Friday, June 27, 2008

The Brave One: Trumbo

“Trumbo,” Peter Askin’s poignant, mind-stirring documentary about the defiantly prolific screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted during the McCarthy era, based on a play written by his son Christopher (from letters Trumbo wrote during that tumultuous period) is essential viewing for all film critics—any professional writer really—recently affected by the economic recession. To call Trumbo tenacious, awe-inspiring, a courageous hero doesn’t do the man justice. How many writers working today would accept poverty and prison, shame and exile to stand by their convictions—and do it for ten long years? How many writers in 2008 would have prefaced that with nearly another decade stoically working as a night bread wrapper for an L.A. bakery while studying at USC, repossessing motorcycles, reviewing films for a trade magazine—and churning out six novels and eighty-eight short stories (all of which would be rejected for publication)? To all those laid off writers I say, if you can’t write without a paycheck being involved then you’ve no business considering yourself in the same profession as Mr. Trumbo (thus you probably didn’t deserve that paycheck in the first place. Ah, isn’t karma sweet?

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

(And for an equally enlightening take on the other side, read - "Trumbo” talking head - Victor Navasky’s Naming Names. It never hurts to be reminded that guys like Kazan and Budd Schulberg had enormous, personal artistic axes to grind with the Communist Party and its leaders in Hollywood.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2008: Letter to Anna

In “Letter to Anna,” Swiss director Eric Bergkraut juxtaposes interviews he shot with the crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya—before her still unsolved murder in the lobby of her apartment building on Vladimir Putin’s 54th birthday in October 2006—with interviews with family and colleagues to create a personal video diary of a woman fueled by an obsession with justice, more a tribute than a “letter” or film. Though dry and straightforward, even clunky in spots (especially when narrated in the English language version by Susan Sarandon, standing in for the filmmakers), the doc is a low-key, respectful summation of a life that resembled a tabloid-ready espionage thriller.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Top Hot Pride Pics

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Lauren Wissot recommends five films for celebrating Stonewall in sexual style.

Top Hot Pride Pics

Are you a supporter of gay marriage?
“I know nothing about it. I don’t follow that.”
Why doesn’t it interest you?
“The same reason heterosexual marriage doesn’t seem to interest me.”

–From “Questions for Gore Vidal” in “The New York Times Magazine,” 6/15/08.

Amen, sister. One of the perks of being queer is that you’re not expected to engage in unnatural acts like high school proms and monogamy. So in honor of the hedonistic right to our own guilt-free, queer Mardi Gras, here are some subversive suggestions that will get you in the mood and take you back to that more innocent, less commercial “Over The Rainbow” time.

For vintage gay porn nothing beats George Butler’s “Pumping Iron” (1977) – and not just because the governor of California unapologetically indulges in a big fat phallic joint straight to the camera. Ostensibly a smackdown between pre-Governator Schwarzenegger and pre-Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno, captured in a pre-reality show documentary about the pro-bodybuilding path to Mr. Olympia (with a less compelling side storyline involving amateurs like white hat Mike Katz and bad dude Ken Waller on the road to Mr. Universe), the rivalry suffers at the huge mitts of Arnie who’s just too damn good-naturedly charismatic to play Butler’s baddie. (Nice guy The Rock, a more versatile actor than The Gov, was way more convincing playing the sexy sadist in the ring during his WWF days.) No matter. For muscle pigs “Pumping Iron” is a must – the ultimate in bulging gluttony. Like massively inflated tits, these juiced up bods are so disgusting as to be perversely erotic. (Note to The Gov: whenever you tire of that little plaything Maria I’m here for the rubdown.)

Boys, boys, boys – name your western. “The Wild Bunch,” “Red River”…as many critics of the hype surrounding “Brokeback Mountain” rightly pointed out, that film was merely stating the obvious. I’m going to go with Howard Hawks’ “Red River” (1948) just because Monty Clift is hotter than Ernest Borgnine (okay, so William Holden is in Peckinpah’s outlaw-bonding flick, too, but still, who wants to jack off to Bill Holden with Ernest Borgnine in the room?) That Clift was gay in real life is almost beside the point. He’s a fantastically feral embodiment of longing, of unquenched desire so palpable as to transcend the screen, his inevitable showdown with The Duke – who put the “man” in Marlboro Man – a substitute for orgasmic release.

