Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Friday, December 29, 2006

A New Leaf (1971)
Director: Elaine May

As a Chicago native, I feel a particular kinship with Elaine May. As the female of half of the comedy team Nichols & May, she helped forge a peculiarly Chicago style of humor based on improvisation that has been exported around the world by alumni of the comedy group, the Compass Players, and its offshoot, Second City. Both Nichols and May went on to careers as film directors in Hollywood, but only Mike Nichols has been able to sustain that career. Elaine May's fourth film, Ishtar (1987), laid such an egg that she never got to sit in the director's chair again. Luckily, we have her debut film, A New Leaf, one of the funniest films I have ever seen.

A New Leaf opens by introducing us to Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a fussy, middle-aged bachelor who has been living off a trust fund as a brahmin in elite New York society. He rides, he drives a Ferrari, he goes to his club, and he employs a manservant named Harold (George Rose), embracing "a tradition that was dead long before you were born." He's snobbish, foppish, and very nearly broke.

Henry does not realize he's about run out of money until a bounced check is returned to him. He confronts Beckett, his banker (Mike Nichols lookalike William Redfield), about this embarrassment and outrage. In classic Nichols & May style, Beckett tries to explain to Henry that his trust fund could have afforded him a living of $70,000 a year, but that he chose to spend $200,000 a year. As a consequence, Henry has blown through his trust fund. He no longer has any money. Henry sits looking at Beckett in a defiant, but quizzical way. He responds, pointing to the piece of paper in contention, "What about this check?" Beckett explains that he just explained that Henry hasn't any money. "But no check has ever bounced before," Henry offers, apparent proof that he is not without money. Beckett says that Henry has indeed bounced checks before. "I have covered them, $545 of my own money, just so that I might never have to meet with you." Beckett considers it a bargain, too. When the news finally seems to reach Henry's vacuous brain, he pulls together as much dignity as possible and offers Beckett his gold cigarette case, dumping its contents onto Beckett's desk. "This should cover the $545 I owe you. Smoke them in good health."

In despair, Henry seeks Harold's consolation. He asks Harold what he would do if Henry couldn't pay him anymore. "I should leave immediately - after giving proper notice, of course." So much for consolation. He tries for counsel. Harold suggests asking Henry's rich uncle for a loan. Uncle Harry (James Coco) did, after all, raise the orphaned Henry. This, of course, was a laughable suggestion when Henry first made it to Beckett. Uncle Harry hates Henry's guts. Henry is coming to the conclusion that the only thing left is suicide, that is, until Harold suggests that he marry money. Henry grasps at this hopeful straw while, at the same time, finding repugnant the idea that someone would come in and touch his things. Henry, it appears, is completely asexual and perhaps afflicted with a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. How will he pull it off? He decides he can manage it only if he does away with his bride soon after appropriating her fortune.

Henry practices humbling himself to his uncle to obtain a $50,000 loan to keep up appearances while he woos and wins an appropriate female. He goes to his even more fey and disagreeable uncle, who laughs at his suggestion. Henry offers him an interest rate and 6-week term that would have made Shylock blush. Uncle Harry considers and then makes a counter offer. He will accept Henry's terms, but if Henry does not repay the debt with interest on time, Uncle Harry will be entitled to 10 times the initial loan - all that Henry has left. Henry is so desperate to remain idly rich that he agrees. He immediately sets about his task.

He attends a garden party, where a rich woman named Sally Hart (Renée Taylor) is pointed out to him. He takes her aside, and they sit under tree as Henry swats mosquitoes on his neck and face and Sally writhes seductively in his direction. As she appears ready to remove her top, the camera closes in on her cleavage. We hear Henry's anguished cry of "Don't let them out!" Strike one.

Henry's further attempts are fruitless. With only a little over a week to go, he goes to his tailor to bid him adieu. He enters Lutece to see its elegant dining room once more. In a never-say-die moment, he attends a luncheon where a likely prospect finally pops up. She is a wallflower named Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a botanist and university professor who is heir to a fortune. "Who was her father?" Henry asks his friend Bo (Graham Jarvis). "He was an industrialist or a composer. Something like that." Henry approaches her. She spills tea all over the oriental rug. The maid starts to blot the rug. She spills another cup of tea. Her hostess accuses Henrietta of maliciousness. Henry expresses outrage on Henrietta's behalf - and the courtship is on.

