Pink Angels – A Counterculture Spoof of Biker Films and Macho Values

9 May

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Pink Angels, 1971

Directed by Larry G. Brown

Starring John Alderman, Tom Basham, and Robert Biheller

Pink Angels is a 1971 film about “rugged motorcyclists” who have “an affinity for lipstick, high heels and braziers” according to the promo copy on the back of a boxed set of “Drive-In Cult Classics – Vol. 3” from Mill Creek Entertainment. It sounds like a bizarre film and it truly is, especially in the context of the hundreds of biker films from the 1950s through the 1970s that depicted bikers as macho thugs who terrorized squares, women, and each other with violence, grubby denim, and a lot of facial hair — the opposite of biker queens who love to dress up in girlie outfits and chat in cocktail lounges.

Pink Angels is, to some extent, an exploitation film. That is, in order to get ticket sales, the filmmakers exploited aspects of human behavior that were considered taboo and sensational. Even fairly innocent sex and anything seemingly glorifying drugs, violence, or deviant behavior was off limits for most directors of Hollywood films due to the famous and strict Hayes Code that heavily censored films from 1930 the 1968. Even though things were loosening up in 1970, it was unlikely that any major Hollywood studio would’ve made a film about a group of seemingly macho bikers who were also flaming drag queens. Thus Pink Angels was an indie film created for a drive-in and grindhouse audience who were seeking cheap thrills. But, to some extent, it was also speaking to a counterculture audience of hippies and Beats, as were many of the biker films.

Many Beats and hippies were serious and literate. Intellectual pursuits helped hipsters step outside the box of conventional culture, but there was another powerful way to be free — satire and humor. Those in the counterculture loved comedy and caricatures of traditional values. Lenny Bruce was a hero to many Beats and Hippies. Monty Python, Firesign Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Second City, and other satirical groups were popular. Kubrick’s 1964 satirical anti-war film, Dr. Strangelove, was a huge hit with enduring popularity. Thus it wasn’t surprising to me that someone made a biker film that mocked the machismo of bikers as well as social conventions about gender roles.

When Pink Angels came out in 1971, biker films were still popular — almost too popular. When a genre of film becomes super popular, it then becomes a target of satire. Spoofs were being made about girl gangs (including one by Herschell Gordon Lewis), gangs of werewolf bikers, African-American gangs, and so on. The poster for Pink Angels (the title appears as The Pink Angels on the poster but not in the film itself) featured a MAD-magazine style cartoon of zany mayhem. It was very much like the promotional posters for some other high-spirited, almost anarchistic films of the 1960s like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. The MAD-magazine-style art was actually a fairly accurate as a representation of the film — it’s mostly pretty goofy and light, yet also insightful. It effectively parodies many of the elements of biker films — the orgy scene, the encounter with a rival gang, the intimidating of locals in small towns, and so on. These classic elements of bikers films are spoofed gently in Pink Angels thanks to the spin the film has — these bikers are, for the most part, not only gay, but they’re also queens.

The look of the film is pretty cool. Most of the film takes place in Southern California outside of L.A. As you watch the film you get to see how things looked in 1971. The cars, the clothes, the people, the stores, the roads — all for real, not shot on a lot or sound stage (like much of Psycho, for example). That’s one very cool thing about older low-budget films — the filmmakers couldn’t afford to dress the sets and hire extras, etc. and thus modify the reality around the actors. What we see is how things actually were in a past era — the A&W root beer stand, a Rexall drug store, a super market, a women’s clothing store, the cars, etc. In addition, this film features a lot of non-actors in minor roles and they had their own hair styles and clothing as well. This is another great thing in low-budget films — the use of everyday people as actors rather than pros — a trend that was established by the Italian Neo-Realists in the late 1940s that was quite influential in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s.

One somewhat problematic area of the film that results from the low budget is the occasionally poor sound quality. This is a problem with many cheaper films — the sound track is often pretty mediocre. This is because live sound is hard to capture well on the fly (which is why Spaghetti Westerns were often dubbed) and because during post production there are limited funds for cool music and sound effects. In Pink Angels there are times when the motorcycles are roaring along the highway and the sound of the engines has obviously been dubbed and the motorcycles sound like mini-bikes. Since it’s the gay gang’s choppers, maybe that was part of the spoofing of bikers that runs throughout the film. If it was meant to be a spoof, it could’ve been played up with a scene where a biker is revving his bike’s engine and all we hear is a feeble whining sound. This brings up another minor complaint I have about the film — it could’ve gone further into satire and humor, but clearly it was produced on a shoestring and created quickly — thus some opportunities for comedy were missed while others were probably caught on the fly by sheer luck.

One thing that surprised me — the film looked surprisingly good to me. It was mostly shot in daylight on color film and had a great look. (The reproduction on DVD was quite good too.)

Pink Angels is totally in keeping with the counterculture values of the sixties/early seventies cultural climate. The film can be seen as a spoof of not just biker films but also of masculinity and mainstream values associated with male behavior. For that reason it’s transgressive and subversive, in an easy-going way. It’s not heavy as extreme as a film like Dr. Strangelove until the very end, when a strange twist throws the film into new territory. Throughout the film there is a parody of a military man seething over longhairs that has a Kubrick/Strangelove spoofing quality. At times the film also has the feeling of a John Waters film. Both Kubrick and Waters loved to question social conventions and the costs of embracing macho values, as does Pink Angels.

Pink Angels is worth a look if you’re into cheesy drive-in films. While it’s not quite up there in at the top of the cult-film pantheon, it definitely deserves cult-movie status.

George Hickenlooper and the Challenges Artists Face

23 Apr

In the spring of 2010 I wrote a book proposal with the director George Hickenlooper. The book we were going to co-author (if we could find a publisher) was to be a bio of Hickenlooper with a lot of emphasis on his life as an indie director. I’d become friends with him in that abstract way you do via Facebook. He was the one who proposed doing a book about his life. He did so in a joking, self-deprecating way, saying that his mom and dad would buy it. I liked the idea. A book about a filmmaker who lived outside of the mainstream of Hollywood sounded good to me. Sadly, he died on October 29th unexpectedly at the age of 47. He was in Denver while on a promotional tour for his new film about the corrupt Washington lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. The film is called CASINO JACK. It stars Kevin Spacey, who, Hickenlooper wrote to me, was cast through Facebook !!

At first I didn’t know him except through his films. I was a fan of two of his films without really connecting them or realizing they were by the same director. One is the moody drama called The Man from Elysian Fields. The other is a wonderful documentary about filmmaking. It’s called Hearts of Darkness. The name of the director on those films wasn’t what stood out — it was the intensity of the storytelling.