For all my dyke sisters, genderqueer and bi in-betweeners there’s delicious dish “Myra Breckinridge” (1970). Raquel Welch’s ambitious Miss Myra is the precursor to Tim Curry’s Frankenfurter, with both actors playing gender and sexuality ambiguous characters seducing naïve young lovers with equal panache. Pin-up queen Welch, who would be sexy slinking around in a brown paper bag, especially sizzles in that notorious, star-spangled superhero costume, strapping on a dildo to go at dumb stud Rusty (a tasty Roger Herron). Plus she gets to seduce ingénue Farrah Fawcett’s Mary Ann while (my personal transgender heroine!) Mae West – who can make an audience blush just with her swagger – playing the predatory talent agent Leticia Van Allen, trains her lusty eye on a chorus line of beefcake, including a young Tom Selleck. How much more sex appeal can one movie pack? No rainbow butt plug required.

William Friedkin’s “Cruising” (1980). You really thought spotlight addict Pacino would pass up the chance to shake his ass in tight leather pants? Post-“Serpico” Pacino plays undercover cop Steve Burns pursuing a serial killer stalking players in NYC’s gay S&M scene (where, of course, officers with handcuffs are hot!) Who needs great art when you’ve got a camp fest like this?

But if you are craving great art after a long, hot sweaty parade there’s always John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” (1969). Sultry all-American boy Jon Voight plays the original gay-for-pay hustler back when Times Square trannies weren’t confined to the musical version of “Hairspray.” Dustin Hoffman’s viciously needy Ratso Rizzo is now cinematic legend, plus the film was released the same year as the Stonewall Riots. We’re here! We’re queer! We’re walking here!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2008: USA vs. Al-Arian

Sami Al-Arian, the subject of Line Halvorsen’s real-life, Kafkaesque nightmare doc “USA vs. Al-Arian,” is a highly regarded professor with a loving wife named Nahla, three daughters, and two sons, who happens to be an outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights (unsurprisingly since he and Nahla were raised refugees, displaced when Israel came into being). He’s also one of the many residents of the United States who found himself on the wrong side of the Patriot Act after 9/11, held for two and half years in maximum security, awaiting trial on flimsy, terrorism related charges.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2008: Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North

Beginning with home movie footage of an Independence Day parade in Bristol, Rhode Island—the longest running in the U.S., so director Katrina Browne explains in voiceover—“Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” explores, through a very personal lens, the sordid tale of the slave trade in the pious American north. In addition to being a first-time filmmaker, Browne is also a descendant of the prominent, revered DeWolf clan: New England royalty who amassed a fortune through the blood, sweat and tears of the estimated 10,000 Africans they tore from their homeland, the biggest traders in American history. After sending letters to 200 relatives with an invitation to join her on her quest to retrace the steps of the “triangle trade” from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba, Browne and nine of her kin (including active church members and an Episcopal priest) set off on their own truth and reconciliation journey.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2008: Juizo (Behave)

Wiseman-like in its patient stillness and no frills style, lacking in overbearing soundtrack or any other potentially distracting enhancements, Maria Ramos’ “Juizo (Behave)” is a study of the Brazilian juvenile judicial system illuminated through both “fact” (all the adults, from judges to lawyers to prison guards to parents, are the real thing, filmed during court hearings and on visits to the correctional facility in Rio de Janeiro) and “fiction” (the accused involved in the cases are minors and cannot be filmed, thus Ramos ingeniously substitutes other children from the favelas to play their roles).

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Five Unsexiest Movies About Sex: The Breillat Awards

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

I can think of no better poster child for celibacy than Parisian “provocateur” Catherine Breillat, the director of such erotic misfires as "Fat Girl," "Romance," and more recently, "The Last Mistress," which stars another over-hyped “hottie” Asia Argento. Exiting the theater after a Breillat flick, I never want to have sex again. Ostensibly concerned with digging deep into the beating heart of female sexuality, Breillat creates characters that are writhing bundles of drama and pain, anger and confusion. There is no laughter, never any levity nor celebrations of desire at all – just academic intellectualization in lieu of visceral heat, cardboard cutout chemistry between actors, dire emotional consequences hidden in every fuck. The Breillat canon would make for a wonderful addition to those abstinence-only programs George W. loves so much.

