Author Archive

Female Trouble is the centerpiece of John Waters’ golden age

July 25, 2010

Playing July 23-29 at The Grand Illusion Cinema

John Waters has made a career out of skull-fucking suburban complacency (two cars, two kids, a mortgage, and the right shoes means everybody’s fine). His vision of the counter-culture is violent, grotesque, and abject. His vision of mainstream culture isn’t much different.

Waters’ early works, the ’70s era trinity of schlock-and-shock films Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977), were designed to gross out pissed off hipsters during midnight screenings in Baltimore’s seedy underground scene, the exact disaffected outliers who inspired him. But even Waters couldn’t have imagined where it would all lead 35 years later. Though the infamous director is a bit more subtle these days, rest assured he’s as dangerous as ever (his new book, Role Models, is about the unseemly cadre who have created the beast with hollow eyes that somehow sparkle and a pencil mustache enhanced with Maybelline mascara). As much as we may long for the utterly insane bravado that infused the early films, we’d hate him if he was still doing it. It also means taking another look at the old movies is like meeting your first love again after 35 years (if your first love was a shit-eating prostitute with rotted teeth and a murderous streak).

For me, Female Trouble has always seemed like the little bear’s porridge: it’s just right, the centerpiece of the Waters âge d’or de déchets. While I love all three films, I find Pink Flamingos purposefully troublesome with little regard to, well, anything else. The gross-out factor becomes central, sensational, and self conscious. It’s Waters as the P.T. Barnum of wretch. Desperate Living is a bit untied, sliding into a nightmare landscape where, of course, anything can happen.

But Female Trouble is real. Sure, the gross stuff is there and it’s sensational and the characters are extreme, but the whole affair is more grounded in the real milieu of American disparity, anguish, and broken dreams, the world suburbia so vehemently denies. If Dawn Davenport had just received those damn cha cha heels for Christmas, everything might have ended differently (now that’s a disappointment WASPy folks can identify with). If Dawn Davenport hadn’t left home a troubled teenager and ridden in cars with strangers, everything might have ended differently. If Dawn Davenport hadn’t fallen in with the wrong crowd of tawdry faux elitists and faggy beauty shop fashionistas, everything might have ended differently. Female Trouble is a cautionary tale as old as the various incarnations of Goldilocks and the message is still about the crowd you hang with and the doors you open.

With Female Trouble, Waters either turns mainstream culture inside-out or fills it full of hot air, alternating between inversion and hyperbole as easily as I switch my Facebook profile picture. Some of us know for certain that it is us up there on the screen and we aren’t looking too pretty. Some of us are scared as hell this may, in fact, be the case. Regardless of how you come to Waters’ party, you’ll be a bit different as you leave (cowards and social ostriches who refuse to attend the soiree aren’t worthy of discussion).

I try to keep in mind that Waters never intended, or could have dreamed, that suburban kids would be watching these films in mundane 5,000 square foot McMansions as the millennium turned. On the contrary, these films were intended to be elaborate (and disgusting) in-jokes for the edgier members of American culture, the misfits and visionaries who found ’70s era middleclass life even more frightening (and disgusting) than anything Waters could dream up. Sadly, counter-culture denizens shouldn’t expect to keep art like this to themselves. The films of John Waters’ golden age of trash have most certainly seeped into the mainstream in 2010 and I’m sure John giggles every time he cashes a royalty check from a Broadway production or Netflix. However, even if we aren’t as shocked as we were the first time around, Female Trouble still packs a punch.


LET’S DO IT! A night of sex worker made media

March 18, 2010

I was living in Austin, TX during my early 20s tending bar in the club scene filthy with cheap ecstasy, awesome DJs, and beautiful people. The debauchery was relentless and fairly harmless.

I shared a little house in the barrio just east of I35 with a handsome Latino named Mark (names have been changed for no real reason as my friend would love to see his name in print). We dated briefly before realizing that wasn’t such a great idea. We had settled into being buddies by the time we became roomies.

Mark dated a lot. But Mark often dated guys that didn’t match up with his recreational interests. I also noticed that Mark had a separate phone line in his room.

One day I was teasing Mark about a nice man in his 50s who liked to take him to Dallas and New York from time to time. After a bit too much gentle ribbing about sugar daddies and kept boys, Mark took me into his room, had me sit on the edge of his bed, and played his phone messages for me.

