Sunday, March 10, 2013

Jersey Boys

The first time I heard Frankie Valli's Can't Take My Eyes Off You that impacted me on a visceral level was during the classic scene in The Deer Hunter where Michael, Nick, Steven, Stan and John just returned from a hunt and proceeded to get drunk in John's bar the night before Michael, Nick and Steven head off to Vietnam and their ulitimate fates. The scene is beautifully wrought, hilarious and sad, and ends with a jump cut almost as famous as the one in 2001:A Space Odyssey.

The second time the song hit me on a visceral level was when I saw Jersey Boys in Chicago last spring. Coming off of major life trauma but rescued at the same time, the song, I realized, is an over-the-top declaration of love that almost everyone feels when they've met someone that embodies their 'love' ideal. Most people in real life can't verbalize love to those heights - that's why we have songwriters/singers like Valli, who can take such a strong emotion and wrap up into a life-affirming song.

When the song came up in the play, I realized how lucky I was to be sitting there at that moment in time, at that time in my life.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I have to go to an obscure Italian-produced film from 1976 for my favorite chase scene - Alberto De Martino's insanely fascist "Una Magnum Special per Tony Siatta" (aka "Blazing Magnum"), which was Italy's answer to "Dirty Harry.” The chase in question takes place midway in the film and careens for an amazing nine minutes. It’s a spectacle of vehicular mayhem that starts on car-clogged city streets, with chaser and chasee fishtailing around corners, flying over embankments and burning rubber the wrong way down one way streets.

De Martino must have loved one shot so much - where two cars get full air after bursting over a hill - that he shows it four times but from different angles! This multi-angled shot is accentuated by an explosion of music composed by Armando Trovajoli that only makes the proceeds all the more surreal and exciting.

The cars in the chase take an impossible amount of punishment but bystanders parked along the streets are not safe from being slaughtered (one is heaved off of a jack while some luckless soul changes a tire) and pedestrians are seen running for their lives as out-of-control vehicles throttle down on them – it makes you wonder how much of this insanity was improvised. Note, too, how well edited this sequence is - there are multiple shot formations in use here: close-ups of the drivers (one being Stuart Whitman) in their cars, long shots of careening vehicles, POV shots with cameras placed on bumpers, medium shots of spinning tires – no CGI here, just sheer old-school filmmaking bravado.

The cars end up hauling down a 45-degree embankment and end up on some out-of-place country road, into a small town where they encounter a moving freight train. But - no worries - both cars leap over the train in a jaw dropping stunt that makes the final chase in Tarantino's "Death Proof" look like it was shot by a grade school kid. If you can find it (it’s not on DVD and barely made it on VHS as far as I know) – “Blazing Magnum” is a must see by car chase aficionados everywhere.


In the suburbs of Chicago (I grew up in Geneva), 1977 seemed to be a transition year for movie theaters in that there were a few "cineplexes” popping up here and there, especially in juxtaposition to malls – the Fox Valley Mall theaters, Woodfield Mall, the Yorktown Cinemas were expanding. But the stand-alone, in town, theater was still king in ‘77, if not becoming home to “edgier” or – better – “sleazier” cinematic fare. I used to haunt the Tivoli in downtown Aurora, which was just down the street from the venerable Paramount.

In the summer of ’77, the Tivoli was turning into a good old fashioned grindhouse, but with a bent for horror. The theater’s décor was fitting for the genre – plush, deep, blood-red curtains, burgundy seats and gothic artwork on the ceiling. My most memorable film that played at the Tivoli? Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” an Italian-produced bloodbath that was amongst the surge of late-‘70s horror films that were moving in subject matter from the supernatural to the slasher. “Suspiria” – happily –was both. Even though I’ve seen the film numerous times since then, the theater’s bizarre décor accentuated the “Suspiria” experience, branding it into my subconscious, keeping bits of the original viewing in my memory some 30 years later.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


INGLOURIUS BASTERDS web site almost running...

But it does have a trailer: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

Brad Pitt seems to be channeling Warren Oates...not a bad thing at all...

PINEAPPLE EXPRESS - wow, do I feel like an old geezer

Maybe it was Seth Rogen's constant screaming that made this movie so ponderous for me...or maybe its my age. After popping the DVD out of my player, my wife yelled from another room (she didn't watch it but could hear the dialog), "That was terrible!"

