I'm fascinated by Franz Wedekind's Lulu plays, which are the basis for both the classic Louise Brooks film Pandora's Box and the opera Lulu by Alban Berg. Lulu is the kind of woman men ruin their lives for, and her romances tend to end in syphilis, suicide, or murder. She's often regarded as a femme fatale, but in my view the fatalities owe more to pre-feminist sexism than malice on her part; Lulu keeps bumping up against male expectations that she cannot/will not fulfill, and the men respond very, very badly. The play exists in several versions, since Wedekind had to rewrite his original single-play version to get past the censors, and Wedekind revised the details continually, expanding one play into two. The plays are also filled with odd details that don't necessarily advance the narrative but do lend texture to his expressionistic social critique. As a result, the material is bottomless; every engagement turns up fresh connections and possibilities.
Anyway, there's a scene in some versions of the play in which Lulu browbeats her favorite lover, Dr. Schon, into writing a breakup letter to his fiance. Lulu dictates the letter, and he writes it while moaning about how ruinous this is. Sure, it's a femme fatale moment, but Lulu and Dr. Schon have had a tortured on-again off-again relationship for a long time (he was her foster father before he was her lover; such is the ickyness of Wedekind's world). It only recently occurred to me that they may have done dry runs for this letter-writing domination before. It may be that writing (or transcribing) this letter, which destroys Dr. Schon's forthcoming marriage along with his hard-won reputation, is the most erotically thrilling moment of Dr. Schon's life. Compare and contrast to the depressing fetishes of financial domination and erotic blackmail (don't worry; this is a link to a Salon article, not a smut site).
One big difference between the silent Pandora's Box and the Lulu plays is the representation of (big spoiler warning) Jack the Ripper, who murders Lulu at the end. In the silent film he's sentimentalized, a Nice Guy with a Hands of Orlac problem. The plays have no time for such nonsense. Wedekind's Jack (who isn't necessarily meant to be Jack the Ripper, but he is a murderer of prostitutes in Victorian Whitechapel so y'know) is pure dirtball. He haggles over the price of a night with Lulu and cuts an absurdly skinflint bargain; it comes across as low-grade sadism. Lulu gives in to this loser because poverty, prostitution, and life on the lam have left her bereft of hope and resources. No more power games; she just wants someone to hold her through the cold night, and without her wiles she's unprotected against the male rottenness she's always fended off before. In the filmed opera production starring the luminous Christine Schafer, it's suggested that Jack's haggling is motivated by anxiety rather than sadism, as if he's half hoping she'll throw him out and he won't give in to the demons driving him, which is a sensible (and probably realistic) compromise between the tortured representation of the movie and Wedekind's utterly non-romanticized Ripper. Still, as I read it, Jack's chiseling is motivated by nothing more than dull-witted sadism, and if I were directing a production, I'd want Jack to be pure garbage person; after all, he was.
I have a sweet tooth for shows like Chris Carter's Millennium, a corny post-Lecter dollop of risible serial killer chic. Its villains are the logical descendants of the baddies in Thomas Harris's novels; they are motivated by absurdly rococo Rosicrucian schemes. Wedekind's Ripper is the antidote to all that claptrap; the dumb, reeking, jizz-stained banality of evil.
Other nasty nuggets from Wedekind's plays:
One act takes place in Paris, where we find that the upper crust men of Paree are all blatant predatory pedophiles, begging a mother they know to let them debauch her young daughter. Mom demures but keeps hanging out with these guys, who apparently debauched her when she was her daughter's age. Their subplot does not end happily.
At one point Dr. Schon's son, who grew up as stepbrother to Lulu, is lying in her lap and boo-hooing to her about how he's always yearned for her. She tersely confesses that she poisoned his mother (while Lulu was still quite young, but already in love with Dr. Schon). They are immediately interrupted by the Doctor. Despite plenty of opportunity, neither of them ever raises the issue again.