Some directors have such a distinct style that you will always recognize their films. Hickenlooper had themes that interested him and his style was in service of them. A number of his films were about the struggles of artists and various kinds of challenges they face. For example, Hearts of Darkness is about what Coppola went through while making Apocolypse Now (an amazing artistic journey with great risks and costs). The Man from Elysian Fields is about a writer (played by Andy Garcia) who is trying to support a family and turns to working as an escort for rich women to earn money… and then he ends up co-writing a book with the husband of one of the women he escorts. In the end, he pays a price for being an artist, but does achieve artistic success.

Hickenlooper directed major Hollywood films independently and it was a struggle. He stressed himself out and that’s part of why he died at 47. He made films about artists struggling and he lived that way himself.

He was always on the move — New York to meet his new distributor one day… meeting with new agents at CAA in Beverly Hills a few days later…. then to New Orleans to search for locations for his next film. Then to Denver to shoot ads for his cousin’s run for office as the governor of Colorado (he won and the ads helped)…. Then to a film festival in Toronto where he and Kevin Spacey promoted Casino Jack… and so on….

Life is life but we know there is an end point. Before that we have a finite amount of time.

How will we spend that time? What can we accomplish, learn, do, enjoy, see, feel, dream?

Master Zhuang said this: What if enjoying life is a delusion? What if it’s the case that in hating death I am like a child who was lost early in life and did not know the way home?

He said: Forget the years, forget distinctions. Leap into the boundless and make it your home.

Detour and Ann Savage — Classic Noir

23 Apr

Detour, 1945, feature film, USA, directed by Edgar Ulmer, starring Ann Savage as Vera, and Tom Neal as Al Roberts

Savage Detours: The Life and Work of Ann Savage, 2009, a biography and filmography by Kent Adamson and Lisa Morton, McFarland, with a Foreword by Guy Maddin

The most fun role for actors is always the bad or twisted character, the weirder the better. Often villains in film are men, but sometimes they are women. The writer in Basic Instinct played by Sharon Stone was bad. The housewife in Double Indemnity was twisted. A list compiled by writers at Time magazine of the top ten movie villains EVER included Ann Savage in the film Detour. She was one of two females given that distinction. Her performance in the film is amazing because she is vicious, brutal, suicidal, and bullying, yet sexually fascinating in her trampiness and foxiness and also, at some level, she’s totally sympathetic. You wish she could get off the blackmail scheme she’s working on her victim, a passive barroom pianist played by tough-guy actor Tom Neal in a weakling role, and just, well, enjoy life without a bottle and the greed. Instead she’s driven, desperate, and on a death march. If you haven’t seen this film and like film noir, put it at the top of your list.

Detour is a relatively low-budget B-movie, not a film anyone thought would become a classic. It was released on November 30th, 1945 from a minor Hollywood studio, PRC. Their lot and offices were over on Santa Monica boulevard in West Hollywood where there’s a Trader Joe’s now. The company cranked out genre entertainment and made money. It was owned by Pathe, a major French film company, so the director, Austrian émigré Edgar Ulmer, had some finishing funds for niceties like a decent score and a few other touches after a fast 28-day shoot with a couple of B-actors. The script was 141 pages, written by a novelist, Martin Goldsmith, who wrote the story as a book first. Ulmer cut it by half. The film packs a lot of intense dark psychodrama into 67 minutes. The film writer Andrew Sarris called it the most despairing of all B-pictures. It has gradually become famous as a cult film and was selected as the first film noir and B-movie to be included in the National Registry of Film by the Library of Congress.

Both leads give great performances, but it’s the bad girl, Vera, played by Ann Savage who steals the show. It’s the film she’s known for. It developed a following among noir and revival film aficionados over the years and her amazing and memorable performance inspired the quirky Canadian director, Guy Maddin, to cast her in the key role of his mother in his 2008 film, My Winnipeg. She was hoping it would be her return to screen acting after years outside the film business, but it turned out to be her last film. Her career had been mostly in B-films in the 1940s, then a long gap until the Maddin film.

In the last decade or so of her life, the LA-based filmmaker, writer, and B-film enthusiast Kent Adamson became her good friend, collaborator, and manager. They were working on her autobiography but ran out of time. Savage died in 2008 at age 87, Before she died, she had contracted to tell her life story to the publisher McFarland. Once she was gone, Adamson wrote her biography with Lisa Morton, who added an extensive, annotated filmography. Savage Detours is a gem for fans of film noir, Ann Savage, the history of Hollywood B-films, and the film Detour. It’s full off insights and inside information. They even included part of the original screenplay with personal notes written by Savage.

I’ve had the good fortune to have three long conversations with Adamson by telephone and another in person. Adamson knows about as much about Ann Savage and the film Detour as anyone on the planet, which is to say in the entire universe. It’s always been a great pleasure to discuss Detour, Ann Savage, and the history of B-films and independent films with him.

Adamson sees her character in the film, Vera, as a role reversal. “She’s playing what was a man’s role in those days, a predatory drifter. She dominates Tom Neal, and he takes it. She’s active and he’s passive. There’s nothing like it in the films of the 1940s. She’s very sexually aggressive. She’s raw, she craves sex – tonight. She’s not the typical mysterious glamour girl femme fatale like Jane Greer in Out of the Past, she dominates, she takes” said Adamson over coffee in Los Feliz, in a nicer part of the once-tawdry Hollywood underbelly area where Bukowski lived from the 1950s to the 1970s and which he called East Hollywood.

Which brings up something important to consider in relation to Detour: the underbelly of Hollywood. Not only were B-movies like Detour the underbelly in terms of filmmaking, but Hollywood itself, a gold-rush, get-rich-quick place, had and still does have its own underbelly of schemers, dreamers, swindlers, and low-wage earners hoping for the big break– people looking for the main chance, a way out. As Adamson pointed out to me, Detour is not only a product of the underbelly of Hollywood in terms of production, but it’s ultimately also a story about a Hollywood schemer, Vera, a dying young woman who tries to force a hapless pianist to play a role, pull a con, by pretending to be, ACTING as, the son of a wealthy dying man so the two of them can get the big inheritance. The characters are on the road to Hollywood, and the last third is set there. Detour is every bit as much a Hollywood story as Sunset Boulevard or A Star is Born, depicting life in the gutter of Hollywood Boulevard instead of the top, Adamson said. It follows a long tradition of stories about unknowns hoping to make it big in Hollywood.

