Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Môjû tai Issunbôshi (2001)

Môjû tai Issunbôshi (2001) is Teruo Ishii's final film. Monzô Kobayashi (Lily Franky) writes detective stories and one evening, he attends the performance of cabaret singer and star, Ranko Mizuki (Mutsumi Fujita). The audience is quite taken with her performance, but Monzô notices one patron who cannot look at her at all. Later that evening, Monzô takes a stroll in the park and among the prostitutes and peddlers, he sees a diminutive man hurry from the park. Monzô decides to give chase to the man and follow him. Surreptitiously, Monzô sees the diminutive man enter into a temple and he decides to uncover the small man’s identity. The following day Monzô has an encounter with an acquaintance from his small village, Ms. Yurie Yamano (Reika Hashimoto) who asks him to introduce her to famous detective, Kogorô Akechi (Shinya Tsukamoto). Yurie’s step-daughter has gone missing and she would like Akechi’s help. Monzô approaches his friend Akechi and pleads with him to help Yurie. Akechi reluctantly agrees, because he is more interested in the disappearance of cabaret singer, Ranko Mizuki for whose final performance Monzô was in attendance. I have quite a fondness for the cinema of Teruo Ishii. I’m a huge fan of his later work, specifically, for example, Neji-shiki (1998) and Jigoku (1999) and I also enjoy his earlier cinema, such as Kyôfu kikei ningen: Edogawa Rampo zenshû (1969) and Kaidan nobori ryu (1970). Of his cinema that I have seen, his stories are grounded in “reality” (or at least, one of his characters is grounded in “reality.” I have put reality in quotation marks, because at the time of this writing, the word is too fluid as a concept for me to adequately define.). Môjû tai Issunbôshi (2001) is based upon the stories of Japanese author, Edogawa Rampo, whose mysteries and horror tales have made him a legend in his home country. Having never read the man’s work and having only seen film adaptations of them, his work appears to put him in the same league as other brilliant and pioneering pulp writers, such as Gaston Leroux and Bram Stoker, for example. Ishii’s adaptation of Rampo through Môjû tai Issunbôshi is a traditionally-styled mystery with traditional results (e.g. investigators gather clues, make their case, and solve their cases). Ishii’s visual style, as in his previous works that I have seen, is completely untraditional and unique. His characters and scenarios, as in Môjû tai Issunbôshi, are credible and believable and approach the world in like fashion. However, Ishii punctuates his films loudly with trips “through the looking glass”: the mise en scène becomes overtly theatrical and wild. These scenes are not everyday occurrences, to put it mildly. In any case, a description of a scene would do better justice than a description of his style, but a viewing of the scenes would trump both verbal descriptions. The English title of Môjû tai Issunbôshi is Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf who are the two antagonists of the two mysteries within the film. In the film’s opening sequence, hands are seen feeling an art sculpture while Mutsumi Fujita, as Ranko Mizuki, screams at the person touching the sculpture. She is the model for the sculpture and believes that anyone fondling the sculpture is like fondling her. The person touching the sculpture is a blind man, and the only way for him to appreciate and understand the sculpture is to feel it. When he learns that the flesh-and-blood model is standing in front of him, he becomes animated. When Ranko is kidnapped, the film reveals that the blind man is her kidnapper. In his home, the “Blind Beast” has a lair where he houses Ranko. His lair is comprised of constructed body parts made seemingly from poor plaster casings. Arms, legs, torsos, and faces protrude from the walls. At nearly every bit of space, one could reach out and touch and feel one of the objects. The blind man sees Ranko as living art and with his perverted sensibilities, he wants to capture her essence and make her his. Ishii’s style compliments this wildly and literally theatrical scene. He shoots actress Fujita in a completely sensational fashion. She’s very attractive, and Ishii cannot resist more than one audacious composition while she scrambles around the lair solely in her panties. Ranko and her captive’s relationship becomes closer as the film progresses, and Ishii pushes both his visual content and style. There are a few sequences which are jaw-dropping-ly amazing occurring in the “Blind Beast’s” lair, and it would be a disservice to describe them here. They are moments where instant rewind is necessary, because believing they were seen has to be confirmed. The lair sequences are just an example, as Môjû tai Issunbôshi has many of them. Despite the fact that Môjû tai Issunbôshi has a very creative visual style and a traditional narrative, there is sensitivity. However, this sensitivity comes at the cost of contradiction. Môjû tai Issunbôshi (and the other Ishii cinema that I’ve seen) can be comfortably labeled as sensational or exploitation cinema. If the viewer believes there is nothing behind the sensational veneer, then he/she will find nothing. However, really interesting cinema, like Môjû tai Issunbôshi, will challenge that belief. For example, the two antagonists, the “Blind Beast” and the “Killer Dwarf” can be understood in two ways: one can look at these two