Monthly Archives: January 2010

While Johnny Guitar Gently Weeps

Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) is technically a western, but it distorts many elements of the genre until they’re barely recognizable. It’s a very strange, fascinating, and beautiful film. Basically, it’s about the conflict between two unyielding women, Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). Between them are a number of men, from wealthy landowner McIvers (Ward Bond), to an outlaw named the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), to the title gunslinger, played by the easygoing, laconic Sterling Hayden. But make no mistake about it: this movie belongs to these women. And it’s not big enough for the two of them.

The film begins with Johnny riding into town, guitar slung across his back. First he encounters some men from the railroad dynamiting mountains to make for tracks; next he witnesses a hold-up in the valley that will motivate much of the ensuing action. Johnny is established as an observer figure, reacting to the events around him, and in this way, he’s cast somewhat in the mold of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, or the anti-heroes of the yet-to-be-made Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars – entering into a volatile situation and carefully engineering a profitable outcome. However, Johnny substitutes wry commentary and absurdist inner peace for Mifune or Eastwood’s self-interest. He’s anything but the proactive, take-charge western lawman or renegade of John Wayne or Gary Cooper. Hayden’s Johnny Guitar, né Logan, is a whole new kind of protagonist.

Once Johnny arrives in town, he finds the woman who’s hired him: Vienna, who’s a whole new kind of love interest. She runs a gambling and liquor joint on the edge of town, employing a group of men who live to serve her, intimidated by the authority she wields from atop a flight of stairs. “I’ve never seen a woman who was more a man,” notes one of them, initiating the film’s flagrant gender-bending, which is encoded in both the dialogue and mise-en-scène. The staircase and upper room (Vienna’s private quarters) are quickly established as architectural representations of her power, similar to how Ray would use a staircase as a manifestation of psychic discontent in Rebel Without a Cause (1956). And Crawford’s acting is a mesmerizing blend of butchiness and neurotic femininity, as if her paranoid housewife in Sudden Fear (1952) had become an entrepreneur in the Wild West. You can really see the unusual charisma that led her to be such a star, yet at the same time a cult figure.

Yet somehow, Crawford is outdone by Mercedes McCambridge, who brings all her demon-eyed intensity to bear on the role of Emma. No reservoir of emotional imbalance is left untapped by her performance as she reigns over the town’s men folk with a tight jaw and an iron fist. During her first confrontation with Vienna in the saloon, she stands at the front of a row of men, each of them indistinguishable in their drab coats and hats while she wears a blazing green that matches the felt of Vienna’s pool tables. She is perpetually the ringleader: the men may try to assert their power – like the marshal’s legal authority or McIvers financial might – but in the end, they’re just figureheads. It’s Emma’s psychotic ferocity, her mix of lust, jealousy, greed, and hatred, that really drives the mob’s actions and the course of the town’s future.

McCambridge, it’s worth noting, was a massively talented and tragically underused actress. She won an Oscar for her first film performance (having earlier been a radio actress) as Sadie, an opportunistic politico in All the King’s Men (1949); other films enlivened by her appearances, however brief, include Giant (1956), Touch of Evil (1958 – “I wanna watch.”), and of course The Exorcist (1973), where she supplied the raspy, eternally angry voice of the demon possessing Linda Blair. Who else could’ve screamed “Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras!” with such gusto?

And voicing Pazuzu isn’t too far removed from playing Emma, who almost burns through the screen with her raw hatred. The film’s simplistic psychoanalyzing – that she wants the Dancin’ Kid dead because he “makes her feel like a woman” – is satisfactory on the surface, but it can hardly account for the Ahab-like devotion of her vendetta against Vienna. (This point leads easily into a queer reading of the film, which is reasonable; in fact, you’d be hard pressed to make a totally non-queer reading of it.)

I think the best demonstration of this, and possibly the best moment in the entire film, takes place just after the last showdown in Vienna’s saloon; as Vienna is brought away on a horse alongside Turkey, her gallant young would-be protector, Emma doubles back and re-enters the empty saloon, rifle in hand. She takes aim and fires at the chandelier hanging from the ceiling, which falls, instantly setting the building ablaze. I just love McCambridge’s body language as the fire spreads: she raises her arms as if conducting it, gazing on it with both awe and pride, as if she can’t believe what she’s done and is rapturous about it. By the time she dances out through the swinging doors, pressing her hand to her mouth in disbelief, and turns to face the camera, she looks orgasmic with the thrill of destruction.

I could probably go on for quite some time about McCambridge’s madly, gleefully over-the-top performance, but that wouldn’t leave much space for the rest of the film. Let me simply say that I’ve decided Emma to be one of the most terrifying, yet compelling villains in all of film. Yet thankfully, Johnny Guitar doesn’t single her out as a force of malice in contrast to a pure and righteous set of heroes. Vienna is selfish and unstable, fighting Emma with her sheer, indomitable will power; Johnny is largely unconcerned with the strife around him; and the Dancin’ Kid is desperate and inclined toward poor decisions. And it’s this general lack of virtue amidst the film’s cast of characters that makes its political, moral, and sexual implications even more potent.

