Monthly Archives: December 2009

Ending the year with international cinema

And now the year 2009 is really coming to an end. Which means another year, another decade past – the first decade of a new millennium. Etc., etc. In this, my last little post of the year, I just want to touch on some of the movies I’ve been frantically watching as December wears on.

First of all, there was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen, which won the Oscar for best foreign film back in 2006, beating out Pan’s Labyrinth. Known in English as The Lives of Others, the film involves Wiesler, a surveillance operative for the Stasi (State Police) in 1984 East Germany, who’s assigned to watch over a potentially subversive playwright.

Das Leben der Anderen is an intelligent film about the  hazards of creating art in a totalitarian state, anchored in the eerily stoic performance of Ulrich Mühe as Wiesler, who moves from being an interrogation-happy servant of the state in the opening scene to someone visibly different in the quietly ecstatic freeze-frame that closes out the film. Through its drab decor and Orwellian anxieties, the film recreates a very recent dark chapter in German history (hell, one that ended just before I was born).

I also watched a pair of films by French-Canadian director Denys Arcand: The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and The Barbarian Invasions (2003). Watched back to back, they tell a lot about the twenty year span between them, as the flirtacious comedy of the first film leads into the sober satire of the second.

The former film follows a group of professors enjoying a weekend in the country while chatting freely about both their frequent affairs and their theories of human history. (One sequence, for example, has Pierre relating how he met Danielle: receiving a “happy ending” during a massage while discussing millenarianism.)

The proceedings have an apocalyptic, Buñuel-esque undercurrent to them; as the title suggests, they seem to be enjoying their decadence at the end of an age. Claude is HIV-positive (though this goes unmentioned in the sequel), Louise feels betrayed by her husband Rémy’s infidelity, and the film’s title derives from the idea that the widespread pursuit of personal happiness signals the downfall of an empire (e.g., Rome or 18th century France).

This harsh edge is amplified in The Barbarian Invasions, which revolves entirely around Rémy’s gradual death from cancer. Set against the decaying medical system in a post-9/11 world, the film reunites everyone from The Decline of the American Empire as they’re gathered up by Rémy’s estranged, affluent son, Sébastien. The satire remains, but tinged with an omnipresent fear of mortality, as Sébastien makes contact with one of the older character’s daughters, Nathalie, in order to acquire heroin to numb his ailing father’s pains.

Arcand certainly likes his comedy black. I still have to see his Jesus of Montreal, about a passion play performed by nonbelievers, but just judging from this duo of films (which have since been followed by Days of Darkness), he’s a filmmaker very aware of the bleak ironies inherent in the sociopolitical climate of North America.

In The Barbarian Invasions, he presents this group of friends laughing about their former lusts for life when death looms so close, pressing them face to face with some toxic truths: that these well-meaning intellectuals have been bypassed by history, with their affairs as ancient and buried as any optimism or innocence they had in 1986. It’s rare to be able to compare such different attitudes in two adjoining films, and I’m glad to have had the experience.

The last film I want to talk about this decade is a very underappreciated classic from New Zealand: Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983). I watched it last week with very few expectations or preconceptions since, well, I’ve never seen the movie discussed anywhere. It’s a fictionalized account of a Maori uprising in 1870s New Zealand, a mere thirty years since the Treaty of Waitangi had handed the islands over to the British colonists.

Unlike so many movies about rebellions against imperialism, Utu isn’t full of speeches clearly delineating which side is right and which is evil. Instead, most of its characters are pretty confused about what’s going on. The motivator for the film’s events is Te Wheke, a Maori who’s also a lance corporal in the British army. After he sees his village razed by his overeager comrades, he has his face ceremonially scarred and begins a massive campaign of revenge. (Specifically, utu: achieving a balance with one’s enemies.)

However, the film isn’t just about Te Wheke self-righteously avenging himself on the Brits. There’s the question of whether violence can be justified – graphically illustrated when Te Wheke interrupts a minister’s sermon on how “those who take the sword will perish by the sword” to behead the minister. Te Wheke also spurs others to pledge their own vengeances, like Williamson, who becomes paranoid and obsessive after Te Wheke causes his wife’s death, and develops a one-man arsenal.

Opposing Te Wheke’s slowly growing ranks of guerillas (who also include Maori wives and children) are the British soldiers, led by the scrupulous, sexually repressed Col. Elliot, the young, New Zealand-born Matthew Scott, and the well-educated Maori Wiremu, who has a deep connection to Te Wheke. And caught between the lot of them is Kura, a beautiful Maori woman intermittently held captive by the British.

Maybe this is why I love this movie: it’s about a small war, but it doesn’t build its story out of sheer historical import so much as the smaller conflicts of its characters. It’s an intimate war, where the main players have personal grievances against each other, and where the ties of land and blood play a larger role than the colonial interests of some “fat German woman,” as Te Wheke calls Queen Victoria.

I’m glad to have seen Utu, and you can bet I’ll be soon checking out director Geoff Murphy’s postapocalyptic follow-up, The Quiet Earth. Between Murphy, Jane Campion, and Peter Jackson, I love Kiwi cinema. Now I’m off to check out Avatar, which might lead to some interesting postings of its own. Here’s to another ten years of great international cinema (notwithstanding the inevitable onslaught of subpar 3D sci-fi epics)! Happy New Year.

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Happy holidays: a visit to the mall

‘Tis the season. Etc. I’m sitting once again in the public library trying to write while surrounded by, well, the types of people who use the computers in the public library. It’s late December. In 1-2 days, it will be Christmas. And how does Christmas most visibly manifest itself in America? I’d be lying if I said it didn’t involve money, sales, price tags, advertising, and merchandise.

