Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lovefest '07: #1. Nose Rub

Winona Ryder in Alien: Resurrection (1997)

The door is going to open.

After the most harrowing battle in Alien: Resurrection, the surviving band of space-adventure people are being winnowed away by the star-monster, as tends to happen in Alien pictures, and they've even lost the cool guy with dreadlocks and the scrappy space pirate girl. And now, the door is going to open.

The cast waits, sweat drops freezing on their skin. Every gun trains in the direction of the door, about to open.

The metal jaws part. The camera moves in low, staring up in anticipatory fear at what will come through the door, when the door opens, because it's going to open. The door opens.

And standing motionless in the doorway is Annalee Call, presumed recently dead, gut-shot and drowned. From this vantage, she looms over the frame like the Colossus of Rhodes, and we stare up at her with the cast, every eye amazed. The camera glides up and over her body, and stops at one of those patent Jean-Pierre Jeunet angles, just a hair too high over the subject not to look off-kilter. The lights flicker and strobe, unidentifiable machines release white puffs of smoke like heavenly nimbus. But she doesn't look mythic anymore. She doesn't dominate the frame, but looks lost and isolated and miserable. She looks like a 5'4" drowned rat.

There is a beat of stupefied awe... then Ryder sniffs and rubs her nose, embarrassed.

The only explanation in the Alien mythos for Call to be alive, is that she's a robot. And look, it's an Alien movie, so we know there's going to be a crazy robot-reveal scene, and, to be realistic, we probably know who the robot is. By giving the plot point a funny, adorable, humane twist, the formula requirements are cleverly fulfilled and mildly subverted. Nobody writes a Girl, Resurrected scene like Joss Whedon. If there were ever any doubt whose script this is, this scene is the clincher. I can't say if the move was scripted, requested or directed, but it's the performance moment I want to isolate. Ryder undercuts the reverence in the reveal of her return from a watery grave just by rubbing her nose. It's a tiny but pivotal choice, playing to Whedon's technique of cutting through genre formula with warm, humanist comedy; it reenforces Jeunet's bonker-brained mutation of Alien series storytelling and toying with audience expectations.

All Winona Ryder has to do is stand there and rub her nose.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Lovefest '07: #2. Magic

Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson in "Family"
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5 (2000)

It's Tara's party, at the end of a life-changing birthday. She's lost her blood-family, but found out how much she means to her network of new friends. She's exorcised her worst self-loathing about her upbringing, having discovered she's not going to transform into a demon at 20, and taken the last step on her path to womanhood. And now she gets to slow dance with her girlfriend.

Y'know, of all Buffy characters, Tara has the most complete, mature understanding of the complexities of love. She makes the most difficult and adult choices about relationships. So this scene, which could just be sappy-pap goop -- not that I'd mind, for Tara and Willow earn the right to sappiness -- underlines something genuine and singular about the romance. Tara is naturally shy, but extraordinarily in-touch with her feelings, and can tell Willow a concrete reason her heart is surging at this moment: "Even when I'm at my worst, you make me feel special. How do you do that?" Willow's support has helped Tara squirm away from her oppressive family. It's wiped away some well-intentioned but foolish decisions she's made earlier.

Amber Benson has built Tara out of self-effacing tics designed to weave around Alyson Hannigan's solidly established mountain of self-effacing tics. Tara gives one of her finely-tuned, microcalibrated head jerks, squints and asks "how do you do that?", and Willow, in rare confidence answers: "Magic." Then we all cry.

If Willow's half-joke will resonate in unhappy ways in later years, do not despair too much, for we'll always have this scene. These sincere performances blow the sweetest of air through the characters, as the two witches in love float a foot above the dance floor, lost in a private moment of grace.

How do they do that?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Lovefest '07: #3. "You're Insane! My Own Mother is Insane!"

