Saturday, February 21, 2015

#201: Andy Warhol's Bad (Jed Johnson, 1977)

This New York black comedy/affectionate homage to bad taste and amorality put me in a wistful mood, which is probably not its intended effect. The movie opened a few months before I was born, which had me thinking about what was happening in the various underground and semi-underground scenes all over the world while I was taking my first breaths, but it wasn't just nostalgia for experiences I didn't have or the fact that several prominent members of the cast and crew are no longer with us that caused my warm melancholia. Those passage-of-time markers definitely contributed to my mood, but they were pieces of an overall mourning for, and gratefulness at having experienced, the pre-Internet era.
I'm not here to bash the Internet. Even more than I hate it, I love it. I love it a lot. But I do think that every advent in technology gives us something wonderful while destroying something wonderful. Please allow me to make some possibly unfair generalizations in the following sentences. The Internet destroyed the chase, the search, the difficulty of finding the weird parts of culture. This difficulty built character, sensibility, personality, and point of view, and created strong local communities that were hard to create but harder to dismantle, each one with a distinct character of its own. By turning almost everything into easily accessible content, the Internet destroyed counterculture, put a dent in local culture, and eliminated the thrill of the chase, artistic naivete, and accident. Things don't mean as much when they're easy to find. Great at building highly specialized online global communities, the Internet is pretty bad at accidental, circumstantial oddball community-building and historical context. It's also eliminated a lot of mystery and happy accident, turning us into overly self-aware consumers of cultural content who all know, or think we all know, how the sausage is made. Opinions and judgments must be made, immediately, about everything, and immediate opinions and judgments must be made about those immediate opinions and judgments. Silence, isolation, and deprivation, great catalysts for weird creative happenings, must become conscious choices.
There is still, and always will be, great and not-so-great below-the-radar stuff made by interesting and unusually talented people, but some indescribable magic is gone. I'm very glad I got to live in that world of hard-to-acquire magic as an impressionable kid, turning that chase and those experiences into the person I am. Also, if YouTube had existed when I was a teenager, I never would have graduated high school. I would have been on there for hours every night, checking out all the music and movies I didn't get a chance to experience until I moved out of my small, redneck hometown. I never would have passed a science or math test.
Shut up, old man, and get to the movie, right? "Magic" is not a word most people use to describe Bad, a movie where babies are hurled out of windows and dogs are stabbed, but I can be a sentimental guy, especially where the 1970s and Susan Tyrrell and New York exploitation films are concerned. This is the kind of pre-Internet counterculture thing that's right up my alley. (Speaking of alleys and New York, alleys are actually pretty difficult to find in NYC, despite much cinematic evidence.) Bad is the only film directed by small-town Minnesota boy/Factory floor-sweeper turned Warhol lover and roommate/film editor/interior designer to the stars (Richard Gere, Mick Jagger, etc.) Jed Johnson and was cowritten by Factory character Pat Hackett, who also wrote Paul Morrissey's Dracula and Frankenstein movies. I wish she'd written more films.
The cast is an intriguing mixture of Warhol scenesters, former Hollywood stars who'd fallen out of favor, cult actors, and genuine New York oddballs, including Baby Doll's Carroll Baker, Susan Tyrrell, Brigid Polk aka Brigid Berlin, Lawrence Tierney, Perry King, Charles McGregor, Suspiria's Stefania Casini, Cyrinda Foxe, and sisters Geraldine and Maria Smith. Despite the prominence of Warhol's name in the title, he had virtually nothing to do with this film other than slapping his name on it. Warhol had stopped making films of his own in the early 1970s and his "executive production" of this film (much like his "production" of the Velvet Underground's first album) was primarily an endorsement and an effective means of generating publicity and attention for friends. This was his last contribution to cinema, however tangential.
Bad opens with a woman named R.C. (Cyrinda Foxe) trashing a diner in the city then heading to the suburban Long Island home of Hazel Aiken (Carroll Baker) to pick up her money for the job, which turns out to be pretty mild compared to most of the money-making opportunities in the film. Hazel is a mean, mean woman who runs an electrolysis business out of her house but has a million other side gigs going. She's all business, no heart. Hazel rents most of her rooms to a group of women who are killers for hire (Casini, the Smith sisters, Foxe, Barbara Allen), taking a cut of their hit money as well, steals all the food stamp money from her daughter-in-law (Tyrrell) and infant grandson in exchange for allowing them to live in the basement, and pays off a corrupt detective (McGregor) by throwing him the occasional bust of one of her hit women and giving him a cut of her profits. She pretends to be living paycheck to paycheck, but her locked bedroom is full of expensive jewelry, furniture, and fur coats.
