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Clint Eastwood’s Persona, Phallic Imagery, and the Questioning of Male Authority in the Film Joe Kidd, a Revisionist Western

22 Apr
Eastwood drives a phallic train off the rails and into a saloon

Eastwood drives a phallic train off the rails and into a saloon

Robert Duvall holds a big gun

Robert Duvall holds a big gun

Phallic locomotive driven by Eastwood crashes into the interior of the town's saloon

Phallic locomotive driven by Eastwood crashes into the interior of the town’s saloon

Big guns in a manly world

Big guns in a manly world

Wienie-top rock?

Wienie-top rock?

Relaxing with a gun which is ready to go

Relaxing with a gun which is ready to go

While filming Joe Kidd (1972) at the Tucson Studios and at other locations, Clint Eastwood, who plays his classic tough-guy Wild-West character (in this case named Joe Kidd), was, in real life, having panic attacks. A panic attack is characterized by a sense of overwhelming fear with no apparent cause. Its onset is sudden and one may feel an accelerated heart rate, a sense of dread for no reason, and perhaps a fear of death.

That Eastwood was having anxiety/panic attacks is ironic because his film persona is that of a guy who remains calm even in life-threatening situations. But of course he is only playing a role and his character is a fantasy, an ideal. Action films turn him into someone who behaves the way we wish we could in real life — never afraid, always calm and able to maintain some measure of control, even if only over one’s own emotions. His film persona was almost always Mr. Cool, but Clint Eastwood, while making this film, was gripped with fear over something he couldn’t quite identify. Perhaps he knew at some deep level that the film deconstructed and questioned a patriarchal authority that he secretly longed to affirm, whether through his conservative political views or in his personal relationships with women.

Early in the film we learn that his character is as confident with women as he is when confronted by wild-eyed psycho killer gunmen, mean Mexicans, and bullying cops. The big-shot landowner, played by Robert Duvalll, has a mistress, a blonde who has a resemblance to Eastwood’s longtime lady pal Sandra Locke. While waiting for a meeting with Duvall in which Duvall’s character is going to ask Joe Kidd to help hunt down a rebel Mexican, Eastwood sidles up to the blonde in her room next to Duvall’s and plants a kiss on her lips after he has questioned her as to whether she’s Duvall’s wife or acting in some other role. After establishing that she’s basically Duvall’s character’s sexual companion, and presumably her services are available to the highest bidder or the most confident and groovy male (even if he has just gotten out of jail on a drunk charge and threatening to pee on the courthouse) he goes in for a tender kiss. She asks how long he was in jail. He says, “Two days.” She asks what he’d act like if it had been two months. He says, “We wouldn’t even be talking.”

So ole Joe Kidd is quite a stud, a powerhouse of libidinal energy, who, when horny enough, cuts the fancy preliminaries in favor of fervent action. You never saw a character played by John Wayne move in on another man’s gal and start making out with her. He’d engage in some slightly awkward courting and maybe take the lady on a buggy ride to a hillside for a picnic. He was civilized — except in male-male combat. Then he could become somewhat of a savage, but that was okay since he was killing “bad” guys. Eastwood/Kidd skips all the formalities, pulls the blonde’s stocking out of her suitcase to reveal that she’s into dressing in sexy ways, and then proceeds to move in for a kiss.

The film is one of many 1960s revisionist westerns in which no one is really very good, even the fringe types like Eastwood who are cynical about the ways of the white man and his hierarchies of power which often turn out to be corrupt. It was being recognized throughout our culture at that time that the whole process of stealing the West from the Native Americans was a dirty, morally untenable process (unless one believes that might makes right and bullying and genocide and dirty tricks are a good thing). It was also being recognized that even the “good” types like farmers who underwent great hardship to homestead in remote areas, would be swindled and cheated and possibly killed by other white men who had money and power and, say, wanted to build a railroad right where a homesteader had a farm.

In Joe Kidd we are we supposed to feel good about the “people” rising up. In this case the “people” are relatively disenfranchised Mexicans in places like New Mexico who are fighting to get back the land that the King of Spain had granted them, but which the rapacious Americans took from them by various devious means. Sure, the Mexicans were badly treated, but seen from a 1960s revisionist perspective, they aren’t really any better than the white guys. They were just another group of Europeans who stole lands from the Native Americans, only they were Spanish. And they tended to intermarry with the indigenous people rather than just kill them all.