Much has been said, endlessly, over several decades, about the notorious “commercialization of Christmas.” And, I guess, I’m here to add a little to this fretful discourse. Much hand-wringing persists every December; many remarks about what we’re celebrating and how dollar signs have replaced Christmas trees, or Santa Claus, or whatever it is the speaker holds sacred in the first place (also, at times, baby Jesus?).

My perspective on this came as I was wandering around the malls in this area. I have an affinity for malls, which Ashley and I were discussing last night: they’re simultaneously communal locations where people can gather, and also hubs of economic exchange. You can go to a mall to be around others, but the central purpose is always to spend money. Clothes, jewelry, other necessities, even food (hell, even “courts” of food!) – to quote Homer Simpson, “For an evening or a week, there’s no place like the mall.  Food, fun and fashion – the mall has it all!” (It’s telling that malls would be emblematic of Homer’s hedonistic, spend-happy attitude toward life.)

So I spent some time at the Ridgedale Mall, currently thriving and crammed with rushing consumers, as well as the Knollwood Mall of St. Louis Park, MN, which is slowly dying. Go into either of these places at any time of year, and you’d see them bustling with people who want – nay, need! – to buy things. Visit them a few days before Christmas and you see crowds of people desperate to buy massive amounts of gifts. The socially encouraged need to spend is so heavily compounded by this one time of year when everyone needs to spend more than ever.

One curious phenomenon is window shopping. Stores like to dress up their front windows to show what kinds of products they have to offer inside. So you can peer through, yearn for what you see, and then go in and buy some of it. I’m always a little disturbed by the mannequins. They’re intended to look appealing – for example, see the ones with the silver and gold skin. Clearly they want to give off a feel of affluence, yet all you wonder is, Where did the head go?

The sad truth, of course, is that when the heads are still attached, the mannequins fall into the eerie territory of the uncanny valley. That’s pretty obviously the motivation behind the headlessness. So the fact is that there’s no way for mannequins not to be unpleasant on some level: it’s an attempt to represent human beings wearing clothing without actually having human beings. Either you have a headless doll, or else one with a plastered-on smile, or else one with no face at all, which is prime horror story material by itself.

Maybe I just overthink these things, but mannequins seem to open up all kinds of weird avenues: Pygmalion-and-Galatea fantasies for the consumers, voyeurism, being able to dress up and look at a woman without a subjectivity of her own. After all, these mannequins are being posed with their hands at their sides, passively modeling. And do I even want to get into the issue of their uniform body sizes, suggesting that every woman should imagine being this life-size doll, proportioned like this, wearing these clothes?

Some of the images I found in the Knollwood Mall, a place that’s rapidly running out of stores, felt almost like grotesque self-parodies. Consumerism is a fickle mistress/master/whatever gender word you want to apply to consumerism. There were escalators, no longer in use. There was no food court; instead, they had the “snack shack”:

So barren, so desolate, so unintentionally comical. There’s not much of a shack in sight, unless those white lines painted on the wall are supposed to represent the framework of a building. And aren’t “shacks” pretty shabby buildings in the first place? It feels like a rip-off on top of a rip-off, as if they’d had a sign saying “Crumbling Building Containing Food,” and instead there was just a big box of food, with no roof or door of any kind.

Usually when I encounter a vending machine or two purveying liquid or solid nourishment, it’s without much fanfare. The vending machines are pretty self-evident. Their very presence itself says, “We’re vending machines. Come put coins or bills into us, but don’t try any really crinkled or torn dollars, because we won’t accept those.” In the case of the “snack shack,” however, these two vending machines are clearly trying to be something. I.e., a replacement for a restaurant.

What’s sadder? A temple of money in full bloom, or one in decay? At the former, I was being buffeted by dozens of eager consumers, streaming past kiosks and potted plants, arguing with family members, carrying shopping bags, being barraged with free samples by the folk managing those kiosks. At the latter, I saw a few shoppers, looking dazed and tired, with no opportunity to have their children meet Santa Claus. I also saw a sign advertising advertising.

So at once, this sign is making us aware of the frequency with which advertising enters our lives, and implores us to contribute. Unfortunately for the advertisers, this sign is not being seen every 10 seconds by someone with a product to advertise (and I personally doubt whether it’s actually being seen every 10 seconds; I know that for a few minutes, I was the only person seeing it). I guess I find it a little humorous that a sign should appear both so desperate and so self-aware.

“Advertise here!” it seems to say. “Please, I’ll let you in on my little secret if you do!” Advertising is about creating awareness of a product; this advertisement is about creating awareness of how often awareness is created. It’s fascinating, and a little sad – it’s like a lost puppy, a sign without anything to sell. As if it’s forgotten what it’s like to shill for a specific company. Let’s pray that for Christmas, that sign gets what it so obviously wants: something to sell to people, whether every 10 seconds or every 10 minutes.

So that’s my little visit to the yuletide abyss that is the mall, a place designated solely for shopping, yet one engineered to feel strangely like home. Carols are wafted in over the PA system; a large and jolly man is dressed up in red and white. Tinsel is strung with care by people employed to string tinsel with care. Then the shoppers come, because they must. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t really be Christmas, now would it?

For an evening or a week, there's no place like the mall.  Food, fun and fashion - the mall has it all!