Edith Massey, Divine and Mink Stole in Female Trouble (1974)

The most perfectly equipped actors ever to wrap their mouths around John Waters' dialogue are Edith Massey, Divine, and maybe most of all, Mink Stole. They're the natural voices of his characters, the voices Waters must hear in his head as he's writing. Classic Waters is all wall-to-wall scenes of people screaming at each other, and these three beauties each take unique approaches to the challenge: Divine's sneering bellow, Stole's bitchy whine, and Massey's singular way of proudly announcing each line with her cracked cadence, as if she's just heard it for the first time. This mighty triumvirate of comediennes comes together to rip each other apart in this triumphant scene in Female Trouble.

For those behind on the score: Stole is 14-year-old Taffy, who has just returned home after attempting to reunite with her absent father, only to have him attempt rape, and succeed in vomiting on her. Massey is villainess Ida Nelson, currently imprisoned in a bird cage, and militant fag hag ex-aunt-in-law to Divine's Dawn Davenport, a white trash criminal fashion icon on the make. Whew! Though the scene is just three performers sniping at each other, Waters' overstuffed, absurdist plotting and the actors' lung-busting, headache-loud delivery turn it into a rising symphony of shouting matches. It becomes an illustration of the infinite variations on the reasons and ways people can yell.

Stole starts out alone on the floor, wailing and moaning about her trauma, then passes the baton to Massey, who bitches about her hand having been cut off. "I got you a hook, didn't I? Mother would kill me as it is!", Taffy cries indignantly. Ida rasps back "I'll thank you for this fuckin hook after I rip her eyes out with it!" This is charity and gratitude in the Waters universe. Dawn Davenport thunders in, chews out her daughter and mortal enemy just for existing, then taunts them pretty much equally over her own inability to feed them properly, and when she's done picks chunks of the scenery out of her incisors. Dawn's relationship with Taffy is a highlight, for though the child is a hideous brat, she's legitimately complaining about child abuse; Dawn's hatred for her daughter has little to do with the kid's behavior. She just can't stand giving a moment's thought to anyone but herself. "You're a pain, too, Taffy! A pain in my big fat asshole!" she yells.

It is hard to imagine anyone could top this world-class putdown, but, well, it happens. Dawn eventually has to gag the squawking Ida with duct tape, and Massey steals the scene with her immortal (improvised?) final, desperate cry of contempt: "Fucker! Pig fucker! Filthy hetero-stink-shit!!"

But in this bitchfest battle of wills, Taffy wins, when she announces she's going to join the Hare Krishnas. It is the ultimate affront, in Female Trouble's world of glamour, and ego-tripping. There's nothing in Waters that so perfectly encapsulates the great American rite of passage that is adolescent rebellion at all costs, as Taffy demolishing her mortified mother with her manic, sing-song declaration "You can't kill love, mother! You can't kill Krishna! Because Krishna is consciousness!" It's too much even for Dawn Davenport. Even for Divine. God bless the child.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Lovefest '07: #4. Chigusa's Last Reverie

Chiaki Kuriyama in Battle Royale (2000)

In woods humid, still,
The coolest girl in the world
runs, dreams, then wakes, dies.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lovefest '07: #6. Be Free

Cristina Marsillach in Opera (1987)

Cristina Marsillach plays the traumatized opera ingenue, Betty, who's lost everyone she cares about in a string of serial murders, which she is forced to witness by means of eyeball-threatening needles taped to her face. But those celebrated scenes are not what need to be redeemed. What happens in the final moments of Opera may be a kind of Rorschach test for viewer's cynicism and generosity. The film's coda abruptly switches settings, from a violent, dark vision of Parma, Italy to the pastoral Swiss Alps, as our tormented heroine seeks some much-needed r-&-r, only to find herself walking into the story's last fake-out and twist scare. After witnessing the final stabbing of her last remaining friend, and turning the tables on the killer to bring him to justice, Betty, splattered with blood and emotionally exhausted, dismisses pursuing reporters, and wanders away from the crime scene. In her crimson-stained white blouse, she throws herself into the grass, and crawls on hands and knees through the wildflowers, as we hear her internal monologue in voice over:
"I no longer wanted to see anybody. I wanted to escape altogether...
Because I'm different.
I don't even vaguely resemble others, any of them.
I like the wind.
The rain.

