Friday, October 31, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #33: Trog

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Trog (released October 1970)

Trog (Joe Cornelius) covets Dr. Brockton's (Joan Crawford) pink silk scarf.

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Trog is a low-budget British sci-fi monster horror melodrama about the discovery of a prehistoric man -- also known as a troglodyte. If it starred anyone besides legendary Oscar-winning actress Joan Crawford, it probably would have been forgotten decades ago. Widowed, financially strapped, a functioning alcoholic and still driven to work after five decades in movies, sixty-five-year-old Crawford took a part that required her to declare emphatically and with dignity, "It's my firm belief that Trog is the missing link." When you make 92 feature films, some of them are just not going to be very good. It's inevitable. If you're lucky, however, you might make at least one that's so bad it's good. Trog is Miss Crawford's bad masterpiece. She gets to speak science, like this:

"Conceivably, Trog was frozen solid during the long, long glacial age. A state similar to cryogenic suspension. Then as the underground streams and currents brought more and more warmth to the frozen atmosphere, his body thawed out. We now know that human sperm, red blood cells, bone marrow cells, even skin can be brought back to life after freezing."

And she sells that like only Crawford can. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

In the English countryside, a freelance expedition of three young British explorers -- Bill, Cliff and Malcolm -- stumble upon the entrance to a cave that's not on their map. Uh oh. Deep inside this impossibly well-lit, paper mache and fiberglass formation they find an underground stream with water "like ice." Malcolm concludes that "it's probably fed by subterranean glacial waters." Hearing that, Bill and Cliff immediately strip down to their adorable boxer shorts and dive right in because they don't want the "sub-aqua boys" to go first and take credit for whatever they discover on the other side of the stream. What they discover is an inhospitable troglodyte who's so peeved by guests dropping by in their underwear that he kills Bill and scares the shit out of Cliff. Malcolm rescues Cliff and takes him directly to a research institute conveniently located on the outskirts of a generic English village near the cave -- and, coincidentally, it's run by world famous anthropologist Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford). Suffering from a serious case of bad-actor-in-shock syndrome, Cliff babbles about something "monstrous, like nothing I've ever seen before." Then Cliff disappears from the film entirely... which is unfortunate primarily because he looks quite good in boxers. Anyway, Dr. Brockton convinces Malcolm to take her to the cave because, "This could be the one chance in a lifetime. Who knows? An opportunity to lift the veil from the past." Dr. Brockton photographs the troglodyte and presents her evidence to the local police inspector along with a science lesson. "Half ape, half man -- trog -- a primitive cave dweller," she declares.

Next thing you know, curious villagers, police officials, the fire department, a TV news crew and somebody with a refreshment stand are all outside the cave waiting for the the sub-aqua boys -- Is this really what they call frogmen in England? -- to capture this primitive cave dweller so Dr. Brockton can look under its loincloth. Emerging from the crowd is Mr. Murdoch (Michael Gough), the sourpuss village idiot who has ferocious animosity toward Dr. Brockton. He's so bitter and acrimonious that you immediately suspect he's a rival anthropologist or spurned former lover from her past. No, not in this movie. His sole motivation for being a raging asshole is that he thinks her research is "taxpayer's money down the drain!" Really, he's like one of those insufferable Tea Party people, but with a British accent. So Murdoch thinks the whole thing's a hoax until the troglodyte unceremoniously bursts out of the cave, tosses a styrofoam rock at a TV cameraman and sends everyone scurrying away in fear. Except Dr. Brockton, of course. She came prepared with a tranquilizer dart gun that sounds like a shotgun.  

