D2D entry #65: The Big Bird Cage (1972, Jack Hill)
(Featured in Dusk to Dawn #1.)
Roger Ebert is generally a very intelligent, perceptive and generous writer. However, like all of us, he sometimes makes assertions that ring a bit false. For instance, his review of Switchblade Sisters contains several sentences that come just short of calling exploitation mainstay director Jack Hill a useless hack. I haven’t yet seen Switchblade Sisters, so I can’t say whether or not it accurately represents the Jack Hill I think I know. What I can say, though, is that the work I’ve seen from the man displays an acute understanding of genre mechanics, audience expectations and the value of keeping both in flux.
The Big Bird Cage, today’s example, reads on paper like a fairly typical Women-In-Prison effort, with scantily clad babes stuck in a tropical hellhole at the mercy of sadistic guards and each other. Throw in some violence, some simmering lesbian tension and lots of cheesecake, and bang! you got a movie. What’s fascinating about Bird Cage, then, is the way that Hill pushes against the tropes and thematics of the genre while throwing in more tonal shifts than a South Korean film festival. The prison shenanigans don’t even start until roughly fifteen minutes into the film, by which point we’ve already gotten Pam Grier playing a guitar, a political shootout in a Filipino nightclub and Sid Haig at his most charmingly lecherous. The fallout from the shootout lands professional harlot-to-the-powerful Anitra Ford in the titular place, a tropical prison barracks/labor camp where women toil day in and day out processing sugar cane in an enormous bamboo structure. As Ford tries to use political connections to get her out of the prison, there’s a parallel strand with Grier and Haig’s revolutionary group conspiring to land Grier in the prison (presumably to strike a blow of freedom against The Man).
Beyond the flipping between the A plot and the B plot, the tone of the film is wont to change from cut to cut, so that low comedy will follow sadistic acts of violence and the antagonistic relationship between sassy black chick Carol Speed and taciturn Amazonian lesbian Karen McKevic suddenly turns credibly tragic when one of them bites it in the Bird Cage. Then there’s the big fiery action climax; what starts triumphant gradually darkens as many of the female denizens, unexpectedly, start getting mowed down. Yet there’s still time for a side trip involving rape — and when that WIP mainstay rears its ugly head, it’s not man-on-woman or woman-on-woman per the usual, but three sex-hungry female prisoners forcing themselves on one of the flamingly gay male guards. (PC attitude is in short supply — Haig manages to infiltrate the prison by caricaturing himself as homosexual.)
Then there’s the matter of Hill’s eye. Even in the midst of dreck and degradation, he can still find the occasional elegiac image (like the long shot of Ford, suspended by her hair, cast against the rich orange-yellow of a Filipino sunset). And when the nasty warden finally gets his, Hill pulls a meta-cinema trick that brings the film that much closer to Two-Lane Blacktop. He may not be Fellini, but the motherfucker knows what he’s doing.
D2D #59: The Girl from Pussycat (1969, David Smythe)
(Featured in Dusk to Dawn #9.)
An odd duck, this one. It’s mostly a short, dirty sex feature about some young women who go on a bank-robbing spree in between bouts of sex with each other and various men. Every now and then, though, the filmmakers will do something that makes you think they’ve got something better inside them than this grainy slap ‘n’ tickle - for instance, the actual robbery sequence drops out all sound halfway through save for the insistent thump-thump of a beating heart, and the inconclusive ending strikes me as an attempt at teasing ambiguity. There’s also the surprising savagery of a two-women-on-one-man beating near the film’s end (a toaster figures prominently) and quite a bit more lesbianism than you normally get from these sorts of things. I get the feeling that Smythe and company were trying to find a way to set their flesh feast apart from other, similarly horny bottom bills. Yet the effort never amounts to anything aside from staving off the occasional attack of boredom. It’s not enough merely to make oneself different - there has to be a reason for that difference. Otherwise, you’re just the same old thing with a different hat. The Girl from Pussycat is an easy watch, a quick watch and it has miles of lovely femme flesh. But Smythe is no Joe Sarno, and ultimately this isn’t anything that you can’t get from most any other genre entry of the period.
Fun Fact: The cinematographer took the pseudonym of Søren Kirkegaard!
D2D entry #56: Simon, King of the Witches (1971, Bruce Kessler)
(Featured in Dusk to Dawn #1 & 42nd Street #4.)
“Don’t touch me - I’m a religious object!”
I often wonder why I spend so much time watching terrible movies. Then I see a film like this and get my answer. Simon, King of the Witches was advertised as a typicial, trippy early-’70s horror film with boobs and death galore, all at the hands of a powerful Manson-esque warlock. (Think The Deathmaster with spells instead of fangs.) Given the hard-sell by its distributor, it bombed and sank without a trace, which is understandable considering it’s not really a horror movie at all - instead, it’s a odd, thoughtful and often quite funny character study/time-capsule snapshot.