She comes upon a lizard pinned by a twig, studies it a moment, and sets the helpless creature loose, calling after it "there my beauty. Go free."

What's going on in this scene? To be honest, I am well aware a lot of audiences find the finale infantile, laughable, embarrassing and/or simply terrible. Maitland McDonagh has evaluated that the only possible conclusion is that Betty has gone mad, probably from the horror and loss she's undergone, but mostly the internal resistance to the killer's insistence that a latent sadism inherited from her mother makes her get off on being forced witness to the murders. This is a frequent line of reasoning adopted by Argento apologists. To me that smacks of tough-guy excuse making and a false choice: either Argento is soft-headed about the spiritual, or hey look, at least the hero goes crazy at the end. It's just not a foregone conclusion either way.

We're privy to Betty's thoughts, but there's no definitive answer about her mental health, or sublimated motivations she's not even expressing to herself in the voice over. We can't know what's happened to Betty any more than we understand what's happened to Marc Daly in Deep Red, to Anne in Tenebre, or to Anna Manni in The Stendhal Syndrome, in the similar enigmatic closing shots of those films. All we can know is that Betty is changed. Her final voice over is a refutation of the villain's claim over her, a resistance to the possibility of complicancy with the violence, a self-absolution from guilt. In her final act of compassion, freeing the pinned lizard, she undoes the nasty work of the reptile-torturing little girl in Deep Red. Faced with a creature whose helplessness in bondage mirrors her own during the murder scenes, Betty chooses to liberate it. The attentive viewer will also see Betty shucking off her mother's influence in shaping her psyche: when Betty releases the lizard, she's set free.

Betty is the only character able to transcend the twisted meanness of Opera's world without being annihilated. Even if she has gone mad, and is manically overcompensating to prove it to herself, we watch Betty make the choice. Whether the capacity for sadism is present is not important: of course it is. It always is. She suppresses it. Until this scene, Opera is not at all about relationship between people and nature. It seems instead, that only by exposure to the darkest edges of human experience, is Betty able to consciously set herself apart from the brutish, insensitive species that populates the film. That is as fine a mission statement for horror movies as I know.

Half of this scene is a credit to Argento, the rest is all Marsillach's doing. Her strange performance is what allows the latitude for readings as divergent as McDonagh's and my own. Marsillach paws across the grass in rapture, ignoring the gore on her shirt. She smells deeply of some of the plants, pets some of them and simply stares and grins at others. The wild, ecstatic expression on her dewy features cannot be read, beyond the wide-eyed glee of her oneness with nature. Un-sane or not, it's frightening as she buries her face in the foliage and comes up open-mouthed with wonder. Promptly after the lizard's rescue, Betty throws herself flat on the ground, embracing the Earth itself, and the screen fades to black. Such awesome joy as Cristina Marsillach conveys, we can never know. Can we? Go my beauty.

Be free.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lovefest '07: #7. "I Swear, From This Moment Forth..."

Patricia Arquette in True Romance

Alabama Whitman sits below Clarence's fire escape, on the catwalk around a truck billboard, grumpily smoking and wrapped in a blanket. She looks awful. When Clarence (Christian Slater) joins her on their perch above the city, the scene will become about confessing that she is a call girl, hired as his birthday present, but has accidentally fallen in love. Arquette plays the big moments by shouting and ranting, with tears spilling out of her eyes, but don't get distracted; consider for a moment that this is one of the few declarations of romantic feelings in the Tarantinoverse: when people are calm and collected, they're at their deadliest. There's nothing scarier in this world than bearing your heart.