Ann Savage, with careful coaching from director Ulmer, performed so convincingly and powerfully that she defined an archetype, the classic ambitious American female who dominates the male, pushing him relentlessly to strive for wealth. But that drive to achieve isn’t unique only to underdog females in a patriarchal society; one where they had to work through the male to achieve power and money. The near compulsion to make it is built into the American character. Beginning in the late 19th century the last of the old system of European rule-by-the-nobility died out via changes in laws that favored competition and gave rise to the corporation as a legal and financial force with almost unlimited power and reach (at one time corporations were far more accountable and limited in purpose and scope by law). America became a super-competitive place of all-against-all and a big-time robber baron and financial schemer like Vanderbilt could rise from the merchant class to owning about ten percent of American wealth by the time he died. The rise of the merchant-banking class got rolling in Europe with the Medicis in the late 1300s and with the Puritan sober merchants in England in the 1500s who at once point overthrew the king (Charles 1, eventually executed), but it reached its fullest realization in America. The mentality continues to prevail.

Detour is a dark look at relentless, desperate striving, a desire to get rich by any means. It’s neatly encapsulated in a 67-minute small-scale drama about a weak musician who longs to reunite with a girlfriend who left him for Hollywood, and a dying young woman who sees a shot at wealth in a randomly encountered set of circumstances as she hitchhikes west across America. Some degree of ambition and struggle is required to survive, but as Vera and Al Roberts go through the journey of their lives, Vera’s supercharged greediness and desperation plus some random events took them both on a strange and savage detour. This film and Born to Kill are both memorably grim and represent a kind of film that explored and critiqued the dark side of the American dream. It’s Detour that highlighted the feral female most effectively and in so doing, gave Ann Savage the role of a lifetime.

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A survey of key surrealist films and a look at alternative films that share in the surrealist sensibility

11 Apr

Note: This is more like an essay than a film review, per se…. and I discuss many films as well as some art movements and more~!

A LONG PREFACE

The following exploration of surrealism in film and alternative films began with my desire to write about a weirdly appealing film by Alejandro Jodorowsky called Fando y Lis. That film caused a riot when it was first shown at a film festival in Mexico. Jodorwsky claims that he barely escaped the festival alive. The audience was furious. Enraged. VIOLENT!

I love the film. I feel affection for it, and have no desire to attack Jodorowsky.

I LIKE Jodorowsky, who I watched in interviews and other DVD extras. The extras accompanying one film even showed him leading a weekly human-potential seminar/encounter group that he does in Paris. He’s very appealing and charismatic.

He’s an ex-pat from Chile who has lived in Paris for many years. He loves the Tarot and psychology. He has created comic books. He loves film and drama.

In recent years he was trying to make a gangster film with Nick Nolte and Marilyn Manson but the deal fell apart. Now there’s talk of an El Topo part two.

His son is a musician who had success recently when he translated his French songs into Spanish and began spending time in South America. All that makes me like him.

And his film Fando y Lis also makes me like him.

The film is like El Topo in that it’s a kind of mythic journey, a psychodrama that lacks a traditional plot but is rich in images, themes, costumes, personas, gender roles, and quests for inner truth. It’s a favorite of mine in the “art film” and “surrealist film” categories.

I decided that an article on Fando y Lis would be enhanced if I compared it to some other art films and surrealistic films. To put Fando y Lis in context, it seemed essential to compare it to the classic of surrealism by Bunuel and Dali, Un Chien Andalou (1928). So I watched some of the classic surrealist films and read about them.

Soon I realized that to properly discuss Fando y Lis, it would be best to survey all of surrealism and film and even alternative and underground and grindhouse films. I watched films by the Kuchar brothers, a documentary about Jack Smith, and more. (Those films must be discussed in another article.)

Finally I realized that to do justice to Fando y Lis, I must write about not only the entire history of film and art and human life on Earth but also the origins and evolution of the universe too!

In short, Fando y Lis is a big film that touches on the big questions of life, and does so in a comic, joyful, and erotic way. It’s a cosmic film.

Ultimately I didn’t write about the entire universe, but I did watch and read about and write about a lot of surrealist films (many of which I had seen before in film school at the San Francisco Art Institute and other schools).
During breaks from watching many surrealist film, I began editing my own somewhat surrealist short films including the first in a web series called Doppleganger.

Surrealist films gave me permission to be wackier than I might’ve been otherwise. They’re liberating. One no longer feels the compulsion to present a story in an entirely logical or linear way. All kinds of things are possible…

BRETON’S INSPIRATION: FRAGMENTATION OF REASON AS WE SLIP INTO DREAMS – THE BORDERS OF REASON…

The “official” origin of surrealism, which was a literary/art/film/political movement, was in a reverie experienced by a French dude named Andre Breton. In an essay published in 1924 called “Entrance of the Mediums” which was expanded into the Surrealist Manifesto a few months later, he wrote “In 1919 my attention was fixed on the more or less fragmentary phrases which, when one is alone and about to fall asleep, begin to run through the mind…” He felt that by tapping into the material produced by the mind when it was not under conscious control would yield some awesome literature and art.

Breton was riding a wave others had been on for a while. The absinthe-imbibing Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), author of Ubu Roi (a play, 1896), once painted himself green and rode through Paris on a bicycle in a id-inspired bit of performance art.

Jarry’s anti-authoritarianism influenced the writer Jacques Vache, cited by Breton as the one “to whom I owe the most.”

Giorgio de Chirico was already making cool, mysterious, dream-like surreal paintings in, like, 1903.

And, if you dig weirdness, there were the films of George Melies in France and slapstick comedies by people like Mack Sennett and others in Hollywood.

In short, a sort of “surrealist” disjointed wigginess was already present in culture, but it took Breton’s writings to jelly it into a “movement.”

And of course there was Dadaism, an anti-art movement that came before surrealism and helped stimulate it.

DADAISM: SURREALISM’S DADA

Dadism (1916-1922) appeared in response to the horrors of WWI. Dadaism was, at heart, an anarchistic art movement (in the best sense of “anarchism”….meaning a moving away from authoritarian rule, top-dog management of our lives by others)….

It was a protest against the whole ball game in Europe – a “civilization” that had led to horrible wars, colonization-oppression-exploitation of people around the world, etc.

Dadaism was as close to being pure artistic protest as was possible with the tools that the Dadaists had at hand such as taking images from pop culture (newspapers) and collaging them in satirical ways, etc. It was disposable, not meant to be revered, sold, collected by the rich, or treasured.

SURREALISM, FREUD, AND THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND

Surrealism was intended to mirror the wildness of the Id, the unconscious mind that was outside of the realm of the rational ordinary mind and was, well, surreal. Surrealism owes a lot to Freud. He revolutionized ideas humans have about ourselves.

Freud said that reason is not in charge in our psyches a lot of the time. Without knowing why, we do things that are irrational. Society as a whole reflects human irrationality. We have war, we have nutty fascists who goosestep in salivating worship of power.

