Sunday, July 22, 2012

#137: In My Skin (Marina de Van, 2002)

Much like the lead character's dissociation between mind and body, my own mind and body engaged in two completely different experiences while watching Marina de Van's 2002 French film In My Skin. My mind enjoyed and admired de Van's formal skills, dark humor, masterful audience manipulation, and confident construction of story and scenes. My body was a squirmy, stressed, battered ball of tension. A simultaneously enjoyable and unpleasant experience, a viewing of this film is something I hope you'll inflict on yourselves at some point in the near future.
One of the unfortunately small group of women horror directors, de Van also wrote and starred in In My Skin. A blurb on the back of the DVD compares de Van to David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski, and while the comparison is somewhat inaccurate, it has some usefulness in getting at the feel and tone of how de Van tells her story. She shares their black humor and clinical attention to detail, while exploring both director's pet subjects: Polanski's connection of paranoia and insanity as end result of successfully filling circumscribed modern societal roles and Cronenberg's fascination with body horror and physical mutation and decay. De Van's film subtly and skillfully understands the anonymously sterile look of the present urban, globalized, corporatized world and the all work/no play generic lifestyle of the upwardly mobile young professional in settings that are, in their own quiet way, just as unsettling as the character's self-mutilation and mental unspooling. Though it's a decade old, this film feels so connected to our immediate present and illustrates how terrifyingly characterless our present has become, a gray slurry of globalized homogeneity, a high-tech bloodless eradication of local culture.
In My Skin is about Esther, a global market researcher on the way up the corporate ladder. She's thinking about buying a house with her live-in boyfriend, an asshole business journalist with a new PR job at a huge bank. They work a lot, talk about going out, rarely go out. Esther and a coworker attend a huge party whose purpose is largely to schmooze for prospective promotions. Esther gets a little overwhelmed and goes outside for a breather. She wanders around the grounds, finds a construction site, and trips and falls on some scrap metal, tearing her overcoat. She wanders back to the party. Later, she goes to the bathroom and notices blood on the floor and is startled to discover she is the source. She hikes up her pantleg and sees that her leg has been severely gashed by the metal. Esther is both disturbed and fascinated by the wound and by the lack of pain she felt after incurring it.
Soon, Esther is reopening the wound and creating others, splitting herself and her body into two distinct and separate entities. The self-mutilation takes on a sexual nature as Esther goes to increasingly desperate lengths to hide it from her boyfriend. She rents hotel rooms where she gazes hungrily at her wounds, saving pieces of her skin as mementos, licking and sucking and chewing on her wounds, and letting the blood drip all over her face and arms and chest. Meanwhile, her star continues to rise at work. These two elements come together in an amazing ten-minute restaurant scene in which Esther, her boss, and two high-powered clients have a smarmy, schmoozy business dinner that goes well for Esther until she notices she has split completely from her left arm, the arm doing its own thing until Esther grabs it and punishes it with a steak knife under the table while attempting to converse with her dinner companions. This scene is almost unbearably tense yet so hilarious and so well constructed that my mouth was hanging open with an idiot grin on my face for its duration.
Self-mutilation is one of that small category of things that make me uncomfortable to watch, but the film is much less overtly violent than it feels. The tension comes from wondering what Esther is going to do rather than what she is doing, and de Van is so incredibly good at fucking with her audience. The film isn't just a skillful piece of manipulation, however. De Van gets at the gnawing, inarticulate paranoia and isolation that seem so connected to this past decade. Something is wrong, but we don't know what it is. This is a dark, unsettling, disturbing film with surprising moments of humor made by a woman who knows what she's doing behind and in front of the camera. I admired the hell out of this movie, and I hope I don't see it again for many years.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

#136: Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (Don Edmonds, 1975)