I wasn’t totally shocked. I did, however, have to stifle the urge to bust out laughing. Some of the guys leaving messages were nervous. Some tried to be clever, some urbane. They did have one thing in common. They were all looking for Mario, a hot Italian callboy who advertised in the local fag-rag and billed himself as, “versatile, hung, and available 24-7 for in or out.”

As I listened to the messages one after another, the light bulb started to glow. That’s why Mark often left in the middle of night without explanation. That’s why the guys he hooked up with in the bar were so different than the guys he “dated.” And that explained the separate phone line in his room, the phone that would forever after be called the Bat Phone.

I lived vicariously through Mark for the next few months. He’d let me listen to the Bat Phone messages with him. He’d tell me all the details of his dates: the good, the bad, and the ugly. He even spilled it when one of the guys I worked with called Mario. They recognized each other at the initial meeting and both were so embarrassed they decided to skip the whole thing.

Mark was not a typical callboy, if there is such a thing. More precisely, Mark was not what the average suburbanite thinks is a typical callboy. Mark had never been kicked out of his house. He had never spent time on the street or suffered abuse. He was from a middle class family who lived in a small town outside of San Antonio. He had a supportive Mom and a wacky sister both of whom he was close to.

Mark was articulate with impeccable taste. He was a drama jock at the University of Texas. He could sing and act and dance. He loathed the mundane and detested the sloppy. He was gorgeous and he could have landed any number of part-time jobs to put himself through school.

The fact is, Mark liked selling his body. He was smart and tried to be as safe as possible. He developed a regular clientele and he made a lot of money. He didn’t feel an ounce of guilt. In fact, he felt he provided an important service for people in need (albeit at a significant price).  Most importantly, Mark was not a victim.

I know Mark’s experience is not the norm. The vast majority of sex workers don’t enjoy their work. Most are forced into the trade by circumstances beyond their control and many are exploited and brutalized. But those stories, all too common all over the world, are not at all like Mark’s.

I left Austin to go live in Mexico for a while with a trust-fund buddy who’d rented a house for a year in San Miguel. When I got back to Austin, Mark and his Bat Phone were finishing up at the university and our paths just didn’t cross much anymore. I think Mark went off to Chicago or New York to become a star. I haven’t seen him for years.

Mark left an indelible impression on me. I had never considered that someone might actually enjoy getting paid for having sex. He fundamentally changed the way I think about sex workers and the sex industry. He showed me that under the right circumstances, it can work out well for everybody involved.

However, the image of the abused, drug addicted, and powerless sex worker serves sexually repressed America well. Though we don’t mind dropping our 7th grader off at the cineplex and letting them watch the latest PG shoot-em up and we’ll let them murder and maim via computer on Sunday afternoons in the basement, don’t dry to teach them comprehensive sex education in a formal classroom with a professional educator or we’ll be standing in line with bullhorns at the next school board meeting.

This is America where gender and sexual orientation are binary systems. This is America where a perfect marriage means you never even desire another person. This is America where enjoying sex within marriage was suspect until the 1960s and we are addicted to either/or propositions. Thus, people who sell sex must be inherently flawed or abject victims.

Since those heady days living hard and fast in Austin with my entrepreneurial roommate, I’ve often sought out hookers, strippers, and hustlers because they’re interesting and I like to hear their stories. I’ve chatted up intrepid trannies working Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. I’ve hung out with stripper chicks in Las Vegas and low-rent hustler boys in Mexico City. I spent a splendid afternoon in London drinking beer and listening to a blue-eyed Polish angel telling stories about doughy Londoners with lots of money and little self control. Not all the stories are pleasant to hear, but many are. I think hookers are cool, at least the ones who enjoy their work.

I wish I knew where Mark was today because I’d invite him to come with me to Let’s Do It! A night of sex worker made media. For all I know, he may be in the show.

When It Was Blue: filmmaking beyond the narrative

February 9, 2010

I didn’t attend the University of Colorado because Stan Brakhage taught there. I didn’t know who he was when I landed on campus in the fall of 2000. I soon learned he was the wizened patriarch of the film program at CU. Brakhage would shuffle into screenings unannounced and a stirring of awe would sweep through the theater.

Brakhage was more than the force behind the film program at CU, he was also the most renowned experimental filmmaker of the last half of the 20th Century (superlatives don’t scare me). However, being the most renowned experimental filmmaker of the last half of the 20th Century may be a bit like being the most renowned offensive linemen in the history of professional football. Mmmm.

