Today’s movie: Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers. Just as lurid, cheap, exploitative, and funny as it sounds. An overweight bully of an Alabaman nurse reaches out through a lonely-hearts pen pal club and meets the man of her dreams. Even when he turns out to be nothing more than a Eurotrash gigolo con man, she hangs onto those dreams and follows him around on his morbid “business” travels (bilking women who are, without fail, desperate, naive, or intolerably whitebread), growing homicidal with jealousy and frustration. This woman should’ve been played by Divine, the 300-pound cross-dresser who perennially starred in John Waters’s films (it’s easy to imagine this, with its provocative combination of laughs and murder, as a Waters favorite). As it stands, though, Shirley Stoler handles it with gusto; she should win an award for Best Projection of Surliness. Her character and performance made me laugh quite hard during a sizable handful of moments scattered throughout the film; this is a very ordinary, overweight woman who doesn’t like her job, derives a little too much pleasure from a Whitman’s sampler, and wants some love in her life. She’ll just go to some surprising lengths to keep it there; she’s grimly determined in a way that’s hard not to begrudgingly admire. I guess I just have a disproportionate affection for films that explore how easy it is for basic, universal human impulses to explode through the most unlikely wrong channels. I think I would get a little upset at anyone who, while condemning the act of murder, found it impossible to relate even a little bit to the woman Stoler plays. She’s not idealized in any way, though; she’s too much like all of us real human beings, too capable of unpleasantness, to be thought of as sympathetic by the anonymous demographically conceived “moviegoer” of distributor and studio devise.

It is a fairly amateurish production, but it manages to be the sort where its shortcomings seem charming rather than glaring. Though it was filmed and released at the end of the sixties, the natural-lit, spontaneous B&W camera work by D.P. Oliver Wood is very similar to that seen in so many French New Wave films (as the box notes and supplements included with the DVD repeatedly remind us, Truffaut called it his “favorite American movie.”)

Interesting trivia: Martin Scorsese was the film’s director for a week before screenwriter Kastle and the producers fired him for going over budget. Shades of Marty and Harvey! Much easier to take Marty’s side against Harvey, though.

Speaking of basic and universal human impulses, is there a more brilliant pop song about sex ever than The Smiths’ “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”? When I first got my copy of The Queen is Dead as a teenager, I thought of it as a throwaway track, an odd and even inappropriate album-closer after “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” which I found infinitely more moving. At that point in my life, angst-filled as I was, I wanted little to do with acceptance or humor when it came to the general shittiness of the world and everyone in it. Now, I feel that “Some Girls” stands with the very best Smiths songs; it’s very funny, very sad, and so, so very true; it earns every note of Johnny Marr’s achy-breaky melody, which is one of the most memorable and lovely of their entire catalogue.

The song explores that space between “resignation and acceptance,” the perfectly apt dichotomy posed by Olmi as I quoted him in a previous post). “From the ice age to the dole age, there is but one concern,” Morrissey sings. And in the next verse, “As Antony said to Cleopatra, as he opened a crate of ale.” It’s about the rather pitiful but yes, very funny inevitability of anatomical obsession. “Some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.” It makes not a bit of difference to me as a gay male that the song specifies female attributes; taken as intended it means, in a semiotic sense, exactly the same thing as if he’d written “some boys are bigger than others,” i.e., “Boy or girl, you will always notice such things and always care about them, even if you’d prefer not to.” It’s really Morrissey at the height of his observational powers regarding human absurdity. The perhaps insurmountable divorce between our brains, our hearts, and our groins is driven home when he borrows from Johnny Tillotson’s 1959 hit and intones at the song’s close, “Send me the pillow, the one that you dream on, and I’ll send you mine” at the end. Can such cynical physiological bottom-lining and such tender longing coexist in one human being? Absolutely; in all of us, in fact, though Morrissey is an indisputable champion of cleverly, passionately articulating it, which does, in fact, make it a little more bearable.


John Schlesinger, R.I.P.

Over the last couple of days, the McQuain Home Cinematheque featured: Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View and Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D..

I’d seen the Pakula film before, but it’s still startlingly good. Not quite up to Klute, which I cherish and is definitely the best Pakula film I’ve seen. There are a few questionable spots (there’s a so-so car chase that’s alarmingly similar to Dukes of Hazzard, though that show came five years later and was superficially ripping off Pakula, not, thank goodness, the other way around), but it has this great air of creeping political dread and disillusionment, which was more than appropriate for the Nixon years; Pakula’s next project was All the President’s Men.

