Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ray vs. Gumby

Ray Liotta as Ray Sinclair contemplates the unexpected appearance of Gumby in Something Wild, 1986 dir. Jonathan Demme, scr. E. Max Frye.

This three-second bit of business is one of dozen of fine throwaway pleasures in a pretty goddamn rousing performance. Come to think of it, most of Something Wild's delights are in a hand-decorated telephone, a background performer's body language, the fluorescent pink letters on a t-shirt; it's a bric-a-brac movie. There is a killer moment in Liotta's final scene as the actor swipes a meaty paw across his pallid brow, leaves a bloody palm print dripping from his hairline, and it looks for all the world as though his brain is bleeding.

The film undergoes two or three major tonal shifts — part of the fun and sense of play is that one never knows what is going to happen next, even though a capsule summary of the plot would indicate a boilerplate screwball romance throwback in which a free-spirited wacky dame pesters an uptight square until he loves her. So that's Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) and Audrey "Lulu" Hankel (Melanie Griffith) plugged into the Susan Vance and Doc David Huxley parts, or maybe the Clarence Worley and Alabama Whitman parts, because you never know when someone will get murdered or naked or, more importantly, how serious or cartoony the next curve will bend.

Now there's a sort of interesting subtext to the final movement of Something Wild, where bank-robber ex-boyfriend criminal on the lam Ray appears as a dark agent of Lulu's wicked, troubled past and his relentless pursuit has a quality of karmic horror. The first sections focus on Lulu assaulting Charlie's worldview, forcing him to transgress personal boundaries, and assisting in his ego death by way of "losing" his wallet, and helping him self-actualize through fashion therapy and a parade of new identities. Where the opening acts see Lulu broadening Charlie's horizons with the magic of her particular charms, after Ray intrudes the tables turn and the reinvented Charlie has to fight to maintain the relationship and as She fixed Him now He has to fix Her — thesis, antithesis, synthesis and all that. In counterpoint to Ray-as-Lulu's-shadow, it has (sorta) been noted by Demme, it is as if Charlie's sheer niceness through his life provides him with a spontaneous network of helpers — convenience store clerks and scruffy motel owners, rather than woodland sprites, if you will, but we're not here to plug Charlie Driggs into the Monomyth (not right now, anyway).

Ray is then a golem on the hunt (though this is just a made-up appropriate metaphor, it conveniently ties in with the forehead-wiping upon permanent deactivation — we might compare Ray to a twitchy Terminator or greaser Pumpkinhead; anyway, a vengeful ghoul animated by buried sins of the past). For a moment the universe throws him an omen, the pasty golem contemplates the Zen example of the green clay boy. Ray barks out a spazzy laugh, chucks Gumby out the window and speeds off in a hotwired car.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Synchronicity's Spine Number

Item: Strange echo found in the cover illustrations of The Criterion Collection's releases for May 17, 2011. A woman's hand presses upon a man's brow and in context neither gesture is particularly soothing.

Vague opinion: It goes without saying, I hope, that both films are renowned knockers off of socks, and a better use of one's disposable income than attendance at any pictures opening this weekend, whatever the weekend.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Down Inside You're Dirty!: A Tribute to David F. Friedman — Screening Report

Pioneering exploitation movie producer/ writer/ distributor/ actor/ advertiser/ theater owner/ etc. David F. Friedman died in his hometown of Anniston, Alabama on Valentine's Day of 2011. At the time, I happened to be eyeball-deep in studying his collaborations with Herschell Gordon Lewis (some of which I've written about here), and suddenly found myself at a loss for words. With a sizable filmography, leading the way or producing key films in a number of subgenres, Friedman's influence and import is something of a matter of public record, while the quality and reputation of what he made is rather up in the air. Part of the reason for that is that the audience for the sort of films he produced is an endangered species. While the groundbreaking splatter films with Lewis are certainly his most famous films, Friedman wrote so many of his own scripts that even when paired with a dozen different directors, his voice as an artist is clear as a bell.

On April 30, Eric Caidin and Brian Quinn of the Grindhouse Film Festival and Something Weird Video presented a special Tribute to David Friedman at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Seven saucy and shocking films, sundry titillating trailers, and sensational short subjects were screened over the course of twelve and a half hours, and a bevy of special guests shared personal memories and reflections about the beloved exploitation film impresario.

All told, turnout for this all-day sleaze-a-thon was hearty, if not packed to capacity, with an increase in warm bodies in the evening and severe tapering off after midnight and maybe a dozen diehards making it to the very end. Guests ranged from character actor Bill McKinney (the Ten-in-One owner of She Freak, whose work you surely enjoy) to L.A. Times critic Kevin Thomas (about whose work you may have Opinions), and Ted Bonnitt, director of the 2001 documentary Mau Mau Sex Sex read a message from Rosa Lee Sonney (daughter of Dan Sonney, Friedman's partner in the Pussycat Theater chain). If anything came across in everyone's reminisces it is that Dave Friedman was a tremendous amount of fun to be around, loved his work, and lived heartily. The always affable Mike Vraney was on hand for film intros, anecdotes about his adventures with Friedman, historical contextualizing, and available for pestering on the sidewalk during smoke breaks. Some SWV news was spilt, so to that end:

Something Weird Blu-rays should be out around September, 2011 with Basket Case as the first title! Sorry, fellow Shanty Tramp fans. This will be followed by a Herschell Gordon Lewis triple feature with Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red all on one disc. I'm sorry, for whatever reason, I just can't call it the "Blood Trilogy."

As for the film fest, I might have organized the movies in chronological order and/or selected more representative or important productions for a sort of pedantic Friedman 101 presentation. But I'd have been wrong, because damned if the day wasn't programmed nearly perfectly. Here's the thing: you either enjoy these movies or you don't. I'm mostly talking about nudie pictures here, not low-budget horror or drive-in action, or sundry other exploitation subphylum. I do think they are a (rotten) taste that can be acquired, but there's not something to "get" before they start clicking, unless it's context or nostalgia. To me, Friedman's nudies are the heart of exploitation film, the dividing line of scum that separates the "real" grindhouse from the mainstream. So I'd like to think that everyone in Los Angeles who finds this the Mid-Century Smut anti-aesthetic inherently appealing was in the audience, and a few new pairs of eyes got a baptism by fire. The movies:

Space Thing (1968, dir. Byron Mabe as B. Ron Elliot)

Nonsensical, super-boring, and idiotic, Space Thing is about a Planetarian alien disguised (somehow?) as a Terranian (e.g.— Earthling, "from Kansas," no less) who infiltrates an enemy spacecraft, learns the art of making out with girls, wanders around a rock quarry, then concludes his mission by blowing up the ship with a bomb that he could have set off the minute the film began. On one hand starting with this movie this is jumping in with both feet, and on the other hand it worked perfectly, infusing a little SF genre flavor into the line-up, and providing the early birds with an opening salvo of interminable scenes of hairy-backed men rolling around on passably cute chicks with bad skin, unsynched audio over MOS footage and extensive whipping of bare butts. Because as much hysteria as it causes the first time, there will be a lot of whipping of bare butts. We do not, as the poster promises, visit the "Planet of the Rapes." If this is some sort of deal-breaker, be forewarned.

Presented in a print gone 500 shades of pink. Vraney helpfully explained a pointless, non sequitur prologue as an attempt to pad out the picture, which came in short when Mabe was fired.

Scum of the Earth (1963, dir. H.G. Lewis as Lewis H. Gordon)

1963 was a banner year for the Lewis and Friedman team, with a flurry of nudies, the invention of splatter films, and this J.D./ fallen girl/ pornography exposé melodrama in the vein of Ed Wood, Jr.'s The Sinister Urge (1960). Scum of the Earth might be my favorite Lewis/Friedman project. It's got the Bill Kerwin/ Mal Arnold/ Lawrence Aberwood acting trifecta chewing things up as crazy characters, the unforgettable "all you kids make me sick!" speech (among others), unconvincingly staged violence, great period cars and clothes, and a turgid, sweaty conviction that feels like it's covered with a coat of slime even though there is zero nudity. Also, 30-year-old Mal Arnold repeatedly brags that he is a minor in the eyes of the law, to the delight of all viewers.