Thus, I have a healthy respect for experimental film earned through hours of screening the work of Brakhage, Phil Solomon (a Brakhage protégé and one of my teachers), Michael Snow, Kenneth Anger, and the legend of experimental film, Maya Deren. I fell in love with Tarkovsky (literally) while watching Nostalghia with the sound turned off and I’ll willingly argue for hours about the dead donkeys of Un Chien Andalou.

What are my feelings about experimental film? Misnomer: yep. Non-narrative: no problem. Oblique: sure. Impressionistic: at times. Cryptic: whatever. Purposeful: not necessarily. Serendipitous: when it’s done well.

When It Was Blue, Jennifer Reeves’s eerie film that screens Wednesday, Feb 10 at the NWFF is experimental film, but don’t let that stop you from checking it out. Open your head.

When It Was Blue was shot in 16 mm over many years in a number of locations around the world. Reeves uses painted celluloid  and double projection to create a journey into Freud’s version of the uncanny: our world ripped up and taped together with a splash of added color until it becomes unfamiliar, yet somehow familiar.

Reeves’s film works as a mournful love poem to the earth, a nostalgic elegy for one not quite dead. It also reminds that humans are part of this world no matter how well we manipulate its resources. We may pave land, explore the oceans, build cities, and fly through the air; but we are once and always of this sphere while in this physical plane. So are the buildings, the ships, and the artificial sweeteners.

That’s not to say this is everything When It Was Blue is about. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about experimental film in general and When It Was Blue in particular is the ability to be esoteric and universal. There is no definitive meaning, no single experience for each viewer. The film’s symbols and referents become un-tethered, yet remain tethered. Reality is reordered over and over until new meanings bubble up with each repeated screening.

When It Was Blue compels you to consider everything film might be capable of beyond the narrative. The use of B/W early on that segues into the judicious use of primary colors that skew decidedly cool feels purposeful, if discomforting, amid the chaos. The cool primary colors are eventually joined by secondary greens and oranges, warmer colors that give you an uncertain ease. The images are fleeting, the camera unsteady, some frames speed by over the top of others left static. The result is often destabilizing visually, physically, and intellectually. Then there is the sound, the relentless layers of earthly and un-earthly noises covered at times lovingly and at times discordantly by Skúli Sverrisson’s haunting score.

In fact, calling When It Was Blue an experimental film is insufficient. It’s more like postmodern cave painting that comes together as a subtle but terrifying nightmare. Reeves creates an uncanny apocalyptic vision that gives no quarter and requires the viewer to come to it wearing a gauzy nightgown willing to consummate the affair.

I may chafe at such simplistic language as “experimental” to describe a genre as diverse and complicated as the genre we label experimental film. However, that’s what we’ve all agreed to call films like When It Was Blue even if that makes as much sense as calling a chair a chair (say it over and over when you’re high and the word will soon mean nothing at all). We do it as a linguistic convenience much to the disservice of filmmakers like Jennifer Reeves (and Stan). When It Was Blue is only experimental in the sense that it plays by its own rules and may not care who joins the game.

Though not all experimental film is done well (and most is not), when things are firing on cylinders, like they are with When It Was Blue, approaching the cinematic sublime suddenly becomes an earthly possibility.

The Vanished Empire: Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll never looked so smart

December 26, 2009

Take one 18 year old guy who loves girls, jeans, beer, and rock-n-roll music; add a couple of buddies, a bleak home-front in flux, a potent blend of teenage angst/ennui, and the requisite beautiful girl: what do you get? You get a tried-and-true all-American coming of age story, right? Right, unless, like The Vanished Empire, the film happens to be set in the Soviet Union circa 1973.

Sergei (Aledsandr Lyapin) is the 18 year old scion of Russian intellectuals who does little more than show up for school. His real passion is running the drab streets of Moscow with his buddies Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) and Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) looking for black market rock albums and getting into all sorts of trouble.

Sergei is a handsome charmer  who thinks himself adroitly streetwise. However, all his charm is useless in the face of huge changes looming over the boy on the cusp. His grandfather lives in the past, his mother is ill, his father is absent, and the girl of his dreams (Lidiya Milyuzina) may not put up with his post adolescent stupidity for much longer.

The Vanished Empire is set in a Soviet Union looking at once backward to past glories and inconceivable horrors; and forward to an uncertain future lead by a generation who came of age longing for, and learning how to purchase, Western accoutrements. It seems the mighty Soviet propaganda machine could fend off everything except the Rolling Stones.

