Tuesday, May 31, 2011



...was supposed to lead to something, some grand new form of Hollywood Gothic, classic horror stories of vast ambition and bold artistry. What it led to instead was this:

Zoinks, indeed. Another of Coppola's big dreams down the toilet (technically, the petering out happened a bit more slowly, as Coppola would go on to produce Sleepy Hollow and a TV version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but Burton's film -- which I like -- is simply Burton doing what he does, and it's very much not any kind of reinvigoration of the classics, as the Stoker and Shelley films were meant to be). It's not as if the former was any kind of great shakes to begin with, but the latter really is massively alarming. And yet I keep returning to both, but particularly, at least in my head, the latter. I don't know what it is. It's true that when I was younger, I loved both films, but then I grew up, and even if plain old common sense and earned wisdom wasn't enough to turn me agape, in a bad way, at Branagh's massacre, reading Mary Shelley sure enough was. So really, I should simply recoil. But every five years or so, I go back to it.

I can only assume this is because of the potential it represents, or represented. Now it only represents folly, of a particularly shirtless variety, but at the time it was supposed to be the next step in a new wave of stylish, cerebral, big budget horror. Maybe it's just that I sometimes like to wallow in the ridiculous excess (I do, up to a point). But mainly I watch it with the thought that it would be very, very nice if the movie didn't suck so bad. The trouble is that I'm well past the point where I'm able to fantasize about the film growing on me, or revealing its genuine quality that the blinders of critical consensus had kept me from seeing. So the disc goes in the player with a weary sigh now. But even as a not-at-all-good version of what it was trying to be, I still like that it tried to be it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Lost Ones

The really frustrating thing to people like me, and I assume you, aren't films like London After Midnight that been been destroyed, wiped off the face of the Earth by fire and other forms of bad luck, or films that sound fantastic but never got made for one reason or another, like Charles Laughton's The Naked and the Dead. To me, "frustration" implies that a certain amount of hope exists, and in those cases the film is simply gone forever, or was never made in the first place. Whatever longing you might feel to see them comes closer, I think, to nostalgia than actual frustration. No, what's frustrating are movies that were made, are out there, can be seen, have been seen, but not by you because of some legal mess, or indifference, or ignorance. I'm talking about films that aren't lost, but rather hiding.

Recently, I was very fortunate to be able to see one such film, Peter Lorre's sole credit as a director, Der Verlorene, or The Lost One. Filmed in Germany in 1951, it features Lorre first as a kindly, efficient doctor in a refugee camp and then, in a flashback to 1943 as a quiet Nazi scientists who is slowly revealed to be a psychopath. Der Verlorene is a strange film, its story occasionally oblique, but in such a way that doesn't leave the viewer lost, but rather uncertain. It somehow manages to be a story of post-war Germany, a film noir, a spy film, and a serial killer film without ever inducing whiplash, and it boasts a final image for the ages. If you wanted to program a triple feature of The Serpent's Egg, The Great Dictator and Der Verlorene, then you could probably go ahead and do that. Why Der Verlorene is missing, or hiding, I don't know. Apparently there's a German DVD -- there must be, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to see it -- and it has been screened in America, for instance at the Film Forum in 1984 (a screening that led Vincent Canby to call the film "a curiosity". Okay, well, thanks), but otherwise the English-speaking world (or the Spanish, or the French, I'd guess) can't be bothered, apparently.

Sometimes these films aren't even hiding. For many years, I imagined that Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies would simply be unavailable, due to its controversial nature. For at least some of those years, this was no doubt the case, but for I-don't-know-how-long, Titicut Follies has in fact been available on DVD, mainly through Wiseman's own website. I got my own copy not through the site, but in the lobby of the IFC Center in New York, when I was up there a few weeks ago. So "hiding in plain sight" might be a better description of the status of Titicut Follies.

