Sunday, 1 August 2021

Land of Fire All Night Long (1981)

 


aka. E nachtlang Füürland

Directors: Clemens Klopfenstein and Remo Legnazzi

Screenplay: Alex Gfeller, Clemens Klopfenstein and Remo Legnazzi

Cast: Max Rüdlinger as Max Gfeller, Christine Lauterburg as Chrige

Ephemeral Waves

Shot and set in Switzerland, Land of Fire All Night Long does touch upon a malaise, shot as we headed into the eighties and what happened to the political radicals after the sixties and seventies in the new era. One such figure is our lead Max Gfeller (Max Rüdlinger), formerly a political radical after the late sixties, explicitly the height of 1968, now having been a news reporter for radio broadcasts for a long time. He is not a good man in many ways, but he is, however, one stuck in a humdrum life and job. Around him is both the world, set in Bern, the "federal city" of Switzerland, of the establishment, where lords and politicians are meeting in a major event, preaching the word of peace and happiness for all, contrasted by our introduction to Max, wandering past a large scale peaceful protest movement. People who know him try to get his attention, suggesting he should report on this on his radio broadcast, or least see the graffiti and protest slogans marked across the city, but he has no interest.

Land of Fire All Night Long is a very obscure film, least in the sense that outside of its homeland of Switzerland, or beyond for those able to see it both at the 1982 and 2020 Locarno International Film Festival, few may know of this. Presented as a slow burn character piece, one night different for Max will force him to question how complacent he has become in a languid, drifting plot across one night in a snow covered Bern from bar to bar, to crowded living environment to even his place of employment. It is a compelling work, especially in mind that Max is not a likable character but a clear one you can still have a form of sympathy with in understanding his scenario. Disconnected from his past, he has drifted into a new place of walking back and forth from his radio station. Most of us are in the same boat, going from our day-to-day jobs, and this becomes pertinent decades later, whether you take on the radical left wing politics of his past or not, with the same sense of disconnecting oneself from taking action many of us may have, in favour of a day-to-day job with your head to the ground.

The irony is not lost as a Swiss film, Switzerland considered an idealised place to outsiders, that even in Bern here you see disconnect from the powerful elite to the ordinary people, that there are those still disenfranchised in this nation as well. Max's journey over one night, in bad times with a former lover he has just left, and meandering through concerts and bars, eventually on an aimless path that will push him along to other voices. One of a woman rightly complaining, though she does not work, of the tedium of housewives' lives, but also another woman who he gains a connection too, someone together they will fall in love with one another and also give him the necessary boot to change himself. He is stiff and hostile at times, especially in a sequence outside a garage in the snowy night, when a third passenger in the car is secretly carrying weed in large masses with him, but she starts to crack open his shell. Not a lot happens in the film in terms of actual plot, as he has an existential crisis, culminating in only one moment of great importance. Convinced by her to write a radio report to break from his current life - of melting icebergs causing police and politicians to flee the country, a fake news piece to fling his middle finger up at the establishment - and whether he will actually say it or not on-air.

Shot around its real locations, this also makes a compelling document of its environment at the era, almost timeless with a down-to-earth atmosphere of cramped apartments and grey, frankly dull radio recording studios. It possesses far more life, paradoxically, than the point of the film of Max's sterile life suggests, but the real concern is that he himself is trapped in his own vanity streaked in real sense of loss, an ego believing he has lost his passion as a defensive shield from participating, but also a sense, nearing middle age, Max still has lost his passion of political revolution for real too. The environments, lived in and vibrant even on the stark cold winter night outside, breathe as we wander them whilst he feels awkward the moment we first met him pass a large protest crowd. Another fascinating touch, the symbols of this film's ode to passion, is the Asphalt Blues Company, a real band effectively playing themselves, as a Swiss blues band whose take on American music is idiosyncratic, even odd at first, but possesses a vibrancy as they flee from the police or complain, in their group lived-in shack, of occupants always drinking all the coffee their members have to buy themselves. As Max wanders smoke filled bars and meets individuals like this, he himself is still disconnected from these people, in his frequent bar hopping, the film contrasting its handheld camerawork with its very naturalistic tone, all with a sense of a world grounded in realism and raw energy that drastically contrasts a protagonist who is incredibly distant from everything and everyone, even the aesthetic of the film around him.

The choice of whether he proves himself, whether to broadcast the fictional radio report or not, does show what kind of film this is, one which succeeds in an honest ending which feels neither contrived nor bleak for the sake of it. [Huge Spoiler Warning]: He does not do the stunt, and loses the one woman who may have been there for him, even put up with his hostile manner when she thought he could have become a hero to her.) It does not feel politically bleak however, merely melancholic, ultimately a man pinned and trapped in his position having a chance one night. The film suggests he could get another chance, and many more, all possibly with the option that he will never make the decision to save himself when he suddenly panics as he does here, or that he could grow. [Spoilers Ends]. It is a film, whatever your response to it is open, even if the only film of this tale ever made, that he will wander bars more and things may be different another day. Befittingly, for an already obscure film, the filmmakers returned for a sequel Land of Fire 2 (1992), whose synopsis involves female protestors at the Parliament building during Switzerland's 700th birthday, Max being brought in on the crossfire for a severer challenge to his lack of political beliefs. Land of Fire All Night Long by itself however works entirely, a fascinating and compelling film, whose languidness to its advantage gives it a mood, an easygoing personality, where the one real stake and plot point, one choice and how that turns out, does have a great impact.

Saturday, 31 July 2021

The Bogus Witch Project (2000)

 


Directors: Victor Kargan ("The Bogus Witch Project"); Steve Agee, Sammy Primero and Kelly Aluise ("The Griffith Witch Segment"); Susan Johnson ("The Willie Witch Project"); Alex Mebane ("The Blair Underwood Project"); Mark Mower ("The Bel Air Witch Project"); Alec Tuckman ("The Watts Bitch Project")

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #229

 

This is your brain on ham...and scallops...

From Trimark Picture, The Bogus Witch Project is a reminder that, rather than just jumping to Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), The Blair Witch Project's legacy immediately after its success also included many parodies. The Simpsons parodied it in a Treehouse of Horrors episode, there was Da Hip Hop Witch (2000), a low budget film starring Eminem in a tiny role, even The Tony Blair Witch Project (2000), an incredibly obscure film which hit the IMDB bottom list. Stamped to a specific time as much as you could get, with its late nineties techno music, this is a compilation of micro budget Blair Witch parodies interspliced with interlinking footage called "The Woods", a first person gliding through the woods as weird things happen, such as past a bounder in the wilderness and a child's crossing.