Since writer/director Karen Shakhnazarov graduated from the Moscow School for Cinematography in 1975, one can’t help feeling that The Vanished Empire is a first-hand account of the era when the first failings of unbridled communism reared up. In less than 20 years after the film’s mid ’70s perspective, the Soviet Union would cease to exist. Sergei’s, and Shakhnazarov’s, generation would assume the arduous task of overseeing the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the chaotic rise of the ’90s era corrupt capitalist oligarchy in the midst of a burgeoning and unregulated free market (a not-so-gentle reminder that unbridled capitalism can be ugly too).

Sergei, the character, is the product of a line of University teachers, characters who also reflect their respective generational foibles. His ancient grandfather slouches through life on the back of past intellectual glories and failed theories. His mother is ill and his father is absent, the abject product of those failed theories. Sergei just wants to buy things, fight, and get laid.

The young actors are engaging. Lyapin is handsome with an overly confident swagger that belies his teenage uncertainty. His tenuous balancing act between boyhood and manhood is nuanced and consistent. Baranovsky is suitably understated as the loyal friend who patiently waits for his buddy to screw up just enough for him to make a play for the girl who, unfortunately, inhabits his dreams too.

Miyuzina, as the girl, steals a couple of scenes from the charismatic clutches of Lyapin, no easy task. Her turn as the object of all that post adolescent male dreaming is excellent work that’s easily lost beneath the energy of ornery boys careening through Moscow in a Czech made Tatra. Miyuzina gives a solid performance, but the boys have lots more to do.

The direction by veteran Russian filmmaker Shakhnazarov (Zero City and Jazzmen) is sure and steady. All the technical boxes are ticked and the art direction feels hauntingly accurate (the colorless Moscow streets actually verge on cliché, but that’s just me being overly critical). The story is familiar but with a twist of setting, both physical and temporal, that gives it new life.

Robert V. Daniels, professor emeritus of history at the University of Vermont opens his 1961 essay, “Intellectuals and the Russian Revolution,” with this salvo:

“The outstanding role of the intellectual in modern Russian history is beyond dispute. Among non-Communist historians there is a well-established consensus concerning the nature of the Russian intelligentsia and the distinctive part it played in bringing on the revolution.  The nineteenth-century Russian intellectual was detached from practical affairs, committed to some abstract doctrine, and morally alienated by autocracy and class privilege. This reaction resulted from the cultural precociousness of Russia’s westernized upper class, as contrasted with the frustrating backwardness of the government and the economy. Educated and sensitive Russians had nowhere to turn except to theory.”

It seems, according to Shakhnazarov, ’70s era educated Russians would turn instead to the black market.

With The Vanished Empire, Shakhnazarov takes an affectionate look back at the historical curve of the circumstance and impact of the Russian intelligentsia from these noble beginnings through the Soviet post war ideological wasteland and up to its impending spasms of cultural rebirth instigated by the ubiquitous black market consumerism of ’70s era Soviet youth. And he gets this all done under the guise of a simple teenage sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll flick. Nice work.

Wings of Desire: In search of cinematic perfection

November 29, 2009

I don’t toss around cinematic superlatives like I’m handing out Sweet Tarts. I rarely use the word “perfect” while reviewing a film. If I have used that word it was probably preceded  or followed by a reference to  Tarkovsky, Bunuel, Hitchcock, or a handful of others. I believe Wings of Desire, the Wim Wenders ’80s era masterpiece of angelic longing, may be as close as we can get in this realm.

The narrative follows Damiel and Cassiel, witnessing angels and angels of testimony, as they haunt the skies and alleys of Berlin sharing the pain of the world one person at a time. Damiel seems resigned to his destiny until he falls for a beautiful trapeze artists. The narrative plays out as angels and humans seek out transcendent journeys in opposite directions.

Watching Wings of Desire reminds me what the cinema is capable of in the hands of a director who willfully employs all its tricks.

The cinematography by Henri Alekan, who also shot Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, is stunning. Alekan’s use of color is intrinsic to the narrative. The composition, dynamic or static, is purposeful and rife with meaning from the sweeping aerials looking down on the divided city to the Ozu inspired low-angle shots of the claustrophobic Berliner apartments. The lighting is textured, at times subtly; at times dramatically. The images are singularly lovely and collectively powerful.

The sound is a complex medley of music (diegetic and non-diegetic), nature, and urban din. Listen closely to the scenes in the library and you’ll be amazed at the numerous layers of insistent sound that create dramatic tension within the scene. From the waves of amorphous noise to the deft tricks of the Foley artist to the music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; the sound and music pushes the narrative, develops character, and creates tension.