What I like most about Scum (this goes for Sinister Urge, too) is that it is a wholly ludicrous depiction of the adult entertainment business from men who know perfectly well how it actually works. In this respect it is an interesting companion piece to their earlier Living Venus (1961), which takes a more down-to-earth approach to chronicling the professional workings and moral downward spiral of a Hugh Hefner analogue, and to Friedman's later Starlet! (see below).

Presented in a print with consistent scratching but otherwise aces.

She Freak (1967, dir. Byron Mabe)

Okay, I adore She Freak. It starts with the lowering of a Ferris wheel safety bar, and then we're off! If you want to know what Dave Friedman was about, who he was, where he came from, I suspect She Freak is the place to look. Whatever else is going on in the movie — loose remake of Freaks, ruthless maneater melodrama, love and violence among showpeople yarn, 80 minutes of barking for two minutes of horror — She Freak is head over heels for the carnival — the people, the culture, the lifestyle — and wants to show you in detail every tent stake being pounded, every midway lightbulb being screwed in, every corn dog being dipped. Where a majority of Friedman movies would have ten-minute heavy petting scenes, She Freak instead shows its carnival setting up, running, and tearing down.

Presented in quite nice condition, with color starting to go red but not entirely gone over.

A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine (1966, dir. Byron Mabe as B. Ron Elliot)

Hateful, fascinating and feverish, Smell of Honey sees seductress Sharon Winters (Friedman discovery Stacey Walker née Barbara Jean Moore) drive a string of would-be lovers into a frenzy, up until they try to peel off her panties, at which point she cries rape. And this she does over and over... until she pays the price. The roughie subgenre would obviously produce much uglier, more objectionable products, and Friedman hadn't gotten into Love Camp 7 or Ilsa territory quite yet. While Smell/Swallow is no walk in the park compared to the cuties of earlier in the decade, there is enough camp and bitter comedy to make this more entertaining than vile.

Besides almost working as a metaphor for the degree of explicitness allowable in nudie pictures, Smell of Honey strikes me as sort of a female counterpart to Raging Bull: a study of a character with single-minded, stripped-down psychology, a stunted person with one nasty trait that may be observable in real people but here is just hammered and hammered and hammered. Where Jake La Motta's entire sexuality, personality and being are focused down to "he punches things," Sharon Winters is a sadistic tease. Both one-track characters follow their patterns like rats in a maze until they spiral into hell. There's no inciting incident, no exploration, no learning, no excuses, no apologies. There is, however, a fantastic, relentless rock score by "Et Cetera" that might be described as "Exile on Shaggs Street," and a remarkable, bizarrely sexy lead performance by Walker. Cinematographer László Kovács (as Art Radford) and director Mabe are 100% on point, and this may be as close as Friedman ever got to a well-crafted picture.

Presented in an occasionally jumpy but otherwise excellent print.

-Short subject: "But Charlie, I Never Played Volleyball!" (1966)

Fun to see this stupid little nudist camp reel with narrated banter and wraparound story featuring Stacey Walker as an actress hired to judge the Miss Nude Universe pageant. IMDb says that this number, Smell of Honey and Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (all in a year) comprise all of Walker's film work, which is kind of a drag. If you need to see it, check the Fanny Hill/ The Head Mistress DVD, if you can get a copy.

This was also the point at which the audience had hit "the wall" and pushed through into "the zone." That is, things started to get a little loopy. Personally, my perspective warped, the dumb jokes became hilarious, and the prolonged softcore scenes whizzed by like they weren't completely stupefying. Case in point, Blood Feast seemed to move at light speed...

Blood Feast (1963, dir. H.G. Lewis)

This print was just about as close to perfect as one could ask, Blood Color intact and with barely a scratch but for those legs what got cut off. Hey man, it brought down the house like always. My favorite part is when Mal Arnold says "You see, I am an old man!," the same comedy in reverse as when he says he's under 18 in Scum of the Earth.

The Pick-Up (1968, dir. Lee Frost)

Vraney helpfully provided backstory on the search for this ultra-rarity, a film Friedman had asked him to locate for years, which was ultimately found in a Copenhagen film collector's vault. This nigh pristine print (with Danish subs) is the only known copy, so you can see it on SWV's DVD-R; it's only been screened publicly twice now. I'd enjoyed The Pick-Up before, but it gained a lot of power in this context, since Friedman has a large onscreen role as stressed-out Vegas crime boss Charlie Rosa. And, bonus, fellow exploitation producer Bob Cresse (you loved 'im in House on Bare Mountain!) plays L.A. mob boss, Sal. Both producers are extremely entertaining as they stress out about what happened to a missing Cadillac trunkfull of casino skimmings. Meanwhile, the hapless bagmen endeavor to retrieve the twice-stolen cash from a pair of foxy female crooks.

Besides one over-the-top roughie-style torture scene, The Pick-Up is primarily a punchy hardboiled crime thriller, stylishly stripped-down like a Richard Stark book or a proto Reservoir Dogs. I'd say it really cooks along, because it mostly does, but my brain is phasing out on the ten-minute make out scenes. If you've already watched five Friedman movies, The Pick-Up is wound up like a watch spring. Cool vintage Vegas footage at the top, too.

-Aaand another goofy-ass short, "The Casting Director" (1968), also starring Bob Cresse, who sexually harasses an auditioning actress in an office full of beautiful, beautiful exploitation movie posters and lobby cards. Cresse mostly pulls faces and pours sweat, in the classic Lucky Pierrenudie-cutie-peeper style. Due to the lateness of the hour, excessive Junior Mints intake, and coccyx agony, I just kind of couldn't stop laughing. If you must see it, check the SWV double feature of Dr. Sex/ Wanda the Wicked Hypnotist.

Starlet! (1969, dir. Richard Kantor)

You shoot anything on the old Monogram lot, and I'm there.

Starlet! is an epic-scale (100 minutes!) portrait of the exploitation film industry and it feels rather like Friedman's final word on the subject. But it's not — he hadn't made Trader Hornee (1970), gotten into Nazisploitation, finished making those "Erotic Adventures" films or unleashed Johnny Firecloud (1975). While Starlet! isn't technically the end of an era, it does appear as the nudie cycle is winding down and — as metaphorically depicted in the opening scene — transforming into no-holes-barred hardcore. So the movie was a perfect capper for this celebration of Friedman's career, as it is, in itself, a celebration of Friedman's career, full of in-jokes and cameos and requiring of the audience at least a basic familiarity with the genre.

The tapestry-style story basically concerns the exploits at EVI Studios (the film's real production company, depicting itself within... oh, forget it) as it gears up, shoots, and releases the college-themed nudie smash "A Youth in Babylon" (a title so good or personally meaningful that Friedman used it for his autobiography). The backbone of the plot follows fresh talent Carol Yates (beautiful, funny, articulate Dee Lockwood credited as Deirdre Nelson), who we meet doing stag films for rent money and rises to become EVI's biggest new star. The emphasis is on good-natured situational comedy, but with a dozen colorful characters swirling around the fringes there is room for romance, slapstick, gripping blackmail plots, and All About Eve-type backstage drama.

The thing I like best about Starlet! is its familial, jocular tone, and though the characters are cartoonish to a degree, the film is non-judgmental about who they are, what they are doing, and why they do it. Where Scum of the Earth depicts a convoluted extortion plot just to get a girl to take cheesecake photos, Starlet! opens with its strong-willed, likable and down-to-earth heroine being convinced to turn a softcore scene into hard, and rather than weeping and screaming indignantly, Carol just rolls her eyes and shrugs. Insta-crush-object Deirdre Nelson is the rightful Starlet here, but the supporting cast is a great mix of talented vets (Stuart Lancaster, John Alderman, both kinda-sorta-not-really reprising their characters from Thar She Blows!) and unspeakably wooden topless gals. The overall warm "look what we got away with" tone is darkened and complicated with depictions of artistic frustration, the disposability of aging talent, and violent abuse of power by directors and producers. A particularly effective subplot, not played for laughs, involves a first-time nudie director learning to compromise his vision and morals, and finding out, basically, that joining the carnival comes with some personal sacrifices: those who aren't With the Show will never understand. If the nude squirming scenes were trimmed down, Starlet! could almost play to a non-weirdo audience, and I believe it belongs in the company of Ed Wood and Boogie Nights — a small family of affectionate, good-hearted but complex, conflicted depictions of particular times and places in trash filmmaking history. Starlet! does not achieve (or aspire to) the same level of fine-tuning and polish as those mainstream masterpieces, but it has something they don't: it was made by the people it is about. They lived this story, even as they filmed Starlet!