Countess Geschwitz, a wealthy lesbian, proves that a woman can do anything a man can do, including ruin her life for Lulu. She dies (of cholera in some versions/translations, but of Ripper slaying in others) after witnessing Lulu's murder, and gets the last words of the play. In the original German the last words are actually a repeated nonsense syllable, "Sch... sch..." A chilling end to a mournful play. English translators insist on rendering this as "Shit!" or variations thereon, with the exception of Edward Bond, who changes the word to "Submit..." Mr Bond is known for his angry leftist politics, and perhaps this "submit" was intended as some kind of sociopolitical protest against exploitation of women/the working class. Or maybe he was drunk that year. Anyway, the poor Countess is the only one of Lulu's circle who never betrays Lulu, even though Lulu repeatedly exploits her and tosses her aside. Apparently the masochistic lesbian is a cliche that modern lesbians are done with, but perhaps it wasn't so musty a hundred-plus years ago.
Oh, there's loads more nastiness where that came from. The Lulu plays by Franz Wedekind. Gobble 'em up. They're delicious. I named my cat Lulu.
Also, if you're not convinced that these depictions of fin de siecle decadence are relevant to today, there's a subplot about overhyped tech stocks ruining peoples' fortunes.
Thursday, July 16, 2015
Women in Revolt: An Andy Warhol movie on which Warhol did the camerawork, but Paul Morrissey directed. I've done a bit of reading about this film, and in interviews Morrissey articulates a surprisingly conservative worldview; surprising in view of his predominantly transgendered/crossdressing cast. He intended this film (apparently made after Valerie Solanis shot Warhol) to be a satire of feminism, and it certainly mocks both radical feminists and celebrity culture. At the same time, Morrissey's process is more captious than his sociopolitics, and by allowing his performers to improvise he creates a film that incorporates a diverse array of ideas and interests, from the sneering camp of Jackie Curtis to the flawless glamour goddess riffing of Candy Darling. Warhol's cinematography is terrible by any reasonable standard, but maybe his wandering, randomly focused camera eye is an accurate reflection of Warhol's listless way of looking at life. Holly Woodlawn has an early scene where she bounces around like a jack-in-the-box, shrieking at her boyfriend, that made me convulse with uncontrollable laughter until I became frightened at my own outsized reaction.
Overnight: A behind-the-scenes documentary about the story of a Boston bartender who is suspected of being the next Quentin Tarantino, in the 90s when everybody wanted to be or have the next Quentin. He makes his movie (Boondock Saints, beloved by some) but antagonizes a lot of people along the way. After power lunching with movie stars he gets the big head and his worst self manifests. His lack of self-awareness is summed up in a scene where he rants about how being thrown out of the Miramax building proves that now he's in a power position "because now they're afraid of us." At another point he laments (all quotations from memory): "I'm Hollywood's latest hard-on, why is no one returning my calls?" Guess he forgot how long a hard-on lasts. But he got his film and a sequel made, and some people love it, so good for him.
Living in Oblivion: from that same 90s indy film boom. Catherine Keener and Steve Buscemi make a low budget film-within-a-film, and every quirk of the ensemble creative process rings true with my memories of the acting life. It's an ensemble comedy that made me want to see everything auteur Tom Dicello could throw at us.
The Real Blonde: Another Dicello film with Keener costarring (And Buscemi reprises his character from Oblivion), this is another ensemble comedy with a broader New York canvas, and a similar spacy blend of character-based gags. I thought it was a worthy followup.