This for many is going to be one of the worse things they have seen, or an extreme struggle, a poignant reminder of how Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick's film, when it was released in 1999, became such a huge pop cultural item that in such little time its sequel came a year later as well as a whole swath of parodies. Sadly, beginning with The Watts Bitch Project, you realise too how this is from decades ago and from a very different period, immediately sounding dreadful as it follows a group of young white filmmakers go to Watts in southern Los Angeles. It is not as bad as the precise could be, but black stereotypes abound even if there are a lot of African American actors willing to be in this, and the short immediately sets up how many of the parodies are lame. Ultra low budget, that this is among many have to blur out iconography, here part of a Laundromat's sigh, the building one the cast keep returning to lost, these films are based on recognition of the original and there is a morbid fascination which what is replicated. Here it is finding shoes on mass hung everywhere rather than stick bundles, or how it awkwardly tries to replicate the original narrative of an evil witch in a problematic way by parodying it through a primarily African-American community with stereotypes referred for jokes. One or two good jokes appear - bringing a 1993 map of Los Angeles, which is useless after the 1994 earthquake changed the environment, or the reference to the use of 16mm film in the original film being replaced by something brining a film projector - but not enough to get around a lot of this, as the many here, going for cheap jokes, this one baiting race as a joke too.

This template runs throughout - the films obsess over the scene of actress Heather Donahue crying in the film, usually the joke about snot coming from someone's nose or milking it, and there are many jokes of someone farting in the camping tent or the famous final images being merely someone going urinating up a wall. Bogus' biggest aspect, that these are all parodies of one film recreating and lampooning it's narrative bears, does really get into the curious idea of seeing the source (Blair Witch) being dissected down through its replications. As much as the first viewing of this was one I suffered through, it is fascinating seeing the shorts replicating similar jokes in a variety of ways as the facsimiles also stand out in their differences together too. This is effectively pre-YouTube in nature, where once you distributed parodies by alternative methods.

The Griffith Park Project imagines if this follows a Heather stand-in called Kelly Conroy whom would easily be distracted by butterflies at first, taking anything as a clue of a witch, but is also an obnoxious adult brat with a chalkboard screaming voice. Good on Kelly Aluise for being game for this, as a co-director and the female lead, but the short is a failure for me. Throughout, and honestly with bad taste to it, a lot of the jokes are about making parodies of the female main lead of Blair Witch, with this at least softened knowing the main actress is on-board to knowing make this character, as she makes things up in a flight of whimsy at first or is deluded, picking up a random stick in the middle of a park in daytime and believing its symbolic, and becoming obnoxious when she does not get her own way to her two male followers. The Blair Underwood Project, based around the titular L.A. Law. actor, is a second parody based around out-of-work actors, here bumbling around a park in random and pointless scenarios. Meeting two random orange sellers debating films, or learning one of the cameramen has a hairy chest the shape of Texas. Again, and here this is pertinent, it does discomfort the joke has to be the sole female character being obnoxious and hateable, considering Heather Donahue as her namesake in The Blair Witch Project was a sympathetic figure clinging onto her documentary when doomed. Here the Heather stand-in is a swearing egotist in a narrative of trying to find Blair Underwood to give him a script. It is not funny, least because, even repeating the farting in a camping tent joke, there is no comic timing or creativeness here in the improvisation, regardless of the scrappy micro-budget look.

Having had to see The Bogus Witch Project more than once, which in hindsight is idiotic on my part even if there is one rewarding bright spot, the segments were less painful, but this is definitely one of those releases to be lost in time and most would gladly damn to that fate. In between The Griffith Park Project and The Blair Underwood Project you have the one selling point in terms of a star, Pauly Shore's Bogus Witch Project. Pauly Shore never translated over to the United Kingdom, my knowledge of him entirely because the animated series Futurama made an entire episode running gag about how Bio-Dome (1996), the film he became notorious for, became a legacy title in that world's narrative. Shore, if you look into him, is to be sympathised with - he suddenly became a bankable figure from a role in Encino Man (1992), getting leading films in the nineties, but Bio Dome to be a butt of joke and Shore getting the dishonourable award from the Golden Raspberries of Worst New Star of the Decade for the 1990s1. This segment however does no favours, starting with Shore parodying Heather's crying scene, a really obnoxious barrage of jokes set within a darkened cinema. Some jokes are funny - the concession stand sells twig bungles (from the original film) with butter, and the actress they hire, a traditionally attractive blonde woman, cannot speak because the film cannot afford her speaking lines. Moments like that, throughout this entire compilation, do show some wit, but they are drowned out in obvious and unfunny material screamed out at a tone deaf rate. The target, the original 1999 film, never is really prodded in a really salient way, the obvious jokes hit and many missed. An entire segment on Shore being stuck in a camping tent, causing it to thrash about violently, as in one moment would have been significantly funnier as anti-humour.

The Bel Air Witch Project is not great either, when the one beer I had revisiting this compilation did not work. The wonder of standard digital cameras, as someone fond of no-budget cinema, does not help with another egotistical Heather stand-in, also called Heather, in another vague McGuffin of a Witch figure never really there for anything for the jokes to pad out. Struggling through the Bel Air star map, I find is strange to consider how many of these were shot in Los Angeles, as this one tragically ropes in Brande Roderick, a Playboy Playmate who looks uncomfortable doing the parody. Considering she was a prominent star in Baywatch in this same year, in one of its many seasons, this is a get that is definitely squandered. The problem with a parody is that, as the Bel Air Witch Project says itself, damning itself among many bad spoofs, is that you have to get the reference and/or actually be funny, and the surface level is missed entirely.

It says a lot that, before we get to the last segment dear readers, I need to talk about The Woods, the interconnecting tissue which is its own elaborate, scattershot beast that is not really a Blair Witch parody but a lot of random tangents, including in other horror genres and especially Scream franchise parodies. There are so many of these moments it is saner just to list them in two paragraphs as non sequiturs, barely covering how many there are but those which stood out. Zombie meeting, bigfoot executive. A legitimately funny, in a proto-2010s anti humour sketch, fake advertisement for Ted McKensey, an insurance lawyer who helps people sue for demonic miscarriages, UFO anal probing and werewolf attacks, with the added charm the actor is clearly not giving a great acting performance in the damndest but adding to the segment unintentionally in its weirdness.

"This is your brain on ham...", as referred to in the opening quotation, part of the scattershot nature of just parodying an anti-drug advert just because. A reoccurring home shopping network, again one of the funnier gags, of a woman selling a cursed twig doll or at the end a jacket with hood combo made from human flesh. Stephen Hawkins as a slasher killer in a trailer, which is one of the moments this comes from the un-pc era if tame. Then there is Horror Storytellers, another reoccurring gag, of horror villains reminiscing on their pasts; the costumes, due to copyright and budget, look terrible, but Jason Voorhees sounding like an old Southern female belle recounting her murder sprees, or the kid from Children of the Corn as a deranged man-child are suitably strange. There are quite a few, some not really funny ("America's Scariest Home Videos"), a lot reminders that in the late nineties, when horror cinema was in a strange transitional state, Scream (1996) was also a huge cultural touch stone and huge for parody, for all the gags here. It does not make up for how ramshackle this entire project is, but The Woods did help sooth through so much of the misfires the footage was meant to pad the running time through.