Presented in a... nice print? I was pretty out of it, sorry. Surely it is the same acceptable print used for the SWV DVD-R. Includes much vintage L.A. footage, always a joy.

Famously humorous and bombastic trailers for classic Friedman product were interspersed throughout the program, usually featuring tie-in glimpses of cast members, locations, or, in one case, a big white dog. I took no notes, but we were treated to trailers for: The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966), Brand of Shame (1968), Bummer (1973), A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine ('66), Thar She Blows! (1968), Love Camp 7 (1969), Trader Hornee (1970), and, undoubtedly, more which are lost to delirium.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

I Believe It's Magic

Sometimes one stumbles onto diverting/cute/inconsequential discoveries but has no longer piece on any related topics in the works where they might be deposited. Rather than lose this one to the wind, I present a nice little flourish from Ghostbusters (1984, Columbia Pictures, dir. I. Reitman). Or is that "Ghost Busters," as the opening titles would have it? I usually defer to what is onscreen, but this is plainly incorrect. Moving on then. This is really just about an interesting cut-on-action and as it entirely involves movement and cutting, the illustrations below aren't particularly attractive or, well, illustrative.

The context, as you surely recall, is that Consolidated Edison, under orders of EPA jagoff Walter "Wally Wick" Peck, have shut down the 'Busters' containment grid and released all manner of spookums. In humorous-eerie montage set to a jittery remix of "Magic" by Mick Smiley, several of the emancipated phantoms rush to indulge in those specifically New York City experiences they must have pined for in captivity. After shenanigans with subways, taxis, and mouthfuls of street hotdogs, we're back to our key players.

Fig. 1

Whoosh! Here's a view looking out from the apartment window of one Dana Barrett, lately possessed by Sumerian demigod Zuul, Gatekeeper and minion of Gozer the Gozerian (I type these things because it looks funny, not because you don't already know all this; sadly, we both know all of this by heart).

This sequence is rather on the cusp of the second and third acts, and designed to pull into position the relevant players who have been scattered to the wind. Namely, at this point the stage is set for the ritual union of Gatekeeper Zuul and Keymaster Vinz Clortho, but Vinz is off scampering around TriBeCa — they can't find each other.

This is followed by a brief reaction shot of Zuul!Dana, distorted through the window glass and then...

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

The idea here, as explained by Dr. Stanz, is that the building itself is constructed to serve as a massive antenna for PK energy. Hence, a good number of the pink energy balls zip straight toward 55 Central Park West. Those that don't crave hotdogs, anyway.

Before (F.2) and after (F.3) images are offered purely to communicate what is happening in this shot: the wall explodes out, sending a cloud of gray dust and debris straight at the camera. Match cut to:

Fig. 4

A flock of pigeons suddenly taking flight in the foreground. They rise up and exit frame at the top and reveal Vinz Clortho in Louis Tully's clothes staggering around in the middle distance, watching them go.

Observations, mercifully brief:

-The student of editing clichés may know that a sudden cut to birds taking wing is not entirely unprecedented. Such theoretical birds are often reacting literally, metaphorically, or both to some kind of violent shock, e.g.— echoing gunshots and a cut to startled birds escaping Dealey Plaza punctuate the opening sequence of JFK (1991). HOWEVER! While "motivated" by the PKE-charged explosion, the Ghostbusters pigeons are different in essence. Again, no screencap quite captures kinetic release of this cut, but suffice to say the effect is that the wall explodes into a cloud of pigeons.

-This sequence is a chain of motion, where flocking chunks of energyball/brickwork/birds fly at the spectator. This is also part of an image system throughout the film in which, well, special effects fly at the camera. Obviously, in the twenty-six years since, this is an increasingly typical gimmick, and it was not really new in 1984. Rather than make a case for visual innovation or uniqueness here, I just wish to point out that this bit combos an optical effect (F.1) onto a pyro stunt (F.3) onto real live birds (F.4) to convey several story points.

-As the music cuts out, the final puzzle piece is laid, completing the story concerns driving this bit. Besides the ghostie hijinks, this sequence is about Zuul moving to the window in anticipation, sensing the arrival of Clortho. Vinz has been wandering the streets and looking to the skies, finally drawn to Spook Central by the swarming spiritual turbulence. The pigeon cut signals the moment that he knows exactly where to go. Now what is interesting? poignant? weird? to me about this story thread is the screenwriter's-delight irony surrounding Louis Tully. The Gatekeeper/Keymaster gag is memorable enough that it garnered a nod in one of those "Sex in Cinema" pieces in Playboy. As the paperback novelization puts it, "She was the Gatekeeper and his key was ready. They sank down in the embrace that had been foretold and blew the roof off the building." Good one, Richard Mueller.

What the film does not play up explicitly is the character dimension to this, in which the lovesick nerd has universe-ripping sex with his dream girl while they are both under the influence of demonic possession. There is a fair amount of this sort of understated irony in Ghostbusters, right down in its foundational concept. The film is set in a world beset by real supernatural menace but the protagonist, Peter Venkman, is the sort of sham parapsychologist that skeptical investigators like to make examples of. The point being only that the core jokes of Ghostbusters are somehow those that get the least attention in favor of, say, smelly ghosts eating ten hotdogs.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Two Zero Zero X: Favorite Films of the Decade Pt. 7 — 2006

Previously: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005...

Two quick notes, skippable for the disinterested. The Decade Review Revue continues because I always meant for it to take a long time, spread well past when your list-collating people are collating lists of such things. Not because we are now properly in a new decade — as a man once said, "Nobody likes a math nerd, Scully" — but because I enjoy this project and can take my time. See, reviewers and columnist types — those with niceties like editors, paychecks and readers — have to do constant pulse-taking and odometer-checking as they jog their beat. So right about now they're, what?, supposed to be writing about awards and/or festivals and/or generating think-pieces about, like, what celebrities wear to court. Daaamn, that's a harsh gig, but I ain't judgin', I'm just sayin'. Surely this is a stubborn exercise in what my sixth grade teacher politely called “divergent thinking” but the post-mortem on The 2000s is not done till we’ve weighed all the organs and sewn it back up.

One of the reasons the "Two Zero Zero X" lists take so long to write is that I make a point to investigate a lot of films from each year that I hadn't caught up with and rewatch anything I have not seen in awhile. So, logically, the more recent the year of inquiry, the less time I've had to see everything I'm interested in. But I'm finding that it doesn’t really matter. Gaze, for instance, at this original Best of 2006 round-up, and note that it doesn't look much different from a mash-up of the list below plus a couple of foreign film holdouts from 2005 and a couple of items that would show up on this 2007 list. We're entering territory largely already covered, since this journal's inception in 2005. So dread the upcoming day when I have to discover if I really have more to say about Grindhouse (2007!), but in the meantime, welcome to 2006, which isn't so different from last time we visited 2006...

The Exploding Kinetoscope — 10 Favorite Films of 2006

10. V for Vendetta (dir. James McTeigue, scr. Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, from the comic by Alan Moore and David Lloyd)

Well, you can draw this stuff, but that doesn't mean you can film it. The V for Vendetta comic that Alan Moore wrote between 1982 and 1985 extrapolates a political dystopia out of '80s Thatcherism and sets against it a sort of man-against-the-system freedom fighter missing link between archcriminal terrorist Fantômas and the proto-superheroics of The Shadow. It is an almost-direct-engagement of contemporary political situations by way of enlargement. The polemics on-page are located at the inflamed ends of a spectrum, which is the position from which, gods bless him, Moore always makes sociopolitical argument, which is to say that the comic is about Fascism v. Anarchy. The older and wiser Moore gets, the more he boils human power struggle down to these terms, which makes for compelling art and zero tolerance for, say, American and Australian filmmakers futzing around with his book. Multipurpose metaphor, of course, is how one builds things to last.