While I didn't think much of the film (although I got a kick out of James Franco's performance - not in a Sean Penn as Spicoli way, but it was good to see him break away from a sort of type he's played), I chalked it up to the fact that I'm no longer a weed-adled 20 year old, which is the ideal demographic for this movie.

I found myself defending PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, saying to my wife, "I'm sure when somebody my [current] age saw CHEECH AND CHONG'S NEXT MOVIE when it first came out, they didn't find it nearly as hilarious as I did..."

I was 20 when CHEECH AND CHONG'S NEXT MOVIE came out...and I was literally rolling in the aisles...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT - long live rock

Jeff Stein was a 17-year old Who fanatic when he came up with the idea of making a film documenting the beginning years of the band’s existence. Not knowing which way to turn, Stein put together a 17-minute movie highlighting clips of Who performances from such sources as the Smothers Brothers TV show, British pop music shows and other found interview and performance footage. It was basically a mash up of clips and other Who sundries rather than original footage shot by Stein, who - at that time - was merely a fan albeit a rabid one.

In the meantime, Stein’s book of photographs from the 1970 Who tour was released, which resulted in meeting Pete Townshend, the Who‘s songwriter, guitar player and sometime vocalist. Stein and Townshend met again in 1975, when the film version of TOMMY came out and Stein pitched Townshend with the idea for a film about the band. He solidified the deal by showing Townshend and the rest of the Who the infamous 17-minute film. A few years later, Stein’s feature length Who documentary - THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT - was completed. Stein had expanded the 17-minute mash-up prototype into a mash-up of just over 90-minutes but also featured original footage shot by Stein, who organized whole concerts performed specifically for the film. Stein also shot studio footage of the band during production of the album “Who Are You.”

Documentary films about rock and roll had been produced prior to the Stein film, notably D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Dylan doc DON’T LOOK BACK, Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP (1968), Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 WOODSTOCK, the Maysles’ Rolling Stones flick GIMME SHELTER (also 1970 and an antithesis to the peace and love WOODSTOCK construct), and, in the 1970s - the Led Zeppelin Madison Square Garden concert epic THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME (Peter Clifton, 1976), Neil Young‘s 1979 RUST NEVER SLEEPS, and a handful of others.

But Stein’s THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT, also released in 1979, showed the band rising to its heights of power with the use of found footage, whiplash and nonlinear editing, an ear splitting soundtrack - all of which throws viewers directly into the laps of the musicians. The concert footage shows the band’s development without typical biopic vanities such as personnel background info or narration and - most important - it never lets the viewer off the hook with each musical interlude as intense as the next.

Footage from as early as 1965 is butted against concert sequences from 1978 in such a way that you’re able to see the progression of the band in a matter of seconds and you become a witness to watching the Who find its voice even though it was pretty potent in ’65. The first time you see Pete Townshend transform into a dervish is akin to a rock and roll revelation - and his guitar playing becomes more complex and all consuming.

But the drumming…

Keith Moon was the Who’s resident madman, a drunken sod, who played drums like an AK47 and set the standards so high for other rock and roll drummers that the idea of drumming in a band became completely moot - why bother? Never mind Charlie Watts or John Bonham, Moon did it all. But it’s a different era now and the pure fire power of a Keith Moon - though highly influential - isn’t really part of the corporate machinations of rock anymore. Moon was a machine gun player and when he died shortly before the release of THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT - he overdosed on a drug that was supposed to help him kick alcohol - the Who died with him. And with that - some feel - was the real death of rock and roll (Buddy Holly notwithstanding). Ironically, Moon’s death coincided with the emergence of punk - long live rock…be it dead or alive.

I never saw the Who - in fact, I wasn’t a fan back then - but you couldn’t miss them. They were all over the radio and had been since the mid-1960s not far off the heels of the Stones or the Beatles. Only thing was - the Who (and THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT is a testament to this statement) rocked harder, had more soul, was dirtier, had more grit and grunge than the whole of the 1960s British Invasion.

For THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT - director Stein opted for an organic approach to making the film. He wanted to show the band as they were, in an unrefined state in a non-linear fashion. The film jumps all over the place from footage of the Who performing on TV in the mid-60s on British rock shows, in black and white, to Woodstock sessions and performing in stadiums in the mid to late 70s. Between performance footage, there’s footage of the band being interviewed in group or alone but not by Stein - this stuff was culled from various television shows the band did over the years - it was just strung together between rock shows emphasizing complete rock and roll lunacy. One string shows Ringo Starr drinking with Keith Moon, while the two rap about rock music and drumming - obviously both loving the limelight and digging the booze.

For the film, Stein was not concerned with the band’s history as he was with the band’s hysteria - both internally and externally. After all, the band fancied themselves as a reflection of the audience - working class, hard rocking fans who only dreamed of getting clobbered by Roger Daltry’s swinging microphone.

Much of the Who footage used in THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT had been thrown away but Stein found yards and yards of film of the Who in performance in studio dumpsters, in attics, basements, in the hands of fans who had shot stuff in 8mm, as well as archaic video archives. Back in the 70s you didn’t have DV or high-def cameras, you didn’t edit movies on computers. You spliced and taped spaghetti strands of film together by instinct more so than the “cut and paste” sensibility found in our computer world today.

Stein compiled footage from varying formats such as PAL and NTSC, 8mm, 16mm, 35mm negatives - so many formats that putting THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT together was a “Hurculean task.” Processing was difficult and time consuming but was of a time and place - like the band itself - yet was light years ahead of the “rock-umentary“ genre (a term first encountered in Rob Reiner’s fabulous THIS IS SPINAL TAP) used by music television stations such as VH1 or MTV - where the “rock-umentary” became a rage - and then a cliché - during in the 1990s, culminating in the “Unplugged” series, which included occasionally brilliant performances by the likes of Neil Young and Nirvana.

Even though THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT doesn’t hold back on the excess of certain members of the band - especially revealing is a drunken interchange between Townshend and Moon - there’s an unbridled joy that’s missing in documentaries or docudramas focused on rock and roll. Most tend to dwell on the destructive nature of the business - the hard drinking, drug abuse, sex abuse - that watching recent rock docs makes you forget that rock music was originally designed as a rebellious celebration of youth rather than the obvious decadent implications.

Maybe when THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT came out in 1979, less than a year after Keith Moon’s death, it was perceived as a sort of accidental eulogy. But - seen now - THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT is so energized, so life-affirming that its hard to watch without wishing you could have been there in those rock clubs or stadiums where the Who smashed their equipment, where Pete Townshend played his guitar so furiously that blood sprayed from his fingers every time his windmilling hand crashed down on the instrument’s strings.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Southern Comforts

Arguably director Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1964 MOONSHINE MOUNTAIN gave birth to a whole new type of exploitation film—"hixploitation."

The typical hixploitation movie was filled with inbred, wild-eyed hillbillies, horny farmers' daughters, corrupt big-bellied cops, and chainsaw wielding maniacs wreaking havoc over "normal" citizens unfortunate enough to head south crossing the Mason Dixon Line.

During the 1970s, the drive-in was bursting with a whole heap of hixploitation, which tackled violence, sex, and comedy with plenty of bar brawlin’, ass whuppin’, car crashin’, and barnyard screwin’.

It wasn’t hard to find local passion pits running double features like MIDNIGHT PLOWBOY (1971) and COUNTRY CUZZINS (1970); SOUTHERN COMFORTS (1971) and TOBACCO ROODY (1970); or THE PIGKEEPER’S DAUGHTER (1972) and SASSY SUE (1972) – southern-fried sex/comedy flicks that made the drive-in rounds throughout the wanton 1970s.

The problem with these movies (all of which are available via Something Weird Video), is that when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to avoid these hee-haw humdingers – it’s just that the cornpone gags squeezed between the copious pulchritude has the same numbing effect as drinking kerosene-spiked shine from an old fruit jar.

In other words, there’s better hixploitation out there. Good films bypassed by indoor theaters that were busy making their dimes on “legitimate” movies like STAR WARS. The notes that follow analyze some of the best movies that have transcended their dubious place in the hixploitation subgenre.