But, in the brightest moment, one funny if imperfect parody comes at the end called The Willie Witch Project. Explicitly about three black filmmakers, with an African-American cast, and a female director Susan Johnson, this gets the tone right as, finding out the Blair Witch Project was a success, one entrepreneuring man decides to film a documentary in the woods about the Willie Witch, only for one interviewee to accused them of just wanting to go into the woods to get high, and a religious preacher to try to get them to donate money to their church. It adds another fascinating bow as the Heather stand-in is a man named Eugene. He is a very flamboyant stereotype of a gay man, introduced doing a woman's hair, and one unfortunate use of homophobic dialogue is used later on, but he turns into an absolute magnet of charisma, especially when he points out white people are stupid enough to go in haunted woods and, at the moment things get weird, he rightly wants to get out of there quickly. Aptly too as, in lieu to parodying the Blair Witch characters finding ominous twigs outside their tent, he immediately wants to leave when, unlike all the dumb stand-ins in previous segments with dog turds or food, this gets an inspired joke with white tub socks being left outside theirs giving everyone the heebie-jeebies.

Whilst not perfect, if The Bogus Witch Project has to be preserved for future children, or for anyone one reading this to see, it is for The Willies Witch Project, originally a short film released a year before but included here a year later. It is not a masterpiece, it is not great, but as a micro-budget parody of an already low budget film, even having to blur out a t-shirt insignia, this works. Someone goes at this parody from a different direction, explicitly three black characters, where the project is literally a tower block in the middle of nowhere, where the flamboyant gay character whilst a bit tasteless is actually likable and, barring one line of dialogue, none of the humour is mean. Even the farting in the camping tent joke works better because of the performers' charisma2. No one dies, which is not a spoiler, nor that the characters make money whilst one poor bastard is left stuck in the woods lost, because actually watching the segment shows someone finding funnier ways to parody The Blair Witch Project with good jest, even with the characters being clever enough to left a sign telling helping them to not get lost only for it to fail.

So much of The Bogus Witch Project is some of the worst material I have seen, but its power to hurt faded and thankfully, even here there is some success. Fittingly, whilst a few women worked in the project, including a co-director, the one directed entirely by herself by a female filmmaker herself hit the target perfectly, which makes this overlong review of a forgotten film have a great ending at least. As part of the strange pop culture history of The Blair Witch Project, which few probably knew of, even here there is gold to be found in so much misjudged, a reason to sit through and end up with this ridiculously long review from a mangled mass of confusion notes.

 

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1) Perversely, the Golden Raspberries in 1999 nominated The Blair Witch Project among the worst pictures (which was won by Wild Wild West (1999)), and did give Heather Donahue the Worst Actress Award. To be un-civilised about this, rather than agree to disagree, this was frankly a dick move from an awards group who get a lot of opposition for their bandwagon riding and considering The Blair Witch Project became a horror classic in the future years.

2) Thomas Miles, who played Eugene, and John Eddins as the intrepid documentarian John, are also working to the current day prolifically, so that in itself is a good thing too.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

 


Directors: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez

Screenplay: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez

Cast: Heather Donahue as Heather Donahue; Joshua Leonard as Joshua 'Josh' Leonard; Michael C. Williams as Michael 'Mike' Williams

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #228

Includes bonus review of The Curse of the Blair Witch (1999)

 

We will prefix this review by just giving my personal opinion ahead of time. As a film with a legacy of being a great horror film in the era, it is trapped by the inherent issues that surround found footage horror films, but as a micro budget production, it is a huge success. And in terms of regional horror from the United States, shot in Maryland, basing itself off a fictitious folk legend still steeped in the country's history, this is catnip for me. The irony is that what led to the film's legacy, its appeal and the parodies, is all that is the less interesting content, including how it still has to be a scary film in the end with its cast running in the woods at night. As a premise and even the style, in spite of the structural problems of how it's depicted, it is compelling from Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.

We need to admittedly start off by removing a myth surrounding Blair Witch - it was not the first true found footage horror film, least in mind to The Last Broadcast (1998), and back in 1985 you can make the argument that Guinea Pig 2: Flower Of Flesh And Blood, filmed as a snuff film from a killer, is the first of the genre in terms of horror cinema.  Yes, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) as well has to be mentioned, as that is in its central premise footage of an exploitative documentary crew having been recovered from jungle where cannibals lived, but that also sets it within a fictional narrative, so it is different even if legitimately innovative, in mind that the found footage films had to challenge themselves with the burden of telling a narrative entirely through footage a cast or prop (like a drone camera) could record. In mind to this, The Blair Witch Project is pretty simple if also a lot more complicated than the premise originally suggests. Three students - named after their actors Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams - go into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland to make a documentary about the Blair Witch, the lore to be discussed later in this review but a supernatural witch whose influence in the region has also led to horrifying events. The students, in the opening text, disappeared and the footage is what was recorded by them.

This is admittedly, truthfully, where the first breakout film in this sub-genre already has issues. Simply put, you have to get around the logic of a company licensing footage for cinema release of people who likely died, something in promotional footage said to be real. If this was a television production, playing to verisimilitude, this might have been a much easier logistical route, and a subversive one, to reach around, especially if you added an additional commentary on exploitation. Instead, this is compounded by the fact that The Curse of the Blair Witch exists, a mock television documentary on the titular figure and the trio.

Presented as entirely real, the logistical issues of how this footage would be allowed to be released to cinemas without offending their families is an issue. If this just pretended to be found footage as the later films, we would just as viewers make believe the setting. The attempt at verisimilitude, including a website that became a meme before that was ever a word, and even a soundtrack of pre-existing songs created as a fake replica of a character's compilation tape, does unravel if you think very cynically of what would happen if someone actually found footage of real terrorisation of people. Likely, it would be released online, especially if someone was killed on screen within it, and there would be additional aspects which would make you have a bleak view of modern civilisation. Films would try to deal with these issues themselves. At the time, The Blair Witch Project managed to actually surf on this without anyone asking these questions, with even the main cast's IMDB profiles for the first few years marking them as missing and presumed dead1. The strangeness of this, which was an accident during the production of Cannibal Holocaust and infamously led to its director Ruggero Deodato being taken to court, can only be compounded by testimony from the lead Heather Donahue herself:

"“Well, it doesn’t happen much anymore, but when Blair Witch first came out my Mum kept getting sympathy cards,” she said. “It was all part of their marketing scheme so, yeah, people thought I was dead.  When people found out I was alive a lot of them were kind of annoyed with me and wanted their money back.”"1

With mind to the spectacle and hubbub this film caused in the day, the most compelling content with the film instead for me is its prologue, initial lore itself in terms of the lead trio interviewing the community of Burkittsville, Maryland about the Blair Witch. The film's entire back story is exceptional - drawing from American history of witchcraft, the concept of the Blair Witch combines witch scares of previous centuries, urban legends and conspiracies. It never becomes too broad and uncredible as the narrative includes events having transpired over the decades and centuries, including a child killer, before the events of the film, all peppered through carefully and even in the mock documentary. The faux-documentary The Curse of the Blair Witch in fact, whilst it undermines the logic of the film's existence, is exceptional as an additional context to the world. With the one hour documentary elaborating on the lore of the Blair Witch, it never stretches itself in credibility, with talking head interviewees and even a parody of a seventies New Age/paranormal television series, working exceptionally to add back story which enriches the final film with added narrative.