Of the transition from agitprop comic to the McTeigue/Wachowskis/Silver poli-sci-fi film, Moore offered the astute criticism that the metaphor has been remolded to a sort of contemporary American liberal response to neo-conservativism. This is, of course, meant as a complaint, but might as well be a compliment, because, Jesus, ain't that something? Joel Silver surely has his own peculiar voice as a producer, and the verdict may be iffy on the voice of Mr. McTiegue, but part of the Wachowski project thus far has been to dance a highly subversive ballet on the stage of the monolithic studio system without allowing the sundry associated pressures to interfere with their choreography. The decade's preferred commercial spectacle genres were superhero action and nerd fantasy literature adaptation, and, 2006 being Life During Wartime and a Dark Time for the Nation and Post-9-11 and all, V for Vendetta is rather a break in continuity in this pop art dialectic. It sprays graffiti on the broad, oppressive walls of Batman Begins, and, because it wears a mask, can walk right up and do its business in broad daylight.

9. Black Book (dir. Paul Verhoeven, scr. Verhoeven, Gerard Soeteman)

There is something of the same work being done in Black Book as in decade fellows The Pianist and Inglourious Basterds, in that cine-serious authors with hearty, ironic senses of humor have made deep-probe adventures set in non-battlefront corners of World War II, and largely in reaction to how the war is depicted and discussed at the movies. In their particular ways, Polanski, Tarantino and Verhoeven find their tendencies to puckish perversity roused by an interesting unresolvable tension: war, this war in particular, provides a marvelous toy chest with which to build stories, and is at the same time the most disgusting thing of which human beings are capable.

Black Book is then a sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark with the ark popped open at the beginning, and the whole adventure story scorched by punishing fire. Verhoeven and actress Carice van Houten go on an epic marathon run with heroine Rachel Stein as she tries to outrun the razing of the European landscape, hopping and dodging through story-modes and transforming from refugee to resistance fighter to girl spy to revenger. If John Rambo grunted that to survive war, you have to become war, here are a dozen variations on what he might have meant, and they all boil down to the constant, increasing moral compromise. Whatever you do to survive in the moment, you pay for later. Whoever is on top after the battle needs a scapegoat. If a principle is exhibited in this formula it is the conservation of mass: all that shit is going to end up dumped on somebody, over and over, forever and ever. If there are tips provided on how to survive the ordeal of existence, they are that once in awhile chocolate can save your life, and never climb into a coffin before it is your time. This is Man's Inhumanity to Man as action-adventure spectacle, and a Thrilling Survival Tale of the Enduring Human Spirit in which history is chronicled in one endlessly long black book.

8. Gumby Dharma (dir. Robina Marchesi)

Shucks, back in 2009 I had hoped Gumby Dharma, the epic-in-miniature biographical documentary about Art Clokey, would find a good distribution channel and lead to sudden widespread interest in Clokey's animation, and there would be a bunch of exciting articles about Gumby for me to read. None of this happened, and, worst of all, Art Clokey stopped motion on this plane of existence early last year, passing away on January 8, 2010 at the age of 88. The bulk of his work remains poorly represented on modern home video formats and Gumby Dharma has shown on the Sundance Channel and was finally released on video in March, 2010.

Documentaries about filmmakers and their work are in no short supply, and in sundry form litter the Special Features menus of a thousand DVDs. Gumby Dharma is automatically interesting for those who value Clokey’s work, but it also builds a case for its subject as a filmmaker worthy of study beyond just the recognizability of Gumby bendy toys. This work begins by telling Art Clokey's story without flinching, which means personal and professional triumphs are not inflated beyond their context, and death, drugs, disease, loss, abuse and bad behavior — those examples inflicted by Clokey or upon him — are met head-on. If that is not extraordinary for a 21st century documentary, please, please do not forget that we are still talking about Gumby cartoons, and that this is a story that has never been told with such depth and honesty. This is not to paint Gumby Dharma as some sort of scandalous exposé of Art Clokey; it is, rather, a complicated, naked, and ultimately joyous portrait of a man, an artist, an animator, a filmmaker.

Last time around, my notes focused on the film's excellent formal choices and valuable research and historical testimonies, and delicately rendered profile of Clokey. I do not want to lose sight of what I feel is Gumby Dharma's overriding thesis, which is that the animator possessed a unique vision of the world and was able to channel that into undulating, speaking, dancing clay. All that passion and pain, curiosity and fear, weirdness and love pulse through Gumby; Gumby skates and plays along the path, and he is the path, the ball of clay, the heart, the part, the enterable book, the blade of grass, the you.

7. A Scanner Darkly (dir. Richard Linklater, scr. Linklater from the novel by Philip K. Dick)

These things cannot be defined in tidy syllogisms or anything, and this isn't about, like, rules, man. But to help sort things out, we might say that: Obviously not all films about drugs are proper head movies. And at the risk of offending, what I'm talking about with this classification does not include a vast majority of stoner comedies, nor the sort of SFX-heavy audio-visual spectacles one might use as an in-home Laser Floyd show. A great head movie A) is about and/or is an investigation into consciousness expansion and/or warping, and/or B) examines, encapsulates, and/or explains the human experience with an eye that is part anthropological, part philosophical, part spiritual. Hints that the film might open up with a chemical key are optional. Whew!

A Scanner Darkly has those qualities, so by my count Richard Linklater has two fine head movies under his belt, and a handful of interesting experiments (the Before Sunrise/Set diptych and Waking Life, which are earnest almost-theres, Slacker, which plays better straight or very caffeinated, etc.) Where the beautiful and fuzzy-hearted Dazed and Confused wafts by on a Circle of Life/Family of Man buzz, A Scanner Darkly is paranoid, doomed, tragic, cottonmouthed. Fueled on dread, it is set entirely during that bad moment you are coming down, notice your fingernails are way too dirty, there is a stack of unwashed dishes in the sink, and maybe you're not coming down after all. So get this: undercover agent Bob Arctor goes so deep under that he ends up investigating himself, and watching with a detective's fascination as the twin serpents of Id and Superego begin uncoiling from their cosmic hula around the center pole. Do try this at home, but maybe not in public.

When last we saw Keanu Reeves on this journey, the effect was opposite: Neo staring back at the threshold of perception, seeing the code beneath the skin, and finally learning to sense the gold that unites it all — no glass, no scanner. If Robert Zemeckis' mo-cap freakout Beowulf accidentally captures the acid-vision nightmare that humans are weird-eyed puppet husks being jerked awkwardly around too-vivid sets, reenacting some kind of mythological parody, the computer rotoscoping of A Scanner Darkly serves a not dissimilar function. Here the stage is made vague or simplified with outlines and color planes, while the surface of the players players crawl and squirm; the whole world is covered with a thin metaphorical hide, a construct, a mask, a cartoon envelope that can't quite be peeled back but isn't quite telling the truth.

6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (dir. Gore Verbinski, prd. Jerry Bruckheimer, scr. Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio)

Curse of the Black Pearl reformed the theme park ride’s impressionistic story of skeletal pirates, hoarded gold and the wages of sin into particularly buoyant four-quad fantasy action adventure. With the scant narrative materials of the theme park source material used up, Dead Man's Chest scrapes up the unused themed visuals (fireflies), settings (bayou), and ambiance, then goes about the business of transforming the Pirates of the Caribbean series from a potential string of cast-connected sequels into a trilogy proper, and that is an exponentially more difficult exercise. That is, Dead Man's Chest has to connect forwards and backwards to make three scheduled films into a one massive three-chapter story. To illustrate the difficulty and ambition of that task, consider that while remembered as "trilogies," The Godfather is not built like this, Star Wars is not built like this, and so forth. Pirates is outsized, long-form original storytelling, whether it is "branded" as a concern of a major corporation or not. On the business end, where all films are merchandise, someone in a suit seems to have remembered that the merchandise is still art, that despite all their cruise lines and shopping mall emporiums, The Company is still in the business of stories and characters.