Surrealists were drawn to unmediated culture, or, perhaps minimally processed culture is a better description: the art of the naïve untrained artist, the art of children, the art of the “insane,” the art of ‘visionaries,” the art of “primitives.” Their slips of the tongue and brush, their direct transcription of ideas, feelings, dreams, myth was what surrealists wanted to access.

SOME SURREALIST FILMS AND FILMMAKERS

RETURN TO REASON BY MAN RAY, 1924

Historians have written that surrealism in film began with Man Ray’s 1924 film, Return to Reason. It consists of a non-narrative stream of images of stuff like nails filmed in random patterns using Ray’s self-titled Rayograph “negative” technique where dark was light. Man Ray is known for his arty still photographs using this technique, one used by few photographers since. The film must have seemed pretty revolutionary and very arty at the time, but now feels like a visual salad, a stream of “cool” images that can tend to be repetitious and meandering.

ENTR’ACT BY RENE CLAIR, 1925

A far more enjoyable work of surrealism is Rene Clair’s Entr’act, 1925. It’s closer to a narrative film. We see two guys hopping around in slow motion on a rooftop playing with a canon, the camera peeks up a ballerina’s dress as she dances, and there’s an extended chase after a hearse that had been pulled by a camel but soon goes along rapidly under its own power with mourners chasing it. Finally a magician pops out and taps the mourners with a wand and they vanish, then he taps himself and he is gone too.

Clair’s silliness included sophisticated mockery of Freudian imagery such as the phallic canon. For Clair making a surrealist film was a fun experiment, but he didn’t end up as a surrealistic filmmaker like Bunuel.

Clair later made wonderfully amusing feature films. His early ones helped revive the French film industry in the 1930s. Le Million is one of his best. It’s funny, plays with sound inventively, and has various random, irrational, vaguely surrealist elements.

La Nous a Liberte is also considered a Clair classic but was shot quickly and is less coherent than Le Million. Both mocked the alienating effects of an industrialized, commercialized society.

(Thanks to my research for this article, I saw these Clair films. While his surrealist one is very cool, but feels a bit long, I have to say his film Le Million was a delight, though much more conventional.)

He went on to make many feature narrative films and even directed some films in Hollywood for a time while the humorless Nazis occupied his beloved France.

(I even watched one of his Hollywood films, a conventional though entertaining film about a guy who learns about the future from a ghost and uses it to advance his career as a journalist. The film is called It Happened Tomorrow and was released in 1944.)

DALI AND BUNUEL MAKE A COUPLE OF CLASSICS

In 1929 we had the seminal surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou. It was made by the flamboyant surrealist painter Salvador Dali and the tormented Catholic rebel, Luis Bunuel.  It opens with a shocking eye-slicing image. All kinds of oddball stuff happens. A woman is seen by a couple using a stick or cane to push and probe a severed hand that is lying in the street, then she is handed the hand in a box by a friendly policeman, then she is run over by a car. Watching this stimulates the leering man and he now leers at his female companion and gropes her, but she resists his advances. In frustration he hauls dead donkeys on pianos across a room.

Frustrated sexual desire leading to sadism is a theme here. (And it is a major theme in the next Bunuel-Dali film, L’Age d’Or, 1930.) We see some Dali touches like ants climbing around in the man’s hand palm. Later the man appears as his own double and shoots himself in a room but falls in a woods. The woman who was chased sees a skull on the back of a moth. There are armpits, rapid changes of locale, odd emotional impulses. Subtitles mock the expectations viewers have about the continuity of time, announcing things like “Eight Years Later” for no reason.

The filmmakers attacked religion, mocked Freud, mocked Hollywood film conventions, and mocked the simple-minded zombified middle class who obeyed authority and clung to materialist ideas and lifestyles instead of being groovy surrealist rebels!

Dog is also about inner thought processes. It explores the way meaning is constructed in dreams. It’s all wild, disconnected, shocking, and weird, but at the same time it used some conventional Hollywood elements of cinematic story construction so the action has some visual coherence and logic for the viewer.

Dog has a kind of narrative but nothing makes sense in a traditional way. It’s all closer to a stream of consciousness or a strange, somewhat frightening, somewhat sadistic, somewhat erotic dream.

In an odd footnote, both leads, the male, Pierre Batcheff, and the female, Simone Mareuil, died by suicide. Bacheff died of an overdose of Veronal, a barbituate, at age 31 in 1932. More disturbingly and strangely surrealistically, Simone Mareuil died via self-immolation with gasoline in a public square in Perigueux, her hometown. She was deeply depressed after World War II and had just returned to her hometown.

Bunuel and Dali made the next biggie in the surrealist canon, L’Age d’Or, 1930, which inspired some right-wing nationalists (calling themselves the League of Patriots) to attack the theater on the second night it was exhibited. The fascistic thugs roughed up the people in the theater and wrecked a lot of surrealist art on display in the lobby. (In Nazi Germany such art would be called degenerate art and would also be destroyed and the artists sent to death camps unless they could escape to other countries.)

This film was not the popular success that Un Chien Andolou had been. It was also more Bunuel’s film than Dog. Dali was not as involved.

L’Age was more menacing, more political, more anti-religious, less of a strange intriguing dream. Three-second shots (fast and sweet) were replaced with longer takes (five seconds or longer). There is less camera play, less pure weirdness, though once again a farm animal appears in an urban apartment—not donkeys but a cow this time, alive and resting on the bed, but shooed out by the woman of the house. The idea that humans have scorpion-like traits (will attack each other, fight over territory) is suggested in a borrowed-footage doc on scorpions that acts as a prologue.

Throughout the film a man and a woman who desire each other are frustrated and this leads to violence (kicking a dog, stepping on a beetle, kicking a blind man, neglecting official political duties so that destructive events take place on a large scale, etc.). In short, this film explores the theme that civilization has built in discontents, just as Freud had said.

Dali was distracted by romantic and financial issues and his contribution is much smaller on this film. It is more purely a Bunuelian film and one can see in this film images and themes that he would explore in the future.

Bunuel went on to make quite a few notable and excellent feature films after L’Age d’Or, but they tended to have a greater overall narrative coherence despite the fact that characters often behaved in surreal ways and lived in a somewhat dream-like and surreal world.

For Bunuel, whose primarily form of artistic expression was cinema, surrealism provided some useful tools to use in films that otherwise had many conventional elements. Later, a groovy semi-surrealist painter who wanted to see his paintings move, David Lynch, did much the same thing that Bunuel did: he used some surrealistic elements in stories that were otherwise relatively coherent in terms of conventional cinematic storytelling.

LE SANG DE POET, 1948, Jean  Cocteau.

This film is close in spirit to pure surrealism. But is it primarily a work of surrealism or a work of film poetry?

