Archive for October 2016

Kate Plays Christine

October 30, 2016

960At the beginning and end of Kate Plays Christine, as the lead actress Kate (Kate Lyn Sheil) is prepped by make-up artists to film her character’s suicide, I think we’re meant to remember Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Kate wears a wig cap that makes her look bald, and her expression bespeaks despair in expectation of doom, yet relief that the despair will be over soon. The image is allusive and electric, an anomaly in an otherwise rigidly interiorized film with bland visuals to match. Kate Plays Christine is a sort of documentary, or a mockumentary (though mostly laughless), about an actress researching her role in a movie that doesn’t exist outside of the movie being made about it.        

The role is Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV reporter who was notorious for a while back in 1974, when she put a gun to the back of her head and pulled the trigger while sitting at her newsdesk on live television. She prefaced her act with this deathless contemptuous snark: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.” That’s some heavy-duty nihilism, and Chubbuck, cast from the same dark mold as Susan Sontag and Anne Sexton, had a hooded and harrowed look. Some people are unreachable; nobody was ever going to reach this woman or get behind those pained, inward-focused eyes.       

For whatever reason, Chubbuck’s story — a lonely woman, a virgin at 29, driven to public self-execution by the demons she heard gibbering in her head after sundown — has inspired two films this year, the other being Christine, a more conventionally structured biopic. Kate Plays Christine questions its own existence and, by extension, that of any movie that presumes to speak for the dead, or any male director who tries to interpret a female subject. The writer-director Robert Greene likes to play with format and interrogate performance, and his work here is no different. He uses Chubbuck’s tragedy and Kate’s immersion in it as a way to critique the inherent voyeurism of movie-watching as well as the inherent exploitative nature of moviemaking.       

We watch Kate, an earnest 31-year-old actress with soft, sad features, drift around doing research and asking questions. Kate is convincing as this meta-version of herself, but the footage we see from the movie in which she plays Christine looks — intentionally? — amateurish. Greene may be saying that this flat, clumsy footage, or something like it, is the natural result of any attempt to trap the wildness of true experience in the amber of narrative. This may all sound intriguing on paper, but in practice it’s often dull and strained, and we get the queasy sense that this woman, likable enough, is beating herself up doing something that Kate Plays Christine essentially says is not worth doing.        

Whatever the intentions, Kate steeps herself in morbid homework, reading up on suicide, buying a gun from the same place that sold Chubbuck her gun, swimming in (and ruining her wig in) the same waters that Chubbuck swam in. In brief, the movie answers any possible criticism of itself by pre-emptively including that criticism in its DNA. In the end, Kate profanely sums up the movie’s own self-hatred and lashes out at its audience for good measure. Boy, she sure told us. This, at least, feels true to the saturnine Christine Chubbuck, but it still gives us nothing about her except the surface. For all its self-aware shame, the movie doesn’t have the balls to ask the biggest question: if making a movie and performing a role with a suicide at its center is morally dodgy and not worth doing, what then makes it worth watching?

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Michael Moore in TrumpLand

October 23, 2016

michael-moore-in-trumpland-slice-600x200Has Michael Moore broken some kind of record with his new stand-up-punditry film Michael Moore in TrumpLand? This movie didn’t even exist three weeks ago. It was filmed on October 7 and 8, and it premiered less than two weeks later. Welcome to the wonderful world of digital, I guess. Anyway, the movie, which Moore sprang on the world with a flourish last week, captures Moore during two talks at the Murphy Theater in Wilmington, Ohio, a town that Moore tells us leans largely (or bigly) toward Trump. So here comes Moore, the lefty barnstormer, to take his argument behind enemy lines, with the marquee outside blaring “Trump Voters Welcome.”

I don’t know — and I’m sure Moore doesn’t know either — how many people in Moore’s theater audience were, in fact, Trump voters; there’s really no way to know. I don’t trust Moore’s editing: Who’s to say the man photographed scowling during a Moore paean to Hillary Clinton wasn’t filmed at some other point in the evening, actually frowning at something else? (This is nothing new, of course; editing makes audience members seem to respond to something other than what they actually responded to in practically every concert film you’ve ever seen.) We also don’t know if he changed anyone’s mind. Does it matter? At this point, people are pretty well seated where they’re at, and they’re probably not going to be budged.