He instructs himself on the finer points of botany like a man possessed. Henrietta asks him if he is a botanist, too. Oh no, he assures her, "Every science has its fans." He seeks to get to know her better:

"Tell me about yourself, Miss Lowell - your work, your hopes, your dreams."

"Well, I work as a teacher, and I also do field work and write monographs. My hope is to discover a new variety of fern that has never been described or classified. I don't know what my dream is. Do you think it could be the same as my hope? Well, at any rate, that is my work and my hope except for my dream, which I'm not sure of."

He takes her to dine and expounds on the relative merits of a '55 wine over a '56 vintage. Henrietta interjects that she never liked alcohol until one of her students introduced her to a drink on one of their field trips. "Have you ever tasted Mogen David extra-heavy malaga wine with soda water and lime juice?" No, but he will. He'll do anything to marry this woman in time.

Henry proposes three days after their meeting, and she accepts. Her lawyer Andy (Jack Weston) is beside himself. He has been controlling her money for decades - and thieving from her along with the rest of her large household staff - and doesn't want anyone else milking his cash cow. He tells her about Henry's $50,000 debt as proof of his fortune hunting. Henry confesses that he was suicidal about his financial condition - until he met her. Henrietta decides to settle Henry's debt and give him full access to her fortune to prove he is not after her money. OK, yeah, did you follow that? Me neither.

While they are on their honeymoon, Henrietta leans dangerously over a cliff to collect a fern she doesn't recall having encountered before. They return to her palatial estate, and Henry plots her demise, seeking out household gardening products to use in a lethal brew. Unfortunately, Henrietta believes in organic gardening. Rats! He must devise some other means, but in the meantime, he throws himself into running her house and taking care that she is not an embarrassment to him:

"Oh, no. I forgot to check her before she went to school this morning. She'll be walking around all day with price tags dangling from her sleeves."

"I took the liberty, sir."

"Thank you, Harold. Was she free of crumbs?"

"Only a slight sprinkling, sir."

Harold is becoming rather fond of the pathetically endearing Henrietta and tries to dissuade Henry from what he fears he will do to her. But Henrietta herself may inspire Henry to a change of heart when she joyfully announces that she has discovered a new fern and has named it after him in gratitude for the confidence he instilled in her to pursue her hope (or dream?). He seems genuinely touched that she would give up her place in history to him. But then they go on a botanical expedition alone, and his scheme has its best chance to succeed.

A New Leaf is graced with a raft of comedy's finest practitioners bringing to life one of its finest scripts. I'm reasonably sure that many parts of this movie came about through improvisation of an order that comedians working today can only envy. In addition, the physical humor, particularly as provided by Elaine May, has me rolling on the floor just thinking about it.

I have wanted to see this comedy again for years, but it is surprisingly hard to find. If the hubbie had not been so persistent on eBay to secure us an old VHS recording, I wouldn't have spent my holiday laughing my ass off. This, like The Conformist, is another superb, sophisticated movie that Paramount, in its infinite wisdom, has taken its sweet time releasing on DVD. I'll be writing to them to see if I can help pry it loose. I hope you will, too. l

Write to Paramount Home Video, 5555 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, CA 90038, U.S. Start by thanking them for releasing The Conformist. A little appreciation goes a long way.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Conformist (Il Conformista, 1970)
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

The Conformist is a film that has attained legendary status. A beautiful and surprisingly assured work by preeminent director Bernardo Bertolucci and equally respected cinematographer Vittorio Storaro when they were just in their 20s, The Conformist dropped quickly from sight after its rave reception at several film festivals. It only got a very, very limited run in the United States after the likes of Francis Ford Coppola urged Paramount to release it. The film also was scarce in its native country because of its depiction of the popularity of fascism in 1930s Italy.

At long last, Paramount has released a DVD of The Conformist, including a three-part special on the making of the film that includes interviews with Bertolucci and Storaro. This DVD, the most anticipated foreign-film release of the year, does justice to the film (which I saw on the big screen early in 2006) and sheds light on its sometimes frustratingly oblique approach.

The title character is Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant). We first meet him in a hotel room fitted out with ornate, antique furniture, surrounding his nervous movements and '30s private-eye appearance with traditional elegance. Already there seems to be some sort of disconnect between Marcello and his surroundings. Marcello soon is shown riding in a car with Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), an affably viperish operative for the Italian fascists. From here on, most of the film is shown in flashback as we watch Marcello move from privileged childhood to fledgling spy for the Italian government.