A shaggy, intriguingly vacant Warren Beatty stars as a journalist who witnesses a political murder; three years later, all those who saw it are being picked off. He decides to investigate, and comes upon a mysterious corporation called Parallax, which recruits, screens, and employs sociopaths as hired assassins. It’s not Pakula’s best film, but it has the best scene in any of his films (yes, it is sort of borrowed from A Clockwork Orange, though it has a distinctly different, much more probing, much less satirical feel; it was also blatantly ripped off and watered down by David Fincher in the not-so-exquisite The Game): Beatty’s character goes through the screening process at Parallax, which involves viewing a slide show with musical accompaniment as his reactions are electronically read.

My attention was first called to this scene (and, indeed, the film itself) by Robert Scholes in his book, Semiotics and Interpretation. He wrote:

”...the intrepid protagonist, who is trying to infiltrate the conspiracy, faces a futuristic personality test. To qualify as an apprentice assassin he must demonstrate that he has the emotional profile of an extremely psychotic individual. The test consists of his being strapped into an electronic chair which monitors his reactions while he is shown slides calculated to produce strong emotional effects upon him: authority figures, sex objects, flags, scenes of violence and brutality, mom-type ladies, homosexuals, apple pie, Captain America- all in a rapid sequence of repetitions and juxtapositions. Our protagonist, to pass the test, must try to generate the appropriate involuntary reactions for a paranoid psychopath, and we, in our own chairs watching the same slides, are inevitably drawn to assist him empathetically by trying to force the appropriate reactions out of our own nervous systems. The result is a kind of mind-blowing sensory overload, a short-circuiting of a narrativity asked ot accomplish too much too fast.”

De Sica’s film is- no surprise here- overwhelmingly simple but very moving; it epitomizes the neorealist themes and style that de Sica helped make famous a few years before Umberto with The Bicycle Thief. In postwar Italy, an elderly pensioner struggles to make it, but he's thwarted at every turn by the new socioeconomic and political realities of his country and with only his extraordinarily companionable little dog to make his life worthwhile. De Sica really splits the hair dividing tenderness and sentimentality, but he doesn’t ever push it too far; his style saves it from becoming maudlin. With its minutely detailed attention to the supposedly mundane quotidian milieu, it also clearly anticipates some of my favorite films that followed it, from the English Kitchen-sink films of the sixties to Todd Haynes’s Safe.

My friend Jamie S. Rich’s imagination was set brilliantly alight by Luke Haines’s indispensable Das Capital; you can experience his fanciful flight here.


I hope I haven't succumbed to nostalgia; there must be a better, more imaginative reason the past days’ movies have been, in order: Joseph L. Mankiewicsz’s All About Eve, Alexander Mackendricks's The Sweet Smell of Success, and William Wyler's The Collector. It’s very interesting to look back on these cozy “old” movies and think about the obvious contempt most of today’s audience has for them (if you don’t believe me, just go to your local arthouse on revival night and listen to the superior sniggering for as long as you can stand it; these cynical hipsters should be rounded up and put on an island with nothing but Gregg Araki movies. That’d teach ‘em). Thirty years from now, all of our own movies are going to be dated, even the best ones; the most insulting will, I hope, be entirely forgotten. Each generation has its own form of artifice, and only bores believe their own time to be automatically more superior and enlightened.

All three of the films had more meat on their bones than even the most “independent” films really do nowadays. Eve, with its story of a conniving, starstruck nobody’s invasion and exploitation of a backstage milieu already choking on its own world-weariness, is usually shoved into the “camp” category by those content with the most superficial appraisal, but I think that falsely assumes that parts of it are not meant to be funny. Pauline Kael said something to the effect that the most mature works are the ones that encompass life’s humor as well as its misery and ennui, and in this case I agree with her. Funny, sad, depressing, compelling; All About Eve is all of these things. As always, Bette Davis is remarkable. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but she was a much stronger screen presence than Hepburn, and much more modern. She was known for being embattled, but I don’t know that that was her fault; she was working in a system that forced you to fight for any step outside the lines. That must be why she and Joan Crawford so famously didn’t get along; it was a case of an independent, often openly defiant spirit clashing with an ingratiating, polarized, two-faced one. Both ended up in some horrendous movies, of course, but Davis always seemed more in the know about it, somehow, laughing all the way to the bank and fuck her “aura.” She was very punk rock in a lot of ways, that woman, and you can’t really say that of too many from that generation, famous or not...