Especially when, boiling The Blair Witch Project down, sticking to the original film only, it is pretty basic. It is not dissimilar to a fault to other found footage work of later years, that of three people getting lost in the woods, and with the structure of the movie informing you the viewer of the outcome of them, the reason why is the crux of the narrative instead. Credit where it is do, the film is helped by its leads, who keep the appropriate verisimilitude of three people slowly losing their sanity, and breaking down, when large portions of the film are not scares but ill ease or them becoming lost in the woods. The little touches to the sinister forces, by way of creepy stick symbols or stone piles, is appropriately realistic and ominous, and it is meaningful that, even if for budgetary reasons or on purpose, you never see the Blair Witch.

That there emphasises many of the virtues of this film, and arguably why many others that followed from it in the future subgenre, from those I have seen, do not work. This is surprisingly subtle in spite of its narrative having its cast shouting and slowly breaking down, a slow burn of character development which does mean many hysterics but built to in subtle ebbs and flows. It is credible how they get lost, three people carrying a heavy bulk of equipment and tents in obscure woods, and even how the map is lost comes from a credible moment of insanity. What you do not realise too unless you read into the back story, and is explicitly in The Curse of the Blair Witch, is that this is also set in the early nineties, so concerns like access to mobile phones and equipment are not a factor either. The film's does also have the curious touch, as a lost film being presented to us the audience, of being presented in two formats, video for the incident moments, and celluloid film in black and white for the documentary, which adds an addition to the narrative if you try to explain how we see this.

This also has to overcome the issue which plagues so many of these films, the logic of why certain footage is filmed continually, which The Blair Witch Project is not really able to deal with. It tries dramatically, with some success, with Heather's inability to stop recording footage becoming a psychologically barrier to prevent the full extent of their horror from crushing her, but this in truth is still a puncture to the reality that has to be excepted. The film in spite of aspects like this still won me over, that in spite of the many moments which have been parodied - Heather's tearful confession at night with snot on her face, the final in the basement of a house - it has a lot that returning to is compelling. It is not the masterpiece its reputation suggests for me, least returning to the film now after all this time, but recognising a film which caught lightning in a bottle, there was a lot that worked. A lot that we could have transported to the found footage horror sub-genre when it finally came a mainstream concept over the years after, a lot of the virtues of the film missed as always happens with trendsetters and found when entries did remembers to include this.

 


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1) This quote is part of a discussion, upon how the film managed to actually succeed in its marketing, HERE.

Monday, 19 July 2021

The Twentieth Century (2019)

 


Director: Matthew Rankin

Screenplay: Matthew Rankin

Cast: Dan Beirne as Mackenzie King; Sarianne Cormier as Nurse Lapointe; Catherine St-Laurent as Ruby Eliott; Mikhaïl Ahooja as Bert Harper; Brent Skagford as Arthur Meighen; Seán Cullen as Lord Muto; Louis Negin as Mother; Kee Chan as Dr. Milton Wakefield; Trevor Anderson as Mr. Justice Richardson; Emmanuel Schwartz as Lady Violet; Richard Jutrasas Father; Satine Scarlett Montaz as Little Charlotte

An Abstract List Candidate

 

Canada is just one failed orgasm after another...

The tale of Mackenzie King - the 10th Prime Minister of Canada - has to be pointed out ahead of time to been authentic. King was a real Prime Minister of Canada. Whilst this film comes with aspects clearly lost to me originally on the first viewing, being neither Canadian nor as clear on the history of these "disappointed" people as their land is called in this world of the film, this is still set in real history if imagined aesthetically between Guy Maddin, an Myst-like nineties PC game, Canada if interpreted by Walter Ruttmann experimental films about shape and form, and least one obscure British game show as I will get into later. Inspired by King's diaries, Canadian filmmaker Matthew Rankin on his theatrical length debut threw down a gauntlet for himself, which I feel he succeeded in, to adapt them into an anxious fever dream.

You can spot he grew up with Maddin, his fellow Canadian, but far from redundant to replicate Maddin's style of the Careful (1992) era with his own flourishes, Rankin's work is beautiful to witness and as it goes on, including moody synthwave from his composers Christophe Lamarche-Ledoux and Peter Venne in the climax, Rankin comes to this with his own ideas. Building from the template of his forefather, Rankin comes with his own work, and also has Louis Negin of Maddin's The Forbidden Room (2015), as King's domineering mother, so the Maddin circle embraces -- as one of their own.

Thankfully like Maddin, Rankin decided to embrace the forefather's same eccentricities like maple walnut ice cream and zoos to pet pelicans, all in the first lines of dialogue as King befriends a young girl with tuberculosis in a scene which is both sentimental but incredibly dark humoured. I would argue Canadian cinema, when it is allowed, can be truly peculiar to rival their neighbours south, which is significant to bring up with The Twentieth Century. Set in around 1899, when the second Boer War transpires and exists in the film, a war Canada was involved with as part of the British Empire against two independent states of Dutch speaking rebels in the southern African lands, this film is distressed throughout with national heritage and what it means to be decent and Canadian. It is material which might seem odd to look at, of the Victorian era, when Canada has moved on passed the twentieth century with its own new identities and clichés, such as their decentness, but here is of angst, having to look good as a person especially in politics, and absolutely no sexual fetishes like huffing shoes as King is immediately established to have early in this film.  

King is determined to be his namesake, or at least the new Prime Minister of Canada, his father a henpecked man shut out from his wife's sanctum, said mother having controlled King so long even dreams of hers are prophecies. To become Prime Minister is itself a challenge, of such elaborate challenges such as ribbon cutting, leg wrestling, urinating one's name in perfect font on a urinal, and baby seal clubbing as a bloody Whack-a-Mole game where they are thankfully depicted with puppets. The point of the film Rankin admits was that he wanted to implode the biopic genre, believing it inherently fictional1, which I absolutely admire as someone who finds the biopic one of the most unrewarding film genres for me personally to ever exist. Exceptions that have won me really show where I stand, when Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) is considered a high bar. This is not a weird film to bring up, as that film as an actual biopic was an aesthetically dense and delirious work, involving adapting the novels of Yukio Mishima in little narratives, and being as dense in terms of psychosexual content in a more serious tone when dealing with Mishima's blend of nationalism, homosexuality, and obsession with physical beauty (bodybuilding to Saint Sebastian, the saint killed tied to a tree with arrows shot at him) against his fear and fixation with death. Whilst I do not know whether King liked to masturbate sniffing shoes, or had a cactus given to him by the sinister Dr. Milton Wakefield (Kee Chan) that ejaculates when he slips off the trail of being a respectable Canadian, but against even such broad humoured perversity, that this deals with the anxieties of King by way of these delirious tangents is not that blasphemous when seen as metaphors.   

Certainly when you get to the narrative, it is a conflict between the militaristic might of the real ruler of Canada, Governor-General Lord Muto (Seán Cullen), and a French-Canadian politician Joseph Israël Tarte who leads for peace into the new century, including a greater independence for French Canada. Tarte, as played by actress Annie St-Pierre, was a real politician of liberal leanings, including opposition to Canada's involvement in the second Boer War, seen in this film as propaganda where the Boers are merely depicted as baby killing half-elephant people by Muto, so The Twentieth Century for all its sick humour and perverseness is dealing with real history, causing it to distort to peck at the truths and madness of it. King is ultimately the spineless protagonist forced to become the figure between both political sides, a fascinating figure to have as a central character. It is also befitting, was probably the truth of the real King, alongside accusations of corruption2, fitting as more truthful than a biopic which would have to remove real context to be narrative driven. One detail that would have been fascinating to see, though comes later in his life, and you would also see in a Guy Maddin film was his secret fascinating with spiritualism and mediums to contact the dead. He also unfortunately developed an idolised, frankly obsessive, high viewpoint of Adolf Hitler, viewing him as a mystical figure of saintliness3 which adds a dark coda to the fictionalised version here, an apt one in regards to the malleability and obsession with destiny his fictional counterpart here has.