The words are a collage of poetic inner monologues, angelic exposition, and narrative dialogue. The musings of the Berliners as witnessed by the angels slips from the prosaic to the poetic to the melodic and back again with ease and meaning.

The characters and their stories are mesmerizing. There are angels who long to experience the physical realm of humanity and humans who seem exhausted by it. In addition, set against the more personal stories and told through archival footage and smart writing is a story of humanity from the development of rudimentary language and unique pelvic girdles to the violent 20th Century wars that left Berlin a divided and wounded city.

Berlin circa 1987 is the perfect metaphor for a universe divided. The omnipresent wall, the wall that would so soon fall, is a physical example of a spiritual hedge not unlike the film’s demarcation between the sepia world of angels and the colorful world of humans. Empathetic pain, a cut hand, witnessing altruistic acts of kindness from high above, hot coffee sipped between long drags on a cigarette: these are experiences that may lie separated by time or space or experience or even planes of existence. These are experiences that may or may not be bridged by men and angels.

These are just some of the reasons I believe Wings of Desire may be a perfect cinematic experience. The gods of cinema are indeed an unruly troop and because of this, cinematic perfection is elusive. Films like Wings of Desire demonstrate what cinema is capable of in capable hands under fortunate circumstances. Sure, movies that achieve less can still be terrific films and great fun to watch. But films that reach higher, that reach this high, are few in number and should be cherished for the sheer serendipity of their creation.

Consuming Bergman: The Passion of Anna

November 21, 2009

“Why does Bergman get away with that?” Steven asked. It was a simple question in reference to the four scenes in The Passion of Anna in which the principal actors deliver direct address monologues musing on the characters they play.

Steven has a way of cutting through the artsy academic clutter that swirls around inside my head and doesn’t always serve me well. I’m reminded of Occam’s razor. You see, while I’m pondering the use of repetitive narrative arcs and how that device may have instigated the use of direct address monologues, Steven is asking the real question: Why does Bergman get away with that?

The question may be blasphemous to cinephiles, but it is perfectly apt. If I were watching New Moon and a shot of a shirtless Jacob faded to black followed by the jolting bang of a clapperboard and the musings of the longsuffering Kristen Stewart on the perils of Bella falling for monsters, I would rant and rave about self-indulgent directing and intrusive choices that interrupt narrative momentum. And I’d be right.

Steven knows that’s what my reaction would be. We watch a lot of movies together. His question, while certainly prompted by a healthy cinematic curiosity, was also in small part prompted by my reaction (or lack thereof) to Bergman’s choice. I was too busy picking my way through the cobwebs of my intellect, referencing other of the ubiquitous self-referential moments in Bergman films, and trying to relate the narrative disruptions to the director’s larger aims. Steven was having much more fun than I was.

Still, for me watching a Bergman film without over-thinking it is like eating a Dick’s hamburger while I’m sober. I know it tastes the same, but it’s a much less fulfilling experience. Thus I am left with the original elegantly simple question: Why does Bergman get away with that?

Bergman doesn’t just break the fourth wall in The Passion of Anna because it isn’t the characters that address the audience. Bergman interrupts the already difficult elliptical narrative with the actual actors talking about their characters. He even labels the clapperboard with the actor’s names lest we fail to immediately engage the device on his terms.

Forgive me monsieur Barthes, but I read those reflexive moments of cinematic caprice as a sort of comforting message from Bergman himself. I imagine him coming to me, leaning down to whisper in my ear, smelling like tobacco and gravad lax and saying, “This isn’t that kind of film. Don’t be frustrated with my deliberate repetition, non-linear narrative, the slow peel of character development, and pervasive reminders this is cinema and nothing else.”

I think that’s enough of my woefully inadequate attempts to channel Bergman.  Let me answer the original question.

Bergman gets away with it, all of it, because he is a cinematic master and one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th Century. He is a purposeful artist who understood the technology of cinema as well as he understood the more ethereal aspects of cinematic artistry. His mastery is manifest in the carefully selected camera angles, the deft composition, the expert use of the deep focus lens, and the intuitive employment of color. Bergman toys with provocative and inventive narrative structures that push back and forth between the formalist, the traditional, the experimental, and the anarchic. And Bergman gets away with it because he never lets us forget that his films are purely cinematic experiences, tricks of light and celluloid, that look forward while reaching back to solemnly acknowledge the dramatic and literary forms from which they spring.