Directed by Phil Karlson

WALKING TALL brings us into the nightmare world of the Deep South with non-corruptible sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) continually getting his ass whupped by the praetorian local yokels.

They don’t cater to Pusser’s conviction that running moonshine, managing whorehouses and operating gambling dens are not activities conducive to the basic tenets of southern hospitality. Because Pusser busts stills with a big stick, the corrupt powers-that-be decide to make the sheriff’s life as miserable as possible. Pusser shies away from physical violent retaliation – that is until his wife Pauline (Elizabeth Hartman) is murdered, sending the baseball bat-wielding sheriff over the edge, cracking skulls instead of stills.

What makes WALKING TALL so great is its over-the-top reactionary stand making DIRTY HARRY (1972) seem outrageously liberal in comparison. WALKING TALL reeks of Old Testament stuff and vengeance is the platter du jour – especially relevant during the early '70s when the "system” was seen as totally corrupt thanks to Richard Nixon's White House follies.
At that time, everybody felt a little like Buford—abused by those in power, helpless in the wake of violence (think Vietnam) and looking for good old frontier justice.

WALKING TALL, based on a true story, was so successful that it spawned two sequels—WALKING TALL PART II (1975), and THE FINAL CHAPTER – WALKING TALL (1977), and a TV show called WALKING TALL (1981). The sequels and the show starred Bo Svenson as Pusser but Baker's strong performance in the original attributed to that film's long lasting legend.
WALKING TALL was remade in 2004 and starred The Rock – not as Buford Pusser but as a character named Chris Vaughan! The remake – directed by Kevin Bray – tanked at the box office most likely because its anti-authoritarian disposition didn’t ring true like it did in the original. The 1973 film tapped into a burgeoning social breakdown that gripped the U.S. citizenry fed up with an impending governmental crush. Its sentiment still holds today. The remake was anything but subversive addressing nothing but the fact that The Rock can’t act.

That said – now more than ever – we need Buford Pusser. Unfortunately, Rhino’s DVD of 1973’s WALKING TALL is presented in a pan and scan format, taking away much of the films scenic power.

Directed by Richard Compton

Remember back in 1999 when people actually thought THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was real? Even folks who copped to the film's phoniness whispered a conversation ending caveat, "But you never know..."

The myth, first introduced via the Internet, was a major marketing coup. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT became a moneymaking event. And the film itself, despite its detractors, turned out to be a tidy piece of indie film work—atmospheric, claustrophobic, and psychologically twisted.

But in 1974, all it took to get the buzz going on MACON COUNTY LINE was a clichéd but ominous teaser line splashed across the screen before the movie started — "This story is true. Only the names and places have been changed."

No Internet. No Sundance. No Roger Ebert platitudes.

MACON COUNTY LINE is pretty simple—two brothers, Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real life brothers Alan and Jesse Vint), get violently mixed up with a psychotic Southern sheriff (played to the hilt by Max "Jethro Bodine" Baer, Jr.) resulting in plenty of bloodshed and a pretty effective shock ending. The film's deliberate pacing and sharp juxtaposition from comedy to horror are still fairly unsettling. The acting throughout is natural and director Richard Compton utilizes a documentary feel to the film, which is shot under all-natural lighting.

In 1974, on the outdoor screen, the grainy images became an extension of the surrounding landscape adding to the movie's stark quality. On DVD, the film is a visual revelation—almost painterly.

According to Compton, when MACON COUNTY LINE played to test audiences, nobody liked it. Then, when producer and star Baer, Jr. decided to put the teaser at the start of the film, MACON COUNTY LINE box office broke wide open. The film's final production budget was $225,000. It brought in a remarkable $18.7 million playing almost exclusively at Midwest and Southern drive-in theaters. The key to its resonant success was the perpetuated myth—people believed the events in the movie really happened. And nothing spreads the word quicker than a duped audience.

Directed by Monte Hellman

Writer Charles Willeford – known as the “pope of psychopulp” – wrote one of the best little-known novels ever about filmmaking obsession. “The Woman Chaser” was down and dirty, Southern California sleaze with dialog that bristled better than David Mamet.