But what of Michael Reeves' The Sorcerers (once released on DVD in England, now out of print)? Joseph Losey's remake of M? Fassbinder's adaptation of Nabokov's Despair? Or Der Verlorene again, which I only saw because of this network of blogs I'm a part of, and comments left at one that I'd almost forgotten about until I received a surprising e-mail? This stuff has a tendency to go in cycles, of course -- Salo was one of these for many years, but Criterion "corrected" that (I'm glad it's available, but I have a hard time sounding too positive about it). The major films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, too -- I remember reading about those on an old, early internet film discussion board, and first seeing El Topo when I rented a bootleg of the Japanese laserdisc from a video store in Norfolk, VA, but all those movies are available in handsome DVDs now. It must be a pisser for those sorts of video stores when being able to provide even a shitty copy of El Topo no longer makes them special, but frankly I'm ready for all that specialness to be wiped away. I know there's a certain element who mourns the day when you really had to dig for this stuff, far more than you do now, so the people who found it were the ones who really cared. Well, I really care. I can care my ass off all day long and still not be able to see Losey's M, though. That's the frustration. You can care and care and care, and you can read about people who have seen one of these movies you've been tracking forever, and they'll say "Yeah, I saw that" like it's fucking nothing, and you won't be any closer to seeing it for yourself because it's simply out of your hands.

Der Verlorene was dropped into my hands, though, and for that I'm grateful. It's an elegant, weird, and bleak little struggle with one country's recent history by a man who'd fled that country, his home, long ago, and I'm very glad I got to see it. I hope this experience has set some sort of precedent.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Humanity Was Kicked Around Somewhat

Included in the vastly informative booklet of old and new essays that accompanies the Criterion release of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (due in stores this Tuesday) is Chaplin's own defense of his film, specifically the slightly problematic climactic speech, printed originally in 1940 in the New York Times. In that essay, Chaplin says:

There is always a kind of praise or a kind of criticism that can't be quarreled with or argued about. "It's funny" or "It isn't funny." Who knows except you? Even the laughter may fool you. "It's beautiful" or "It isn't beautiful." We are a democracy; we are allowed a difference of opinion, and every single, blessed one of us is right. Thank heaven for that!

Chaplin is taking a rather more accepting attitude towards criticism than I imagine he actually possessed, but the first part, about something being funny or not funny and that reaction being unique to each individual, is something that has been latched onto by the defenders of any given comedy ever since (and likely long before). The idea is, if an audience laughs, they think it's funny, and therefore it is funny, and so comedy is a more subjectively judged artform than pretty much any other artform you might name. Well, that's horseshit. By the logic just outlined, if I cry at a movie, that film is emotionally powerful, or if I get scared by a horror movie, it's a good horror movie, or if I etc. at a movie, that movie succeeds at being etc. In short, if anyone feels the emotion the filmmaker wants you to feel, then the film is good. And so it is, to me (or you). But criticism is supposed to grapple with, among other things, why a thing works or doesn't, and the widespread attempt to remove comedy from this process with a kind of "Ah, what can you do?" shrug is nonsensical at its core, and even patronizing towards comedy, in that this attitude assumes that there is no such thing as a good joke or a bad joke, but only jokes that make you laugh, or don't.

The Great Dictator often seems regarded as a comedy only in a technical sense, because the film's remarkable historical stature has nearly overwhelmed everything else about it. But it really is a comedy, through and through (the excellent DVD commentary on the Criterion disc, by Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, thankfully provides a complete picture of the film, which includes Chaplin's general approach to comedy and how he applies and executes it in The Great Dictator). Few scenes go by without some sort of gag -- at one point, a transitional shot of Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin's Adolf Hitler substitute, simply walking through a room includes a fluidly comic pratfall -- and the film is classically structured around a series of comedic set-pieces: the slapstick WWI opening, Hynkel's absurd German-gibberish speech, the Jewish barber's (also Chaplin) initial abuse by the German police which includes his famous dazed dance down the street after being accidentally clonked on the head by a frying pan-wielding Paulette Goddard, and so on. And then there's the variety: slapstick, puns, one liners, surrealism, scatology. The result is that The Great Dictator is a sprawling comedy epic of the kind you almost never see anymore, and when you do you often wish you hadn't.

But it can never be forgotten that The Great Dictator is also a film with -- shudder -- a "point", though in this case that is vitally important to Chaplin's success. For one thing, rarely has a point been more worth making, in any venue. Made in 1940 after the nightmare of Hitler's Germany was in full swing, but before America had entered the war, The Great Dictator manages to somehow be both zany and unblinking (at least within reason, if that qualifier doesn't sound like too much of a contradiction) of Hitler's, or Hynkel's, savage crimes. Many of Chaplin's jokes are downright audacious in their blackness. Take the moment when Chaplin's barber is about to be hanged from a lamppost, following a series of physical comedy hijinks that echo the much more light-hearted antics between the Little Tramp and the police in City Lights. It's all a lot of fun, but then they are going to lynch him. Not only that, but when a kindly German officer named Schulz (Reginald Gardiner) stops the lynching, the barber, who has been strung up off the ground by this point, drops out of frame, and this is played for laughs. And not only that, but it's funny.

