Sunday, July 2, 2017

7/2/2017: Xenophobes and Jilted Lovers

Black Rain (Ridley Scott, 1989)
This American-cop-in-Japan action/thriller is a colossally dumb slice of xenophobia, but it has plenty of novelty value. It's not much more than a souped-up version of a bottom-of-the-barrel Steven Seagal movie, but it answers a few unasked questions in ways that entertained me against my better judgment, such as what would it look like if Michael Douglas played Steven Seagal playing a cop, and what would happen if we threw several million more dollars at the material and got Ridley Scott to direct it? Michael Douglas looks like he's having fun playing against type as a dick-swaggering macho American loudmouth action hero, and Scott makes Japan look like Blade Runner, full of neon and streets glistening with rain and imposing city skylines at night and smoke and futuristic menace. This is one of the last gasps of the big dumb Reaganite '80s action movies before self-awareness and irony and intentional camp crept in, presented much more stylishly than usual but still plenty troglodytic. Considering how much Japanese culture has influenced American culture in the last few decades (and vice versa), the movie is primarily of use as a fascinating and extremely dated time capsule. The movie regards Japan as a curious oddity ("isn't it strange that every place is not the United States?" the movie asks at every turn), and even commonplace activities like karaoke, eating noodles with chopsticks, and removing shoes before entering a home are portrayed as the height of absurdity and strangeness. The moral of the movie is that Americans are normal, everyone else is weird, and other cultures are improved by becoming more like us. Long story short, Trump is not an anomaly. I enjoyed this movie against my better judgment, probably because it is truly too stupid to be offensive, benefits from Scott's eye, and embraces the formulaic fun of '80s cop and action movies, but Blade Runner it most definitely is not.

The Last Performance (Paul Fejos, 1929)
I'm a huge fan of director Paul Fejos' 1928 film Lonesome, a visually daring, formally inventive, charming romance about two lonely young working-class people in New York City who meet and fall in love on Coney Island on a holiday weekend. The Criterion Collection's recent release of Lonesome includes a much darker Fejos film, The Last Performance, as an extra on the second disc. The Last Performance is not quite as assured as Lonesome, but it benefits from Fejos' formally daring eye and has a great leading performance from Conrad Veidt. The story is a proto-EC Comics tale of jealousy, revenge, and violent comeuppance against a theatrical backdrop. Veidt plays Erik the Great, a Hungarian magician and hypnotist with some spookily occult powers. While performing in the States, he meets and falls in love with one of the performers, the teenage girl Julie (Mary Philbin), and he plans to announce their engagement on her 18th birthday (not creepy at all, right?). Complications come from Erik's assistant, Buffo (Leslie Fenton), who secretly loves Erik (this is conveyed visually, not verbally, because it's 1929, and homosexuality does not exist verbally in 1929 American films, but you better believe it exists visually in many, many, many American films), and a young thief who becomes part of the show when Erik and Julie take pity on him and who falls in love with Julie. I won't reveal the rest, but it involves 12 swords. I believe this may be the first film that includes a judge telling a court that a surprise request to testify is highly unusual/unorthodox but that he will allow it, and my copy of The Overlook Film Encyclopedia of Horror tells me this is the first film to contain an improvised zoom shot. I strongly recommend buying or renting Lonesome and checking out both that film and this one.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

6/4/2017: "We, meaning you and I"

West of Zanzibar (Tod Browning, 1928)
If you visit this site with any regularity, then you know I'm a big Tod Browning fan. His silent films in particular have a weird, modern poetry that exists right now, hundreds of years ago, and outside of anything as inevitably dull as time and fashion. He's one of the greats. Unfortunately, West of Zanzibar is a rare Browning silent that, despite its many narrative and visual strengths, reminds the viewer that the man who made it and the culture he made it for have pretty fucked up attitudes toward black people. (I don't have to convince anyone that white people are still crazy in 2017.) Browning, like all people, is flawed and a product of his time, but it's disappointing to see someone who had such unusual understanding and empathy for women and marginalized people on the fringes of society unable to extend that empathy to the African characters in this film, who are presented as menacing savages, foolish believers of superstition, the Other, and a threat to pretty white women. These are a lot of hurdles to jump over to enjoy the film, and I understand anyone who can't do it, but I'm able to compartmentalize and carry a lot of contradictory opinions around while engaging with a piece of art or entertainment in ways that are hard for me to do with the other parts of my life. Browning, as usual, tells a very unusual story about people on the low rungs of show business, with lots of strange, dark turns, beautifully disturbing images, and all-too-human performances, especially from Lon Chaney, Mary Nolan, and Warner Baxter. It's never dull, always fascinating, but dated in ways that Browning's other films aren't. Worth a watch if you're a fan of Browning, Chaney, or silent films in general, but also worth skipping if you're getting your fill of racism from modern politics.

Blood (Andy Milligan, 1973)
Where do I begin with Andy Milligan? His films are not like other people's films. Imagine some unholy combination of John Waters, '30s and '40s horror, community theater, and Warhol, and you're sort of in the ballpark but not yet on the field. Minnesota-born army brat Milligan, after his discharge from the navy, moved to New York City and opened a dress shop. Involved with costume design and direction for off-Broadway theater, he eventually started making his own movies, starting with gay sexploitation films before moving into horror. He made most of these films in New York, but he also lived in London and made a handful there. He died of AIDS in Los Angeles in 1991. His films have a reputation for being terrible, but only by conventional, small-minded people with narrow ideas of what movies are supposed to be. Blood is about an arranged marriage of convenience between Dracula's daughter and the Wolf Man's son, their gaggle of strange assistants, and some blood-drinking plants that they grow and cultivate to keep Dracula's daughter alive. It was shot in the dilapidated mansion Milligan called home in Staten Island. The film is almost camp, almost serious, almost bad, almost great, and always delightful. It is not like anything else, and I love that about it. One of Milligan's caregivers in the last year of his life was his biographer Jimmy McDonough, who wrote the fantastic and offbeat Neil Young biography, Shakey, as well as biographies of Russ Meyer, Tammy Wynette, John Fogerty, and Al Green. I think I need to read that book. Milligan is poorly served on home video, but you can see a lot of his work on YouTube.