Willeford was also responsible for the screenplay of one of the best drive-in movies of the early ‘70s – COCKFIGHTER, which was based on Willeford’s novel of the same name and directed by underrated filmmaker Monte Hellman (THE SHOOTING; TWO LANE BLACKTOP; CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37) . Even though the script to COCKFIGHTER has its share of salacious down home spun nuggets, the lead character, Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) doesn’t speak.

Mansfield, a veteran cockfighter, rambling from hick town to hick town, rooster in hand, makes his living battling chickens. In fact, he’s the Minnesota Fats of cockfighting, with every two-bit rooster rounder wanting a piece of his action. Mansfield’s reputation precedes itself and, because he threw a career-making fight, he takes a vow of silence until he can come out on top again. But the only way for Mansfield to do so is with roosters armed with spurs tearing up some of the most blood-soaked cockfighting pits in the south.

Hellman didn’t care for Willeford’s screenplay, which emphasized the sheer brutality of the “sport,” while coming up short on the redemptive aspects of the story and Mansfield’s obsessive character. Hellman wanted COCKFIGHTER to be more lyrical – a rumination on living in this depraved world of animal cruelty while finding nobility by trying to be a winner in life. Hellman didn’t have a lot of time to rewrite the script and producer Roger Corman wanted to make sure the movie had plenty of money-making action and skin.

Subsequently, COCKFIGHTER plays like a poetic cross between the meditative cinematic explorations of BADLANDS-era Terrence Malick and the contemplative yet alcohol-soaked bloodbath of Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. With COCKFIGHTER, Hellman almost seemed heir apparent to Peckinpah. If you ran COCKFIGHTER, ALFREDO GARCIA, and JUNIOR BONNER on a triple bill, you’d swear they were all directed by Peckinpah, particularly when the camera slowed down to emphasize the brutality of two roosters ripping each other apart.

Yet Hellman was able to transcend Peckinpah with COCKFIGHTER by its overt romanticism especially as seen in the relationship between Mansfield and his lost love Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy). Where Peckinpah seemed uncomfortable exploring a loving connection between a man and woman, Hellman seemed at home with the idea even though it’s inevitable that the love will quickly shatter.

Hellman shot the film in 23 days with a keen eye on the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement of the 1960s, with cinematographer Nestor Almendros (who shot Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN) inspired by the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and, to a certain extent, the emotional, unblinking lens of Eric Rohmer. Almendros used natural lighting outdoors as well as indoors, giving the film a spontaneous feel with long shots languid while bird fights were cut with whiplash precision by Lewis Teague.

As poetic as Hellman’s intents may have been, Corman wanted a slam-bang drive-in film and when the movie was ready for release, the producer had no idea how to promote it. He had the film recut, inserting a car chase and some T&A, and ran those segments in the film’s trailers. Struggling to attract an audience, the film was released with three different titles at different times: BORN TO KILL, GAMBLIN’ MAN and WILD DRIFTER. None of this helped and COCKFIGHTER faded into relative obscurity.That is, until it was released in Europe, where film critics lauded it as a masterpiece in American cinema. Except for England, where COCKFIGHTER was banned for its depiction of animal cruelty.

COCKFIGHTER is currently an out-of-print DVD released by Anchor Bay.

Directed by John Flynn

The late '70s boasted a long list of fucked-up-from-the-war Vietnam Vet flicks including, but not limited to, Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976), Jeremy Paul Kagan's HEROES (1977), Hal Ashby's COMING HOME (1978), and Michael Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER (1978). All eventually culminating with Francis Ford Coppola's napalm-cum-acid drenched opus – APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

But one heavy vet-on-a-rampage flick called ROLLING THUNDER somehow, sadly, slipped through the cracks after it finished the rounds on the drive-in circuit in 1977. In retrospect, ROLLING THUNDER—written by Paul Schrader, not long after he and Scorsese blew cinema apart with TAXI DRIVER—is just as incendiary as the Scorsese flick but not nearly as complex.

Where Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) was constructed with an almost impenetrable degree of motivational ambiguity in TAXI DRIVER, Schrader, with ROLLING THUNDER, writes the character of Charles Rane (William Devane) in wholly black and white terms.