Take for example this Breillat quote from the press notes for "The Last Mistress" (which the director adapted from the Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly19th-century novel): “But romance is dark, which was another reason for wanting to make this film; for the romanticism, the burning passion, the terrible suffering, but without perverting the sentiments. The heart of the story portrays an ideal that topples into disaster as soon as it is reached.” Sexy, huh?

It’s in this inevitable disaster that Asia Argento, chewing up scenery like the ice cream cone she furiously devours from her horse-drawn carriage, plays Vellini, a costumed Moorish version of the Ally Sheedy character in "The Breakfast Club." Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find needy, mentally deranged people the least bit sexy. I can say with utmost certainty that if I was shot in a duel like Vellini’s lover Ryno was, and my lover thrust the surgeon out of the way in order to drink the blood from my wound, it would not turn me on in the least. (But then I also don’t find pout-lipped, A&F model types like lead actor Fu-ad Aît Aattou sexy either – so maybe it is just me.)

For even in the most candied costume dramas there has to be some emotional truth. It’s not that I can’t relate to the trials and tribulations of love. Like Vellini I’ve been a long-term mistress, romantically involved to the point of “terrible suffering,” experienced that unbearable pain that Anais Nin likens to walking over hot coals; she wondered if this were possible without getting burned. I also know that we’re all hedonists at heart – not unrepentant masochists like Breillat’s characters would have us believe – wouldn’t go through the torture, the living hell of love, if it weren’t for the overwhelming growth, the endorphin high of desire. The worst times with someone you deeply love are better than the best times with someone you are merely fond of.

But you wouldn’t know this from any Breillat film. Which is why I’m using "The Last Mistress" to inaugurate my own Breillat Awards – given to the top five un-sexy, sexy indie flicks. Consider "The Last Mistress" the grand prize winner; here are four runners-up, in no particular order:

"Romance": In celebration of celibacy – and probably the only filmmaker on the planet who can literally philosophize the fuck out of an internationally famous porn star – Breillat gets two films honored! Sex reduced to a cerebral exercise even Viagra couldn’t cure.

"Lust, Caution": Ang Lee attempts to neuter smoldering Tony Leung in the same way Breillat tries to cinematically castrate the great Rocco Siffredi in "Romance." The highly stylized, coldly choreographed, S&M sex scenes between Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) and Tony Leung’s Mr. Yee are clean and precise rather than primal, sweat-soaked. Sex between the covers of "Vogue."

"Shortbus": In all fairness to John Cameron Mitchell, his intention was to make a sex film that wouldn’t make you come. And he succeeded in spades! Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I could ever be bored watching a man-on-man three-way. (Where’s transgender bombshell Hedwig when you need her?)

"The Notorious Bettie Page": The director Mary Harron has a terrific knack for choosing the most interesting, sexy subjects and just draining the life out of them. Watching both "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "The Notorious Bettie Page," I found myself thinking “the book would have been better” – except there’s never any book. Having brainy, intellectually astute women like Breillat and Harron at a flick’s helm is a grand idea in theory, but all this thinking cock-blocks the libido. (“If we cut out all sex scenes we can make Bettie the ultimate virgin/whore!”) Note: someone needs to cast porn star/frequent Breillat accomplice Rocco Siffredi and "Bettie Page's" Gretchen Mol together in a romantic comedy as compensation for all their fruitless effort.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2008: The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)

“I run between what I remember and what I’ve forgotten,” Thavisouk Phrasavath says in his and acclaimed cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ co-directed debut feature “The Betrayal (Nerakhoon),” which follows Thavisouk (Thavi for short) and his family’s series of betrayals, first at the hands of the U.S. government in Laos and then from within the family itself once he, his mother, and siblings reach American shores. A labor of love over twenty years in the making, the doc combines rich, elegiac images of the Laotians and their land, meditative music, prophetic folk wisdom told in voiceover, footage from the Vietnam era (from utter devastation to empty presidential speeches), Thavi as a teenage long-hair in Brooklyn, wayward youth framed metaphorically against a backdrop of moving trains—all stitched together like a patchwork quilt, like shards of a dream.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2008: To See If I’m Smiling