Sweet Smell of Success is a similar sort of showbiz-gone-wrong story, but it’s earthier, nastier. Eve is velvet gloves and iron fists; Success is brass knuckles. The dialogue is snappy, verbose, tangy and nasty where Eve’s is sublimated and sarcastic, and the scenario is much, much dirtier, with its yellow-journalism columnists and naked, desperate ambition. For all that, though, it’s a much more optimistic film than something like Eve or Sunset Boulevard; it has a much less skeptical view of innocence, which may be a flaw, but aren’t there worse flaws a film could have than the oh-so-achingly-persecuted presences of fragile Susan Harrison and naively decent Marty Milner as the against-all-odds young lovers, pure yet surrounded by a cesspool of earthly worries?

The Collector is yet another Morrissey recommendation worth checking into; he used a still from it as the sleeve of The Smiths’ 1984 single, “What Difference Does it Make?” Directed by William Wyler (who, speaking of Bette Davis, also directed The Little Foxes and Jezebel with Davis, in addition to 1961’s fine The Children’s Hour, with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as suspected lesbians ravaged by McCarthy-analogous ignorance and prejudice) and starring Terence Stamp as probably the cutest stalker ever put on film, it’s the story of a bashful-loser young man, an obsessive entomologist who, armed with money he won in the pools, proceeds to put a young woman he was always in love with but always felt inferior to in a “jar” of her own. It’s desultorily reminiscent of the Hannibal Lecter movies, with a very polite, charming, dangerous, and oddly sympathetic central character, which is too bad, considering that the studio gave the DVD a hideous cover that’s a blatant rip-off of the Silence of the Lambs artwork. Bah. Look past the atrocious artwork, and you have a very unique, very memorable movie experience.

I read about a book today; it’s from 1976, is by one Daniel Bell (of whom I know nothing), and is called The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. I must read this book, I’m convinced. The title alone sounds scintillating. You think I’m being facetious? Well, just you wait. This isn’t the last time The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism is/are mentioned here!

Lyric of the day:

“I invented disco in the 1418 war
Just to ease the mood a little
Just to raise morale
Pumpin’ out over Flanders
Pumpin’ out over no-man’s land
Pumpin’ out over Dresden
I invented disco on Armistice Day.”

-Sie featuring Mr. Luke Haines, “Slave 2 Disco”


Some recent imbibing of the nonstop viewing habit:

I am Curious Yellow and I Am Curious Blue. Blue and yellow are the colors of the Swedish flag, and these are Swedish director Vilgot Sjoman’s very controversial 1967 film (and almost completely ignored “parallel” 1968 follow-up).

Yellow was very nearly banned in the USA and caused a huge stir upon its release. I’d heard that the film itself was nothing compared to its cultural impact, i.e. that the reason it’s important was that it broke taboos and challenged censorship, but its usefulness ended there. Thankfully, what I’d heard wasn’t even close to being on the mark. When a film is touted a “young woman’s sexual awakening,” is from the sixties, and is only ever discussed in those terms, I expect the worst- I don’t care if it is from the land of Bergman. However, though the films do both contain explicit sexual scenes, those scenes don’t necessarily seem contrived or out of place in their context; they’re clearly not exploitative or porn-substitutes. That context is an okay variation on what Godard did in Masculin Feminin a few years earlier; deploying the so-called “cinema verite” camera as a weapon to expose the myth of objectivity.

Sjoman doesn’t have nearly the smarts of Godard, but he does have the humor (at the end of each film, breathless voices plead with and order us to “Buy our film- the only film to come in both yellow AND blue!”), and it’s fascinating to watch his star, Lena Nyman (who later starred as the disabled sister in Bergman’s Autumn Sonata) confront Swedish citizens from across the social spectrum with very loaded questions about their socialist paradise. It’s somehow comforting to know that even Sweden has had its malcontents, that even a seemingly perfect system must be perfected, and apparently not without more than a little internal strife and social turbulence. If we’re to believe these movies, Swedes are very conflicted about their need to present a smiling socialist face to the rest of the world and are loath to admit to the inequities and injustices that do still exist.

Sjoman blurs the lines between reality and fiction so thoroughly that by the time you’re halfway through Yellow, you’ve accepted that these films aren’t actual documentaries in any conventional sense, but complicated prankish satires, though with a real, clearly defined yearning for social exploration and demystification; this, not some timorous sexual searching, is the “curiosity” of the title. The films question absolutely everything, including their own content and form. None of what we’re seeing, neither the “fiction” nor the “documentary” portions, are entirely nonfictional, though much of it was apparently improvised. The films are very, very loosely constructed as films-within-films, with everyone playing themselves working on the movies they’re working on, then going home and exploring the ups and downs of sexual liberation. I’m being flip in my summation, really; they’re not great films, but it did all make much more cinematic sense than I expected it to, and there were some very worthwhile insights and pleasures.