characters’ rendition and see them as freakish, grotesque, and other. Ishii does not deter this mode of viewing: they are perverts, kidnappers, and deviants with their criminal behavior. However, Ishii also affords the opportunity to see his antagonists as physically-disabled people who have been, as a result of their disabilities, treated poorly by others. Ishii shows two scenes, one a flashback and one in the present, involving the diminutive man and the blind man, respectively. They are both scenes of degradation and ridicule at the expense of the antagonists, and each scene ends with revenge. Each scene of course is visually-creative, sensational, and ridiculous, but the emotions within each scene are genuine. A viewer can continue to laugh at these characters or see them in another perspective...take your pick. I can find no fault with any of the performances within Môjû tai Issunbôshi. In addition to the titular characters, writer Lily Franky deserves mention as Monzô; drop-dead gorgeous Reika Hashimoto is very good as Yukie; and filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto, as the detective Akechi, is always fun to watch. Môjû tai Issunbôshi shows a veteran filmmaker still being progressive (the film was shot on DV) yet still retaining his visual obsessions which have made his work so unique and interesting. As I have said numerous times here at Quiet Cool, those seeking the offbeat and different will certainly find Môjû tai Issunbôshi of interest. It’s a perfect introduction to Teruo Ishii or a wonderful capping to an amazing career.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Night Moves (1975)

"Take a swing, Harry, the way Sam Spade would."

Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) confronts Marty Heller (Harris Yulin), the man who is sleeping with Moseby's wife, Ellen (Susan Clark). Moseby is understandably hurt at his wife's infidelity yet he has not confronted her. If this were a traditional cinematic confrontation, then Heller would be getting a beating at the hands of Moseby, as Heller's line of dialogue (above) relates. Moseby, the ex-pro-football player turned private eye, would probably have little trouble with Heller in a squabble, as Heller needs the help of a cane in order to walk. The confrontation does not end in the traditional sense. Harry Moseby is a traditional private eye about to become embroiled in a classic noir case. However, Harry Moseby and his performance by Gene Hackman are not going to be given a traditional rendition.
Night Moves (1975) is directed by Arthur Penn, who previously directed Hackman in his excellent Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and is written by Alan Sharp. It's a clever script and in some ways, its spiritual kin is Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973). Here's a quick plot synopsis:

Harry Moseby is an ex-football player now a private investigator. He is referred a case by a colleague, and the case involves a former actress of mild success, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), whose sixteen-year-old, wayward daughter, Delly (Melanie Griffith), has taken a flit. From Los Angeles, Moseby tracks Delly from a movie set in New Mexico to the southern tip of Florida in the Keys where she has holed up with her stepfather, Tom (John Crawford), and pretty Paula (Jennifer Warren). After a short stay in the Keys, during which a corpse is found in the bottom of the ocean by Delly, Moseby brings Delly back to Los Angeles to reunite with her mother. This reunion turns out pretty bad for all involved.

Alan Sharp's script and Arthur Penn's direction admirably strive for an engaging plot-driven thriller buttressed by strong character drama. My chief complaint about Night Moves results from this attempted balance between the plot drive and the character drama. At the film's conclusion (which is quite exciting), inexorably I was left with the feeling that I've watched a familiar noir story. Its strengths were clearly in its characters and their performances. There were nuances to each character that were so adept and intriguing that I almost wished that these characters would have stepped out of their conservative story and just roamed free to make their own decisions.

Moseby engages in three intimate relationships within Night Moves: one with wife Ellen, the second with Paula, and the third with young Delly. Hackman's relationship with Clark's Ellen is clearly a depiction of 1975 sociology: Moseby is the "new male": sensitive and ready to be vulnerable with his feelings. Moseby's silent brooding hides childhood fears and insecurities, instead of the traditional male depiction: stoic, a man of few words and almost completely of action. As Heller remarked to him during their confrontation, "Take a swing, Harry, the way Sam Spade would." Moseby and Ellen's relationship is defined by this conflict: Ellen really only wants Moseby to open up to her, and through his vulnerability, they'll achieve a real emotional intimacy. Despite the fact that Ellen and Moseby have an affecting and endearing scene later, where Moseby opens up to Ellen about his insecurities, the entire depiction of their relationship feels so transparent. In other words, there is this overwhelming sense that their relationship is defined by their "new" roles and confined to them. Save their endearing scene later, each never able to step out of their sociological models. Too much textbook, I guess.