What the movie amounts to is a fearful-sounding plea by Moore for everyone to vote for Hillary. Moore is not as sure of Trump’s defeat as many are. By his own account, Moore was in England during Brexit, and that experience — people voting as a “fuck you” to the status quo, and ending up fucking themselves — seems to have scarred him. In July, Moore rattled a lot of his fans by insisting that Trump would win. Most polls these days beg to differ, but Moore might also have been trying to galvanize people into action, which he also tries to do here.

In a way, Moore’s instincts towards compassion sabotage his proselytizing efforts, because as a native of the much-disgraced Flint, Michigan, Moore knows the frustrations of the working class and can understand why they want to blow up a system that gave them the shaft. He may be erring on the side of idealization when he says Trump boosters are decent people (all of them? The white supremacists? The bigots of all stripes? Milo Yiannopoulos?), but he seems to want to begin with a clean slate and work around to something Trump supporters and Clinton supporters can agree on. To be honest, I wonder if the true impetus for this movie was so that Moore could have a filmed document of himself publicly agitating for Clinton. Why? Maybe to assure Moore’s imagined post-apocalyptic post-Trump generations that at least One Man Stood Firm.

Moore feints towards common ground, but mostly pays it jokey lip service. I’m a Moore admirer with serious reservations: I feel that he can speak powerfully for the downtrodden, but that his effectiveness can get lost in smug self-regard or just plain snark. During this show, Moore literally walls off Mexican audience members and sics a drone on Muslim listeners, ostensibly to make the Trump voters in the house feel safer. Well, first of all, this sort of unfunny stunt isn’t going to endear you to the butts of the joke, the Trump voters. Second, Moore’s output is awfully, awfully long on this sort of unfunny stunt. I know Moore is generally on my side of the fence. I also know Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t prevent a second Bush term.

Then again, Dinesh D’Souza’s shitheaded 2016: Obama’s America didn’t prevent a second Obama term, either. (Nor, I think, will D’Souza’s recent Hillary’s America function as intended.) Generally folks who take in agitprop are not looking to have their ideas changed, but confirmed. D’Souza didn’t help convert Obama leaners to Romney, and Moore didn’t pull anyone away from Bush to Kerry. He isn’t going to do that to Trump, either. Trump seems to be doing a superlative job of that to himself. This concert, filmed in the moments right before the truly ugly Access Hollywood recording got out, doesn’t take that into account. This election season has been so weird, has moved so quickly into such unforeseen places, that even a film that was shot (as I write this) fifteen days ago can’t keep pace with it.

Shivers

October 16, 2016

shivers-1975_022Sometimes a writer-director might want to make a film solely to capture one scene, one performance, even one bit of dialogue. For the Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, making his feature debut with 1975’s Shivers (aka Frissons, The Parasite Murders, or They Came from Within), the impetus may have been a monologue late in the game, when a nurse (Lynn Lowry, that cult fan favorite with features as pristine as a doll’s) tells her doctor lover (Paul Hampton) about a dream she had:

Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I’m having trouble you see, because he’s old… and dying… and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.        

This is essentially an Arthur Schnitzler moment out of Traumnovelle given the standard perverse tweak by Cronenberg, whose cinema of tortured flesh runs long on ruminations like this. The thing that sets Shivers apart, of course, is that under Cronenberg’s watch it takes the point of view of the monster — the disease, the parasite. In form, the movie is sort of Night of the Copulating Dead. A community bound together by convenience, an island apartment complex peopled by the moderately well-to-do, is invaded by a parasite that passes from body to body. Ensuring its survival, it also creates powerful lustful feelings in its host body. So the film is also pornographic in structure, though not in practice (it’s erotic but not very explicit).

The doctor, an upright, Graham Chapman-resembling sort, is the putative hero, though it’s a while before we figure out that this is Cronenberg territory and that the parasites (slimy, red, phallic things made by special-effects guru Joe Blasco) are the heroes. Cronenberg takes a relaxed, measured, very Canadian approach to the parasite; he asks, in effect, why it shouldn’t survive, why it shouldn’t get what it wants. What it wants, in brief, is to procreate and to be, just like the rest of us. This was, and remains, a prickly and unique way of looking at horror. The horror, if any, resides in leaving the known and comfortable behind en route to a new and radical way of thinking, feeling, living.

