Monday, December 31, 2007

Werner Herzog Needs To Film

Werner Herzog’s passion is ruthless. The wild man director’s like a mother bear from his critical darling doc “Grizzly Man,” trying to protect her (celluloid) cub at all costs. Watching the recently released on DVD “Rescue Dawn,” the narrative version of Herzog’s decade-old documentary “Little Dieter Needs To Fly” about the German-American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler who survived being shot down and imprisoned, and a harrowing escape into the jungles of Vietnam, I can understand why loose cannon Kinski once pulled a gun on him. Fortunately, Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler absorbs Herzog’s directing punches with gentlemanlike aplomb.

There’s not a lazy bone in this director’s body. His obsessive attention to detail springs from a desire to climb inside his subject matter – even a pair of handcuffs’ inner workings is not too insignificant to capture. Herzog only films the movies he absolutely must make. Yet even with dark themes and unstoppable determination Herzog never forgets his wry sense of humor. “5 or 6 months?” Bale’s Dengler asks a comrade in disbelief, referring to the wait for monsoon season that will enable his escape from the Viet Cong prison. “No, I can’t wait that long,” he then adds in the tone of one forgoing a restaurant reservation. The absurd slapstick Herzog employs in “Rescue Dawn” – from a nail being stolen through a ruse involving toothpaste and a dwarf, to the accidental dropping of a machine gun that sets off a round of comic gunfire – is pure visual delight. Even the cathartic rescue of Dengler from the jungle is tempered by “Oh, shit!” as the helicopter medic discovers a live snake shooting from the former POW’s backpack as if from a trick can.

And the actors match Herzog’s tone with perfect pitch. Steve Zahn as Dengler’s desperate, desolate prisoner-in-arms speaks volumes with his eyes. He’s a condemned man, threatening to upstage Bale at every turn – as is nature as a character itself – one that, like man, acts as both friend and foe. As always Herzog’s camera is a visceral tool, the overwhelming beauty and oppressive heat of the jungle mixing to form an Eden in hell. Only the ending of “Rescue Dawn” is a bit of a lengthy misfire. Herzog should have finished his film on a literal high note, with that aerial shot of Dengler being airlifted back to civilization. Yes, Little Dieter did indeed need to fly, but Werner Herzog has scaled comparable heights.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

No Promise

The biggest letdown of 2007 is now available on DVD. Though some would offer “Inland Empire” as definitive proof that David Lynch has finally, completely lost his marbles, I haven’t seen the film so I’m going to go with that other iconoclastic David, Mr. Cronenberg and his “Eastern Promises,” the tale of a Russian driver for a family that’s part of the Vory V Zakone organized crime brotherhood in London, and the midwife who discovers the horrific diary of the Ukranian teenager who died while delivering the baby she saved. Sound heavy? Don’t worry – it’s not. Even Cronenberg’s “The History of Violence,” based on a graphic novel so its often cartoon images could be forgiven, dug deeper.

Yes, this is the film that contains the infamous “sauna scene,” in which Viggo Mortensen’s chauffeur character Nikolai comes within an inch of his life fighting off bloodthirsty thugs while totally losing his waist-wrapped towel. It’s the high point of the movie and not just because nearly 50-year-old Viggo (50!) looks great in the buff. Cronenberg is a master at combining gory special effects with ballet-like choreography, as he proved in the far superior “The History of Violence.” The problem with “Eastern Promises” is that it promises more than it actually delivers. Dealing with themes of ruthless ambition, Eastern-European culture after the fall of Communism, the fine (nonexistent?) line separating “good” from “bad” – even sex slavery! – Cronenberg couldn’t quite get all the pieces to fit into place except in only the broadest, black-and-white terms. And it doesn’t help that the predictable, heavy-handed, melodramatic screenplay by Steven Knight (who better tread similar, human trafficking territory in “Dirty Pretty Things”) sacrifices nuance for nonstop action.

Perhaps the only saving grace is the film’s impeccable acting, especially by Mortensen, Armin Mueller-Stahl as the grave, Godfather-like Semyon and Vincent Cassel as Kiril, his scarily unhinged son. Unfortunately, that tepid script leaves them little to work with. Even the legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski as Stepan, the “good” guy uncle of Naomi Watts’ midwife Anna, is reduced to tossing off racist bigotry between shots of vodka – where’s the subtlety beneath the caricature? Cronenberg’s formally composed images flow smoothly and rigorously but lack passion. Mortensen’s sauna scene is the only one to breathe much needed life into an otherwise stillborn film, a standard crime procedural masquerading as moral drama. Even the “surprise twist” at the end is a fly swat when it should have been a knockout punch. The real surprise is that “Eastern Promises” is such a lightweight film for a normally heavy hitter. Setting himself up for a homerun, Cronenberg never followed through on his swing.

Friday, December 28, 2007

There Will Be Blood (and Sweat and Tears)

Paul Thomas Anderson's films always inevitably devolve into a cinematographic game of "name that director." And There Will Be Blood, his latest film based on an Upton Sinclair novel [Oil] about an oilman's obsessive, cancerous lust for the black gold, is no exception. Fortunately, what sets There Will Be Blood apart from other pseudo-homages like Magnolia and Boogie Nights, and what makes it his most mature film to date, is a result of the blood, sweat, and tears of one man. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of those rare actors able to rise above his directors' deficiencies. As the oil baron, Daniel Plainview, he grounds the film with the heavy weight of his character's soul and forces Anderson's attention-deficit-disorder directing to remain as sharply focused as the steel bit on a rig.

To read the rest of my review visit Psychopedia at:

One Singular Sensation

Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning movie Chicago is a workhorse. In a better Holly-world every film would be this good. But in a more perfect Holly-world, only films that went beyond competence would merit 13 Academy Award nominations.

Yes, my review for all you Fosse fans. "Cabaret" clobbers "Chicago" every time!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Yes, but what does the red nose mean?

My favorite comments of the season, courtesy of the good posters at The House Next Door:

Todd said...
I watched Rudolph again Monday night, and man is that a weird piece of television. I hadn't seen it since childhood, and I had basically no memory of anything but the monster and the basic story (which only comes in in the last five minutes). Has it always been so episodic? Has Santa always been such an asshole?

12/05/2007 2:51 PM
TuckPendleton said...
I watched Rudolph again also, and was surprised by how much everyone was pretty much an asshole to Rudolph. Santa, Donner, the coach, the other reindeers, etc. So very dated, and so blunt, and almost brutal. (Not to mention the reasoning behind Rudolph et al deciding to return to Christmastown after Cornelius goes over the ledge with the Snowman -- because "it was time to get the women back to town" or words to that effect.)

However, I had to wonder why this cartoon was so blunt in its ostracizing Hermy and Rudolph. It really is hard to watch. I wondered if this was some sort of attempt to counteract racism (in 1964, it's still only a decade after Brown vs. Board of Ed) and/or homophobia. Or is it just bad, heavy-handed writing?

Happy holidays indeed!

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Year In Camp

Oops, I did it again (outed myself, that is!) My 2007 "Best of Camp" list is out, too...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Monkey Town 4th Annual Porn Week

“Attempts to tease out connections between fine art and commercial pornography. Previous programs surveyed works by fine artists that are sexually explicit compared to works by pornographers striving to be artistic, and also works by fine artists who have crossed over to directing commercial porn. This year presents a mini-festival of porn produced by directors based in New York City, combined with live presentations or performances by the directors.”

For a complete schedule of events visit:

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Rolling Stone" Rocks!

The “Correspondence” section of this week’s “Rolling Stone” magazine includes an edited version of my response to “JT Leroy: The Famous Writer Who Wowed Bono and Courtney Love – But Didn’t Exist." Here's what I really wrote:

Great reporting, though I wish Guy Lawson hadn’t overlooked the real issue beneath all the surreal drama. The “story” is not Laura Albert so much as the visceral, personal overreaction her “hoax” evoked in those who should know better. Between MySpace “friends” and Britney blogs we’re given the false sense that we truly know – own – our objects of adoration. Sadly, I guess it’s inevitable that dysfunctional celebrities also would buy into this myth, believe an otherwise obvious dream sprung forth from a mentally ill woman desperate not to disappoint. (After all, if the emperor wears Abercrombie & Fitch, he must exist.) The glitterati didn’t “know” JT Leroy any more than I know Courtney Love. They were simply fans – behaving like spurned lovers when the fantasy they collectively helped to create turned out to be just that.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Blue Compass

Time: Noon
Date: Tuesday, 12/11/07
Place: Regal Union Square Stadium 14, NYC
Movie: The Golden Compass

The moment Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel appears onscreen I grab Jimmy’s arm, rudely interrupting his popcorn munching.

“Oh, shit! I’m totally fucking turned on already. Aren’t you?”

Any scene in any movie in which this fine piece of rough trade appears immediately takes on sexual overtones, and pretty soon I’ve got a parallel porno running in my head.

“Well, he is a handsome man,” Jimmy concedes between kernels.

I take out my reporter’s notebook. 'Daniel Craig is entrancing as Lord Asriel, the buttoned-up uncle of heroine Lyra Belacqua, played by the ballsy child actor Dakota Blue Richards.'

This is pretty sick of me to be searching for a pornographic subtext in a kids’ pic. Look at the way he owns that body – no way he’s not a phenomenal fuck.

'When Lord Asriel saunters confidently onto the perfectly manicured grounds of Oxford’s Jordan College you half expect to see Harry Potter and his Hogwarts cohorts rush out to greet him.'

Breathe. Concentrate on his nerdy outfit. He’s not showing any skin so calm down. He’s wearing a sweater. A tight sweater. I’ll bet he’s hot under all those lights. I could worshipfully lick every drop of sweat from that muscular chest all the way down to those thick calves. If the camera cuts to his riding boots my stadium seating will catch fire.

'Everything from the British, pseudo-royalty costumes to the CGI “daemons” who act as companions/alter egos in this fantasy set piece is perfectly coordinated, like watching a fine-tuned army engaged in military drills.'

Even Lord Asriel’s CGI leopard is starting to look sexy. Meow. Shouldn’t there be ice bears around here somewhere? I can’t take this. I tap Jimmy’s arm.

“Fuck, man! Don’t you just want to drop to your knees and suck him off – or is it just me?”

“Hmm.” Jimmy ponders, munches his popcorn. “No, it’s just you.”

'This can’t be good.'

But it isn’t bad. For my G-rated review of “The Golden Compass” visit The House Next Door at:

Monday, December 10, 2007

This Is Art!

