Archive for the ‘satire’ category

The House That Jack Built

December 16, 2018

the-house-that-jack-builtIn Lars von Trier’s traumatizing serial-killer epic The House That Jack Built, the murders have a rough clumsiness, preceded by something that’s almost worse — the awkward chasm of build-up before the killing, when our protagonist Jack (Matt Dillon) is trying to relate to his prey, if only to keep up appearances. A textbook sociopath, Jack has photos of various facial expressions pasted around a mirror, so he can practice looking human. He is human, though; the moments when he’s trying to manipulate his way into a house, or holding forth before the mutilation begins, show us the cracks in his mask of insanity. Somewhere in there, seen only in fragments, is someone capable of compassion, staring out in horror.

The point of the film, I gather, is to draw a connection between Jack the fictional ripper and von Trier the supposedly amoral artist — and, by extension, between the acts of destruction and creation. Both leave a mark on the world, even if a mark of erasure, and Jack takes it a step further by trying to transform murder into art — sculpting corpses into tableaux of ruin and decay. Of all the atrocities we witness, possibly the ghastliest is what Jack does to the face of a frowning little boy who, in life, was nicknamed Grumpy. I’ll never forget that sight, and moments like it are why horror fans have gravitated eagerly to The House That Jack Built — von Trier finds a new way to shock, to show us fear in a handful of meat. But for the most part what they’re going to get is a sermon on art and morality before they get the gory donut.

The version of the film most Americans will see (until the director’s cut is allowed to be released in America sometime next year) is R-rated, and missing a minute or so of footage involving the shooting of children and a nonconsensual mastectomy.¹ Whether we think we or anyone need to see these things is beside the point; this muted version removes taboos that had strengthened the film’s punch as a work of Juvenalian satire. The House That Jack Built turns out to be a movie very much of this fraught, bifurcated moment. The wearing of red baseball caps in a key scene may provide a clue. Anyway, the trimmed version is mainly intact, though I recommend it for the most part only to von Trier fans, who seem to have greater tolerance for the Danish maestro’s games than do most Western critics.

The movie is literarily structured into five “incidents” and an epilogue (“Katabasis”). The “incidents” almost all feature Jack singling out some woman — he usually happens on them randomly — and bringing the pain. He’s not especially slick at it; he bumbles through the first killings we see, stashing the remains in his walk-in freezer. He takes on the nom de meutre “Mr. Sophistication,” mailing the newspapers photos of his work as David Bowie’s “Fame” comments somewhat obviously on his ambitions. He talks to an unseen man, known as Verge (Bruno Ganz), who listens to Jack’s self-justifying monologues half-heartedly, having heard speeches like them many times before. Jack is being led to Hell, and feels the need to explain himself on the way.

The House That Jack Built — immaculately acted, by the way, especially by cold-eyed Dillon and by Siobhan Fallon Hogan in the film’s most wounding but least gruesome “incident” — is enough of an evocative art-house exhibit to be about whatever you want it to be about. Jack’s hobbies and trophies could sensibly be read as the horrific logical extension of white male privilege, and its ultimate destination might make this von Trier’s most cheerful film in quite a while. Maybe Jack can kill with impunity — though not forever — and maybe, as he shouts, “nobody wants to help,” but that doesn’t mean no consequences. By the end, when we see the end result of Jack’s hoarding of his victims, we understand that we have left the realm of the literal — if we were ever in it — and entered the twistier dreamland of metaphor, icon, myth. We recall the sorrowful, stinging tone of von Trier’s previous fables about America, and we understand we all live in Jack’s house.

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¹This sequence, in the R-rated version, becomes darkly hilarious for its glimpse into what the MPAA finds beyond the limits of an R rating (showing a breast being cut off), and what is apparently acceptable (showing a disembodied breast being prankishly tucked under someone’s windshield wiper, and the other one used as Jack’s wallet). I leave it to the reader to determine which is worse.

