My problem with Demme

There’s something about me that is resistant to the early work of Jonathan Demme.  Last year I found myself decidedly not-blown-away by his screwball caper Something Wild (1986), which has since been canonized by the Criterion Collection; now I’m trying to sort out my feelings about his Preston-Sturges-esque Melvin and Howard (1980), which elicited rave reviews from Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael (who compared Demme to Jean Renoir).  It’s definitely a richer and more sincere film than Something Wild, which struck me as empty and gratingly disingenuous, as if it didn’t really believe in or care about its broad, cartoonish characters and plot yet insisted on asking us to take them seriously.  Melvin and Howard doesn’t suffer as much from that problem; its characters are eccentric but more deeply felt, and not so exaggerated; they’re just the right amount off-beat.  Our main character, Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), is the kind of good-hearted but impractical blue-collar guy you’re likely to recognize anywhere in America—the kind of person who’s likely to give you his last quarter even though his truck is facing repossession. 


Superman and Caligula

My chronological tour of 1970s film comes to an end with two films that perhaps represent the two directions in which the decade pulled: Superman (1978, dir. Richard Donner), one of the original summer blockbusters, and Caligula (1979, dir. Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione), a decadent, exploitative flop that has gone down as one of the worst films ever made.


The Films of 2011: Beginners and The Trip

Two recent films, Mike Mills’ Beginners and Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, suffer from variations of the same problem—a certain pandering to the audience’s emotions.  Both sag under the weight of their own cheap sentimentality, the former of the “we’re all just awkward people looking to be loved” variety, the second of the “see how sad you become when you privilege success over family?” type.  It’s unfortunate, because the good things in each of these films are crowded out either by whimsical platitudes or sobering earnestness.


A happy birthday from Arnold

I just couldn’t resist posting this image of Arnold Schwarzenegger holding a plate of meat and a glass of wine, wearing a shirt that reads “Arnold is Numero Uno,” and singing “Happy Birthday” to Lou Ferrigno, whom he had just trounced in the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest.  It’s taken from the bodybuilding doc Pumping Iron (dir. Robert Fiore and George Butler, 1977), which, like Saturday Night Fever, has a reputation for being 70s camp but is actually pretty decent.  Far from being simply a commercial for bodybuilding or for Schwarzenegger, it’s a quite revealing documentary in the verite style, following Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno, and others as they prepare for the competition, and raising some compelling questions about the very nature of bodybuilding.  Schwarzenegger explains quite matter-of-factly that he perceives his body as a kind of living sculpture to be molded and manipulated; in another scene, Ferrigno’s somewhat scarily intense father, who stage-manages every step of his training, compares his son’s body to a Michelangelo statue.  And (as the opening credits own) the film is part of a very long tradition of using the cinema to make a spectacle out of the human body.  Some of the very first silent films were, of course, simple studies of people sitting, standing, and exercising in front of the camera.  Linda Williams has called this phenomenon the “frenzy of the visible”—the preoccupation with using film technology to gaze in wonderment at the human form in motion.  Pumping Iron facilitates the pleasures of looking at bodies that are truly spectacular (in the purest sense of the word) while also gently encouraging us to consider the nature of that pleasure, and the phenomenon of bodybuilding altogether.  A worthwhile film.     


David Lynch's Eraserhead: A laugh riot

Having recently acquired an out-of-print copy of Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch, 1977) on DVD, I figured I’d revisit it during my chronological pass through 1970s cinema this month.  I hadn’t seen Eraserhead since 2004, and it seems even more brilliant and horrifying than I remember it—perhaps Lynch’s most id-driven movie.  It also struck me as perhaps one of his funniest, keeping in mind, of course, that humor in Lynch’s films is not exactly the stuff of, say, Ernst Lubitsch.  Nevertheless, Eraserhead is funny.  Consider the look on Henry Spencer’s (Jack Nance) face when Mrs. X accuses him of having slept with her daughter, then begins…kissing his neck?  Licking him?  It’s unclear (see above).  Or the catatonic grandmother who sits stone-faced in a chair by the stove and whose unmoving hands are made to toss a bowl of salad by Mrs. X.  There’s also a bizarre gag in which Mary (Charlotte Stewart) decides in the middle of the night that she’s moving back in with her parents leaving Henry to take care of their monstrous worm-like infant; she kneels down at the foot of the bed and struggles rhythmically for about fifteen seconds, the bed jerking back and forth, until finally we realize that she’s been trying to pull her suitcase out from underneath.  It’s a disarmingly funny touch because (as is not often the case in other Lynch films) the strange is suddenly revealed to have a more or less ordinary explanation; we’ve gone from a state of confused tension to one of strange, dazed laughter.