Johnny Guitar exudes meanings; they grow like fungus out of each strange, new scene. On my most recent viewing, it wasn’t until I saw Turkey being coerced into naming Vienna as an accomplice that I remembered that, in addition to its radical gender politics, the film also serves as a savage metaphor for HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist. But it’s hardly dated, since it’s relevant to any situation where people would rather sell their comrades out than face death or bankruptcy. It matter-of-factly catalogues human vice and egocentrism as they spur the action, leading to a happy ending that feels like a parody, similar to Johnny and Vienna’s jaded caricature of old lovers reuniting:

Johnny: Tell me you’d a-died if I hadn’t come back.

Vienna: I woulda died if you hadn’t come back.

Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.

Vienna: I still love you like you love me.

Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

The film’s sour attitudes toward human nature are echoed in its frenzied style, which mirrors the dysfunctional relationships of its characters. Just before it’s burned, for example, Vienna’s saloon looks like a recreation of her interior state, as she sits in a wedding dress playing piano to an empty house while framed against a cavelike wall. Images like these approach surrealism, yet fit right in with the characters’ melodramatic behaviors (it’s no surprise one of Ray’s subsequent films would be entitled Bigger Than Life). This is not a subtle film: this is a film that brandishes its stylistic idiosyncrasies like a whip, from the nonnatural colors – unusual for a western, bright reds, blues, and yellows recur throughout – to the psychological geography of the tunnels underneath Vienna’s saloon and the waterfall guarding the Dancin’ Kid’s mountain hideout. Every erratic filmmaking choice flashes itself in the viewer’s face.

And through a combination of Ray’s directorial genius and the actors’ talents, it all works. It’s different, it’s campy, it’s anything but typical, and it’s a great, innovative film – also, it’s difficult to imagine how Ray was able to make it in 1954. (I can’t say, but I’d guess that making it at the Poverty Row studio Republic helped.) Johnny Guitar has also had a huge influence, with its daring combination of bizarre artsiness and genre filmmaking. It was adored by the French New Wave, especially Godard, and my film professor Carol noted of it, “Much beloved by feminist critics of a certain era, as you might imagine.” Directors who’ve either paid homage or been influenced by it range from Wim Wenders to Jim Jarmusch (both Ray acolytes), from Bertolucci to Scorsese to Almodóvar, and beyond.

So I guess those are my thoughts on Johnny Guitar, which I had to express sooner or later. It’s a pretty audacious film, and I especially love its complex uses of androgyny and gender roles, playing a sexual joke on the entire history of westerns. It’s so improbable, yet manages to be so well-made at every turn, as it realizes the mammoth egos of these two fierce women in the infernos and explosions that streak the Arizona landscape. I’ll mention at the last minute two especially notable members of the supporting cast: John Carradine, who sacrifices his life for unrequited admiration, and Ernest Borgnine, who’s as much of a violent prick as his character Fatso in From Here to Eternity. They’re just two fascinating little details in the giant canvas that is Johnny Guitar.

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Memento remembered

A couple nights ago, I watched the movie Memento (2000) for the second time, as part of my “Personal Identity” class, and it dawned on me that I didn’t fully appreciate its merits the first time around. So even though the film’s been talked about to death, I’m going to add my own two cents. I first saw Memento my freshman year and mentally lumped it in with The Usual Suspects as structurally clever but superficial, and therefore overrated. My opinion of The Usual Suspects hasn’t changed (really, aside from some Spacey and Gabriel Byrne, where’s the appeal?), but I want to reconsider Memento. At the time, I felt that the narrative acrobatics may have occupied the mind while viewing and trying to put together the pieces, but once you had them together, the final product was hardly profound. I sided with Roger Ebert’s ambivalent review:

Nolan’s device of telling his story backward, or sort of backward, is simply that–a device. It does not reflect the way Leonard thinks. He still operates in chronological time, and does not know he is in a time-reversed movie. The film’s deep backward and abysm of time is for our entertainment and has nothing to do with his condition.

I still haven’t decided for myself quite what I think of the reverse chronology; it’s clear that it puts us in a state of awareness similar to that of clueless anti-hero Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). But does the movie necessarily have to be backward? For now, I’ll just say that I can’t think of a more effective way to cinematically convey the tabula rasa state in which Leonard enters each new scene. (Damn: it occurs to me that if I were really clever, I’d be writing this post backward.) But setting aside the question of whether the film’s structure is necessary, I’ll move on to what I really wanted to talk about…

Now, where was I?

I really love several elements of Memento. I believe a great film should be more than a puzzle – and it is more than that – but at the same time, it must be one of the great “puzzle movies” of all time. Having devoured countless Agatha Christie novels and Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, I appreciate the appeal of a good whodunit, or a whodunwhat, or whatever word you’d use to describe the investigation at the heart of Memento. (Maybe a whatidun?) A basic reason for its consistent popularity has to be the pure giddiness of trying to solve the mystery along with Leonard, trying to use your own short-term memory to make up for his shortcomings. And writer-director Christopher Nolan is so careful about which clues he dispenses, and when – a note here, a tattoo or polaroid there, visible in the margins of the screen.