Marcello is friends with a blind fascist named Italo (José Quaglio). This not-very-subtle symbol for Italy under Mussolini broadcasts fascist propaganda on the radio and introduces an eager Marcello to the Colonel (Fosco Giachetti), who can help Marcello realize his ambitions. Marcello enters a monumental building, his tiny figure like an ant moving across a vast marble expanse. He enters the wrong room for a brief moment and catches a glimpse of a ranking fascist seducing a woman in mourning attire who is laying across his desk. Marcello's and the woman's eyes meet for an instant. Excusing himself quietly, Marcello goes on to the Colonel's office.

Marcello offers to try to infiltrate the antifascist movement through his former philosophy professor, a middle-aged man named Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) who is a self-exile in Paris. The Colonel knows Marcello is not a true believer, nor is he being bribed to work for the fascists. The Colonel cannot guess Marcello's motive for signing on to the cause, but he willingly accepts. When the Colonel learns Marcello is soon to be married, he considers a honeymoon in Paris as the ideal cover.

A happy Marcello goes to dine with his fiancee Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and her mother (Yvonne Sanson). Giulia is a simple-minded bourgeois whom Marcello chose because of her sheer ordinariness, her good looks, and her sexually eager nature. He teases her about their honeymoon destination, and she teases him with an invitation to love right on the carpet of the sitting room. (This invitation must have been the inspiration for a similar offer from Angelica Huston to Jack Nicholson in Prizzi's Honor.) Giulia's black-and-white striped dress and the shadows created by the light coming through the blinds suggest a noirish atmosphere, but moreso a rigid geometry surrounding Marcello. His desire, like all fascists, is for strict order.

The Clericis' train makes a stop before they proceed to Paris. Marcello moves quickly along a dock, moving behind a painting at an outdoor market of a boat on a dockside, and emerging from behind the painting into the exact scene it depicted. Marcello meets Manganiello in a boathouse where the older fascist is being entertained by a red-haired whore. Manganiello sends her over to greet his friend. He takes one look at her and hugs her close. Marcello is given a handgun, and in a move that frightens Manganiello, points it straight at the him. Marcello then assumes a couple more attitudes with the gun, practicing not only how to hold and aim it, but also to look like a man who holds, aims, and fires guns. Instead of infiltrating the Quadri antifascist cell, he is ordered to kill the man.

Once the newlyweds are ensconced in their hotel room (the room we saw in the opening scene), Marcello phones Quadri to suggest a meeting for old times' sake. Quadri invites the Clericis over for tea. They are greeted at the door by a large dog and Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda). Marcello seems thunderstruck by her, and we get the distinct impression that they know each other. In fact, Sanda played the woman in black and the whore. She is clearly the woman of Marcello's dreams, and he spends the rest of his trip to Paris pursuing her.

For her part, Anna distrusts Marcello and has her eye on Giulia. The two women go out shopping for gowns they can wear dancing, and while they prepare for the evening out, Anna has sexual contact with an initially angry and then willing Giulia. Immediately after this encounter, Anna goes to Marcello and falls into his arms. Her interest in Marcello, however, is to plead with him to spare her life and that of her husband.

Manganiello has tried to contact Marcello, but having lost his taste for his task because it puts Anna in danger, Marcello dodges him. Finally, there can be no more delay. We return to the present, as the two men follow the Quadris up a snow-covered mountain road as they make their way to their vacation home outside of Paris. The Quadris' way is blocked by a car that has skidded in front of them, the driver apparently stricken. Manganiello blocks their way from behind. Against Anna's cautions, her husband leaves the car to check on the other driver. At that moment, a number of trench-coated fascists - Marcello's and Manganiello's coconspirators - emerge from the surrounding woods and set upon Quadri with knifes in a scene reminiscent of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Anna flees her car and spies Marcello in the backseat of the rear car. She bangs on his window, wailing like an animal for his help. He might have helped her or mercifully shot her to end her misery, but he sits by and does nothing. She runs off and is stalked and shot dead in a scene of utter brutality.

The film fast-forwards to the end of the war. Marcello plays with his young daughter as the household listens to the radio in their house in Rome as news of Mussolini's arrest and demonstrations throughout the city rings out. Giulia reminisces regretfully about the Quadris, but forgives Marcello for his fascist loyalty. "It was good for your career," she says in unreflexive, bourgeois justification. Italo calls Marcello for help, and Marcello grabs his coat, though it is dangerous for known fascists to be in the streets. Giulia tries to stop him, but he says he must go, that he wants to see what it looks like when a dictatorship falls. On the street, he has an encounter that upsets everything he ever believed about himself and turns him into a raging lunatic. His fascist control is gone from inside him as well as from the city that swallows him up in the night.

