Lighting up the Great White (Elephant) Way.
(Written for the White Elephant Blogathon.)
I can only be honest: I don’t have high hopes for this review. I’ve been walking around with exhausted baby-brain while logging my usual sixty hours a week at work and I’ve been drinking because of course I have I’m still me after all. Basically, I’m in dire need of a Saturday night.
I don’t mean a literal Saturday night, necessarily (though that’s not a bad thing). I mean the sense of freedom that comes with the idea of a “Saturday night” — the small window of opportunity where responsibilities go by the wayside in favor of relaxation and fraternization, the space between obligations where the only goal is to clear one’s head so as to make the coming week that much easier to take. I need a mental equivalent to the grand party depicted in Melvin Van Peebles’ Don’t Play Us Cheap.
It’s odd, having seen the elder Van Peebles’ influential blast of lone-wolf nihilism Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, to catch this followup and slowly realize that it’s the polar opposite - an energetic, upbeat celebration of community and small pleasures. An adaptation of his Tony Award-nominated musical, Don’t Play Us Cheap depicts a lively party on one of these Saturday nights. Two demons come to break up the party and thus secure Hell on Earth (or something like that… I’ll admit, I was a bit unclear there), but like any good Saturday night party, the reverie is steadfast in its refusal to be put off. While the party is literally set on a Saturday night, the important thing is that “Saturday night” is understood not just as a time but as a state of mind and being - the characters define this night as important because (as explained in an early song with a pointed sonic parallel to slave spirituals) the work week grinds them down, exhausts them, drains them of their soul strength. The Saturday night party is their chance to let their hair down and nourish their souls, and goddamn if any trifling demon is gonna stop that shit from happening.
While Van Peebles jazzes up the mise-en-scene with jumpy editing and multiple exposures during many of the big numbers, Don’t Play Us Cheap keeps the proscenium-tinged feel of a filmed play, and that kind of works to the film’s advantage in pushing across that universality. The obvious stagecraft creates an anti-realism - getting back to the metaphorical import, it allows the scenario to transcend its depiction of one Saturday night and let it stand in for every Saturday Night. It’s an inclusive idea, reflected in the energy and warmth of the comfortable back-and-forth between the party guests and their willingness to include even the shadiest of strangers in their reveries. In this circle where the only true sin seems to be believing oneself above it all, acknowledgement and commiseration with your neighbor’s joys and miseries is key; when one of the demons, benighted by love, decides to stay in human form and abandon his wicked ways, his decision makes sense in that who wouldn’t want to belong to a community this accepting?
While they may not always deal with literal demons, the songs bring out definite hardships that are being overcome and pushed aside here, even if only temporarily - I especially like the woman who sings about an unknown tormentor cutting up the clothes in the closet of her dreams, but dammit, she’s got a needle and a thread, and she’s gonna sew that stuff back together. She’s gonna survive, carry on, maybe even thrive. As will they all. As will I. That’s what it is to be human.
So, to the person who tossed this into the pot: Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. This sweet, likeable film was more or less what I needed right about now.
And if you see a devil, smash him. Keep that party rolling.
I (still) got my fifty dollars worth.
There’s currently a Camp and Cult Blogathon going on over at She Blogged by Night. I have a piece that should be ready within the next day or so for it, but while I polish that, I figured I’d dig this one up out of the archives and throw it out as a stopgap. It’s thematically appropriate and… well, I always kind of liked it and had fun putting it together, so any chance to dredge it up and get more eyes on it is a chance I’ll take. Behold:
Having previously seen and thoroughly loathed Dale Berry’s 1967 incoherent sex flick Hot Thrills and Warm Chills, I was not at all looking forward to tackling his other 1967 feature Hip, Hot and 21. Recently, I sucked it up and did just that, and now I’m thinking I might need to take another look at the previous film. Hip, Hot and 21 is a weirdly fascinating regional-cinema document, a sleazy oddity made by a guy with a buck-fifty in his pocket and several screws loose in his head. The tale of a young farm girl who goes to the big city and gets involved in a dope-pushing ring doles out its share of skanky thrills (nudity abounds, and there’s a savage whipping scene that wouldn’t look out of place in an Olga film), but it’s set apart by a bleary, discombobulated tone that suggests Berry knows what it’s like to actually be on junk. Of Hot Thrills, I wrote “The fatal weakness, then, is that the sex in this film is unforgivably dull,” yet given this film as a reference point, that might very well be an artistic choice — Berry’s characters here are defined solely by the pleasure they get in hurting others, not in pleasing themselves.
This theme gets strengthened by the occasional doses of genuine artistry at work here. Whether accidental or otherwise, it’s there all the same. An early sequence, whose construction as a frustration for the girl-watchers in the crowd makes sense in retrospect:
The virginal Diane has been married off by her hayseed family to strapping, square-jawed straight arrow Rick. He takes her to the city and rents a hotel room. They begin to get it on but are interrupted by Marla, a junkie madam who becomes important later in the story. (Even farther along, she disappears without warning or comment, but that’s another story.) Once shooed away, things begin, as they say, to happen.
The lovers re-begin to consummate their marriage, at which point…
…Berry pans down their bodies, down the room until he finds a painting he finds interesting at the other side of the bed. The frame gets refocused downward so as to avoid the dipping boom mic.
The camera then pans down further until it’s focused on the feet of the now-rutting lovers. This shot gets held for an uncomfortably long time, as though Berry is too ashamed of what is really going on here that he can’t bear to watch it.
A cut snaps us back to the head of the bed.