Jennifer Warren gives quite a performance as Paula. At the end of the film, she is the character about whom I wished I knew more. Moseby and Paula have an instant attraction at their first meeting, and as Night Moves progresses, from all appearances, Paula is the character most like Moseby. It's fairly evident that she's reticent to share anything with Moseby about her life, and it's easy to tell she wants to open up to him but is scared. Every time that Moseby queries her, Paula immediately puts up her defenses: she wants to know if Moseby is asking about her as an investigator or asking about her as someone who might actually care to know about her. The relationship had such a charged potential and had it been developed further (to accompany Hackman and Warren's strong performances) undoubtedly the film would have elevated monumentally. Unfortunately, a lot of the mystery behind Paula's character doesn't hide anything of substance: Paula's mystery yields to the plot and by the final act, the character of Paula has more importance as a plot device. This is a shame, and it shouldn't take away from Warren's excellent performance. She's so sexy and so charismatic that she arguably commands every scene that she's in. In small but representative scene of how good Warren's performance is, Moseby is peeking through the blinds of Tom's shack down by the shore line on the Coast. He is clearly staring at Paula. Paula is wearing a sock cap and after noticing Moseby's gaze, she removes her cap and allows her golden blonde hair to fall out. It's a "stand at attention" moment. Melanie Griffith's young performance as the nymphet, Delly, attracts a lot of attention in conversation about Night Moves. I am only speculating, because in addition to her very provocative scenes, her character seems eerily similar to Griffith in her own personal life. Penn puts some real care into her depiction: clearly, he is attempting to show Delly's seductive charm yet he also adeptly balances showing that she's really just a child. Of all the characters, Delly has the most similar life to Moseby. Later when Moseby's past is revealed, one can see why he felt such sympathy for the wayward young woman. When Moseby completes his case and sends her home, the regret that Hackman shows on his face is felt immediately. Griffith has always been an interesting actress and has given some truly memorable roles, such as in Something Wild (1986). Griffith's emotion is always genuine and her charisma and beauty are undeniable. I would recommend Night Moves very highly as a character drama and would recommend it modestly as a thriller. Gene Hackman, one of the best actors of his generation, is at his peak of his abilities. He is absolutely brilliant as Harry Moseby. Night Moves has undeniable creativity in its character development but unfortunately has way too much conservatism in its plot rendition. There's too strong a desire to connect the dots to create a meticulous and organized picture where a looser more organic structure is needed. The plot hampers its rich and memorable characters and their accompanying performances.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Passenger (1975)

Jack Nicholson is David Locke, a British-born, American-raised journalist, working in Africa, covering a bourgeoning rebellion. Despite the fact that Locke was respected and successful in his profession, his heart was never into it. Unsuccessful in his attempts to make contact with the rebels on his current assignment, upon return to his hotel, he finds the corpse of fellow Briton, David Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill). Locke had a brief but affecting conversation with Robertson a few nights before and Locke has decided to literally trade places with the dead man. Locke will assume the identity of Robertson, and as far as the world is concerned, the corpse of Robertson will become the corpse of David Locke. With his new identity, Locke, now Robertson, locates to Europe where he casually pursues the future appointments of the dead man. Hoping to create a new life for himself, Locke, now Robertson, becomes embroiled in the drama of the dead man's life; and the past which he desired to escape is now becoming impossible. Michelangelo Antonioni "was revered by [Dennis] Hopper and [Jack] Nicholson," and "he was one of the first outsiders invited to see" Easy Rider (30). It was during this time that Nicholson agreed to be in a film for Antonioni, and Nicholson "owed" a film to the Italian director "on a handshake." (245). Likewise, Antonioni owed MGM the final picture of a three-picture deal with the previous two being Blowup (1966) and Zabriskie Point (1970). (245) Producer Carlo Ponti backed out of the original feature that was to star Nicholson and Maria Schneider to be helmed by Antonioni entitled Technically Sweet. (246) Instead, Antonioni took some ideas from the failed project and from a story sketch by Mark Peploe, and The Passenger (1975) was born. (246) Author Patrick McGilligan astutely relates the following facts, prominently evinced in the finished film: "MGM gave Peploe's treatment the green light. Cast and crew arrived on location in Algeria, however, without a finished script. This was preferable to Antonioni and only one of the unorthodox aspects of his working method...¶The director prided himself on being 'the outside pole of filmic idiosyncrasy,' in Nicholson's words. MGM was under the impression that Peploe's treatment augured a suspenseful thriller. But in Antonioni's hands The Passenger would become antidrama, a pseudo-thriller, 'a very long and elaborate and elusive chase,' according to Nicholson." (Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1995. p. 246. This is also the source for all previous parenthetical notations and all future ones.)