I once rolled my eyes at "a lament for 21st century nihilism", from the introduction Matthew Rankin also wrote for the 2021 MUBI introduction1, but that was only because it might have presumed a worldview, as many have in the 21st century, that nothing matters truly after what the 20th century led to. But here seeing this film, not only is there the paradox that for all my anti-nihilism I have a very sick sense of humour, so I found so much of Rankin's film hilarious as with Guy Maddin's work, but that that phrase from the introduction takes on different perspective for me. That here, into this world's new century, there is passion to be had, no numbness, only a fin de siecle frenzy between two sides, love or hate, with the putz in the middle still a sympathetic figure we admire. One who is torn as much in love, between the ideal proclaimed to him, Muto's daughter Ruby Eliott (Catherine St-Laurent), the blonde haired soldier and perfect angelic figure, and French-Canadian Nurse Lapointe (Sarianne Cormier), a wholesome and sweet figure actually in love with King originally too.

It does seem poignant, even in this openly silly film where King's shoe huffing masturbation obsession becomes a soul destroying when he loses the presidency competition, that Rankin viewed the real King as a man who "gingerly walked a very cautious line right down the middle"1, political centrism compelling in a time of fanatical binaries in modern politics. It could be seen as compromising at the worse as what King did in real life, "sitting on the fence" as we call it in Britain, but even this film touches on something poignant in this aspect, passion still in King to want to help people here even as a broad caricature actor Dan Beirne brings to like very well. That the real man is far more complicated and problematic, such as his apparent admiration for Hitler, does not ruin this but adds so much to the film's tone intertextually.

This is externalised when King is caught between the real power of Muto, a man who brainwashes Canada with true Canadianess and a war with a Germanic half-elephant half-human group the Boers are turned into, and Tarte, demanding individuality, a character alongside being one of the many gender reversing casting choices who comes off in contest like a communist freethinker in how conservative Muto hates him. Literally born from the yoke of tenderness, i.e. from an actual human sized egg, Tarte here is clearly in mind to modern day liberal thinkers, but in context sitting a time when Karl Marx was on ideal and not sullied by the Soviet Union's eventual history. So many contexts are lost not being born Canadian myself, but dealing with "the vivifying froth of man", Rankin explicitly has King an easily manipulated figure stuck between both sides. Redemption is offered by Lapointe as a true love, but he is fixated on Ruby as the idealised image of Canadianess. King is noble if a little dumb in himself, offering a ribbon for his campaign to the young girl dying of tuberculosis, but wide eyed and trying. His chance at redemption, to walk between the sides, is to be found in an ice maze, if evoking the obscure ITV show Ice Warriors (1998), an ice skating themed Gladiator show, if only you had to fight Canadian presidency by raising your sides flag in a maze and with the risk of unexpected Narwhale impalement involved. 

Rankin also decided to push the artistry of his film to a wonderful extreme, showing larger budgeted films off badly by having this unique world onscreen. Not attempting to be period accurate at all, his Maddin influence is matched by others too, a dash of neo-eighties aesthetic (the colours and synthwave score), and specifically Karen Zeman, the Czeck animator/filmmaker who used two dimensional paper craft and sets with real actors, here in The Twentieth Century an almost abstract world. Locations like Winnipeg look like realms on an open world map for old videogames where you would have to load screens to solve puzzles, and Ruttmann, the Germany cinematographer and avant-garde filmmaker, is very notable to bring up in how alongside the paper craft of Zeman, the minimalism where the land is depicted in paths and esoteric shapes evokes watching the likes of Lichtspiel: Opus I (1921) if actors were abruptly planted into the middle of them, let along something obvious influences like German Expressionist cinema and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

The sets' streamlined, almost abstract natures are contrasted by the craft, barring Winnipeg, which is depicted as a hellhole of impoliteness, swearing and a shoe fetish related fantasy club known as The Heel. Alongside men playing women, women playing men, you have so many idiosyncratic figures onscreen who stick out. The likes of Dr. Wakefield, the head of a psychological asylum to prevent crimes against national dignity with tools like an alarm chastity belt for men that is set off by erections; Mr Schultz the money lender with a cactus hand, with a willingness to even kill puppet parrots named Giggles as a warning for unpaid loans; or even the aforementioned cactus Wakefield provides to King, which does inde3ed explodes in ejaculation during King's depression based shoe fetish and even rots in a truly grotesque, and frankly disgusting way, when a mere kink unfortunately becomes a destructive vice, foul yellowed semen stand-in everywhere as a result. It is over-the-top but, wanting to depict a person's psycho dramatic anxieties from diary sources, the extremity itself does feel aptly a fever dream.

The Twentieth Century is exceptional in context, a great debut for a director to have begun with, but with mind that there were short films which honed his style before, it feels like a project visibly planned out as carefully as possible alongside allowing his imagination to gallop. It can even be argued, whilst not a dismissal of Guy Maddin at all, it feels more confident and precise in style and ideas than his idol's own debut Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), which should be held as a real compliment. Definitely the levels to the film, beyond its twisted humour, in distorting history means this has a weight that, if more people can see the film, would raise it as one of the more rewarding films from the 2010s.

Abstract Spectrum: Bizarre/Eccentric/Expressionist/Grotesque/Weird

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium

 


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1) The MUBI introduction can be read HERE.

2) Such as the Beauharnois Scandal, when Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power Co were discovered having made substantial contributions to the Liberal Party of Canada.

3) Examples of this can be read of HERE.

Friday, 16 July 2021

Redneck County Fever (1992)

 


Director: Gary Kennamer

Screenplay: Gary Kennamer

Ephemeral Waves*

 

Humans make the finest bacon!

[Spoilers Throughout]

Welcome to no-budget filmmaking at its obscurest, a shot on video work which (depending on the version seen) starts with no opening credits and looks like a home movie.

It is also, unexpectedly, a weird tangent for this form of cinema as, rather than horror or even a low budget riff on exploitation films which deal with the American South, this is a comedy. Two men, one African American and the other Caucasian, are in a car. Their accents are notable, because after the success of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), the accent of the latter is clearly the same surfer/stoner one that Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter had. Fuzzier than an unshaved bear, the film for a while had no IMDB page, not even guessed date of release, although it is clear from said fashions (including awful zebra print sweat trousers matched to a mauve top, and the Zubaz pants on display) that this was made in the early nineties.