Whether marrying or mating with Native Americans or moving in on blonde mistresses, clearly the Wild-West male was a horny and very manly type of guy, high in testosterone. The wimps stayed behind in Europe arguing philosophy, fashion, politics, and critiquing the quality of croissants in a cafe while rugged males went off to strange lands to build empires, colonize, cultivate, and create a new Eden.

And, in this new Eden, the macho male happily bit the apple without having an anxiety attack. Perhaps unconsciously, the director, John Sturges, loaded up the film with sexual imagery to show just how manly the Western man was. The film contains lots of phallic images. If he was still alive and could be asked about this element of this film, he might well deny or dismiss it. I don’t know his work well, but I imagine that he wasn’t driven by psychological theories as much as by a need to get the film made fast and make it entertaining, with plenty of sex and violence. Or just violence if sex was ruled out by the Hayes code.

Sturges made many B-movies and some great A-movies like The Magnificent Seven (based on Akira Kurasowa’s Seven Samurai). What’s unique about this film, and seems particularly evident to me, is the conscious or unconscious phallic symbolism in the film. It’s almost a caricature, but I don’t think he meant it that way. Or did he?

After Eastwood leaves the blonde floozie and rides off into a rugged landscape on his horse, we see repeated images of phallic rocks that are foregrounded. Later, when the bad guys take over a small town, we repeatedly see dramatic shots of phallic guns held high by gunmen silhouetted against the sky.

And, when we reach the “climax” of the film, it’s all about a huge phallus (a train) ramming into and through a place traditionally known as one of carnal pleasure and carnivalesque fun. We see Eastwood attempting to bring the rebel Mexican to jail in the small town where all the action started, but the bad guys are waiting for him, ready to kill him and the rebel. To reach a safe haven from which to shoot it out with the bad guys who are in sniper positions on the roofs of buildings, Eastwood drives a locomotive and a few attached railroad cars right off the rails and crashes it into the town’s bar with a thrust of phallic energy.

The shootout leads to some bad guys being shot and some surrendering and the big shot bad guy played by Duvall being shot by Eastwood. At this point apparently he figures there will be no justice, no restoration of a fair social order. At the very end, out on the street, he says to the Mexican rebel, “Good luck” and the rebel walks away. Good luck with what? His peasant rebellion? Or is he supposed to be walking to the jail to turn himself to away trial? Not likely. If he is turning himself in to the sheriff, why does the sheriff appear beside Eastwood and ask what he can do just after the rebel has walked away? Eastwood’s response is to punch the sheriff and warn him that next time it will be worse. Since he’s the guy running the jail, shouldn’t he be going to take the rebel to jail?

For the final, ride-into-the-sunset shot with a male and female united (which implies the re-establishing social stability and order), Eastwood does not go back to the hotel to the blonde floozie/mistress/prostitute female who is presumably still in her fancy room waiting in a sexy outfit for bad-guy head honcho Duvall to return or Eastwood to return as he promised he would as soon as Duvall was out of the picture (on a “hunting” trip). Instead, now Eastwood/Kidd has become enamored of a more suitable mate for an independent thinker like himself — a sexy rebel Mexican woman named Helen Sanchez who has been in on a lot of the action in the film and is both feminine and can cook but also is masculinized in that she can handle a gun and knife in combat. The two of them ride off together past the giant powerful phallus of the locomotive which is sticking out of the side of the bar as several men stand and look at it and scratch their heads and wonder at this amazing spectacle of male energy and power caused by Joe Kidd’s final violent thrust for social order and justice.

This film was made during a time of revising the old ideas about the American West and the entire Western genre. Maybe at this stage in his career, Sturges was spoofing machismo and the Western to some extent, overplaying the phallic imagery on purpose. It would’ve been in keeping with the spirit of the times. And it did provide a visually dramatic ending for the film. It’s a lot more fun than, say, having Kidd have an anxiety attack just as he’s riding into town, but that too would fit in with the spirit of the revisionist western.