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Yuletide postings

Happy holidays, blogosphere. Christmas is on Friday, Andreas left school to be in Mound for another two weeks and posts have slowed a little. It happens sometimes. I personally have been busy and tired and REALLY need to fucking finish my Christmas cards. Like…seriously, I am running out of time. So yeah, posts will probably be slow in coming until after the holidays/Andreas goes back to Carleton. I never realize how much of my slack he picks up until he’s not around to do it anymore. But it’s okay. Posts will pick up and I’ve still got toys to review (including the large Ripple, which was given to me for Christmas!).

Happy holidays to everyone and enjoy the snow (if you have it)!

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Christmas in hell: The Star Wars Holiday Special

It’s now that season: snowflakes fall from the sky, reindeer land on rooftops, etc., etc., and lots of yule-y things happen. In celebration of this fact, and inspired by the Nostalgia Critic’s recent videos, Ashley and I decided to watch some of the saddest animation Christmas has to offer. We then followed this up with one of the saddest things that have ever been offered by anyone, ever.

Both of the animated videos we watched were silent and sublime; these were The Snowman (1982) and The Little Matchgirl (2006). The Snowman is just beautiful, based on a book of the same name by Raymond Briggs (who you may also know for the bleakly apocalyptic Where the Wind Blows). Introduced by David Bowie (!!!) and animated in Briggs’ quietly emotive storybook style, it tells very simply of a boy playing with his snowman, leading into delightful, imaginative adventures, accompanied by the song “Walking in the Air.” Watching this cartoon is like stepping out into the most tranquil and transient of winter mornings.

The Little Matchgirl comes from Disney and is based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson. Unlike many Disney products, however, it’s neither cutesy nor infantile; instead it speaks to the trauma of poverty and lost dreams as it shows an unwanted girl freezing on the streets amidst her garish, desperate fantasies. No anthropomorphic animals or obligatory songs here: just the contrast between cold gray and the warm colors of house and hearth to illustrate a subtly tragic story. The Snowman and The Little Matchgirl are half an hour and 7 minutes respectively; we strongly recommend you check them out this holiday season.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t just stop there. We had to keep going. And so, urged on by its abominable reputation, we watched The Star Wars Holiday Special. For those of you who don’t know, the SWHS was produced shortly after the release of the first Star Wars movie, when Star Wars fever was blazing a path across the nation. Some folks at CBS figured, Why not make a Christmas special themed around everyone’s favorite galaxy far, far away? (Needless to say, I have many reasons why not.) It was broadcast once. And never released on video. However, because that’s what the Internet is for, you can easily watch it on Google Video. (I am not liable for head injuries sustained during viewing.)

So. The Star Wars Holiday Special. Why is it so bad? There are many reasons, none of which can be recited without causing a little bit of pain. I mean, it all starts out with Han Solo trying to escort Chewbacca back to his home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” i.e. Wookiee Christmas. And at first you can think, “Huh, Han and Chewie flying around in the Falcon. Seems like your typical Star Wars stuff…” Then we have the credits. And it’s all downhill from there. Now, I don’t know too much about 1970s TV. But were variety shows really so madly popular that they had to shoehorn Star Wars into this format?

Presumably, if you are a relatively sane human being, when you think “Star Wars” your mind does not also jump to “Music! Comedy! Musical comedy!” But for some reason, somebody’s mind did just that. To this end, they added to the reliable Star Wars cast with such TV stalwarts as Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman (the latter of whom plays 3 terrible roles). They also made pitiful attempts to fit the “music” and “comedy” (in the loosest senses of the words) segments into the main story, which only makes the special look more disjointed and inane than it already is.

So, after the credits, we are introduced to the first, agonizing segment, which strongly resembles an abortive pilot for a sitcom about Chewbacca’s family (mother Malla, father Itchy, and son Lumpy. Yeah.) The dialogue is entirely in “Shyriihook,” which is apparently the Wookiee language. Alas, Shyriihook is neither pleasant to the ear, nor particularly expressive. Therefore, we’re treated to about 9 whole minutes of Wookiees walking around their home, groaning and ululating loudly to each other. 9 whole minutes. Plus the first of many colorful psychedelic trips. High-quality television, this is not.

Mercifully, this would-be introduction to “Lumpy Knows Best” is cut short by a human voice – that of Mark Hamill, at the time recovering from a near-fatal car accident. He plays Luke Skywalker, working on an engine with R2-D2, and sets the Wookiees’ minds at ease. “Try to enjoy your Life Day,” he reassures them. If only Hamill’s soothing voice could similarly take away our woes. We then get a skit that involves Art Carney mumbling to himself (is it supposed to be funny-? We’ll never know), after which we’re shown Darth Vader marching about on a Star Destroyer. I know what you’re thinking: Darth Vader, voiced by James Earl Jones. Awesome, this can’t be a total waste of time!

Well, then we cut to a commercial break, and never see Vader again. (OK, maybe for about 3 seconds in animated form.) Instead we get to see more day-to-day Wookiee hi-jinks. Thrilling, no? Malla watches a four-armed Harvey Korman yuk it up while cross-dressing on a cooking show. Later, an ominous Imperial representative appears on an Orwellian telescreen in the Wookiees’ living room and starts barking orders. Then more Art Carney, handing out Life Day gifts. This is a man who had won an Academy Award only four years earlier. Fame is a fickle mistress.