Berry can only take so much of this, though, and the camera drifts off to the side. An ornate lamp nudges its way into frame.
As the sex act reaches its height, this lamp becomes more dominant. By the climax, Berry has his camera trained solely on the shade and the shadows playing upon it — a deflowering refracted.
A spasm of flesh, a sudden lurch of the image, and the fuck is done. Diane bolts from the bed in an obviously unsatisfied huff.
"Ding dong, all done!" Bitterness, hard-won, as a prelude to far more bitterness to come. This shit is gold.
What I’ve been doing.
Netflix Video Clerk columns!
- This one, on Leaves of Grass, Killers Three and The Grapes of Death.
- This one, on Merantau, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man and the amazing Revolt.
- This one, on Bad Company, Into the Abyss and The Boss.
- This one, on The Comedy of Terrors, Vampire Circus and Nude for Satan.
- This one, on Shadowboxer, My Joy and The Lovers on the Bridge.
- This one, on Zone Troopers, Altered and One-Eyed Monster.
- This one, on Centurion, Revenge of the Ninja and Dragonslayer.
- This most recent one, on Heavy Metal in Baghdad, The Baby and When Eight Bells Toll.
Also, if you’re curious about past columns, they’re all collated here.
Also also: New Bad Idea Podcast! This one’s about white people trying to pass themselves off as ninjas. It’s very rambling and shouty and drunk. We think you’ll like it.
Three weeks, three columns to pimp:
- This one on J.D’S Revenge, Navajo Joe and Viva Riva!.
- This one on The Manitou, At Long Last Love and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Retribution.
- This one on The Double Hour, Boxcar Bertha and Three Bad Sisters.
There! All caught up!
Play you like a violin.
(Part of today’s White Elephant Blogathon hosted by Paul Clark.)
Famed German actor/full-tilt psycho Klaus Kinski only directed one film in his lifetime. Ostensibly a biopic about violinist Niccolo Paganini, Kinski Paganini is really more a frenzied act of grotesque creation, a wild and senseless cascade of fevered, sexual images that bludgeon the viewer into thinking A) something profound here is being said and B) all these images relate to each other and add up to something. The validity of both claims is questionable.
So of course I dug it.
The main influence here is clearly Ken Russell in the ’70s. Imagine one of Ken Russell’s freewheeling composer biographies (say, The Music Lovers) as a rowing team. Now imagine that the boat capsized and the right half of the team was thrown overboard, unrecoverable… yet the left half carries on, rowing that boat. Kinski Paganini is akin to watching that rowing team try to soldier on: a lot of energy is being expended to go around and around in circles for some indiscernable purpose, and while the act itself seems strange and pointless, it’s also weirdly mesmerizing.
Clearly Kinski feels a kinship with Paganini. In telling the violinist’s story, he’s also telling his own (fitting, then, that this was his last film). And apparently, Klaus’s story involves him getting ass. Lots and lots of ass. Women tend to find his Paganini irresitible; in this universe, the omnipresent sound of his violin causes every woman, from scullery maid to proper lady, to wet themselves is unquenchable sexual desire. And if by some bizarre chance a lady isn’t charmed into sex frenzy by Paganini’s music or his animal charisma (which wafts off him like fog rolling off San Francisco Bay)… well, it doesn’t really matter because Paganini’s probably going to rape her anyway. He’s a misunderstood genuis artist with a God complex and a permanent hard-on.
With that last sentence, am I talking about Paganini or Kinski? And in the context of the film, does it matter?
Paganini lurches and stumbles through one setpiece after another, with little attention paid to coherence - here’s Paganini playing, here’s Paganini fucking, here’s Paganini with his son (played, of course, by Kinski’s young son), here’s Paganini defying the artistic establishment, here’s more fucking, here’s some horses fucking. But much as Paganini seems to inspire mesmeric attention from all he encounters, and much as Kinski’s career was defined by his ferociously magnetic personality, Paganini rivets the attention through sheer brass-balls lunatic energy. You simply can’t not look away, and whether this is coherent or true to the life of Paganini or just an ego-trip for Kinksi or whatever become besides the point. All those years of working alongside Werner Herzog seem to have taught Kinski something - that often times the notion of “ecstatic truth” is more important than anything else. Would that more biopics looked like this crazed concoction.
I could go on, but there’s only so much that rational analysis can do in a case like this. At some point, you’re going to have to meet the crazy head on. So I give you my hand-written unexpurgated notes on Paganini, written on the fly while watching the film. Hopefully, these can give an idea of what the act of watching Kinski Paganini is like.
First: The second edition of my new column of Netflix Instant oddities went up yesterday. In it, I talk about Emperor of the North, Tuesday, After Christmas and Hercules in New York. Take a quick read.
Second: Don’t know why I keep forgetting to mention it, but if you were unaware, I’ve been doing a podcast with freelance critic extraordinaire Simon Abrams. We’ve been plugging away at this for more than a year now, believe it or not. Our twelfth podcast, concentrating on the film of Adam Sandler and Friends, was posted this past Monday. If you’re looking to download it, you might wanna check Feedburner. Enjoy.
The man behind the counter.
So this happened. I’ve started writing a weekly column about the weird and/or obscure yet worthwhile stuff that can be found in the darker reaches of Netflix Instant. You know, basically writing about the kind of stuff I was gonna watch anyway. The first edition of it went up on Friday. In it, I big-up Pontypool, Deadfall and Dagmar’s Hot Pants, Inc. Expect more like that every week.