'Bama's yelling at Clarence, though he hasn't done anything wrong, or gotten the least bit upset with her. She's angry at herself and scared at the boy's potential reactions. It's a short scene, but Alabama cycles through fear, resolve-building, self-hatred, backpedaling explanation, and finally a sweet and silly announcement of her personal moral code. "I'm a good person. And when it comes to relationships, I'm 100 % ... monogamous." Her courage pays off, she finds acceptance, and the relief on Arquette's face, which moments before was bent as if steeling to be smacked, is a beam of Southern sunshine in the chilly Detroit night.

From Clarence's perspective, this is not about finding a hooker's heart of gold: he didn't know she was a hooker, and he already saw the gold. It's about a dream girl stripped of her glamours and proclaiming her flawed, raw humanity from a billboard, and the astonishment of discovering the dream girl beneath the dream girl. The real one, pale and red-nosed from the cold and crying, a little stuffed-up and with a blanket draped over her head, is even better. Alabama belongs solidly in my list of favorite Tarantino characters, and like the best of actors to tackle the writer's vivid dialogue, Patricia Arquette gives the woman shape and dimension beyond the page.

To pinpoint a moment of the performance: Arquette, looking miserable and sick, silent and alone, holding her cigarette like it's her last possession. You can see her mentally rifling through frustration, self-pity and anger, trying to build up courage, as she grapples with the biggest, happiest feeling of her life. That's how it starts. By the end, she's smiling.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Lovefest '07: #8. It's Absolutely Revolting!

Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap (1961) as Sharon as Susan

Hayley Mills' tour de force comedic performance in The Parent Trap requires the 14-year-old to not only play thoroughly delineated twin sisters, but for a brief midsection, to play the girls impersonating one another. In this scene she does both. Boston-raised Sharon-as-Susan first calmly dupes her dad as he bumblingly attempts a heart-to-heart, then loses her cool when he says he's going to propose to his hateful new girlfriend. Exploding Kinetoscope favorite Brian Keith is great throughout, but here he gives his funniest 4-minute fluster: his Mitch Evers is a big, burly rancher completely undone by a young girl's cool judgement and her unleashed temper.

Sharon plops down at the piano and plays Chopin's "Nocturne in E Flat", half-ignoring her father's speech, sending the signal that his silly stuttering is beneath her interest, but keeping her back to Keith lets Mills dart her baby blues nervously around the room in counterpoint to her confident piano playing. Sharon's method of indicating her nonchalance almost backfires when Mitch realizes that his Susan does not play piano, and Sharon covers her tracks hilariously, by hunching over the keyboard and plinking out "Chopsticks". She doesn't miss a beat, either, as she turns her dad's self-effacement on him, by explaining he's far to old to be dating his 30-something fiance, mere seconds after he's nearly said it himself. The scene is all about Sharon's acting and improv skills, and powers of behavioral observation, and how quickly she can weave and dart about her father's arguments and steer him where she wants. The scrawny kid has to waltz with Brian Keith, for if Mills weren't playing it with precise body language, if we couldn't see the wheels turning in Susan's head, the scene wouldn't work. And it wouldn't be funny.

The argument escalates, and in the final beat, Mills does some prop work both cute and ingenious. Sharon swipes a throw pillow up from the sofa, as she becomes desperate to talk Mitch out of his engagement. She clutches the pillow to her chest as she pleads, flails it about in anger, and yanks it away from her dad when he tries to take it for fear of being smacked. Finally, when Sharon completely blows her stack and breaks "character", she becomes so frustrated that she can't express it verbally or physically, and Mitch doesn't even understand what she's talking about. To portray this meltdown, Mills stomps to the back of the room and, well, just starts poking random pieces of the set decoration with the pillow. There's a split second that gets me every time, in which it's clear that the screenplay has provided less of Sharon's scripted rant than necessary, so Mills begins ad libbing a furious monologue as her befuddled dad wanders out of the room.

SHARON: All right. I'm not screaming. I want to talk about this perfectly calmly and rationally... YOU CAN'T GET MARRIED, YOU'LL RUIN EVERYTHING! All the plans we made! The working, and scheming, the diagrams!

MITCH: What are you talking about?