This is all simply to say that despite the increasingly pre-drinking-age milieu of the Summer Movie Game, the Pirates films are unusually committed to and serious about that game. They are crafted with the belief that an audience is invested in the tale and the world, so every nook, cranny, and cannon is crammed to the brim. Completely, seam-burstingly overstuffed, to be sure, but this middle chapter in particular is a Valu-Pak film; it's so much movie. There is faith here that this story should be dense and all subplots should intertwine and motivate each other, that sets should be rich with detail, every single character should grow or change or be tested — that each of them is someone's favorite player and so should have a hero's entrance, a crowning moment of cool, and a dramatic exit — and that half the spectacle is of actors acting. That makes it noisy and exhausting, but heartening next to most of its glib, insincere competition — say, Universal's Mummy movies.

Pirates is blessed with a glinting edge of perversity— an eye for grotesque design, admiration for mischief, a hard-on for the masochistic dimension of heroic sacrifice, and not a little bit of out-of-the-blue weirdness. It is far more sexed-up than Lord of the Rings, and more tripped-out than Harry Potter, breezier than both by several factors. If the comparison to fantasy-lit classics of their kind seems unfair (or unfounded), consider that Pirates is aiming exactly that high, and that ambition alone is pretty damn cool. With this installment, it becomes clearer that in its overstimulated noggin and wistful heart, this story is about mortality, about the death of imagination and adventure at the hands of global business expansion, cultural imperialism, colonization — about fun withering in the brutal sun of finance. In this light, that the Pirates of the Caribbean movie overlay onto Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride does a tragic disservice to both the park and the films can only be bitterly fascinating.

5. The Host (dir. Bong Joon-ho, scr. Bong, Baek Chul-hyun)

The monster is big, but could probably fit in your living room if you have high ceilings. We traditionally read human-size monsters as a warped Us or a feared Other, and the bigguns as metaphors for some pressing sociopolitical terror, both are favorite subjects for extensive probing with psychoanalytic theory, and fair enough to all that. The best of the best, from King Kong to Mothra Vs. Godzilla, Q — The Winged Serpent to Jurassic Park, find some magical way to make the ground-level, people-sized story as compelling as the beast rampage and about something besides mere survival. That is no mean feat.

The Host injects intense big monster mayhem into a droll dysfunctional family comedy, warping it into a search-and-rescue abduction suspenser as the Park family looks for their youngest member who has been swiped by the creature, and frames it all in Brazil-style paranoid government thriller. Somewhere near the center of this is another superlative performance by Song Kang-ho as Gang-du, the monster-napped child's scruffy nitwit slacker father. Song plays Gang-du something like Shaggy in mourning having lost Scooby, beginning with literal pratfalls and emotional slapstick, until the lovable cartoon dope is hardened and seasoned with hellfire, and somehow coming out on the other side as a lop-sided, smushy-hearted hero.

So we have here a daikaiju black comedy sprouting agitprop polyps and one can't really predict where it's going, what will happen next. This is not to say that The Host plays as a crazy quilt mash-up, or is as nuts as, say, #3 below, or dreams of being something other or "better" than a giant monster picture. Instead it dreams bigger, striving to be the best giant monster picture it can be.

4. The Notorious Bettie Page (dir. Mary Harron, scr. Harron, Guinevere Turner)

You don't get to be notorious all by your lonesome. "Notorious" is a reputation, and that requires observers to cast an opinion. It goes without saying that pinup models are the locus of much fantasy projection — that's pretty much what they're for. Besides the obvious, consider the imagination fuel of even innocuous swimsuit cheesecake photo. We might imagine the scenario suggested by the photo, or the circumstances of the photoshoot itself, the unseen photographer and the photographic apparatus. We imagine those body parts not on display, hidden by wardrobe or pose, imagine the dimensions not captured in 2D. We imagine the model in movement, imagine her voice, and imagine a personality onto the mute, frozen figure. When we look at Bettie Page, we project an imagined Bettie onto her.

Harron and screenwriting partner Turner begin The Notorious Bettie Page with a basic map of the strategy that will branch out through the film. Adult bookstore customers inquire about the selection of under-the-counter specialty photos ("unusual footwear" stuff, if that means anything to you), but in short order the shop is raided by cops: one trenchcoat crowd replaces another, and Bettie Page finds herself summoned before Senator Estes Kefauver's Senate subcommittee hearings on pornography and juvenile delinquency. So there we have it, two audiences hunting for the same photos but imagining their own Betties for their own reasons and to their own ends, and the flesh-blood-and-bangs Bettie the cause of it all, or tied up in the middle of it, or maybe just there and being Bettie.

Now any old model, real or invented, could potentially serve as subject here. Harron, Turner and Gretchen Mol — their flat-out sparkling, bubbling, fully-carbonated Bettie — never indicate for a moment that they've distilled the ultimate secret true story of their subject. Rather, the film suggests that any biography by its very existence imposes a narrative on the raw data of a life and creates a character in the process. To tell the story of Bettie Page is to make Bettie Page into a story. This, Notorious indicates, has its potential virtues and pitfalls, but is the process by which identity and legend are built.

It has to be Bettie, or at least she is a perfect subject. Page's latter-day immortality as cult pin-up is the reason this biopic exists, and that interest was stoked by the apparent mystery of What Became of Bettie Page? By the mid-'50s she'd become the most photographed model in the world. She worked in nearly every form of non-explicit adult photography, from Playboy centerfolds to 8mm catfight films to underground bondage photo clubs to burlesque revue movies. That's a lot of audience, a lot of imagined Betties. What Bettie Page meant in the middle of the 20th century is not what Bettie Page meant by the end of the century, by which time she'd become America's retro sex icon of choice, plastered on comics shop walls, motorbike gas tanks, and photobooks destined for the coffee tables of the très hip across the nation. That's a lot more audience, and more Betties. The interim is legend, speculation, rumors, stories. And where was Bettie? Unaware that this was happening, that anyone cared about antique nudie pictures, that so many ghost-Betties had come to life.

What The Notorious Bettie Page does that is so intelligent and kind — charitable, really — is suggest that all of our fantasies of Bettie Page — those sexual and political, those that would make her victim or legend, those that would see her in bondage or in angel wings — are legitimate and integral parts of her biography, and her extensive body of modeling work continues to fascinate and inspire, which is the legacy of that work. The photos and films, you can have. The story, whichever you prefer, you can have that too. But only Bettie Page lived the life, and that is not something to solve and explain. That, you don't get to have.

As she once said in Striporama (1953), her only speaking role on film, "I'm illusion!" "You mean you're not real?," gasp the baggypants comedians who would possess her. Replies Illusion Bettie: "Of course I'm real."

3. Brand Upon the Brain! (dir. Guy Maddin, scr. Maddin, George Toles, Louis Negin)

Guy Maddin — the character in Brand Upon the Brain! and director of Brand Upon the Brain! — puts a fresh coat of whitewash on the island lighthouse where he grew up, and feverishly reminisces about his childhood loves, traumas and love-traumas, dramatized as careening melodrama/mad scientist/teen detective/wild child/evil mother/incest romance/zombie horror/steampunk melodrama and made in the style of, um, a Soviet montage/German expressionist/Hollywood silent comedy/abstract cheesecake peepshow. That's all literal as it is metaphorical, and though this is poetic interior autobiography and rumination on the nature of Memory and Self, nothing could be more accessible: it's sex-fixated and silly, the plot never stops moving for five seconds and it's a knee-slapper front to back. No doctors or lit majors need to assist with the decoding, as the plum-syrup narration will do it for you, and it's impossible to be inscrutable when everything is on the table.