Returning from Vietnam after 2,500 days in a POW camp, Rane and his friend, Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones), have a difficult time adjusting to life in the "world." When Rane's family is shot up by a bunch of hick thugs (psychotically spearheaded by James "Roscoe P. Coltrane" Best), the vets head down to Mexico on a bloodletting spree of murderous revenge. Pretty straightforward, pretty simple. But that doesn't lessen the film's power. While certainly not a dumbed-down version of TAXI DRIVER, ROLLING THUNDER, with its linear plot and minimal dialogue, was definitely written for the drive-in masses.

Director John Flynn shoots the scenes in Mexican brothels with grainy film stock that glows with bleeding reds and oranges. His south-of-the-border saloons are stocked with boozed up gringos and slippery Pancho Villa types—not unlike the festering chili dumps prowled by Warren Oates in Sam Peckinpah's BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974). Flynn's cathartic violence is operatic yet less extreme than the slow-motion styling of Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH or the final hallucinatory tabloid nightmare of TAXI DRIVER. But that doesn't make the explosive finale of ROLLING THUNDER any less potent. While Flynn's overall direction is relatively static, the impact of Schrader's minimalist words has the power to permeate and haunt long after the final credits roll.

Okay, so ROLLING THUNDER isn’t out on DVD – but it should be. For now, hang onto those worn out VHS copies.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

DEATH PROOF talks the talk

My love of DEATH PROOF isn’t the chase scene, which is what everybody talks about regarding this film - after all it is amazingly effective and technologically exceptional. It isn’t the movie’s jarring structure (hey, it is two movies in one movie that’s the second part of - well - one movie known as GRINDHOUSE, which was released on Good Friday 2007 and disappeared less than three weeks later). And it isn't because of the subversive editing by Sally Menke (Menke’s editing propels the story but also emulates a film that’s been excised by the razor of some mad grindhouse projectionist*) or Quentin Tarantino‘s wonky direction and drive-in aesthetic that has been in development since 1992’s RESERVOIR DOGS.

Where DEATH PROOF had me was with its dialog despite naysayers who complain that the film is too leaden with talk-talk-talk, and that its dialog is too leaden with Tarantino. But what would a Tarantino film be if it wasn’t heavy with “Tarantino-isms?“ Just another day at the movies in my book. Aren’t these nuggets why we go to Tarantino movies in the first place? And isn’t there much pleasure in quoting Tarantino lines amongst your friends and neighbors after the fact? And what barber shop visit would be complete without at least one dropped Tarantino bon mot?

What’s especially juicy about the dialog in DEATH PROOF is that its spoken predominantly by women and, in fact, DEATH PROOF is the third “woman’s” movie that Tarantino has directed (JACKIE BROWN, KILL BILL VOLS. 1 & 2). Since I’m writing this from a male perspective, I really don’t know if the way the women speak in DEATH PROOF is realistic but, like most men, I’ve not been privvy to the inner circle of conversation between two or more women - particularly when the conversation revolves around the subject of sex and men - so I’m buying it here - like Tarantino - with the use of imagination. I imagine these women would sound like this.

Especially during the scene where Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) drive to Guero’s Taco Bar in the city of Austin, Texas. I’m fascinated by this conversational string, which hits on no less than five topics in a span of less than five minutes. Its in this banter that signifies character and DEATH PROOF is all about character not - as suggested by viewers and critics - action. Action in DEATH PROOF is an extension of character both in the film’s first and second half.DEATH PROOF is a schizoid affair. Dark vs. light; yin vs. yang; old school vs. new school, on and on.

Infuriating, maddening, hilarious, astounding, vile, violent, deranged, profane, unrealistic, hyperreal. Its a bunch of movies in one - a cinematic mash up of exploitation, horror, and action culminating into one of the greatest car chases on film since - well, you name it. But I’m not addressing the car chase here, I’ll save that for some other time because the chase needs to be observed, addressed and analyzed particularly in conjunction with the second set of characters Tarantino introduces in the film‘s second half.