It’s Carney’s Life Day gift to Itchy that leads us out of television hell and into some heretofore unimagined, somehow much worse über-hell. This is the abyss, folks. It’s never really explained, but his gift turns out to be some type of virtual reality chip, allowing Itchy to enter into an end-of-2001-style light show, which is also occupied by the floating head of Diahann Carroll (who had been nominated for an Oscar only three years prior while starring opposite James Earl Jones in Claudine). Carroll here plays a singing cyber-prostitute. Did I mention this has the words “Holiday Special” in the title? Check out some of her dialogue:

Oh, yes. I can feel my creation! [giggle] I’m getting your message. Are you getting mine? Oh! Oh! We are excited, aren’t we? Now! We can have a good time! Can’t we? I’ll tell you a secret: I find you adorable. [Itchy rewinds the program] I’ll tell you a secret: I find you adorable. [rewinds again] I find you adorable. [again] I find you adorable. I don’t need to ask how you find me. You see, I am your fantasy. I am your experience. So experience me! I am your pleasure. Enjoy me.

Oh, the ’70s. Those wild, liberated times, when hairy aliens getting off to human women in virtual porn was considered great yuletide programming. Carter was in the White House, and anything was acceptable. I guess? Carroll sings “This Minute Now,” the first of many unnecessary, forgettable songs. Then we watch Princess Leia chat with Malla while making snarky comments C-3PO – because this is Star Wars, remember? And not Interspecies Porno Theater. Which may come as a surprise.

The viewer is then granted the respite of more commercials, after which martial law is declared on Kashyyyk and the tone of the special radically shifts to a Wookiee Holocaust drama as Imperial Stormtroopers raid the house. And Jefferson Starship is played on a music box. I just said the words “Wookie Holocaust drama” and “Jefferson Starship” in two consecutive sentences. Either I’m babbling and psychotic, or it’s The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Then, finally, about halfway through the special, we get the one piece of redemption, however slight. It’s the segment that’s generally accepted as being not-quite-terrible: a short cartoon that introduces Boba Fett. Sure, it’s poorly animated (the robots look rubbery and Han Solo’s eyes look stitched shut), but at least it has a vaguely Star Wars-ish story. Something about an invisibility medallion on an orange planet called Panna, and Boba Fett being Darth Vader’s right-hand man. And… a sleeping virus that forces Han and Luke to walk upside down?

OK, it doesn’t make much sense, especially not in context (why is Lumpy watching a cartoon about his brother’s adventures?), but the point is, it’s by far the best part of the special. The scenes in the alien city play out like second-rate Ralph Bakshi, and that’s really the best you can hope for. But then, far too quickly, Boba Fett flies away for some reason, and it’s over. And it’s back to The Diary of Lumpy Frank (Schindler’s Wookiee?) as Stormtroopers needlessly tear the head off of Lumpy’s Bantha toy and barge back out. Which means it’s time for another random, unfunny skit starring Harvey Korman as a malfunctioning robot who has to flap his arms a lot!

These skits just go on forever, killing the special’s nonexistent momentum, and making you feel very embarrassed for poor Harvey Korman. (Luckily for Korman, he would go on to such comparatively dignified roles as “Captain Blythe” in Herbie Goes Bananas and “Professor Balls” in those Pink Panther movies they made after Peter Sellers’ death.) Inexplicably, the Wookiees’ telescreen starts droning on about a “live broadcast” that’s required viewing for Stormtroopers. And since a bunch of Stormtroopers are hanging around, they congregate near the telescreen and watch it.

The broadcast is initially described as if it were an ethnographic study of some distant outpost of the Empire. And indeed, it does take place in the Mos Eisley cantina, featuring many of the weird aliens you remember from Episode IV. But then the gruesome truth is revealed: it’s actually another “comedy” skit, plus a song, starring Bea Arthur as a bartender and Harvey Korman as an obsessive, Travis Bickle-esque patron who drinks out of a blowhole in his scalp. (Again, several words I had once hoped never to use in such close proximity.) After some banter, we get to the song, “Good Night but Not Goodbye,” which amounts to the Tattooine equivalent of “Closing Time” by the Minneapolis-based band Semisonic.

This was about the point where Ashley and I looked at the time left in the video and started cackling, “So close, so close, we’ve almost made it!” Han and Chewbacca finally arrive in time to easily dispatch a single Stormtrooper via Railing Kill – which is exactly the kind of thrilling action sequence you were waiting for after an hour and a half of soul-dismembering dreck, right? Han heart-warmingly wishes the family a happy Life Day, Art Carney briefly reappears, and then that ol’ reality rug is really pulled out from under us, as the Wookiees magically have red cult robes on, walk out into space, and end up in a fog-drenched Life Day celebration chamber!

As the viewer squints, disoriented, at the screen, C-3PO waxes philosophical about his inability to fully enjoy Life Day, and Princess Leia gives a dull monologue full of words like “life,” “hope,” “love,” and “life,” concluding with “This is the promise of the Tree of Life.” Finally, we get the big pay-off, as Leia sings a big, stupid Life Day son, set very roughly to the tune of John Williams’ original Star Wars theme. Some sample lyrics:

A day that brings the promise that one day we’ll be free

To live, to laugh, to dream, to grow, to trust, to love, to live, to be!

I’m thinking this was not exactly penned by Cole Porter. Maybe it’s awkwardly translated out of Shyriihook?

Somehow, the special continues even after she finishes singing. We get Chewbacca taking an extended look back at his own life, allowing for liberal repetition of clips from Episode IV. Then the Chewbacca clan returns to its home, where they sit together around a table filled with glowing objects. Just look at all that crass commercialization of Life Day. And at long, long last, the credits roll. Never was there a sweeter feeling than experiencing two hours of unmitigated torment and knowing that it’s finally over. Also, having a list of ending credits is like knowing who to blame. In fact, there’s a fun game Ashley and I played.