Double Whammy: Tom Dicello gives up on whimsy and tries to make lurid trash, but he doesn't seem to have his heart in it, and the movie is like watching someone improvise while exhausted. Early on there's a scene where someone walks into a diner and starts shooting people; there's a gratuitous panty shot as a cheerleader crawls backward to escape the gunfire, but gets shot dead. It's all presented like an unfelt attempt at trashiness; a gloomy effort at giving the rubes what they want. The whole movie has a vibe of wanting to sell out, but not knowing how to do it with cunning capitalist commitment. Denis Leary, who played against type as a sweet guy in Real Blonde, seems becalmed in his role as a put-upon cop, left adrift by the lack of anything to do. There's a pair of callow would-be screenwriters who poke fun at all the callow boys in the 90s who wanted to be the next Great American Screenwriter but just ended up making boyish junk, and the movie seems to be a parody of their Tarantino-without-the-brains aesthetic. There's also a story about a girl who hires someone to assassinate her father, or something; some real sadness and ugliness comes through, but the film is tonally out of balance. We gave up on this one. I suspect it turns out, in a meta twist, that the movie is the product of the birdbrained screenwriting characters, but I don't expect I'll ever find out.
House Party: African-American teens throw a house party. Feels a bit like a beach movie without a beach, but lots of real talk percolates through the hip hop performances and silly hijinks. Late in the movie the protagonists, Kid and Play, get in an argument about whether or not it's manly to have sex with girls and then ditch them if they get pregnant. Neither character wins the argument; they just get frustrated with each other, exactly like all the arguments I ever had with friends in school. Also, the teens are hassled by honky cops all through the movie, but the film is bookended with a fantasy sequence in which the party house flies through the air and, with music blasting, lands on the cops like they're wicked witches. Perhaps the message is that getting a party vibe going is a workable response to authority/cultural hassles.
Melvin and Howard: an Altmanesque portrait of lower middle class American life, bookended by an allegedly (but dubiously) true story about Howard Hughes willing a big chunk of change to an ordinary working stiff. Much of the movie is really about hapless Melvin's wives, and how he loses one only to find another. Good-hearted people struggle to get by and to feel better about themselves, and the sense of Real America in the 70s takes me right back to family vacation memories. The real Melvin has a cameo, and exudes so much charm that you can see why the filmmakers believe his preposterous story.
Birds of Prey: a short-lived TV series about the bat-women of Gotham City trying to fight crime in the wake of Batman's disappearance. It's going for a colorful camp vibe with a nonthreatening "sisterhood is powerful" flavor, but it's too much a heat-and-eat TV product.. The Huntress, who is Batman and Catwoman's conflicted daughter, is a potentially compelling character, caught as she is between her parents' incompatible motivations, and resentful of both, but the actress is too much the former child pageant contestant, moeing and sparkling when she should be cutting (in several senses).
The Big Sleep: The edition we got apparently had an Original Cut on one side and the theatrical release on the other. We watched the original without knowing it, then watched a documentary that itemized all the studio-mandated changes. We concluded that the retooled version would probably be better, but lacked the will to flip the disk and almost rewatch the movie. I guess we flunked an important test of Movie Buffness. The whole experience left us as mixed up as the book left me when I tried to read it. I prefer The Long Goodbye, book and film, which seems less like the product of an elliptical random plot generator than Big Sleep.
The Yakuza: Robert Mitchum goes to Japan to help a Japanese friend fight baddies. A love triangle ensues, and stately tableaus of elegant Japanese room design keep things pretty, until the tense extended battle climax. Mitchum was ahead of his time with this Old Man Action Movie thing, and while I'm no connoisseur of action choreography I was spellbound by the finale. Like A Touch of Zen, this is an action movie that mostly plays as a talky drama into which action irrupts. I love that. Mostly I rented this to see what happens when Paul Schrader and Robert Towne work together. Not half bad. The shocking West-meets-East post-battle denouement comes as no surprise, but I don't think surprise was the point.
It Was a Wonderful Life: a documentary about homeless women whom probably no one ever expected to be homeless; functional, smart women who lost everything through divorce or economic problems, and live in cars while trying to rebuild the foundations of their material lives, almost from scratch. We see how difficult it is to maintain dignity in these situations, much less to stay employed and get one's finances in order. One poor woman rents a U Haul to sleep in, and describes it as a luxury she won't be able to afford for long. She buys a pistol because it makes her feel protected. Then someone steals it while she sleeps.
