The Synergy Archive Series: A Diatribe

The increasing popularity of Blu-Ray makes me wonder how much longer new standard-definition DVDs will be manufactured—and yet there are still many forgotten B- and C-grade movies that will never have gotten proper DVD releases (like The Mad Room; see yesterday’s post).  So for that reason I’m grateful for projects like the Warner Archive or Amazon’s burn-on-demand service, which are now putting out workable DVD editions of many out-of-print films.  They may not be ideal editions, but they’re a step up from VHS.  (Finally I can throw away that old cassette of The Mad Room, which I taped off of cable c. 1995.)  In most cases, the prints aren’t half bad, either.  The Mad Room even looks downright beautiful in spots, in its own particular garish, cheap, late-60s way. 


"Mad" women

Shelley Winters and Stella Stevens (sporting epic hair) in The Mad Room (dir. Bernard Girard, 1969).  This unjustly forgotten gem has never been given a proper DVD release, but it's now been made available through Amazon's burn-on-demand service.  It's a dizzy, melodramatic thriller made during the "crazy middle-aged lady" horror movie heyday of the '60s and early '70s, which began with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and spawned such lesser-known rip-offs as Who Slew Auntie Roo? and What's the Matter with Helen?  They often starred great actresses of the '40s and '50s (Bette Davis, Winters) who had passed their prime but were desperate to keep working, even if it meant taking camp roles.  This one has it all: creepy children's music, finger-painting with blood, bitchy society ladies, a dog who carries his late mistress' severed hand around in his mouth, and Stella Stevens looking f'ing crazy.  After her teenage siblings (Barbara Sammeth and Michael Burns) are released from a mental hospital--they supposedly murdered their parents years ago when they were children--Stevens unsuccessfully tries to hide the truth from her employer (Winters).  The final twist is predictable but effective, and the movie as a whole scared the bejesus out of me when I first saw it on cable TV as a kid.


The laughing king

The Lion in Winter (dir. Anthony Harvey, 1968) ends with great, exuberant laughter, as it should.  Underneath all of its period-film trappings, the film is a boisterous comic saga with dialogue that feels closer to Albee than Shakespeare.  (One of Pauline Kael’s complaints was that she felt the comic primitivism of the play had been too trussed-up, too handsomely mounted, in its translation to the screen.)  The savage humor of James Goldman’s script feels unexpected in a film about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine; the dialect is off-puttingly modern, and the dramatic confrontations are staged with a particular degree of exaggeration that at times almost feels Absurdist.  Whatever one’s complaints about this approach, it’s vastly preferable to the alternative: the kind of grim, humorless period piece where the cast and the production team have taken everything much too seriously.  There’s wonderful relish in these performances.  Katharine Hepburn, of course, was nearly always good—even in films that weren’t.  But it’s Peter O’Toole who most impressed me here, because films like Lawrence of Arabia (1963) played up his golden-boy good looks, his elegance and his fey sexuality.  Here, by contrast, he gets to play rough; his Henry is a big, lusty bear of a king.  He’s only truly happy when he’s sparring with an equal opponent, and so the scenes with Hepburn twist wonderfully and subtly from fight scenes into love scenes and back again.  Hepburn, of course, had perfected this dynamic from her days as a screwball heroine, in films like The Philadelphia Story and Holiday, and in her wonderful comedies with Spencer Tracy.  She could play tragedy, too, and now she’s probably best remembered as a kind of imperious grand dame, but she was a top-notch comedienne.  One of the joys of The Lion in Winter is her recognition that this, too, is a kind of screwball romance.


Gotta dance

A particularly delectable image from Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), his exuberant homage to Hollywood dance musicals.  Demy’s use of color, art direction, and costumes was impeccable: Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac, George Chikiris and Grover Dale look like pieces of candy here.  I can’t say that I loved it the way that I do Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), nor would I agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s claim that Michel Legrand’s score here is “easily his best,” but it’s a bold, exquisite film, and the music is indeed stunning—it drives the film, as perhaps it should in a musical, and even though this film isn’t “sung through” (as Umbrellas is) Legrand’s music is nevertheless a constant presence.  My complaint, though, would be that the singing and dancing in this film is so manic, so constant, that it begins to make the film…heavy.  The brightness of the colors and the fast pace of the songs and the leaping choreography and the frenetic musical transitions—sustained for 124 minutes—eventually wore on me.  And it seems to me that the best musicals succeed because they have a wonderful levity that this film, for all its spiritedness and charm and aesthetic gorgeousness, lacks.  Always a joy to see Deneuve, though.  She was twenty-four here, had already appeared in Umbrellas and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), went straight on to Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), and hasn’t stopped working since—with the exception of 1989 and 1990, she’s made at least one (and often more than one) film every year since.  Meanwhile, her real-life sister Dorleac would tragically die in a car crash only four months after this film’s release.