The jokes that flow from the palace scenes, that is the scenes that directly involve Chaplin's version of Hitler, can be downright shocking (and, as I mentioned, surreal; Hynkel's manic scamper up the curtain is positively Lynchian). Some of the shock comes from historical context, not just of the war and the Holocaust, but in regards to what was considered generally permissible in Hollywood at the time. The pay-off to the bullet-proof uniform gag, for instance, or the parachute hat, which is played with terrific quiet by Chaplin and Billy Gilbert, whose robust performance as Herring, Chaplin and Hynkel's Goering, is one of the film's secret weapons (as is Henry Daniell as Garbitsch, whose horrific nature is highlighted by the fact that he doesn't get any jokes). Gilbert actually has the film's single best line, when he can barely contain his excited joy as he tells Hynkel about this "wonderful new poison gas" that's just been discovered. "It will kill everybody!" he enthuses. It's a joke that cuts out the middle man in a way that Dr. Strangelove, The Great Dictator's wiseass younger brother, never quite allows itself to try.

Meanwhile, of course, there's the film's most famous scene, which shows Hynkel dancing with a balloon made to look like a globe of the planet it is Hynkel's dream to conquer. It's a virtuoso scene, funny and strange and elegant. There's an uneasy beauty to it that would later be reproduced, in a much different way, decades later in the "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" number from Cabaret. In the DVD commentary, Dan Kamin claims -- rightly, in my view -- that Chaplin never tops this moment...well, this moment, and the one that immediately follows, a barber scene between Chaplin and Chester Conklin, though to me even that one pales in comparison.

If anything in The Great Dictator proves that not all jokes are created equal, and that the involuntary response of laughter, or absence of same, from the audience is not necessary any indication of the level of craft and artful imagination at work, it's the globe scene. And that's not even the one I laugh at the hardest. It's simply the one I'm most in awe of. It's the one that boils the film down into one glorious flourish of creativity, disgusting in its beauty and appalling in its entirely correct implications. This is the art of comedy.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Capsule Reviews: VOD Edition

The Roommate (d. Christian E. Christiansen) - If Single White Female, the 1992 erotic thriller directed by Barbet Schroeder, has one commendable feature -- apart from the possibly endearing feeling of cognitive dissonance you'd get if you viewed it as a double feature with Koko: A Talking Gorilla -- it's that it's a genuinely sleazy movie, or as sleazy as a slick Hollywood film with reasonably big stars in the lead roles is going to get anyway. Single White Female has lots of nudity, a fair amount of sex, and is sprinkled with ludicrous violence. It is, in other words, what you want it to be. By the end, whether you wanted it as much as you thought is a different question entirely. The point is, no one who watched that film with a clear mind could later claim to have been rooked.

So why is The Roommate, which is a remake of the Schroeder film in all but name, so relentlessly squeamish? Because it's aimed at a younger crowd, one presumes (Single White Female was a movie for grown ups, after all). The film stars people with names like "Leighton" and "Minka" and "Cam" and "Billy Zane", and boasts maybe five combined minutes that aren't smothered by the shittiest music you've ever heard. It's the kind of movie that has some completely unidentifiable pop song playing over the opening credits, which leaps almost immediately into the first big scene, at a frat house party at which some white noise frat pop band is playing, and so you have ten minutes straight of this kind of sound that quite frankly dominates everything, including dialogue, but also you're maybe supposed to even like this because Minka Kelly, who's the hero of The Roommate, ends up falling for the white noise band's drummer which, at this level of accomplishment, is a bit like falling for the long snapper. Then later her roommate, played by Leighton Meester, starts to obsess over her and kills a cat and after that a person. Like I said, it's Single White Female, except it very delicately skirts around showing anything that you might have actually paid money to see. It's a big fat phony of a movie, basically, but more than that it's unbelievably dull. It is, in fact, the dullest hour and a half I've experienced all day, and earlier today I was at work.