Director Steve Binder, shame on you!

Songwriter Mitzi Welch, shame on you!

Assistant art director Leslie Parsons, shame on you!

Choreographer David Winters, shame on you!

Script supervisor Sheila Lauder, shame on you!

You can do this for quite a while. In fact, by itself, it’s far more enjoyable than every second of the special itself. Sure, maybe these people were just doing it for the money. But I don’t see how that excuses participating in such an overwhelmingly atrocious venture. Hopefully they don’t make a mistake that egregious again, but even so… for shame. You too, hairstylist Evelyn Trimmer. That said, I will now try as hard as I can to block the whole damn experience from my memory. Maybe I’ll accidentally forget my sophomore year of college too. I don’t care; it’ll be worth it.

If you’re up for a better-than-miserable Christmas experience, there’s always the classics. Like Santa Claus. The Mexican one, from the ’50s. As featured on MST3K. OK, maybe the movie itself sucks, but there’s nothing like Mike and the bots singing and enjoying space snow to put you in the holiday mood. Alternatively, you can turn to Christmas music like Jonathan Coulton’s dystopian carol “Chiron Beta Prime,” or better yet, an entire movie full of suitably dark Christmas-y songs: Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Happy holidays, from Pussy Goes Grrr!

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The Wicker Man: Sex, Songs, and Summerisle

[The following was written by both us as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like crops after a human sacrifice.]

Andreas:

Last night, Ashley and I watched Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) together for the second time. It’s a fascinatingly dense movie, one that begs to be rewatched, brimming over with conflicts: between the insular culture of Summerisle (a fictional island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland) and the outside world; between puritanical repression and sexual liberation; between superstitious tradition and scientific modernity; and between poor, misguided Sgt. Neil Howie and the pagans he runs up against.

The Wicker Man is such a strange, unconventional horror film. It starts out as a rural mystery, when Sgt. Howie comes by plane to Summerisle to search for a missing girl, Rowan Morrison. And, unsurprisingly, the film pulls out the old “all is not as it seems” card – but the trope is deployed in such a creative way that the viewer’s never really on solid ground. The inhabitants of Summerisle are like a society beholden to trickster gods, refusing to give Sgt. Howie (and, in turn, the viewer) any clues except those which are methodically parceled out: a little girl’s story about a rabbit, a doctor’s cause of death, a gravestone. But the whole mystery is like a conspiracy of red herrings, in which every citizen of the island has a part to play.

This investigation is complicated by the unreliability of Sgt. Howie himself, a troubled outsider who turns to his faith in Christ for answers. As played by the late Edward Woodward, Howie is easily disturbed by the behaviors he witnesses on Summerisle, and spends much of the film standing at the edge of the frame, staring in horror at the heathen rites being celebrated. He comes with the authority of England’s law (making him “king-like” in the pagans’ eyes), yet finds that Summerisle doesn’t play by his rules. He only has a badge, but they have deeper, older magic.

Even when he’s not actively fighting the islanders’ traditions, Howie stands out in contrast to his surroundings, and this keeps the conflict always visually on the surface. In his black uniform, he makes a bad fit with the rolling green hills and crashing waves, while the pagans are constantly bedecked in smiles and bright, springtime outfits – often reds and yellows. They’re fully in communion with their island, and Howie, as a foreign pathogen, must inevitably be wiped out.

But the film is beautifully, endlessly ambivalent about whose side is right. The islanders are presented as cheerful, earthy, musical people, fully content in their way of life, with Howie as a sour interloper. However, several cracks appear in their façade, suggesting underlying problems with their lifestyle. For example, their very reason for bringing Howie to the island is based in the failure of their crops the previous year, and the film’s ending leaves the question open: will Lord Summerisle be vindicated the following year, or was the island really not meant to bear fruit?

The islanders also embrace a number of irrational, violent traditions, frequently inviting comparison to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The entire third act is devoted to these increasingly bizarre rites – the animal masks, the pentagram formed by the chopping swords, and finally, the live sacrifice within the title edifice. There’s no real reasoning behind them other than the sheer authority of Lord Summerisle and his ancient pagan beliefs. Christopher Lee is great here; his usual urbane villainy (see Dracula, Scaramanga, etc.) is coupled with an easygoing love of life and sincere desire to help his people.

His charisma and immorality are all the more frightening because they’re not motivated by simple evil, but rather by political necessity and self-preservation. I think this is The Wicker Man‘s triumph: it manages to express multiple nuanced arguments rather than providing the audience with a right and a wrong. It shows us a sexually frozen man always on his guard (reminiscent for me of Batman in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum) as he comes face to face with people enjoying themselves in ways he can’t understand, and at the same time gives us hints as to why we should fear for his life.

It’s a great and blood-chilling moment toward the end when Howie realizes that it isn’t Rowan Morrison who’s in danger at all, and I think this captures the film’s narrative well. It isn’t about the islanders endangering each other’s lives; they act as one. It is about Howie himself, his internal and external struggles, all of which work together to deliver him into Lord Summerisle’s hand. He is the individuality to their conformity; he is the moral guardian to their libertines. In the end, the values and traditions of Summerisle show their teeth, and consume Sgt. Howie within their eeriest and darkest rite, incorporating his ashes into the cycle of death and rebirth.