Some of the strangest Hollywood films from the 1960s involve stars from the classical period trying to make the transition into “edgier,” more counter-cultural or experimental work—as, for example, when super-suave ’50s heartthrob Rock Hudson (pictured, on the hospital gurney) appears in John Frankenheimer’s surrealist thriller Seconds (1966).  The Twilight Zone-ish premise involves a secret organization that allows sad-sack middle-agers to undergo plastic surgery and effectively live their lives over again as California bohos.  Rock Hudson’s character, played in the first half of the film by John Randolph, ditches his bourgeois wife and white-collar job in New York and becomes a West Coast painter who stomps grapes with nudists on the weekends. 


David Lean: Time and Space

I’m embarrassed to say that until this week I had never seen David Lean’s classic Doctor Zhivago (1965).  It’s the favorite film of one of my colleagues; he’s been insisting that I watch it for several months now, and since I’m currently working my way through films of the 1960s I figured it was a good time to sit down with it.  It’s a grandly entertaining movie in that particular Lean way; the sheer length of a Lean film, its expansiveness, and the unhurried rhythms of its pacing are all part of its appeal.  (Lean’s use of length—nearly all of his major films run over three hours—became one of his particular tools.  It’s hard to think of other filmmakers aside from Cecil B. de Mille who were able to successfully use running time as an auteurist trademark.)  Like Lean’s other epics (and perhaps even more than, say, Lawrence of Arabia), Doctor Zhivago is long enough that you feel the length without getting antsy for it to end.  It moves along at a good clip while still allowing for the occasional reflective pause.  Most modern-day action epics clock in at three hours and don’t even give you the pauses—the whole thing moves at the same tempo.  Jean-Luc Godard talked about Breathless as a musical composition in three movements, and I would argue that Lean also applied a composer’s sensibility to his films, which shift elegantly in an out of different movements and time signatures.


Mise en scene

My chronological film-viewing project brings me to 1965’s underground classic Sins of the Fleshapoids, directed by schlock auteur Mike Kuchar.  It’s a film that has influenced countless amateur filmmakers, most notably John Waters, who has called it one of his favorites.  (The DVD is, sadly, out of print, but it runs only 43 minutes and can be seen in its entirety on YouTube here.)  I’d been meaning to make time to watch this for a while now and was reminded of it several months ago while reading Hoberman and Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies.  It’s a hilariously fun film, obviously shot in someone’s home, with some truly inspired art direction (an ordinary bathtub is turned into a neo-classical spa with the help of some plants, a bust, and a red lighting gel; see below).

Set in the future, the nonsensical plot concerns the Fleshapoids, a race of robot slaves who decide to rebel against their decadent human masters.  (In a farcical subplot, a nubile princess—outfitted with the biggest pair of fake eyelashes ever committed to celluloid—attempts to hide her lover from her jealous husband.)  Shot without sound (as nearly all underground films were until the 1970s), details of the plot are helpfully explained via campy dubbed narration; I loved the relish with which that narrator says the word “Fleshapoids.”  Excerpts from classical music also play under the film, including Orff’s “O Fortuna,” slowed down to an almost unrecognizable tempo, which underscores a scene of robot childbirth.

What I really found most inspired about Sins of the Fleshapoids, though, was its use of sets, costumes, and props.  The whole film has a wonderful “putting-on-a-show” feel, as if it’s been made by children playing dress-up (and, ever since film and video cameras have become household items, the act of dressing up and putting on a show for the camera has itself become a kind of childhood pastime).  Anyone who has attempted to disguise one’s living space for a homemade movie will recognize the creative use of bed-sheets here: throw them over the furniture, hang them on the walls, drape yourselves in them, and you’ve got costumes and a working film set.  The places where the seams show are almost poignant: a glimpse of a cinderblock wall behind one of those hanging sheets, or a vintage soapdish attached to the tile wall of the bathtub/spa.  A month or so ago I wrote about the special innovativeness required by low-budget filmmaking; that innovativeness is on full display in Sins of the Fleshapoids.  And am I wrong to see even a certain poetic beauty in some of these images, like the one below?  If we consider the particular creative talents involved in amateur filmmaking—its resourcefulness, its enthusiasm and its charm—Sins of the Fleshapoids becomes something more than just a so-bad-it’s-good movie.


The Films of 2011: Certified Copy

Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy—the first truly great film of the year—has been called a departure for the Iranian director whose previous films have seemed so rooted in the political and social milieu of the Middle East.  In what would appear to be a mischievous shift of gears, Certified Copy stars French icon Juliette Binoche and English opera singer William Shimell and is set in Florence.  A seemingly “light” film for Kiarostami, whose earlier films like Close Up (1990) and Taste of Cherry (1997) dealt with suicide and identity theft?  Perhaps his “take” on the European art film?  I shuddered to read the brief summary of the film advertised by OnDemand: an “enchanting romantic drama about two strangers who fall in love on one luxurious day in gorgeous Tuscany.”  Those who have seen the film will know that this description is woefully misrepresentative and potentially erroneous; those who haven’t seen the film should be assured that whatever gear-shifting Kiarostami is doing in Certified Copy, he certainly hasn’t shifted into flirty romantic comedy territory. 