With LOVE, Wessel Dives Deep into Movie and Art Magic: A Portrait of the Artist Beth Moore-Love

14 Feb

Larry Wessel’s feature-length documentary called LOVE takes viewers into a fascinating and strange realm of the unreal (or, perhaps, the hyper-real) — the realm of Beth Moore-Love’s art. Both Moore-Love and Wessel know that there’s something spooky and nasty about American history and culture and they have reflected that in their respective mediums. While America’s founder’s Enlightment-based idealism offered a vision of a new and wonderful kind of nation, there’s a dark side to it all, starting with stealing the country from the locals with brutal swindles and military campaigns. For pure creepiness one can consider the Salem witch trials, the cannibalism at Donner Pass, the madness and mayhem reported in the book called Wisconsin Death Trip (one source of inspiration for Moore-Love’s art), and, well, there’s the grandfather of all nutty grave-robbing serial killers and the man who provided a lead character for many films including Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs — that crazy kooky cannibal, fashion freak, and Wisconsin native, Ed Gein. Far more destructive than the above horrors is the fact that the U.S. never hesitates to use military force, even for nothing more than to ensure cheap banana prices at the expense of the local farmers, as in the repeated invasions of Honduras. (Note: the U.S. military attacked Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924, 1925 to “protect U.S. interests.”)

One could say that Moore-Love’s art is, in part, an expression of the idea, “Nothing risked, nothing Geined.” Moore-Love takes risks in her art and pushes it deep into creepyland Americana with ease and painterly sophistication. Thanks to her ability to combine innocence (she often depicts female children, drawing on Victorian-era pop-culture images) and gore, she has Geined a following in the U.S. and Europe. Born in 1964 in Des Moines, Iowa, she was strongly influenced by time spent in San Francisco in the 1980s where she met Boyd Rice, Anton Levey, and others; plus she helped run the Force-Nordstrom gallery on Market St. there and showed work by Mark Mothersbaugh and Karen Finley, and more. A meeting with Joel Peter-Witkin was important to her artistic development as well.

Wessel’s film tells the story of her artistic life largely from her point of view in a series of intimate conversations at the kitchen table in her house in Albuquerque. We also see her firing an automatic weapon outdoors (perhaps an homage to William Burroughs), and going for drives in the mysterious, awesome, sometimes spooky landscape of New Mexico.

She offers much engaging and in-depth commentary on each major painting she has created. The film moves chronologically through her career, beginning with her first paintings which were done while she was studying with Albuquerque artist and lifelong artistic mentor and friend, Dale Caudill, aka Bo, who also has a prominent role in the film. He’s a charming hippie rogue of an art teacher and friend and offers much entertaining commentary along with her fascinating descriptions of what went into each painting.

The film is expertly filmed, appreciative, and has enough of its own surreal touches to create the right mood for learning about Love’s work. Periodically the viewer is teased with lingering shots of New Mexico semi-wastelands combined with David Lynchian sounds and music create a slightly menacing, surreal mood. I liked that aspect of the documentary. It became at times like Moore’s paintings.

There are also interviews with artists in Berlin, where Moore-Love lived for a time and participated in an infamous group show that briefly became the talk of the town via front-page tabloid newspaper articles (which boosted sales of the newspapers). The sensationalistic articles accused the artists of making and showing obscene art because some of it depicted nude children as part of works of art, something that, if you believe the reports in the mass media, is one of the great horrors of the 20th century along with WWII, Nazi death camps, and Hiroshima. My take on the late-20th and 21st-century hysteria about the exploitation of children is that it’s a metaphor for widespread exploitation of all people. Pretty much everyone knows on some level (conscious or unconscious) that they are exploited by a heartless system (governmental and economic/corporate), however they are relatively powerless to do anything about it — just as children are relatively powerless. Thus in the media and the culture, children stand in for a widespread exploitation — they are a metaphor for adults who feel basically good and innocent but know they’re exploited. Not that most people know this on a conscious level. But artists know this too. Wounded waifs have been a staple motif of the lowbrow/ pop surrealist art movement that I surveyed in my books WEIRDO DELUXE (2005) and WEIRDO NOIR (2010). San Francisco artist Margaret Keane may have kicked it all off with her big-eyed girl paintings which I feel reflect a kind of wounded innocence following WWII. Certainly Mark Ryden (whose paintings sell for upwards of one million dollars each, but that’s another story) is working in that tradition, as is Moore-Love.