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Code Name: Dynastud

October 22, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 4.50.29 PM “My penis was a lethal weapon,” narrates the titular hero of Code Name: Dynastud, “and I had a license to thrill.” This is the sort of freewheeling dialogue you can expect from this movie and from many of Richard Griffin’s movies in general. Griffin is the Rhode Island bad boy responsible for making serious films (Long Night in a Dead City, Flesh for the Inferno) and queer-positive farces (last year’s Strapped for Danger and definitely this movie). Sometimes the sharpest response to a repressive situation is laughter, and in Dynastud Griffin gays it up bigly in the face of a regime that just announced they’re looking to redefine transgender out of existence, and whose vice-president gladly speaks at the anti-LGBT hate gathering Values Voter Summit.

Griffin’s comedic grab-bag approach, with nods to everything from James Bond opening-credits sequences to Dune to Moby Dick, probably won’t win over any more bigots than a more sober-sided Oscar-season appeal to tolerance would, but it’s a lot more fun. (Some may recall that Strapped for Danger was supposed to be Griffin’s swan song; fortunately for us, he changed his mind.) Griffin’s story here (cowritten with frequent giggling collaborators Duncan Pflaster and Lenny Schwartz) involves a scrawny farm-raised lad who receives superpowers and becomes Dynastud (Anthony Gaudette), both blessed with fabulous good looks and cursed with the tendency to make his sexual partners’ heads explode when he achieves orgasm. Dynastud’s new partner in crimefighting — the Robin to his Batman, if you will — is Bart (Derek Laurendeau), a bespectacled dude punished for the crime of being gay in 2024 by being married off to the avidly horny daughter of the senator being groomed as the next president.

Despite the intentional clownishness (the bad dubbing in tribute to Enter the Ninja) and the continued thirst for vibrant colors (courtesy of cinematographer John Mosetich), Griffin’s radicalism here makes Bruce LaBruce’s callow outrages look like a kid’s armpit farts. Code Name: Dynastud imagines an America left incredibly worse post-Trump — this may come to be recognized as the first post-America film. It’s a cheerfully nihilistic work, with the emphasis on “cheerfully.” The performers come to party, with the most vivid fun-makers being Bruce Church as the gun-toting, hateful senator and Candace Sampson as his randy spawn. I’m always happy to see Aaron Andrade barge into a Griffin shindig, and here he busts in as a MAGA agent and puts on a hilariously lofty accent. He cracked me up every time.

It’s probably no accident that Griffin is hijacking traditionally macho genres (and movies by typically macho studios like Cannon) to tell lasciviously gay stories. By the same token, gay lust and affection are about the only things that don’t come in for ridicule here; by rewriting/rewiring hetero fantasies, Griffin is showing the hetero audience what their unquestioned hetero entertainment looks like to everyone else. I sometimes wonder what Griffin’s wilder films will look like in thirty years (assuming anyone will be around to watch them) — whether their method of flipping the script will be viewed as something that was sadly necessary in the dark ages of 2018. There may be a future in which films like Code Name: Dynastud will be seen not as gay parodies but as parodies. Part of Griffin believes in that future and works towards it. And part of him laughs in rage at the present. There’s the soul of an artist in these schlock homages Griffin does, with all their jokes about schlongs and jizz.

The Misandrists

May 7, 2018

Misandrists-7-800x499The only moment I freely enjoyed in Bruce LaBruce’s erotic satire The Misandrists comes when a woman dressed as a nun, walking on the grounds outside an all-girl school, suddenly and randomly breaks into the Charleston while music plays (coming from where? We don’t know). Then, as inexplicably as it started, the music stops, the dance is cut off, and the “nun” resumes walking. This happens roughly fifty minutes into the movie, and it’s the only bit with any spontaneity or life. The rest of The Misandrists is more porno-tinged, half-serious “radical” agitprop from LaBruce, a founding father of the queercore movement of the ‘80s, who has made this as a quasi-sequel to his 2004 film The Raspberry Reich.