Like Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now,” Tim Roth’s primal, fearless confusion (“I have no idea what the script means but I’m going to throw myself into it anyway!”) mirrors his character’s confusion – with being struck by lighting and shot backwards into life in “Youth Without Youth,” the latest from Francis Ford Coppola (back in fine 70s form after a long eight years). And like in “Apocalypse Now,” those mirrors reflect endlessly into the jungle heart of the film. Coppola’s passion radiates from the screen, every ounce of his being condensed into a two-hour-plus dream. Walter Murch’s elegant sound design, clocks ticking time like sweet nothings in our ear, will most certainly sweep up that Award, as will Tim Roth’s mesmerizing performance (but when isn’t Tim Roth mesmerizing?) Every meticulously painted image pulses with Coppola’s blood. This is why we still go to the movies, to feel the craftsman’s hand, the soul no CGI can create.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

One Note Wonder

I find the hype around "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody highly insulting to Ms. Cody and to all sex industry workers, as if to say, “Surprise! A dumb stripper can write!” (As if it automatically follows that a “working girl” is – to use a line from Cody’s script – “not the brightest bulb in the tanning bed.”) No one ever looks at Arnold Schwarzenegger – a former male hustler – and says, “Hey, a dumb bimbo can become governor!” The clear-eyed truth is that the sex industry is filled with sharp, cultured, artistic men and women – far too intelligent to buy into the nine-to-five, white picket fence myth. Cody as a stripper-turned-writer should be judged as if she were any other performer-turned-writer, no less and no better.

On that note, visit my review of "Juno" at The House Next Door:

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rather Not

“This is the way my mind works, small as it is,” he says. “I settle on something and say, ‘That’s where I stand.’”

“Where I fault myself – and I fault myself on a lot of things – is that for the longest time I just refused to believe what my eyes saw and my ears were hearing.”

These are the veteran newsman’s most illuminating statements made to Joe Hagan in “Dan Rather’s Last Big Story” (“New York” magazine, 12/3/07). While the former anchor was referring to being duped by his corporate higher-ups at CBS, these quotes go a long way to explaining how he got into the “Rathergate” mess that led to his downfall in the first place. As I noted in my letter to “Vanity Fair” (published in the February 2006 issue) in response to “The 60 Minutes Takedown,” a portrait of the producer Mary Mapes who set this whole sordid business in motion:

“Mapes chose as her No. 1 source Bill Burkett, an unreliable, anti-Bush, anti-National Guard former cattle rancher, then had the audacity to fault the subsequent CBS investigative panel for its “rigid, legalistic ideas of how reporting should work…Dick Thornburgh would have found Mark Felt an inadequate source.” To compare her cattle rancher to Woodward and Bernstein’s loyal FBI man is shocking enough, but to forget that Felt was only one of a huge number of reliable sources is unethical journalism.”

This is no conspiracy, as Rather still contends. This is a case of Rather being blinded by his loyalty to Mapes in a power dynamic not unlike the one between Rudy Guiliani and his disgraced, former police commissioner Bernard Kerik. Indeed, the Jayson Blair scandal at “The New York Times” brought down both Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd. This wasn’t an evil corporate plot. This is what happens to bosses who don’t weed out shoddy reporters. If Rather expects to be vindicated through private investigators and labyrinthine lawsuits, he really is “tilting at windmills.”

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sometimes Art Just Ain't Enough

Todd Haynes is an artist in the same vein as fellow filmmaker Gregg Araki – but at least Gregg Araki doesn’t pretend his work is accessible. When it is, like “Mysterious Skin,” it’s accidental, the result of a great script. No one will ever accuse Haynes of anything other than mediocre screenwriting, which is why his characters in “I’m Not There” often come across as two-dimensional gimmicks. Film is a medium of the masses, something understood by European directors like Fellini whose hallucinatory pageantry was always grounded in phenomenal – accessible – storytelling.

With that in mind, check out my review of Haynes’ latest, the Bob Dylan tribute “I’m Not There” at:

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Twisting In The Wind

“No Country For Old Men,” the latest tour de force from Joel and Ethan Coen, which Roger Ebert proclaimed “perfect,” is, well, pretty damn masterful. It’s as if the brothers, in eschewing original material for adapting Cormac McCarthy’s book for the screen, found themselves free to do what they do best – concentrate on the visual interpretation above the foundation itself. You can almost hear the boys’ collective sigh of relief in every frame. “Now we can really go out and play!”

And this sense of revelry translates into dynamite performances from Josh Brolin as the Vietnam vet who stumbles upon a couple million in cash in a drug deal gone wrong, Javier Bardem as his psychopathic hunter and Tommy Lee Jones as (what else?) the sheriff in hot pursuit, each rediscovering his character from moment to moment. Which works well inside the world of western Texas the Coens create, a place in which everything from the prairie landscape to the air vent of some dusty motel takes on a life of its own. Shot for shot, the Hitchcockian attention to detail is superb. Their four-eyed camera conjures up a character study in inanimate objects as much as in the flesh-and-blood subjects. And boy is there blood, though not as much as you’d think considering the triangle of leads all come equipped with weapons of massive physical and psychological destruction.

Indeed, the fact that the most horrific scenes take place off-screen is the Coens' greatest achievement. The directors establish the gruesome violence early on then gradually tone it down, letting our imaginations run wild in the silence. We almost pray for more gore, a quick shot to the head being better than endless dread. With sheer brilliance the Coens exploit our fear of the unknown as the ultimate thrill, hold us responsible for our nightmares. Our greatest terrors are contained in the screaming gaps left on the metaphorical cutting-room floor (leaving open the possibility that they could jump out at any moment like Bardem’s existential bogeyman). The scene that will linger in your head is the film’s most tranquil, like the waters before Jaws appears. It’s a prelude to the death of one of the protagonists, its incongruity disturbingly apparent yet the puzzle piece only snaps into place after he’s whacked. You want to hit the rewind button except there is no rewind – only a no-man’s land where twists of fate roll like tumbleweeds.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Emperor Wears A&F

This week’s “Rolling Stone” magazine features “JT Leroy: The Famous Writer Who Wowed Bono and Courtney Love – But Didn’t Exist.” Oddly enough, it really is more portrait of JT Leroy than interview with Laura Albert, JT's flesh-and-blood creator who recently lost a lawsuit brought against her by Antidote Films. Check it out then write the editor a letter of your own. Here’s my take:

Great reporting, though I wish Guy Lawson hadn’t overlooked the real issue beneath all the surreal drama. The “story” is not Laura Albert so much as the visceral, personal overreaction her “hoax” evoked in those who should know better. Between MySpace “friends” and Britney blogs we’re given the false sense that we truly know – own – our objects of adoration. Sadly, I guess it’s inevitable that dysfunctional celebrities also would buy into this myth, believe an otherwise obvious dream sprung forth from a mentally ill woman desperate not to disappoint. (After all, if the emperor wears Abercrombie & Fitch, he must exist.) The glitterati didn’t “know” JT Leroy any more than I know Courtney Love. They were simply fans – behaving like spurned lovers when the fantasy they collectively helped to create turned out to be just that.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Gay Superheroes Night" at Kinky Camp this Friday!

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…

Midnight November 16th at Monkey Town ( in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

“Taco Chick and Salsa Girl”

Kurt Koehler’s live-action, crime-fighting, drag duo are “on the menu to save the world!”
(Not to mention parts of L.A. from Neato Nazi Barbie and White Supremacist Ken. Dios mio!)

Followed by:

“Stonewall & Riot: The Ultimate Orgasm”

Joe Phillips’ gay animated superheroes go at it! “An invention has been stolen, a brilliant professor is missing, and the only witness is lost in an extraordinary orgasmic afterglow. Can Eros City's most prominent heroes get to the bottom of things before time runs out? They'll have to fuck their way through a gallery of the most twisted and horny sex freaks ever seen.”

Come one, come all, come campy!

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Wisdom of Joe and Mick

While the Sex Pistols were busy with their Warholian experiment in nihilism, The Clash became the thinking man’s punk rock. In “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten,” the subject even discusses his love of thinking, how there’s no point in getting up in the morning if not to engage in that activity all day long. With that in mind I’ve selected five quotes from the film that made me think – or at least laugh.

Strummer’s riff on life’s indulgent missteps, like overdubbing “the sound of ants biting through a wooden beam.”

After the camera pans from an interview with members of The Clash to manager Bernie Rhodes (a blowhard unafraid to take credit for everything punk, including the Sex Pistols) passed out in a corner, then back to the band, Strummer deadpans, “He invented punk rock!”

Joe Strummer quotes the Bible. “There’s a time to dance to techno and a time not to.”

Joe Strummer on cigarette smoking. “Nonsmokers should be banned from buying any product a smoker created.”

And finally a word from Mick...

“It’s no worse than any other prostitution business.” Mick Jones on rock ‘n’ roll.

To read my full review go to:

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lost In The Wild

Sean Penn, director of the based-on-a-true-story “Into The Wild,” is like a wild little boy. He’s all scattered passion, fire and gusto – with no focus or direction. These qualities are what make him one of the outstanding American actors working today. They are also what should disqualify him from being allowed to helm a film.

I’ve never liked Sean Penn as a director, but I’ve always been willing to give him the benefit of his inexperience in the hope that he’d improve with each picture. No more. Nearly two hours into Penn’s doomed tale of upstanding college graduate Christopher McCandless, turned wandering gypsy “Alexander Supertramp,” venturing forth Kerouac-style into the Alaskan wilderness with only the barest necessities (Tolstoy and London included), I had my “Munich” moment. (Not quite “jumping the shark,” it’s the point in time when I gave up on Spielberg – precisely when the hero of his overlong, Olympic terrorism flick started having flashbacks to the horrific murders he’d never actually witnessed, all while screwing his wife. Huh? You lost me there for good, Steve!)

Penn broke the cardinal rule of never taking advantage of your audience’s patience by starting yet another movie when you should be wrapping things up. Audacious is the only word I can think of to describe introducing an extraneous love story into a film two hours in. And it only gets worse from there. Catherine Keener is always mesmerizing, whether she’s playing Harper Lee or the harrowed hippie of “Into The Wild,” and Vince Vaughn is forever a whimsical delight – but this film should not have been a showcase for Sean Penn’s favorite thespian colleagues. “Hal Holbrook in the desert! Eureka!” I could almost envision the light bulb going off above Mr. Penn’s head. Unfortunately, this is not reason enough to shoot a scene but merely an excuse to see a theater giant emote. Doesn’t Mr. Penn know the term “kill your babies”? Where was his editor?