The destruction of human dreams and innocence is a major theme in Moore-Love’s art. Wessel subtly suggests that the Vietnam war and her father’s absence while serving in the military there were an influence on Moore-Love’s sense that there’s an underlying violence and nastiness to American life. Curiously, one of the most striking works of photojournalism to emerge from that war is the photo by Nick Ut of the “napalm girl,” 9-year-old Kim Phuc. She was fleeing the heat of a napalm bombing in a village she lived in. Moore-Love may not have been directly influenced by the image of the terrorized Kim Phuc, but the spirit of that photo and the horror of it suffuse her art.

The bizarre evils and incongruities of our hierarchal, top-down managed society are the kind of things that fine artists like Moore-Love address. As Moore-Love describes the influences on her work, Wessel provides images of paintings and works she refers to. Wessel has put many hours into putting together a documentary that flows along with seeming effortlessness, but which involved a huge amount of research and work.

This documentary may not be for the squeamish, but it’s well worth watching for an in-depth portrait of a significant American artist who has been addressing big issues in her complex, amazing paintings for decades.

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Russ Meyer’s Breast Early Years and a Few Sad Ones at the End

20 Nov

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Russ Meyer, born in 1922, started making short films as a teenager. Later he took a lot of pin-up photos for Playboy and other magazines, working with hundreds of nudie models and even movie stars in Los Angeles in the 1950s. He photographed Liz Taylor, Gina Lollobrigida, Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield, June Wilkinson, and Anita Ekberg, who had the biggest boobs of all. Later he made hyperactive, violent, very sexually provocative films independently, financing them himself. His films are now regarded as cult classics.

Meyer got into the nudie biz because of a suggestion by an old army pal named Don Ornitz, son of a blacklisted Hollywood novelist and screenwriter, Samuel Ornitz, one of the Hollywood Ten of the McCarthy-era commie witch hunts. Ornitz was doing work for girlie mags and knew that Meyer loved to look at and photograph nude or semi-nude women, so he suggested that Meyer do some work for pin-up calendars and the skin mags. At the time, Meyer was working in Oakland, California doing industrial films for the SP railroad, working as a part-time projectionist at the fifteen-hundred-seat El Rey Burlesque Theater in Oakland, taking movie stills, and other such gigs.

Meyer quickly became one of Playboy magazine’s top photographers. Founded in 1953, Playboy became a hit because it was stylish and sophisticated. It featured photos of glamorized versions of the girl next door, wholesome and sweet, and totally nude. When Meyer did a photo shoot, he would imagine the layout of the photo spread in the magazine, including the type. He would make sketches to storyboard the photo shoot and was good at telling a story with props — the rumpled bed, the gauzy romantic candles, wine glasses and so on. Hot stuff for its time, the 1950s and early 1960s.

Meyer got into making feature films when he invented a new genre of American film, the “nudie cutie.” It began with a friend’s desire to make a nudist film and cash in on the nudist-film fad. His friend Peter DeCenzie owned the high-class striptease club in Oakland where Meyer had worked as a projectionist now and then. The place featured comedians, an orchestra, and of course gorgeous dancers. The two men made a short film about burlesque star Tempest Storm called French Peep Show in 1950. Shot on 16mm it was blown up to 35mm to be shown on the big screen.

In 1958 DeCenzie called Meyer and asked him to help make another film, a nudist film. At that time horny guys who wanted to see nudity in print or in a film could find it in books that featured nude models for artists or in films that were intended to document the nudist lifestyle or in ethnographic films made in places where humans had yet to wear a lot of clothing. Those were legit outlets, legal films. The strict Hayes code had made nudity in Hollywood films taboo from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Legit nudist films had been made beginning in the 1930s and were intended, in part, to promote the nudist lifestyle and values. Quite a few mid-20th-century European avant-garde intellectuals, cutting-edge artists, and social revolutionaries felt that human civilization had gone down a blind alley with the development of hierarchies of power that allow the exploitation of people, animals, and plants, and the whole ecosystem of the planet. They also felt that human sexuality had been repressed, and that was not good for people. They advocated a return to a more natural state of human society, one which included nudism. Nudist films were made to promote this goal, or, sometimes, just to show nude people romping around and give horny dudes a chance to see some female nudity.