Hazel reluctantly takes in a male boarder, L.T. (King), who has been hired by one of her clients to murder the client's autistic son. The woman thinks the kid is boring and too much work and regrets the abortion she had in college because "that kid was probably normal." The hit can't go down for a week, so L.T. hangs around, driving Hazel nuts. Some of the other hits in the movie include a mechanic who shoved a musician onto the subway tracks, causing the loss of his arm. The passive musician doesn't seem to care that much, but his angry girlfriend (Renee Paris) wants some revenge. Estelle (Brigid Berlin/Polk) wants O'Reilly-O'Crapface's (Tierney) dog murdered because he insulted her hotness while she was wearing her short-shorts around the neighborhood and because he's worn the same pair of blue pants for two straight years. Another woman wants her baby killed because he cries too much. Poor Mary Aiken (Tyrrell) is the voice of conscience, in yet another classic Susan Tyrrell role. She absorbs everyone's abuse but never turns mean, pining for her absent trucker husband and urging her mother-in-law to stop the whole murder-for-hire thing. I love a movie that has Susan Tyrrell playing the sanest person.
Bad has some affinity with John Waters' early films (Berlin/Polk even became one of Waters' stock company actors after Warhol died) and the work of Johnson mentors Warhol and Paul Morrissey, as well as a clear kinship with New York's then-thriving punk rock scene (though the score is primarily Boz Scaggs-style white R&B by blues rocker Mike Bloomfield) and the exploitation and splatter films then playing the grindhouse theaters on 42nd Street, but Johnson's unique background as an interior designer and film editor gives his only directorial work a style all its own. Bad has a very strong sense of visual organization and space and relies on a mostly still camera that avoids closeups and only moves when it has to. The film is almost deliberately flat and avoids any stylistic tricks or flash, relying instead on subtle shot compositions and careful arrangement of the elements within the frame. Believe me, that is the only thing subtle or careful about this movie, which I found hilarious, fascinating, and thoroughly entertaining.
Bad received scathing reviews at the time. An arty exploitation movie celebrating bad taste and made on the cheap with cult figures would probably never have been reviewed by major news outlets, but Andy Warhol's name in the title made them take notice because advertising and celebrity have always driven mainstream news. Not having much context for the film, they didn't get it and panned it as trash. (As much as I like Roger Ebert, he was guilty of this same cluelessness when he reviewed Warhol and Morrissey's Chelsea Girls and gave it zero stars. It was the only non-narrative, avant-garde film he ever reviewed, and he only reviewed it because Warhol's name put it in places other experimental films never get seen. His lack of affinity for and understanding of this type of filmmaking are embarrassing to read. It's like asking my dad to review a hip-hop album.) I also suspect the film's female-centric cast flustered the male-centric newspaper critics who preferred their women polite. At any rate, the TV and newspaper rubes who think Gandhi is the pinnacle of film art are never going to understand a movie like Bad.
Johnson never made another film, which is a shame. His lucrative and satisfying career as an interior designer kept him busy until his untimely death at the age of 47 in the 1996 TWA 800 disaster, when a short circuit in the plane's fuel tank caused the plane to explode near Long Island shortly after takeoff. It was an unusual, quick, and eventful death following an unusual, quick, and eventful life.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

#200: Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921)

Hey! This is my 200th review! I'm celebrating this milestone the way I celebrate every Saturday morning, by drinking a shitload of coffee and avoiding all pants-wearing until absolutely necessary. To anyone who is a regular, semi-regular, or occasional reader, thanks for taking time out of your busy, sexy lives to read my often sloppy blather about horror, weirdo, and cult movies. To quote Paul Stanley, you people are dynamite. Unlike Paul Stanley, I actually mean it.