But it’s really not just a puzzle; it’s a revenge saga, akin to Oldboy (2003) – compare Oh Dae-su’s plight with Leonard’s cry of “I want my fucking life back!” It’s also a brilliant example of neo-noir, quietly invoking numerous recognizable noir tropes. “I’m Leonard Shelby. I’m from San Francisco,” insists Leonard every time Teddy (smarmy bastard Joe Pantoliano) casts doubts about his identity. The line almost feels plucked from the screenplay of, say, DOA (1950). And Leonard’s a former insurance investigator, too, like the protagonists of Double Indemnity (1944) and The Killers (1946). Like any good noir, it’s got a convoluted narrative and a murder to solve. Only this time, it’s uncertain when the murder was committed, whether it’s been avenged, or who’s trying to obstruct the investigation.

This is one of the beauties of Memento: you never know who or what to trust. While the pervasive dishonesty of The Usual Suspects led me to wonder, “OK, then, what’s the point?”, Memento goes places with its confusion. The whole film, after all, is about the fallibility of a basic human resource – memory. “Memories can be distorted,” says Leonard to femme fatale Natalie (the beautiful Carrie-Anne Moss, in the best role she’ll ever have). “They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” Everyone’s been forced to face the imperfection of memory sometime or other (consider the deliberations of 12 Angry Men); Leonard just deals with it to a greater degree.

But this uncertainty doesn’t just operate on the level of Leonard’s memory, or the viewer’s perception of the plot. It informs the very world the characters are living in. Memento‘s world is one without absolute authorities and without objective truth. Never in the film is the viewer exposed to a media outlet – no TV or radio, let alone Internet. No news, nobody who can clear up the hydra-headed mysteries. The city in which the film takes place is as insular and claustrophobic as Leonard’s motel room during the black and white sequences. And what’s the city called, anyway? Teddy repeatedly suggests that Leonard leave town, but where would he go?

I’m reminded of two 1998 films, both of which involve confused men investigating the constructed worlds they live in: The Truman Show and Dark City. (Though the storyline is older than both films, having been used occasionally in The Twilight Zone.) The generic, probably Californian city of Memento is never shown to be artificial, and I don’t think it is, but I think Leonard’s condition is exacerbated by lack of contact with the outside world, and this leaves him especially susceptible to Teddy and Natalie’s games.

Even within all the film’s structures and modes, it’s essentially a three-person drama. Each of them wants something from the other two. Leonard is the most transparent, or so it seems, as he’s just using them to get to the truth. (Or is he – ? Look at the poster again: an infinite amount of past Leonards, with all their lies and ulterior motives, are hidden around corners in the film’s temporal reality.) Natalie “has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity,” according to Leonard’s polaroid. “I think I’m gonna use you,” says Natalie to his face. This is what’s great about the film. Leonard’s facts aren’t worth the plastic they’re printed on, and his notes are about as ephemeral and useless as his memories. Nihilistic? Probably, yes. But so well-stated, as if the film were a giant thematic Möbius strip.

And Teddy. What motivates him? I think he’s probably manipulating Leonard to get money out of local drug dealers. “Don’t trust his lies,” says the polaroid. Teddy is a hell of a liar, and even as he sounds off at the end/beginning, telling Leonard all the unpleasant “truths” he’d rather not here, you can’t possibly be sure. I don’t think his words are completely true – I mean, really, he had Leonard kill Jimmy just so he could see a look of happiness on Leonard’s face? Yet there’s probably a grain of truth concealed in them somewhere. In this way, Memento is like a less beautiful but more elaborate variation on Rashomon. You can never really establish the entire truth, but you try, you can get close enough to realize how futile it is.

Memento‘s certainly not without its flaws. After all, when most of a film’s reputation stems from its zigzag structure, it’s especially prone to plot holes. I’m still confused as to why Natalie, after seeing Leonard in Jimmy’s car and wearing his clothes, only did a brief double-take. Did she realize that Jimmy was dead, and decide to sink her claws into Leonard then and there? Apparently she’d already heard about his memory condition, as the dialogue in the bar reveals. This is just a minor quibble, but similar logical gaps are easy to find if you look for them. I don’t they ruin the experience, but they can distract you from the film’s real accomplishments.

I also think it’s not worth dwelling too much on the reverse chronology. I still think Ebert makes a good point, as when he compares Memento to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a play about the unraveling of a relationship told backward, where the structure has a profound emotional impact. In Memento, the tragedy isn’t built up so much by experiencing the events backward, but by Leonard’s inability to put everything together, and the reverse chronology works, at least, to keep us similarly off-balance. The irony is that while Leonard forgets his own lies, we’re forced to remember it all, even as the satisfaction he receives from one act of vengeance invalidates another.