So what is it that drives Marcello? What is it that he believes about himself that leads him to pursue social conformity in spite of the irrational urges that spill forth when he is confronted with Anna and her lookalikes? We are led to believe that a homosexual encounter Marcello had when he was 14 that resulted in him shooting his seducer has made him feel different. Bertolucci and Storaro state in the DVD interviews that it is the shooting that set him apart as a killer in his own mind, but I think there is much more going on than that. The man who seduced him was his chauffeur, and this man rescued the young Marcello from the tauntings of his schoolmates, who had attempted to remove his pants. So, we see right away that he doesn't fit in, perhaps because of his family's wealth, perhaps because he has betrayed some hint of homosexual longing.

Before Marcello marries Giulia, he goes with his morphine-addicted mother (Milly) to see his father (Giuseppe Addobbati), who has been institutionalized in an insane asylum (in fact, a massive building constructed at Mussolini's orders). It would certainly not surprise me if Marcello was a little touched himself, or at the very least, fearful of being overtaken by the madness that felled his father and drove his mother's addiction. Those who seek to fence out the irrational will naturally gravitate to the safe, narrow tracks of society's rules, and certainly to fascism. (It's easy to see how the neoconservatism of modern times that bears a strong resemblance to fascism might have arisen from the sexually and politically open 1960s and '70s.)

Marcello's attitude toward women is at least as repressed as his other urges. When the Quadris and Clericis go out for Chinese food and dancing, Anna asks Giulia to dance. The two do a seductive tango that disturbs the conventional couples on the dance floor and scandalizes Marcello. Quadri is content with their behavior: "They both look so pretty." He has accepted the bisexual Anna as she is, whereas Marcello holds his wife in contempt and thinks nothing of abandoning her on their honeymoon for Anna. While he may feel an irresistible regard for Anna, it is, perhaps, more threatening to think that his conventional wife is more sexually liberated that he could have imagined. As the ultimate irrational in a man's psyche, women must be as predictable as possible for the man Marcello desperately wants to become.

The central metaphor of this film is Plato's cave. When Marcello and his old professor meet, Marcello reminds Quadri of the lesson about the prisoners chained to face the back of a cave, seeing only the shadows of the objects moving behind them. As in Plato's cave, Marcello himself seems to be a shadow. This is emphasized when Marcello's shadow on the wall of Quadri's study vanishes when the professor opens the window blinds.

Like all of Bertolucci's films, The Conformist is deeply sensual. Storaro provides sumptuous visual effects that make the film appear to be a dream inside a dream. Bertolucci says in the DVD interview that he always thought it was a shame that films had to be edited from the daily rushes. For him, the rushes represent the unfiltered creativity of the entire enterprise. Nonetheless, Storaro and film editor Franco Arcalli manage to keep an impressionistic, almost surrealist feel even as they create a mood and narrative drive that build from illusion to horror. Lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is just a little too cryptic for my tastes. He doesn't suggest depths under still waters, and I think that would have helped this film in its first half. Marcello is a part made for Matt Damon. As heretical is this may seem, Alberto Moravia's novel on which this film is based may be due for a reinterpretation. Of course, no one should, or will, ever remake The Conformist. l

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Last House on the Left (1972)
Director: Wes Craven

By Roderick Heath

From among the other talented filmmakers of the early ’70s who began in or gravitated to horror, Wes Craven is one of the few who has managed the impressive feat of surviving (seen John Carpenter lately?). Red Eye was one of the best-made, least pretentious, most pleasurable films of 2005, whilst Cursed was one of the worst, which sums up Craven’s uneven career in a nutshell. Best known for the well-conceived, badly executed A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the Scream franchise, Craven’s films often balance a deft realism with a heightened, often high-camp wit, built of cleanly constructed shots, well-filmed action, sleek framing (great in widescreen), and an assured ability to slowly crank up narratives to a frenzied pitch.