Yes, the overpowering, National Geographic panoramic shots may be sumptuous, but they’re also hard to screw up even with the worst DP. The score is raw but overwhelming. Which brings me to my most important point. The greatest cinematographers in the world can’t help if you’re telling the wrong story. Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless does an admirable job, but there’s no tension or drama in his journey. He’s already shed his old self – with seemingly no struggle or remorse – and just meanders from set piece to set piece. The real story lays with his parents, played by master actors William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, and his sister, an underappreciated Jena Malone. “Into The Wild” would have been Oscar-worthy if directed by Sean Penn’s exact talent opposite Todd Field, a mediocre actor in his early forties with amazingly seasoned skill as a director. Field could have provided a crucial “In The Bedroom” type treatment, juxtaposing the hero’s journey with the main “journey” of a family learning to live in limbo, spending years not knowing whether their son is dead or alive. What is it like to be denied the benefit of mourning? A question as simple as this applied to Penn’s best images – of Emile Hirsch’s face as his character realizes he’s dying – could have elevated the uneven script to the level of the Alaskan solitude’s beauty.

Sean Penn’s penchant for overfilling the pot, his exuberance for filming oddball characters like the freewheeling couple from Copenhagen, ultimately work against “Into The Wild,” distilling the power of the story. He shows us everything, which is too much. (Ironically, Chris McCandless lived by the motto that less is more.) Perhaps Mr. Penn purposely wanted to make the audience feel the sense of entrapment and tedium that his protagonist felt in the wilderness. Being “locked” in a black box, watching a seemingly endless film going nowhere is a pretty good simulation, I guess. In that, Mr. Penn succeeded.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

American Gigolo

With the 2008 presidential campaign in full swing and fires having destroyed half of southern California, it’s high time for the Constitutional amendment that will allow for Arnold Schwarzenegger to leave the charred ruins of Hollywood and run for Terminator In Chief. Why?

America is a land of movers and shakers – of hustlers – so who better to represent us in the Oval Office than a former male hustler? Now I’m not saying Arnie prostituted his Adonis form in the biblical sense, just that he posed for homoerotic photos in the gay magazine “After Dark” – not to mention the nude shots he did for Robert Mapplethorpe and for much wealthier gay men – and until recently never worked a nine-to-five job. This savvy exhibitionist was as fully aware as Marilyn Monroe that he represented a sexual ideal to a certain segment of the population, and that millionaire patrons would pay just to see him flex. Gods and goddesses don’t have to sleep with mere mortals.

But then one doesn’t have to have sex to work in the sex industry either (BDSM, stripping, Internet porn, etc.) – and posing erotically for a sugar daddy is most certainly part of that industry! If you think the governor of California wasn’t gay-for-pay then you probably believe those girls advertising on Craig’s List actually “escort.” Arnold is Anna Nicole Smith without the issues (yes, the late Anna Nicole was another underappreciated hustler. For a fat, bottle blonde stripper to land a billionaire husband takes a hell of a lot of entrepreneurial skill. Could you imagine the Goldwater Girl Hillary being able to pull that one off?)

But of course there’s more to this piece of Austrian beefcake than just sex. There’s drugs, too! In the classic bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron,” the would-be Governator inhales – gleefully playing to the camera – while wearing an “Arnold es numero uno” T-shirt. Later the onetime Mr. Olympia would publicly defend his use of steroids during his competitive bodybuilding years.

In other words, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a wonderfully shameless hussy who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He takes things outside himself seriously – issues that matter like wildfires and war, immigration and education policy. Because he cannot be shamed he cannot be scandalized. The man simply refuses to let others define him. Eat your heart out, Britney & Bush. You can’t get more proudly U.S. than this. Living la vida loca. Living the American dream.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Black-and-White Phone Book: Control

Watching Anton Corbijn’s sumptuously shot "Control," the wisdom of Werner Herzog filled my head. Responding to charges that he took far too many liberties with real-life events in "Rescue Dawn," Herzog responded that "if you’re purely after facts, please buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan. It has four million times correct facts. But it doesn’t illuminate."

To read the rest, visit "The House Next Door" at:

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Wong Kar Wai, Where Are You?

Watching Tony Leung under the direction of Ang Lee in "Lust, Caution" is like seeing De Niro minus Scorsese or Klaus Kinski without his Herzog. Something’s simply missing in the midst of all that talent (regardless of how many NC-17 rated body parts are in full view). It certainly doesn’t help that the calculating Lee will never reach the heights of the visionary Wong Kar-Wai, Leung's most significant director. I was rooting for Lee through every tilt and pan, but I was also thinking, “What would Wong do?”

To read the rest, visit "The House Next Door" at:

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Wind That Shook The Riviera

In “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” Ken Loach presents two lessons, one a teaching of history through the eyes of his turn-of-the-last-century Irish revolutionaries fighting the British Black and Tans, another a class in master filmmaking at its finest. (Perhaps the only other filmmaker to come close in recent years is Deepa Mehta and her trilogy of political upheaval and its consequences in India, “Fire,” “Earth” and “Water.” In fact “Earth,” Mehta’s study of India’s social collapse after independence, would make a great double bill with Loach’s Palme d’Or winner. Earth, Wind and Fire. Take that Ken Burns!)

The opposite of PBS mediocrity, Ken Loach’s brilliance lies in his ability to take large ideological issues and embody them in everyman characters. Making the political personal is usually the province of playwrights working on a smaller canvas (“On The Waterfront” notwithstanding, Arthur Miller onstage is nearly always better than Arthur Miller onscreen). But Loach creates living symbols that avoid caricature. His two brothers Damien, played sharply by Cillian Murphy, and Teddy, a wonderfully understated Padraic Delaney, are both as starkly black-and-white and red-blooded as can be. The first half of “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” shows these young idealists fighting the British baddies, ethnic slurs like “paddy” hurled at them by anonymous thugs. The stark violence is disturbing but nothing we haven’t seen before from Scorsese and his ilk. What sends a shiver up the spine is the second half of Loach’s masterpiece, after the treaty with England is signed. For a brief moment you experience the joy, the climax of hope experienced by Damien and Teddy, until you realize you’re only at the halfway point of the film.

As history has shown, things could only get worse. What the Irish Republicans took for freedom finally within their sights was really an undetected poison administered by Britain’s Machiavellian Neville Chamberlain, a death sentence masquerading as truce. Like it would be in India, the natives too easily turn on one another, playing into the empire’s dirty hands. The anonymous mercenaries morph into brothers with names like Rory and Dan. The war becomes heartrendingly personal. Loach literalizes this brother against brother theme with Damien’s all-or-nothing side splitting with Teddy’s compromise-for-the-good-of-Ireland faction. As the two argue about whose means will bring about an English-free homeland, the “inevitable” victory, the film becomes painful to watch, more brutal than any bloody battle that came before. (In one poignant scene Teddy accuses Damien of being a dreamer. Damien shoots back, claiming he’s the realist. Who’s the dreamer and who’s the realist? Why, in fact both characters are.) In essence, we find ourselves listening to the eloquently moot points of two slaves condemned to die. What does it matter whose escape plan is better when neither will work? The two brothers are simply quarreling over a preferred method of execution. And Loach in all his genius literalizes this as well – one brother experiencing physical death, the other the death of the soul. Who is really dead? Who is really better off? Loach seems to ask. A question only the wind could answer.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Double Pumping" at Kinky Camp 3!

Eat, drink, scream at the (four) screens and be merry!

Saturday 9/29 at midnight at Monkey Town in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

A Double Doc Bill featuring Dustin Robertson’s “Pumping Velvet”:

Smalltown boy, rockstar, bodybuilder, circuit boy, menace and icon. Dustin Robertson has ascended from being continually gay bashed as a kid and abusing drugs, to becoming a competitive bodybuilder and working as Hollywood’s top music video editor for divas like Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Madonna. His personal experiences from his often-tumultuous life are documented through the innovative use of full color animation, narrative and fantasy sequences, erotic images, film and TV clips, music videos, and other forms of mass media.
--Matt Dy


A “silent” version of that classic softcore Schwarzenegger flick “Pumping Iron”:
He’ll be back. Slicked in body oil.

Preceded by Kurt Koehler’s “Hung Frankenstein”:
Mel Brooks meets John Waters. Enough said.

Come one, come all, come campy!

Once In A Lifetime

John Carney's “Once” is a near perfect indie debut – “Before Sunrise” minus the worldly cynicism lurking around the edges, a pure and innocent portrait of the magical process of falling in love. Touching without the slightest sentimentality (a tightrope walk mastered by the French New Wave before its offspring descended into the cringe-inducing melodrama that passes for today’s date movie), “Once” is more than deeply, intoxicatingly romantic. It is mesmerizing. Like love itself the film’s poignancy sneaks up on you unexpectedly, slowly, quietly. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the musician actors playing the lead lovebirds, have a chemistry that radiates, generates electric sparks from the screen. The musical numbers are so organically engrained in the script that the songs become a third major character, a child born out of loneliness, desperation and love. It comes as no surprise that the stars fell for one another during shooting. “Once” could just as easily apply to the once-in-a-lifetime magic necessary to capture real love unfolding onscreen, to create a documentary of emotions encased in a fictional film.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

God Save The Queen

The director Shane Meadows in discussing his recent skinhead flick “This Is England,” was asked if he was influenced by similarly-themed eighties films like Mike Leigh’s “Meantime” and Alan Clarke’s “Made In Britain.” He replied that he wasn’t so much influenced by them as that they were a part of him. (So much of art stems from the ability to absorb other art.) “Made In Britain” is the film that marked the screen debut of Tim Roth, an actor I have much respect for, an average talent elevated to greatness through sheer passion and hard work. Unfortunately, “Made In Britain” is one very simpleminded film. A made-for-TV-movie about an intelligent but lost skinhead named Trevor whose violent, racist behavior leads to a stint in social services, Clarke’s mediocre work is less its intended youth crime and its consequences docudrama than cautionary tale, concerning the destruction of the nonconformist soul at the hands of Thatcher’s England.