At present, the only other film I’ve seen by Christopher Nolan has been his massive 2008 hit, and perhaps masterpiece, The Dark Knight. The same renovations to neo-noir imagery and character types that made Memento so fresh and different were applied to the most noirish, anti-heroic member of the superhero pantheon, and with terrific results. As both films show, Nolan knows how to make entertaining pop cinema, but he’s not afraid to work in darker, more complex ideas. (For extra auteur fun, compare Teddy and the Joker as chaotic, eternally smiling trickster gods.) His next film, Inception, is due out this summer, and it looks like he’s up to more of his old (which is to say, new) tricks. You can bet I’ll be seeing it as soon as I can. (Besides, it’s got supporting parts for Ellen Page and Cillian Murphy – i.e., an attractiveness overload.)

So ultimately, I grant that Memento does deserve repeated viewings. Not, as so many Internet commenters have said, because it’s impossible to understand after just one. I understood the plot just fine the first time. (With Primer, though, it’s a different story…) Instead, the second viewing paid off because in seeing the finer details of the performances and mise-en-scène, I was engaged by the doubts and dilemmas that underlie the entire film, and connect them with the moral ambiguities of film noir, whose codes Nolan uses as touchstones. Memento isn’t the deepest or most thoughtful cinematic inquiry into memory (for that, see the work of Alain Resnais, please), but it’s an unusual, fun film with unusually dark undercurrents.

[The following discussion of Memento contains many spoilers. Be warned. Yes, that’s my stab at a reverse chronology joke.]

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Pleasurists #60


by yana.

Pleasurists is a round-up of the adult product and sex toy reviews that came out in the last seven days. For updates and information follow our RSS Feed and Twitter.

Did you miss Pleasurists #59? Read it all here. Do you have a review for Pleasurists #61? Use our submission form and submit it before Sunday January 17th at 11:59pm PST. Be sure to read our submission guidelines.

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Looking for something other than reviews?
e[lust] #4

Editor’s Pick

  • Liberator Axis Hitachi by Carnivalesq
  • Epiphora commented that “the Hitachi takes up like entire vulva,” and therefore wanted to know “if I have to like buttsex to have it work for partner play.” I argue that the Hitachi does not take up the whole vulva, but recognize that I may, in fact, be super human.

    Note: Carnivalesq’s Illustrated Axis Hitachi Positioning Guide is just awesome and you should read it. ‘Nuff said.

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Scarlet Lotus St. Syr

On to the reviews…

Vibrators

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Lube, Massage Oil, Bath Stuff, & etc.

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My gripe with Avatar fandom

Fandom, at times, can be a little frightening. I like to think about the psychological effects of mass media and the Internet; I spent part of last night reading about “online disinhibition effect” – a consequence of virtual anonymity that we’ve all observed, whether we’ve seen flamewars or trolls or insulting posts in online forums. Today I’ve been reading into the sometimes terrifying world of the newly-born Avatar fandom.

Now, fandom isn’t always negative; as I wrote about Trekkies, sometimes fans can band together to create bold, new works out of the preexisting substance of the franchise. Ashley and I both wrote mediocre fanfiction when we were younger (her about Harry Potter, myself about Digimon), and it helped us start writing. However, I have some issues with the massive Avatar following that’s sprung up online.

Now, I grant that this is an enormously popular, successful, profitable movie. Not an especially good one, as I noted in my review, but somewhat imaginative and extremely well-loved. But I feel like the explosive interest in Avatar, which includes multiple wikis, forums, blogs, etc., reveals additional problems with the movie: namely, it’s contrived in order to create a huge base of fans, so that maybe Avatars 2 and 3 can join the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time, too.

I mean, the movie’s purpose is to launch a franchise, to sell peripheral merchandise, to spread Avatar brand awareness through lunch boxes and stickers and whatever else you can cram into middle school lockers. It’s a fucking blockbuster – that was its mission, which is now very well accomplished. Yet intriguingly, and disturbingly, some people see it as a worthy cultural object to base their life around.

Through two lovely blogs, Geekologie and Ramblings of a Film Snob, I’ve recently learned about the worst of the worst amongst Avatar fans: those who get depressed because “the dream of Pandora [is] intangible,” as a CNN article informs me. Against my better judgment, I visited a forum called Naviblue.com, and glanced over some of the more egregious topics:

Coping with Avatar/Pandora Withdrawals
Why are people claiming that Avatar has a racist message
If your Avatar were to die…
What do you think avatar hidden message is
Real Life Na’vi Tribe (NOT on the Internet!)

Now, I know this is just par for the course in the age of the Internet. If there is some phenomenon – especially within the realm of fiction-world-based sci-fi – somebody’s going to obsess over it. There have always been nerds. What were alchemists but a kind of proto-nerd? But I think that the CNN story linked to above isn’t just pointless hysteria along the lines of “Video games and Marilyn Manson make our kids violent” stories of the past; I think it’s symptomatic of something greater, which possibly connects to online disinhibition effect.