The drive to Guero’s scene consists - by my count anyway - of 60 shots (give or take) inside the car composed of varying angles, medium shots, close-ups and disorienting perspectives. Each of the women gets about 20 shots apiece, with maybe an extra few focused on Julia because she’s the leader of this pack. Her leadership is signified by owning the back seat of the car - she’s sprawled and radiates feminist bravado (overshadowed later by a vulnerability as she’s left hanging on text messages sent by a phantom male named Christian Simonson). Julia’s a local Austin DJ and billboards featuring the leggy disc jockey are scattered throughout the city (in one billboard Julia is dressed in that yellow Bruce Lee jumpsuit Uma Thurman sported in the House of Blue Leaves/Crazy 88 slaughter sequence in KILL BILL VOL. 1; in another she's dressed like Raquel Welch in 1972's roller derby epic KANSAS CITY BOMBER).

Every time they drive by one of her billboards, Julia’s posse - as well as Julia herself - scream in unison and thrust their fists in the air. By the time they reach a third billboard, Julia feigns weary embarrassment by this girlish behavior but they cheer again because you get the feeling if they don’t, Julia will pout or worse. The goal here is to appease Julia, celebrate her minor celebrity and, basically, kiss up to her even though they do snipe at one another.

Shanna is the driver of the car and the conversation, which really revolves around Arlene’s sex life (or lack of) with snide interjections by Julia. Julia’s Cleopatra position, lounging as her chariot transports her along the street as they pass her radio show billboards, speaks volumes about her position within this inner circle.

Conversation in the car driving to Guero’s Taco Bar, consists of:
  • Scoring weed; subsequent argument ensues because Julia isn’t holding.
  • Julia’s possible relationship - the phantom filmmaker named Christian Simonson she text messages later, who seems to have promised her that he’ll call. And Shanna’s teasing that the only way Julia will hit with the filmmaker is by sleeping with him, which Julia neither denies or admits to.
  • Julia turning the conversation toward Arlene and the “date” she had the night before. The date consisted of, basically, Arlene “busting the guy’s balls a little bit,” in the name of getting respect. Julia comes to the conclusion that Arlene and the guy didn’t do “anything” but wants the lowdown as to what they did do.
  • Arlene admits that what they did do was “the thing,” which, by Arlene’s definition is “everything but” and Shanna asks if guys like "the thing" and Arlene states, "well they like it better than no-thang." They then talk about meeting “the boys” at Guero’s and Arlene says that maybe they’ll have some pot. Julia says “fuck that…I don’t want to be a) depending on their ass or b) dependent on their ass…we don‘t score for ourselves we‘ll be stuck with them all night…”
Where guys might put on a façade of machismo and “scoring” - these girls practically boast about their lack of - by choice - “getting any.” They tease each other, push each other to admit that they‘re doing it with some guy, but they hold true to their self-actualized course of not actually doing it. And that by not doing it is equal to self respect.

Women - in movies - tend to orbit around the man’s world as reactionary figures. In DEATH PROOF, the main man - Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) - is confused and angry (not to mention sexually stunted and enthralled with his own checkered past) that the women he encounters don’t revolve around him and, subsequently, he lives his life in “death proof” cars (used as murder weapons) but he can’t shield his psyche from pervasive female rejection.

*Projectionists in grindhouse theaters found in Chicago's loop or New York City's 42nd St. (the Deuce) area during the 1970s were known to display their handywork by cutting frames or whole scenes from movies that played at the theaters where they worked. Depending, of course, on the projectionist's proclivities - some chopped clips from films to satisfy their own moral make-up or prurient desires.

Friday, October 05, 2007

EATEN ALIVE offers obscure meditation on sleaze

Dark Sky's recent DVD release of Tobe Hooper's 1977 EATEN ALIVE is somewhat of a revelation since all previous home video releases of this exercise in scum (and I mean that in the best possible way) have been cropped and murky - a real struggle to watch. Dark Sky's transfer is still worn looking but it does boast proper aspect ratio (1.85:1), which, in itself, is cause for minor celebration. But the image is loaded with scratches, pops, pings, audio fallout and general bad compression, giving home viewers an accurate grindhouse experience - and that ain't all bad in the case of this piece of dirty work.

EATEN ALIVE was originally shot 35 mm but on what must have been incredibly cheap film stock that barely survived one run through the projector. Dark Sky's source print must have been loaded frame-to-frame with damage, if this version is considered "clean."