Note that in the 1960s, the hippies felt the same way about nudism. They tried to go back to the land and set up communes that would feature organic farming and ecologically sustainable land use. Nudism was sometimes part of this back-to-the-land movement too. (For a time long ago I lived in a co-op/ semi-commune called Nottingham Coop in Madison, Wisconsin where men and women shared a big bathroom and showered together — the idea was to not feel shameful about the human body.) So, although nudism is sometimes viewed as a kind of joke and nudist camps as places where people who shouldn’t be nude are, it has its roots in ideas that have a lot of validity.

Nineteen-thirties nudist films were not hugely popular but later, in post-WWII America, when censorship was loosening up following the war, the nudist film took off. The 1954 film Garden of Eden was one of the first. Edgar Ulmer, director of the noir classic Detour (there is an article that I wrote on Ulmer’s Detour here, on fleshapoid films), made Naked Venus in 1958. The fantastic Doris Wishman made quite a few nudist films in the early 1960s, including Nude on the Moon, a wonderful, campy sci-fi nudist film.

When Meyer’s friend who ran the El Rey decided to make a nudist film in 1958, he was hoping to cash in on the sudden revival of nudist films. Meyers thought they featured too many paunchy people, not the super-erotic females he wanted to photograph. However, Meyer had just finished shooting a spread for Playboy in which women of the future would be wearing see-through clothing and Meyers thought that the same idea could be adapted to a humorous film featuring nudism. It would be about a man who is totally inhibited and repressed, but who loves to imagine women nude, in some sense seeing through their clothing in everyday situations.

This idea was refined and became the first nudie-cutie, The Immoral Mr. Teas. Teas is a nerd who, after dental surgery, has X-ray vision. It was a smash hit and grossed three million bucks on a 24,000-dollar investment. (Perhaps in today’s dollars it would be 240,000-dollar investment that returned 30 million dollars.) Meyer put in twelve grand and so did DeCenzi. The idea was to shoot the film in four days on Eastman Kodak color 16mm film, which would be blown up to 35mm.

“We need four, maybe five well-stacked nude chicks,” said Meyer as to the essential part of the cast. DeCenzi’s regular burlesque strippers balked as did Meyer’s cheesecake models. Meyer turned to an old girlie photographer pal, Earl Leaf. The goateed photographer would tell starlets and models who were reluctant to disrobe for the camera, “nothing risqué, nothing gained.” Leaf talked Ann Peters into being a waitress in the film. Other actresses were soon on board. The film was shot at a remote lake in the Malibu hills, a Westwood ice cream parlor, El Namez beach, and in Meyer’s home. Some of the scenarios involving the nude women become somewhat surrealistic.

On opening night the theater was raided by the police and the film was on ice for eight months. However, after a theater booked it in Seattle and it was a hit there, it became a blockbuster all around the US. This launched a whole new genre — the sex comedy or nudie cutie. Many such films were made in the late 1950s and 1960s.

By the mid-1960s audiences became restless watching just silly nudism films and sexually risqué comedies and a new genre emerged called the roughie or roughie nudie. In those films elements of violent conflict and sometimes sadism were added to the nudie action. Nudie-cutie / nudist-film directors like Doris Wishman felt compelled to keep up with the trend with films like Bad Girls Go to Hell. Meyer himself got in on the quirky but highly profitable roughie genre as well. Some of his most famous films feature psycho cops (SuperVixens) and psycho females (Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!!) who really do nasty and violent things to members of the opposite sex in a semi-sexual or overtly sexual contexts.

Now when people think of Meyer’s films, they think of grind house and drive-in movies about powerful, semi-Amazonian women with enormous breasts. In Wikipedia the film historian Jimmy McDonough is cited as having asserted that Russ Meyer’s use of powerful, overwhelming female characters puts him in his own unique genre of film. What would the genre be called? Psycho Amazonian Women with Huge Boobies? Was Meyer a feminist of sorts? The women in his films are powerful and they are quite open about wanting sexual fulfillment. His female protagonists sometimes end up defeating the men, another quirk of his films that was possible because he was making independent films rather than conventional Hollywood films.

