The Films of 2011: Drive

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive—which seems already to have become the movie of the year among the ain’t-it-cool fanboy crowd—driving isn’t just a means to an end: it’s a way of life, a philosophy.  The film’s stoic, quietly brutal hero (played by Ryan Gosling, excellent as usual) is an archetypal man with no name, known only as “Driver,” for whom his car is like an extension of his body.  By day he’s a movie stunt driver; at night, he moonlights as a getaway driver for petty criminals.  Over the course of the film, he becomes embroiled in a heist which goes fantastically wrong, attempting to act in the best interests of his lonely neighbor (Carey Mulligan), her shady husband, and their young son.  Like the title character from Shane and countless other Westerns, Driver puts others’ emotional needs and safety before his own, eschews personal attachments and avoids romantic ties.  His place is not in the home, but on the road.  It only takes a meaningful exchange of gazes between Gosling and Mulligan—she’s just borne witness to a particularly grisly act of violence—for us to understand that he’s not suited for the domestic sphere, so to speak.  And so it’s appropriate that the end of the film finds him behind the wheel yet again, heading out into the darkness in the tradition of so many loner heroes before him.  


The psychotronic diaries: "Oh, Daddy..."

I learned about Toys Are Not For Children (dir. Stanley H. Brassloff, 1972)—likely to be the most harrowing film I review for the psychotronic project—when I read a description of it by Lars Nilsen, guest programmer for the Brattle Theater’s grindhouse series, in which context the film played several years ago at a midnight screening.  “It’s just impossible to believe that anyone would be sick and depraved enough to make this movie, let alone release it, let alone watch it,” he writes.  Immediately after reading this, I dashed to my computer in search of a DVD copy (the screening having been long past) and was thrilled to find one from (of course) Something Weird.   


The psychotronic diaries: "We're a happy family!"

There’s almost something too classy about Girly (dir. Freddie Francis, 1970) for it to qualify as a truly psychotronic film—perhaps, being English-made, it somehow feels too literate, too intelligent, to be as sleazy as American drive-in fare from the same period.  (The same could be said about the wonderful, and roughly contemporary, Vincent Price film Theatre of Blood, 1973, which is probably the only gore film that assumes that the audience has a good working knowledge of Shakespeare.)  Girly is apparently based on an English play called Happy Family by Maisie Mosco, and it bears the influence of Pinter, especially his twisted family romances The Birthday Party (1959) and The Homecoming (1966).  Girly is itself a twisted family romance: in a dilapidated Gothic country house, the nubile Girly (Vanessa Howard) and her post-adolescent brother Sonny play murderous, childlike games and sleep in cribs; pert Nanny clucks her tongue affectionately; and blithely imperious Mumsy presides over all with a warm, but stern, eye. 


The Films of 2011: Contagion

Contagion is a horror movie that succeeds because its horrors are so easily imaginable and so believably rendered.  In Steven Soderbergh's quietly terrifying new film, a deadly virus slowly begins to decimate the world’s population, easily spread by human contact and surfaces.  Victims come down with a hacking cough and a splitting headache, and within 24 hours they’re dead, a smear of white foam crusted over their mouths.  (The virus originates in Asia; Contagion is part of a long tradition of films and novels [ex. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man; Bram Stoker’s Dracula] in which plague and pestilence come from the east.)  While the CDC sets to work finding a cure, opportunists (like Jude Law’s renegade journalist) look to capitalize on the public’s fears, and ordinary folks (like Matt Damon’s suddenly widowed father) barricade themselves and their children inside their homes.  Before long, shops and pharmacies are being looted, and the streets are littered with garbage and bodies.


The psychotronic diaries: “How much did you and your wife tell your daughter about the facts of life?”

Perhaps more so than with mainstream films, it’s the anachronisms—the mistakes, the discontinuities, the contradictions—that become most interesting and most telling about psychotronia.  Take schlock-master Jerry Gross’ Teenage Mother (1967), which apparently spent years on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit.  It obviously was geared toward the newly, um, fertile teen market kicked off by Sam Arkoff’s AIP beach movies in the early ’60s.  But the obviousness ends there, because just about everything else in Teenage Mother seems counterintuitive.   


The psychotronic diaries: "I said ten bucks or I'll break your hand!"

