Saturday, December 28, 2013

#172: Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)

In late 1967, a former magazine writer and aspiring filmmaker named Peter Bogdanovich got the chance to direct his first feature film from his current employer, Roger Corman. This opportunity came with a few unusual stipulations. Bogdanovich could make whatever film he wanted as long as he used Boris Karloff for two days of the shoot (Karloff owed Corman two days of filming from a previous contract), incorporated 10-15 minutes of footage from a recent Corman horror film called The Terror (starring Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson), and brought the whole thing in under budget. Bogdanovich jumped at the chance and quickly created an ingenious little script with his then-wife, costume designer Polly Platt, and his mentor, film director Sam Fuller, who refused a screenplay credit so as not to overshadow the younger filmmaker.
Bogdanovich managed to turn the bizarre stipulations into integral parts of his excellent film, and Karloff liked the project so much he stayed on for an additional three days of shooting after his contractual time was up. Targets is an exciting opening chapter in a filmography that would include The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Saint Jack, Noises Off, and other underrated films, but it's also unlike anything else Bogdanovich ever directed. Both a film buff's love letter to classic Hollywood and a frightening look at the random violent outbursts that are an unfortunately common part of American life, Targets focuses on two separate storylines that come together in an exciting concluding scene at a drive-in movie theater.
In the first storyline, Bogdanovich plays an aspiring young director named Sammy Michaels working the schlock horror exploitation circuit but looking to break into art films. Boris Karloff plays a very thinly disguised version of himself, an older actor named Byron Orlok stuck in a rut of low-budget monster movies and looking to retire. Sammy wants Byron to act in his next film, but Byron is adamant that he's finished with the film business. Sammy's girlfriend is Byron's secretary Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), and the interracial romance is portrayed in a refreshingly casual and non-condescending light for the period. Sammy hounds Byron to read his script, while Byron's handlers hound him to keep making films and honor his commitment to appear personally at a drive-in screening of The Terror in Reseda.
The second storyline is about a clean-cut, blonde young man who looks like he walked right out of the 1950s. His name is Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly), and he lives with his wife and parents in a nice Reseda suburb. He shares a love of hunting and gun collecting with his father, but unlike his father, he has an arsenal of weapons in the trunk of his car and an unexplainable urge to kill other people. He's been suppressing the urge while he entertains it in his thoughts, but the time has come to act on his impulses. He starts on his family and moves on to strangers. After running a red light and attracting the attention of a police officer, Bobby ends up hiding out at the same drive-in where Byron and Sammy are about to make a personal appearance.
Inspired by Charles Whitman's murder spree at the University of Texas campus in Austin in 1966, this storyline is eerily effective because Bogdanovich doesn't psychologize or explain his killer's motivations. We don't gain an understanding or insight into why Bobby feels the need to kill because Bobby doesn't understand it himself. I don't know whether this absence of explanation was a conscious aesthetic choice or a necessary omission due to a lack of time and money, but either way, the film benefits from its ambiguity. O'Kelly plays Bobby just right, making him sympathetic and ordinary as well as frightening and distanced, a dark, dangerous evil covered in a banal exterior, a guy who brings a ham sandwich and a bottle of Coke to a killing spree.
Karloff is wonderful in the lighter half of the film as an aging movie star realizing that he has no place in a culture dominated by youth. He has a twinkle in his eye throughout, and he and Bogdanovich have an easy, funny chemistry. Karloff, like his fictional counterpart Orlok, may have been pigeonholed as a campy horror guy, but this is one of those special roles that showed he was capable of a whole lot more than he was usually given.
Like Scorsese and Tarantino, Bogdanovich belongs to the group of film directors who are also huge film buffs, and Targets is one of his most specific love letters to the movies. Besides the nods to Karloff and Roger Corman, Bogdanovich stops the plot to show his and Karloff's characters enjoying an old Howard Hawks movie on television (The Criminal Code, starring Karloff), and the opening scene takes place in a screening room where a print of The Terror is being projected. Before all hell breaks loose in the final scene, Bogdanovich lovingly films the preparations at the drive-in, from the ticket booth employee collecting money from the arriving families to the projectionist preparing the reels and setting up the lights. This is a film lover's movie.
Roger Corman was so pleased with Targets that he thought the film's distribution could be handled by a major studio. He was right. Distribution rights were sold to Paramount, but their promotion of the film was lackluster, and the movie flopped. Despite its lack of financial success, studio executives watched the film and thought Bogdanovich handled himself well, and a few years later, Bogdanovich was given the go-ahead to make The Last Picture Show. Targets has since become a cult film, and it deserves an even bigger audience. A scary, funny, lovable, and formally interesting film, it's one of the great debuts from the group of directors who made their reputations in the American golden age of the 1970s.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

#171: Street Trash (Jim Muro, 1987)