Michelangelo Antonioni is indisputably one of cinema's masters. Despite the wealth of intellectual ideas and accompanying artistic creativity with those ideas, I have always valued Antonioni first and foremost as a divinely gifted creator of images and one of the most sensual filmmakers that history has ever seen. Some of the most affecting and beautiful and powerful compositions that I have ever seen have come from Antonioni. From L'Avventura (1960), for example, my mind always hearkens to the image of the young woman's legs, tickling the paper bills at her feet with her toes. His cinema is seductive and emotionally infectious. I could care less that the following sounds pretentious, but I cannot say that I haven't been changed and affected in a monumental way by seeing Antonioni's cinema.The Passenger is dialectical. Most of the substance and the overwhelming themes of the film are in a tape-recorded conversation between Locke and Robertson that Locke plays while he sits in front of two passports about to make the symbolic gesture of swapping the two photos. (Not surprisingly, critic and theorist Peter Wollen, author of the Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, contributed to the script of The Passenger. (246)) In addition to its dialogue the Locke-Robertson recording affords Antonioni the opportunity to deliver one of the film's most heartfelt sequences. The Algerian imagery, which begins the film almost in silence, as Locke attempts to make contact with the rebels, informs the loneliness that brings Robertson and Locke together. Robertson, during that fateful evening, offers Locke a drink and from all appearances, Robertson only wanted some temporary and intimate company for the evening. The two did achieve an intimacy and a strong bond, but not quite what Robertson wanted. Both are "globe-trotters," and each remarks upon their mode of travel: Robertson believes that everywhere is essentially the same with the same formalities despite the outsider; whereas Locke believes the opposite--the individual traveler is the one who is the same and is constant, and his worldview is what clouds his surroundings. Hidden in this dialogue is Locke's impetus, and Antonioni's whole rendition of the sequence is masterful. A spiritual connection is forged between the two, and the viewer can actually feel it while watching. When Nicholson has a "chance" meeting with Maria Schneider, who is known only as "Girl" in the credits, about halfway into The Passenger, Antonioni quietly invigorates like Locke's character. By far my favorite portion of the film, beautiful Schneider steals the remainder of The Passenger. Gorgeous Antoni Gaudí architecture introduces the two, and the rooftop meeting where Locke enlists the help of Schneider's character is memorable. One of the most famous sequences from the film comes when Schneider asks Locke, now as Robertson, "one question": What is he running away from? He responds to her by asking her to turn around in their convertible where she sees the road behind them speeding past. In less adept hands, it wouldn't seem as affecting and beautiful. The Passenger is an Antonioni mystery, and anyone familiar with the filmmaker's work knows how Antonioni treats mystery and what he values. The Passenger was lensed by Luciano Tovoli, and it is a triumphant achievement in his acclaimed career. Like most of his cinema, there are more questions at the end of The Passenger than there are answers, but like most of his cinema, The Passenger is always worth revisiting, as Antonioni is always revealed as a true and affecting artist. Essential.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

In 2011, I'm surprised that Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia has not enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, with the least being a remake. With some very notable exceptions, Sam Peckinpah's 1974 film is remarkably modern: outlandish, over-the-top, offensive, and hyper-violent. I can imagine sitting in an audience today and hearing the chuckles of its members while Benny, portrayed by Warren Oates, drives his beat-up convertible on a Mexican highway taking intermittent swigs of tequila. "Have a drink, Al," he says as he pours some alcohol on the rotting head of Alfredo Garcia, covered in flies and resting on the passenger seat. Benny's a lovable loser, isn't he? Don't you want to cheer when he empties a clip into a bad guy (who falls down dying in a signature, slow-motion Peckinpah shot)? Like any modern action hero or any modern anti-hero, Benny has the witty one-liner--as he shoots a corpse on the ground, he quips, "Why? Because it feels so damn good." Here is a plot synopsis:A wealthy businessman, El Jefe, has an unmarried, pregnant daughter on the threshold of delivering. He demands that she reveal the father of her unborn child. Under duress, she reveals the name--Alfredo Garcia. Incensed, El Jefe makes a supreme command to his henchmen--"Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!" A ridiculous amount of money serves as the reward. Like sharks in a frenzy, his henchmen hit the street, looking for Garcia. Some of El Jefe's gringo henchmen create a local network, and two associates, portrayed by Gig Young and Robert Webber, find American piano