I’ve expressed before an interest in child psychology – how children are sometimes incapable of distinguishing between fiction and reality, and how they process media differently. I wonder if these reactions to Avatar have to do with this kind of childlike perception. Hell, when I was 11-12, I desperately wanted the Harry Potter world to be real. I actually mused about how I’d be able to cast spells in heaven. You know why? I was a stupid 12-year-old, that’s why.

However, Live Journal user tireanavi, who writes “We Are Na’vi [Na’vi Reborn],” doesn’t look 12. Glancing hesitantly through their entries, it betrays a slightly frightening level of devotion to Avatar, as well as a connection to “Otherkin” culture, which I was heretofore unfamiliar with. I have to wonder, are they being serious when they ask, “do you have any memories of your life on Pandora? How clear are they, how detailed?” It reminds me in a way of Jack Chick’s “Dark Dungeons,” and the total disconnect from reality that Chick perceives in D&D users.

Now, I’m not just a “hater.” I have a genuine interest in exploring what’s psychologically behind these actions and claims. At a certain point, fandom does start entering into cult territory; I’m reminded of the stories of violence against Twilight haters (granted, that’s from a virulently anti-Twilight website). You’re an unhappy or desperate person, you find something to latch onto, and you defend it against any who object to it. The quality of the cultural object doesn’t matter: it’s yours, and you need it. Scary? Yes, I’d say so. I think of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, searching for any purpose, or of this very dark Onion article about desperate fandom.

I’m not really able to draw any conclusive answers here about the hows and whys, but I do think that the mentality being fostered in Avatar fans who dream of living on Pandora or being a Na’vi – even to the extreme of, to quote a forum user named Mike, “contemplat[ing] suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora” – is on the verge of cultlike. And I don’t think that’s a total coincidence. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, Avatar is basically prefabricated fan material. It’s designed to acquire fans; its universe isn’t all that organic or lived-in, but it does have a sufficient number of tiny details for fans to obsess over.

I think a great example is the Na’vi language. I’m not saying a lot of work didn’t go into it. But I think back to before Avatar was released, when a news story about artificial languages discussed Na’vi, saying it’d be the new Klingon, which is notorious for being spoken fluently by diehard Trekkies. And sure enough, Avatar fans are talking and writing in Na’vi; I suspect that this is done so that 1) they can equate themselves with film’s blue, in-tune-with-nature noble savages and 2) they can have a way of speaking that normal, uninitiated folks don’t use. Having a special vernacular is common amongst most fandoms (“muggle”?); Cameron, whose already swollen ego must be close to imploding, just accelerated the process.

So my central complaint is that with Avatar, the following just feels so built-in. While talking to Ashley recently, I compared it to the political practice of “astroturfing” – i.e., artificial grassroots. It’s barely been in theaters a month and already people think they’re reincarnated Na’vi, really? Maybe Cameron tapped into a big 21st century zeitgeist. Maybe it has something to do with growing up with Internet access. Or maybe Avatar isn’t so much a movie as it is a giant, well-oiled fan-acquiring machine.

In any case, now I think I really want to stop talking about goddamn Avatar, but I just wanted to express why it really bugged me. Because this “I saw Avatar and now I’m depressed” story isn’t at all a completely isolated, wacky, extreme case. Our generation is all about losing ourselves in unreality. A few years ago it was Second Life. Or World of Warcraft. And by and large, I don’t believe these types of attractions are good. I believe that works of art can and should improve our real lives, not act as substitutes. That’s what aggravated me about Avatar. And now I want to get back to works of art and my real life.

I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora

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Hungry for Cinema: Eating Raoul

I’m looking for new formats in which to discuss individual films or directors. Haven’t really thought of anything yet. However, I do have a movie to discuss – I watched it last night and, after browsing the Internet, decided that no one’s really talked about it thoroughly enough. So this is my meager attempt to do so.

The movie is Paul Bartel’s cult classic Eating Raoul (1982), a recent purchase I requested for the Carleton library. It’s a very entertaining black comedy about a perversely normal couple named Paul and Mary Bland (played by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov) who want to start up their own restaurant, but lack the necessary funds. One thing leads to another, and soon they’re inviting rich perverts up to their apartment, bopping them on the head with a frying pan, then taking their money. But then they team up with a Chicano locksmith/thief (Robert Beltran, later Voyager‘s Chakotay), and things get a little complicated…

The film opens with a very cute credit sequence set to the 1930 song “Exactly Like You,” and followed by an introduction to “Hollywood, California! City of contrast… Here, sex hunger is reflected in every aspect of daily life…” All of these little touches add up to a very disarming atmosphere – sure, it’s about rape and murder, but in a pleasant, nostalgic way. Mary Bland works in a hospital, where she deals with a horny patient; Paul is fired from his job at a liquor store for pushing expensive wines. Their inability to get along with the modern world is a recurring subtext – with their utter disinterest in sex and their fixation on providing high-quality wine and dining, they’re actually pretty weird.

