexual repression ever to start a movie. Moreau, playing a schoolteacher who styles her ethics after the virtue of Joan of Arc and the cruelty of Gilles de Rais, was clearly an inspiration for Isabelle Huppert's Piano Teacher, expressing her desire for a strapping Italian laborer by humiliating his son in class and setting local barns on fire to simultaneously quench her longing and see him shirtless. Written by Marguerite Duras from a story by Jean Genet, the movie has enough tawdry themes and garrish imagery to rival Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and plenty of decadent, libertarian sexual depravity to make Bunuel blush: arson, child abuse, riled xenophobic mobs, chainsaws, sweaty bellies, boot licking, animal cruelty, Biblical retribution and the least subdued use of a snake as phallic symbol to be found in any medium.
It seems strange that Tony Richardson's best film would be a French production. Moreau is good, but there's something about her that's not right. I don't know what's wrong with me: she's clearly an iconic actress from some of my favorite movies (Elevator to the Gallows, Monte Walsh, briefly in Touchez Pas au Grisbi) who's worked for some of my favorite filmmakers (Fassbinder, Godard, Buñuel) but she always feels like the weak link. However, she's never been used quite as well as in Mademoiselle, maliciously crushing bird's eggs in her hand and taping her nipples in the sign of the cross so they don't show through her dress. Beautiful black & white nighttime photography by David Watkins.
2.8. N is for Nail Gun Massacre.
Nail Gun Massacre wastes no time unleashing its camouflage-clad killer, who (along with the boom shadow) stalks some of the hairiest dudes and homeliest women in film history, then goes "plum loco" on them with the $150 title projectile pre-Patrick Bateman. Driving a golden hearse and wearing a motorcycle helmet to accesorize an even more ridiculously oversized battery pack than the one in Driller Killer, the murderer is supposedly avenging the film's opening gang rape, although only five or six of the dozen plus victims appear to have been directly involved in that. "Do you remember when you could sit outside and not worry about mosquitos and killers?" one of the characters ruminates whistfully. The film features not one but two coital trysts interrupted by a barrage of steel brads, a doctor who proudly defies convention by wearing a jean jacket, and the worst attempt at eating a hamburger ever attempted on screen. You'd think that the idea behind using a nail gun would be that the deaths are drawn out and painful, but the killer is unbelievably on-target in his precision.
Given the recent surge in the use of nail guns as deadly cinematic propulsives of choice (Final Destination 3, Date Movie, Casino Royale), NGM was apparently something of a trendsetter despite its ultra low-budget restrictions: piss-poor sound quality, 95% daylight exteriors, local non-actors in the style of Italian Neo-Realism. The doctor's defense of his rebellious attire seems hastily written-in to explain the lack of proper costuming (they couldn't get hold of a lab coat?) and a great moment occurs when an elderly untrained actor starts forgetting her line and someone quickly steps in to say "I guess you were going to tell us that...", taking over the flubbed exposition for what good it does. It's seeing earnest movies like this that make me less and less excited about the idea of Grindhouse and "fake exploitation" as a genre in general (and to clarify: yes, I just spoke out on behalf of Nail Gun Massacre as being noble, and I meant it goddammit.)
2.9. O is for Odd Man Out.
Carol Reed's companion film to The Third Man (which seems to have the same relation to that film as Two Rode Together does to The Searchers) includes similar shots of stretched shadows chasing across building walls, desperate chases through narrow passages and gorgeous black & white night exteriors, this time those of Northern Ireland. That intense young man who looks just like Gregory Peck is actually James Mason, speaking in a bad Irish brogue slightly more bearable than Orson Welles' in The Lady from Shanghai (others in the English cast also struggle with the accent, some don't even try).
Mason is the head of an "organization" (that's obviously meant to be the IRA) who, after a mill heist designed to replenish the Republican coffers goes awry, becomes a wounded, hunted fugitive the people in town either want nothing to do with or intend to exploit to their own ends. Having murdered a man in the getaway, Mason stumbles deliriously from one hiding place to another, pursued by police, the girl who loves him and wants to get him away, and a few really weird characters like an insane artist obsessed with capturing the near-death in his eyes that seem to prove the film's direct inspiration of Martin Scorsese's After Hours. The opening titles draw attention to the "political unrest," but Odd Man Out is really a faceless thriller that could have just as well been set in London, although interestingly it uses the same famous 1 Corinthians 13:11 quote that plays an important part at the beginning of Neil Jordan's IRA-themed The Crying Game.
<<click here for 2/10/7 - 2/22/7>>
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