Ashley:

The Wicker Man is an interesting little gem of a movie. If it weren’t for the fact that most people going into the film expect something of a horrifying nature, you wouldn’t really know what to expect from the get-go. It’s one part mystery, one part horror, two parts musical and just a tiny bit of dark comedy thrown in there for good measure. I’ve seen this movie about four times now and I’m left with a different impression of it each time. With this viewing I found myself taking note quite often of the parallels between Sgt. Howie’s ramrod-straight, religious attitude and the citizens of Summerisle’s free-spirited, phallic-symbol loving, orgies-in-the-field (yeah, there are totally orgies in the field) Paganism.

From the very beginning these differences are one of the main driving forces of the film and I found myself thinking about how off-putting Howie’s behavior is. It makes him kind of inaccessible as a protagonist. Unless you are also a staunch, strict religious person, you’re probably not going to relate to his disapproving, judgmental looks, his tut-tutting of these apparently happy, care-free people, and his unwavering belief that HIS God is THE God and these heathens are wholly sinful and wrong. It’s an interesting trick the movie plays on the viewer; you don’t root for Howie or really want him to come out triumphant because it seems like all the threats he perceives are completely in his head and the product of his own fears and intolerance.

But there is still this underlying sense of unease, just below the surface of the film. You know these people are strange, you can sense they’re hiding something from Howie but is he truly in danger? It isn’t until you get more than halfway into the movie that you begin to suspect that, hmmm, maybe these people ARE really fucked up (in a totally dangerous way) and maybe Sgt. Howie IS in peril.

It isn’t until the very end, for me anyway, when Howie is faced with the titular figure, faced with his own mortality that my heart starts to pound for him and I feel sorry for him and want him to escape and come out triumphant. It’s an incredibly powerful scene; Howie begins to scream out to his Christian God and you feel his terror cut through you. And to the very end, I was noting the parallels between the two faiths: as the effigy burns Howie prays and sings out to Christ as the citizens of Summerisle sing about the coming of summer.

And therein lies something that, if the movie were without it, it would not work as well. The music. This movie is weirdly part musical and it just adds to the ethereal weirdness of the island. Sgt. Howie looks on in disdainful confusion and disgust as the citizens sing lewd songs about the Landlord’s Daughter and as the young boys tug (or jerk) strategically placed ribbons while circling a maypole and learning the importance of fertility during the Maypole Song. Oddly enough, these songs don’t seem random or out of place; it fits so perfectly with the otherworldly strangeness that is Summerisle that it only makes sense that these people like to break out into song.

And the soundtrack, which was entirely composed by Paul Giovanni, is a huge part of the different moods and atmospheres of the film. While the playful, suggestive lyrics and tunes of the aforementioned songs create an air of festivity and liveliness the slower, throbbing, earthier melodies of Gently Johnny and Willow’s Song give portions of the film a deep, strange sensuality: they’re inviting you, tempting you, just like they’re tempting Sgt. Howie, to come deeper into this world of carefree lust and spiritual sexuality.

And speaking of which: Willow. Oh, Willow, be still my heart. Sucker that I am for a beautiful girl, I love the character of Willow. Played with a gentle sensuality and purposeful, knowing innocence by Britt Ekland, she’s a soft, luscious but dangerous aspect of the film. We first see her as the friendly, soft-spoken, object of lust for the inn patrons, the landlord’s daughter of the song, dancing around and bringing dinner to Sgt. Howie.

As the film goes on, it becomes clear, as with all the shady citizens of Summerisle, that there’s more to this salacious siren than originally thought. During a climactic (in more ways than one) scene, Willow sings her song, inviting Howie and writhing sensually around her room, pounding the doors and walls and touching and stroking the many phallic shaped objects in her room.

It soon becomes clear that this strumpet is just like the rest of the citizens of Summerisle: hiding something. She has an agenda, her every move and word have a purpose and it’s all tightly woven into the fabric of the all-encompassing tapestry of the plot. Everything that is said and done by these islanders, from the moment Howie’s plane touches down and even before that, is carefully calculated and purposeful. He was brought here for a very specific purpose: a “willing, king-like, virgin fool” is needed for sacrifice and it’s all so airtight by the end of the film that you are just as stricken by it as Howie is. In so many other movies, with a plot device or requirement that insanely specific it would seem overreaching and ridiculous; but the citizens of Summerisle live their lives by ancient tradition. They put toads in the children’s mouths to cure sore throats. This seems perfectly normal as far as their traditions go. It just happens to be chillingly homicidal.

As Andreas and I were watching last night we talked a lot about how, despite the crazy rituals involved in this Pagan faith, is it any more or less crazily demanding than any other religion? At the core of this film, along with a lot of other themes and ideas, is the idea of faith. What faith and belief makes people do. There are constant clashes of faith between Howie and the inhabitants of Summerisle and neither side will back down from their beliefs, even when it leads to murder. And even the act of murder and death are two completely different things when look at through these two faiths. To Howie and the viewers, he is being murdered. To the islanders, they’re just trying to save their crops. Howie will not die; he will be transmuted into their successful crops.

Andreas:

So that’s The Wicker Man, a film of bottomless complexity which entangles eroticism, religious tradition, man’s relationship to the earth, and utter terror. It’s worth noting that the director, Robin Hardy, has only directed one other film, and has a follow-up to The Wicker Man, entitled The Wicker Tree, due out next year. Will it compare in any way? I hope we get a chance to find out. (There was also a 2006 remake, but we don’t like to talk about that.) Till then, we’ll go on pondering the fate of Sgt. Howie and the motives of the islanders, reaping a bountiful harvest of entertainment from this horror masterpiece.