For LaBruce, homosexuality is revolutionary, and he literalizes that by linking gay sex with terrorism, or at least with terrorist rhetoric. I see the point: In certain quarters of supposedly free Western societies (LaBruce hails from Ontario), if you’re LGBTQ you may as well be ISIS. So why not give homophobes something to be genuinely phobic about? Filmed in Berlin in twelve days on a Kickstarter budget, The Misandrists concerns a lesbian separatist group — the Female Liberation Army — disguised as a convent. Their leader is Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse, from Raspberry Reich), who uses gender-swapped words like “womansplain” and says things like “We must tell the world to wake up and smell the estrogen.”

If this is your cup of camp, drink up. I found it largely boring, especially a slow-motion pillow fight that goes on for eight or nine weeks, or so it seems. Filmed in early 2016, The Misandrists can’t really be faulted for not anticipating the atmosphere in which it would eventually be released (after a year or so of bouncing around festivals worldwide). You can’t read a room if you’re not expecting it to be on fire in two years. But maybe now isn’t the time for a jokey send-up of gay, female and transgender rage. Maybe it also isn’t the time for scenes like the one in which an transgender young woman is ostracized (temporarily, but still) while a wounded young man is subjected to forced gender reassignment surgery (shown in gory, leering close-ups in actual vaginoplasty footage as the man screams in pain). This may be a shot at the TERF mentality, but in this particular landscape it lands poorly. As Roger Ebert wrote about the lumberjack jokes in Blue Velvet, “Sorry, but I just couldn’t get my lips to smile.”

This sort of japery was done funnier and filthier by John Waters in the pride of his midnight-movie shining, in films like Desperate Living and Female Trouble. I’m not sure whether LaBruce wants us to chuckle politely — that dignified whitebread titter you hear in audiences for art-house flicks — or to nod in meaningful mute assent to the heavy points he’s making. One of the points is a good one: extremism used to control people is bad; used in art, as in the pornifesto the young women produce at the movie’s end, it’s good. Would that The Misandrists were an example of the latter. As it is, it employs graphic, unsimulated sex and blood for an upsy daisy assortment of self-consciously subversive blackout sketches. Which may have worked in the somewhat gentler ‘90s. These days, more is needed and deserved.

 

Beatriz at Dinner

September 10, 2017

beatrizatdinnerI’m not sure whether Beatriz at Dinner is, as advertised, “the first great film of the Trump era” (Get Out might beg to differ), but that’s a reductive tag anyway. Its concerns go deeper (and it was finished months before Election Day 2016), so don’t let that description scare you away or foster unrealistic expectations. The movie is not the savage jugular-punch to the current administration that some will want and others will wearily and warily expect. It’s accidentally topical — it could just as easily have been made in the mid-2000s, on the heels of the two other films by Beatriz’ makers, Chuck & Buck (2000) and The Good Girl (2002). But director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White speak to today’s preoccupations precisely by not tying themselves to the present.

The movie is archetypal, not satirically specific. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a massage therapist and general holistic healer, and also an immigrant. Her opposite number here is Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a real-estate magnate who seems to represent the values that validate Trump without actually being much like Trump. Mike White allows Doug some wit and self-awareness (he’s way too well-spoken to be a Trump parody), and Lithgow makes him quick and shrewd, but with an understanding that Doug’s self-opinion is deeply divided. Doug is reflective, even existentially aware of his place in the world. In his way, Doug is the most honest person in the movie. He’s joshingly cruel but he never pretends to be anything other than what he is.

Beatriz is brought into Doug’s sphere when she’s stuck at a client’s house by car trouble. Her client is Kathy (Connie Britton), the sort of conscientious rich white woman, blind to her own privilege, who thinks of her massage therapist Beatriz as a friend because having a woman like Beatriz as a friend makes a woman like Kathy feel warm and gracious. (She commiserates tastefully when a saddened Beatriz says her neighbor killed her goat.) Beatriz knows they’re not really friends, though she once treated and helped Kathy’s (offscreen) daughter through her chemotherapy. She knows how easily a rich white person’s affection is given, and withdrawn. Beatriz doesn’t say much until some wine loosens her tongue, but the great actress Hayek writes an entire novel wordlessly, with stares of despair or outrage.