Maddin's lighthouse is famously stocked with out-of-fashion early cinema, pulp fiction and avant-garde clutter, but fret not, all you have to do is experience the sight of how that stuff branded his brain, and learn in short order what is so special about all that moldy old stuff. Maddin is, in these blatant ways forever fetishistically gazing at a silver-emulsioned past, a memory eating itself up like nitrocellulose decomposition, but is also forward-thinking, evolutionary. Everybody and their mom knows how to psychoanalyze a filmmaker based on how he frames a shot, can pick out Major Themes from table setting mis-en-scène, and knows which props are phallic and which ones criticize American foreign policy. So what if, asks Guy Maddin, we start with the assumption that this work is already done, and set archetypes and personal symbols on a romp through a story-space that purports to dive straight into the psychosexual miasma of the artist's head? The result is a wholly original breed of comedy, an exciting new kind of storytelling, and cliché-decimating entertainment built entirely out of clichés so disused you've never seen them before.

2. The Black Dahlia (dir. Brian De Palma, scr. Josh Friedman from the novel by James Ellroy)

Certain crimes — big, terrifying, era-defining crimes, mainly — speak to us with layered voices, at first seeming to be manifestations of some core societal fear, but ultimately telling us more about what we are afraid of than actually confirming those dangers, prejudices and myths. e.g., in the moment it can appear, through spin or sincere interpretation, that the Manson Family crime spree confirmed dark fears about hippie culture, drugs, rock music, California. Certainly those events and those figures spoke to a significant portion of the population in exactly that way. But those crimes were so singular, Manson himself so exceptional, the scene so one-of-a-kind that, really, it doesn’t say such a thing at all. In that case, we’re left with a tragedy about this particular nutjob con man, his brainwash victims and their subsequent non-symbolic coincidental murder victims. This is not a cozy thought, but in the ensuing hysteria and excitement Charles Manson is given a constant public forum, and the families of victims are forever caught in this ugly saga. That Family of victims extends on out along this fractal arm, from Roman Polanski in the micro to the entire Love Generation in the macro. When this feedback loop is turned up loud enough, somewhere in the mix Manson’s code-speak bilious rants end up being made true: you wanted a Devil, he’ll be your Devil.

After the tawdry facts of a crime, and beyond the personal aftermath for survivors, the further tragedy is in the myth-making. If we’re adept at keeping our eye on the birdie, the underlying theme tends to be how good the media is at finding an angle to sell a story. Even if we’re dealing with the Kennedy assassinations, 9/11/01 or Jeffery Dahmer, data points are not a story: you need a narrative hook. The big ones leave us all scarred, even if that mark is only across the imagination. So:

Meanwhile, over in the vacant lot on Norton Avenue, Elizabeth Short is transfigured in death into The Black Dahlia. And that particular body, with those particular memory-searing, picturesque mutilations, might have captured public imagination for a few weeks, but that’s not The Story. The Legend of the Black Dahlia is that this poor Massachusetts girl wanted to be in pictures, and ended up in pieces. That seems to say something; about this untamed town that wants to be a desert; about this Boulevard of Dreams littered with the shards of broken would-be starlets; about a Dream Factory that is really a high stakes business running on the blood of pretty young things; about a Tinsel Town adorned with razor wire.

That would be the legend, of course, and it’s a good one — so good that its whirlpool sucks down L.A. “supercop” and local celebrity pugilist Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart, doing impotent moron in meltdown like a champ). Poor sap only lasts, what? A week?, so caught up is he in dead white girl mania and troubling, circling questions that are not beside the point, but not conducive to solving the crime. What is this strange system by which starry-eyed women offer themselves up to men with money and cameras? Is this germane to the question that James Ellroy says is at the heart of this mystery, which is: why do men kill women? We note here, that this is the kind of thing that Short's murder makes one think about. Blanchard can't reconcile the black alchemy that discards the bodies and leaves the immortal part on a screen and made of light. He can't make it add up, and as is the hotheaded flatfoot's fate, ends up pursuing the Dahlia into Hell — that is, his throat slit and body fed into the furnace by his mob-connected informant. Blowing out of this world as a spectacular, blinding, horrifying supernova is no substitute for the dream of being a star.

After all is said, done and revealed, Blanchard was scrambling through life to protect an image. His fancy home is funded with stolen money, his career accomplishments puffed up, his promotions earned for their P.R. value, his fame-making boxing win a rigged fight, his live-in girlfriend poses well on his arm but he isn't sleeping with her. In his main squeeze, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson who, you know, poses well and adequately fills out an angora sweater), Blanchard has built a perfect rescue narrative; she's an ex-prostitute-gone-gold-hearted, and he helped her go straight. His motivations are not just covering up his culpability, living a lie or faking it till he makes it. He protects the ones with a good Story.

This is the guy who is "supposed to be the hero," as per the real protagonist, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett wearing a hat), who holds an ice pack to his aching skull as his partner's corpse is fed into the inferno. Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice, then, promotional nicknames invented by the LAPD, which ostensibly describe their boxing styles, more or less indicate their personalities ("I can't move! I never move!" wails glacial Bucky), and indeed one rages and one is slow to thaw. But it's bullshit, too. "You're a political animal!," the Deputy D.A. chastises the broken-down Blanchard. So are they all, and for the Bucky and Lee it means they're pawns, moved to Homicide and put on the Short case because they're the Supercops. Don't you read the papers? They're characters in someone else's story.

If Bucky is tortured by Beth Short at first, it is because the media ruckus over the dead white woman — whose link to The Industry is not even a whisper of a dream, whose movie-derived nickname is entirely posthumous and newspaper-invented — is drawing him away from important cases he could be closing. And maybe, he tells Lee, this Beth Short wasn't such a nice girl. i.e., the crime needs solving, certainly, but maybe it needn't be glorified, made legend. As Charles Manson often points out, he wasn't shit until you put all those TV cameras on him. But.... there stands Kay in her underwear, and sliced into her back are the initials B.D. As it happens, that stands for "Bobby DeWitt," her old pimp. It stands, symbolically, naturally for Black Dahlia. That doesn't go away when you blink. "Who are these men who carve themselves into other people's lives?" the V.O. ponders, and as serendipity would have it, B.D. are the initials of a renowned director of thrillers, horror pictures and neo-noirs who happens to be directing the scene.

The tale connects Paul Leni's Expressionist melodrama The Man Who Laughs (1928) — a horror film for all intents and purposes — with a (fictional) stag reel starring Short. In direct connection, both are shot on the same set (a frankly insane conceit), the former inspiring the later, a beautiful link in the film's chain of mouth trauma that begins with Bucky's symbolic castration when he loses his choppers in the boxing ring. It is a chart of cinematic lineage, as well, in which German avant-garde technique moves overseas and mingles with hardboiled detective fiction, and the resultant new genre baby eventually grows up and Brian De Palma falls in love with it and has to make The Black Dahlia. In these and sundry other ways, De Palma implicates and investigates himself among those who mythologize this crime specifically, but more generally cleave bodies on screen and burn images onto imaginations.

Bucky solves this one, insofar as he learns the details of Elizabeth Short's death. He follows the money, of course. And all are implicated — De Palma and Mack Sennett and the men with the cameras, media and politicians, institutions and underlings, gardeners and carpenters. By the end, Bucky finds the housing development under the Hollywoodland sign was built of rotten wood and hides a film set with a murder shed out back. The very city itself is a façade constructed of corrupt materials. He might've guessed earlier, when the unstable town vibrates in an earthquake. When we leave Bucky, he's still hearing the crows, still seeing that body on every empty lawn. The facts and the legend are both etched on him now. The big ones leave us all scarred.

The citizens of this Los-Angeles-as-black-hole play at being human beings, covering their faces with flimsy masks to indicate profession, social strata, gender, identity and character (arche-?stereo-?)type. The faster they put on their costumes, the faster they are ripped away by the howling void swirling at the center of The Black Dahlia. It is blacker than black in there, so black we need the French to name it. We call it noir.

More on Bucky in Noir-land, symbol-chains and metafic here.