“To See If I’m Smiling,” Tamar Yarom’s heartbreaking doc about women soldiers in the Occupied Territories, gets its title courtesy the medic who looks nauseous as she admits that she’d like to find the photo taken of her and a dead body with an erection “to see if I’m smiling.” Interspersed with cathartic talking head interviews (with six women reminiscing about their mandatory two-year military service—Israel is the only country in the world that demands this of its eighteen-year-old female citizens) are gritty shots of the dusty downtrodden Territories, which have become a virtual war zone in recent years. The faces of these emotionally scarred former soldiers, the memories still very much alive in their eyes, speak louder than any of their disturbing, horrific words.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival 2008: A Promise to the Dead: The Journey of Ariel Dorfman

Peter Raymont’s documentary “A Promise to the Dead: The Journey of Ariel Dorfman,” while not my top pick at the Human Rights Watch festival for mesmerizing subject matter (that would be Katrina Browne’s “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North”), nor for formal artistry (see Maria Ramos’ “Juizo (Behave)”), does have something these other films lack—a famous North/South American, writer/exile (the film is partially based on Dorfman’s best-selling memoir “Heading South, Looking North”) whose “Death and the Maiden” catapulted him to fame. Think Salman Rushdie with a picture deal instead of a fatwa.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Better Than Sex: David Lynch's Wild at Heart

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Lauren Wissot recalls "the only time I can remember actually feeling embarrassed at the movies."

Better Than Sex: David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”

“No tongue – my lipstick,” Diane Ladd’s conniving Marietta Fortune admonishes at the beginning of “Wild at Heart,” flirting with Harry Dean Stanton’s Johnnie Farragut, while perfectly setting the tone for the tantalizing sexual games to follow. Lynch’s typically bizarre noir contains one of the steamiest foreplay scenes ever to grace the indie screen. Strangely, this kinky non-sex scene involves not Laura Dern’s Lula and Nicolas Cage’s Sailor Ripley (whose love scenes are saturated with such hyper-real color and artistic angles as to overshadow the screwing), but the childlike Lula and Willem Dafoe’s greasy, so-creepy-he’s-charismatic Bobby Peru (”Just like the country,” he drawls, introducing himself to Lula and Sailor outside the hotel they’re all staying at, sliding snakelike into “Wild at Heart” nearly an hour and twenty minutes fashionably late). Dressed in black, sporting a Clark Gable moustache, Bobby’s the ultimate contrast to Dern’s big blonde hairdo, red lipstick painted, 20-year-old piece of mentally damaged white trash. That the episode doesn’t culminate in predictable fornication only proves that the iconoclastic director truly understands how to harness the power of the erotic chase––that is, that it’s hotter than the catch.

I first saw “Wild at Heart” on the big screen at a more innocent time in my life, when S&M conjured up only images of women wearing corsets and stilettos, bearing whips and canes. But seeing the above scene between Bobby and Lula hit a nerve in me, in fact several. It was the only time I can remember actually feeling embarrassed at the movies, voyeuristically observing this charged encounter onscreen. The characters were both fully dressed, no fucking was taking place – so why did I feel like I was witnessing the dirtiest hardcore porn?

Probably because I was. Bobby and Lula engage in a power play game which renders Lula stripped psychologically naked. Instead of tearing off each other’s clothes they’re clawing at each other’s psyches. The sexual act pales in comparison.

Cage’s Sailor is an Elvis wannabe (that the actor would later marry Lisa Marie Presley shows that sometimes truth is as strange as David Lynch’s fiction) and con on the run from the assorted hit men hired by femme fatale Marietta, Lula’s mama. He’s conveniently out changing the oil in the car when Bobby knocks on the door to the lovebirds’ hotel room, which is answered by Lula in black lingerie and red heels. Bobby explains he has to take a piss. When Lula orders him to leave he takes this as an invitation to toy with her.

Bobby can spot Lula’s kind a mile away – the type that employs her sexuality as both weapon and shield, learned far too young how to wield it in a jujitsu move, to gain power over the men who use her for it. Since Sailor truly loves Lula he doesn’t know how to play the game, whereas Bobby is a pro just like she. Crude and obnoxious, Bobby is also as hyperaware as an animal, always on the alert for ways to get inside his opponents’ heads. (He figures out Lula’s pregnant by the smell of puke in the room – then uses that information to convince Sailor to come along on a robbery so he’ll be able to provide for his new family.) Like every sadist Bobby takes delight in his ability to control, hold power, over others. He knows that power is sexy, and he uses his own sexuality to control situations as much as Lula does. They are two sides of the same coin, both fighting to stay on top, the heat lying in the friction this creates.