The fact that the British generally don’t think outside the class-conscious box truly makes me appreciate American ingenuity. Growing up a rebel in Reagan’s America at the same time as Shane Meadows I learned not to lash out nor “blindly follow the rules,” but to pretend to so I could subvert society from within. I discovered it’s much more rewarding to beat the system than to destroy it. Dogs genetically predisposed to hyperactivity become angry and neurotic when they’re placed in confinement – inevitable behavior when the box they’re put in is too small. This is not the fault of the dog, but that of his environment. Likewise, the answer to Trevor’s existential dilemma isn’t the (British) “grow up and go along with the bullshit system,” it’s “rebel, just do it smart so you don’t get caught.” Thank heaven for the American way.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Kinky Camp 2 this Friday 8/31

Summer camp ain’t over yet...and the midnight movie monkey business has just begun!

Friday 8/31 “Kinky Camp 2” at Monkey Town in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Start your Labor Day weekend off right with a round of “Mixed Doubles”:


“A highly entertaining sexual roundelay, really a sex farce based on a play originally set in Queens, New York. The action was moved to the once pristine, now undoubtedly destroyed Yugoslavian coastline, standing in for the French Riviera. (As Metzger has said, "Who wants to see sex in Queens?") Presented as a fairy tale, the film shows sophisticates Elvira (Claire Wilbur) and Jack (Gerald Grant) attempting to seduce an allegedly naïve couple -- Eddie (Cal Culver, aka the late gay porn star Casey Donovan) and Betsy (Lynn Lowry) -- in an elaborate series of sex games.”
- Images: The Films of Radley Metzger

Lord Love A Duck

“The weirdest sex scene on record anywhere has Barbara (Tuesday Weld) shopping for sweaters with her wildly incestuous dad, played by Max Showalter. His uncontrollable laughter sounds almost exactly like Warner cartoon voice artist Mel Blanc. Weld goes totally orgasmic in dizzy Dutch angles while Max distorts his face like the sex-mad playboys of Metropolis. The scene has to be seen to be believed, especially Max's laughing and Weld's squealing. Weld recites the names of the various cashmere colors: Grape Yum Yum! Pink Put-On! Papaya Surprise! Periwinkle Pussycat!”
- DVD Savant

Come one, come all, come campy!

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Midsummer Must-See

Finally someone got it – and for the first time ever I was left doubled over in laughter by a staging of a Shakespeare comedy. With the latest offering from The Public Theater’s annual Bard-fest in Central Park, director Daniel Sullivan has accomplished the enormous task of translating the “feeling” of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – Victorian times’ equivalent of Hollywood’s summer tent-pole blockbuster – to modern audiences. From Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes (gothic creations that on the child actor fairies conjure up a gorgeous creepiness that would do Tim Burton proud) to the awe-inspiring scenic and lighting design by Eugene Lee and Michael Chybowski, respectively, to the finely tuned veteran cast of which Martha Plimpton and Tim Blake Nelson only serve to remind us that the busiest character actors in film owe their chops to the stage. (And Plimpton and Nelson are often upstaged by equally able players like Mireille Enos as Hermia and Jay O. Sanders as Nick Bottom.) But perhaps best of all, the play-within-a-play performed by the “rude mechanicals” at the happy end channels all the sheer idiocy and delight of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the combination of lowbrow sight gags and highbrow wit taken to the extreme and then beyond, to the point of an utter discomfort that can only be released through hysterical laughter. Which makes total sense. After all, you can’t get more British than Shakespeare and Monty Python. Finally American theater has a director savvy enough to incorporate a culture, not just update with a slice of apple pie.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Bergman Paradox

Ingmar Bergman’s films have been described alternately as “small” psychodramas writ large on screen to masterpieces tackling the “big” questions of life, reducing them to screen size. His movies could encompass two such disparate ideas only if religion, relationships, neuroses, life, death, fear, grand theories and tiny uncertainties were all one and the same. So this is the case, the very definition of art.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Kinky Camp Night

Lisa of CineKink really outdid herself with the kinky campy shorts last night. I fell asleep laughing my ass off!

This music video is a MUST-SEE:

(That is, if you’re into cheesy 80s, well...if Toni Basil had sung about spanking instead of "Mickey" this would be it!)

Also loved the film of four deadpan actors sitting around a table doing a David Mamet-like reading of a porn script. Oh, and Santa Claus Pez dispensers screwing is one hard kink to top!

Stay tuned for more Monkey Town midnight movie madness in August.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

More Myra!

Calling all wet dreamers...

I've been asked to curate some perverted midnight madness on Thursday July 26th, so please join my co-host Lisa Vandever and me for a night of celluloid debauchery at the fabulous Monkey Town in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Lisa will be warming us up with shorts from her famous Cinekink Film Festival

Followed by a screening of the greatest underrated camp classic of all time, yes - Gore Vidal's "Myra Breckinridge"!!

Mark your calendars. Raquel Welch wielding a strap-on. Need I say more?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Oh, Myra!

If “Myra Breckinridge” the film had been a Broadway musical first, I’ve no doubt it would have gone down in midnight movie history right alongside “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Raquel Welch’s Miss Myra is the precursor to Tim Curry’s Frankenfurter, with both actors playing gender and sexually ambiguous characters seducing naïve young lovers with equal panache. “Myra Breckinridge” works on so many levels it’s hard to keep track, from the film critic Rex Reed playing film critic Myron Breckinridge to “Miss” Mae West – the ultimate gay man in a woman’s body, perhaps the first transgender superstar – as a stud collecting Hollywood agent, of course. That Rex and Raquel, playing opposite sides of the same protagonist, flow easily, interchangeably, from one setup to the next, sometimes even playing the same scene together is a lovely symbolic nod to the desire to become one, be it with another person or with oneself. The classic movie clips commenting on the action like a Tinseltown, Greek chorus and the classic Miss West belting out numbers like “You Gotta Taste All The Fruit” are pure winking delight. The many critics who panned “Myra Breckinridge” decades ago when it was first released were as clueless as John Huston’s Buck Loner, for the film is nothing less than a brilliantly, thoughtfully, stupendously conceived work of art.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Inherit The Wind

The Broadway production of “Inherit The Wind”, which pits Christopher Plummer’s Tony-nominated performance of Henry Drummond up against Brian Dennehy’s critic-disappointing turn as Matthew Harrison Brady is a revelation. And that revelation has everything to do with the astonishingly profound – and unforgivably ignored – acting choices made by Mr. Dennehy. Unlike Fredric March, who took a far easier path in the film version by shaping Brady into a charismatic, Bible-thumping blowhard, Dennehy chooses to explore the infinite complexities of a man nearing the end of his life who suddenly finds himself questioning and doubting all that he’s ever believed in. An iconic man confronted with the realization that his time has come and gone, the fear that everything he stood for could very well be wrong. Faced with Plummer’s tour de force, Dennehy goes under it, not over the top – and it all makes complete sense! Only a religious man wrestling with his own conscience would rush to the aid of a preacher’s daughter, literally knocked down by her father for supporting her “blasphemous” colleague/paramour on trial. A man who with a brilliant lawyer’s rational mind would no doubt succumb to Drummond’s eloquently sound reasoning.

I have an enormous amount of respect for an actor who can take a panning from critics too simple to see the genius of his performance and not give a damn, just carry on with what he knows is right. Christopher Plummer’s Henry Drummond might have won on the side of truth, but Brian Dennehy’s portrayal of Matthew Harrison Brady is nothing short of truth incarnate.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Judgment Day

It’s fitting that the trial of Antidote Films vs. Laura Albert ended with a fraud conviction accompanied by Bible-quoting closing statements in which Albert was portrayed as evil, for what has this media feeding frenzy been if not a witch hunt? This case was not about Laura Albert masquerading as a teenage, truck stop prostitute, but about getting revenge for the shame caused when one feels they’ve been suckered. Not too long ago this same level of intense mob hatred was directed at author James Frey after his supposed memoir was revealed to be fiction. But James Frey is not another one of Laura Albert’s alter egos. Mr. Frey published fantasy as hard fact. Laura Albert published JT Leroy’s “memoir” as fiction.

That those now throwing stones overlooked this simple fact until Beachy’s “New York” magazine article came out is, quite frankly, astonishing. But then people only see what they want to see, that which they need to make a film marketable. Inconvenient facts like phantom pieces of uranium in Niger are swept aside. Author identity was crucial to the producers – yet no one at Antidote questioned why they were optioning a “memoir” that hadn’t been published as memoir? The only people “deceived” were those who wanted to be.

I wonder whether the jury was really able to see the shades of gray – or only feel the black and white emotions of a dupe, the red of shame. Instinctively I knew Albert’s defense had miscalculated when they chose to address her mental health (irrelevant to the case) instead of sticking straight to the facts. This wasn’t a criminal trial, I thought, and any attempt to gain sympathy for a person able to talk her way into celebrity friendships could only backfire, with the jury instead seeing Albert as a manipulative woman hiding behind her past abuse. Playing (psychological) defense instead of turning the tables and playing (willing accomplice) offense carried an implicit admission of wrongdoing. The defense shouldn’t have taken responsibility – the bait – for a criminal act not committed. There should have been no apologies made for JT Leroy’s birth, no excuses or remorse. To paint Albert as a frail, helpless victim is absurd. She’s strong enough to have become an accomplished writer who fought for her work to get noticed, with or without her alter ego. The point isn’t that Albert didn’t know what she was doing – the point is that everyone else on some level, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, did.

Not that Antidote’s president Jeffrey Levy-Hinte ever second-guessed Albert’s fragile psychological state. “She’s liberated, in a way. It’s quite wonderful,” he told a “New York Times” reporter, referring to the loss of Albert’s alter ego, a statement which seems a bit condescending coming from a self-described “person of principle” who’d just liberated an artist of over a hundred grand she didn’t have. (But then “Sarah” could still be made into a good movie according to Levy-Hinte – which I guess would help offset Albert’s possible loss of the rights to all her books if she can’t pay the judgment.) Indeed, a true man of principle would stand up and take responsibility for having been a willing accomplice to the perpetration of JT Leroy’s existence – something Laura Albert could never have pulled off if a trick-turning, trannie boy weren’t such a lucrative exploit.

So I suppose it should come as no surprise that the company president also still respected Albert as someone who “pulled off something quite startling — all these intelligent people were taken in.” But then how intelligent could one be if he can’t tell truth from his own wishful fantasy, can’t even read the word “Fiction” on the binding of a book?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

More Hoaxes and Fraud

It’s amazing how nice and civilized the security guards are down at the Federal Court building on Pearl Street (pleasantly correcting me when I asked if this was 500 “Worth Street”), probably due to the fact that they don’t have to actually sit in a courtroom listening to the bullshit legalese spewing from the mouths of guys making four times their salaries. Which is what I was subjected to at the hearing for “Antidote Films vs. Laura Albert” and her alter ego JT Leroy, who I’m sure would have been dragged into court as well had he existed.