Cocteau felt that he was a  poet who created poetry in various mediums. Much poetry, because  it is free of the constraints of creating a narrative, has a surrealistic quality, but it’s not purely surrealistic.

Cocteau was also quite interested in myth and the way myth informs our lives. This is a Jungian idea. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell explored it extensively in books like Hero with a Thousand Face. In turn George Lucas, after reading Campbell’s book on the hero myth, consciously used hero-myth elements when he wrote the Star Wars films. On a more artistically sophisticated level, James Joyce showed parallels between the Odysseus story and an ordinary man’s life in his novel Ulysses.

Cocteau was quite overt in his use of myth. He adapted the Orpheus myth to modern life, his own life, and the life of poets. The film Orpheus, 1950, is a key example. Note that he also adapted a sort of Dr. Jykll- Mr. Hyde story / Wolfman story when he adapted the children’s story of Beauty and the Beast.

MAYA DEREN’S DANCE/MYTH FIMS

In Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943, Maya Deren created a personal-mythic narrative that explores unconscious and dream-like material.

Deren said it wasn’t a surrealist film. It feels and looks like one, but Deren was a dancer and was also interested in myth and magic and later wrote a book about Voudon.

The film was shot in LA and it states in the titles that it was made in Hollywood, but that was put there somewhat ironically. It’s a purely poetic, non-Hollywood film. Deren complained about the cost of filmmaking and said that for what Hollywood spent on lipstick she could make a film. She is the star of the film, thus making it all that much more personal. (Note that sometimes indie/art films are called “personal” films.)

Note — David Lynch’s Meshes of the Afternoon is Lynch’s re-cutting of Deren’s film with new music. It’s actually pretty cool. Suddenly Deren’s film becomes a Lynch film — ominous, magical, and dream-like in Lynch’s way rather than hers. It’s much shorter but quite effective.

KENNETH ANGER’S FIREWORKS

Fireworks, 1947, was the first of a number of brilliant Kenneth Anger films. This one is like Deren’s film in that the director stars in the film and the whole film has a Freudian feeling and references sleep and dreams. It was also made in Hollywood.

FANDO Y LIS, 1968, ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY

This film opens with a woman on a bed eating a rose. Soon we see elegantly dressed people having a cocktail party in the ruins of a mental hospital. Not much is left but crumbling walls. A piano is being played and the piano is on fire.

The lead characters appear – a man and a woman, Fando y Lis. She can’t use her legs. He pushes her around on a cart. They are looking for an imaginary land. They move through a strange desert-mountain landscape.

Odd people come up to them or challenge them. Strange sexual things happen. A drum is played. A bunch of transvestites make Fando wear women’s clothes and put his clothes on Lis…

Like his next film, El Topo, this film has the quality of a dream but yet also has a kind of narrative logic, the logic of the classic “hero cycle” described by Carl Jung and elaborated by Joseph Campbell, as previously mentioned. The hero cycle is about a journey, a series of psychological-mythic challenges. This is how Jodorowsky structures his films – he bases them on mythic elements and symbols.

If you see this on DVD and it has the commentary by Jodorowsky. He explains what things means, such as saying things about how the cocktail party represents how people are oblivious to the fact that the world is in ruin, that they are superficial people, asleep to the suffering and degradation. Um, this is fine, but I actually much prefer to experience the film without his explanations. It’s more interesting to just see it as a kind of irrational poem-film. Why does everything have to “mean” something?

As he moved on, making films like El Topo and then Sacred Mountain, the films became more and more like a series of static images, vignettes depicting some IDEA, not unlike his beloved Tarot cards. (Jodorowsky actually created his own Tarot deck.. and wrote a book about the Tarot.) One of my film teachers, James Broughton, fell into the same trap with some of his films – he began making films that were a series of vignettes to illustrate Jungian ideas.

The beauty of Fando y Lis is that it feels more spontaneous and less static and intellectual. There’s a freedom to it.

ALTERNATIVE CINEMA AND CLASSIC DRAMATIC FILMS

In contrast to some of the heavily surrealistic and ultra-arty European films of the 1920s and 1930s and later films influenced by surrealism, “classic” mainstream films in Hollywood and in the commercial film industries in France, etc. tended to be masterful expressions of coherent, logical, entertaining cinematic storytelling.

The classic dramatic film gave viewers the illusion of a seamless continuity of time and space. Everything in the film was there for a reason. (Chekov said that in a play if there is a gun on the mantle, someone must use it in the play. Hollywood films are like this. All dramatic elements contribute to the story.)

In the classic dramatic film, scenes and sequences helped move the story forward toward a climax and satisfying conclusion in terms of traditional drama. There were attractive, charismatic stars to identify with. One could enjoy looking at the spectacle of beautiful costumes and sets. Often they were much like plays or novels translated into the film medium. Film technique served the story rather than serving rebellious or subversive artistic goals.

It’s important to recognize that classic dramatic films are based on cultural mores and expectations. What seems logical and coherent in terms of action in one culture might seem odd in another culture. Stories tended to reinforce the values of the societies in which the films were made.

When we step out of the mainstream narrative film mode, what do we find?

We find various other kinds of films that question or subvert or satirize mainstream culture rather than reinforce it.

Films that do that to a lesser or greater extent are underground/independent/art films and exploitation/grindhouse films (drive-in, erotica, etc.). Porn can be seen as a kind of artistic expression of rebellion against mainstream values or as a reinforcement of them and a patriarchal, exploitative culture, depending on your interpretation. Some over-the-top horror and comedy films that satirize conventional values can be seen as alternatives to the conventional Hollywood film.

It’s worth noting that even films that have highly transgressive elements can sometimes ultimately reinforce conventional values. For example, in the realm of the roadshow exploitation films like Reefer Madness or sex hygiene films that showed imagery Hollywood films could not (due to the restrictive, sanitizing Motion Picture code), the films were framed as a warnings against anti-productive behavior like smoking weed or having sex outside of marriage or becoming a groovy surrealist. At the very least such films offered viewers a “square-up” – a section of the film in which an authority like a doctor explains that the real purpose of the film is to help people in some way.

ACCIDENTAL SURREALIST FILMS

Along with, and even within, alternative cinematic traditions, there is also the possibility of accidental or naïve surrealistic filmmaking.

Quite a few films have surrealistic sequences in them, especially comedies, but the craziness serves a larger “reality” and story. This is seen, for example, in Chaplin’s escape from cops in The Circus when he poses as part of a mechanized carnival display or runs into a hall of mirrors. (In both cases he hides from cops by entering an alternate reality.) Chaplin creates wonderfully surreal/comic sequences, yet they mainly serve dramatic functions in the stories. Further, his intent as a filmmaker was not to deeply challenge the mainstream values of the western world, but rather to make moving entertainments that sided with the underdog.