Bobby responds that he likes a woman with nice tits who talks tough “and looks like she can fuck like a bunny. Do you fuck like that, huh?” he whispers from the doorway all the way on the other side of the room. Of course, the question is rhetorical. He knows as well as we do that Lula is the one forever initiating sex with Sailor, her body draped languidly around him when Bobby first saw her. He glides in closer, bragging he can fuck like a jackrabbit, backing her ever nearer to the wall. “Am I scaring you?” Bobby inquires with a smile, looking downwards. “Is it wet?”

Lynch’s camera cuts to a medium shot so we see Bobby’s hand reach for Lula’s crotch as he reprimands her for leaping back so slow. “I thought you was a bunny – bunny jump fast!” he taunts as Lula, arms crossed in protection, backs over to the sunlit window. She’s not as mentally nimble as Bobby, still trying to assess the situation to figure out her best move. Bobby is getting too close for comfort – psychologically and physically. In the sparsely furnished room with industrial carpeting, a drab bed and a small mirror over a chest of cheap drawers, Bobby offers that her pacing “means something,” that she wants him to fuck her hard. “Open you up like a Christmas present,” he laughs. Is that right? All he needs is a simple yes or no answer.

When the petrified Lula finally recovers her voice and shoves Bobby away, he grabs her tightly by the head. “Say fuck me and I’ll leave,” he orders softly. She refuses so he screams, “I’ll tear your hair out, girl!” The over-the-top outburst seems less loss of control on Bobby’s part than it does effort to jumpstart Lula’s brain, to keep her both in the game and off balance so he can stay on top, for he promptly resumes the whispers, one hand still gripped in her blond curls. “Say it, say fuck me,” he purrs like a lover, Lynch’s camera in close-up to their lips, to Bobby’s USMC tattooed hand running leisurely down Lula’s revealing lace bra. He’s starting to break Lula down, like turning her own knife against her, force her to beg the way she’s made so many men into dogs. “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me,” Bobby repeats like a mantra, each command eliciting heavy sighs from Lula that morph into the sounds of an oncoming orgasm.

When Bobby’s fingers finally arrive between Lula’s thighs Lynch cuts to a close up of their faces in profile, agony turning to ecstasy and back again. Lula’s red-painted nails spread to grope the air behind her like a wrestling tap-out, an “I give.” Bobby knows he’s won, sends her flying backwards with one push. She wasn’t a formidable adversary after all. “Someday, honey, I will, but I gotta get going!” he announces gleefully. The game is officially over. Warning her not to cry (i.e., don’t be a bad loser) he simply turns and walks out the door to the light strumming of an acoustic guitar, leaving Lula to click her red heels three times before breaking into a fit of bewildered tears, a different sort of “release” but one nonetheless. While leaving us still bound up in our unquenched desire, or as Lula would say, as hot and bothered as “Georgia asphalt.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Portrait of A Serial Killer: Monsieur Verdoux

Sixty-one years after it was wrongly panned and banned (in Tennessee with a “we don’t have to give our reasons” excuse), Charles Chaplin’s exquisite “Monsieur Verdoux,” in which the former Tramp trades in his shabby overcoat to embody the nattily-attired, thieving, serial killer of rich widows Henri Verdoux, still has the power to deliver a punch to the gut and leave you doubled over in screaming laughter.

With “knockdown, drag out performances” by Martha Raye (literally in her case) and Marilyn Nash – both of whose voices were made for talkies – surrounded by a stellar ensemble cast with clockwork timing, written/produced/directed/scored by and starring Chaplin from an idea suggested to him by Orson Welles (who received credit, though not for the screenplay which he’d been making noise about having penned, and which Chaplin steadfastly denied), with lush B&W cinematography and impeccable editing that moves with the speed of Verdoux’s own female juggling, the pace of the repeating image of fast-turning wheels on a train, it’s a wonder “Monsieur Verdoux” wasn’t at the center of an Academy Award campaign rather than a boycott. (Only the always-eloquent James Agee – who would have made a phenomenal blogger – counterattacked his disapproving colleagues in a thoughtful, three-part rebuttal in “The Nation.”)