What makes a classic?: Part II

Is Saturday Night Fever (dir. John Badham, 1977) a classic?  The image of John Travolta in his white leisure suit striking a pose under a mirrored ball has certainly become an iconic film image.  But the film itself has become eclipsed by this image, and by its attendant details; more people under the age of thirty probably know that the film is about Travolta dancing to the Bee Gees than have actually seen it, and until this week I was in the former category.  Saturday Night Fever is a wonderful movie—certainly as good as such 70s “classics” as Cabaret or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Network…or All the President’s Men.  Yet it has become cultural shorthand for 70s kitsch and for all things out of style (disco music, dance movies, John Travolta).

Earlier this week I tried to figure out why All the President’s Men has endured; why has Saturday Night Fever (which was initially well-received and garnered award nominations, and to which the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson have paid homage) not attained “classic” status?  Or, rather, why has it gone down as a pop culture touchstone rather than a great movie?  Some thoughts:


What makes a classic?

I’ve been so mired these past few weeks in 70s exploitation cinema that sitting down with All the President’s Men (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1976) feels a little jarring.  It’s long been on my list of Important Movies I Should Have Seen But Haven’t, and now I can finally cross it off.  It’s a very good film—a remarkably solid political drama—but it’s left me thinking about the canon of “classic” American films.  All the President’s Men has been canonized almost since its release, when it was greeted with Oscar nominations (it won four, including Best Supporting Actor for the fine-as-always Jason Robards).  In 2007 it made the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 American movies.  And yet, as enjoyable as the film is, it’s worth asking: why?  Why reserve a spot for it on the AFI Top 100 over, to take an example at random, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975)? 

It seems to me that (at least in the case of All the President’s Men) a classic is sometimes simply the sum of its parts.  The more and greater the parts, the more classic the film.  Let’s break it down.


Slow and boring

There's been all manner of debate going at the New York Times these past few weeks (see here, and here, and most recently here--this thing just will not die, it seems) about "cultural vegetables" and movies that some people complain are "slow and boring" and so forth.  I like to think of myself as having catholic film-viewing tastes; I'm a life-long horror fan, but Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, a film that apparently bored the hell out of a lot of people (see here), was also one of my favorites of last year.  (My boyfriend joked that Coppola's next movie will be about two people sitting in a room not speaking.  Clearly I need to make him watch some Chantal Akerman.) 


The homosexual in the text: '70s exploitation edition

As I’ve written before, I love exploitation films for their ideological messiness—they’re often more difficult than mainstream films to classify in terms of, say, political position. Is Blood for Dracula a progressive film?  A reactionary film?  Is Score feminist?  Let’s isolate a single element—representations of homosexuality—and see how this breaks down.

Chief Nellie, Flesh Gordon (dir. Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm, 1974)
PROFILE: Her name notwithstanding, she’s the butch lesbian leader of a gang of underground resistance fighters.  Benign at first, she soon sics one of her lesbian minions on nubile blonde captive Dale Ardor.
FATE:  Is overtaken by Our Hero, Flesh Gordon, and his sidekick Dr. Jerkoff, who save Dale and shoo the “dykes” (the men’s phrase) into a corner.
ASSESSMENT: Nellie is in some ways your typical butch villainess (a trope that hearkens back to the pre-Stonewall days), and she and her underlings are presented as predators and rapists—even though the forced girl-on-girl action is clearly intended to titillate straight male viewers (a juvenile double standard).  The line between camp and homophobic stereotype is difficult to determine here.

Prince Precious, Flesh Gordon
PROFILE: A kind of gay intergalactic Robin Hood, PP befriends Flesh, gets him out of a few scrapes, and (as a reward) gets to go down on him.
FATE:  Waves goodbye to Flesh and co.—with a friendly pat on the crotch for Flesh—as they head back to Planet Earth.
ASSESSMENT: Unlike Chief Nellie (see above), PP’s homosexuality is non-threatening and treated with remarkable casualness.  He’s also remarkably stereotype-free.  Together, PP and Nellie represent the exploitation film’s somewhat schizophrenic attitude toward homosexuality.  (Flesh Gordon is an example of how such contradictory attitudes can exist within a single film.)