Seconds Apart (d. Antonio Negret) - This one, the first real evil twins movie I can think of since -- but this can't be -- Dead Ringers begins with a scene the aim of which would appear to be to completely refute the cynically coy philosophy of movies like The Roommate: a group of (sigh) college guys at a (sigh) frat party are playing cards and drinking and saying dirty things about ladies when the above-pictured twins named, because movie twins must always have Biblical names, Seth and Jonoah (played by real, honest-to-peaches twins Gary and Edmund Entin) suddenly and briefly appear. Following their departure, the frat guys change gears and begin a casual and bloody game of Russian Roulette. So okay, it's not exactly Lucio Fulci, but it's not posing either. Unfortunately, the intriguing first ten minutes or so of Seconds Apart pretty much gives up everything the film is going to have to offer. The twins are conducting some strange and dark "experiment" in the realm of human emotion, and this involves using their psychic powers to force people to commit suicide, and we see this over and over again as they're pursued by a conveniently perceptive police detective (Orlando Jones, a little self conscious in his "serious actor" mode, but really not bad at all) until a house catches fire, as they tend to do in evil twin movies.

Seconds Apart really operates on only one level of intrigue, and that's the level at which it begins. So there's a bit of dramatic miscalculation at play here, and resultant flatness of narrative. But the attempt is there, at least, I guess, which is becoming something I'm prepared to give credit for more than I might have in the past, and this in itself depresses me. And Seconds Apart is really not a very good movie, truthfully. But I'll tell you, late in the film Orlando Jones has a scene with an actor named David Jensen, playing a fertility doctor whose drug addiction Jones clues into and uses in his interrogation. And now you watch Seconds Apart and you watch David Jensen and you tell me that there aren't actors out there who play their parts and do their jobs, no matter the role, and no matter the film. Praising Seconds Apart for not being a cynical cash-in might be depressing, but seeing David Jensen's performance is actually a bit exhilarating. Because good work is maybe being done everywhere, if you just look.

Monday, May 16, 2011

One of These Dumb Beasts

For killing a dumb beast -- or a human being, as the rest of us would have it -- Muraki served a mere three years in prison. This still seems a bit much to him, though, as he returns to Tokyo and his former life as a yakuza and gambler for the first time since his release, he doesn't show any hint of outrage or anger. He's more bemused that anyone could think anything might matter so much.

As played by Ryo Ikebe in Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower, Muraki brings to mind Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai. Both are quiet, efficient, seemingly bloodless until something or someone gets that blood flowing again, and even then the change is almost entirely internal. You'd never tell by looking at them that each man had chosen to potentially ruin themselves for the sake of someone else. Of course, the other big difference between the two men is that Muraki ruins himself for reasons that are about as dark and inhuman as one can imagine. Ostensibly, Muraki's fate is tied to Saeko (Mariko Kaga), the mysterious female gambler who catches his eye at the beginning of the film. But what Muraki wants for her is not particularly warming to the soul. Earlier in the film, Muraki and Saeko have a conversation that touches on Muraki's time in prison, and how he felt about killing another person. His explanation is the only clue anybody should need to understand Muraki's fate.

Pale Flower has gotten the Criterion treatment, and will be available tomorrow. I feel, or rather fear, that this will be received as one of their incidental releases, between all the big films or the more immediately popular ones. Already Pale Flower has been bookended on Criterion's schedule by Jonathan Demme's well-loved cult 1980s road comedy Something Wild and Charlie Chaplin's frickin' The Great Dictator, for Pete's sake. I hope that Pale Flower does not get overlooked due to its relative obscurity because I found Shinoda's film to be thoroughly magnificent. The comparisons to Melville, who I idolize, do not stop at Ikebe's characterization and performance. Both in France and Japan, gangster and crime films of those countries' respective New Waves could have something of a post-modern commentary on films-as-films element (see Breathless and Band of Outsiders and Tokyo Drifter), or at least those are the ones that tend to become most famous as the years pass by. But in Pale Flower, Shinoda made a film, as did Melville, repeatedly (and Shinoda's entirely not post-modern countryman Akira Kurosawa with Stray Dog and High and Low and so on), that is not only amazingly assured and quietly stylish, but actually about its world and its people, the gamblers and killers, and the bosses who join forces and eat lunch in big empty rooms while discussing their families and their weight, and the fate of their men.