A slimy, scuzzy, disgusting, morally bankrupt, often very funny "video nasty" (to use a British term I've always enjoyed), Street Trash is two-thirds of a classic midnight cult movie. Unfortunately, the other third (which I completely blocked out after my first viewing) is a godawful piece of gang rape, necrophilia, and sexual harassment as entertainment misogyny that is impossible to enjoy if you're not a dirtbag. That piece of the film tarnishes the rest of it by association and made me feel dirty, but if you can get past those scenes, the rest of the film is pretty damn enjoyable, if you enjoy melting, exploding humans, wallowings in filth, and hilarious non sequiturs. Writer Roy Frumkes (whose parallel career as an actor began when he played 1st Pie-in-Face Zombie in Romero's Dawn of the Dead) has said that his goal in writing Street Trash was to include something that offended absolutely everyone, so I guess the gang rape is there for people like me who don't enjoy gratuitous sexual violence. On all other counts, I can enjoy what Frumkes is going for here. I'm very uptight about cinematic depictions of sexual violence if they're included just to shock or titillate. I can get behind every other poor taste cinematic transgression, however. That's just the way I'm wired.
Street Trash is about a community of homeless, alcoholic vagrants in beaten-down, mid-1980s Greenpoint, Brooklyn and what happens to them when an explosive concoction called Tenafly Viper hits the neighborhood liquor store they frequent. I spent three lovely days in Greenpoint this past summer as part of a week-long New York vacation, and it's definitely lost much of the scuzz captured here by Muro. The cinematically hellish Manhattan and Brooklyn streets of '70s and '80s New York captured by Scorsese, Toback, Larry Cohen, and on and on are practically a bouquet of fresh tulips compared to Muro's Brooklyn. You want to spray every character and location with a high-powered hose and an industrial-sized cauldron of soap.(Aspiring rock bands: Soap Cauldron is still available.)
So. I said Tenafly Viper was explosive. It is. One drink of this stuff and the unlucky imbiber either melts or explodes in crazy Day-Glo colors. And it's not a slow, wait-for-it-to-be-absorbed-into-the-stomach-lining thing, either. You immediately start exploding or melting as soon as you swallow that first drink. The basic rule seems to be that fat guys explode and skinny guys melt, but some people work a nice combo platter of melting and exploding. The colors are different every time. This may be inconsistent, but if there's one thing that's consistent about Street Trash, it's inconsistency. This movie is all over the damn place.
The characters inhabiting this world are, almost to a one, disgusting, drunk, sexist, racist, homophobic, filthy in body and mind, conniving, unethical, and fond of dropping bizarre one-liners. Most of them live in a junkyard behind an auto-body shop, including a crazed, murderous Vietnam vet with a knife carved from a femur and a couple of runaways. The crazed vet often has Vietnam flashbacks. An Italian gangster and his smart-ass doorman also get mixed up in this story. The gangster sings the closing credits tune, a parody of Sinatra's "My Way" that incorporates his threats to the doorman and the unfortunate effects of Viper (sample lyric: "What's this? I'm startin' to ooze. You little creep, what's this fuckin' shit?"). Real humans made this movie, which exists and can be watched.
Frumkes' script and a lot of the acting are decidedly amateur, which is par for the course on a low-budget exploitation movie, but a handful of the performances have a lot of charm, and the special effects and camerawork are surprisingly way above average. You probably know whether this is the kind of film you can find some value in, but if you're still on the fence, let me mention it also includes a character getting decapitated by a compressed air tank while his severed head manages to look up the skirt of a passing woman, a severed penis that is used in an elaborate game of keep-away, the aforementioned exploding and melting bums, a character who wears a gas mask for no discernible reason, a yuppie sent flying through his own windshield, some decent slapstick comedy, and the most extensive shoplifting scene I've ever seen. And of course, a few fart jokes. And, unfortunately, the rape and harassment scenes I mentioned earlier, which can be fast-forwarded through without missing anything entertaining or important.
Maybe that sexualized violence now embarrasses director Jim Muro, because he refuses to discuss the film in interviews and has all but publicly disowned his involvement in the film. I mentioned before that Street Trash features some tremendous camerawork, and Muro is the guy responsible. In addition to his directorial duties, Muro operated the Steadicam. A few short years after Street Trash, Muro became one of the most in-demand Steadicam operators in Hollywood, and he's currently one of television's most successful cinematographers. As a Steadicam guy, his CV includes Brain Damage, Maniac Cop, Field of Dreams, The Abyss, Dances with Wolves, Predator 2, The Doors, Terminator 2, Point Break, JFK, Raising Cain, A Few Good Men, True Lies, Clueless, Strange Days, Casino, Heat, L.A. Confidential, Titanic, and The Insider. Maybe it's understandable why Muro downplays Street Trash, but I think it's important to never forget your roots, which, in Muro's case, includes exploding drunken bums and an airborne severed penis.