So Antidote Films is ostensibly suing for fraud because the author name on the cover of the book they optioned doesn’t belong to the author. And to make the point that the author’s identity is relevant – no, essential! – the plaintiff’s lawyer brought up no less a literary legend than Shakespeare himself. “Of course author matters! Would people read Shakespeare if it wasn’t Shakespeare?” the three-piece suit mused rhetorically as Christopher Marlowe had a good hearty laugh from the grave. Catching himself, he quickly moved on to the example of horror icon Stephen King, who would never use a pseudo…well, you get the picture. (To add insult to injury, Antidote is also trying to collect 110 thousand dollars in “punitive” damages – though the lawyer assured the jury they “weren’t out to punish anyone.” What part of “punitive” do you not understand, sir? Are we talking “pseudo-punitive” damages here?)

I guess I’m trying to find the humor in all this because, frankly, Laura Albert’s Kafkaesque nightmare scares the hell out of me. I view JT Leroy’s life in the limelight as one spectacular, performance-art piece, a collaboration between author and audience like a singer and his fans – with the fans unfortunately turning on their idol when “tough gangsta rapper” is revealed to have grown up in a quiet New Jersey suburb. But does that make the tune itself any less catchy? That the lyrics can speak to someone’s experience so deeply is what keeps the music “real.” Which is why this demand for apologies, for remorse, outrages me so.

The defense lawyers are pounding hard the subject of Albert’s psychiatric history on the stand but Albert’s mental health is irrelevant. (Though as a good friend of mine pointed out, amputees who run marathons are called inspirational for turning disability into creative pursuit, so why isn’t Laura Albert being held up as a hero for turning her emotional “disability” into art?) No, this case is solely about a book – published as fiction, optioned as fiction, end of story. And this is why even the sanest of artists needs to heed the wake-up call, this frightening cautionary tale. As an author who published a 100% nonfiction memoir as fiction (only because my U.K. publisher’s “brand” is erotic fiction so I didn’t have much of a choice), will I one day be sued because my story happened, because I actually exist? Sound crazy? Laura Albert’s being sued right now because she exists and JT Leroy doesn’t. Fact is the only hoax, the only fraud perpetrated, is by a judicial system that could allow a baseless case like this to even come to trial.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Of Hoaxes and Fraud

Poor Laura Albert. The woman behind (her alter-ego, “It” boy) JT Leroy is being sued for fraud by Antidote Films. And heaven help artists everywhere if the company wins their case. Antidote optioned the rights to JT Leroy’s “Sarah” in 2003, but now claims the deal should be rendered null and void because JT Leroy does not exist. Huh? Since when does obtaining the rights to a book allow a producer to lay claim to the flesh and blood author as well? Production companies are optioning human beings now, too? (Not to mention “Sarah” was never published as memoir or autobiography – and Antidote never explicitly bought the rights to JT Leroy’s life. Seems the only intelligent move the producers did make was to bring Steven Shainberg onboard as the movie’s director.)

Laura Albert was first outed in an article in “New York” magazine that bore the headline “IS JT LEROY A HOAX?” on its cover. I remember thinking, WHO CARES? But then I read Stephen Beachy’s piece and my questions became both deeper and darker. Was JT Leroy’s writing overrated? Definitely. Was JT Leroy’s writing worthy of being published? Most certainly. Would JT Leroy’s writing have been published if penned as a work of fiction from a thirty-something musician with no literary connections to speak of? Would novelist Dennis Cooper have given a talented unknown named Laura Albert so much as the time of day?

If JT Leroy was a hoax then Laura Albert was a scapegoat, the article’s real red herring. It’s a reflection of our reality TV world that all the talent in the universe will get you nowhere without a gimmick or connections. Laura Albert should have been applauded for creating JT Leroy, for giving birth to such a beautiful child, humbly eschewing both the credit and subsequent fame – in other words, letting her art speak for itself without her image attached. It seemed Albert’s foremost concern was to get her work out there, like an ego-less mother driven to care only for the welfare of the kid, having conceived not for vanity but for the sake of the creation. (The rumor that Asia Argento, the director behind another movie based on a JT Leroy book, had given birth to Leroy’s child was, in fact, completely plausible – for what is a movie to its director if not her child?) It was those who could not see the metaphorical as truth – as much if not truer than the literal – that were to blame if they felt “tricked.” The best art is never literal, making Albert the purest of artists. So I found the notion of Laura Albert as JT Leroy very touching. She had given hope to artists everywhere.

And yet JT Leroy was not simply a work of fiction. JT Leroy did not spring from the whole cloth of Laura Albert's mind. JT Leroy was a living, breathing amalgam of street children everywhere. And the worst that Albert did was to give them all a much-needed voice. It is the public that craves live flesh, literary figures and celebrities that forced “Wigs and Sunglasses” (the Leroy stand-in) into being. It was they who demanded a literal truth. Albert only responded. The word “hoax” implies an intention to deceive. Albert’s intention seemed to be to enlighten, to force us to go beyond the literal into the metaphorical. Thus, JT Leroy was, unequivocally, no hoax.

Welcome To The Dollhouse

The most shocking thing about Tomer Heymann’s “Paper Dolls”, a doc about Filipino transsexual caregivers to Orthodox Jews in Israel, is how a director could manage to so completely miss his film’s story.

The first half of this terribly edited film is mostly devoted to the eponymous, trannie performance troupe’s struggle to reach the pinnacle of artistic legitimacy – playing a super club in Tel Aviv (that happens to be run by a buddy of the director). Unfortunately for Heymann, elaborate drag shows haven’t been interesting since sometime after “Paris Is Burning” was released. Ditto the ins and outs of shaving and tucking. And the fact that there are young (gay!) filmmakers out there nearly forty years after Stonewall who still find the very existence of transsexuals sensational is sensational in itself.

Things don’t get good until the bodies start piling up – a suicide bombing, an immigration crackdown. And even these storylines pale in comparison to the beautiful daughter/father relationship between transsexual Sally and Haim, a throat cancer patient in her care. These two deserve their own ninety minutes. From octogenarian Haim’s total unquestioning acceptance of Sally in the face of the filmmaker’s own irrelevant probing to Sally’s inconsolable anguish at Haim’s funeral, these characters both humanize and save “Paper Dolls” from the director’s superficial lens. As far as I can tell, the only true “paper doll” – a reference to that which isn’t real – is Heymann himself.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Global Decadence

Watching the nineties Japanese film “Tokyo Decadence” I felt a disarming familiarity with a foreign world, the realization that S&M is a culture unto itself, one that transcends every other culture into which it is placed. From America to Europe, to the Middle and Far East and beyond, tops and bottoms – fetishists of every stripe – repeat the same actions and scenes in a universal ritual, desires as innate as the human linguistic capacity itself. S&M stands for sadism and masochism, but sadist could just as easily substitute for submissive/slave and masochist for master/mistress – two sides of the same coin right down to their letters.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Red, White and True

In the indie flick “Transamerica” the filmmakers painstakingly dismantle every stereotype about transsexuals, hustlers, and “normal” heterosexuals to build a world of truth cannily within the confines of a comedic road movie – a film I wish I’d written. Kevin Zegers’ gay-for-pay hustler is the pitch perfect profile of a Gaiety boy – young, handsome, charming, a recreational drug user with business savvy – and lost. Felicity Huffman’s transitioning Bree with her long flowing skirts and acute self-awareness is the most conservative character in the film (as anyone desperately wanting to “pass” indeed would be).

To Die For

(On “Making A Killing” by Mike White, his “NY Times” Op-Ed about movie violence’s connection to real-life violence.)

While I applaud Mike White’s willingness to stand up and take responsibility where others will not, I couldn’t help but feel his myopic viewpoint was misguided. White wrote, “For my friends and me, movies were a big influence on our clothes and our slang, and on how we thought about and spoke to authority figures, our girlfriends and one another. Movies permeated our fantasy lives and our real lives in subtle and profound ways.” I have no doubt this is true – for Mike White and his niche group of film-geek friends. But to conclude that one’s own powerful teenage influences reflect adolescent culture’s in general is misleading. As Mike White himself proves, children whose lives are unduly shaped by cinema grow up to be directors, screenwriters and cinematographers – not serial killers.

Besides, as I’m sure Mr. White knows, Asian countries produce films with higher body counts alongside teenagers with lower rates of violence. It’s noble for Mr. White to suggest to his fellow industry players, “before cashing those big checks, shouldn’t we at least pause to consider what we are saying with our movies about the value of life and the pleasures of mayhem?” But wouldn’t it be more profound to question an industry itself willing to spend half a billion dollars on “Spider-Man 3” while kids are starving in Africa, genocide is taking the teenagers of Sudan? As far as I know, “Oldboy” wasn’t a hit in Darfur.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pathological Lovers

How crazy is the Dan Klores doc "Crazy Love"? Yes, Burt Pugach, the lawyer who hired thugs to throw lye in the face of his former mistress, is one seriously fucked up dude. And his mistress turned wife Linda, who took the man who mutilated her as her lawfully wedded husband, can also be described as having some, uh, “issues.” Most fascinating, though, is not all the media psycho-babble surrounding their limelight loving personalities, but the universal truth uncovered by Linda in her recounting of the first time Burt saw her in her clear glasses, felon face to disfigured visage. Burt behaved as if he didn’t see the scarring – in fact, it was he himself who was blinded by love. And isn’t that the essence of every love story, finding that special someone who sees right through the scars to your soul? Human nature in extremis only serves to shine a flashlight onto that which makes us truly human.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Zoo By Any Other Name

“Zoo” is a gorgeously photographed meditation on nature and desire, owing a great compositional debt to Errol Morris. It is also a smoke-and-mirror sleight-of-hand, existing in protective shadows like its zoophile protagonists. The film is as beautifully euphemistic as the melodic-sounding word itself – zoophilia – conjuring up not “horse-fuckers” but merely misunderstood men. (Much like NAMBLA members, who aren’t creepy pedophiles, but harmless “man-boy lovers”.) With enough manipulative window dressing, the horror of nonconsensual sex can be obscured.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud director Robinson Devor and writer Charles Mudede for their bravery in attempting to explore the side of a man’s death the media ignored in favor of a quick joke. But in their trying to present the side of the “zoos,” I couldn’t help but think of the political comedian Bill Maher’s appraisal of the evolution versus “intelligent design” debate – you don’t have to air both sides if one of those sides is bullshit. The homosexual community rightly bans NAMBLA from marching in gay pride parades because giving boy-fuckers a voice automatically bestows legitimacy. Like zoos, NAMBLA members display horrific audacity in refusing to take responsibility for unconscionable desires, in attempting to re-categorize a mental illness as simply a benign and unfair societal judgment. It’s a Catch-22. Devor and Mudede in letting the zoophiles speak have also allowed them to alchemize their pathology into a lifestyle choice.