“I don’t mind a little hugging and kissing,” says the prissy Paul after a run-in with a dominatrix, “but that…” In an adorably bizarre twist, the Blands even sleep in separate, adjacent beds – Mary with her stuffed animals, and Paul with his stuffed bottle of wine. It’s such a strange choice, to make a film not about perverts, but about hard-working asexuals who are OK with a little murder now and then (or, as it turns out, every night). It gets especially interesting as the Blands’ scheme introduces them to sex, after a little prompting from Doris the dominatrix.

Their conference with her is unforgettable: she spoon-feeds her baby while explaining to the Blands, “Everybody’s gotta make up his own mind about where to draw the line. Like I personally draw the line at golden showers.” (Sadly, Susan Saiger, who plays Doris, has only had three other screen credits, and none in the past 20 years.) As Mary begins catering to the fantasies of strangers, they find themselves exposed to all sorts of weird fetishes, from a wanna-be Nazi commandant to a Vietnam vet with a sexual grudge against hippies, played by Ed Begley, Jr.

Then Raoul comes in. Robert Beltran plays him brilliantly: he’s dishonest, charismatic, sexually voracious and not exactly shy about it. He’s a man of many rackets, and makes an odd fit as a business partner with the Blands, leading to no end of friction with Paul, and a decided lack of friction with Mary. Paul’s paranoia leads him to stalk Raoul for a day, and later to hire Doris for some undercover work… as you might imagine, hilarity ensues.

But recounting the film’s plot doesn’t really do it justice. While the story’s clashes between very different ideas of the American dream (most of which either involve sex or someone’s death) provide the background for the morbid comedy, it’s the offbeat dialogue by Bartel and Richard Blackburn that make Eating Raoul the spicy treat it is. It’s often absurd and gleefully satirical, taking shots both at the Blands, who just can’t seem to help killing people, and at the swinging, rape-happy world they live in.

As the film’s introduction suggests, this is a world where “the barrier between food and sex has dissolved.” Every act is just about expressing one’s appetites: hot tub orgies, burglary, marijuana use, cooking dinner. Eating Raoul, right up to the titular event and the unexpected ending that follows, is a deliciously sick movie, constantly shifting the targets of its weird sense of humor. I trace a lot of this sensibility back to Bartel’s origins as a student of Roger Corman, for whom he made his directorial debut, Death Race 2000; you can see a lot of similar comedy in such Corman classics as A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), both of which also have well-meaning protagonists who commit mass murder.

While watching Eating Raoul, I was also reminded of other 1980s black comedies, like Basket Case (1982) and Repo Man (1984), both of which also take broad, comical shots at the modern world. I’d be interested in finding other ’80s movies that integrate comedy with horror/sci-fi with such great success. But ultimately, no film can quite pull off what Eating Raoul does so hilariously. I have to give credit to some stand-out supporting players: in addition to Beltran and the multitalented Saiger, the film has appearances by Buck Henry as a lecherous bank employee, and Edie McClurg as an inane swinger who giggles, “We like B&D, but we don’t like S&M. We met at the A&P!”

So I grant that Eating Raoul isn’t for everyone (the same probably goes for most comedies where fetishists are ground into dog food), but it’s about as funny a cinematic exploration of libidinous violence as you’re likely to find. I’ll also mention that the film has been adapted into a stage musical, which seems oddly appropriate. As cult films go, Eating Raoul is both rare and well-done.

Beaujolais

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Avatar: the next generation of moneymaking

[This is a modified version of my review for Avatar, to be published next week in the Carl, Carleton’s biweekly arts & lit rag. Ashley wants it to be known that she hates James Cameron, and doesn’t want to hear about the movie anymore; also, she is temporarily without Internet. Finally, full disclosure: due to scheduling concerns, I was only able to see Avatar in 2D.]

Since it hit theaters in December, James Cameron’s Avatar has swept the nation, becoming the second (and counting) highest-grossing film in history, and inspiring lots and lots of tiresome, repetitive discussion. And in keeping with ‘s policy of weighing in on things, I’m here to add to that discussion.

In case, somehow, the behemoth that is Avatar‘s marketing budget hasn’t yet made a telepathic bond (or “Tsahaylu”) with you, the film’s plot is fairly easy to describe: in 2154, technologically advanced humans have colonized a planet called Pandora, which abounds with glowing natural wonders, and decided to plunder it in order to obtain its Unobtainium. However, a race of 10-foot-tall indigenous feline humanoids called the Na’vi already live there, right on top of one of the richest Unobtainium reserves on all of Pandora.

Don’t worry, though: I haven’t spoiled anything, because all of this is spelled out in clunky expositional dialogue and voiceover within the first 10 or so minutes. The only added twist is that several of the humans, including the disabled hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), are able to mingle with the natives by entering specially grown Na’vi bodies – avatars, if you will. Through his avatar, Jake is able to nimbly explore the diverse wildlife of Pandora, including rainforests full of lovingly rendered flora, and several large species of pachyderm that breathe through their front legs – I mean, why not, they’re aliens.

