Friday, July 27, 2012

All lust, no caution

A dizzy array of Dutch angles smack at the screen: flailing women, jukeboxes, slack-jawed, lust-drunk men shouting, “Go!” The movie’s just begun and already we’re whipped into a frenzy of disoriented erotic agitation. And then, just as suddenly, we’re somewhere in the Mojave Desert with our trio of Amazonian strippers, each piloting their own car, experience-hungry cowboys crossing a danger-tinged arid terrain in a convoy of convertibles instead of atop horses, feisty women, exotic-featured, some peculiarly accented, all of them shouty as hell, sexually aggressive, ass-kicking and greeting the world with mighty, mighty bosoms thrust forward.

Indeed, one could argue that Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), Russ Meyer’s memorably titled cult classic, is above all a devout study in tits. But there are in fact numerous, indiscriminate cheap thrills to be had—wrestling! racing! kidnapping! murder! voyeurism!—in this handsomely photographed exploitation flick, at once a work of absolutely shameless objectification and female empowerment, a heterosexual male fantasy of domination. Meyer’s world is populated with powerful (if morally aberrant) women and ineffectual men, such as the would-be speedster dork in the plaid shorts, inexplicably married to a hysterical girl in a bikini who looks about 14, the gas jockey who can’t find the hole, or the pervy old man in a wheelchair and his intellectually impaired rhinoceros of a son. None of these men survive their run-in with the strippers. The movie’s ruthless, high on its own depravity. The final scenes only go through the motions of instilling some sense of moral order. What’s the point? “The point is of no return,” declares Varla (Tura Satana), “and you just reached it!”

The Japanese-born Satana, whose own life could have supplied Meyer with a typically lurid scenario, clearly dominates Faster Pussycat! Partly because she’s simply the biggest and the scariest and the loudest thing in it, with her Himalayas of cleavage and her default approach to line readings, bulldozing her costars with great conviction and arms akimbo. She’s described by her girlfriend as “a velvet glove cast in iron” and by the movie’s least pathetic man, whom she seduces by teasing a corncob with her tongue, as “a beautiful animal.” On screen Satana, who died last year at the age of 72, was certainly both: a beauty and a beast, and Faster Pussycat! shows her at the peak of her singular powers.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

A drive of the mind

A young man drifts through Manhattan in a very long, white, soundproof, touch screen-lined limousine, seemingly outfitted for every event save atomic holocaust. He’s not going to office today, and why would he? The limo is everything. It’s his chamber of meditation, chamber of sexual transaction, chamber of commerce. He takes meetings in it. He drinks, pisses, gets his prostate checked in it. He watches the yuan plunge in it. He gets some stern financial advice from trusted colleagues in it— advice he does not take. He just wants a haircut. His name is Eric Packer. He’s handsome, powerful, a self-made billionaire, within the 1% of the 1%, Jay Gatsby meets Mark Zuckerberg, and over the course of Cosmopolis he’s going to let it all go, the money, the car, the marriage to a pretty poet, even the hair. An angry, violent mob fills the streets outside, throwing rats and protesting the failures of capitalism. But there’s only one man amongst them who can touch Eric, one man who constitutes his dumpy double, his sloppy shadow. He’s waiting for Eric and he’s got a gun and Eric seems to be slowly moving right to him, into the heart of darkness.

Directed and faithfully adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel by David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis is talky, idea-riddled, fantastic, at times awkward, at times very funny, mostly quite brilliant. The strength of the novel, far from DeLillo’s best but still crackling with the author’s characteristic flashes of insight and condensed lyricism, is the world that passes beyond the tinted windows of Eric’s roaming castle. DeLillo writes about crowds, American crowds, New York crowds, with rare powers of evocation. His Cosmopolis is drenched in sense of place. His Eric, on the other hand, feels interesting but wholly artificial, a collection of ideas sewn together into an executive golem. The thing about Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is that it completely reverses this emphasis. Cronenberg has never been a naturalist or documentarian. His best films are ablaze with ingenious artifice—it’s his way of getting at truths. Cronenberg’s New York is almost laughably unconvincing. It isn’t New York; it’s a New York state of mind. It’s very obviously Toronto. And it isn’t even Toronto. Or it’s the same Toronto of Videodrome. A meta-place. And an almost palpably dangerous place.