But I'm not complaining because the movie is pretty much exactly as I remember it, having seen it at the Skylark Drive-in Theater in Aurora, Illinois, back in the summer of 1977. And I saw it as EATEN ALIVE not as DEATH TRAP, HORROR HOTEL, HORROR HOTEL MASSACRE, MURDER ON THE BAYOU, or STARLIGHT SLAUGHTER, which were some of the film's alternate titles. At that time, I remember being stunned by the visceral violence, the intensity of the bloodletting, its sadistic content spiked with sheer insanity and - yes - its erotic undulations, even if those subverted normal sexuality. In fact, EATEN ALIVE is homage to perversity of all types, typified by the character of Buck (Robert Englund), who's "ready to fuck" but in a most unusual way even mortifying a hooker with his full moon tastes.

The story really revolves around old Judd (Neville Brand) who runs the Starlight Motel off road in the swamps of Florida (though the film was shot on a set in Hollywood). The Starlight includes a "petting" zoo with a dying managerie including a bloodthirsty crocodile, which serves as Judd's clean-up crew. Judd's penchant is dispatching his guests with a scythe or curved pitchfork and he hates the hookers up at Miss Hattie's (Carolyn Jones) place so if one shows up at the Starlight, Judd'll be waiting pitchfork in hand. In fact, anybody who shows up is sure to greet the business end of his scythe. And, once cut up, served up fresh to his croc in the swamp just off the motel's wraparound porch.

The plot's simple: hooker shows up at the Starlight; Judd chops her up with his pitchfork; a dysfunctional family crash lands at the motel; pet dog is eaten by the croc; little daughter freaks out; dead hooker's father and sister show up searching, Buck brings a girl to the Starlight for some backend fun; Judd gets his, etc.

EATEN ALIVE portrays a lysergic excursion into hell - a circular descent with victims unable to escape the horrors within - even when it looks like they can. Its not all that dissimilar to director Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE where victims were trapped in an endless grip of terror. But I think EATEN ALIVE reaches more psychotic depths and portrays deeper levels of perversion with more explicit results. Yet I believe Hooper's greatest influence was Hitchcock's PSYCHO, with Hooper lifting whole plotpoints from the Master's seminal work.

EATEN ALIVE has a lurid pallette (thanks to Hooper and cinematographer Robert SLUMBER PARTY 57 Caramico) with garish variants of greens and reds dominating every scene and lighting that comes from untrackable sources - there's a red floodlight shining under the swamp water that butts up to the hotel's porch for no other reason than to add menace to the environment.

Neville Brand as Judd is quite astounding and his slovenly appearance, vocal mumblings, disconnected thoughts may be due to the actor's propensity for alcohol, which was at an all time high during the time of filming. But Brand nails Judd's bizarre behavior and took the role, according to Hooper, because he "understood" Judd. And that's really what makes a good actor great, this level of "understanding."

William Finley as the father in the dysfunctional family is more bizarre than even Judd (and Buck) and is so pent up that you wonder who's going to slaughter his family first - him or Judd. Finley is completely unhinged - if not totally deranged - in his role as Roy with moments on screen that are so raw you forget this guy's only acting.

And I'd love to know how fucked up Kyle Richards (who was only 7 when this film was made) was after her experiences "acting" as Neville Brand ran her down with swinging scythe in EATEN ALIVE (Kyle, by the way, still acts and had an ongoing role in TV's ER up until 2006. Her sister is Kim NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR Richards and she's also Paris Hilton's aunt, for whatever that's worth). Perceived child endangerment at this level was and is strictly verboten...I don't know how Hooper got away with what he had little Kyle do in EATEN ALIVE.

In fact, every character in EATEN ALIVE has an underlying pervy creepiness - including acting stalwarts Mel Ferrer, Carolyn Jones and Stuart Whitman (EATEN ALIVE boasts, for all intents and purposes, a "star-studded" cast).

Hooper claims that he was a "hired hand" on EATEN ALIVE and knew it wouldn't receive the accolades TEXAS CHAIN SAW did, so he shot EATEN ALIVE fast, with barely a script. Even so, Hooper's mark is so strong that he must be able to tap into what drives his psyche without conscious thought because whatever drives Hooper is up there on the screen.

And, fucked if that isn't just plain weird.