Lightning-bolt cinema

A particularly, um, jolting image from the newly reissued Criterion DVD of Shock Corridor (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1963).  I remember the first time I heard anything about this film or Sam Fuller: it was roughly ten years ago, hearing Martin Scorsese sing their praises in his documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies, which I had happily caught on cable TV.


Pasolini, the religious film...and the sexiest Jesus ever

This week I worked my way through The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s version of a biblical epic (it arrived in the U.S. shortly after George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told [1965], from which it could not be more different).  Under the direction of the radically uncompromising Pasolini, to whom various scandalous markers (Marxist! atheist! gay! etc.) are usually attached, the story of Jesus becomes one of rebellion and political martyrdom.  It’s a powerful but defiantly unsentimental interpretation of the life of Christ.  Where other filmmakers (for instance, Mel Gibson) have traditionally staged Christ’s passion by lingering lovingly and heavily over every drop of sweat (or blood) and every tear, Pasolini is disarmingly off-hand and naturalistic in handling these most familiar of scenes.  He works his way through the stations of the cross in about ten minutes.


Guilty pleasures ("Surfin' all day, swingin' all night...")

I’m a little ashamed at how much I enjoyed watching Beach Party (dir. William Asher, 1963), which is credited as being the original surf-and-sex teeny-bopper comedy, released by American International Pictures, the production company managed by James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff that churned out an endless stream of drive-in fare in the early ’60s.  (These included the legendary Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by Roger Corman, starring Vincent Price—who incidentally has a cameo in Beach Party.)  As annoying as Frankie and Annette may be here, I’ll admit that Robert Cummings’ performance as a wonky (and presumably virginal) anthropologist inspires genuine laughter; watching him, it occurred to me that the writers of Wet Hot American Summer (2001) may have had him in mind in creating David Hyde Pierce’s part for that film.  And Beach Party’s color palette is so gorgeously pop (just look at the screen grab above) that it almost makes one wish that today’s crappy teen comedies at least bothered to, you know, look pretty.  There’s a wonderful sense of innocent dumbness in this movie—it’s uncomplicatedly happy about the simple juvenile pleasures it touts, and there’s not a whiff of cynicism to be found here.


In memoriam: Arthur Laurents, 1917-2011

Just a few words in memory of the great Arthur Laurents, who died yesterday at the age of 92. 

A note on Poitier

It’s been a busy week, so I’ll leave you with this shot of Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala in Lilies of the Field (dir. Ralph Nelson, 1963), the latest film in my attempt to work my way year by year through cinema history.  It’s only a so-so film, but it’s worth seeing if only because Poitier generates enough charisma here to power a small city.  He hadn’t yet completely settled into his role as “Mr. African-American Dignity,” as Susan Bordo has called him, typecast in parts that required him to serve as A Credit to His Race.  As Homer Smith (the only role for which he won an Academy Award) he’s remarkably relaxed, good-humored, earthy—it’s a performance of simplicity and great joy.


The comedy of destruction

Are cars rolling down hills funny?  Are airplanes crashing into buildings funny?  If so, why?  I ask these questions not to sound snobbish, but because I wonder whether there is something instinctively funny about these kinds of destruction, and if so why this humor is lost on me.  Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) is basically a three-hour long car- and airplane-chase peppered with various car crashes, plane crashes, traffic accidents, flat tires, dynamite explosions, blows about the head, and, finally, the piece de resistance, Ethel Merman slipping on a banana peel.  I found it to be a spectacularly unfunny film—which is ironic, but perhaps not surprising, because it is so clearly trying to be the funniest film ever made in Hollywood.  It’s so proud of its all-star cast of comedians (Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Spencer Tracy, et al., right down to cameos by The Three Stooges and old-school staples of the screwball films like Edward Everett Horton) that it almost screams: “this movie is funny, see!?  And you’re gonna laughor else!!!”  It strikes a feverish pitch about twenty minutes in and somehow stays there for the next two and a half hours, as cars roll down hills and airplanes crash into buildings and Ethel Merman slips on a banana peel.  The slipping on the banana peel is so knowingly lame, yet somehow so perfect in its attempt to reach back to the earliest and cheapest of vaudeville-era gags, that it becomes sublime.  But there are a lot of very un-sublime cars rolling down hills in the hours before we get to that moment. 


The homosexual(s) in the text

Advise and Consent (dir. Otto Preminger, 1962) might be called a political epic, a 138-minute long saga in which the nomination of a U.S. senator government official (Henry Fonda) as Secretary of State sends ripples of discord through the halls of Washington.  Like so many of Preminger’s films, it never really lands in the places you think it will.  Who would guess that Robert Leffingwell (Fonda) actually turns out to have attended Communist meetings?  Or that the film turns out not really to be about Fonda’s character at all (he disappears from the film halfway through)?  By the end of the film we may wonder, “what exactly is this movie trying to be about, anyway?”