Swept Away: an Italian film in which a brutish working class guy and a high-maintenance rich lady are marooned on an island. He brutalizes her, and she falls in love with him. Then they return to civilization and her love for him evaporates upon their return to class strictures, leaving him feeling more used and demeaned than his cruelties ever left her. A woman, Lina Wertmuller, wrote and directed this; if a man had made it I'd dismiss it as a babyman "men's rights" misogynist fantasy/pity party. I suppose Wertmuller is thinking about the dichotomies between class and sex, while having nasty fun with sex and violence like movies should.
Daughters of the Dust: I couldn't really follow the plot (is that little girl doing strange lo-fi effects magic because she's the spirit of a child yet to be born? Or something?) but it's a treat to see so many gifted African-American performers working in such gorgeous photography. This movie presents us with a corner of history I knew nothing about, and is persuasively unfamiliar, yet imbued with human warmth. It immerses us in a mysterious yet utterly American cultural venue. Formalist cleverness reminiscent of Peter Greenaway's Euro-art tableaus interconnect with a humanist concern for people that Greenaway's arid highbrowness can barely understand. It's no surprise that the director wrote or cowrote two books to expand on (and perhaps clarify) this film.
Nashville: Some of the actors playing at county stardom would never have passed an audition with a real Nashville label (and the otherwise perfect Lily Tomlin's turn as a soul gospel soloist is a cringer), but that quibble aside, this movie makes a virtuosic cinematic jazz symphony out of its southern show biz milieu. Essential. And my Nashville born and bred college roommate assured me that it captures the soul of the city perfectly.
Four Weddings and a Funeral: This one snuck up on me. Effervescent charm and a tonic dose of surprising sorrow. It really replicates the sense of getting to know a group of family and friends over time.
The Spirit: There's some dazzling use of light and shade in this sinkhole, (written and directed by erstwhile comic book mastermind Frank Miller) but... remember what I said about rumors that justify themselves on the basis of how well they explain things? 3 words, in no particular order: Cocaine Miller Frank. This rumor is the ONLY possible explanation for this chiaroscuro turd. Not quite hilariously wretched enough to get me to the end.
The Singing Detective: This British miniseries reveals its nation of origin with more than accents; the darkness and nastiness goes deeper than anything American TV would have dared in the 80s. But it's not a wallow. A hospitalized pulp fiction writer takes out his frustrations on everyone around while reminiscing about his troubled childhood, and rewriting his detective fiction in gnostically autobiographical fashion. It's lucidly fragmentary and shifting, sorrowful yet full of energy. Fans of Alan Moore's less superheroic work, or of Martin Amis, absolutely must see it. Michael Gambon makes his clever but cruel character as sympathetic as can be without blunting the uncompromising critique of his failings.
Boardwalk Empire, Seasons 3 and 4: Season 3 introduces a villain of such grotesque awfulness that he makes the psychotic real-life baddies of the early seasons (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, etc.) seem balanced and moderate by comparison. Too many scenes where we see a minor heavy who's been around but never developed in his home, surrounded by loving family, setting the table for his adoring Ma, promising to read a bedtime story to his cherubic daughter, then answering a knock at the door and getting shot in the face. I was afraid Season 4 would try to top Season 3’s Boss Monster with a villain who ate babies or something, but they took a smart alternative route with a Marcus Garvey-like prig who qualmlessly funds his activities by dealing heroin. Chalky White, the most prominent African American character in the show, owns a Harlem club and must contend with the new villain over the question of upon what plausible foundation, exactly, African-American success can be built. Also other things happen, but the struggle between idealistic yet conniving Afrocentrism Vs. All-American capitalistic compromise overshadowed the rest. As usual the look of the show is more glazed and prettified than I think works for the story, but Season 4 held my interest much better than the bang bang bang boobs bang bang of Season 3.
Girls: Everyone who hates this show is wrong. Demonize Lena Dunham all you want, but this show articulates a certain kind of entitled hipster 20something city life about as well as my actual 20s did.