The story that follows, from Jake’s first encounter with Na’vi princess Neytiri, to his induction into their tribe, to the climactic war between the Na’vi and humans, is nothing if not predictable; if you’re able to follow the first act, you can probably guess with considerable accuracy how the villain, Colonel Quaritch, will die. Because, as so many reviews have already pointed out, the story is not the point.

The obligatory good vs. evil, technology vs. nature conflict simply serves as a framework for the real meat of the film: holy shit is that a detailed planet. Over a decade in the making, Avatar (by which I mean, Avatar‘s visuals) is being vaunted as the next generation of filmmaking, the next step in the history of film, and a lot of messianic-sounding phrases with the words “next” and “filmmaking” in them. Maybe it’s the cinematic Luddite in me talking, but I just don’t buy the hype.

The most pertinent point might be that I’ve seen better. Yes, Cameron’s engaging vision of Pandora is fun to explore, especially when the camera sits still long enough for us to check out the planet’s foliage and curious astronomical features. It’s admittedly a breakthrough of a sort, yet it’s hardly the most enrapturing world that’s ever been created on film. For example, British director Michael Powell helped construct exotic worlds of light and color in films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Tales of Hoffmann. Another apt example is Hayao Miyazaki, who’s more than matched Cameron’s artistry in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, while simultaneously developing similar themes more eloquently, and without resorting to obvious Manichaean struggles.

My other basis for dismissing Avatar as any kind of landmark film is the fact it relies so heavily on the shimmering beauty of its fictional world that virtually every other element suffers. Most of the dialogue is, frankly, inane; when characters aren’t speaking in Na’vi, they’re spouting action movie clichés like “Let’s dance!” or referring to a hammerheaded creature as a “punk-ass bitch.” As others have pointed out, this wouldn’t be such a problem if we were only dealing with a big, goofy action movie – like, say, Cameron’s earlier Aliens – but here we’re dealing with a big, goofy action movie that begs us to take its superficial allegory seriously while refusing to allow an ounce of genuine humor or self-deprecation into the material, lest that dilute its vital message or epic grandeur.

It’s also frustrating that such an expansive, spiritually interconnected world can’t be populated by anyone but easily identifiable stock characters. Jake is such a dull, hollow protagonist that it’s hard to see what everyone, from Neytiri to the rest of the Na’vi and even their earth goddess Eywa, sees in him. Upon their first encounter, Neytiri notes that he has a “strong heart”; the reasoning behind his tremendous success as a member, and later the leader (!), of the Na’vi is never again questioned. The Na’vi themselves, despite being the ostensible focal point of the film, are consistently ignored in favor of Jake, and outside of a few ritual chants (usually meant to help Jake) and plenty of sashaying before the camera in order to show off their shiny blue bodies, they don’t do or say a whole lot as individuals, at least nothing that Jake doesn’t tell them to first.

The humans, meanwhile, are mostly reduced to a set of militaristic stereotypes, with Colonel Quaritch as their pointedly evil, irrationally angry leader. (In fact, he’s so evil he can violate the film’s own ground rules and survive in Pandora’s atmosphere, simply for the purpose of being really, really evil.) The film’s only real saving grace so far as the performances are concerned is Sigourney Weaver as avatar supervisor Dr. Augustine, being her usual hard-headed, affable self; however, her character’s extensive experience with the Na’vi is immediately bypassed by the film in favor of Jake’s strong heart.

So in the end, my opinion on Avatar lines up with the sentiment I’ve noticed in most ambivalent reviews: it’s pretty to look at, but there’s not much going on underneath. It is a high-octane thrill ride, along with whatever else they’re calling it, and if that’s what you’re looking for, by all means go see it quick, before you’re subjected to the indignity of watching it on a TV or computer screen. But please don’t tell me it’s the next anything of cinema, unless that “anything” is “extremely profitable investment.” I have high hopes for the future of filmmaking technology. I just hope the next great pioneer has a more interesting story to tell than Avatar.

In case, somehow, the behemoth that is Avatar’s marketing budget hasn’t yet made a telepathic bond (or “Tsahaylu”) with you, the film’s plot is fairly easy to describe: in 2154, technologically advanced humans have colonized a planet called Pandora, which abounds with glowing natural wonders, and decided to plunder it in order to obtain its Unobtainium. However, a race of 10-foot-tall indigenous feline humanoids called the Na’vi already live there, right on top of one of the richest Unobtainium reserves on all of Pandora.

Don’t worry, though: I haven’t spoiled anything, because all of this is spelled out in clunky expositional dialogue and voiceover within the first 10 or so minutes. The only added twist is that several of the humans, including the disabled hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), are able to mingle with the natives by entering specially grown Na’vi bodies – avatars, if you will. Through his avatar, Jake is able to nimbly explore the diverse wildlife of Pandora, including rainforests full of lovingly rendered flora, and several large species of pachyderm that breathe through their front legs – I mean, why not, they’re aliens.