player, Benny (Warren Oates) working at a tourist trap in a small village. In exchange for information on the whereabouts of Alfredo Garcia, they will pay Benny. Benny learns the location of Garcia from Elita (Isela Vega). Elita is the woman who Benny loves and she reveals that Garcia has died in a drunken auto accident. He is buried in a cemetery in a small town. Armed with this information, Benny confronts the local gringo network and makes his own demand: ten-thousand dollars in exchange for the head of Alfredo Garcia. It's a deal. The plot of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia could be found within the leaves of any American pulp fiction novel. By its plot synopsis alone, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia seemingly sits comfortably between Peckinpah's previous pulp adaptation, The Getaway (1972), from the novel by Jim Thompson, and Cockfighter (1974), starring Warren Oates, from the novel by Charles Willeford. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is composed of the same type of criminal scheme that intuitively every reader (or viewer) knows is too easy to pull off without a hitch. As the events of the story grow from bad to worse, intuitively also the viewer (or reader) knows that the greatest toll is taken upon the characters' psyche. A quick death is welcomed but not forthcoming. It is within this latter sentiment where Peckinpah's film stands out from his contemporaries. In my opinion, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is easily Peckinpah's most tragic and heartfelt film. There is no character more tragic than Elita, portrayed by Isela Vega. Her character is the thematic sister to Karen Black's Rayette from Five Easy Pieces (1970). Their characters and their portrayals are notable, because most often, they are seen with Post-Modern eyes: often cited as ironic characters, because both adhere to an ideal of love. So in the end, they appear tragic, because they're naive (instead of wholly genuine). Like Rafelson with Five Easy Pieces, Peckinpah's characterization is much more complex than its surface implies. One of the interesting questions within Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia which is never directly confronted is Elita knowing the exact whereabouts of Alfredo Garcia. Benny is surprisingly forgiving at Elita's answer: the last "three days and three nights" of Alfredo Garcia's life were spent with Elita. The time that the two shared were as lovers. Peckinpah's answer comes in the depiction of Elita's character and relates to ancient ideas of Fate or more modern, philosophical ideas of Determinism. Peckinpah's depiction of the world's treatment towards Elita is that of a prostitute. The famous scene of Kris Kristofferson and his buddy, as biker bandits, who raid a peaceful campfire scene of Benny and Elita, is made more powerful juxtaposed with its following sequence: at the desk of a local motel, the innkeeper attempts to refuse service to Benny and Elita, because he thinks Elita is Benny's prostitute and the two have come to use his hotel for business. The biker-bandit rape/revenge sequence and the innkeeper sequence follow from the same sentiment into wholly different and polarized scenarios: one, violent and primal, and the other, civilized and corporate. The message is the same--Elita has one identity according to the world and it's completely unfair. Unsurprisingly, Benny treats her the same way: if Elita had never spent three days with her lover, then Benny would have never known his whereabouts. If Elita never had Garcia as a lover, then Benny couldn't collect on his ten-thousand dollars. Benny's more immediately forgiving when the woman he loves is access to money. The irony, of course, is Benny not recognizing what is certain with Elita: her love for him. This theme by Peckinpah is amazingly resonant. One would never question that Peckinpah is intimately familiar with the depiction of traditional male virility and its flaws and attributes. Likewise, it is difficult to question his depiction of traditional male attitudes and their impetuses and results.Hence, it is easy to see why Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is essentially unique in Peckinpah's filmography and how influential it would become to subsequent pulp adaptations for the screen, such as James Foley's excellent After Dark, My Sweet (1990) and George Armitage's equally excellent, Miami Blues (1990), for example. Instead of typical pulp melodrama, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia delivers genuine emotion, and no tragedy would be complete without it. Understandably, it is a little too real to fit into today's ultra-hip, wink-wink cinema. Although I have to admit during the final sequence, no matter how many times that I see it, I still give a big smile when El Jefe's unmarried daughter, now a new mother, gives Benny a supreme command as he is pointing his pistol at her father. Seen in context of the whole film, it is the quintessential and ultimate sequence. Despite Warren Oates giving one of the best performances of his career, Isela Vega steals the film. While Peckinpah's slow-motion and meticulous action sequences often attract attention from his cinematography, these scenes do not over shadow Álex Phillips Jr.'s work in Garcia. Some of Peckinpah's most affecting and beautiful compositions come from this film. If Sam Peckinpah had made only one film or had made only one good film and that film was Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, then he would still be a patron saint here at Quiet Cool. Essential.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Orgy of the Dead (1965)