Much more indulgent, familiar, comforting fare: The third and fourth respective installments of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series: Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board. The Doinel films (starring the arrogantly handsome but personally charming Jean-Pierre Leaud as Doinel since Leaud was 13 and Doinel was younger than that) are uniformly indulgent; very tender, very funny, melancholy but not melodramatic. They force us to split the hair growing between “distance” and “detachment.” They are quite detached- we’re always seeing Doinel from the outside, “in action” as it were, with not a moment for contemplation- and yet these details and little crises of his life are very affecting, somehow. Truffaut always was on the most accessible edge of the more avant-garde Cahiers du Cinema crowd, but he always exuded integrity. He played Camus to Godard's Sartre when it came to temperament and sensibility. I only have one Doinel entry left: 1979’s Love on the Run. I always meant to pick up Antoine de Baecque‘s Truffaut biography, but considering the overwhelming number of books I always have lined up to read, it’ll have to go under the “someday” category... I did read his Films in my Life, which is basically a collection of good, obsessive reviews with possibly the most endearing title ever given to such a book. He was definitely the most good-looking of the New Wave auteurs... (as distinguished from New Wave by The Auteurs, which is something equally worthwhile but entirely different).

25th Hour made a good rental, as do many Spike Lee films (especially Summer of Sam, which comes this... close to being a keeper). It’s really quite a good film, particularly the last fifteen minutes and all the bits with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Edward Norton, as the convicted drug dealer trying to make the most of his last hours with his friends and girlfriend, is very decent in it, just like he always is; more than passable, good, not quite great. It’s also nice to come across a widely released Hollywood film that at least tries to be thoughtful and non-reactionary (even anti-reactionary, if you look at it in a certain way). That applies generally to the drug/judiciary-penal system theme and specifically to the neat little digression toward the beginning when Norton’s character castigates every minority group in New York City, with cut to accompanying montage, as he grasps for an external target for his own self-loathing. It really is a film you need to see, even if it's only just the once.

Is there anything better that could happen to you than receiving a package from overseas containing the other two Sparks albums from the Kimono My House era? Propaganda and Indiscreet: Not as thoroughly brilliant as Kimono (which contains not a single inferior track), but definitely in the same fantastic vein. Their career since has been extremely spotty and often embarrassing, but on the basis of these three albums alone, they earn a place in the pantheon alongside T. Rex, Bowie, Roxy Music, Eno, New York Dolls, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad gloriam. The standouts: “At Home at Work at Play,” “B.C.,” “Thanks but no Thanks,” “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” “Something for the Girl with Everything,” “Bon Voyage” (from Propaganda) and “Hospitality on Parade,” “Happy Hunting Ground,” “How Are You Getting Home,” “Tits,” and “Miss the Start, Miss the End” (from Indiscreet), though “Under the Table with Her” and “It Ain’t 1918” are growing on me. “Hospitality” has got to be the best rotting-elegant sarcastic ode to colonialism EVER, and “Something for the Girl with Everything” is two revved-up minutes of hard-diamond glam-pop brilliance anticipating punk catchiness. My musical world has definitely brightened because of the Mael brothers. Why is it always the strange-looking ones?

Oh, also, The Thrills. A Dublin band that has a sad-in-the-sun California obsession to rival Joan Didion’s. An uneven album, but when it’s on (as with the twangy regrets of “One Horse Town,” “Big Sur”) it’s transporting.

As for keeping literate, I finished reading While the World Sleeps on assignment for Just Out (readers of that venerable publication will be privileged with my complete, organized thoughts once the review is published; I’m sure the suspense is killing everyone). Should a book full of essays delineating the AIDS crisis and the many ways in which everyone involved has been martyred, useless or deplorable, be so... well, readable? As in, entertainingly, curiosity-gratifyingly readable? Well, that was the case; it was riveting. Next up: Augusten Burroughs’s biographical comedy-nightmare Running with Scissors as background preparation for follow-up memoir Dry, which is another review assignment.

Am I really so over-opinionated that, in addition to the things I’m actually asked to review, I have to subject everything else to the same treatment here? Best to leave that unanswered, I suppose...

Always remember: “There are things to be loved and things to only attend.”

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