Pale Flower is very pure in its noir motives, more pure, even, than many of the American films that influenced it. Some of the classic noirs -- though by no means all -- had a tendency to pull back not only on certain implications about their characters, but about the very doom the rest of the film seems to be portending. Films like Gun Crazy and Angel Face and Scarlet Street are so bracing in part because of the films in the genre that don't go so far. Pale Flower, meanwhile, does go that far, and is so weary about it. Muraki knows who he is and what he's capable of, but instead of either fleeing his nature in terror, or maniacally embracing it, his attitude is one of morbid acceptance. He may not be thrilled about this, but he knows better than to fight it.

And of course it's all due to Saeko, the woman, the laughing, happy gambler who fills all the gambling halls to which Muraki takes her with a new energy that the slumped and blank-faced men who essentially inhabit those places haven't felt in a very long time. But no one feels it like Muraki, and no one is willing to follow that energy quite so doggedly as Muraki, either. Or maybe they would, if only they could. It's not so much that either only has eyes for the other; it's more that they were built for this. The fact that circumstances and a certain lack of enthusiasm on Muraki's part is able to contain their behavior and fates to the world of organized crime can only be regarded by the rest of us as very fortunate.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Long Way to Go

Over at the TIFF Lightbox, a program of the films of Kelly Reichardt has begun (it started yesterday, in fact, so damn you to hell, Blogger), comprising all of her work to date inlcuding Meek's Cutoff, her newest and highly acclaimed Western, of all things, starring Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood. Meek's Cutoff is a film I'd like to see for a number of reasons -- I like Westerns and Bruce Greenwood, to name but two -- and at the top of that list is that I'd like very much to see the director behind Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt's previous two films, break out of the Pacific Northwest hippie-outcast doldrums which has...well, frankly, it seems to have worked out for her so far. She is a Filmmaker to Watch, after all.

But look: Old Joy, for instance, is a film about a couple of modern-day hippies, the kind of people who dance to drum music, jump over bonfires, and hang out with "really amazing people". One of Old Joy's hippies, Mark (Daniel London) has grown up and married and moved on to a life of home ownership and responsibilities; the other, Kurt (Will Oldham) is really pretty much the same kind of guy he was when he and Mark were best friends, hippies forever, back in what we're to take to have been the good old days. Kurt and Mark have a bit of a day planned, and it's the first time the two of them will have gotten together in a quite a while. The joy of this day is tempered for Kurt by the fact that Mark is no longer like him, and Mark's happiness is cut by the slow-dawning realization that he's no longer the free spirit he once was, and Kurt still is.

Old Joy surprised me in one way, by inspiring me to look Will Oldham up online, which revealed that he played the fiery boy preacher in John Sayles' Matewan and that in his subsequent music career he wrote "I See A Darkness", a song I count as among my all-time, close-to-my-heart favorites (and I know it through Johnny Cash's cover, on which Oldham sings background). Beyond that, though, it's a nicely photographed film that's about as rote and schematic as a superhero origin story. Old Joy is the kind of movie that has a slightly oddball title, which in the film's final third is explained in a non sequitor monologue by the most charmingly offbeat character. And if one were to use a Venn diagram to chart the overlap between films that have odd titles which are explained in random yet meaningfully vague speeches, and films that are about the compromises and frustrations of growing into adulthood, what you'd end up with would basically be a circle. And also Old Joy.

Reichardt's follow up, which she co-wrote with frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, Wendy and Lucy does sort of mess with the free hippie archetype a bit -- an archetype that even Old Joy doesn't seem completely comfortable with, to be fair. In Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams plays the former and Lucy the Dog plays the latter. Wendy and Lucy are in Oregon, making their way to Alaska, where Wendy will work and live and, she believes, be happy off the grid. She minds her money very closely, and seems to be doing as well as one could expect when everything starts to go wrong. Her car breaks down, she runs out of dog food, decides that shoplifting some Iams is a better financial decision than paying for it, only she gets caught, so it isn't, and after the cop hauls her away, her dog goes missing, and so on. Wendy and Lucy is a bit Von Trier-ian in its ruthless piling up of misery before its female protagonist, though Reichardt and Raymond lack Von Trier's imagination, while keeping some of his too-easy villainy signifiers (the worst person in Wendy and Lucy is wearing a crucifix the size of my fist). And then, is it just me, or is anybody else annoyed by films that construct scenarios that are meant to elicit from the viewer sympathetic thoughts such as "If someone's trying to drop out of society, why can't they just steal? America is such bullshit."