It’s too easy to dismiss Cosmopolis as preposterous and mannered (the dialogue remains the high modernist, tweaked vernacular of DeLillo-speak); you’ve got to just roll with it. The supporting cast makes this easy: Juliette Binoche, Mathieu Amalric, Paul Giamatti and most especially Samantha Morton absorb DeLillo’s cadences with perfect elegance and a cunning sense of how to flush out its sly humour. Even vampire heartthrob Robert Pattison is good as Eric, surprisingly unaffected, a cipher perhaps, but given his character’s transformation, his surrender to the existential, perhaps suicidal abyss, his deadpan seems appropriate. We need to identify with something blossoming virus-like in his psyche that can only gradually be revealed. He does eventually get that haircut, or anyway half a haircut, in the film’s most playful scene, which, not coincidentally, is also the only one with working-class guys in it. But the barber’s is the final stop en route to the underworld, where no amount of grooming can save you. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Friends, Romans, country bumpkins

To Rome, With Love begins already in motion, the camera curving around a roundabout until it lands on a statue-like traffic cop who confesses that he speaks poor English but is nonetheless eager to introduce us to some of his fellow Romans and their stories. It’s a corny bookend device of the sort we’ve seen in Woody Allen’s films before, the sort of throwaway cliché he enjoys employing, hopefully in the service of something more adventurous and unexpected. And To Rome, With Love is adventurous, though, more to the point, after more than 40 years and I don’t know how many movies, this may be the most unapologetically, deliriously, busily, messily nonsensical Woody Allen comedy ever. It is also frequently very, very funny.

To make an anagram of the film’s titular city, the operative word in Rome is more: more characters, more stories, more goofiness. We got a middle-aged bureaucrat (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one day to discover that he’s a celebrity. He’s attacked by paparazzi, is whisked off to a morning show where he describes his breakfast, is given an office of his own and a giraffe in a tight dress who’s job detail involves “attending to his needs all day long.” We got an unhappily retired novelty opera director (Allen, in his increasingly ridiculous looking oversized chinos) and his psychiatrist wife (Judy Davis) who’ve come to Rome to visit their daughter (Alison Pill) and the family she’s about to marry into, a family whose patriarch is a mortician who sings like Caruso, at least in the shower. But how is Woody going to get him to realize he’s a star waiting to be exploited, I mean, discovered? (I can never tell if Woody gives himself the best lines or simply delivers them better than everybody else. While discussing his proletariat-championing son-in-law-to-be, he quips, “I was Left when I was his age too, but I wasn’t a communist. I couldn’t even share a bathroom.”

We got a couple of newlywed country bumpkins in the big city for the first time. She gets lost in the streets—for days! He’s unexpectedly visited by a prostitute (Penelope Cruz)! His wealthy Roman relatives walk in to his hotel room just as he and the prostitute and entangled on the bed, and in a moment of panic he pretends she’s his wife. The false couple are taken on a private tour of the Vatican and to a garden party brimming with Rome’s bigwigs of business—most of whom are Cruz’s clients. (A hooker who gets to hobnob with society: Davis isn’t the only thing resurrected from Deconstructing Harry.)

We got a young American architectural student (Jesse Eisenberg) enjoying a pleasant life abroad with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) until the girlfriend’s beguiling actress friend (Ellen Page, excellent as the fille fatale) comes to visit. “There’s something attractive about a man who’s sensitive to the agonies of existence,” she explains en route to a torrid affair with the hapless Eisenberg, who meanwhile receives romantic advice from an elder version of himself (Alec Baldwin, his brooding deadpan perfect for the film’s most absurd character). Baldwin’s introduced as an apparently normal guy, ie: not a phantom, returning the city where he spent his 20s, yet soon he meets Eisenberg and winds up tagging along on the kid’s adventures. Sometimes only Eisenberg can see and hear Baldwin; sometimes others can see and hear him. It’s totally inconsistent, ridiculous, and one of the best parts of the movie.

What’s it all about? Thrills are fleeting, fame is fickle, nostalgia is inherently false, romance is illusory. The usual Woody themes, but delivered with brio by a wonderful cast. Leave the monster truck rally superhero blockbusters to somebody else; this is my idea of silly summer fun.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The abyss at the end of the Rainbow