Much has been made of Rush Limbaugh’s infamous sound bite on bestiality. (Of course it was consensual! How could it not have been?) I guess Rush also thinks an eight-year-old boy coerced into having an erection would be consenting. (He’s hard! How could he not want to fuck the babysitter?) If only the filmmakers likewise would have exposed this illogical line of reasoning. So let’s at least be honest. Subjectivity is an inevitable result of directorial vision. Like a Riefenstahl film is an elegant masterpiece about murderers seen through the lens of Germany, “Zoo” is a lushly poetic look at abuse told through the eyes of rapists.

007 as XXX

“Casino Royale” is the best gay porn of the year, not least because its lead actor passes for a high-end escort. If not for the RADA training, Daniel Craig certainly would have been in the blue. Like all actors he’s a shameless exhibitionist, only most actors have a love/hate relationship with the spotlight. They love the attention of the audience and loathe being (emotionally) naked in front of one. Not Daniel Craig. He, like Dame Helen Mirren (another alt-universe porn star) seems to thrive on the risk inherent in baring one’s body and soul. (And if there’s any doubt that Daniel Craig’s proudly gay-for-pay, check out his rough trade chops in “Infamous” and “Love Is the Devil” – the DVD cover art alone screaming “rent me!”)

But pound for beefy pound, “Casino Royale” itself should have swept the GAYVN Awards. Cue theme music.

Exhibit A:

Daniel Craig’s James Bond spends the entire film trailing – i.e., “cruising” – villains, the homoeroticism especially apparent with the hot baddie at the airport who checks out buff Bond in the kiosk mirror while seductively trying on shades.

Exhibit B:

The S&M scene between Bond and his nemesis, Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre, is a ten on the hard-on scale. Stripped naked and tied to a chair, his sculpted and well-oiled muscles glistening in the shadowed lighting, Craig’s 007 is taunted by Mikkelsen’s bullwhip-wielding, sadistic daddy in head-to-toe black. The scene even begins with Le Chiffre approvingly commenting on how well Bond has taken care of his body. Amen.

Exhibit C:

The females in the film are not Bond girls at all – in the sense that Bond girls are bombshells. The merely attractive women are not bodacious head turners like Ursula Andress, and the lead actress exudes nothing that even remotely could be construed as sex appeal. Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd is a polite British girl-next-door, not a Penelope-Cruz-like hot tamale. It is Daniel Craig who is both Bond and bunny. When 007 emerges from the ocean water like a “Sports Illustrated” cover chick, the camera lingers on his ripped torso, the requisite Bond girl he notices on the beach a mere afterthought.

(Though if the advertising for Showtime’s “The Tudors” lives up to its hype, Mr. Craig may face some "stiff" competition from fellow Brit Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry the Eighth. Stay tuned. Heads are gonna roll.)

The Bridge (A Documentary by Eric Steel)

There is something deeply unsettling in bearing witness to the last long,
Drawn out seconds of a person’s life,
Especially set against the backdrop of the majestic beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge,
Which allows for the most spectacularly gorgeous endings to often ugly, troubled lives.
No wonder it’s the number one suicide destination in the world.

Eight Random Raves

Fellini, Kubrick, Kusturica and Gilliam all rolled into Alfonso Cuaron! The most harrowing escape scenes in "Children of Men" are also the simplest – Clive Owen's Theo not getting the car started, unable to squeeze through a half open door. This is the stuff of universal nightmares, not science fiction, a display of the same humanity Cuaron brought to "Y Tu Mama Tambien”. It’s just a shame the directors representing the new, Mexican revolution in film (Cuaron, del Toro, Gonzalez Innaritu) differ from their Italian Neorealist and French New Wave counterparts in one key way. Rossellini and Truffault never felt the global pressure to create their masterpieces in any language other than their own native tongue. However remarkable Clive Owen’s ability to carry “Children of Men” squarely on his strong shoulders, several Latin actors could have easily done the same (and without the added distraction of a miscast Julianne Moore). Penelope Cruz once gave an interview in which she expressed the inevitably of her working with Javier Bardem. After seeing Cuaron’s epic vision, I couldn’t help but think the perfect vehicle had passed them by.

The indie flick “Hustle and Flow” about a Memphis pimp striving to become a rapper took me by surprise with what it lacks – condescension to its main characters. The director, bestowing nothing but respect upon the “daddy and his ho’s,” presents them as street savvy businesspeople, not as helpless victims without a choice (much like another wonderful indie film “Maria Full of Grace” in which the eponymous heroine becomes a drug mule of her own free will). “Hustle and Flow” is subversive if for no other reason than its PG-13 rating. To make a film about a pimp and his hookers without sex and with very little violence is to make one hell of a radical statement – and to render a truer portrayal than what Hollywood puts onscreen.

Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” is perhaps the closest the director has come to his masterpiece, a philosophical mind trip in the guise of a road trip. Like James Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Bill Murray plays a man who is more a ghost as he wanders through “what could have been,” through lives that might have been his. A reflection of us all, his character Don Johnston will always be curiously aware (if not actively searching), wondering about the “unknown son,” what the other path would have been like. (And speaking of what could have been, the movie version of "Fast Food Nation" suffers deeply from the didactic Richard Linklater at its helm. This film needs an Alex Cox brush stroke, a hyper-real "Repo Man" take. A less polemical, more philosophical Jim Jarmusch or Wim Wenders could have provided that missing artistry.)

“The Proposition” is a nice little gem of a film – the bloodiest movie I’ve ever seen without a single scene of gratuitous violence. That screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat have a long artistic history together is obvious. The script and the directing are completely seamless (a rare feat when the scriptwriter isn’t also the director). Watching “The Proposition” unfold was like listening to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds play, all elements melding in perfect harmony. Nick’s vocals fusing to Blixa’s guitar chords is no different than Nick’s dialogue playing through the mouths of Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Emily Watson and the rest of the brilliant ensemble cast. And Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack proved effective precisely because of its subtlety, not a word of Cave’s dark crooning to be heard until the closing credits appeared.

“Police Beat” is a fantastic, multilayered debut – an existential journey deserving of the cult following garnered by the less accomplished “Donnie Darko”. It is a “Repo Man” for the 21st Century – a study of one man’s mental disintegration in the midst of a thankless job, with a perfectly executed assimilation twist.

The Dardenne brothers’ “L’Enfant” is a dynamic sociological study in the form of a fiction film. The visual metaphors, the long shots of the protagonist pushing an empty baby stroller, an empty motor scooter, carrying his unconscious girlfriend, carrying a half-drowned boy – trying desperately to rid himself of burdens only to keep acquiring new ones. The stillness of his environment, waiting in long lines, desperate for something when nothing ever happens, contrasts wonderfully with the leading man’s restlessness. The character is running a thousand miles a minute in his head, is always moving, dashing towards danger, dodging it, so we experience his life as one long suspense thriller. I can’t think of another film that portrays the hustler mentality so perfectly.

I'm a sucker for smart showmanship, a la Hitchcock. The Nolan brothers are the kings of the unreliable protagonist. "The Prestige" should have received an Academy Award nomination for such intricate editing, performed with the precision of a surgeon with a knife. Their films are defined as much – if not more – by what’s not shown onscreen than what is.

As for the smartest script of all the 2006 Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film, well that would belong to Deepa Mehta's "Water". It’s tight, ingenious in its structure. The film draws you in, lulls you with its cute, “Whale Rider” feel-good, “little girl against the misogynistic culture” premise. Almost insidiously, from moment to moment, you start to have an awakening – a parallel enlightenment to the one from the Dark Ages that the new rebel Gandhi is preaching. You realize there is a bigger story here. The characters transform into the larger picture of India’s struggle for independence – against Britain yes, but more importantly, against itself. It is a cultural history lesson in the guise of entertainment.

By the time you reach the film’s spectacular ending, which unfolds with the unstoppable motion of Gandhi’s physical and metaphorical train, you’re shocked by the realization that all the characters, all the storylines you’ve been focused on, were mere red herrings. As slowly and quietly as a passive revolution the true protagonist, the character whose journey represents India’s own – from dark to light – emerges. At its core “Water” contains a technically breathtaking piece of writing.

An Open Letter to Martin Scorsese

Dear Marty,

Yes, I am quite aware that "The Departed" took home Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Taxi Driver/Raging Bull/Goodfellas, but I can still be disappointed with your many missteps. Starting with a script (what else?) that simply was not tight enough to be up to Oscar. Exhibit A: Vera Farmiga. (And yes I know your relationship to female characters is spotty at best, but this one was nonexistent. I can’t even remember Farmiga’s character’s name. Did she have a name?) Swallowed up like a ghost in the Marty machine. Perhaps a few sex scenes would have helped. On second thought, lots of sex scenes. In fact, why not cut all Farmiga’s lines and show her getting down and dirty with Damon and DiCaprio (well, not at the same time – O.K., why the hell not?) Every time Farmiga appears onscreen, the brisk action-oriented pace comes to a dialogue-heavy standstill, clogging up the Marty machine. Extraneous scenes that don’t further the story, don’t develop the characters. What happened to “show not tell”?

And since you asked, yes I also had some problems with other thespians. DiCaprio appears fairly lost, wandering around the set in his skull, while Nicholson showboats his way through several scenes (yes, I know that’s what Jack does best). But when Nicholson’s character Frank Costello exploded in anger at his disrespectful girlfriend, I’d had enough. It was like the loudest instrument in the orchestra hitting a cringe-inducing sour note. Where the hell did that come from? I thought. It was like Nicholson couldn’t hold back anymore, chomping at the bit to break through soft and sinister Frank and chew up some scenery.

But of course I don’t blame Jack for his out-of-character tirades. I blame you, Marty. You’re supposed to know better. A great director who hires only the best and then lets them loose to do their job without interference is commendable. It works ninety percent of the time. But the ten percent when the actors need to be given some direction, need to be reeled in, you’re not there for them. It’s like you’re too distracted by the rest of the machine, controlling for every f-stop and sound effect and ignoring the human heartbeats. Did you not notice that Ray Winstone couldn’t nail the Boston accent? And so what! Let the Brit be Irish instead! Where’s the flexibility?