The set-up is that, after their car breaks down, the pair find themselves stuck in "redneck" country in the American South, unable to pay for the repairs and having to find money to get to their destination in Dallas for Thanksgiving. What is supposed to happen over the hour length of the film is an aforementioned comedy, leading them to be more open minded about the region when they are finally able to leave, but this is as vague a comedy then you could imagine. Most of the film consists of our leads - one of them the most extreme in ending his dialogue with "Dude!" and "Hey!!" all the time - mucking about in the local Texas woodlands until they bump into a new character. It is very difficult to try to review Redneck County Fever when, even though events do happen, there is no momentum. Avant-garde films about characters just walking in the woods have more momentum and extravagance to this in comparison.

Were it not for my tastes and tolerance to this type of cinema, this would be a difficult film for many to sit through, even for myself thinking about how slow this is with little happening. Yet that is perversely the incentive for me to look at this with surprise, that this is a film that has this sluggish tone yet juggles between, in having to find the money to leave, the lead duo inexplicably getting involved with transporting cocaine in a possible stolen vehicle, throwing cocaine into a cop's face, and many peculiar references, between the singing Band on the Run by Wings aimlessly in the woods, enough for it to not be libel, to referencing The Most Dangerous Game.

The result is fascinating as amazing anti-excitement, which I had to admire for being so unintentional. Set in the South, banjo twang in the soundtrack, it is meant to be a comedy contrasting the city slickers mocking the Southerners, barely registering baring the accents however in terms of this culture clash. It does not help on such a low budget that most of the film is shot in generic woodland, on roads or by nondescript buildings. Static scenes of people talking is entirely the film's structure - if they were not there Redneck County Fever would fall to pieces or be entirely about walking - and the notion of this being a comedy is nonexistent unless this was a unique take on non-humour.

Even anti-humour have gags compared to this, whilst this languishes in their lack of. In what transpires, they meet a hitchhiker who turns out to be a policeman. A preacher whose gift to bless cars so they start working again is actually a con only really stupid people would fall for. And, closer to a traditional no-budget genre film, an encounter with a mad hunter in the woodlands who uses traps and is a cannibal, one who remarks on the virtues of human bacon. Moments do show the strange energy this film can touch at, such as the Most Dangerous Game reference, to the short story rather than an adaptation, being from the dynamic duo managing the cannibal to let them free to hunt them down, but it is subdued.  

You are stuck with a film that felt heavily improvised the most minimalist of filmmaking. You can even hear the director at one point, off-camera, giving directions when the actors get into a car. You expect, later on, the characters to relate the entire plot to the film's equivalent of a Southern Belle, as she artificially guffaws over each part, only for the film to thankfully cut to a caption suggesting time passed. An attempt at a shoot out at the end is played with a couple of actors, waving fake guns and hiding behind trees, Chekov's baseball being used for a second time in the film as an effective projectile weapon. Altogether...this is absolutely un-recommendable barring those who willingly trawl through the outer regions of cinema. It does not sustain itself even in sixty minutes. If it deserves to be preserved, to be watched a thousand years from now in the fuzziness of its VHS version, it is because of what an oddity it is even in no-budget cinema, all these films the more I encounter them, even the really undefendable ones like this, having a weird moment and/or energy to them.

Especially in that, for this type of cinema, you usually do not have a "comedy" like this when horror is usually common in the micro-budget field. If the Letterboxd credits, the end credits on the end of the version I saw the same, are accurate this was the only film director Gary Kennamer ever made. Its producer, David DeCoteau however is a name you might recognise. Someone who openly admits he churns out films, he has fans and enough different periods in his career to map a time line of: in the eighties, his most popular era, he directed cult films like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988), and by the 2000s into the 2010s, as an openly gay man, he made many films (many likely shot at his own home) where the main attraction was nubile young men with their shirts off1. He did produce no-budget films like Todd Sheet's Sorority Babes in the Dance-A-Thon of Death (1991) in the early nineties, so he may have likely produced Redneck County Fever, adding to his curious career as a director and producer.

That background, and the film's weird anti-charisma, is as much part of the charm to an undefendable film, including the likelihood that this is tied to Reanimator Academy (1992), a film clearly made by the same people as one of the leads, the one most overtly influenced by Bill & Ted in his character's accent, makes a cameo in the other work. That film, a messy attempt to cash-in on the 1985 film Re-Animator, is more overtly entertaining with its bizarre mix of cartoonish gangsters, punching heads off and comedy, including the reanimated head of a bad stand-up, and unfortunately a bit of sexism, and again it is a strange history to know the duo bleed into each other. Just be aware however that for many, Redneck County Fever will be death to sit through for most sane film viewers, even if examples like this shown how odd cinema can be as a product.

 


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* This is a re-published version of a 2018 review of mine, with new context from the film being re-watched and tidied up to my current preferences in presentation.

1) Then he made a reputation, with films definitely shot at his own home, with the likes of A Talking Cat!?! (2013), in which Eric Roberts recorded his lines over the phone, but that is for another review.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Rules Don't Apply (2016)

 


Director: Warren Beatty

Screenplay: Warren Beatty

Cast: Warren Beatty as Howard Hughes; Lily Collins as Marla Mabrey; Alden Ehrenreich as Frank Forbes; Annette Bening as Lucy Mabrey; Matthew Broderick as Levar Mathis; Alec Baldwin as Robert Maheu; Haley Bennett as Mamie Murphy; Candice Bergen as Nadine Henly; Dabney Coleman as Raymond Holliday

Ephemeral Waves

 

I want banana-nut ice cream!

For a few of us, we did not even get a film eighteen years in the making, the legendary Hollywood actor Warren Betty directing his first film since Bulworth (1998), That was a production which, about a older white politician who goes through a mental breakdown and ends up appropriating rap rhyme and what he thinks of the language of African Americans, is both a film which sticks in some still salient points, more so in how politicians who are considered unpredictable and breaking rules compel people to them, but alongside being a film many would consider un-PC, and also mad as a box of frogs. This is a very different  20th Century Fox release, Rules Don't Apply still idiosyncratic to have been released in the 2010s, but not with Warren Beatty in a beanie hat, in his older age, rapping badly in a film which contrasted Ennio Morricone in a soundtrack alongside Cypress Hill.

The fact that Beatty, directing and writing the script for this film, can be willing to play the central figure, of real life individual Howard Hughes, as a figure half between alert and a buffoon shows a willingness in his own terms to be ridiculous onscreen. In his own small directorial career, Beatty really has not been conventional, for between Reds (1981), an elaborate and sympathetic take on the communist revolution, to Dick Tracey (1990), a Disney produced adaptation of the classic newspaper comic character which even replicates the newspaper colour restrictions and the villains' distorted features, all the films fascinating and in this case because of the man he is. Beatty is not an actor we really have nowadays in the newer generations, for good and for bad, a figure very blunt in his image, blunt to his political beliefs, and also a huge and morally complicated aspect of his years of being a ladies' man, including when he was even dating Madonna, significantly younger than him, around Dick Tracey and being tugged along in her own career of being a rebel.

As a result, he's as much fascinating as a figure to scrutinise and his work is worthy to dissect, both because it is all well made but also because some unintentionally slip to bleed the sides. Even Dick Tracey, which is the weakest of the films in being merely a fun comic film, has a stranger edge when you realise it marked him moving from Madonna, who plays the femme fatale in that film seducing his wholesome two-toned detective lead, and his marriage to Annette Bening when he settled down, marked in that film by his real love interest and a child sidekick. Bulworth, in its messy and frankly eyebrow raising attempts of a story of a former hippy democrat trying to get down with disenfranchised black Americans, feels like a film of an older middle aged Democrat in Beatty himself effectively making a weird midlife crisis film, including the fact a young Halle Berry is the love interest from another community he eventually wins over, that a moral quandary to look into itself.