Beatriz at Dinner has also been described as a comedy, but it isn’t really — the level of camp is awfully low (it spikes a bit in some of Beatriz’ flights of fantasy), and the few laughs are uncomfortable. There is one top-notch twisted joke: these rich people love passing grotesque photos around on their phones; it happens twice, and both times Beatriz is horrified, and finally livid. Beatriz is more or less marooned at the California mansion of Kathy and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) as an important business dinner, involving Doug Strutt, looms later in the evening. Amusingly, except for Doug, the men seem indistinct; the women come off snappy and precise. They’re intelligent and know the right things to say to continue presenting as compassionate people, but some part of their soul is gone, scabbed over. They enable their men to kill the world.

Sometimes Hayek’s Beatriz is powerful Earth Mother, other times just a slumped, small-statured woman trying to get through the day. She is the conscience of the earth, but hardly its consciousness. She feels others’ pain, even a dying octopus, and may be too intense an empath to function in a harsh world created by the rich and white. She seems to understand Doug, or would like to think so (she keeps saying she knows him from somewhere), but Doug has her number the moment he lays eyes on her. His final words to her reverberate far past the end credits. Beatriz at Dinner is being sold as some sort of Greenaway-esque satire of manners, but it’s a good deal more troubling than that. It bothers us long after it’s over, bringing us back to Beatriz’ death-haunted eyes, looking for the man who killed her goat.

Dr. Strangelove

September 11, 2016

screenshot-med-01What does Dr. Strangelove say to us today? We’re more worried about terrorism than about the bomb — that is, about stateless radicals wanting to kill us, instead of an entire country ranged against us. Has the film kept its power to shock? I suppose its cool, detached amusement in the face of armageddon remains shocking in the sense of a revivifying splash of cold water. Fifty-two years on, the movie is still more hip than most of what American filmmakers — Hollywood or indie — can muster. Like Tom Lehrer, Stanley Kubrick chortled darkly at the idea of us killing ourselves off en masse. Mankind’s developing the brains to devise a weapon that could render ourselves extinct is perhaps the great cosmic irony, and Dr. Strangelove dances gaily (yet coolly) inside that irony.

The world dies screaming because of one sexually hung-up man — General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who sends word to a B-52 to commence Wing Attack Plan R, essentially a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. Why? The commies, of course, have released fluoride into the water to corrupt our precious bodily fluids. As Ripper explains to his captive, Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), he will have sex with women, but he denies them his “essence.” This from a movie that kicks off with a pornographic sequence of a bomber refueling in flight (images that may have haunted J.G. Ballard). Sexuality is a joke, swiftly diverted into military violence by way of repression. Bombers and bombs are the only things that really get off in this brave new future.

Kubrick’s attack isn’t on anything as simple as the military but on masculinity (only one woman is seen onscreen) and, incidentally, on the hubris of humanity itself, its evolved but still bestial brain. Man’s inability to deal with its own existential terror, which clouds its judgment and prevents its further evolution, was Kubrick’s main theme. Every idiot man in Dr. Strangelove exists to illustrate it — the ineffectual American president Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), the rip-roaring General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the hee-hawing bomber commander Major Kong (Slim Pickens), the leering Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again). Women don’t figure into the movie’s vision except as thwarted sexual opportunities; they’re almost invisible but at least, in 1964 anyway, they don’t send people to war.

Dr. Strangelove himself (né Merkwürdigliebe) is perhaps the crowning creation of both Sellers and Kubrick, a toxic-hipster ex-Nazi patterned partly on Wernher von Braun (“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” as Lehrer characterized von Braun’s stance) and partly on Rotwang from Metropolis. Strangelove’s accent navigates dangerously through bared teeth, wafting out in a strangled hum of platitudes about the survivability and even preferability of a nuclear war. Putting all his creative, chameleonic eggs in this basket, Sellers is riveting, and Kubrick lets him run with his instincts. (Some Kubrick detractors have suggested that once he lost Sellers he lost Sellers’ questing, improvisational quality of play.)