Because Shivers is also Canadian tax-shelter pulp and not just Cronenbergian art, naturally, there’s nudity and gore and taboos not so much broken as dismissed and tossed aside. Intimations of pedophilia and incest stand alongside more upfront depictions of male and female homosexuality. Since this is the supremely nonjudgmental Cronenberg, though, we know that as long as it’s consensual he doesn’t have a problem with any of it — at least within the context of this film. People will be messily infected but will stride into a more authentic and less repressed future.

You do have to give early Cronenberg the benefit of the doubt. His filmmaking hadn’t yet really caught up with his ideas; a lot of the movie, borderline boring, has the inert compositions and staging of ‘70s television drama. But the film is wild where it counts, and in various ringers — Lowry, genre queen Barbara Steele, deep-voiced Joe Silver creating a fresh portrait of casually insensitive intellectualism — Cronenberg has the actors he needs. (God knows the dull, top-billed Paul Hampton doesn’t light any fires.) Shivers announced to general audiences (at least those who hadn’t caught his short films) a genuinely original voice in horror cinema — maybe the only one who owed more to literature than to Hitchcock or to Universal monsters. Has there been another since?

 

 

31

October 9, 2016

31We get it by now: Rob Zombie loves the grotesque excesses of the grindhouse flicks of his youth, and he has dedicated his filmmaking career (and a good portion of his music career) to genuflecting to the disreputable gore, T&A, and general nastiness of those films. He’s sort of a Tim Burton wearing a blood-soaked wife-beater, paying homage again and again to the monsters and psychos that shaped his imagination. In 31, Zombie’s latest act of devotion, the spasm and stink of his style haven’t changed. Past fifty now, Zombie will likely be making movies in this same stubbly flea-pit mode well into his autumn years. The question is whether he’ll run out of stories to tell in that mode — or if he has already.

31 is an arch bit of diabolism in the tradition of Saw and your choice of and-then-there-were-none slaughterhouse entries. Five carny workers are kidnapped and brought to a place (hell) presided over by powder-faced aristo-Brits (including Malcolm McDowell), who give the five victims twelve hours to survive in a dank and dripping maze of pipes and chain-link fences. Our protagonists are trapped in there with a variety of killers, one of whom is played by the gaunt and leering Richard Brake, who seems to embody Zombie’s whole hellbilly, grubby-guignol aesthetic — the role Sid Haig used to fill. If Hollywood is serious about having another go at Stephen King’s The Stand and they need a Randall Flagg, they could do a lot worse than Brake; the movie could have used more of him.

Part of the problem is that after a while, 31 devolves into a predictable survival action film, with the structure of a video game (Brake’s character, Doom-Head, is like the final boss) and more than a few endless fights between people wielding axes, crowbars, knives, chainsaws. Zombie falls back on unreadable editing to suggest rather than depict carnage; I understand that the movie was rated NC-17 twice before being whittled down to something with the less restrictive R rating, and that Zombie plans to release an uncut version on disc, but I don’t expect the action to be very much more comprehensible. The shakiness of the style, in which the camera jerks from side to side even to capture a reaction shot, will always be part of the film’s, and Zombie’s, DNA. Sometimes it works, sometimes it frustrates.

That’s true of the movie in general. A crowdfunding effort, 31 is cast almost exclusively with actors Zombie has worked with before —McDowell, Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster, Judy Geeson, E.G. Daily¹ — alongside various faded icons like erstwhile porn queen Ginger Lynn (thrown away in a mean-spirited scene) and former Sweathog Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (slipping into a Jamaican accent and performing smoothly). This isn’t the kind of movie that’s built for actors, and Zombie’s antagonistic yet orotund dialogue doesn’t help; people are either spitting clotted mouthfuls of blood and vituperation at each other or just carelessly scattering F-bombs like rusted pennies into a fountain. Only poor old bedraggled toothless Tracey Walter gets to bring some sozzled warmth to a scene, though Meg Foster’s trademark blazing eyes come close to declaring her the movie’s star by visual default.