Rules Don't Apply never had a British cinema release, not even a Blu-Ray or DVD release, and by 2019 21st Century Fox was swallowed up by Disney, which leaves a film like this one lost in a further limbo as an unsuccessful product. Streaming has helped with this issue, but this would have been one of those major studio releases in the old days, i.e. the 2000s, which you may hear of through media (like film podcasts from the United States) only to never see. The film itself follows the tale of Howard Hughes - the legendary American business magnate, investor, record-setting pilot, engineer, film director, and philanthropist, ​who was tackled by Martin Scorsese in The Aviator (2004), and is a figure whose biography here is barely covered, one whose complicated personality is both fascinating and difficult, a figure you could devote a compelling tome or two towards. Beatty decided to make this film and cast himself is the curious touch, whether it says of him wishing to reflect himself as an old figure of the past to a character here at his downfalls, the world we enter of  Hughes that of a deeply problematic real man, in his attitudes and behaviours, but also a fascinatingly odd one.

This ignores his past as a figure who was also a Casanova like Beatty with women, including legendary actresses like Katherine Hepburn, a man who broke aviation records and nearly died in planes many times. It does briefly touch on his involvement in cinema, at the time he was head of RKO Pictures, though we miss a legacy of a man, wishing to make a better film than Wings (1927), nearly ruined himself by sinking his fortunes into a film called Hell's Angels (1930), and nearly kill himself participating in one of the real airplane stunts, and set on the period that The Simpsons once parodied and even Orson Welles, in F For Fake (1973), talked of when discussing a fake "autobiography" from Hughes, the period of self isolation where his mental health was at question and his obsession-compulsive disorder (and fear of germs) are shown in this film's version to have gotten even severe. It is a fascinating film if you consider, entirely around fictional figures in their own narratives, imagining the strange and tragic mindscape of Hughes. The man is not defendable at all for a lot of his actions, political and in attitude, in his life at all, but he is a one-off, too rare to live and too weird to die only with the advantage few Hunter S. Thompson figures had that Hughes, a billionaire born into fortune, had the money that allowed his compulsions to breed.

The Hughes, in the prologue here in Rules Don't Apply, is set up eventually locking himself away entirely, the set-up where a biography on Hughes claims he was mentally incompetent to run his businesses, including working with the US military, a media event waiting for him to call them to prove his mental competency. Here, Hughes as played by Beatty is clearly going through dementia or a form of mental clouding which makes him an unpredictable figure, and whatever you think of the film, indulgent or otherwise, Beatty choose a role which he succeeds in perfectly. Aspects are based on Hughes the real figure, eccentric but also unsavoury. He was as obsessed with brassieres and their mechanics the same way as he was with airplanes, his only other known directorial work The Outlaw (1943), a western, most known because he was obsessed with creating a specialised bra for his lead Jane Russell to try to show as much of her bust as he could get away with. Beatty plays him as a doddering and tragic figure that yet has his problematic aspects, that he was a womaniser which here comes in his contracting of young women at RKO Studios but only for control and the possibility of sex.

One fictional figure placed into this is Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a very religious young woman who comes to Hollywood under this contract and starts to bond with another fictional character in this 1950s set film, Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), a driver under Hughes' contracts. The film is more their tale - a romance in the classical sense that is divided by an incident between Maria and Hughes, a one night stand drunk, and Frank effectively selling his soul for a chance of prospects. However, Hughes is the chaotic figure who causes sismic influences on those around him, who wants to buy up the last gallons of an ice cream brand he is obsessed with, only to suddenly not want it with all the attention span of a fish, and likewise move people around in his employ immediately with additional father issues and moments of mental breakdown. The exasperated assistants around him, including Matthew Broderick the cynical and scuzzy Levar Mathis, and Alec Baldwin as Robert Maheu, who never sees Hughes but has to broker deals like buying an entire Las Vegas hotel from mafia, have to dance around Hughes with Frank becomes one such figure who takes a chance to succeed within this maelstrom even if it costs him his compassion.

It is a fascinating film, one I liked immensely as a curious hodgepodge, but it is one that I am not surprised tanked at the box office. Its mood, including the happy ending, is almost syrupy, the budget to recreate late fifties to early sixties Americana, including abrupt cameos by the likes of Steve Coogan as a pilot unfortunately in a plane Hughes is flying, not meaning that this is not the target type of film to have sold to people in the 2010s. It is a film which is messy, trying to unravel whether Beatty wanted to have just a romantic narrative, in both senses of the word, or a more complicated film with themes. A film which dances between the sexual anxiety of two young Christians, one already engaged and leading to a destroyed glass table, and poking at the past in its greater complexity, the old era of Hollywood Howard Hughes became a legend within dying out in the late fifties, which only really rears its head in the score veering between fifties pop. The scenes with Hughes when he finally appears are also played for laughs, be it suddenly having a saxophone, being a billionaire who prefers TV dinners, or bumbling between lucidity in running a variety of businesses (cinema, aviation, military contracts) and trying to avoid having a psychoanalysis test that may make him deemed mentally unacceptable to run them. Yet, with scenes where he breaks down in tears, the film is forcing the viewer, even if they find the figure presented here completely unwholesome, to think of a titan slowly falling into himself.

It is compelling and well made, and undeniably in its own unconventional way, it won me over, though in terms of unconventionality, it is more that whilst structurally the film is linear, told barring a jump back in time, the story's tone is a lot more difficult in terms of where a viewer should follow. Obviously Marla is the figure of greater sympathy for, but it is notably the challenge for Beatty himself, as an older statesman from the New Hollywood era, to tackle a character and the real man in Howard Hughes here who is a pastiche in many ways but, reflecting the real figure, is a very difficult one as with the real man to deal with. The title is in reference to a song Marla composes, of figures like Hughes where the standard rules do not apply, which could be difficult to defend, as in truth a lot of the real Hughes' behaviour is not defendable.

It is a film which, befitting an actor who came into his clout during the sixties and seventies, where very idiosyncratic films came to be, Warren Beatty made a film which, despite an ending and a progression to it closer to the studio system films Hughes himself was involved with, Rules Don't Apply gets to its finale with a lot of tangents and a lot of aspects to chew on. It revolves on a figure in real life and exaggerated in this film who is idiosyncratic, but a figure you would more than certainly have had cancelled as that term became popular in the 2010s. Hughes even without this at this point has an eccentricity as well which, by the point here where both the real and fictional Hughes was concerning due to his mental health and his body breaking down in pain due to all the aviation crash injuries he sustained, is tragic even if you find the figure a hateful person. It is a thin line, whether Warren Beatty would lionise someone like Hughes, where the idea of rules not applying could be used to apply to someone like the director-writer himself, a figure out of a different era whose sway in Hollywood was powerful too. If the film was more easily available, still worthy to watch, this puzzle of unpicking the movie in both its virtues and what it says of its creator could take time. Again, it is not a surprise in the damndest this film was not a success, but those factors which would prevent it from becoming a hit are actually among the many why I really gained a great deal of admiration for it and a fascination in Beatty as a filmmaker entirely.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

The Ladies Man (1961)

 


Director: Jerry Lewis

Screenplay: Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond

Cast: Jerry Lewis as Herbert H. Heebert/Marna Heebert; Helen Traubel as Helen N. Wellenmellon; Pat Stanley as Fay; Kathleen Freeman as Katie; Harry James as Harry; Buddy Lester as Willard C. Gainsborough; Gloria Jean as Gloria; Hope Holiday as Miss Anxious; Mary LaRoche as Miss Society; Ann McCrea as Miss Sexy Pot

Canon Fodder

 

Hey, lady!