For “Monsieur Verdoux” represented one of the rare times in Chaplin’s career when his timing was way, way off. To play a sympathetic serial killer in a “Comedy of Murders” (its original title) in the wake of WWII when the Red Scare was well underway (“Monsieur Verdoux” being released the very same year congressional hearings into Hollywood began!) was courting not just controversy, but real danger. Indeed, the press conference for the film’s NYC premiere devolved into an interrogation that would have made McCarthy proud, with accusations of communism, questioning of patriotism flung at Chaplin, nary a comment about the merits of the film. That Chaplin responded with grace, intelligence and dignity only proves that the artist knew what he was in for – and that he was willing to withstand personal attacks to get his message across.

And what was that message? Filtered through the hilarity, the outrageous slapstick scenes of pure comic genius (like my favorite at a wedding in which Chaplin’s Verdoux is trying to dodge Raye’s blowsy buffoon – Pigeon!” she calls him), is a moral theme as universal and timeless as the character of Verdoux is ambiguous. For the serial killer Chaplin plays is no evil psychopath, but a man desperate to support a wheelchair bound wife and young son. Kind both to caterpillars and cats, a vegetarian to boot, Verdoux has resorted to wooing, robbing and murdering for the love of family as a result of being laid off after three decades of hard work at a bank. In other words he’s a good Everyman forced into soul-deadening ruthlessness at the hands of a dog eat dog world. His Blue-bearding is a business like any other, a metaphor for both the “morality” of war and necessity of corporate tyranny. (Which proved too much for most fans of the Tramp.)

Especially when they’re being reminded constantly of Chaplin’s previous incarnation through his eyebrow raising antics, ruffling through pilfered bills like shuffling cards, attacking the piano like his pants are on fire. (It’s surprising that Steve Martin – another comic to always downplay his WASP-y good looks – never remade this film.) Chaplin is as expressive as if the talkies had never been invented, does with his face and body what the great silent directors did with a camera. Dialogue is merely icing on the cake when Chaplin’s faux love struck Verdoux is chasing a freaked out widow around a room. Both the women’s doubting and Chaplin’s patient, passive wooing, thoroughly believable, make for heartfelt, three-dimensional characters (the widow Lydia trusts Verdoux when he implores her to get her savings out of the bank before it collapses – a notion not too farfetched during the Depression – then later claims she should have her head examined for listening to such craziness). Like Hitchcock, the director Chaplin uses music to signify murder, knows the anticipation is far worse than watching the actual act (the camera stays on a long shot of the narrow hallway leading to a window as Lydia is dispatched with in the bedroom).

And Verdoux does not fit the psychological profile of a lonely, isolated serial killer by any stretch of the imagination. “Business is business, my dear,” Verdoux says to his in-the-dark wife before she reads him the latest newspaper account about the Depression. (He tells her to stop, “too depressing.”) He admonishes his son for his cruel streak when he plays too rough with the cat. He guilt trips Martha Raye’s eccentric lottery winner (in overwhelming hat and feathered cape) – “You trust everyone but me!” – into letting him help her with her financial dealings, soon bonds with a Belgian, just-out-of-the-jailhouse girl (Marilyn Nash) he picked up to use as a guinea pig for poison. When Verdoux learns she’s a widow whose husband was an invalid (like his wife) he has a change of heart, emphasized with a soaring score. “Penny for your thoughts,” she says as he chuckles. “Oh, no,” he answers, thinking of the lethal wine he dispensed with in the knick of time. “This is a ruthless world and one has to be ruthless to survive in it,” he laments. “No, it’s not, it’s a blundering world,” she replies. He generously offers her money, sends her on her way.

But after poisoning a police captain who arrested him, Verdoux bumps into the girl once again on the street, reacts coldly, for she reminds him of his buried humanity. Of course before things get too serious Chaplin displays his virtuosity by seamlessly segueing to an episode of pure slapstick in which Verdoux mistakenly believes he’s drank poison while a maid uses the real poison to peroxide her hair. (A highly physical scene on a rowboat with Raye, her death prevented Monty Python-like by a strange song, follows. “What’s that?” she wonders. “A yodeler,” answers Verdoux, listening intently, “Now there’s a handful of them.”) When Verdoux gets wiped out in the stock market crash – all those lives lost for nought! – Chaplin cuts to footage of Hitler, headlines proclaiming “Crisis in Europe.” Only when Verdoux a third time runs into the girl he saved – now wealthy with the riches of a munitions manufacturer (“It’ll be paying big dividends soon,” she advises) – does the merry-go-round of good and evil begin to slow down. Her husband is kind and generous – but ruthless in business, she discloses on their way to a chichi restaurant where she’ll pick up the tab.