1. INLAND EMPIRE (dir., scr. David Lynch)

David Lynch's shot on video horror movie tops the very short shortlist of that lowly genre's unabashed masterpieces. It is not as bizarre spectacle as Boardinghouse nor as depraved and feverish as Splatter Farm, but it has many fine qualities and is scarier. INLAND EMPIRE was received, ignored, and criticized in a manner that means mounting a defense, writing a simple appreciation and beginning a cursory exploration all amount to the same thing. Insofar as INLAND EMPIRE is a difficult work, three roadblocks typically greet those having difficulty, and rather than demerits, they are simply its qualities. 1) INLAND EMPIRE is a piece unabashedly shot on digital video, and arriving in theaters with the announcement that Lynch has no future plans to shoot on film. 2) INLAND EMPIRE announces itself as a narrative feature and contains abundant plot information but is firmly rooted in modes of avant-garde cinema that include the non-narrative and entirely abstract. 3) The narrative of INLAND EMPIRE is consistently oblique, but explicitly links itself to mystery stories. It seems to offer thousands of clues and few conclusions. At its most explicit it seems to suggest that it might be solved, at its most opaque it seems to suggest that something crucial and meaningful is being missed.

Speaking of solutions, these problems are all, naturally, intertwined. If there is any help to be found below, I would suggest instead that perhaps if you are sitting in front of INLAND EMPIRE with your eyes pointed at the screen, then you do understand INLAND EMPIRE. Unless your eyes are closed.

Lynch often foregrounds the materials used in the creation of his art — like a Jackson Pollack drip painting, the fabric and construction is the subject. Even his figural paintings are dollopped with paint and scribbled on, flat-planed and collaged. Think of the puppet robin meant as real in Blue Velvet or his film-loop-on-sculpture "Six Men Getting Sick" or the incandescent "Premonitions of an Evil Deed", a stunt film of poetry and prowess shot on a Lumière camera. INLAND EMPIRE is boldly, proudly a video project, exploiting and exploring those things only video can do. The result is Lynch's most abstract feature since The Straight Story (1999) and most experimental since Industrial Symphony No. 1 (1990). That is, a true experiment of the let's-see-what-happens variety, this one exploring the visual qualities and editorial rhythms of consumer grade digital video, and in shooting hours and hours of scenes with no master blueprint for assembly.

How to Watch INLAND EMPIRE may be, as Roger Ebert once opined of Dune, to let it wash over you like a dream. This is, in this case: don't fight it. It is the same advice Lynch gave critic Martha Nochimson when they looked at a Pollack together: you do understand it, he told her, I saw your eyes moving across the painting. To engage that dream any more analytically will find one scrambling for purchase, just as in a dream or maybe as when trying to explain one. Some things that happen, you're at a loss to articulate, some are intuitively understood. Anyhow we're squarely (well, asymmetrically) on the shoulders of Laura Dern as actress Susan Blue, who is warned off making the film On High in Blue Tomorrows, and then walking alongside Susan playing Nikki Grace, who is perhaps her own person or several people. An issue that frequently arises when discussing Lynch's film is that the filmmaker finds increasingly sophisticated ways to preserve what he loves about Mysteries, and that love is not in the solving but of luxuriating in Mystery itself. As Sandy asks Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, "you like mysteries that much?" And Jeffrey answers: yes. So analytical language will be wrongheaded at worst, coy-sounding at best. It is not that Lynch films can't be written about, but the task is like tracing letters in smoke or drawing diagrams on wet paper with a fountain pen filled with perfume. And yet, here we are.

This free-associative ebb and flow creative process births a work about a film struggling to be born — or perhaps resisting its creation — and documents the challenge put forth to Laura Dern. Never positive during shooting where her character had been, or where she was going, Dern is ultimately playing an actress grappling with a role. This is a film of linking and connection, disparate geographies, identities, chronologies that peer at one another through torn membranes, down dark hallways, through burn holes in fabric, ruptures in spacetime. Passageways are important in Lynch's work, and all of the films contain a signature movement/image in which the camera descends/dives/probes/is-sucked-into a mysterious black hole: moving deeper into Another Place. In Lost Highway, Fred Madison wanders into a dark corner of his windowless home and emerges somewhere in his own echo chamber head. Blue Velvet famously tilts down from the sky, dives underground, enters a severed ear, reemerges from a reconnected ear and gazes back to the heavens. INLAND EMPIRE is a series of tunnels sliding into one another, connecting back on themselves.

Susan Blue's task is to fully understand Nikki Grace, and to do so she ventures all the way inside and inside out — for Susan to understand and become Nikki, she'll have to plumb the mystery of herself. Along the journey she finds and embodies a replicating chain of Lost Women, ventures all the way to the heart of the universe to find the most lost of souls, and in the end perhaps she does not fix everyone, but finds them. Susan gathers the lost to her and they rejoice.

And these are the keys to INLAND EMPIRE, but there are so, so many keyholes to be tested. Like Mulholland Dr. on back to Eraserhead, INLAND EMPIRE begs to be played with, have its pieces shifted, riddles catalogued and links tested. The puzzle-solver is not on a fool's errand, but is engaging INLAND EMPIRE as designed: playing an infinite game.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Providence's Garbage Can

The ninth season The X-Files two-parter "Provenance"/"Providence" is pretty much the series' last great Mythology installment, the remaining eight episodes being half done-in-ones and half housekeeping before closing up shop. So not the last of the Mythology, but the last of the story's forward upward thrusting momentum. The plot backbone of "Providence" has Baby William in extreme peril while captured by UFO nuts (who actually have a UFO!), and Scully being rude and closed off as she has been all year, trying to be supercop, scientist, protector, nurturer and mother to the Christ child ALL AT ONCE. She is cracking up, and her laconic chronic-masturbator BFF is still in hiding! As final battle cries go, this one rather has it all, or anyway has the best of the many pleasures of Season Nine for those helpless to its charms. An infant rescued from a flaming pit, Bible quotes, people not appreciating the Lone Gunmen's free services, Deputy Director Kersch being a tightass, A.D. Brad Follmer being an unctuous snot, and some weirdo baby-stealing motherfuckers getting burnt up by a spaceship!

These are just pictures of heads, and this is still the best-looking TV show.

Since something feels "important" about this one, there are a lot of beautiful giant-head heroic close-ups of the cast which seem to highlight their unforgettable faces with a kind of, I dunno, mythic aura. In these: Agent Reyes looks huge-featured, like a lioness, glowing and wide-hearted and a little manic. Poor Agent Doggett is stuck in a in a coma, of course, because 1) The X-Files puts everyone in a coma, usually several times, and 2) this show especially loves to hospitalize Doggett. Conscious and unconscious, he is chiseled and wound-eyed — a wood-carved self-flagellating saint! The B-story, such as it is, revolves around prayers and temptations offered in the tiny hospital chapel, all interesting but not the point of this missive.

A.D. Skinner is naturally gritting his teeth, glaring and/or pursing his lips through all of this. That is often Skinner's usefulness as a sort of surrogate for the potentially frustrated viewer — okay, I bought this and this, helped with X and Y, and now you're telling me Z? Come on already. So in the scene below, a task force has been assembled to retrieve Baby William, but Scully storms out because she doesn't trust Follmer and Kersh. After a confrontation with Skinner over this matter, Scully strides off to the elevators to pursue the matter through alternate channels and Skinner watches her go. This is not our last glimpse of the stoic Assistant Director by any means, but the shot in question has a stamped home, iconic quality, sums up this aspect of the relationship between Skinner and his X-Files teams: Scully needs to be unencumbered by traditional investigative technique, and Skinner is sympathetic but entrenched in the institutional culture of the FBI. That is why he is both useful to and forever divided from the X-Files. A nice minor but meaningful image, of Skinner alone in the corridor...

... or it would be, if there weren't a crew dude wearing shorts crouching behind the garbage can. A gaffe that flashes by but gives the shot a bit of dissonance — the first time I noticed it something just seemed off, and on rewinding it fully creeped me out. The point of the shot is that Skinner is left by himself, yet it is not at all outside the realm of The X-Files' themes that a faceless someone might be spying on a conversation. Here is A.D. Walter Skinner, a man of fidelity, bravery and integrity, who, despite it all, wants to believe in the FBI even if he is the last of his kind within its walls. And here is someone who should not be there, concealed by garbage, tucked in the corner, watching it all.