Craven, like Hitchcock, deals with the violence and chaos lying just below the surface of normal life. Even more than Hitchcock, he details the capacity of average people not to survive, but to respond to evil with equal violence. The worms turn and prove often to be alligators themselves in ferociously Darwinian narratives that often pointedly satirize their eras. Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes take on the outsider terror of the ’70s-era bourgeoisie. A Nightmare on Elm Street saw the pitch-black side of repression and past evil swallowing up Reagan-era children; The People Under The Stairs portrayed Bush One-era urban life as a prison run by fascist capitalists named Ron and Nancy. Scream exactly described the emotional paranoia and media-obsessing self-distancing of Generation X.

Last House on the Left, Craven’s second film (after a porn film, Together, in 1970) in collaboration with producer Sean S. Cunningham, is one of those fascinating experiences of watching a director learn how to make a film as the work is progressing. In its first half-hour, LHotL is, frankly, shit, and no amount of auteurist squinting can make out talent. The plot is acknowledged by all as a modern-day spin on the Swedish myth Ingmar Bergman filmed as The Virgin Spring (1961). Dr. John Collingwood (Gaylord St. James), an affable, greying academic, his wife Estelle (Cynthia Carr), and teenage daughter Mari (Sandra Cassell), live in leafy upstate New York. The Collingwoods are neither insufferably square nor certifiably hip, and are mildly uncomfortable with their daughter’s bursting sexuality, pithy teenaged attitude, and choice of friend in Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham), a slightly older girl with a penchant for pot and wayside excitement. Estelle gives her daughter a present - a peace-symbol necklace.

To a soundtrack of awful faux folk/rock (by costar David Hess, a Tin Pan Alley escapee), Mari and Phyllis drive into Manhattan for a concert whilst listening to a radio news report about the recent jail break of sex offenders and low-rent criminal masterminds Krug Stillo (Hess) and Weasel Padowski (Fred J. Lincoln), with the aid of their bisexual moll Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and Krug’s drug-addled, browbeaten son Junior (Marc Sheffer). Wouldn’t you know it that waht Mari and Phyllis try to score some weed, they approach Junior, who takes them to the apartment where the gang are holed up. Swiftly, Krug, Weasel, and Sadie rape Cynthia, whilst Mari watches in frozen terror (the intended impact of this moment is blunted by its home movie staging).

Hoping to escape to Canada, Krug and his cohort stuff their two prisoners in the boot of their car and drive out of the city; being idiots, and more impressed by TV than real life, they ponder if their actions will make the great list of “sex crimes of the century.” The Collingwoods, worrying about their daughter’s overlong absence, call the police. Just a few hundred meters away, Krug and company have pulled over into the woods, where they force the two girls to have sex with each other after various acts of torture. It’s here that Craven gains tense control over his grisly material. Aiming for a detached, unremitting approach, the unblinking camera and stark staging makes the scene intensely convincing (even the actors, especially Cassell, were freaking out). Craven stated his desire was to approach violence in a confrontational, entirely unromanticised way, and in this he certainly succeeds.

Craven’s background - a would-be hipster philosophy professor who had gotten bored with academia and moved to Greenwich Village - is evident, at first clumsily, but with increasing precision. The film is culturally engaged to an extent the film’s standard reading - as the ultimate parental cautionary tale - hardly encompasses; amidst the many issues tossed at the screen include such hot-button issues as Vietnam, the generation gap, feminism, and the peculiar violence fascination of the hippie era that made hits out films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and this one. The narrative is driven by a series of essential conflicts: rich/poor, suburban/urban, mainstream/outsider, sex/violence, unmotivated violence/revenge, “good” family vs. “bad” family.

Mari tries to convince Junior, who likes the girl but is too psychologically defeated, to help her escape. The spunkier Phyllis makes a run through the woods, but - in a merciless fright moment - is caught, stabbed, and gutted in a series of flash cuts that make the violence thankfully incoherent but even more sensually violent. Krug rapes Mari after carving his name on her chest. Mari stumbles in a daze down to wash in a pond as Krug and gang stand, uncomfortable, even ashamed, in temporary awareness of their loathsome acts. Krug dutifully shoots Mari in the pond, and she sinks into the slimy water.

This intense drama is cross-cut with very bad comic relief by the sheriff (Marshall Anker) and his deputy (Martin Kove, later of Karate Kid villain fame), while responding to the Collingwoods’ plea for them to find Mari, find themselves desperately trying to get a life after their car breaks down. Krug, Weasel, Junior, and Sadie clean up and head for the nearest house, where they pose as travelers needing a place to stay for the night. Yup, it’s the Collingwood place. The Collingwoods treat their guests to a blackly comic, hospitable dinner as their guests struggle to be convincingly square salespeople. Junior is afflicted with nightmares that Estelle tries to soothe, but then she recognises Mari’s peace necklace around his neck. Estelle wakes John, and they search the woods. They find Mari’s body and howl in agony over it. Rather than calling the police, John and Estelle now plot their own intimate vengeance.