Humor, some of it very dark, was always part of the Meyers style of filmmaking. He repeatedly told the screenwriter and film critic Roger Ebert (who collaborated with Meyer on Meyer’s one mainstream Hollywood film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970) that his irreverence was the key to his artistic success. This combination of humor and extremes of sex and violence plus a critique/lampooning of uptight moral values and stereotypes influenced many filmmakers, including John Waters. While on the surface there might not seem to be that much connection, it’s clear that the aggressive, Amazonian characters in films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble owe quite a debt to the characters in films by Meyer.

Below: Publicity still for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

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Waters has written about Meyer in magazines and books. In the July-August, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Waters published an article called a Trash Tour of Los Angeles. Meyer’s green-and-orange home at 3121 Arrowhead Drive in the Hollywood Hills above the Hollywood Resevoir, was featured. Waters called the home a museum because it was packed with framed posters and memorabilia related to Meyer’s career in film.

Meyer financed his films himself and held on to the rights. In his final years he worked out of his house in Hollywood and sold his films directly from the house, often answering the phone to take orders. One fan and acquaintance of Meyer’s who prefers to remain anonymous told me, “If you called the number on the back of his self distributed videotapes in the 80s and early 90s, he actually answered the phone, and he was hilarious.”

Below — the house on Arrowhead Drive in the Hollywood Hills as it looked when Meyer lived there.

(Photo by David Frasier)

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The big projects of his final years were a book all about his films and life and a 12-hour compilation film to be called The Breast of Russ Meyer. The book began as a one-volume book and ended up being three volumes. He worked on it for fifteen years with help from the writer David Frasier. Once a year, Meyer would fly Frasier out to Hollywood. The two worked daily for a week at Meyer’s home in Hollywood, starting at 5:30 am. At six pm they would head to Musso-Frank restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard for beers for Frasier and near-frozen gin for Meyer. Steaks and chops from the grill were part of the evening because for Meyer “cutting meat” was part of male friendship.

Frasier wrote that “By mid-1999 it was apparent to those in the company that RM was unable to complete the project” due to a loss of mental clarity because of Alzheimer’s disease.

Meyer ended up in the care of a woman who may have been domineering and exploitative toward him. Oddly, however, he might’ve sought that to some extent. Kitten Natividad, a star in some of his films and longtime sexual companion, said that he was always engaged in tempestuous personal relationships with women.

The person who commented on Meyer’s final years to me, and who prefers to remain anonymous, said that, “Until the end of his life he had a lot fun until some very bad people had him declared unfit and kept him from the people who really cared about him. His condition wasn’t as bad as reported, sadly, until the very end. When I couldn’t take the job as his assistant back in 94/5, he hired a woman who basically stole his life from him.

“She got power of attorney, got him totally doped up on prescription meds and wouldn’t let anyone see him, because she knew that her gig would be over. There were a few times when we got him away from her and from the house and he wasn’t aware of how bad his situation was, but he was completely lucid and his memory was sharp.

“Unfortunately, many of the people who were aware of what was happening are dead or dying now too, such as Kitten Natividad, Tura Sultana, and Col. Rob from Mondo Video. If you ever talk to Eric Caidin he can tell you all about it.”

The biography called Russ, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film by Jimmy McDonough describes the final years.

Frasier writes that they were filled with equal measure of Shakespearean poignancy and perfidy.

The source I cited above (unnamed) stated that she sold a lot of his memorabilia and rights to his films. However, Wikipedia says that his estate, including the rights to his films, was willed to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in honor of his late mother.

Meyer died on September 18, 2004, of complications of pneumonia. He was 82 years old. His grave is in Stockton, California. The gravestone states that he was “King of the Nudies” and “I Was Glad to Do It”.

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DON’T FORGET TO PICK UP SOME COOL BOOKS BY MATT DUKES JORDAN!!

BUKOWSKI’S LA —- a cool illustrated guide to Bukowski’s places in LA — His life story told through where he lived !!!  never before seen photos by Sam Cherry — poems, and much more !!!

POE, JEKYLL, AND HYDE — A NEW book in which POE appears in the story of Jekyll and Hyde !!! Plus the entire original book by Stevenson… Plus an awesome essay on mashups, Poe, and more !!!

WEIRDO DELUXE — the classic first survey of the entire lowbrow / pop surrealist art movement

WEIRDO NOIR — very cool goth lowbrow / pop surrealist art 24 artists, interviews, and a cool timeline and intro — awesome color printing of the many pieces of art

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.

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, 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.