Bobby McCoy and Billy Schaffer, Blacula (dir. William Crain, 1972)
PROFILE: This somewhat fey interracial couple buys Count Dracula’s castle for the kitsch value and unwittingly awakens Blacula from his slumber.
FATE:  After being bitten by Blacula, they become vampires themselves and are eventually staked.
ASSESSMENT: Overall, this film takes an un-hysterical attitude toward its gay characters, who are casually (but not really derogatorily) referred to as “fags,” and who are understood to have lives and a subculture within the world of the film.  Their homosexuality simply becomes a matter of fact.  

Eddie, Score (dir. Radley Metzger, 1974)
PROFILE: A bi-curious ecologist frustrated in his marriage, Eddie is initiated into the world of man-love by married friend Jack.  (He’s played by ’70s gay porn star Casey Donovan, of Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand.)
FATE: After some morning-after guilt, Eddie and his newly liberated wife settle on an open marriage and look forward to sex with a hirsute telephone repair man.
ASSESSMENT: In Metzger’s pan-sexual utopia, anything goes—men and women are more or less freely available and open to anything, including same-sex play.  Eddie’s attraction to men is presented as deserving of exploration and acceptance.  An example of the left-leaning (s)exploitation film’s frequent willingness to address social and sexual issues with candor and open-mindedness.  


Puzzling over Wertmüller

I wrote earlier this week about Udo Kier’s eyes; it seems to me after watching Swept Away (dir. Lina Wertmüller, 1975) that Giancarlo Giannini’s are just as worthy of comment.  Giannini does some of his funniest acting with his eyes in this film, over which I’m still mulling.  (Part of me is trying to figure out what to make of the fact that both Swept Away and Blood for Dracula make their Marxist characters into misogynists and rapists.)  Thirty-six years old, Swept Away still has the power to shock, and its politics are made all the more confounding if we try (as many critics no doubt have) to place Wertmüller as a feminist filmmaker.  I’m all in favor of thinking of her in those terms, probably because it has always seemed to me that the most interesting feminist artists are those who have given us truly unexpected representations of women, the kinds of characters we don’t know what to think about or what to do with—and we certainly don’t know what to do with Rafaella (Mariangela Melato), a crass, bratty bourgeoise who finds herself dominated-and-loving-it by vindictive underling Gennarino (Giannini).  The film is one that you end up turning over and over in your mind endlessly, because Wertmüller keeps making us reverse our allegiances with the characters, both of whom are, somehow, simultaneously repellant and sympathetic.  This is finally the value of Swept Away—its refusal to spoon-feed us a nicely blended satire of Italian social politics. (I also truly dug the opening-credits music, an almost-parody of '70s smooth jazz which I can't seem to get out of my head.)  


Blood for Dracula: A reassessment

Sickly, pale Count Dracula (Udo Kier) crawls weakly up the stairs while lusty, virile gardener Mario (Joe Dallesandro) looks on in Blood for Dracula (dir. Paul Morrissey, prod. Andy Warhol, 1974).  Set in pre-Fascist Italy, the film lays class tensions on thick--disgruntled Mario even spouts Marxist philosophy after ravishing the vapid, spoiled daughters of a bankrupt marquis.  It's possible to do a reading of the film as turning the Dracula story into an allegory about the decline of the European aristocracy (represented by the impoverished di Fiore family and the living-dead Count, who comes off looking rather sad and pathetic in this version) and the ascendancy of the working class (represented by Mario).  But doing so would take some of the fun out of this campiest of Dracula films, in which Kier chews the scenery unforgettably, Dallessandro stalks around the estate half-naked, and Morrissey keeps everything well lubricated with plenty of blood and sex.  (One of the running jokes is that Dracula comes to Italy in search of virgin blood and can't find any virgins.)  Other highlights include cameos by Vittorio de Sica and Roman Polanski; Dracula vomiting histrionically every time he accidentally ingests non-virgin blood; and a limb-hacking, blood-spurting showdown between the Count and the gardener. 


Alexandro Jodorowsky and the overhead shot

Some beautiful screen grabs from Alexandro Jodorowsky’s mescaline-inspired The Holy Mountain (1973).  Jodorowsky became a cult icon after the release of his first film, the acid Western El Topo (1970), which drew crowds of stoners when it played midnight showings in New York.  Jodorowsky’s movies make you feel like you’re on drugs even when you’re not, and there are some remarkable images in The Holy Mountain—things you’ve never seen before in a movie, and many that you hope never to see again.  