So too Ed Wood’s films (especially one like Glen or Glenda), while intended to be commercially viable and coherent exploitation films that explored deviant/underdog lifestyles, ended up being accidentally surrealistic due to budget constraints, inept dialog and narration, inserted dream-like sequences that make no sense, and so on. Like Chaplin, he was not primarily a surrealist filmmaker, but only an accidental surrealist, a dude with a wacky sensibility who cut loose on screen but really hoped to create popular entertainment.

THE CHALLENGE OF VIEWER ATTENTION, APPRECIATION

Fact is, the problem of holding a viewer’s attention with a non-narrative film was and is problematic for both underground and surrealist filmmakers. It seems that people get bored unless the story grabs them and sucks their minds into a drama involving people they can identify with.

How could the art films compete? Surrealists, underground, transgressive, trash, and especially exploitation filmmakers tossed in a lot of sex to hold the viewer’s attention. It was also in the films because the filmmakers felt that the repression of sexuality was unhealthy and freer expression is liberating and healing. In fact, sexual expression and repression is a key theme in many alternative and underground and surrealist films. The influence of Freud’s theories during the 20th century was clearly seen in these films.

Some art filmmakers will argue that the wandering of the attention of the viewer reflects the shallowness of the viewer, their alienation from more subtle things, magical things, their need for slam-bam distraction and spectacle. Bertold Brecht complained that audiences since Greek theater have been put to sleep by spectacle in theater, given easy resolutions and emotional relief. The Frankfurt school of critics say that the culture industry tends to draw people into conventional thinking and passive acceptance of their alienated existence. But clearly there’s something about a well-told story that appeals to people whether the medium is the written word or film.

FILM SEEMED LIKE THE PERFECT ART FORM FOR SURREALISM

Originally, it seemed that film would be the perfect artistic vehicle for surrealism. Surrealism is about the unconscious, about dreams, and about subverting mainstream values. Film seemed to offer a way to reproduce dreams far more effectively than painting or fiction. It can be equally transgressive as well.

The sense that I have is that while surrealism and film are indeed compatible, most people just don’t enjoy seeing disjointed streams of images or highly irrational behavior that leads to nonsensical plots. As a result, surrealism became an inspiring subgenre of film, but has not been engaging enough to generate a large number of popular films.

Even people who had a sense of affiliation with surrealism, like Deren or Anger or Jordorwsky, felt that they had to veer away from a strictly surrealist approach and make their own kind of film. Some, like Clair, went on to make conventional yet at times innovative films.

David Lynch is perhaps the leading example of a semi-surrealist filmmaker, and some of his films have achieved mainstream success while others, like his last, Inland Empire, were not highly successful with viewers.

It seems that people long for well-told stories, not just the recounting of a dream. Even so, surrealism has had a liberating influence and allows some filmmakers to do wild, cool stuff in their films!

Blacula is a groovy cult classic, but pretty conventional too

24 Mar blacula_poster_02-1024x805

 

Blacula, 1972

Directed by William Crain

Starring William Marshall, Gordon Pinsent, Thalmus Rasulala, Vonetta McGee, and Denise Nicholas

Blacula was released in 1972 to mixed reviews but ended up as one of the top grossing films that year with over a million dollars in ticket sales. It also launched a subgenre within the blaxploitation genre — the blaxploitation horror film.

The film’s trailer gives a somewhat distorted impression of the film. It opens with a good looking but hairy Blacula (he sprouts extra facial hair when he turns into a vampire) laughing as cops fire bullets into him at point-blank range or attack him in other ways. He then dispatches them with glee. One would initially have the impression that the film was about an invincible, bulletproof African-American dude who goes around in a cape knocking off agro cops.

The trailer no doubt helped draw an African-American audience, as did some posters with references to slavery. The fact that the film had rhythm and blues music on the soundtrack and even had an extended pop/soul musical number in a nightclub featuring a group called The Hues Corporation helped too. (This film gave the fledgling band, which contributed three songs to the soundtrack, its first big break. They were soon signed with a major label, RCA Records, and eventually had a 2-million selling single in 1974 called “Rock the Boat.”) Overall, it’s a pretty cool film — kind of an early 70s offbeat romp (at times) that starred a handsome Shakespearean actor with a baritone voice and a winning manner — plus the film featured some very beautiful women in leading roles.

The story begins when the man who soon becomes Blacula runs into Dracula while in Europe protesting slavery. He’s a very good and noble African prince, and wants to end slavery. This was in 1780. For some reason he complained about slavery to Dracula, who bit him and made him into a vampire.

A few centuries later Blacula is shipped in his coffin to America following an estate sale. The new owners of the coffin where Blacula is sleeping are two gay dudes (one white and one African-American). They’re bitten by Blackula in the warehouse where they are storing their goodies from the estate sale. The two gay guys become active as vampires over a matter of days. (Later in the film it only takes a few minutes after being bitten to grow fangs and become thirsty for blood.)

An African-American cop investigates. The police investigation into the rising number of strange deaths and the fact that there are vampires popping up in Los Angeles is handled well. It seems like a respectful TV cop series. However, unlike high-budget TV cop shows, the police station and props here are pretty tacky and low-budget. This film was financed by Sam Arkoff and American International Pictures —  an outfit known for keeping costs low and offering thrilling exploitation fare to a teen and young-adult audience. (It’s interesting to note that in the same year that Blacula came out, Arkoff was also helped produce Scorcese’s low-budget film Boxcar Bertha.)

The director of Blacula, an African-American guy named William Crain, was born in 1949 and was a graduate of UCLA’s film school. He had some directed episodes of Mod Squad so he was already comfortable doing cop dramas. He cast the film himself and some of the lead actors had also worked in the medium Crain had done his directing apprenticeship in — television.

The cool thing is that virtually every key player in the film is an African-American. The down side of this is that, being a genre film, all the characters are more or less mirroring conventional roles played by white and black people in everyday society. No one is really trying to break out of the norms of the society of the time. In this way it’s a very conservative film.

One could almost make the case that the film is about the need to conform and be “normal.” Anyone who seeks an alternative to conventional social behavior and does something too freaky — like turning into a crazy vampire — will be destroyed. At the end of the film, during a climactic battle in the warehouse where Blacula has been living in what seems to be some sort of vampire commune, lots of hippy-like vampires (mostly African-American) emerge from the shadows and a great battle ensues with the three cops who have gone there. Other than fangs and pale skin, the group appears more like a bunch of counterculture types than vampires.

Thus Blackula is, in some sense, a crime film about threats to social order and its restoration — those who break the social codes are destroyed and society is able to return to “normal” by the end of the film.