Something is very, very wrong when the best thing about a Martin Scorsese film is Matt Damon. Did I really just type that? Matt Damon? Yes, Marty. Your movies are physical wonders in need of physical movers like De Niro, not cerebral thinkers like DiCaprio. Damon is your new De Niro. He’s a guy with leading man looks who is much better suited to character parts, to villains, attacking these roles like a hungry wolf. Like a young Bob or Al – or Jack. Matt Damon got gypped. If anyone deserved to go up against Forest Whitaker for that Best Actor nod it was Matt. And Clive Owen in "Children of Men".

Which reminds me. Dear Alfonso Cuaron...

Meditations On A Poet

Wong Kar-Wai would have made a great silent film director, his brilliant use of music more suited to live orchestral accompaniment than mere soundtrack. Many portions of "2046" are shot MOS since any dialogue would have been rendered redundant to his visual feast. Wong uses words only when necessary, lending them a higher importance for their rarity, each phrase a pearl in his oyster of images. Knowing when not to use words is the mark of a true poet.

In the tradition of Terence Malick, Wong Kar-Wai spends less time making films than in making them count. He packs so many elements into each movie that they overflow the frame, each work saturated beyond the breaking point into art. His lead actors Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi have flawless chemistry, Leung actually proving more the muse than Zhang. Leung’s shy, delighted, charming smile that anticipates the question “Are you waiting for me?” is so effortlessly natural, cementing Leung’s reputation as one of the most believable actors working today. He’s an old-time star like Clark Gable, able to invest the line “I used to have a happy ending in me but I let it slip away” with heartbreaking nonchalance. You can feel how much the actors adore working together, that the emotion is true. They know every twitch of Mr. Chow and Ms. Ling, how they are experts in using politeness as a form of cruelty, stabbing one another with niceties. The actors are so invested in one another that the audience is left with no other choice than to also be.

The best art serves as a flashlight into the viewer’s own soul. We see ourselves reflected in the character of Mr. Chow who in turn sees his own reflection in the character of Su Li Zhen. Relationships are just one endless funhouse mirror in Wong’s world as well as ours. The director’s a throwback to the thinkers of the French New Wave who meditated on big ideas rather than self. (Big ideas would always boil back down to self anyway and it’s lazy directors choosing to take this navel-gazing shortcut that’s destroying the art film!)

The sequences of "2046" are short movies in their own right – adding up to a breathtaking, mesmerizing masterpiece. The themes of emotion sneaking up on you, not knowing how you feel until it’s too late, secure Wong Kar-Wai’s universality. People go to the futuristic "2046" to retrieve lost memories but never come back, stuck in a past they willingly sought. “Maybe one day you’ll escape your past. If you do, look for me,” Mr. Chow tells Li Gong’s Su Li Zhen. I hope Wong Kar-Wai never escapes "2046" if it’s birthing such modern-day classics as this.

The Not-So-Notorious Mary Harron

The director Mary Harron has a terrific knack for choosing the most interesting, sexy subjects and just draining the life out of them. Watching her films “I Shot Andy Warhol” and now “The Notorious Bettie Page,” I often find myself thinking “the book would have been better” – except there’s never any book. It’s the same feeling I get watching a Catherine Breillat film. Having brainy, intellectually astute women at a flick’s helm is a grand idea in theory, but often all this thinking gets in the way of an entertaining story. (In fairness to Harron, Catherine Breillat is probably the only woman on the planet who can neuter an internationally famous porn star with her philosophizing. Note: someone needs to cast Rocco Siffredi and “Bettie Page’s” Gretchen Mol together in a romantic comedy as compensation for their fruitless efforts.) I don’t care to see a director’s thought processes on the screen – “If we cut out all sex scenes we can make Bettie the ultimate virgin/whore!” – any more than I wish to see an actor perform a Method exercise in front of the camera. (Note to writer/actress Guinivere Turner: only other actors find Stanislavsky interesting.)

The only thing “indie” about Mary Harron is her attraction to marginalized artists on the fringes of society. Her filmmaking itself is as predictable as any Hollywood hack’s. Did she really need to begin “Bettie Page” with a scene in which the teenage Bettie’s father flashes a “come hither” look and asks to see poor Bettie alone – wink, wink? Very Lifetime network. Not surprisingly, the main problem with Harron’s take on Bettie Page starts with the script. The eponymous character is so underwritten that often-unclothed Mol has nothing to work with. Harron has literally left the poor actress bare-ass naked inside and out! In an effort to make Bettie the wholesome girl -next-door, Harron renders her as much a bland, two-dimensional caricature as any of Hugh Hefner’s interchangeable centerfolds. Besides, I don’t buy that this debate team member, high school salutatorian would be as naïve a starlet as the young Marilyn Monroe. I would hazard to guess it was Page’s lack of naïvete – her utter, painful awareness – that caused the existential crisis (does Jesus disapprove of ball gags and latex boots?) that led her to fall into the arms of the church. Perversely, the actress Gretchen Mol is ever the more engaging because Bettie Page is not. It’s always fascinating to see an actress struggle so hard, grasp at the slightest detail that could transform her character into a living, breathing human being.

Which brings me to perhaps the oddest thing about “The Notorious Bettie Page” – that the lives of the secondary characters prove much more intriguing than that of the central pin-up queen. I’m talking about Irving and Paula Klaw – the godparents of fetish photography – who were taken down by the government at the same time Hugh Hefner avoided punishment for his new publication “Playboy”. The Klaws distaste for nude photos, as if birthday suits were more immoral than corsets and whips, and nude photographer Bunny Yeager’s mutual distrust of the Klaws and their deviant pics. (Which reminded me of the ridiculous sex industry rivalries – doms looking down on escorts and vice-versa – as if Jesus approves of strap-ons but not blowjobs!) The look on Lily Taylor’s face as her Paula Klaw burns the pornographic “evidence” is heart-wrenching. Paula Klaw’s fetish photography was her life’s work and the government like an American Gestapo forced her to destroy her own art. Bettie Page’s life paled in comparison to this drama that swirled all around her. Now if only Mary Harron could stop analyzing the drama long enough to start seeing it.

Polanski's Law

FADE IN: to the fairy tale familiarity of Dickens, the soothing open spaces, the sparse script. Slow shift to London, dialogue becomes denser with the claustrophobia of the city – but it’s too late, our defenses are already down – before we’re even aware of the prick of the needle Polanski has shot the poison beneath our skin. "Oliver Twist" is surely the most disturbing movie of the year, eschewing histrionic Hollywood violence for bloodspots on the wall, the sickening smush of a head being bashed in. To borrow from the Cronenberg competition, “History of Violence” indeed!

Polanski’s latest artwork is riveting, his actors infusing Dickens’ colorful characters with richness, never resorting to a hint of cliché. Jamie Foreman’s Bill Sykes and Leanne Rowe’s Nancy are in a movie of their own. (Foreman as Sykes is walking violence, a younger Ray Winstone.) Polanski continues to be a master director who never forgot his acting roots, with a respect for the craft that’s not condescending. Polanski lets the actors live and breathe inside their characters without smothering them to death with fancy camera angles and fake words.

As in "Repulsion", another movie of innocence lost, Polanski conjures up an atmosphere of violence – the threat of destruction looming large over everything from script to set design. This is what marks him a master (mediocre filmmakers eschew all-consuming atmosphere for easy bloodletting) and renders the MPAA ratings system a joke. If any film deserves an R it’s this one! What Polanski doesn’t show, his inference, is more horrific than what he chooses to put onscreen. Children, though, have vivid imaginations, desensitized to videogame violence, so when they see the ten-year-old Oliver Twist, their peer, enduring his brutal life, their identification with the hero is total and complete.

Polanski, of course, would disagree. I don’t know whether to be more disturbed by his claim he’s finally gotten rave reviews from his kids – or by pondering which of Papa Roman’s films they’re comparing it to. (I guess the beating of a ten-year-old sure beats seeing daddy in drag in "The Tenant".) Perhaps it’s his European sensibility, a childhood lost to the Holocaust, but here in America, Peter Pan is still considered sacred ground. In choosing this material Polanski is tackling one of the few taboos left in film – violence against children, innocence itself. (Lars Von Trier must be jealous – two hours of nonstop brutality directed at a ten-year-old!) We’re used to seeing mobsters getting whacked Tarantino-style. We’re indifferent. However, we still can be shocked by mob violence aimed at an angelic little boy.

FADE OUT: Polanski has tread on the sanctity of youth. Murphy’s Law is not supposed to apply to kids.

Preacher Man

Watching Henry Rollins’ heavily hyped new show on the Independent Film Channel last season, I couldn’t help but cringe as the middle-aged punk rocker, absurdly deferential and so clearly out of his league, interviewed the director Werner Herzog. I realized Rollins’ problem is that in his thirst for knowledge he devours facts that he is unable to digest, only spew them back up like after a bad drinking binge. He's an intellectual poseur, a geek wanna-be, and what's so ironic and disturbing is that he's going against one of the founding tenets of punk rock – just be yourself. Longing to be part of an intelligentsia far out of his reach, Rollins ignores his own talents – is unaware of his own limitations. (It's as delusional as me thinking that if I read enough books about black holes I can ditch the writing and hang out with Stephen Hawking instead!)

The quintessential moment came during a segment showing Rollins typing a tongue-in-cheek letter to ultraconservative pundit Ann Coulter, who undoubtedly wouldn’t know Rollins from a roach spray salesman (or did she, in fact, meet him when the singer achieved what was likely the highlight of his life, appearing on her friend Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect”? I could picture Ann and Bill in a prizefighting debate while Rollins looked on like an eager puppy begging to jump in, oblivious to the truth, that no matter how hard he worked he’d never have the skills to turn pro). Yet what bothered me most were his smart-ass suggestions to her, that the Bush cheerleader become his “domestic concubine” who would just “shut the fuck up” and worship him. Hot and bothered me most. With every “shut the fuck up” typed by fingers connected to those brawny tattooed arms I imagined dropping further and further to my knees in adoring submission until I would finally take that punk rock cock in my mouth. So in a sense my sexual frustration watching the beefcake Rollins mirrored his own frustration with himself. I would fuck him in a heartbeat, I thought, if he would only just “shut the fuck up.”