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My Favorite Movies: Glen or Glenda

Favorite movies don’t always overlap with the canon of great movies. Sometimes they’re not even good. I wouldn’t call this selection a “guilty pleasure,” really; instead, it’s a movie made with so little talent and so much enthusiasm that I can spend hours pondering its mysteries. It’s Glen or Glenda (1953), the first feature film directed the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. I don’t remember when I first learned of this film. It’s hidden deep within the recesses of my childhood.

Coming from a family of devoted B movie fans, Ed Wood was of course in our pantheon along with Roger Corman, William Castle, and Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame. I saw Plan 9 at any early age (and many, many times since), as well as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. (I think my father was disconcerted by how many times Martin Landau says “fuck.”) And somewhere along the line, I learned that Wood, the reputed “worst director of all time,” had made a movie about crossdressers. Some years ago, I turned up a DVD copy at the public library; my initial response was a mix of amazement, shock, and some third adjective involving surprise at the film’s low quality. Plenty more viewings would follow.

Glen or Glenda is a curious animal. On the one hand, it follows in the long tradition of classical exploitation filmmaking: movies made starting after WWI that pretend to educate while attempting to titillate. Glenda producer George Weiss had already attached his name to such movies as Test Tube Babies and Racket Girls, the latter of which has been in MST3K, and is probably the least sexy movie about female wrestling. Glen or Glenda was intended follow in this long-standing mold by ostensibly telling the public about sex-change operations while actually providing a teasing glimpse of taboo sexuality. All the trappings are visible, but with Wood at the helm, the film took off in several very strange directions at once.

Initially, Glen or Glenda looks like your usual exploitation movie. It has a topic, its selling point, and it’s even got what Eric Schaefer (writing in Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films) calls the “square up”: the title card at the beginning justifying its existence, and warning that “this is a picture of stark realism”—generally code for “There might be some stock footage of a woman giving birth that shows her vagina.” However, for reasons unknown to anyone, the film then jumps to an aged, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi sitting in a room full of skeletons and holding a book. His incomprehensible, long-winded monologue, all delivered in Lugosi’s inimitable Hungarian drawl, sets up the unpredictable, inexplicable structure of what is to come.

As Lugosi’s monologue demonstrates, it’s largely Wood’s script which keeps this from being just another bad exploitation movie. His dialogue is often redundant, usually stilted, and never good, yet grows increasingly strange, as if Wood had been drifting in and out of touch with reality (and the art of writing) while creating it. Similarly, the narrative as a whole makes stabs at being conventional, but consistently misses its mark, as if Wood’s internal compass were driving him toward the avant-garde.

Sure, a story starts up: a transvestite named Patrick commits suicide, a dim-witted police inspector goes to talk with a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist launches into the usual “Let me tell you a story…” spiel that frames many exploitation films, Reefer Madness being a well-known example. But no sooner does he attempt to narrate the life of Glen/Glenda than Bela interrupts, signaled (as always) by a flash of stock footage lightning, and begins commenting on the psychiatrist in the vaguest terms possible: “There is no mistaking the thoughts in man’s mind… the story is begun…”

Lugosi’s presence is one of the film’s true mysteries. The obvious answer is that Wood was friends with Lugosi, and wanted to give the ailing veteran some work. Furthermore, Lugosi’s (somewhat faded) star power could potentially lend the movie some slight mainstream credibility; hell, he gets top billing. Even so, why locate him so undecipherably within the movie, intruding on the actual narrative, and generally making the entire film inaccessible to ordinary moviegoers? Both his dialogue and milieu feel drawn from another, even weirder movie, perhaps some uneasy mesh of fatalism, mysticism, and mad science.

Even without Lugosi, Glen or Glenda would be an outlier among exploitation films. Not only does it deviate heavily from its intended sex-change subject matter, but at times it feels uncertain what its subject matter is. Transvestites, or modern man’s inability to overcome destiny (albeit phrased much less coherently)? While most exploitation films let their morality tale plots flow unhindered, the psychiatrist frequently stops his own story to meditate on sexuality and tolerance. At one point, Glen visits his friend Johnny for advice, and Johnny tells his story, within a story, within a story.

All of this is exacerbated by the production values, which are even lower than those in Bride of the Monster and Plan 9. During the psychiatrist’s digressions, the film resorts to merely suggesting the existence of a set: a sign reading “BUS STOP” indicates a bus stop, and a water cooler evokes an office. Wood’s extreme dependence on stock footage also has its consequences: many scenes are reduced to voiceovers underscored by the same few seconds of cars on a freeway, or people on a busy sidewalk, and over a minute and a half of the Alan/Anne story consists of WWII battle footage (this, in a film that’s barely an hour long). Other uses are total non sequiturs, most infamously the buffalo herd stampeding while Lugosi chants, “Pull the string!”

Granted, pointing out badness in an Ed Wood movie may be like shooting poorly executed scenes in a barrel, but I think these examples help show why this movie is worth all the attention I give it. Many of these creative choices weren’t just bad, but unnecessary, and not really justifiable. I’d say this willingness to do the wrong thing, even if the only effect is undercutting traditional narrative cinema, sets Wood apart from the bulk of exploitation craftsmen, who were content merely to film their hackneyed story and maybe inject it with a few minutes of burlesque shows.