Craven pulls off a thunderous finale, and lays down a blueprint for many of his later films, not just in having his heroes turn tables on their savage nemeses, but also in their method. John, like later Craven heroes, proves that humans became the dominant species on the planet not just by being violent, but by being intelligently so. Estelle lures Weasel outside, pretending to respond to his self-promotion as a super-stud. She convinces him to tie himself up to prove his prowess as Estelle performs fellatio on him, and then she bites off his penis and spits it in the pond. John wakes Krug and tries to shoot him, but Krug, quick and tough, beats John in a straight fistfight. Junior tries to help John, but at goading from his father, the emotionally broken youth shoots himself. Krug’s escape is halted when he grabs an electrified door knob, one of John’s traps. Whilst he struggles to stand, John descends to his basement and returns with his chainsaw, and relentlessly presses toward Krug until he corners him. Sadie flees, but is caught and disemboweled by Estelle. The sheriff and deputy arrive just in time to see John cut Krug in half. The final image is of the distraught John and Estelle clutching each other in the charnel house that was their home.

As this synopsis indicates, Last House on the Left isn’t a cute horror movie, but nor is it the macho endurance test too many contemporary horror films have become. It is rigorously low-tech and oddly honourable in its purpose. Craven is never tempted to indulge, and he knows when enough is enough. The Collingwoods’ revenge is both atrocious and entirely sympathetic, and Krug and his band, though vicious and crazed, are not blank-faced ciphers of evil. They’re weedy, underclass offspring who rudely destroy the shallow rebellion fantasies of Mari’s generation (she has a Mick Jagger picture on her bedroom wall under which Krug and Sadie later sleep) and the tranquility of bourgeois life. Along with Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, LHotL was one of a batch of hugely controversial studies in violence released in the 1971-72 season. Unlike Kubrick and Peckinpah, Craven does not blur the morality of the sexual violence with matters of sexual desire, dominance, and aggressor-identification. In Phyllis’ case, there’s a brief, promising flash of modern heroine spunk when she escapes that Craven’s later heroines, like Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott in Scream, display. Krug, well embodied by Hess, commands none of the sly heroism of Alex as a sleazy thug, pathetic in his hollow-souled, deadbeat monstrousness.

Last House on the Left proved enormously profitable as well as controversial. Five years passed before Craven followed it up with The Hills Have Eyes, which, in many ways, is a remake with a more fantastic set-up. Producer Sean S. Cunnigham would, for his own shot at the big time, concoct a Halloween rip-off entitled Friday the 13th that would invert everything that was worthy about LHotL as the ultimate body-count porn. The best of the Friday the 13th series, Part II, was directed by Steve Miner, a student of Craven’s who was employed as an assistant director and editor on this film. LHotL’s influence was strong on other low-budget beasts like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), knock-offs like Lipstick (1976) and I Spit On Your Grave (1979), through to art films of the ilk of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl. The Hills Have Eyes was remade by a French director, suggesting Craven has become canonical there.

This is the last in my series on horror films. I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it, and I hope it’s been a stimulating and amusing read for all of you. l

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Detour (1945)
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Detour, a $30,000 quickie produced in 6 days by a no-name film company and a B movie director, is considered a classic film noir - perhaps the earliest pure example of the form - that is essential viewing for any film buff. To see this film for the first time is to fight competing impulses: laughter at its many technical "mistakes" and uneasiness over the snowballing "bad luck" of the protagonist, Al (Tom Neal). Neither impulse is wrong, but both are more complicated than they seem. Detour is the perfect name for a film that takes its audience far from its usual expectations to realize, only slowly, that they are riding along with a psychopath.