This is the typo that enriches the text.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taxi Schwarzwald

 Blonde Venus, 1932, dir. Josef von Sternberg

Suspiria, 1977, dir. Dario Argento

Two images of hired autos in the German wilderness, or, as Herbert Marshall says in just before the top image: "As I live and breathe, a taxicab in the middle of the Black Forest!"

Now, while Sternberg centers a light comedy scene around the parked taxi (that's a 27-year-old Sterling Holloway as a nerd in a goofy hat, pestering the brusque German driver), Argento's cab is on what I believe Wesley Willis might refer to as a "Hellride." These are not by any means the first shots in their respective films, but both are key mini-/sub-scenes in the films' opening sequences. Certainly they are very different scenes about taxis in the Black Forest, from very different films by very different (but secretly not-so-different) filmmakers, but they are also doing some similar duties, those odd parallels that concern us below.

As Tim Lucas points out in this fine little piece, a) Suspiria's cab ride is not the first interesting scene and b) the section in which the car passes through the Black Forest is all about these trees (also the music), one of which bears the lightning-thrown, inexplicable shadow of a knife-wielding hand just before the car slides out off screen. Incidentally, that sickle shadow is there not just because of its association with Cronus or as chibi version of the Grim Reaper's scythe; the curve-bladed boline is of the type used in actual ritual magic. In real life these are rarely, if ever, used for cutting up ballerinas.

The first scenes proper:
Blonde Venus begins with a group of young women bathing in a pool under the titles, then has a half-page scene of Joe (Holloway) bitching about the length of the hike and bumming a smoke from his companions before they stumble upon the taxi. Suspiria, of course, opens at the airport where Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) "arrived in Germany at 10:40 p.m. local time." So Suspiria's car is carrying its heroine, after she has some difficulty hailing a cab in the thunderstorm. In Blonde Venus the scene is about how these boys are not able to hire the taxi because the group of actresses currently splashing in the pond has rented it for the day. One of those ladies is Helen (Marlene Dietrich) who will effectively become the heroine, even if we don't know it yet. Point being only that the taxis are hired by the respective female protagonists of each story.

Now, using both my entirely inept trip-planning skills and highly developed make-believe skills, it seems that the closest international airport to Freiburg is actually in France. Since Suzy clearly lands in Germany, the two closest candidates are Baden Airpark and Stuttgart (as Lucas points out, this was not shot at a real airport). Obviously we don't know exactly where the fictional Tanz Akademie is located in the geography of the city. However, just for laughs, let us pretend the school shares an address with the Haus zum Walfisch (House of the Whale) that provides its exterior and that Suzy arrives at one of the above airports. According to Google Maps, at best, she's an hour from Freiburg. Maybe we're only witness to part of this cab ride, then. But I don't think so...

As is communicated with some difficulty between Suzy and her cabbie, the Tanz Akademie is situated on Escher Straße: perhaps you can get there any way you choose, perhaps you can never quite get there. The taxi takes an infinite path, an impossible path. In later scenes characters are able to quickly move from the Akademie to perfectly urban parts of the city — first victim Pat and blind pianist Daniel both do so. As it happens, Haus zum Walfisch is only blocks from the forest. But the effect in this opening sequence, which transitions straight from the woods to a shot of the school framed to block out surrounding buildings, is that the Akademie is set deep inside the forest. Parallel to Blonde Venus, in which dialogue situates the action some ten miles from the next town: the taxis are conveyances into fairyland.

With color schemes inspired by Disney's Snow White, and more importantly a primal, cruel logic that makes no sense to the brain but too much sense to the guts, Suspiria's fairy tale underpinnings and overtones are fairly apparent to anyone wandering into its path. What with all the taxicabs and prog rock, it might be difficult to ascribe an Aarne-Thompson folktale index number to Suspiria (for those unfamiliar, that's nothing fancier than the industry standard for cataloging folktale themes and types. If you don't have a copy, er, don't worry about it). It is probably closest to an AT 327 variant ("Hansel and Gretel" being AT 327A, for example), with a slew of selections from the Motif Index. I think it is not entirely unrelated to those "neck riddle" stories found under AT 851 "The Princess Who Cannot Solve the Riddle": Suzy, as per Argento tradition, is offered a riddle in the beginning that she does not even recognize as a riddle until it is time to solve it at the end.

Blonde Venus is also a fairy tale. Or at least that might be an instructive way of looking at it. It is not unusual for Sternberg's singular way with ornate mise en scène and Old World grotesquery to lend a certain storybook quality to his films anyway, and Venus takes as a motif the retelling of its own narrative as a bedtime story.

The plot here goes that on that fateful hike, American student Ned Faraday (Marshall) discovers music hall star Helen bathing in that pond. They marry and domestic bliss ensues until Ned discovers he is slowly dying, having been poisoned by his laboratory work with radium. Naturally he needs an Expensive Medical Procedure, and Helen is forced back into nightclub singing. With swift inevitability, she finds the fastest way to procure the cash is to sell herself to well-heeled cad Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), and long story short, ends up a Fallen Woman and takes off cross-country, with Ned in pursuit of his abducted son. During those early scenes of the Faradays' happy home life, a family tradition is depicted in which the parents jointly recount their cutely met romance to put their son to sleep, reframing the events in fairy tale terms (e.g. — Helen is a "princess" and the surly cabbie a "dragon in an automobile"). This storytelling is, eventually, also the means by which the couple reconciles. Within the story, then, Blonde Venus is explicitly tied to fairy tales and variant retellings.

I recount the plot as a frame of reference, because it seems to me a vague variation on the "Swan Maiden" tale (Aarne-Thompson type 400) with a focus on the story from the Swan Maiden's point of view. In skeletal form, that goes: Hunter (a king, often) enters the woods, finds an enchanted lake wherein swims a magical swan. She turns into a woman — this often happens as the hunter swipes her feathered robe while she swims, and he will not return it — they marry and reproduce. Through some means — usually the playing children reveal the secret hiding place, or a Gypsy pulls some maniacal Gypsy stunt (I know, I know) — the swan maiden gets her feather robe back, and flies away. An impossible pursuit is required should the husband wish to reclaim the Swan bride. Sometimes he embarks on the quest, sometimes not, but if so, it often ends with the task of identifying the Maiden among a group.

Taking it from the top, in the Black Forest Ned threatens Helen with the very prank that nets the Swan Maiden. Her Swan-ness here is, on the level of surface transposition, her nightclub singing — so read: her association with that glamorous but debauched world and identity as an artist. One level down, this is tied up with sexual freedom, but on the deepest level, down where the Swan has always been paddling, this is about freedom from male control. Sternberg's complicated relationship with Dietrich is one of cinema's great living kōans, where universes are built and destroyed, gods created and desecrated in the course of single shots. In his hands/in her thrall, he makes her/she is a figure of identification, an effigy of contemplation, an ideal and a demon-goddess. The Sternberg-Dietrich dialectic is beyond love-hate. In Blonde Venus, all sympathies are with Helen as men try to define her, buy her, own her, push her out of society, pursue her, but ultimately cannot live without her. When a detective tracking Helen questions her devotion to her child's welfare, in one of those chilling defining moments she casually scoffs "What does a man know about mother love?" Don't need you, don't need your world! Times like this, it seems Helen ought to head back to that magic pond and leave this mess behind.

She doesn't, quite, not physically, but returns metaphorically to where she began, reuniting her family mainly through that mythologized version of their shared history in which she is a princess and her son springs forth from a kiss; she resurrects — or retreats back into — the folktale. If this is uneasy, a cop-out, a betrayal of character, triumph or a tragedy, well, why pick one? Meanwhile, at the dance school across the way, Suzy Bannion faces down the nightmare, stabs it in the neck, and burns it to the ground. This closes as she staggers in the direction where there once was a forest, in one of those patented Argento closing shots of someone who just went through Hell and just may have snapped in the process. So both Blonde Venus and Suspiria, like any mysteriously powerful folktale, end with all the definitiveness of a Thematic Apperception Test, which is to say none at all.

As Suzy leaves the Akademie, it has begun to rain once more, and though we seem to have driven for miles on Escher St., we are back where we came in.

Once upon a time
two taxis drove into the Black Forest
where they dropped off two women
and then the trouble began.