In 1965, if someone really had a hankering to see a burlesque show and didn't want anyone to know about it but really had no way of seeing an actual live one, then seeing Orgy of the Dead might punch his ticket. I don't know how one will fill this void, today, alas. According to Rudolph Grey, author of Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr., "Orgy of the Dead began life as an eighteen page script called Nudie Ghoulies. It was to have been composed of ten dances (approx. 42 min.), with twenty minutes reserved for the story." (Feral House, Portland, OR: 1992, p.209) The script of Orgy of the Dead is, of course, by Edward D. Wood Jr., based on his own novel. Grey continues, "The novel of Orgy of the Dead was issued after the movies release [1966]. According to director Steve Apostolof, Wood was paid $600." (176) The film's director, Stephen Apostolof, according to his interview included as a supplement on the Rhino DVD of Orgy, says he met Wood at legendary Los Angeles landmark, The Brown Derby (a meeting set-up by a mutual friend). The two had hopes of working together, although Apostolof was slightly reticent when he saw Wood's appearance: mini-skirt, wig, angora sweater, a moustache, and three-day beard stubble. Apostolof was ready to move into exploitation pictures (Rhino supplement) and hired Wood as production manager and had him help with casting. (Nightmares, 129) Criswell was cast as the "Emperor of the Dead," and "[t]he cape that Criswell wore was Bela' Lugosi's cape from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." (Nightmares, 209) Ted V. Mikels worked as a gaffer on the production. (Nightmares, 128) A writer (William Bates) and his girlfriend (Pat Barringer) are driving at night in a secluded countryside. They are looking for an old cemetery where the writer wants to go for inspiration for a horror novel. They crash and awaken in a cemetery where the "Emperor of the Dead" (Criswell) presides with his consort, the Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver). The Mummy (Louis Ojena) and the Wolfman (John Andrews) are there, too. The Emperor wants to be entertained this evening, and the entertainment will be several female dancers. Okay, this plot synopsis sucks, I know. I hate writing plot synopses. Here is Ed Wood's synopsis:

The night is dark, a deep darkness only produced by a threatening storm--a blackness cut at brief intervals by the crisscross of violent lightning flashes. The torrents of rain hit with resounding force.
Into this pressure of blackness and the foreboding mountain roads cuts another shaft of light--that of a set of automobile headlights.
A young writer and his fiancé drive the perilous dirt road in search of an ancient cemetery, necessary in his research for a new novel...They have been lost for some hours, unable to find their quest, or to find their way out of the mountains...When the storm hit, it gave them little chance of turning back...They could only continue on...
Then...the accident...a lightning-felled tree across the road--the squeal of brakes--the scream of injured tires--the crash!!!
A full moon flooded the ancient cemetery with light, even though a heavy fog lay over the entire area--the Master of the Dead and his equally infamous Princess of Darkness left their tomb to seat themselves on marble thrones, once again ready to judge those, the newly dead, brought before them...THE JUDGEMENT DAY...
The young writer and his fiancé, gaining consciousness after the crash, stumble, accidentally, upon these fantastic happenings...these horrifying rites...and are soon captured by the "Things" of the Night who take them before the Master, which orders them tied to ceremonial posts so they may watch the proceedings before they too join the others.
The Emperor hears, through interpretive dancing, the pleas of the many newly dead...The Main Street Prowler who lured men to her apartment and then fleeced and killed them...The Slave Girl who once was a princess and is now beaten by those who had been the slaves she had beaten...The Bride who murdered her husband and now must reside with his skeleton...The Indian Girl who tossed her lovers into the fires...But for an eternity now must toss herself into the fires continually...The Island Girl who loved snakes--used them to dispose of her lovers, and who now forever will live with snakes...The Girl who loved cats, and will remain a cat...and the One who worshipped Gold above all else--thus she is turned into solid gold.
The Princess of Darkness is about to take the young girl as her own slave when the first rays of the morning sun glisten upon the shiny blade of the knife. The Princess of Darkness, as all the others, are turned back into the skeletons and dust that they really are...
The young writer and his fiancé are then rescued from their wrecked car. Was it a dream?
Only the Night People know.