When Don Edmonds, director of Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, was first presented with the Ilsa screenplay and offered the job, he read through it and said, "This is the biggest piece of shit I've ever read." Then, he accepted the producer's offer and got to work. The recently deceased Edmonds was a hilarious guy, and I have the urge to just regurgitate a bunch of Edmonds' quotes in lieu of a review, but I'll restrain myself and give you just a few from an interview he did with the cult film website Digital Retribution. When asked why he made the film, here was his answer: "I was just another totally broke guy in Hollywood and at the time I was offered the film I'd have taken it if he wanted to make a film about a dog pissin' on a flat rock with different camera angles. I know that over the years people have asked me what 'drew' me to the film and the reality is it was the fucking MONEY!! And it was a chance to direct. I'm telling you the truth Chris. In 1972 I was so broke I couldn't make the rent and just barely had money for gas in my beat up hooptie that had bald tires and no oil. So when people want to know about my 'selection' of films they always make the assumption that I had a CHOICE. I DIDN'T!!" And here he is on whether the film's subject matter bothered him: "You know, as to whether or not I was ever uncomfortable doing any of those scenes I can sum that up in one word - NO. I'm a very crazy man, Chris."
Edmonds got his start in show business as a bit actor in episodic TV and youth movies, including such wholesome fare as Gidget, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, My Three Sons, The Donna Reed Show, The Munsters, Son of Flubber, Beach Ball, and Green Acres. His directing career was a lot seedier. Beginning with a couple soft-core sexploitation films, Wild Honey and Tender Loving Care, his filmography covered a variety of exploitation genres, including Nazisploitation (Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS), comedysploitation (Southern Double Cross), Arabsploitation (Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks), kung-fusploitation (Bare Knuckles), a combination of prostitute-murdersploitation and rock-and-rollsploitation (Terror on Tour), a sexploitation/warsploitation hybrid for Troma (Tomcat Angels), and, finally, televisionsploitation (an episode of the USA Network show Silk Stalkings). R.I.P, Don, you degenerate bastard.
What is there left to say about Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS? One of the most notorious, famous, and infamous drive-in exploitation movies ever, Ilsa is a movie more people have heard of than seen, and a lot of people have seen it. I first read reference to it as a kid in horror magazines, Joe Bob Briggs' movie reviews, and interviews with metal bands. The film is so offensive and juvenile that it manages to not be that offensive at all. It's skillfully directed and never dull, and the screenplay is howlingly terrible and therefore pretty damn funny. Some of the acting is atrocious, in the best possible drive-in movie way. The gore and torture are so ridiculously over-the-top that they move beyond squeamishness and become something closer to camp and parody. Also, there is almost never a moment where a fully nude woman is not onscreen. The nudity in this film is both gratuitous and constant, and I have very little problem with that. Ladies and gay men, you also get to see plenty of man-butt and the occasional wang. This film is such a good-natured wallow in bad taste and filth that you can't help catching the fever. The She-Wolf fever.
It's fitting that Ilsa follows Ichi the Killer on this list because both films' primary subject matter is extreme S&M. The films diverge in that Ichi the Killer is very good and Ilsa is a gigantic piece of shit. But, what a piece of shit. Would that all pieces of shit had the zest and pep of Ilsa. Ilsa knows it is garbage and strives to be the sleaziest, funniest, most enjoyable piece of garbage it can be. And it almost succeeds.
Ilsa begins with the almost frighteningly busty Ilsa getting her rocks off in the boudoir with what is presumably her partner. When she finishes, she takes a long gratuitous shower and puts on an SS uniform and has her boy-toy taken away by a couple of sexy but sadistic Nazi babes in full regalia. The trio of anti-Semitic vixens then have the man castrated and de-wanged. You know, for science. Ilsa's lovers are prison camp inmates who get one shot at her Jew-hating vagina before losing their manhood forever. The women have it even worse and are repeatedly tortured in all kinds of disgusting ways to prove Ilsa's theory that women can handle pain better than men and are even more suited at being soldiers in the German military. Ilsa meets her match when blonde, tall American man Wolfe is taken prisoner while studying abroad in Germany. Such an Aryan specimen surely deserves a ride on the Ilsa train before getting his business rearranged downstairs. Unfortunately for Ilsa, Wolfe has a secret weapon. He can withhold his man-seed for hours, and even indefinitely, if need be. He's a redblooded, American fuck machine and Ilsa can't get enough. He's saved from the castration chamber and becomes Ilsa's regular manboy, She plans to make some babies with him when the war is over, creating a race of super Aryans with all the right moves. Wolfe has a different idea, however, and is plotting the overthrow of the camp with his fellow inmates. Can they end Ilsa's experiments in torture and whoop a little Nazi ass? Will they get their revenge?
Ilsa proceeds as you probably expect it to, and I can't really make a case for this being any kind of classic. However, as an unapologetic wallow in exploitation, sleaze, sex, and gore, it's hard to beat. Edmonds found the perfect woman to play Ilsa in Dyanne Thorne, his contempt for the screenplay results in some hilarious line readings, the pacing is swift and Edmonds has a nice way with a camera, the nudity is copious, and it's funny and exaggerated enough that you don't feel particularly dirty afterwards. Also, mad props to the Italian, Mario, for the line "What life is there for a half-man outside this wire?" If you're the kind of person who can watch a film like this and enjoy it, you probably know who you are. I am also one of you. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not ashamed, either.