The Complete Jean Vigo: this mostly-silent era French filmmaker died while he was still in his 20s, and it's a dreadful loss to cinema. There's a lot to engage with in his brief filmography, but I'd like to highlight Zero de Conduite, which follows a pack of boys at an all-boy boarding school. It's mostly like a really good Little Rascals film, but near the end a loathsome teacher blatantly gropes the most prettily girlish of the boys, right in front of an entire classroom of kids. For the rest of the film, the boy is visibly hobbled with trauma. The authority figures all enlist him to cover it up, and his desperate, profane outbursts only make the adults more confident in their dismissal of the boy's pain. So whenever some doddering authority clod gives you a load about how bishops and coaches didn't know child molesting was a bad thing until recently, point them to this film. Jean Vigo knew, a hundred years ago.
Two Girls and a Guy: Robert Downey Jr. crafts his Tony Stark and, midway through the film, indulges in an apparently improvised acting exercise (with, perhaps, a twist of drug remorse) that has zilch to do with the romantic triangle that makes the gears turn on this one. The 90s dialogue goes for screwball pingpong by way of Tarantino archness. I like Tarantino least at his archest; ditto his legion of 90s wannabes. Heather "Rollergirl" Graham was a fascinating dud in the butt end of Twin Peaks, but she's luminous here, and seems to have handed the Awful Acting baton to her voice-challenged fellow actress in this movie, who tries to get by on hotness, and might have succeeded in a less talky pic.
The Fountainhead: stunning high camp. I don't usually say things like "Check out that dress!" but I do with this movie. To my astonishment, Ayn Rand's script actually has at least one moving passage; hero Howard Roark's reassurance of a nervous client that designing a "mere gas station" is worthy of his talents has given this lefty a bit more sympathy for Rand's views. But mostly the movie is a dingdong Mary Sue fantasy, which can be fun if you're dumb or drunk.
Capturing the Friedmans: A documentary about a picture perfect family that's brought down by the husband's penchant for child pornography and the investigation that follows. The husband is guilty of purchasing and swapping child porn with other loathsome pervs (and detectives) over the mails (in the pre-internet 80s) but the investigation homes in on his computer classes for teenagers. They hire a hypnotist to soften up the kids' brains for a load of delusional false accusations, and we get to see just how eager everyone from the police to the Friedman's own lawyer are to impose all their most lurid fantasies of subhuman debauchery onto Mr. Friedman, despite a complete lack of credible evidence that the man abused any kids under his tutelage. A bizarre witch hunt, made all the more confusing because the suspect is manifestly guilty of aiding and abetting horrible abuse; there's just no evidence that he abused kids himself, other than the grotesquely fantastical confessions of hypnotized kids.
The Blues Brothers: I'm amazed that a road movie that's almost a Wim Wenders remake of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World became such a phenom as a comedy film. John Belushi seems underused; casting such a big personality as an almost totally inexpressive character is a baffling choice. John Candy is kinda handsome. Dan Ackroyd's line about glue is a lesson in how delivery can sell a joke that would be nothing in someone else's mouth.
Hound of the Baskervilles: This is the Basil Rathbone version that thrilled me as a kid. It still delights me, because I'm thrilled by British hambones, smoky black and white photography, and atmospheric models.
Predator. A Vietnam movie in monster movie guise; the camouflaged alien killer is The Jungle, man. the camerawork is every bit as proficient as the paramilitary team it follows. The men never upstage the jungle, and the jungle never upstages the men. The characters and the mis en scene blend. Arnold finally defeats the monster by being, y'know, Arnold.
Enlightened: A show about a woman whose nervous breakdown has led to a fall from grace. She never seems like someone who could have achieved the position of responsibility from which she's been demoted, though, so it seems more like a film about a recent college grad trying to figure things out and establish herself in the first place. Star Laura Dern's contemplative monologues give the show some real emotional power that the often diagrammatic plots need, and her costars are all terrific. The finale complicates her struggle in diverse ways while still giving her a big win.