Still, it's a good move by Reichardt to keep the reasons behind Wendy's abandonment of normal civilization a secret. If we knew, then we'd know just what to think of her. As it is, it's not hard to think Wendy isn't terribly bright, but it's also not hard to hope to God she gets her dog back. Depicting a lonely young woman forcibly separated from her dog might seem an unfair way to wring some tears, and it is, or can be...okay, it is. But Wendy and Lucy does us the honor of not including a single bad performance. Everyone, from the note perfect Williams, to the ever welcome Will Patton as the mechanic checking out Wendy's hopeless car, to Walter Dalton, who gives what I believe is the single best performance in the film as a security guard who, after Lucy goes missing, becomes Wendy's only friend. Dalton is quietly sensational, and Reichardt, and her actors, have a wonderful eye for the little details of human speech and movement. There's a moment in Wendy and Lucy when Michelle Williams is using Dalton's cell phone as he stands off to the side, and she, being a stranger in town, repeats back the geographical location the speaker on the other end of the line has just giver her, and Dalton nods and gives a casual thumbs up. He knows that street, it's no problem. That's how people act, and Reichardt gets it on film. So that's good. There are pluses to be found in Wendy and Lucy, and even in Old Joy which despite my complaints nevertheless has a comforting, Pushcart Prize for Short Fiction runner-up sensibility that's easy to go along with, even if it is ultimately sort of limp and dopey.

But oh, what of Meek's Cutoff? You got me, chief. It's a film I'm no less anxious to see having checked out Reichardt's two previous films than I was while reading about it's charmed journey through various film festivals, back when I hadn't seen a frame of Reichardt's work. Given my, let's say ambivalence, towards what I've now seen, my own undiminished curiosity about Meek's Cutoff intrigues me. I look forward to satisfying that curiosity one way or the other.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Best Years of Our Lives

Of the many statements uttered in the course of 20 Years for Murder, a documentary that takes a fond look back to the heady days when the interview subjects collaborated to make Avere Vent'anni (hereafter referred to as To Be Twenty, as that's the title by which I first learned of the film), that seem designed to make the viewer raise his or her eyebrow in incredulity, the topper must be producer Gianluca Curti's "We tried to make the ending funny, too, so I took out the rape scene." I mean, it's not as if that's not a good start or anything. Curti's statement, by the way, is in reference to the controversy sparked by To Be Twenty's notorious ending -- an ending that left critics and audiences "disappointed", according to the Raro Video DVD liner notes -- and the subsequent attempt to force people to like To Be Twenty by rejiggering and rearranging (and re-, or rather mis-translating) it so that it went from being mostly a sex comedy to entirely a sex comedy. But of course in director/writer Fernando di Leo's original cut, it's what's missing from that "mostly" that really counts.

Di Leo appears in 20 Years for Murder as well, and he says lots of things that indicate to me that he is, perhaps, a little bit deluded. The most alarming evidence comes when he blames To Be Twenty's commercial failure -- this failure coming in its first run, with his original cut -- on the film maybe being "too frivolous". Part of the problem with writing about To Be Twenty is deciding how blunt or how cagey to be about what actually goes on during the film's ending, and I'm leaning hard towards cagey right now, but suffice it to say if frivolity was di Leo's intent throughout, including what happens to the "young, hot and pissed off" girls, played by Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati, in the final minutes, then I'd say he has yet to grapple with issues of tone, not to mention audience expectation, so no wonder they were "disappointed".

Up to that point, of course, the film is pretty frivolous, as befits a sex comedy which is, remember, what To Be Twenty mainly is, or pretends to be. There's really nothing in terms of plot, other than the fact that two unebelievably beautiful girls of the titular age, Lia (Guida) and Tina (Carati) meet one day, agree that they are each about as hot and pissed off as the other, and decide to travel to Rome, to a commune run by Nazariota (Vittorio Caprioli) where they hope -- mainly Tina hopes this, but Lia's game, too -- to get laid a lot and not have to pay for anything. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be much of a sex commune, but rather one of the ones where everbody would rather be stoned all the time, and plus it turns out Lia and Tina will be expected to pay their own way. So a career as hookers disguised as encyclopedia salespeople awaits, and sort of provides the meat, if you'll pardon that, of the sex comedy. There's also lots of dumbshit counterculture politics involving oppressive cops and Communism and feminism (at one point, excerpts from Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto are read out loud for the benefit of a Lefty documentary filmmaker, which should maybe count as some sort of tip off), but it's all so threadbare and confused that it can hardly be said to be what To Be Twenty is actually about.