Fortunately, this 200th post is about a film made by one of my favorite directors, Fritz Lang. Lang had a pretty amazing career that stretched from 1919 to 1960 (or 1963, if you include his acting role in Godard's Contempt) and saw him master many genres, including horror, science fiction, the suspense thriller, the spy movie, fantasy, film noir, the western, adventure, the war film, the children's movie, drama, and even a musical comedy satirizing materialism and capitalism with songs by Kurt Weill (1938's bizarre and awesome You and Me, which I strongly recommend). Lang had great range and could do innovative work no matter the budget (he worked on glossy, expensive studio films, low-budget cheapies, and a spectrum of productions in between), was one of those rare birds who thrived in both the silent and sound film eras, and was among the ranks of influential Austrian and German directors who wanted no part of Hitler's Europe and emigrated to the United States, fusing the German Expressionist style to classic Hollywood subjects. I've never seen a bad Fritz Lang film. Just look at this list: Destiny, the Dr. Mabuse trilogy, the two Die Nibelungen films, Metropolis, Spies, M, Fury, You and Me, Man Hunt, Scarlet Street, Clash by Night, The Big Heat, Human Desire, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and The Tiger of Eschnapur. And those are just the ones I've seen. He's got at least another dozen I look forward to seeing.
Destiny is Lang's first major film, and though it's a bit more rough and tumble than the fully developed work he'd be making in just a few years, it has much of his visual skill, wit, and ambition, some striking images, and a story that packs as much into its hour and forty minutes as it possibly can. This is a more optimistic and less paranoid film than many of the Lang films that would follow, as you would expect from its director's youth and its pre-Nazism vintage, but it shares the later films' obsession with a mysterious shadow world that secretly controls a segment of society.
Destiny begins in a sleepy German village where the biggest thing that happens in town is the group of local dignitaries (the mayor, the reverend, the notary, the teacher, and the pharmacist) who gather at the Unicorn Tavern every night to get drunk out of their minds. Something strange has interrupted the usual events. A mysterious stranger has wandered into town and requested to purchase the plot of land next to the cemetery to plant his garden. The dignitaries, who are also the village's council, find the request bizarre and unpleasant and are about to tell the weirdo to take a hike when he produces a hefty sum of money. Like most dignitaries, they let greed dictate policy and happily reverse their position. The stranger then goes about building a large impenetrable wall with no discernible door or gate around his "garden." This isn't some flimsy wall we're talking about here. This is the Led Zeppelin of walls. The dignitaries are flummoxed.
The mysterious stranger, who we quickly learn is Death (Bernhard Goetzke), weary from his solemn duties, has decided to set up shop in the village. His "garden," enclosed by the big-ass wall, is a massive collection of candles, each one representing a living soul. When the candle burns out, your ticket is punched, baby. This is bad news for a young engaged couple, who visit the village and stop in at the Unicorn for a drink. The young man's time is almost up, and Death is there to collect him. This doesn't sit well with the young woman (Lil Dagover) who enters Death's garden of candles and begs him for her lover's life back. Death, who is a much nicer fella than his job description and imposing look may suggest, offers to bring her man back to her if she can stop just one of the next three scheduled deaths from happening. What follows are three stories of doomed love set within the larger story, each one taking place in a separate country (an unnamed Muslim country, Italy, and China), with our cast playing multiple roles. We even get a few parts for Dr. Mabuse himself, Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Things don't go quite as planned, and yet another twist in the trying-to-cheat-Death game takes place in the film's final scenes.
Though the film can be seen as a tragedy, Lang presents a largely warmhearted picture of eternal love and the inherent value of human kindness over cruelty, even if cruelty sometimes prevails. His worldview would get much, much darker. The ambitious, complex story allows Lang to flex many visual skills, and the film's cinematic palette takes in Expressionist and Gothic horror, comedy, romance, swashbuckling adventure, fantasy, and melodrama. Destiny is Lang putting his thumbprint on the movie scene and saying, "I'm someone to reckon with."
Lang wrote Destiny with his major creative collaborator during this early stage of his career, his then-girlfriend Thea von Harbou. (Interestingly, Harbou divorced actor Klein-Rogge that same year to marry Lang, but all three continued to work together for years afterward.) The creative and romantic partnership produced most of his silent and early sound classics, but the end of their relationship was about as bad as you could get. Lang, horrified by the rise to power of the Nazis, decided to get the hell out of Germany. Von Harbou, on the other hand, decided the Nazis were swell. She stayed in Germany and became a collaborator, joining the Nazi party and working on their propaganda films. Lang and Harbou divorced and never spoke to each other again.