Waking Life: Not just a superlative coffee shop in Asheville, NC. While I'm usually no fan of blatant motion capture animation, the painterly ornamentation this movie adds to quotidian life captures the quicksilver emotional resonance that flows through life as we live it. I wanted to cohost a podcast with a good third of the cast.
Lair of the White Worm: Director Ken Russell allegedly made this goofy horror/fetish flick on the quick as part of a deal to finance a more genteel art film. For some reason it was a fixture on the role-playing nerd circuit, at least in my region. It's mostly lousy, although some of the psychedelia, ulde-Britian folk culture, and theatrical carnality you expect from Russell do make appearances, along with a portly manservant who makes the most of all his leering double entendres. I'd watch a movie about him, drawing a bath for master before locking up the chambermaids.
Shoot the Piano Player: Cheerful French cinema jazz. Anyone who thinks New Wave film can't be fun should see this. Free and assured.
Tombs of the Blind Dead: In this evening's feature the role of Franco and his supporters in the Church will be played by gross zombies. At the end the zombies leave the churchyard from which they emerged to hop a train and hit the city, using then-modern lines of transportation to bring their ancient contagion to modern Urbania, just like Franco and his fascist-coddling friends in the clergy. It's not exactly packed with scare scenes, but a couple of chase sequences (both involving women on foot trying to sneak through crowds of undead) are deliciously nightmarish.
True Blood, Final Season. Producer Alan (Six Feet Under) Ball has left the building, and the show is almost unbearable. The lady who works at Fangtasia and screams a lot saves the day, but not for long. An exhausted show.
Jodorowsky's Dune: I've never understood why so many people think that book cries out for audio-visual representation. Sandworms, sure, but mostly it's people talking about really complicated made-up sociopolitics. Great for a book, but why film it? Jodorowsky's version might have been livelier than the versions that did get made, although his dipsydoodle rewrite of the ending seems more like something out of the Heavy Metal movie than anything Frank Herbert would condone.
Cranes Are Flying: touching drama about a Soviet woman and her two lovers during WWII. Not to praise the loathsome Stalinist government with faint damnation, but the obligatory Marxist propaganda doesn't overwhelm the human insight; this story could be remade with zero concessions to Stalin and still carry a powerful message about grief and community. Spoiler warning: bereft, by the end, of both the men in her lover's triangle, the heroine recommits herself to the community, and the music swells. Pretty darn Marxist, but probably not a bad strategy for dealing with grief and loss in any political/economic context.
Veep: All insults, all the time. Even at my most cynical I doubt the toxicity in Washington is this routinely blatant at the level of basic courtesy, or lack thereof. Funny but draining. Still, I prefer it to the thinly veiled BDSM fantasy of House of Cards.
The Mighty Boosh: I used to be in an improv troop; this show is like the platonic ideal of what we were going for in our longform shows, only with fewer women (my only complaint). Two zookeepers face an array of silly problems.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Star Wars for the X Box set, who can probably follow the more kinetic action sequences better than I can. Groot's last line got a single tear from me, and proves my point about the non-Marxist applicability of Cranes Are Flying.
Anna Nicole: Mary Harron working for Lifetime isn't as terrific as Mary Harron unfettered, but this surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the famous pinup presents her as a level-, rather than empty-, headed (when she isn't abusing substances) and caring working-class mom. I can buy it. I've known a couple of women in the hubba hubba business who were very real people behind the showbiz facade.
River's Edge: Dirtball Noir about a band of confused teens who don't know how to handle it when one of their friends murders another friend for no good reason, then tells everybody that he did it. Dennis Hopper shows up and, after a little scenery chewing to remind us who's boss, underplays with unexpected sensitivity and delegates the frantic overacting to Crispin Glover, whose flamboyant metalhead scuzzball is as theatrical as some actual teenagers. Director Tim Hunter went on to direct a bunch of Twin Peaks episodes, and you can see it in every shot of this movie; it's as much a Twin Peaks precursor as Winesburg, Ohio or Peyton Place.