SHARON: And my hair! Look at my hair! I cut it just for you! And my fingernails! I've bitten them all up because of you! Of all the thick-headed fathers! (Ed.: here the script has clearly run out) For days and works and weeks! Nothing! Nothing but work and -- and boys and... names and hair! Oh!

Boys and names and hair? If you've ever forgotten it: the kid was a natural.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lovefest '07: #9. This is Janet! She's a Phenomenon!

Jessica Harper in Shock Treatment (1981)

Janet Majors performs the song "Me of Me" on the DTV network "Breakfast Show", a self-promotion showstopper that in the context of Shock Treatment's perverse satire of media, American idolatry and wholesomeness itself, becomes the film's most chilling anthem of destruction and loss. Harper performs "Me of Me" at full tilt, vamping and purring the sultry verses, and bellowing and growling the rumbling chorus: "Me, me!/ Me, me me!/ Me me me!" She mugs and pouts into the camera, wiggles through a set consisting only of amorphous fog-machine smoke and Greek columns, then demolishes the in-film fourth wall, invading the seating area of the studio audience. The studio itself is the only real world that exists in Shock Treatment, and the DTV cameramen whirl about into that reality-warping space, pinned helplessly to Janet as she single-handedly expands the perimeters of The Breakfast Show to make more elbow room for her own star gone supernova. Janet runs through the set as she performs, becomes a nonspecific, all-encompassing Me, demolishing the set's only solid vector points of reality by knocking over the pillars, and finally wrenching the electric guitar from the hands of the house band. Her face fills the screen as she stares at herself multiplied visually on the studio monitors; Janet's image becomes the only image. As she takes over the diegetic guitar without missing a beat, she consumes/becomes the soundtrack's only sound.

In a film so concerned with image-making, such a display of magnetic performance, self-confidence, and shamelessness should look, sound, and feel like a triumph, a flowering for Janet, who begins the film in the DTV audience, identity half-defined by dismay toward her pathetic, awkward and confused husband Brad (Cliff De Young). But "Me of Me" rather than being the moment in which Janet Finds Herself, is the scene in which she loses her Self entirely.

The same character, previously played by Susan Sarandon, underwent a superficially similar transformation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where Janet started in a pastel Sunday dress, ended in feather boa, corset and fishnets, lost her innocence three times over and consumed human flesh. But Janet's RHPS journey is one of liberation, moving from naivete, repression and simple doldrums to knowledge (erotic and otherwise), sensual awakening, and the excitement of personal agency. Rocky Horror, though, is about keeping an overdeveloped Super-Ego in check, Shock Treatment documents the perils of a rampaging Ego. In Shock Treatment, Janet doesn't discover empowerment, capability and confidence; she is used, conned and tricked until she's dissolved away in a Narcissus Pool of solipsism. DTV sponsor Farley Flavors has machinated to exploit Janet's natural girl-next-door charms for reasons of personal vendetta, and a profiteering agenda of selling his deeply unbalanced vision of mental health as a consumer product. For approximately 48 hours, Janet becomes ensconced in the endless maze of utterly content-free DTV programs, all of which star the same few performers, all referring back to the other programs, all openly advertising each other, sometimes showing episodes on TV sets within other shows. The DTV programming schedule melts into itself: one big show about absolutely nothing. So Janet is cajolled into promoting herself on talk shows, soaps starring her parents, and game shows, all apperances entirely to plug more apperances, on the promise that her meteoric rise to stardom will improve the mental health of the wayward Brad, who's been institutionalized in the DTV medical drama Dentonvale.