After deciding to watch a Jerry Lewis film from a very bleak point of his career - Hardly Working (1980), post-The Day The Clown Cried, a financial hit but unintentionally and intentionally evoking how Lewis was a man out of time in the late seventies into the eighties - it felt wise to return to Lewis in his prime. After his success as a comedy duo with Dean Martin, at the time after his initial directorial work in black-and-white he transitioned to colour. And a lot suddenly makes sense, including why the French understandably liked him so much from seeing just one film. Whether it is learning how Jean-Luc Godard of all people was directly influenced by him, taking a key aspect of this film's aesthetic for Tout Va Bien (1972)1, or how elaborate Lewis is a filmmaker at his prime, the other is realising that just by a hair The Ladies Man, which at the end of the day is an irrelevant comedy, was away from being abstract for me in category. It is definitely weird on purpose.

Lewis is Herbert H. Heebert in this film as director/co-writer/lead, fresh out of university graduation but traumatised when he found his sweetheart faith with another male student on the same day of the graduation. Wishing to be a permanent bachelor, he gets work at a boarding house only to learn late after the home held by former opera singer Helen N. Wellenmellon (Helen Traubel, an actual opera singer) is a home for women only, all wishing to find success in a variety of arts. And that is a lot of women as, with the budget from Paramount studios to pull this off, the main location of the film is a massive soundstage of a set where the camera can glide between rooms like a giant diorama, Herbert's life in this elaborate doll house now a torment where the occupants keep him there as a busy clerk by getting him to help in their work.

It is not a narrative driven work, a series of whimsical and silly skits where Lewis can be ridiculous or gags can transpire. The thing about the film, and where already I suspect the divide between those who dismiss Lewis and the actual fan base came to be is Lewis himself as a performer. Lewis the filmmaker, in his prime and a man who would innovate in filmmaking, is a very different figure from the man onscreen. Lewis the performer, with experience before these films, is an acquired taste. A broad, nebbish parody is here with his idiosyncratic nasal voice and bumbling form. Probably the thing which divides people on Lewis was never the films themselves but Lewis the performer, intentionally making himself these gangly and awkward figures like Herbert with strange names (Herbert H. Heebert is literally Herbert Herbert Heebert due to how his mother had to call him twice), and gags which can sometimes be too odd for a viewer. This is however also a film where Herbert also admits to killing his pet goldfish as a kid by taking it out of the fishbowl and sleeping with it so it was not earlier, which for a family friendly early sixties film is as black humoured as you can get.

The Ladies Man is fascinating to view long after the early sixties, as it is quaint, a farce which is earnest as a series of sketches of Herbert in his new job. When not destroying the valuable ornaments or trying to continually flee the house with his luggage only for a mass of young women to keep him there, his life within the boarding house even if following Lewis' gift for slapstick is incredibly peculiar, and wonderfully so. The key thing is how incredible the film looks, and that from this early film of his in vast contrast to one like Hardly Working, there was a time where Lewis the filmmaker commanded the ability to make distinct looking films like this. The key location, and how it is an elaborate construction where you can see through rooms with a glide of a camera for jokes, is exception as production. But a lot of the film is precise in style as well to match the main boarding house location, be it costumes by the legendary Edith Head to the emphasis on music, with one of the first a playfully elaborate musical sequence where each women, as the group are properly introduced, are matched by a musical melody that intermingle together. A lot of the film is alive because of how vibrant it feels, even if some of the gags may have aged.

Many of them however have an incredible oddness to them and come quickly. Some are still hilarious, such as the mean older man, like a gangster, ready to terrorise Herbert whilst waiting for his girlfriend, only to be left a broken man after the subsequent destruction of his hat and Herbert trying to make up for this. Or the disaster that is the television show broadcasting live in the boarding house, if only because you know when Herbert enters to find a whole bunch of television cables and cameras around, you think it is a disaster about to take place, only for the farce for him to charmingly be in shot by accident mid-broadcast. Lewis is broad, which is the one thing that has the potential to distract or even annoy a viewer, but everything else within the film is bright and breezy. A lot of emphasis on playfulness from the whole cast, even minor roles from the many women, is to be found, whether Hebert's ill-advised decision to help an aspiring actress practice her craft, leading to him being slapped a lot, to the amount of musical and dance sequences, dance suddenly breaking out within this heightened pastel coloured world with ease.

In fact, the strangeness of the film, and where it is willing to go, is fed as much by this world's ornate look. Jokes can be stretched to longer and more elaborate directions, such as the presence of a pet called "Baby", meant as a joke to be a pet lion to Herbert's concern, but taking in at least two twists by the end I will not spoil. Or the sequence which did nearly knock this film into fully qualifying as "abstract" for me or at least surreal, the running gag where Hebert  is warned never to enter the room of one of the occupants. What this transpires as, and cannot be spoilt by telling, is at first actual horror cinema with a strange pale white feminine figure hung upside-down from the ceiling, like a monstrous spider woman, only to break reality fully with a full musical band and dancing. It is a scene that by the end adds an exclamation mark to a film which won me over by that point. The level of humour is willing to take risks even long before this, to the point actor George Raft plays himself, with Herbert questioning him being the same actor of the 1932 version of Scarface, and a male duo dance in-between them.

And there is a hint to a theme there, Herbert the mother's boy who, heartbroken, has a complete neurosis about women as a result. When the only figure he is comfortable with is his own mother, played by Lewis himself in drag as a broad caricature, it is clear the director/co-writer is implying a lot more of this caricature lead even if just for humour, and the willingness to play the absurd fool, the sole real male character in the cast, surrounded by many women, and even sit in an adult size baby chair for one scene to be spoon fed really does show both Lewis' confidence in himself to be a clown onward and that the joke is as much the helpless male struggling throughout this film.

Layers like this, and how distinct and how clearly well made the film is, with care to its form, made this the perfect introduction to Jerry Lewis. I have seen his original version of The Nutty Professor, a long time ago, but that length of time ago was long before properly considering Lewis the filmmaker and star in detail. This, seeing a strange awkward point in Hardly Working, and finding virtue within it, and then this glorious spectacle, was triumphant as an introduction to the star and filmmaker proper.

 

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1) Also possibly Herschell Gordon Lewis, the infamous inventor of the splatter genre, as one of his tangents in his weird mid-to-late sixties career included How to Make a Doll (1968), which now comes off as an exploitation low budget attempt at a Lewis-like comedy, making it even stranger.