Once there, Verdoux admits that he lost his wife and child soon after the crash. “Despair is a narcotic. It lulls the mind into indifference,” he states. To which she counters, “Life is beyond reason. It’s why you must go on – if only to fulfill your destiny.” And voila! Recognized by the family of the first widow he swindled Verdoux is thrust into a brilliant mixture of lowbrow physical comedy (in the escape attempt) and high-minded morality (in the sharp confession), culminating in a walk to his imminent death by guillotine. “Wars, conflict, it’s all business,” explains a weary Verdoux. And in the end isn’t this really the same tactic that Chaplin employed in “The Great Dictator,” using comedy to enlighten, to spotlight huge humanistic themes? What grander idea than the convergence of big business, the military industrial complex, and common man – an amalgam of serial killers? Except that “The Great Dictator” lampooned the “other” – the obvious bad guys. “Monsieur Verdoux,” on the other hand, brutally indicts us all.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Crazy Love

One of my closest friends has an older sister who’s been a drug and alcohol abuser for most of her life. Every time she falls off the wagon, her parents pick her up—so she doesn’t have to pick herself up. They can’t make too many demands on her, they reason. She’s weak after all! They’re afraid not to supply her with money, food, and shelter. They fear the guilt that would consume their lives if she died as a result of their kicking her out on the street. The irony, of course, is that their enabling is, in all likelihood, slowly killing her. Guilt is a narcissistic, dangerous thing.

I thought of my friend’s situation as I watched Nina Davenport's documentary “Operation Filmmaker,” which parallels the myopic, gung-ho strategy of “conservative” hawks (that led to the invasion of Iraq) with the myopic, liberal, do-gooder ethos (that led to Liev Schreiber plucking Iraqi film student Muthana Mohmed from Baghdad and dropping him onto the Prague-based film set of his directorial debut Everything Is Illuminated). After seeing Muthana briefly profiled in a segment on MTV, Schreiber immediately offered to hire him as an intern and thought a documentary on the young filmmaker’s experience would prove interesting as well. Hence Davenport and her co-director Kouross Esmaeli (who shot Muthana for MTV, and also got Davenport the gig) are welcomed aboard a soon to be sinking ship.

To read the rest of my dubious review visit The House Next Door.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Dial S&M For Marnie

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

“Later today, we’ll be debuting a new column from Lauren Wissot, whose work you might have also read at The House Next Door and/or The Reeler. Lauren, who will be tackling (no pun intended) sexual themes in indie and classic cinema every Wednesday, will begin with a revisionist take on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie.” We wanted to call her column “Art Films To Jerk Off To,” but in the end that might be too limiting––after all, who’s to say what qualifies as art?”

Dial S&M For Marnie

Lauren Wissot reclaims the misunderstood Hitchcock film as a rigorous work of erotic art.

“Marnie” is the film in the Hitchcock canon most guaranteed to rankle feminists. Tippi Hedren plays the frigid, thieving titular character whose only hope for salvation is at the hands of strong, virile Mark Rutland, eagerly embodied by Sean Connery, who blackmails her into marrying him – and makes her enjoy his punishment. Most Marnie enthusiasts answer accusations of misogyny by ducking under the director’s craft, as in “Yeah, Connery plays a sadistic hero – but look at the way Hitch frames the back of Hedren’s head!” – as if the plot needs to be apologized for, swept under the rug.

What neither the feminists nor cinephiles seem to appreciate is that Marnie is one of the greatest bondage and discipline (B&D in sadomasochistic parlance) pics of all time. Artfully disguised as a psychosexual thriller, Hitchcock’s classic is actually kin to The Story of O with Hedren’s O-like Marnie at the sole mercy of Sir Connery’s sexy daddy (think Sir Stephen), reduced to being trapped like a wild animal to be broken and trained, owned and cared for, eventually becoming Rutland’s wife/slave. This ain’t misogyny – it’s erotic art!