Is that good? In 1972 many people were hoping to find an alternative to the “normal” set of values that had led America into a war in Vietnam and into ecological disasters of various kinds. Could there be a “hip” Blackula who somehow rages against the problems of society and sees himself as a persecuted outcast? Crain did break through with a classic horror film featuring African Americans — and that is, in itself, a challenge to the norms of society. Yet the narrative structure and basic elements of the film echoed mainstream films.

Is fact that this film both offered some new thrills as well as challenges to social conventions — but was at the same time very conventional in many ways — part of why it did so well at the box office? While it definitely had an appeal for an African-American audience, it was, to an extent, tapping into collective concerns and fears that many were feeling in mainstream American society. The rise of horror films at this time can be seen as a reaction to the upheaval and social unrest of the sixties and early seventies. At some level people who viewed themselves as normal felt threatened and had the sense that some almost demonic “other” was invading the society or taking over. (The reaction might be against the strange hippies and ideas about their cults or alternative religious practices, or the suddenly more visible and politically active African Americans, or feminst challenges by women, or some other group seen as threatening to the status quo.) Films like The Exorcist reflected this fear. What’s interesting about Blacula is that in some sense it played on this fear — after all, a sexy African-American vampire is running around causing a degree of social mayhem. In posters for the film, we see him biting the neck of a woman who looks white, even though in the film this never happens — his victims are mostly African-American. Did the film tap into some fear of an emerging African-America energy and power? Probably so — but it also functioned to quell those fears by having the story end with order restored.

Crain went on to direct another blaxploitation horror film called Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, released in 1976. He directed more TV shows and a few films. Then, about twenty years ago, he dropped out of the film and television business because, as he said in an interview for mondo-video.com, he wanted to write fiction and give living like Hemingway a try (traveling and writing). He also said that he got tired of the Hollywood hustle — that is, “beating the bushes” for jobs. It sort of “wore me out” as he said in an interview for mondo-video.com. He had family concerns that he was engaged with as well. The last time he directed a film was in 1992. It’s called Midnight Fear and starred David Carradine as an alcoholic sheriff who’s investigating the horrible murder of a woman who was skinned. (Tarantino has said this is one of his favorite Carradine films and one of the reasons he wanted Carradine for Kill Bill.) For a great interview with Crain, see:
http://www.mondo-video.com/william-crain-interview

The Blackula series continued with Scream, Blacula, Scream, also starring William Marshall, released in 1973.

Two notably cool blaxploitation horror films, both of which go a lot more over the top than this one, are J.D.’s Revenge (1976), and Petey Wheatstraw — The Devil’s Son-In-Law (1977). Both are very entertaining and fun to watch and no doubt owe a debt to Blackula for establishing a new subgenre, the African-American horror film.

Cherry 2000 shines as a comedy at times but isn’t quite a cult classic

16 Mar

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Cherry 2000, 1987

Director: Steve De Jarnatt

Starring Melanie Griffith and David Andrews

Cool, right — Melanie Griffith as a bounty hunter in a Mad-Max future world!!

Surely cheesy, sexy fun — perhaps in a campy, good-bad way. Well, it’s not quite as cool as that but the film has a comedic quality that I wish had been played up much, much more. I bet the people at Orion Pictures felt that way too when they saw the finished film upon completion in December, 1985. It oddly combined various genres and they had no idea how to promote it. It was part comedy, part post-apocalyptic action film, part sci-fi film.

Oddly enough for what sometimes seems like a Mad-Max actioner, the sequences that are the most vital and entertaining are the comedic sequences. The most disappointing aspect is the fact that Melanie Griffith, who delivers such a fun and excellent performance in Something Wild (1986), seems uninterested in the character she’s playing and turns in fairly bland and almost robotic performance.

That’s ironic because the film is, in part, about female robots. Someone forgot to tell Melanie that she was a human, not a robot. That’s not quite fair, but compared to her portrayal of frisky Lulu in Something Wild, she seems like a robot. As a female bounty hunter she’s supposed to be an expert at fighting off bad dudes out in the wasteland, yet even in what should be the most tense situations, she has a sort of vacant, robotic disinterest in the proceedings. I assume that she just couldn’t get into being a tough action hero type. In contrast, Sigorney Weaver is convincingly tough and sexy and redefined female action characters with her portrayal of Ripley in the Alien films of the same era. (Alien was released in 1979, and Aliens in 1986, and there were more to follow.)  Cherry 2000 touches on feminist issues about autonomy and freedom and gender roles, but doesn’t redraw any gender lines nor does it provide a distinct and interesting new icon — a female Mad Max or a female equivalent of the Man With No Name in the Leone films.

The event that sets the story in motion takes place at the opening of the film when Sam Treadwell, a businessman living in the year 2017, comes home to his loving Stepford-wife robot, Cherry. He’s crazy about her and they begin smooching on the kitchen floor as suds overflows from the dishwasher onto the floor and then, tragically for Treadwell, the wet soap seeps into Cherry and shorts out her circuitry. His goal from then on is to find a replacement Cherry, but her model is no longer available since she’s a limited edition. However, out in the ruined landscape that much of America has become, there is a warehouse/factory that holds many female robots. If he can survive the journey and find the place, he might be able to locate a new Cherry. Treadwell goes into the wasteland and hires legendary bounty hunter E. Johnson — a woman! (The “e” is for Edith.) Soon the film is a buddy film / romance / action film with Treadwell and Johnson facing many challenges and battles.

Will Treadwell realize that a real human like Griffith is far better as a lover/companion than a robot?

Will they survive in the dangerous Mad Max wasteland?

Will viewers stay with the film through generic-feeling and rather lifeless action sequences?

The film cost 10 million dollars to make and earned 14 thousand at the box office. Of course part of the problem with it making box office dinero is that the film came out as a direct-to-video film in 1988 instead of getting a real theatrical release. The film is listed as a 1987 film — perhaps it was shown in a few theaters in late 1987.

The part of the film that is most fun is when Treadwell begins his quest and goes to a small town in the desert and encounters the oddballs living there. His beloved Cherry is lifelessly lying in his bed back in LA, her inner circuits fried, as he heads out to the town of Glory Hole where old cowboy farts sit around whittling sticks on porches and everyone is strange. Someone was having fun with this — was the director behind all this? De Jarnatt went on to direct mostly mainstream TV shows — not the work of a man with quirky sensibilities. I suspect the charm of Glory Hole was more the result of the collaborative effort by all involved with the film than the director’s vision.