No, what it's about is the ending. It exists now and is remembered only because of what happens when Lia and Tina are forced out of the commune and go back to hitchhiking. The only reason I know about To Be Twenty at all is because every so often Glenn Kenny will mention it as the kind of film critics and audiences who are fainting dead away at the very idea of Saw or Hostel should probably see if they want some idea of how good they actually have it. In terms of the grotesquerie of its sadism and the left turn of it tone and story, To Be Twenty is sort of like Cannibal Holocaust mixed with Electra Glide in Blue -- that's why the film is remembered (barely) and available on DVD (in Italy).

All of this makes To Be Twenty a sort-of-interesting companion with Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, which I watched as a sort of preparation for di Leo’s film. But The New York Ripper is not an unusual film – it’s very graphic, more graphic than To Be Twenty, though less horribly inventive in what it’s being graphic about; it’s very skeevy and gross even when blood isn’t being spilled, and the need to shower after watching it is very strong. But, then again, that’s our Fulci! The New York Ripper is the kind of movie he made, though maybe pushed beyond what had been unconsciously set as the limit for such sexualized gore, but most other Italian slasher hallmarks are there, such as eye wounds, intense sexual violence, and a plot and set of characters so meaningless that something or someone might count as a red herring if they’re lucky.
It looks good, though, which is hard to say about To Be Twenty. The classics of Italian sadism cinema (or giallo, I guess) tend to have a visual splendor to them that makes, or can make, all the incoherence and goofiness and, also, let us not forget, deep moral ambivalence over just watching something like The New York Ripper, go down a good deal easier. Watching The New York Ripper can make you feel like a terrible human being, but images like this:
…can help you deal with it better. To Be Twenty is rather lacking in visual splendor, unless you count Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati, which is the moment in this post that would make di Leo, if he ever read it, go “Aha! That was totally my point and I got you!” Well maybe he did. Guida and Carati are strikingly beautiful, as I think I’ve said, and frequently nude. And I knew what kind of movie I was getting (never mind that Two Be Twenty is the only movie of its particular messy, messed up kind I’ve ever seen) long before I – and here’s the kicker – bought it with my own money. So I have that to deal with, but at least I never called the film “frivolous”, nor did it escape my notice that neither Guida nor Carati appeared in Twenty Years for Murder.
But I don’t know, who exactly am I trying to pick a fight with here? I certainly don’t believe di Leo endorses the real world version of what goes on at the end of his film, nor does he decapitate monkeys for the pleasure of his audience, which is why I can’t bring myself to watch Cannibal Holocaust. In the end, To Be Twenty is just sort of this thing that exists that not many people have seen and fewer think is very good. It’s a lunatic footnote at this point, though I’ll tell you, if you want to have yourself a good old belly laugh, watch the recut version of To Be Twenty, the one that supplies a happy ending by taking a chunk from di Leo's original climax, the part where the girls are being roughly stripped by a gang of men in preparation for something unspeakable, moving it to the beginning and looping in the sound of police sirens, freezing the image, and cutting to Guida and Carati back at the side of the road, ready to hitchhike again, one of them saying “Thank goodness the police arrived!” Sister, you don’t know the half of it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Promises, Promises

I apologize for the barren, airless, blasted and silent post-apocalyptic wasteland this blog has become in the past week, but remember, I told you this would happen! But not only was I out of town, thereby justifying this blog’s emptiness, but now that I’m back I find my head filled with thoughts about how nice it is to not have a blog. Then I remember that I have one! O folly, etc.
Well, I’m not bailing on the thing, and in fact I have at least two posts planned for the coming days. The problem is that both posts require DVDs to arrive to me via the US mail service. And so I wait. They’ll be good, though, I promise (I’m not really promising anything). One that I'm especially keen to get into has to do with violence, of the extreme variety, in movies, which is something I've covered before, and will no doubt cover again. You know the idea that in fiction there are really only three plots, Man Vs. Nature, Zombie Vs. Vampire and Zeppelin Race? Well, it's the same thing with writing about movies. There are only three topics: Extreme Violence, Why Don't Women Get To Be In Movies? and The Oscar Season.
So apologies again, but I’m not dead, the blog’s not dead (the redesign is still coming, too) – just have to get some ducks in a row. Back soon.