(Nightmares, p. 209)

Had Apostolof's film had just a little of Wood's enthusiasm, sensationalism, and innuendo, so evident in his writing, then Orgy of the Dead might have been a 60s kitsch classic. Unfortunately, it is not. As a finished film, it appears almost wholly devoid of energy. Yes, I understand that exploitation pictures are a market; their primary attraction is female nudity; and the window to draw a successful dollar from such a picture is limited. However, like most artistic endeavors, when the artist is lacking enthusiasm in the creation of his/her work, then his/her audience is going to recognize that. Most of the film is the dance sequences, punctuated by Criswell giving an over-the-top monologue or engaged in ridiculous dialogue with Silver's Black Ghoul. Nearly every dance sequence is shot in the same manner: typically, an overhead shot panning from side to side to cover all the action with medium close-ups edited in to break the monotony. The filming style has a more documentary feel, despite the theatrical set-up. At times, I felt as if I could talk to Apostolof while he was filming Orgy, then I would have said, "You know, it's okay if you find these women attractive. You could probably loosen up a bit and indulge your erotic artistic sensibility. Try to capture what you find attractive about each dancer." The final dance sequence really stands out, as it's quite different from the ones that preceded it. Like all of the dancers, she's quite attractive, and Apostolof changes his filming up a bit, like when she shakes her hips Apostolof goes for an interesting close-up. Texas Starr, who performed the kitty-cat dance sequence, is super cute. She has a fluffy feline outfit on that looks like loose pajamas, complete with cat ears. The outfit is cut open at her chest and at her bottom, making her a surefire Halloween Costume Party winner. She has such a pretty face, and like most of the dancers, it is evident that she put a lot of time and detail into her routine. Unfortunately, Apostolof shoots Starr's dance sequence in that boring overhead static shot. Her facial expressions, the little nuances in her dance, maybe a pretty smile--all of that is hidden.

Anyway, it doesn't matter. Like most of the cinema involving Edward D. Wood Jr., the most interesting facets involve Wood, himself. A larger picture of the artistic career of Edward D. Wood Jr. is beyond the scope of this blog entry, but for purposes here, it is suffice to say that Wood was one of cinema's truest outsiders. Apostolof notes that during the production of Orgy that Wood's drinking had gotten bad, and once he had to send Wood home to sober up. (Nightmares, p. 129) Wood had not directed a film since The Sinister Urge in 1960 and he would not direct again until the seventies. One of his later films is the infamous Necromania (1971), where most would experience their heart skipping a beat at the sight of Rene Bond. Save Criswell, I'm certain that the other performers in the film, like Fawn Silver and Pat Barringer, became part of Los Angeles' eight million stories and got lost in the shuffle. I highly recommend Grey's Nightmares for further reading on Wood and for those still curious about Orgy of the Dead. As it stands, Orgy of the Dead could have been a time-capsule gem but in the end, it is just tedious and cold.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hardware (1990)

I never really appreciated Hardware (1990) until very recently. I saw it in its original theatrical run when I was fourteen, but that run was clouded by the film's losing bout with the MPAA. Magazines like Fangoria and Gorezone championed the film, and by this point, most of its writers and genre film fans were sick of the censor's scissors. The Hardware that I saw in theatres was a trimmed version, cut for an "R" rating. The Hardware release was an outlet for horror-film-fan angst and it became a soapbox for every fan to rip on the MPAA. Substantive discussion about the film was neglected or hidden, although the film had its fans and those who thought it sucked. The film's director, Richard Stanley, would follow Hardware with his more daring, lesser-known, Dust Devil (1992), and then, for lack of a better word, disappear. Hardware had a subsequent VHS release of its theatrical version and was MIA on DVD (in a proper version, that is) until 2009 when Severin Films released a two-disc set of Stanley's director's cut. Today, the MPAA is more a formality than an actual force; according to his IMDB credits, Stanley has some feature-length projects cooking; and I can safely say that I've never really seen this film. As per my usual viewing habits, when my Severin disc(s) arrived, I popped it into its player and left it in, watching it several times over successive nights.Jill (Stacey Travis) is a real artist, living alone and working on Christmas Eve. Her sometimes boyfriend, Mo (Dylan McDermott), comes into town and wants to stay. He brings her a gift. He showers. The two fuck and go to sleep. Jill wakes up, works on her art piece, smokes some dope, and goes back to sleep. Mo gets a phone call and leaves the apartment. Jill wakes up to find Mo gone, and the gift that Mo brought Jill tries to kill her. Yes, this is a skeletal plot description, but I believe that it adequately describes the dramatic action. The flesh of Hardware is all the good stuff: sex, politics, art, religion, love, and violence. I always wondered what relationships in a post-apocalyptic society would be like and I suppose Hardware serves as a primer. [Incidental joke, Hardware is set in a post-apocalyptic society.] Post-apocalyp-tia