One of the opening shots of Radley Metzger’s foray into bisexual soft-core, Score (1974).  It was actually shot in Yugoslavia, but some cheeky voice-over narration identifies it as “the city of Leisure,” located “in the lush land of Plenty, in the enviable state of Affluence, bordering on Decadence to the north and the state of Euphoria to the south.”  It’s set up as a kind of fairy tale for adults only.  In the story that unfolds (and since this film dates from an era when pornography and narrative film were not always mutually exclusive it really is a story, with fairly well-developed characters and moderately good dialogue), a married couple introduces their younger friends to the pleasures of swinging.  And they all live happily ever after. 

The film calls to mind Linda Williams’ theory that pornography represents various kinds of utopias, alternate realities in which sex is both the only real problem and its only solution.  In a so-called “dissolved” film, the line between realism and fantasy has totally fallen away; these films take place in an imagined world where social problems do not exist, where sex is pretty close to being freely available for and with anyone, and where the chief concern is the maximization of sexual pleasure.  These films don’t take place in real times or places like Yugoslavia; they take place in parallel universes that are entirely fantastical—like “the city of Leisure."

Score isn’t entirely cordoned-off from the world outside the bedroom; its three male characters have jobs, for instance, and the younger couple (given the cute 70s names Betsy and Eddie) suffer, ever so briefly, from what could be called “hang-ups.”  (She’s a prim-and-proper type with a Catholic school background; he hasn’t fully, um, grasped his sexual attraction to men.)  The plot of the film, then, depicts the falling away of these inhibitions at the hands of the older couple.  By the end of the film, desires are quenched, marital problems resolved, and sex has been proven the remedy for everything.  So Score takes place with one foot inside “the real world” of social pressures and psychological neuroses and one foot in “pornotopia,” where such problems are conveniently solved in the bedroom. 

Score also reveals itself to be of the era in which erotics films adopted a kind of arty visual scheme--kaleidoscopic lighting, glittering mise-en-scene, elaborate use of mirrors and glass.  See screen-grabs below, or check out the whole film, which has been recently been released on DVD and Blu-Ray from Cult Epics.  It's an interesting reminder that in the days before the glut of Internet porn filmmakers like Metzger had succeeded in bringing together sex, plot, character, dialogue, and art direction. 


Cabaret and the modern musical

The modern musical begins with Cabaret (dir. Bob Fosse, 1972), a film that ironizes and sharpens the conventions of musical theater so that they no longer feel corny (and I say this as a devoted fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein).  Cabaret is a musical made out of angles, jagged edges.  It dares to be sinister and grotesque instead of sweet and light.  Critics immediately noticed that this was a novel approach to the form.  Richard Eder at the New York Times observed that “Fosse’s approach has been not to open up but rather to confine, on a small and well-defined stage, as much of Cabaret as means to be musical theater.”  Pauline Kael, not surprisingly, was more pointed: “Cabaret demonstrates that when you revolt against the organic Oklahoma! conception of musicals [i.e., the forced attempt to make the music seem as if it’s organically arising out of the action] you can create a new organic whole by style and imagination—if you have enough faith in the audience to do it right.” 


On the anachronistic pleasures of exploitation film

An image from the wonderfully stylish credits sequence for Blacula (dir. William Crain, 1972), the blaxploitation cult hit in which an 18th-century African ambassador to Transylvania is enslaved by Count Dracula, who promptly turns him into a vampire.  Flash-forward two hundred years, when two gay interior decorators who have bought his castle (don’t ask) accidentally open Blacula’s coffin.  Blacula goes on a rampage and discovers what he believes is the reincarnation of his long-lost wife.  It’s pure cheese, but it was successful enough to spawn a sequel (Scream Blacula Scream, 1973, starring Pam Grier). 


Schlesinger grows up

A shot from the bar mitzvah sequence in John Schlesinger’s triangular love story Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), in which a mild-mannered, middle-aged physician (Peter Finch) and a discontented employment specialist (Glenda Jackson) share a male lover (Murray Head).  The significance of the film, noted in the documentary The Celluloid Closet (1996), lies in its remarkably un-hysterical depiction of gay and bisexual love.  The moments of romantic affection between Finch and Head are commendably casual, and real.  All three main characters—who even several years earlier would have no doubt faced fatal consequences for their sexual choices—make it to the end of the film alive and more or less unscathed.  It is a queer romance purged of any sordidness, titillation, or shame; on the contrary, what’s a bit nauseating about the film is its tastefulness.  