Zombie obviously can’t make movies any other way — even his Woolite detergent commercial a few years back is hilariously gnarled and in-your-face — and anyone who knows anything about artistic instincts can’t fault Zombie for this. 31 is set on Halloween of 1976 so that Zombie can engage in a few vintage needle-drops (Joe Walsh, Lynyrd Skynyrd) and nods to the films that fed his fire (at one point a fight is backed with music that sounds suspiciously like Goblin’s score for Suspiria). For some artists, a particular mode or visual/sonic emphasis is like a sore tooth they can’t stop tonguing, an itch they go crazy if they can’t scratch. Zombie scratches his itch here until it bleeds, but is the scratching pleasurable any more for anyone other than him?

¹Daily plays Sex-Head, a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl who reminded me of Harley Quinn, which then led me to imagine Rob Zombie’s Suicide Squad.

 

 

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

October 1, 2016

brain-wouldnt-die-122215How can anyone not love a movie in which a woman’s bitter disembodied head snarls to a mutant locked in a closet, “I’m only a head … and you’re whatever you are…”? The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is amazingly sleazy and ghastly and cheap and, yes, deeply lovable. It has as its proto-feminist heroine a woman who has been whittled down to her mind, which gives her new psychic powers that she doesn’t hesitate to use against the men of science who presume to shape her destiny. Playing this woman, Jan Compton, in the early scenes, Virginia Leith is somewhat interchangeable with the film’s other female characters; once reduced to a head, though, Leith hisses and growls in her newly husky voice, and she becomes an image of perverse beauty and strength.

What happens to Jan is that she’s decapitated in a car wreck; fortunately, or unfortunately, her fiancé Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) is a maverick surgeon obsessed with experimenting on humans. A past experiment has already resulted in the aforementioned mutant in the closet, and now Dr. Bill wants to find Jan a new body upon which to transplant her head. This appalls Jan, who simply wants to die, but while she’s kept alive she must figure she may as well wreak some havoc. She develops a telepathic bond with the hidden mutant, who is responsible for most of the movie’s inky, black-and-white bloodshed.

Brain has a sweaty, lowdown, skid-row charm. Dr. Bill keeps frequenting places of ill repute (a strip club, a beauty contest) while Abie Baker’s dirty instrumental ditty “The Web” honks and fidgets suggestively. Meanwhile, his disabled assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniels) taunts Jan and cringes from the thumps made by the closeted mutant, who seems to function as Jan’s id. The movie, made in 1959 but not released until 1962, has a deep streak of misandry. Women in the film are targeted by men, abused, scarred, robbed of their agency. Jan alone, having forfeited her physique, has the power to burn the rampant misogyny down to the ground.

All of this comes packaged in a movie whose technique is, to put it gently, basic. I’m annoyed by the mundane reviews calling it “inept,” though. Brain creates and sustains an eerie, clammy psychosexual mood. Dr. Bill, who resembles a cross between Vince Vaughn and a young Aidan Quinn, bops along smugly to havens of pulchritude; of course he’d go to strippers or beauty contestants when body-shopping for his fiancée. He settles on Doris (Adele Lamont), a photographers’ model with a scarred face from an abusive ex. She loathes men, but goes home with Dr. Bill because he promises corrective plastic surgery. Also, she senses that he doesn’t want her for sex, which is true; he just wants her for her body. Heh heh heh. At times Brain is interchangeable tonally with several classic E.C. Comics horror tales, the vicious and morally polluted kind written so indelibly by Al Feldman.

The mutant, when we see him finally, is played by Diane Arbus giant Eddie Carmel wearing make-up that turns his entire head into a riot of mismatched patchwork flesh. He’s supposed to be a failed experiment, but seems more like something pinched together like Play-Doh out of leftover meat by a bored, spiteful god. The mutant, who kills every man he sees and rescues Doris under Jan’s command, is the movie’s only sympathetic male — or is he male? Anyway, he or she is Monster, allied with no-bodied Jan and disfigured Doris, maimed by man, or created as their current ruined selves by man. I’m sorry, but a movie that tucks this many discordant but reverberant subtexts and ideas into a grindhouse narrative deserves so much better than to be derided by hipsters. A refugee from the mad-lab Z-budget pictures of the ‘50s, Brain in its seamy and leering way agitates more loudly for the then-nascent second-wave feminism than a squarer, more conscientious work could hope to.