At a sleek, quicksilver ninety minutes, Dr. Strangelove proceeds in snappy, surgical edits; the only dissolve I can recall accompanies the movie’s most slapstick moment, involving a Coke-bottle machine. (Kubrick was right to axe the legendary pie-fight scene; it would’ve been just too vaudeville for the eventual cool tone of the film.) Slight dutch angles abound, jazzing up a movie that is roughly 85% dialogue, but also giving us the simultaneously hilarious and intimidating image of General Ripper, phallic cigar jutting out, seemingly photographed from the general region of … his crotch. The audience is thus put in a submissive, fellatial position before the man who essentially makes himself God, who waves his hand (or a code) and kills us all off to the musical stylings of Vera Lynn. Kubrick knew what he was doing.

Big Trouble in Little China

May 1, 2016

big-trouble-in-little-chinaIf you want to enjoy Big Trouble in Little China the correct way, listen to its director, John Carpenter, and star, Kurt Russell, who will cheerfully tell you that the man you might assume is the hero — intrepid trucker Jack Burton (Russell) — is actually the film’s idiot sidekick. The real hero is Jack’s friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), who has the movie’s true heroic arc. Wang’s fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) has been kidnapped, and he must rescue her. Jack kind of tags along because Wang owes him money and, later, because his truck is stolen and he wants it back. So while Wang goes forward and drives the plot, Jack muscles in and talks like John Wayne and occasionally manages not to shit the bed completely.

Big Trouble in Little China started out as a period Western with martial-arts flavor — something like the later Shanghai Noon, possibly — but was modernized by script doctor W.D. Richter (Buckaroo Banzai), and ended up as both an homage to and example of mystical chop-socky. Audiences in 1986 were simply not ready for it, and it tanked badly in theaters before gaining, like some of Carpenter’s other “failures,” an eager cult on home video. Today it’s generally viewed as a precursor to the cinema of actor-director Stephen Chow, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, and everything else made possible in the wake of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The plot is basically an explosion in a clown factory. It needs near-constant exposition, as much to keep us up to speed as to get Jack’s head on straight — he almost never knows what’s going on. He’s the Dumb White Man at sea in Chinatown, where the local customs are bizarre and incomprehensible to him. The narrative is almost a parody of “Asian inscrutability.” The gist of it is that Miao Yin, along with another, possibly mixed-race woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), have been captured so that they can be married off to the 2000-year-old sorcerer Lo Pan (James Hong), because the women both have green eyes and this is vital to lift the curse that keeps Lo Pan decrepit and/or an incorporeal spirit. You can kind of see why Jack says “Huh?” a lot.

Various superpowered minions of Lo Pan’s show up and do their elemental specialties. Monsters lurch into the frame, mostly unexplained. Yet Big Trouble in Little China is a comedy — a giggly, jostling adventure that sneers in the face of logic. I’m not sure why a reporter (Kate Burton) is around at all, other than to give Gracie someone to talk to and pass the Bechdel Test. Pretty much everyone in the movie is there to aid or frustrate Wang Chi’s goal; Jack frequently does one or the other, sometimes both at once. Carpenter and his favored cinematographer Dean Cundey (doing his fifth and final work for Carpenter) keep the action colorful and bright, even when rain pours down; a more poetic title for the movie might be Blue Lightning, Red Gowns, after the magic weapon of one villain and the dresses Gracie and Miao Yin wear during Lo Pan’s ceremony. This PG-13 film, despite its frequent shooting and bashing and swordplay, is also completely bloodless except for the blood-draw in the aforementioned ceremony.

The movie contains as well the single drop-dead funniest moment in all of Carpenter’s filmography, one that Kurt Russell can’t even get through talking about without guffawing. I won’t give it away. But watch not only for an ill-advised show of boisterous force but for a shot a few seconds later of “our hero” missing all the fun. Big Trouble in Little China was significantly before its time in more ways than one: it was a goofily meta satire in an era of mostly fearfully sincere action (think of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and Eastwood), razzing tropes that American audiences hadn’t yet been taught to question. Kurt Russell is front and center on the burnished Drew Struzan poster; I don’t think Dennis Dun is anywhere on there at all. But you know what they say about judging a book by its cover. Snickering all the way, Carpenter and Russell suckered audiences into sitting down for a White Savior action picture but gave them a moron who only wins in the end because of “reflexes.”

