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.   

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