Ten bucks is the price that J.C. (David Calder), the sullen male hustler in The Meat Rack (dir. Richard Stockton, 1969), charges for himself.  Ironically, it’s the same price for which I picked up the DVD, released by Something Weird, and it’s the best ten bucks I’ve spent in recent memory.  


The psychotronic diaries: "You are going on a trip..."

Carol Channing (singing the title song) and Jackie Gleason in Otto Preminger’s drug comedy Skidoo (1968), a film that would pair nicely with Myra Breckinridge (dir. Michael Sarne, 1970) for a double feature of ill-fated attempts by Hollywood studio filmmaking to tap into the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 1960s.  Skidoo isn’t as mean-spirited and ugly a film as Myra Breckinridge, but it’s a travesty in its own right.  Apparently inspired by Preminger’s own LSD trip, it’s a laboriously plotted mixture of crime farce (with retired hit man Gleason going back to prison to try and rub out an old associate, played by Mickey Rooney) and hippie satire (Gleason’s flower-child daughter and all of her friends come to stay at their house).  Somehow it manages to make Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx un-funny and Carol Channing boring. 


The psychotronic diaries: "Gentlemen, I dub you Knights of White Supremacy!"

Jerry Ellsworth (Richard Gildren, far right) is inducted into the KKK in a shot from The Black Klansman (a.k.a. I Crossed the Color Line, dir. Ted V. Mikels, 1966), a surprisingly not-terrible racial melodrama that’s recently been put out on DVD by Code Red.  The subject matter is sensationalistic and the production levels are B-grade, but it’s mostly well-acted and the plot is rather complex and nuanced.  After the Klan kills a little girl in the bombing of a black church, the girl’s light-skinned father (Gildren, a white actor) passes for white and infiltrates the group in order to get revenge. 


The psychotronic diaries: "What do you think I am, some two-dollar hustler?"

A suggestive use of montage editing from A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine (dir. Byron Mabe, 1966; great title).  It’s a particularly vile piece of sexploitation cinema, produced by prolific sleaze auteur David F. Friedman; the DVD edition from Something Weird Video even includes a commentary track with him that’s worth a listen.  According to Friedman, this low-budget roughie was shot by none other than Laszlo Kovacs, the legendary cinematographer who later worked on such films as Easy Rider (1969). 


The psychotronic diaries: "We're having a little trouble with this film..."

A screengrab from Hellzapoppin’ (1941, dir. H. C. Potter): Ole Olson and Chic Johnson realize that the filmstrip in which they’re contained has been knocked out of alignment by a bumbling projectionist.  Many levels of meta-cinematic playfulness here, in a film so hyperactive and crammed with gags—some clever, some bizarre, some unapologetically dumb—that it almost makes the Marx Brothers seem sedate.  I chose this film for my first entry on psychotronic film after reading about it last spring in J. Hoberman’s essay “Vulgar Modernism” (he writes that “in an alternate universe [it] might have been scripted by Victor Shklovsky under the influence of mescaline”).  It’s very different from the sleazy exploitation films that I’ll be getting to very soon; rather, its psychotronic properties lie in its radical disregard for any of the conventional rules of classical Hollywood form.  


The Films of 2011: The Help

Given all of the kerfluffle surrounding The Help (dir. Tate Taylor) these past few weeks (it’s racist! it’s Oscar-worthy! etc.) I went into it feeling a little grim.  So I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while problematic in spots, it’s not the Song-of-the-South-redux that its critics have made it out to be.  To be sure, the film is not a comprehensive account of the Jim Crow era (nor does it try to be—the idea here, which should be well familiar to feminist and race scholars, is that history is often made up of the seemingly mundane experiences of ordinary people).  Being that it is set in 1960s Mississippi, its black female characters are also not high-powered attorneys or computer scientists (nor is that something that the film should have to apologize for).  Whatever else one wants to say about The Help, it is a well-intentioned film that tries its darndest—sometimes too self-congratulatorily—to give voice to the impoverished black women who cleaned white homes for generations in the South in the early twentieth century (“No one ever asked Mammy what she thought,” one of the main characters articulates).  The end product is wildly uneven and at times misguided, a mix of Lifetime-movie clichés, gross-out comedy gags, and sparkling performances.  But, for all its faults, it’s one of the few Hollywood movies of recent years to even pay any sustained attention to black female characters or to let actresses like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer show off their chops.  As Stephanie Zacharek writes in her eminently sane review, the performances here are so good that it doesn’t seem worthwhile to wish that the movie itself was a different one.