Al narrates the film from beginning to end. When we first meet him, he’s playing piano with a small combo in a low-rent nightclub in New York City. His girl, a pretty blonde named Sue (Claudia Drake), is the combo’s singer, and she has a great voice. One evening, he is playing solo on stage, embellishing on classical themes in a truly masterful way. The manager comes up to him and hands him a $10 tip from a patron. He’s scornful of this tip: "When this drunk gave me a ten spot, I couldn't get very excited. What was it? A piece of paper crawling with germs." Al thinks he should be in the big time, playing Carnegie Hall. When he shares his bitterness with Sue, she is sympathetic but is worried about her own dreams of success. She has decided to go to Los Angeles and try her luck out there. We watch them walk down a foggy street to her apartment; in one of the many technically clumsy moments, the street is so fogged up by an overzealous technician that we can’t see them at all for part of the walk. She tells him they can still get married as they planned, but just not for a while.

Al is torn up by Sue’s departure. One night, he phones her from a pay phone. We only get his side of the conversation and a 2-second cut-in of Sue to prove, I guess, that he really is talking to her. This was done, no doubt, to save money on film. He’s coming out to be with her if he has to hitch the whole way—and he very nearly does. We are shown one of those cheesy maps that marks his progress across country and watch him thumbing along the highway. Someone had the bizarre idea to show Al traveling from right to left across the movie screen to simulate a westward journey. To achieve this unnecessary effect, the film was flopped, so it appears that all the cars Al gets into have their steering wheels on the right side of the car. When he finally gets into a car in Arizona that has the steering wheel where American cars ought to have them, the noir part of the story really takes root.

In Arizona, Al is picked up by a man named Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a professional gambler on his way to L.A. from Florida. Haskell’s got a fancy convertible car, a roll of cash, a generous disposition, and, apparently, a heart condition; he asks Al to give him a box of pills from the glove compartment from time to time that must contain nitroglycerine. Al notices a nasty gash on Haskell’s hand that looks like he was mauled by a wildcat. Haskell says it was a wildcat but not an animal. It was a dame with a 100 percent mean streak running through her.

The two men take turns driving. One night while Al is driving, it starts to rain. Al stops the car to put up the top. He asks Haskell to move aside as he reaches for the top on the passenger side, but Haskell doesn’t respond. Al opens the door, and Haskell spills out onto the ground, apparently dead of a heart attack. Al panics. He fears the cops won’t believe a penniless hitchhiker like him that Haskell died of natural causes. He ditches Haskell’s body in some bushes, takes his clothes to look more respectable, and takes his wallet and identity.

The next day, Al pulls up at a filling station. He notices a young woman hitching near the station and offers her a ride. He seems to find her an odd sort of attractive. She says her name is Vera (Ann Savage), but doesn’t offer up much more information. He says his name is Haskell. They ride for a while, and finally, she turns toward him with a ferocious look on her face. She says, “You’re not Haskell!” She was the woman who scratched Haskell, and she assumes Al has probably killed him. From that moment on, Al is her prisoner, forced to take care of her so she won’t turn him into the police. They move into an apartment in L.A. Al intends to sell the car he took off Haskell and give Vera the money to pay her off.

Unfortunately, she sees an item in the paper that says that authorities are looking for the long-lost heir to the fortune of Charles Haskell, Sr. Vera insists Al try to impersonate Haskell and collect on the fortune. Al protests he'll never pull it off - he couldn't even tell the manager at the car dealership what kind of insurance he carried on the car when he tried to sell it. A very drunk Vera makes good on her threat to phone the police. She dials, but the call is never completed. Al accidentally kills her in a rather ingenious scene. When we next see Al, he's sitting in a diner on his way back East, dreaming of Sue and pleading with the audience to believe that things just don't work out for him: "Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."

There are a number of elements that make this film work. First, Ann Savage lives up to her name. She plays Vera as a spiteful survivor, quick to make threats and even quicker to carry them out. She’s utterly mesmerizing to watch as the first real noir femme fatale who uses her wits to manipulate a seemingly weak man. The script is beautifully written by Martin Goldsmith based on his own novel. It's hardboiled without being one long cliche, colorful without drawing too much attention to itself. These characters could have said these things, which is not something you could ever say of another supplier of noir material - Mickey Spillane.

What really makes this film fascinating is Al's first-person narrative. This is the film that taught me an unforgettable lesson about the unreliable narrator. If we hadn't had the voiceover from Al's point of view, we would be inclined to think he was a true innocent caught in a spiral of bad luck and fear. Instead, we are forced to examine every element of the film to see if it seems plausible, to see if maybe it didn't happen another way. Was Al's musicianship as great as we heard, or was it what he imagined? If he really was the next Paderewski, as his boss snidely suggests, would he really be playing in a dump?

