Saturday, March 21, 2009

I got my fifty dollars worth.

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.

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