Stink bomb

The 1970s were not kind to Gore Vidal’s film career.  The decade opened with the noxious adaptation of his novel Myra Breckinridge (dir. Michael Sarne, 1970) and ended with the travesty of Caligula (dir. Bob Guccione, 1979)—to which we’ll come presently.  For now, let’s spend a moment reflecting on the disaster that is Myra Breckinridge.  Virtually since its premiere, the film has maintained a reputation as one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history.  I’ve noticed a disturbing recent trend whereby the, um, auteurs of such so-bad-they’re-good classics as Troll 2 and The Room have mistaken the cult followings surrounding their films for genuine praise.  Thankfully, everyone associated with Myra Breckinridge seems to recognize it as pure trash.  Perhaps even more painful than the film itself is Raquel Welch’s commentary track for the DVD, recorded c. 2003, made up largely of periods of silence in which I can only imagine she was busy gritting her teeth.       


The Films of 2011: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s movies look and feel different from those of any other filmmaker.  Building sequences out of hundreds of brief but powerful individual images, his approach is both grand and intimate; his films are like intricately designed mosaics, something the poster for his current film, The Tree of Life, has picked up on.  The clean, grid-like design of the poster, however, is slightly misrepresentative of the intuitiveness and lyricism with which Malick’s films are constructed.  The Tree of Life is a masterful film that thinks big, that lays on broad strokes, and that is overfull—stuffed to the breaking point with ideas, symbols, and patterns.  But that’s not a bad thing.  Rather, it is a mark of Malick’s genius—his audacious desire to tell the story of the history of life, his version of the origins of the universe, beginning with a psychedelic fiat lux (shades of Kubrick and Brakhage here).  Malick has always been a filmmaker who has been drawn to cosmic subject matter, and here he attempts his most cosmic feat yet, attempting to fit all of geological time into the span of a two-and-a-half-hour film.   


Montage in early Altman

Distracted by Bud Cort, Jennifer Salt can’t quite get the mustard onto her hot dog in Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970), his messy, trippy second feature film, following quickly on the heels of the more unanimously successful M*A*S*H (also 1970).  Altman was, of course, a key figure in the American film renaissance of the 1970s, working alongside Scorsese, Coppola, Woody Allen, Brian de Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, John Cassavetes—but none of their films were as breezily off-kilter as Altman’s.  Most of those other filmmakers were New Yorkers, and their films are infused with a New York sensibility.  Altman, who lived in California in the ’60s and ’70s, made films that were, for lack of a better word, “Westerns,” infused with the free-wheeling, yarn-spinning spirit and sense of space that characterizes the West.  Brewster McCloud and 3 Women (1977), both set in Houston, Texas, have a dreamy hippieish vibe, a looseness that wouldn’t really translate to the East Coast.  The Houston films don’t necessarily make logical sense (last year Glenn Kenny wrote that Brewster “sometimes seems to luxuriate in a certain kind of half-assedness”), but somehow they work.


Truth and soul

My head is still reeling from having watched the cult classic Putney Swope (dir. Robert Downey, Sr., 1969) for the first time—it’s such a disarmingly funny and strange movie that after it’s over you’re not quite sure what just happened but you’re pretty certain it was brilliant.  The off-beat rhythm of the dialogue, the caricaturish bit parts, and the general zaniness almost recall Preston Sturges, while the irreverence and willful disregard for “good taste”—along with the way the movie is structured out of small strokes, vignettes, gags—look ahead to modern-day sketch comedy.  It’s like some sort of blaxploitation screwball comedy.  Weirdly, even its “tasteless” bits feel stylish and supremely cool.  This is a film that looks and sounds fresher than most comedies of the last twenty years.    


The dance of death

The bedraggled dance marathoners in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969).  This was one of Jane Fonda’s first “serious actress” roles, and she’s damn good as Gloria, the haggard, desperate dance contestant for whom the contest is her last shot at success before giving up on life.  It’s of a piece with her Oscar-winning roles in Klute (1971) and Coming Home (1978), all of which are driven by Fonda’s particular toughness and political ire.  Here, that ire is directed at the dance contest itself and all it stands for—show business, Hollywood, the American Dream.  As Gloria puts it, “it’s all rigged before you even show up.”  It’s a curious film that’s not much talked about anymore, in spite of its nine Oscar nominations, including a Best Supporting Actor win for Gig Young.  Also noteworthy in a supporting role is Susannah York as a would-be Hollywood starlet who shows up to the dance contest in a glittering silver gown and is gradually reduced to the state of a broken doll.