Let's look at Sue's departure. He says they were to be married. To me it looks like a classic brush-off. You don't move across country to keep a relationship going. Perhaps the cut-in of Sue wasn't just a cheap effect. Maybe his entire conversation was a fantasy. Every aspect of this film has to be questioned from an objective standpoint, and that's what makes it such an object lesson in audience manipulation. Even the cheap look contrasts the tawdriness of Al with his vision of himself. That most likely was unintentional, but it happens nonetheless.

I love Detour. It's the model for Memento, Secret Window, and every other film that tries to make a viewer believe it's something it's not, and may even succeed whether we ought to or not. l

Monday, December 04, 2006

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2005)
Director: Andrew Douglas

Since the discovery of the New World, Europeans have been fascinated by American rustics. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin practically made a career in France out of being an "authentic" American. So it seemed natural for English director Andrew Douglas to want to go out and make a film about the American hillbillies and rednecks he envisioned after he encountered Jim White's debut album "Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted)." BBC Arena was more than willing to put up the funds to produce Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Fascination with the bloodlines and musical heritage that run between the old families of the Old South and the even older families of Merrie Olde England make such a film an audience pleaser on the right side of the Atlantic. Throw in some decent country music, and you may have a film that people around the world will respond to.

Douglas uses White as the guide through the heart of the trailer-trash, Pentacostal, backwoods, musical South. To equip them properly for their journey, White secures a rusted boat of a car circa 1970 and buys a statue of Jesus to put in its trunk. As White drives Douglas and camera crew through lands that time forgot, he talks of his own spiritual feelings and desire to belong to the South, where he grew up but not where he was born or where he spends most of his time. He's fond of metaphors, and, for this writer, uses them to distraction.

They pass trailers by the dozens, towns that begin and end in the span of a five-minute drive, and some homes on stilts in the middle of swampland. The camera travels across water (shades of Jesus!) and lands in front of a house in the middle of a lake, its porch skimming the waters. On it stands the Handsome Family, who perform a song. This is the first of many musical interludes that seem to want to make a connection between the land and the music, but usually come off as too precious by half. Another clear miss is a haunting rendition of "Amazing Grace" played on a saw by Melissa Swingle as she sits on a blanket in the trunk of a car parked in the middle of a wood. Following this song, Douglas films her sitting in the back seat of the car telling a fairly pointless story about two of her relatives laughing at their grandmother's funeral.

Not all of the musical moments misstep, however. A Kentucky coal miner and banjo picker provides some touches of authenticity with his round, weathered face and old timey rendition of "Rye Whiskey." A finely crafted duet of "First There Was" by Johnny Dowd and Maggie Brown moves quietly between Dowd sitting in a barber shop and Brown curling a woman's hair in the adjacent beauty salon. Indeed, the male and female worlds seem to separate into two experiences as filmed by Douglas - heartache for women and hard work and violence for men. Only in church and in juke joints do the two worlds come together in a variation of the same kind of ecstatic, emotional release these hard-against-it people need to keep head and heart together.

Perhaps the best parts of this film for me are the musing of Georgia-born writer Harry Crews. He provides one of the best descriptions of the heart of the South I've heard simply by explaining what the people in his town did when the Sears Roebuck catalog arrived in the mail. First, he points out that all of the people in the catalog were perfect, "with all the fingers they were entitled to," and all the people in his town were maimed and marked from physical labor, brawling, and disease. Nonetheless, the townspeople gave the Sears people "lives" like their own - pairing a female model on page 33 with a male model on another page and imagining an affair between them that the female's daddy on page 107 was going to end using a rifle. The South is about family, and at least among the people Douglas meets, about troubled family life. It's easy to see why the sacrificed Son of God would seem a familiar and living being to these people.

And it's easy to see that Jim White's real quest is not to be Southern in his blood, as he claims, but to have family ties that bind. This fact, I think, is what saves this film from its considerable shortcomings - its unmotivated artiness (including its last, utterly false shot), Diane Arbus-like portraits of its subjects, and the complete absence of African Americans and a mention of the obvious link between Pentacostal worship and African-inspired rituals of the Southern Baptist church. White really loves these people. So while Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus tells us nothing new about the South and revels in its cliche, gothic images, thanks to Jim White, its heart is strong. l

For an excellent contemporary film about the South that gets at the ides of Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus without jumping through all the fancy hoops, I highly recommend Junebug. Tellingly, perhaps, the outsider in that film is English.