Sunday, June 4, 2017

6/4/2017: "We, meaning you and I"

West of Zanzibar (Tod Browning, 1928)
If you visit this site with any regularity, then you know I'm a big Tod Browning fan. His silent films in particular have a weird, modern poetry that exists right now, hundreds of years ago, and outside of anything as inevitably dull as time and fashion. He's one of the greats. Unfortunately, West of Zanzibar is a rare Browning silent that, despite its many narrative and visual strengths, reminds the viewer that the man who made it and the culture he made it for have pretty fucked up attitudes toward black people. (I don't have to convince anyone that white people are still crazy in 2017.) Browning, like all people, is flawed and a product of his time, but it's disappointing to see someone who had such unusual understanding and empathy for women and marginalized people on the fringes of society unable to extend that empathy to the African characters in this film, who are presented as menacing savages, foolish believers of superstition, the Other, and a threat to pretty white women. These are a lot of hurdles to jump over to enjoy the film, and I understand anyone who can't do it, but I'm able to compartmentalize and carry a lot of contradictory opinions around while engaging with a piece of art or entertainment in ways that are hard for me to do with the other parts of my life. Browning, as usual, tells a very unusual story about people on the low rungs of show business, with lots of strange, dark turns, beautifully disturbing images, and all-too-human performances, especially from Lon Chaney, Mary Nolan, and Warner Baxter. It's never dull, always fascinating, but dated in ways that Browning's other films aren't. Worth a watch if you're a fan of Browning, Chaney, or silent films in general, but also worth skipping if you're getting your fill of racism from modern politics.

Blood (Andy Milligan, 1973)
Where do I begin with Andy Milligan? His films are not like other people's films. Imagine some unholy combination of John Waters, '30s and '40s horror, community theater, and Warhol, and you're sort of in the ballpark but not yet on the field. Minnesota-born army brat Milligan, after his discharge from the navy, moved to New York City and opened a dress shop. Involved with costume design and direction for off-Broadway theater, he eventually started making his own movies, starting with gay sexploitation films before moving into horror. He made most of these films in New York, but he also lived in London and made a handful there. He died of AIDS in Los Angeles in 1991. His films have a reputation for being terrible, but only by conventional, small-minded people with narrow ideas of what movies are supposed to be. Blood is about an arranged marriage of convenience between Dracula's daughter and the Wolf Man's son, their gaggle of strange assistants, and some blood-drinking plants that they grow and cultivate to keep Dracula's daughter alive. It was shot in the dilapidated mansion Milligan called home in Staten Island. The film is almost camp, almost serious, almost bad, almost great, and always delightful. It is not like anything else, and I love that about it. One of Milligan's caregivers in the last year of his life was his biographer Jimmy McDonough, who wrote the fantastic and offbeat Neil Young biography, Shakey, as well as biographies of Russ Meyer, Tammy Wynette, John Fogerty, and Al Green. I think I need to read that book. Milligan is poorly served on home video, but you can see a lot of his work on YouTube.   

Sunday, May 7, 2017

5/7/2017: Replicans and Replican'ts

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Blade Runner is a great movie, and it took me a stupidly long time to realize it. I always thought it looked fantastic, but my feelings toward it after my first two or three viewings were that it was soulless, cold, distant, deliberately confusing. But something about it made me keep trying, and somewhere in that third or fourth viewing, it finally reached me. (It doesn't help that so many versions -- the theatrical cut, the overseas theatrical cut, the "director's" cut, the final cut -- exist). Of course it's distant. It's a film about a man who may or may not be a humanoid replicant trying to destroy four humanoid replicants while he falls in love with a woman who may or may not be a humanoid replicant. I was wrong, however, about it being cold. Though the film is not a bucket of warmth and light, or a crowd-pleaser or attempted crowd-pleaser in the way most of Scott's other films are, it has great emotional resonance buried under its surfaces, especially as corporations increasingly program and direct human behavior (hello Facebook, the site where each human voluntarily and for no pay turns him/herself into a brand and a content generator for a business's profit (disturbing side note -- Zuckerberg (possibly a replicant himself) seems to be positioning himself to run for office -- RESIST! RESIST!)). Besides the corporate stuff, the film is a visual poem to the person we imagine ourselves to be, the person we were who exists in our memories, and the person we really are. Ridley Scott has always been a talented stylist, but Blade Runner is one of the few times in his career where style and substance met. I'm also a big fan of Alien and Thelma & Louise, but his other stuff ... ehhhh, not so much. Still, I'll always have a place in my heart for him because of the few times he hit the bulls-eye. Blade Runner still looks better than any science fiction or neo-noir film that followed and is a permanent rebuke to the tragic joke that is CGI.

Blackout (Doug Adams, 1988)
And now for something completely different. Obscure '88 psychological thriller/slasher horror oddity Blackout is a mostly terrible movie, but it never stops being fascinating. The people in this movie don't talk or behave like any human beings have ever talked or behaved in the history of humanity, but the movie doesn't seem to be creating this weirdness on purpose. The replicants in Blade Runner were much more human than the weirdies in this turkey. Blackout unfolds like a film created by aliens whose only exposure to human beings were two episodes of a soap opera, fifteen minutes of a slasher film, and an hour of random channel surfing. My favorite bit of dialogue: "You're being spiteful." "I'm not being spiteful. I hate spite!" Runners-up: "I'd give my soul to plant a kiss on his grave." And "My father and I don't really get along. Philosophical differences. He's a white supremacist." And "What, you think he's up in the attic watching my dirty movies?" "Those are your dirty movies?" "Hey, a guy's gotta live." And about 50 more truly weird lines. The plot is a complicated bit of weirdness about a young woman returning to her childhood home in search of her missing father. The home is currently occupied by her weird mother (who hates her) and her weird uncle (who likes her) and the weirdness between the two siblings. Weird. Director Doug Adams (not the Hitchhiker's Guide author) never made a film before or since (his only other IMDB credit is as a "chute cowboy" on the crew of the rodeo movie 8 Seconds, if that's not just another guy with the same name), but one of the screenwriters is Joseph Stefano, whose biggest claim to fame was writing the screenplay for Hitchcock's Psycho. We're a long way from Psycho here. Adams mostly makes his film look like a flat '80s TV show, but there are a couple of effectively suspenseful scenes that use expressive colors and lighting. The rest? Ehhh, not so good, but definitely not boring. Blackout is currently only available as a used VHS tape (yes, I still own and sometimes use a VCR.)