She was “always pulling her skirt down over her knees as if there were a national treasure,” Marnie’s lecherous employer-turned-victim Mr. Strutt mutters at the beginning of Hitch’s classic, introducing us to Hedren’s character as a trobbing cock-tease – who, of course, needs to be punished like the naughty little girl she really is deep down inside. Enter Connery’s controlling Master Rutland, immaculately dressed in suit and tie (I love a man in a uniform!), a big bad wolf smile on his face as he eavesdrops on Strutt’s report to the police. Is there any doubt that this is the perfect square-jawed, hairy-chest daddy for the B&D job?

Naturally, though, it’s Marnie who subconsciously seeks out her punishment. After a scene in which she tells her horse, “If you want to bite somebody, bite me,” followed by another in which her forever disapproving mother says Marnie’s blonde hair makes her look like she’s “trying to attract a man,” Marnie goes to rich Daddy Rutland’s company for employment, and perhaps a bit more. As an underling conducts the job interview Master Rutland silently watches Marnie’s every move from a corner in the office, his eyes dancing with that familiar, “I wonder what her bare bottom would look like over my knee” gaze.

Once Marnie is hired she enthusiastically agrees to some overtime at Master Rutland’s mansion/castle, where she glimpses a photo of his pet wildcat. “I trained her,” Rutland offers smugly. “What did you train her to do?” Marnie wonders innocently. “To trust me,” he replies. “Is that all?” she asks. “Well, that’s a great deal…” Rutland answers in his best Sir Stephen-to-O mode. Later, after soothing the regressing-to-childhood
Marnie during a lightning storm, the dominant, aggressive, cocky Rutland makes plans to take her to the racetrack. (“Are you fond of horses?” Marnie questions. “No, not at all.”)

Alas, when wayward Marnie inevitably steals from Rutland he confronts her as she’s out riding, ordering her down from the horse. “You’ll walk back to the stable. I’ll ride,” Master Rutland commands, putting her in her proper submissive place. (“I’m fighting a powerful impulse to beat the hell out of you,” he later adds.)

Thus the slave training has begun. It’s all for Marnie’s sake, of course. “You’re such a tempting little thing…Some other sexual blackmailer would have got his hands on you, and the chances of it being someone as permissive as me are pretty remote,” Rutland proclaims, justifying his ownership. And soon it’s off to a splendid honeymoon cruise, a montage of Master training Marnie in the minutiae of society life, the evening ending in a near rape. “But I do very much want to go to bed,” Rutland implores, dueling with his libido. “No!” Marnie shouts and her nightgown drops to the floor. Immediately Master regrets losing control, wraps her in his bathrobe, kisses her tenderly. (Daddy’s sorry.) But Hitchcock ends the scene on a close up of Marnie’s glazed eyes, and a cut to Rutland’s hot and bothered pupils.

And the training continues back at the mansion/castle. “This is the drill, dear. Wife follows husband to front door,” Master explains, cracking the whip now that he’s got Marnie in bondage (confined to the house like in a “correction facility”), subject to his discipline at a moment’s notice. Fortunately pliable Marnie behaves for the most part, doesn’t attempt to escape. Daddy rewards his little girl with her horse. (Much to the chagrin of Diane Baker’s jealous Lil, who naughtily tells Master, “I’m queer for liars,” then later finds his stash of psychiatric porn lying open on a chair, a book titled Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female.)

Though Marnie may be a slave, she’s not stupid. “You’ve got a pathological fix on a woman who’s not only an admitted criminal but who screams if you go near her. So what about your dreams, daddy dear?” she taunts Rutland. “You’re really dying to play doctor, aren’t you?” And play doctor they do, free-associating until Marnie has a nervous breakdown – only to be comforted by Master (who, naturally, triggered that nervous breakdown). After a long downward spiral that leads to the truth of her childhood trauma – mother was the whore! – Marnie is saved through B&D, finally able to love her manly captor who provides shelter and comfort, smoothes those shiny locks of blonde hair. “Mark, I don’t want to go to jail. I’d rather stay with you,” is Marnie’s last line, her only options. She’s finally discovered happiness in slavery, found freedom in chains.