One of the things that appeals to me about genre films is their ability to deal with social issues via metaphor. Whether covertly or openly, there are things that gain potency when expressed through the filter of the downmarket (probably the whole idea of getting away with something enhances the message). Simon is rather far on the obvious end of the spectrum - Simon’s magical machinations are clearly linked with the burgeoning gay-pride movement, both metaphorically (Simon professes to be “openly” a witch) and plotwise, as the first half of the film sees him being manipulated by Hercules, a queen with some political pull, into eliminating a politician whose actions are held in disfavor. This striving for greater political power is reflected by Simon’s desire to ascend into the realms of the gods, and the fallout from this (both threads culminate in a murder) holds some currency as a caution about using certain means as tools for advancement. (Note that this film was released only two years after the Stonewall riots.)
Beyond that, though, Simon’s witchcraft is linking explicitly with gay hustling; Simon proclaims about his craft, “I work for money!” and befriends Turk, a quiet blonde kid he meets at the film’s outset while sitting out a night in jail for vagrancy. It’s never stated outright what Turk is in for, but it’s strongly implied that, even though he likes girls and has Simon prepare a love potion to ensnare a particular female he likes, Turk isn’t above using his androgynous good looks to go gay-for-pay, and his moony attachment to Simon screams of an unrequited same-sex crush.
But there’s more than that - Kessler ties together paganism, the gay subculture, the waning hippie movement, free love, hedonism and swinging sexuality into a big nexus of outsiderdom, yet the ties are starting to fray. The drugs, sex and corruption are wearing down the idealism and good intentions behind all of this; essentially, this is a film that charts the entire progress of the consciousness-raising of the ’60s, eventual downward spiral included. Simon makes his first attempt at gathering enough energy (via sex magick) to storm the gates of the heavens yet gets thwarted by his own lust for his partner, a sweet young dropout named Linda. If that’s not a big honkin’ metaphor for human nature getting in the way of loftier intentions, then I’m Abe Lincoln.
Lest I make this sound like a bummer trip, I should also note that all this is done with a fairly light touch, with the tone set by Andrew Prine in what should have been a star-making performance. His portrayal of Simon is unexpectedly low-key, considering that the opportunities for histrionics in this role are myriad. Prine has a charisma and a bemused rakishness that serves the character well - he’s the genuine article and knows it, yet he remains fairly grounded about his station in life (he does, after all, live in a storm drain, and conjuring is just a way to keep food in his stomach while he waits to leave this plane). There are points where he lets his cool facade slip, most entertainingly at a gathering of female witches who seem to regard witchery as an excuse to naked, but his default mode seems to be ironic detachment, slightly weary and slightly snickering. He’s the kind of guy who can make the proclamation, “A platform, properly stationed with regard to the magnetic poles, from which to launch forth my evil missile! With lumber by Wyman Brothers,” sound both appropriately grandiose and unaccountably funny (it’s the sardonic, offhand delivery of the last line that does it). As he goes, so does the film; Simon the spriest and most enjoyable film you’ll ever see about the counterculture eating itself.
Weirdness Dept.: After the relative cultural success of Milk - not to mention the rest of Gus’s gay-friendly oeuvre - it strikes a strangely appropriate note that Hercules’s last name is apparently Van Sant.
The misleading trailer:
All you are is meat.
I was made extremely uncomfortable by the hardcore gay sex in George Bataille’s Story of the Eye. I was perfectly fine with the hardcore gay sex in Otto; or, Up with Dead People. Maybe it’s because I knew all the man-on-man fucking was coming in Otto, while I was blindsided by the gay content of Story of the Eye. Or maybe it’s just because Otto is a really good movie and Story is cancer transferred to digital video.
And yeah, Otto is pretty great. I expected it to be a big ol’ campfest, so I was a bit gobsmacked when it turned out to be a fair bummer. Bruce LaBruce (whose work I’ve obviously been sleeping on to my great detriment) has the aggressive-queer thing going for him, but he balances that with a palpable sense of sadness and melancholy. Sex and death get conflated, as do sex and butchery; the idea one is left with is that of a true outsider’s perspective, one who’s looking for something real in a sea of pick-ups. Meat’s meat and man’s gotta eat, but sometimes you need something more filling. That’s not to downplay this film’s sense of humor, which can be summed up in the fact that one of the characters is a heroine from a silent melodrama, and most of her scenes play in silent B&W. Also, LaBruce has a keen eye that in no way is harmed by his use of digital video. An elegant late-film shot that I rather liked:
So yeah. If you can tolerate guys fucking other guys, check this bitch out.