A teenage girl is confined to an antiseptic room. A thin man with vampire lips and hair helmet observes her, interviews her, seems impatient with everyone but her. They meet in some vast, windowless clinic-laboratory with a staff of maybe three, conducting experiments that will ostensibly improve the human race, though this “practical application of an abstract ideal” is itself pretty abstract. No matter. Surrender to the undertow. The mood is doom. The year is emphatically 1983 (the year of Videodrome), a time, we’re told, of “great uncertainty and terrible danger,” though by the time the hermetically sealed, eerie-hypnagogic womb-world of Beyond the Black Rainbow opens itself up to the familiar world, the one the rest of us inhabit(ed), that danger appears to stem largely from shirtless camping bangers with too much alcohol. Perhaps the real danger comes from within, within the womb-world, within the damaged mind of old vampire lips, or within the fabric of the film itself.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is the impressive first feature from writer-director Panos Cosmatos and his fellow Vancouver-based collaborators. It’s low, very low, on plot, and even lower on exposition, but overflows with precision atmosphere of high retro-techno-gloom. It’s probably a good movie to take drugs to, though you’d best choose a drug that will last a while and keep you awake. The pace is deliberately somnambulistic, with a synth-drone score from Sinoia Caves, a.k.a. Black Mountain keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt, that feels like an homage to John Carpenter. It’s furnished with items from the Stanley Kubrick clearinghouse, and is wall-to-wall cryptic portent: weird lights, unnerving room tones, scary stuff on TV: cartoons, documentaries about Hawaii, Ronald Reagan. There’s glass everywhere, doubling figures that otherwise never share a frame with anyone else. Life seems painful for everybody in this lonely, oppressive landscape. There are many luminous objects to touch yet no one touches anyone else. Cosmatos renders things mostly through close-ups, the faces uniformly pushed to one side of the anamorphic frame, wide dollies of long corridors (one of several ways in which the film echoes The Shinning as much as it does 2001), and some truly impressive psychedelic eyeball imagery bursting with saturated colour and handsome soft focus grain that bleeds from one scene to the next in woozily long dissolves. (The available stills from the film do not do its visual inventiveness justice at all.)

Elena (Eva Allen) is the girl; Barry (Michael Rogers) the man who controls everything she learns. “It’s easy to become disillusioned when you don’t know who you are,” he explains. “Or what you are.” Though Barry’s greater level of awareness doesn’t seem to console him one bit. He gets his drugs from a place called Benway’s Pharmacy, which if you’d ever read William S. Burroughs you’d probably avoid. In a weirdly monochromatic flashback we see how 17 years ago Barry went to hell so as to pass through the eye of god, which he describes as “beautiful, like a black rainbow.” He got eaten by great clouds of goo and gas and came back covered in crude. Elena was born then, and her mother disposed of. The appointed harbinger of a New Age, Elena clearly possesses some special power that needs to be contained. Beyond the Black Rainbow lurches toward Elena’s emergence from her container. What will happen when she’s let loose upon the world? I have no idea. But if you see her on the street when you leave the theatre you’d best walk in the opposite direction. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Shackled to destiny

Relentless, witty and ribald, with a locomotive plot so busy that I never remember all its stops no matter how many times I see it, Alfred Hitchock’s The 39 Steps (1935) opens, aptly enough, at a London music hall, where the audience is so rowdy that a fight breaks out for no apparent reason during a performance by Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), a precursor to the doomed protagonist in Borges’ great story ‘Funes, the Memorious,’ who strikes a triumphant bowling pose every time he answers a question from the crowd and follows it with “Am I right, sir?” In the audience sits one Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian, supposedly, with a smart moustache, and our hero, one of Hitchcock’s “wrong men.” In the hubbub following the brawl he befriends a mysterious woman with a funny accent, a spy, it turns out, who, wasting no time, asks if she can come back to his place. “It’s your funeral,” he says, and he ain’t kidding. All she wanted was some food and a map of Scotland, but she winds up dead with a knife in the back. What’s going on? Who knows? Not Hannay, but he’d better find out since the guys who killed his guest want him dead and all of Great Britain figures him for a murderer. So he gets on a train bound for the hauntingly photographed Highlands, a train he’ll have to jump off of, but not before having his first run-in with an elegant and opinionated blonde named Pamela (Madeline Carroll). She rats him out, but in Hitchcock’s universe ratting can be the first rung on the ladder to romance.

The Spanish word for handcuffs is esposas, which is also the word for spouses. Which provides another layer of foreshadowing to the key moment in 39 Steps when a not very smart cop decides to handcuff Hannay to Pamela (one of many opportunities for Hitch to focus his camera on hands). Marriage is generally maligned in The 39 Steps (Hannay convinces a milkman to help him elide some nasty spies only by telling the milkman that he’s an adulterer), but through the unintended courtship of Hannay and Pamela, which involves deception and trust, resourcefulness and mutual respect—not to mention a delicious scene in which Pamela tries to remove her stockings and eat a sandwich at the same time—it becomes something to celebrate, something hard-earned and requiring of an adventurous spirit.

Criterion has released The 39 Steps in a new, beautifully transferred blu-ray edition, stuffed with supplements, including another solid audio commentary from Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane. It’s one of the great entertainments of its era, of any era, actually, and, especially when it looks this good, rewards repeat viewings.