The story that follows, from Jake’s first encounter with Na’vi princess Neytiri, to his induction into their tribe, to the climactic war between the Na’vi and humans, is nothing if not predictable; if you’re able to follow the first act, you can probably guess with considerable accuracy how the villain, Colonel Quaritch, will die. Because, as so many reviews have already pointed out, the story is not the point.

The obligatory good vs. evil, technology vs. nature conflict simply serves as a framework for the real meat of the film: holy shit is that a detailed planet. Over a decade in the making, Avatar (by which I mean, Avatar’s visuals) is being vaunted as the next generation of filmmaking, the next step in the history of film, and a lot of messianic-sounding phrases with the words “next” and “filmmaking” in them. Maybe it’s the cinematic Luddite in me talking, but I just don’t buy the hype.

The most pertinent point might be that I’ve seen better. Yes, Cameron’s engaging vision of Pandora is fun to explore, especially when the camera sits still long enough for us to check out the planet’s foliage and curious astronomical features. It’s admittedly a breakthrough of a sort, yet it’s hardly the most enrapturing world that’s ever been created on film. As I discuss in the column above, Michael Powell helped construct exotic, self-contained worlds of light and color in films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Tales of Hoffmann. Another apt example is Hayao Miyazaki, who’s more than matched Cameron’s artistry in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, while simultaneously developing similar themes more eloquently, and without resorting to obvious Manichaean struggles.

My other basis for dismissing Avatar as any kind of landmark film is the fact it relies so heavily on the shimmering beauty of its fictional world that virtually every other element suffers. Most of the dialogue is, frankly, inane; when characters aren’t speaking in Na’vi, they’re spouting action movie clichés like “Let’s dance!” or referring to a hammerheaded creature as a “punk-ass bitch.” As others have pointed out, this wouldn’t be such a problem if we were only dealing with a big, goofy action movie – like, say, Cameron’s earlier Aliens – but here we’re dealing with a big, goofy action movie that begs us to take its superficial allegory seriously while refusing to allow an ounce of genuine humor or self-deprecation into the material, lest that dilute its vital message or epic grandeur.

It’s also frustrating that such an expansive, spiritually interconnected world can’t be populated by anyone but easily identifiable stock characters. Jake is such a dull, hollow protagonist that it’s hard to see what everyone, from Neytiri to the rest of the Na’vi and even their earth goddess Eywa, sees in him. Upon their first encounter, Neytiri notes that he has a “strong heart”; the reasoning behind his tremendous success as a member, and later the leader (!), of the Na’vi is never again questioned. The Na’vi themselves, despite being the ostensible focal point of the film, are consistently ignored in favor of Jake, and outside of a few ritual chants (usually meant to help Jake) and plenty of sashaying before the camera in order to show off their shiny blue bodies, they don’t do or say a whole lot as individuals, at least nothing that Jake doesn’t tell them to first.

The humans, meanwhile, are mostly reduced to a set of militaristic stereotypes, with Colonel Quaritch as their pointedly evil, irrationally angry leader. (In fact, he’s so evil he can violate the film’s own ground rules and survive in Pandora’s atmosphere, simply for the purpose of being really, really evil.) The film’s only real saving grace so far as the performances are concerned is Sigourney Weaver as avatar supervisor Dr. Augustine, being her usual hard-headed, affable self; however, her character’s extensive experience with the Na’vi is immediately bypassed by the film in favor of Jake’s strong heart.

So in the end, my opinion on Avatar lines up with the sentiment I’ve noticed in most ambivalent reviews: it’s pretty to look at, but there’s not much going on underneath. It is a high-octane thrill ride, along with whatever else they’re calling it, and if that’s what you’re looking for, by all means go see it quick, before you’re subjected to the indignity of watching it on a TV or computer screen. But please don’t tell me it’s the next anything of cinema, unless that “anything” is “extremely profitable investment.” I have high hopes for the future of filmmaking technology. I just hope the next great pioneer has a more interesting story to tell than Avatar.

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RIP Art Clokey

I just learned from Wikipedia that Art Clokey, the creator of Gumby and a pioneer of stop-motion animation, died this morning at the age of 88. I watched Gumby a lot as a young child and was enamored with its crude but energetic animation style, along with its bursts of metafiction and surrealism (even if I didn’t know it at the time). Although the quality of its episodes was uneven, it was a show unlike any other, and it set the standard for future claymation programming.

Clokey also created another landmark claymation series, Davey and Goliath; though not as outwardly imaginative as Gumby, it was still entertaining in its moralistic, squeaky-clean way, and apparently broke racial boundaries in television. Though frequently (and deservedly) mocked for its sermonizing, one of its many parodies became a great tribute to Clokey’s style in the form of the bitterly satirical Adult Swim series Moral Orel.

I’ve written about Clokey on this blog before, and have a great appreciation both for his talents and for his great effect on the animation industry. It seems there’s a documentary about his life entitled Gumby Dharma; I’d love to see it if it’s available online. As we mourn Clokey’s passing, I thank him for hours of creative, unusual animation I’ve enjoyed over my life.

If you’ve got a heart, then Art Clokey’s a part of you.

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