would more than likely equal shitty living for most. In a harrowing image, as Mo and his friend, Shades (John Lynch) trek to Jill's apartment, Stanley shows in the foreground a baby tied to its parent who is either sleeping, incapacitated, or dead in the street: it's a perverse rendering of the concept of the latchkey kid. Radio DJ, Angry Bob (Iggy Pop), provides commentary over the proceedings and delivers one of the film's most memorable lines: "There is no fucking good news! So let's rock!" Shades is trying to convince Mo to go and scavenge in New York City to strike it rich, the dream of any American prospector; but Mo prefers his job in the "corps." It's steady work and steady pay for Mo with its only downside being away from Jill for long periods of time. Humorously, the combat isn't an issue for Mo, as Angry Bob relays over the radio that minor skirmishes and battles have very high death tolls. Jill lives isolated in her apartment, secured like a bunker, and does contract work with welfare support as her income. She doesn't necessarily like being alone all the time, but it's so fucked up outside there is really nowhere to go. Motorhead frontman, Lemmy, plays a cabbie, and he reminisces to Mo and Shades about the good ole days: at one point, you could go downtown with just some brass knuckles, a piece of pipe or a piece of wood or something--now, you need a gun. Fucking savages. Stanley's visual style throughout Hardware is amazing, but his introductory footage during the first third of Hardware is masterful: Stanley's images don't need his literate script as they are powerful enough on their own. Stanley does not falter on his characterization. Jill is one of the best female characters to emerge from a genre film in a very long time. She is a real artist, and by that, I am not referring to the quality of her art but to her personality. Anyone that has ever lived with or intimately known a real artist knows that they are intolerable people. More often than not, they are described as "egomaniacal" or "egocentric," as they are more self-centered than the normal self-centered person. Often consumed and obsessed by the creative process, their way of life revolves around it, shutting off the entire world around them, including the ones who love them. Jill is in this class and she deeply loves Mo. She is understandably angry that he is gone a lot, but ironically, her loneliness fuels her art. In a very adept touch, Stanley has Jill create a large web-like metal collage that is missing its center piece. Jill is taking inspiration for her work from a spider who is building a web in a nook in her apartment. She is feeding and caring for the arachnid, and the sensitivity that Jill is showing to the creature can only mean that natural life is rare in this society. In a very subtle yet powerful scene later in Hardware, the spider meets its fate. Its killer is a very satisfying and playful joke on Jill's art and this society. Poor Mo tells Jill that he's going to be around a lot more, and she doesn't believe him. However, the viewer gets the idea that it's true: he stops at the top of a flight of stairs and starts coughing like a sixty-year-old smoker. The discrepancy between Mo's life and Jill's is powerfully rendered in their shower sequence: Mo is so filthy that it looks as if he has dirt permanently ingrained into his skin. Jill has pale, pearl-white, and unblemished skin. You have to love the shot of Mo's metallic, prosthetic hand caressing Jill's bottom: a wonderful composition of metal and flesh: Stanley's main motif. Looming over Christmas Eve and hovering over the entire story in Hardware is the background story about the government on the verge of passing the "Population Control" Bill. The film's dialogue never gives any real depth into the Bill, yet Stanley weaves it into his dramatic action adeptly. Jill's collage and her relationship with Mo center around this historic bill, as having a child would change the dynamics of their relationship. One wonders how it would affect sexual relationships. Jill's neighbor, Lincoln (William Hootkins), is a lecherous pervert who takes to spying on Jill with his camera. He's a wholly repulsive person. When he and Jill have an encounter later in the film, I loved it when Jill said to him, "Okay, you can stop talking now." I think she was speaking for the whole audience. Still, Lincoln's character is a product of this society. His inclusion is eerily reminiscent of Rinse Dream's seminal (pun intended) Cafe Flesh (1982) about a post-apocalyptic society where is sex is reduced to voyeurism. Lincoln also becomes a de facto poster child for the advocates of the "Population Control" Bill. Travis shines in her scene with Lincoln. The second act of Hardware dominates most discussion of the film. The gift that Mo brought Jill for Christmas tries to kill in her in her small apartment, and plenty of praise has been heaped upon Stanley for creating some excellent claustrophobic horror. I need not repeat it. I've said so much at this point in the review and I haven't even remarked upon Stanley's effective use of religious iconography, Mo's psychedelic sequence in the third act, or the dreamy desert imagery with the "Zone Tripper." I could easily bang out another twelve-hundred words on these three, but I won't. The most important thing to mention is that Hardware is beyond an excellent, low-budget film; and the Severin disc set is well worth seeking out for those who like alternative cinema. Repeat viewings only strengthen the film, and Severin's package presents the film in a beautiful print with a wealth of supplements. Essential.