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory

Tim Burton perfectly captures and encapsulates in a two-hour film the euphoria I felt at ten, riding Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World. The attraction is long gone now, just like my childhood, replaced with bigger and bolder amusements to please the modern-day Mike Teevee and Veruca Salt. In fact technology aside, spiritually at least, "Charlie and The Chocolate Factory" was shot some time between the seventies and eighties as if the director himself had been locked away from innovation like his protagonist. (Johnny Depp takes his Willy Wonka role as seriously as he had Hunter S. Thompson, painting a portrait of a disturbed and emotionally-arrested man living without human contact for decades.) From the It’s A Small World rip-off greeting the factory’s guests, to Mike Teevee’s transformation at the hands of a "2001: A Space Odyssey" homage, to the Oompa Loompas masquerading in a Van Halen video, to Violet and her mother’s terry cloth sweatsuits, to Danny Elfman’s return to his roots with an Oingo Boingo inspired score – audience members of Tim Burton’s age are taken on a Space Mountain ride through our collective kid-to-teen years when cheesy artifice was part of the appeal, not something to be digitally enhanced. This movie is a love letter to those adults who can still recall sitting in front of our television sets, awaiting the launch of MTV like the first rocket to the moon, the last pre-technology generation to exist without the Internet. We are all Tim Burton/ Willy Wonka, watching our fragile childhoods reduced to melted plastic like the faux Small World, holding onto our live squirrels – while trying to embrace the possibility of digitized Oompa Loompas.

The Great Pretender

I’m embarrassed to admit that the first Holocaust film to deeply affect me was “Schindler’s List” – yet I take comfort in the fact that I’m certainly not alone. As a twenty-three-year old Jew when Spielberg’s epic was released, I was moved to tears by its profundity. Or so I thought. It took Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist”, released nearly a decade later, to make me realize I’d merely been manipulated by a beautifully executed, perfectly crafted con job.

Leaving the theater after seeing Polanski’s masterpiece, I was overcome with anger at my earlier naivete. But why? I’d had no regrets being taken in by “E.T.”. Perhaps because Spielberg had presented “E.T.” as pure fiction whereas “Schindler’s List” had been based on actual events. I’d been a willing accomplice watching the little alien phone home, secure in the knowledge I was bawling my eyes out at a wonderfully moving fantasy, not over a so-called “truth.” Coming to terms with the fact that “Schindler’s List” was just as much a Hollywood confection, a smoke and mirrors act, as “E.T.” was a bitter pill to swallow.

Not that I’m angry with Spielberg for having tricked me. After all, Steven Spielberg is the great pretender, a pop artist along the lines of Andy Warhol, able to feed the masses and maybe sprinkle in some bites of history here and there. I forget this sometimes. It was only after indulging in a Roman Polanski, six-course meal that I realized how empty “Schindler’s List” really is.

“The Pianist” is moderated like the main character’s beloved concertos. Unlike “Schindler’s List” which plays in a one-note grandiose, Polanski’s film begins with much activity, the hustle and bustle of barely pre-war Warsaw then gradually narrows its focus, becoming sparser as lives are destroyed and buildings burned until only death and destruction surround the lone Szpilman. It’s as if instead of going “over” “Schindler’s List” Polanski decided to go “under.” In contrast to the requisite mass hysteria and mayhem of a Spielberg epic, “The Pianist” is basically a quiet film full of gorgeously shot, haunting images of the ruins of a once cosmopolitan city. Polanski knows the horror inherent in silence, something Spielberg could never begin to comprehend.

As other critics have already pointed out, perhaps the greatest difference between the two pictures lies in the notion of heroes. Spielberg, true to form, chooses the real-life hero Oskar Schindler as the basis of his story, whereas Polanski completely eschews nobility and courage, following the tale of an every-man who survived only by great luck. Not only is “Schindler’s List” shot in black-and-white, it’s told in black-and-white, with good Jews and bad Nazis, the modern day version of a John Ford western. Polanski’s film is much more nuanced with nasty Jews and a heart-of-gold Nazi – a realistic picture of (ghetto) life.

The Holocaust is great material for a thriller and Polanski, a master at suspense, knows this. It’s not surprising he turned down “Schindler’s List” when Spielberg first offered it to him. The showmanship and predictably of a mainstream Hollywood drama cannot possibly shine light on any deeper truths. Spielberg took the easy way out, choosing to shoot scenes that afford an emotional guarantee – close ups of children shaking in fear, a little girl gleefully shouting “Goodbye, Jews!” and pandemonium erupting when the Jews are finally sent like cattle to their death cars. “The Pianist” takes the opposite tactic. The film’s overall feel is one of confused calmness – which makes much more sense since the Warsaw Jews really weren’t sure exactly what was happening! Hysteria and fear are nearly nonexistent in “The Pianist”. Disbelief is the main emotion. This is where Hitchcock’s theory of suspense fits in perfectly. Place that bomb under the table and let it tick away while two people converse unaware beside it. Polanski’s film is more powerful for letting us, the audience, do the “shaking in fear.” We know the horror of the Holocaust and are forced to watch in helpless frustration because the characters on the screen cannot see the bomb before their eyes.

As noted, another obvious difference between the two movies is Spielberg’s use of black-and-white cinematography versus Polanski’s choice of color – notable because shooting black-and-white dates a film, places it historically in a bygone era, while color brings a story to the here and now. I think Polanski’s choice was a crucial one – and correct for reliving the Holocaust on the screen. In black-and-white Spielberg’s film allows us, the audience, to keep a safe distance from the atrocity – it happened “then” – whereas Polanski’s film forces us to face the fact that something so awful as genocide continues up to this very day. The use of color familiarizes, reminds us that “it can’t happen here” doesn’t exist. (In light of the events of September 11th, Polanski’s choice was a timely one as well.)

While “Schindler’s List” favors risk-free shots of lots of cute kids in hiding, “The Pianist” is bold enough to show the seamier side of ghetto life, where an old woman can be robbed of her only meal by an equally elderly man. When her pot of stew falls to the street in the struggle, and the old man begins to lap it up like a dog while the woman beats him in despair, what’s missing in “Schindler’s List” becomes crystal clear. Spielberg, king of Hollywood, never shies away from superficial violence, but he’s afraid to go as deep as Polanski does, all the way down to the rock bottom where humiliation lies. Polanski knows that humiliation is far more painful to watch than violence, more powerfully subversive. It is more disturbing to witness the Nazis in “The Pianist” forcing Jews to dance in the street like puppets than to watch the SS of “Schindler’s List” gunning down extras.

In fact, Spielberg’s violence feels almost falsely gratuitous, his killing done in black-and-white and always from a cozy, long or medium shot distance. Polanski, in contrast, is forever in the audience’s face with his close-ups of murder in color. There’s a pureness, an emotional honesty, to “The Pianist” that is missing in “Schindler’s List”. Spielberg’s film is filled with inorganic scenes – of random violence, of people hiding, Jews running naked in circles for “health exams,” children being loaded onto cars, their mothers chasing madly after them. All these scenes are mere distractions from the tale of Oskar Schindler, increasing the film’s running time without furthering the hero’s story. The images feel forced, as if Spielberg only included them because this is what one shows in a Holocaust movie. Polanski, on the other hand, refuses to give in to such expectations. “The Pianist” never strays from Szpilman’s point of view, only showing the degradation and violence as it relates to the protagonist. In this way Polanski is able to personalize his film. No longer is it “Oh, how sad for the Jews!” but “Oh, how sad for Szpilman!” – thus we as the audience are prevented from taking refuge in the abstract.

While Spielberg allows his characters to question what is happening to them Polanski hasn’t the patience for such philosophizing. As a Holocaust survivor himself he knows that when one is faced with unimaginable horror “why” is useless. You accept and concentrate on survival. This isn’t to say that “The Pianist” is all doom and gloom. Whereas Spielberg’s movie relies for its lighthearted moments on such cute set-ups as a blustery Schindler refusing to save a young woman’s parents then turning around and doing it anyway, a blustery Schindler saving a one-armed man and a blustery Schindler saving a boy, Polanski, true-to-form, is more practical. When Szpilman, wearing a coat given to him by a kind-hearted SS officer, is mistaken for a Nazi and shot at by liberating forces he pleads that he is Polish. “Why are you wearing that coat?” a soldier wonders. “I am cold,” is his no-nonsense reply.

“The Pianist” is shot like a documentary disguised as fiction, with the truth of the Holocaust experience wrapped inside the fantasy of a suspense thriller. “Schindler’s List” is its opposite – a fiction masquerading as documentary with its inclusion of footage that serves no other purpose than that of a history lesson. (The final scene of the real Schindler workers at the hero’s grave simply reinforces this false notion of “documentary.”) Pure Hollywood puffery like the scene in which female laborers are sent to what they think are their deaths only to be showered in water instead of gas, exemplifies the fantasy inside the “truth.” As the women’s cries reach a fevered pitch Spielberg cuts to a close-up of a lone silent worker too terrified to scream. Not only is it interesting to note how little screaming occurs in “The Pianist”, Polanski also offers his own brilliant counterpoint to Spielberg’s scene. When a lone woman can’t stop her hysterics Szpilman’s sister matter-of-factly states that she is “getting on my nerves.” (I couldn’t help but wonder if Polanski thought the same about Spielberg’s Schindler with his cheesy “I could have done more” breakdown at the end of the epic.)

Which brings me to my final point. In “The Pianist”, this lack of screaming and hysteria we’ve come to associate with traumatic situations is twofold. Firstly, in a realistic sense, “losing it” would have most assuredly resulted in a quick death. (In the rare instances Polanski does show mayhem it is in the presence of the less-threatening Jewish police, never the Nazis.) In one of the most dramatic scenes of “The Pianist”, an old man is tossed off a balcony, wheelchair and all, by the Nazis as his family looks on in absolute silence. When Szpilman’s mother (not a member of the poor guy’s family!), who is watching from a window across the street breaks the stillness with her terrified cry, she is immediately quieted by her family – much like Polanski mutes his own film, letting the audience scream inside for his characters. By doing so he forces us to face the deeper degradation that occurs when people are not even allowed to react to the horror around them in a human way.

In “Schindler’s List” a man is spared because of the Nazi Goeth’s inadequacy. The SS officer can’t get any of his guns to work and the scene turns into a comic, almost slapstick moment of pure Hollywood illusion. In “The Pianist” a man is spared when a Nazi stops to reload – until his mere second of hope is dashed with one raw, brutal bullet to the skull. Steven Spielberg the dreamer desperately wants to rewrite history. Roman Polanski the realist knows it’s more important to just aim and shoot.