Repo Man

September 20, 2015

detail.23448415Repo Man, the feature debut of writer-director Alex Cox, is a great punk-rock song wearing a movie suit. It’s harsh, abrupt, funny, political, and fiercely unsentimental. Its milieu is post-punk Los Angeles, where punk bands like the Circle Jerks are reduced to playing hilariously affectless dirge-tunes in shabby clubs — “Can’t believe I used to like these guys,” says Otto (Emilio Estevez), our hero, or what we get resembling a hero. Repo Man isn’t really about punk; like much of Jaime Hernandez’ Love & Rockets stories of the ’80s, it’s about what people from the punk scene do after punk dies. It doesn’t take on punk as a subject the way Cox’s follow-up film, Sid & Nancy, did. It settles for giving the audience what we usually want from punk music; it absolutely nails the tone, the arrogance, the hostility. Repo Man is one of my favorite movies, in case that wasn’t clear.

Otto (a homonym for “auto”) flips off his boss at the grocery store and hits the bricks; at least he tried a job, unlike his ex-girlfriend and former buddies, who skulk around L.A. “doing crimes.” This is part of what happens to punks after punk — crap jobs or theft. Otto stumbles into the business of repossessing cars: repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) randomly scouts him for the gig, and if Harry Dean Stanton, born in 1926 and pushing sixty at the time Repo Man was made, isn’t a bona fide punk icon regardless of his generation, I don’t know punk. The perpetually angry, foul-mouthed Bud is the perfect mentor for a baby nihilist like Otto, and Otto starts getting good at the job. Alex Cox doesn’t get pious about the realities of car repossession and how it targets the poor and nonwhite: he trusts us to pick up on that ourselves (and some of the repo men, like the legendary Rodriguez Brothers, are also nonwhite).

Anyway, Repo Man isn’t about the job. There is a subplot dealing with a lobotomized nuclear scientist (sweaty Fox Harris) driving a ’64 Chevy Malibu around, with something mysterious glowing in the trunk. As with the similar briefcases in Kiss Me Deadly and Pulp Fiction, we never find out what’s in the trunk and how it vaporizes people. We figure it involves aliens, though, because some agents are looking for the Malibu. The repo men are, too, once a $20,000 bounty is put on the car’s head. Or hood. Repo Man is full of wry, side-of-the-mouth commentary on codes of belief: Bud’s repo-man code, or the book Dioretix (a slap at Scientology years before most people knew about it), which people keep passing around, or the cosmic phenomenology outlined by Miller (Tracey Walter). I don’t think Cox means us to take the quietly daffy Miller any more seriously than anyone else in the film, but he sure is fun to listen to.

This is a low-budget movie, so although there’s some action — shoot-outs, car chases (including one in L.A.’s drainage canal where the cars racing through puddles in the sunshine create rainbows) — the bulk of it is two guys talking, usually in cars. Repo Man can thus be added to the multitude of films that informed Quentin Tarantino’s work, though it has its own derivative moments. The score by Tito Larriva and Steven Hufsteter, for instance, veers between Chicano surf music and ominous John Carpenter chords. Robby Müller’s cinematography, too, echoes early Carpenter films, although instead of the blue-on-black scheme favored by Carpenter’s DP Dean Cundey, we get green-on-black.

Miller thinks that alien spaceships are time machines, and so is Repo Man, in a way; it takes us right back to the Reagan years, when we were afraid (or were made afraid) of the Russians nuking us. So we get a bit of rhetoric that fits the times (“I don’t want no commies in my car,” growls Bud, “and no Christians either”) and a good deal of paranoia about glowing stuff. Most of the people in the movie, though, live at an angle to the mainstream. Bud again: “Ordinary fuckin people. I hate ‘em.” Every store in the movie stocks its shelves with generic food products, creating a backdrop for a world without real choice. Yet Repo Man’s scuzzy-nihilistic style is played for deadpan laughs. (My favorite non-Harry Dean Stanton moment has always been the “Society made me what I am” bit.) I get the sense that Alex Cox made it for guys like Otto, and didn’t care if anyone else dug it.