I love the sequence where he goes into the Sinker bar, a place full of offbeat weirdos in all kinds of funny/cool semi-cowboy clothing. They all stop talking and someone asks where Treadwell is from. When he replies with “Anaheim,” all laugh excitedly and stupidly. (Another joke, perhaps, since Disneyland is in Anaheim? Or are they amused that he’s from Orange County?) Everyone in the place is laughing and it just doesn’t make much sense and thus it’s wonderful. I wish the whole film had been more like that! I wish it had been pushed a little bit more over the edge. It does have an offbeat feeling throughout, but needs more to work purely as a satire and comedy. Perhaps when the movie begins, Cherry could’ve greeted him at the door after doing a series of amazing flips just like the ones that the replicant called Pris played by Darryl Hannah in Bladerunner (1982) did.

Speaking of Bladerunner, one of the colorful and weird characters in the Sinker bar, a conman/thief, is played by Brion James, a replicant in Bladerunner called Leon. He’s the one who says “Wake up! Time to die!” to Deckard as they fight it out on the rainy streets of a decaying LA in the future. What a great quotation — a sort of Zen admonition.

If only Cherry 2000 had lines like that!

Instead we get Griffith saying in a sort of little-girl voice with no affect as they prepare for another dangerous action sequence, “We’re going down the tube in two minutes. Be careful up there.”

Then suddenly there’s a shootout and Treadwell appears in a new location in new clothes and it’s day, not night. He’s in a new sporty outfit and talking with an old girlfriend. She eventually tells him that he was the only one left alive after the shoot-out.

Thus we veer, unexpectedly and for no clear reason, into new territory. Is this encounter with an old girlfriend a small digression that is supposed to be commentary on the challenges Treadwell faces in establishing a meaningful relationship with a woman instead of relying on robots?

These sudden shifts of various kinds throughout the film are why the movie isn’t fully satisfying. The director didn’t steer it strongly enough in one direction. It could’ve been a campy comedy. Or, if it was going to be an action film, it needed a darker tone and more gripping and convincing action sequences. And Griffith would’ve had to have been much more engaged in them rather than being super bland and almost robotic.

What’s interesting is that the film was shown on March 15th, 2012, at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, a showcase for classics, art films, foreign films, and underappreciated American oddball films and cult films. The director appeared in person to talk about this film and another he made called Miracle Mile (1988). So it’s clear that some people really like this film and feel that it’s worthy of our attention.

For me it had its moments but wasn’t nearly as fun or cool or engaging as other cult films of its era such as Repo Man, Earth Girls Are Easy, Buckaroo Bonzai, Bladerunner, and Robocop.

Drop Dead Sexy is a pretty darn good weird comedy

18 Dec

Amber Heard and Crispin Glover in Drop Dead Sexy

Drop Dead Sexy, 2005

Director: Michael Philip

Starring Crispin Glover and Jason Lee

Drop Dead Sexy is a 2005 weirdo comedy directed by Michael Philip about a boozing gravedigger played by Crispin Glover and his loser pal, Jason Lee. To make some money the desperate, cash-strapped Frank (Jason Lee) signs on as a driver of an illegal shipment of cigarettes. He and Eddie (Glover) ride off in a truck and get lost and Frank (Lee) stops to pee and both he and Glover get out of the truck and — BOOM! — it explodes!

Now the two chuckleheads own the evil criminal boss who hired them, a guy named Spider (played by Pruitt Taylor Vince) a lot of money. So they cook up a scheme to get the money for the evil Spider by digging up a recently deceased woman who is gorgeous and used to be a stripper. They think that she was buried wearing a diamond necklace and hope to abscond with it and sell it. However after they dig up the woman, it turns out the necklace is not there. Then they end up taking the body and trying to blackmail the woman’s husband. All this to try to pay Spider back.

The strength of this film is in the performances by the three dudes in the lead roles — Lee, Glover, and Vince. In addition there are delightful and quirky performances by the women in the film — Melissa Keller, Audrey Marie Anderson, Lin Shaye, and more. The actors do well with the offbeat humor, yet are also emotionally moving and engaging as people. In that sense it’s like a favorite comedy of mine — Dumb and Dumber.

There’s much to like here for aficionados of the bizarre — funny lines like when Lin Shaye, a taxadermist who talks to a stuffed beaver, is tussling with Glover and they both have a grip on the stuffed beaver and Ma Muzzy (Lin Shaye) yells, “Get your hands off my beaver.”

Crispin Glover loves films like this where he can explore human quirkiness. The guy is really handsome but his nose is a little strange because it kind of divides into two funny little knobs at the end. Thus, according to inside reports I’ve gotten, he thinks he’s a bit unattractive and freakish. Thus, perhaps, he chooses to make films about freaks. Clearly he also feels a deep and true affinity for the strange that extends beyond the sense of being an outcast due to his odd proboscis. He loves the freakish. And I’m sure that he knows that the offbeat is really fun. He also knows that much great art explores fringe realms.

If you love losers and goofballs you will enjoy this film. Crispin, in an effort to seem more like a complete loser, uses an odd somewhat southern twangy good-ole-dumb-dude accent. He does the dimwit well, put I wish there had been just a little more flash to his alcoholic dimwit.

The film was made in Austin but I didn’t get a strong sense of place nor of Texas. It could’ve been any number of places — Memphis, perhaps, or Biloxi. I love films that more thoroughly place themselves in their locale. That is one weakness of this film — I’d like to know where it’s all taking place.

This was Michael Philips’ first film. At the time that I’m writing this, December, 2011, he has not directed another film. However, he has been active as a producer. His first credit as a producer is from 1994 and his most recent is 2011. He’s long been involved with indie films. In 1994 he founded Nichol Moon Entertainment, a service company designed to help indie filmmakers. One of the films he helped with was Swingers starring Vince Vaughn.

I suppose we might find a little fault with the film in that there isn’t really anything that unique about the directing style, but, on the other hand, if this were a David Lynch film, one might not enjoy it quite as much for what it is — a goofy comedic romp with a slightly dark quality. It’s a very nicely made film and the direction and style of the film serve the story and characters. Someone else might’ve gotten weirder or kinkier, but Philip kept it amusing and heartfelt, and that’s fine for a comedy.

The “darkness” of the film is found in the fact of the two guys digging up a dead woman and then keeping the corpse around and using it to blackmail someone. And, because she is so fresh and gorgeous, and because Glover is used to being around the dead because he’s a gravedigger, well, he begins to develop deep romantic feelings for her. Some will be offended. I see the film as a comedy and comedies are allowed to go to weird places because we know they are exploring the humorous side of life… and life can be strange and terrible and scary but if we can laugh or see things from a different perspective, we can find the liberation of laughter.

I like this film. I’m not sure I’d rush to watch it again — not unless I were on a total Crispin Glover roundup and reading a biography of him and wanting to watch all of his films. But, if someone had it on in their big living room on a large-screen TV and there were cold beers and very pretty and friendly strippers in the room, I’d be happy to see it several more times.