Janet plays along for Brad's sake, Jessica Harper knitting her inch-thick eyebrows with worry. Slowly — or is it quickly? — she's caught up in the idiocy and madness, stops puzzling over what she's supposed to do on TV, and believes the hype: I make fabulous TV because I'm inherently fabulous. "Me of Me" is the echo-chamber not just of celebrity culture and media autocannibalism, but the fatalist result of following "I think, therefore I am" to its logical conclusion. Janet will eventually escape redeemed, but in "Me of Me" Harper shows us a woman diving headfirst into a black hole. Janet is transformed, but transformed into what? Harper's small, round face is masked with bone-white pancake makeup, hair hidden under a flying saucer hat, widening her high forehead even more, and her dinner-plate-sized dark eyes become glistening black voids; Harper's strange, lovely face is transformed into a dolled-up death's head. She's got the strongest set of pipes ever to tackle Richard O'Brien's tunes, and though much of Shock Treatment's dialogue is, if not non sequitur, a sort of semi-sequitur, it's spooky as Harper sings with increasing throaty passion as the lyrics make less and less sense as anything but masturbatory nihilistic fantasy: "I'd never lie to me!/ I'd be willing to die for moi!/ I pray every day to me!" Janet's empathy for Brad is annihilated in "Me of Me", her motivation no longer to save her husband but sheer selfishness.

When Jessica Harper rocks "Me of Me" with total hell-bent abandon, it's a scene about Janet abandoning her true self. She's a phenomenon!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Lovefest '07: Countdown and #10

The Exploding Kinetoscope presents a Valentine's Day special! For the next ten days, I'll be counting down ten actresses I love in ten performance moments I love in ten films I love. For the most part, they don't have a terrible lot to do with romance itself or romantic movies, but be assured, there's a lotta love going on. They aren't going to all be the greatest or most iconic scenes, they aren't even all my #1 movie star crush objects. But you better believe I'm head over heels for these ladies. Heart-shaped boxes of chocolate all around.

10. In Marlene Dietrich's Mouth
Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress

Von Sternberg's bitter and baroque films make a hideous burlesque not just of humanity, but in The Scarlet Empress, of all human emotion, except, perhaps, Dietrich-worship. It's a hard obsession to argue with. Ostensibly, we're watching Dietrich document the evolution of naive Princess Sophia into cold, hard, magisterial Catherine the Great. It is certainly a wonder to watch Dietrich as the transformed Catherine, parading around like a liberated badass in a world of trolls and worms: when Catherine is revealed, she's the spectacle you bought the ticket to see. Captivating as she is as a reborn Bad Motherfucker, fitting hilariously into von Sternberg's gallery of grotesques is Dietrich's performance as Sophia-in-transition. She plays every scene literally wide-eyed, and in a breathless proto-Monroe idiot whisper. Dietrich doesn't drop her smoky eyelids until the woman is jaded and self-possessed. Most fascinating to me is this would-be seduction scene in the palace stables.

John Lodge as the concerned-but-horny Count Alexei is attempting to get into Catherine's pants for the 2000th time, but now she's willingly come to him, understanding his intentions; a sort-of-innocent, still undecided about taking the plunge into personal agency by way of debauchery. Lodge's frustrated and funny performance dominated their previous scenes, but this one's all in Dietrich's hands, and it's her best physical performance moment in the film. The playing is so weird and ridiculous we don't buy for a second that she's not the sensuous, frankly oversexed Deitrich of our dreams. Bugging out those mesmerist's eyes, she grabs an overhanging rope, awkwardly twisting her figure into unnatural poses, absentmindedly at first, until she falls backward into a haystack entirely on purpose. Avoiding eye contact with Alexei, she sticks a piece of straw between her impossible, swollen lips, for no discernable reason but an oral-fixation joke. When he plucks it from her mouth, she does it again. And again. And again! She just keeps putting staw in her mouth and looking in the opposite direction until Alexei and the audience are in a confused frenzy. It's one of the strangest, grossest, sexiest and most absurd seductions scenes in all of film. Yanking out the final golden blade, she gasps "if you come closer, I'll scream." It doesn't sound one bit like she means it. Subtext promptly becomes text, as Alexei growls "It'd be easier for you to scream without a straw in your mouth."

They kiss, sure, but was that ever the point? The unspeakably tasteless dirty-joke punchline is a beat later: a horse whinnies, Catherine panics and flees in a cloud of dust. Now that's a make-out scene.