Glen or Glenda does have the requisite burlesque padding—inserted, may I add, right in the middle of the movie, with no narrative context whatsoever—but it has so much more going on that the drawn-out stripteases and softcore bondage porn feel like an interruption from the normal outside world of ’50s sleaze, in opposition to the ascended gibberish Wood’s been serving up. This padding is also sandwiched inside Glen/Glenda’s nightmare, the point in the movie where the main narrative (the psychiatrist’s story) intersects with the oneiric horror movie atmosphere of the Lugosi interludes.

This is a movie that takes its subconscious’s noctural soliloquies and puts them on the surface for the audience for the audience to puzzle over. During the nightmare sequence, both the visuals and the sinister, cackling dialogue become completely opaque, and you wonder, if this was transcribed and psychoanalyzed, would some new truth about gender identity be revealed? Or is there no meaning, just intimations toward one? Also, is that guy the devil?

It really is a movie brimming with mysteries, possibly wrapped in additional riddles and enigmas. Its incessantly tangential structure doesn’t help, as the movie repeatedly doubles back on itself, leading the viewer down stories and lines of argument that look eerily familiar. A few salient points can be gleaned from these many approaches, however, and the clearest of these is a plea for tolerance. Ultimately, this is a movie rooted in autobiography and personal interest—Wood’s own transvestism. And it’s remarkably progressive, in its own surreal way, asking (sometimes) for an acceptance of all gender and sexual identities.

Admittedly, the film does make more than a few self-contradictory statements and engages in some obviously false reasoning, but what emerges from the majority of the viewpoints presented is an internal consensus: if a man feels more comfortable in woman’s clothes (or a woman’s body) then those options should be available to him. (Unsurprisingly, female transvestites and transsexuals aren’t even considered.) The film’s one mention of homosexuals comes when the psychiatrist specifies that Glen is not one, but it’s not a condemnation by any means, itself a minor triumph for an era when the word “homosexual” was verboten in mainstream cinema.

Of course, Glen or Glenda doesn’t even come close to being a systematic or intelligible defense of transvestism, but that’s hardly its purpose. Instead, I see it as Ed Wood personally expressing, under the only circumstances he could, his feelings about crossdressing and gender identity. And amid a flurry of hysterical expressionism, he manages to say that people should accept ideas even if they seem strange at first. If Ed Wood had had a shred of talent or artistry, he might’ve been Jack Smith or Kenneth Anger. But he didn’t, thank God, and thus he was Ed Wood. With its indecisively multifaceted narrative, its manic mix of genres and messages, and its wildly idiosyncratic take on human sexuality, Glen or Glenda is one of my favorite movies.

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Pictures at a Revolution: good film history and a great read

I recently finished Mark Harris’s thrilling volume of film history, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, so I’d like to write about it briefly. In his book, Harris (the husband of Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner) writes at length about the planning, production, and reception of 1967’s Best Picture nominees. (To be specific, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Dr. Dolittle, and the winner, In the Heat of the Night.) In the process, he’s able to give a wide cross-section of a Hollywood in flux, caught between the studio system’s gradual demise, and the industry’s impending renaissance.

Harris also frames his meticulously researched history as an exciting narrative, full of characters on every end of the roue de fortune, some set at cross-purposes to each other. There are the real-life clashes between Warren Beatty and Jack Warner; Rex Harrison and the cast and crew of Dr. Dolittle; and Stanley Kramer and the late ’60s film criticism community, just to name a few. And they all build up to this greater, intergenerational conflict, in which The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde ultimately win out, aesthetically and financially.

But at the same time, Harris doesn’t oversimplify these struggles, as each major player is presented objectively through interviews, letters, newspaper accounts, and various archival sources. When uncertainty exists, as with the sexualities of Tracy and Hepburn, he footnotes it. Unlike many books which profile movie stars, he fact-checks scrupulously, giving the reader a well-rounded account. For example, he portrays every side of the layered star image of Sidney Poitier – from the viewpoints of black radicals, film critics, filmmakers (like Kramer and In the Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison), the general public, and Poitier himself.

It’s also a book that gives equal time to each part of its dense story, as the films’ production schedules are charted alongside each other. Harris uses the contrast to show how multiple types of filmmaking coexisted in the late ’60s, with intentions, production models, and end results as different as The Graduate and Dr. Dolittle. And within this broader depiction of rapid, industry-wide trends, Harris finds time for dozens of smaller stories to illustrate points about film history, like how The Sound of Music‘s success helped lead to the New Hollywood. (Studios placed their bets on other big-budget musicals like Camelot, Hello, Dolly!, and Sweet Charity, which turned out to be crippling flops.)

After reading Pictures at a Revolution, my immediate reaction is that I want a book like this about every Oscar year. Preferably by Mark Harris. Since it talks about an era of such social and cinematic upheaval, every event is investigated for historical relevance, but he doesn’t draw conclusions where there aren’t any. But when, say, Oscars host Bob Hope makes unfunny jokes about the ceremony’s two-day postponement (due to King’s assassination), there’s a clear generational divide at work. It’s a symptom of a rift, signaling that one part of (film) history is ending, and another is about to begin. It’s these little fissures that Harris diagnoses so well through what would otherwise seem like trivial anecdotes.

That may be the book’s greatest triumph: using these fascinating stories about filmmaking (which really do make it a fun, accessible read) to back up serious historical arguments about changes in the methods and substance of American cinema, and their significance amidst the broader cultural turmoil of late ’60s and early ’70s. I recommend Pictures at a Revolution both for those seeking new knowledge and understanding of beloved films (like Bonnie and Clyde‘s early history being passed around between Truffaut and Godard), and those with an interest in the greater sociocultural context. Harris provides a helpful window into one of the more intriguing times in film history, and American history in general.

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