Back at the research institute, Dr. Brockton and her sweet blonde scientist daughter, Anne, feed Trog a rubber lizard. "For a senior citizen he certainly has a marvelous appetite!" Anne exclaims. They give him -- I guess it's a him; no one ever checks -- a doll and a train. He likes both. Gender-neutral parenting -- this movie was way ahead of it's time! And he likes Dr. Brockton's pink scarf so much that he puts it around his own neck, an obvious sign that he has a future in missy fashion design. They discover that Trog prefers classical music over rock and roll, meaning that he's going to be unbearable at dinner parties. But when they take him outside to play ball, he promptly strangles a German Shepherd to death. The town is suddenly outraged and there's an inquiry. This must have been a really beloved dog because there was no inquiry when Trog bludgeoned poor Bill to death in that cave. Dr. Brockton compares Trog to a "retarded child" that can't be held responsible for his actions. But Murdoch disrupts the inquiry, naturally, calling Brockton a heathen and sharing his two-point plan for handling Trog: "Kill it first, then study it's hide!" That retarded business aside, Dr. Brockton makes an impassioned speech on behalf of Trog and, to Murdoch's hammy dismay, gets to continue her research. Side note: As the odious Murdoch, Michael Gough is so over the top that it's amazing his career lasted long enough for him to portray the butler in every single 1990s entry in the Batman franchise.

Dr. Brockton recruits an American surgeon to implant a "micro-trans" in Trog and then he's hooked up to a TV that shows us his memories. Trog's memories -- stop-motion dinosaur battles, erupting volcanoes and glaciers that led to his "icy hibernation" -- look suspiciously like four minutes of garishly tinted footage from a 1956 Irwin Allen (yeah, the Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno guy) documentary called The Animal World. Oh, and the "micro-trans" thingy also gives Trog the gift of speech, which he uses to compliment sweet blonde scientist daughter Anne's blue dress. All this makes Dr. Brockton cry, leading you to wonder if that was in the script or if Crawford is weeping, understandably, for the mortifying demise of her once illustrious career.

Before Trog can reveal "the baffling secrets of evolution," there's yet another inquiry and more of Murdoch howling about this "murdering monster." To prove his point that Trog is a murdering monster, Murdoch breaks into the research center and frees Trog so that he can, presumably, choke more dogs, frighten everyone in the generic English village next door and kill somebody else. Not surprisingly, Murdoch The Village Idiot did not think his plan through; he's expeditiously beaten to death by Trog the Murdering Monster. Finally, Trog runs amok because, well, it's not like you would expect him to skip back to the lab, tie Dr. Brockton's pink scarf around his neck and arrange a tea party for that guy who implanted a "micro-trans" under his skin. No, this movie needs a suitable climax -- roughly fifteen laugh-out-loud minutes of Trog being naughty. He flips a car, murders some shopkeepers, terrorizes a playground and kidnaps a blonde girl. And you know what happens to people -- or troglodyes -- that kidnap little blonde girls. Spoiler Alert (but not so much): "It's got to be destroyed!"

Trog is the kind of movie that deserves an exclamation point in the title, just because. Alas, that must not have occurred to the three men responsible for the screenplay -- Peter Bryan, John Gilling and Aben Kandel. It also didn't occur to them to give Dr. Brockton a first name, or explain why her own daughter has an English accent and she does not. But, holy hell, they sure did concoct a heinous mashup of The Miracle Worker and Frankenstein, with a pinch of King Kong. No director could have saved Trog, but Freddie Francis stages everything so ineptly that it's mind-boggling to find out he'd actually directed eighteen other movies first. Incredibly, Francis went on to become a respected cinematographer who's worked for Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.

The credits tell us that Trog was designed by Charles Parker, a makeup artist who worked in movies from the early 1940s until his death in 1977 (his last film was Star Wars). He also worked on Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). If you've seen it, you'll probably remember that it begins with a sequence commonly known as "The Dawn of Man," wherein about a dozen Paleolithic man-apes figure out how to use a bone as a weapon. Only one of the man-apes is ever shown in a medium closeup, but watch carefully and you'll see a distinct resemblance to Trog. Looks like Parker recycled the worst of those masks for this film and just attached some hair.  It looks unfinished; somewhat better than a Halloween mask, but nowhere near as convincing as the state-of-the-art makeup Hollywood used two years earlier for Planet of the Apes (1968). Trog is just a goofy creation in a bad rubber mask, a silly loincloth (really, when did he decide to cover up his junk?) and a pair of big furry house slippers. You can't take him seriously as either missing link or monster. However, the chunky man under the mask (Joe Cornelius) appears to be having a blast.

Trog, a face that only People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) could love.

Stray Gay Observations: Trog has sexy legs, nice arms and a cute little belly, making him somewhat more attractive to me than Bigfoot. After a couple of margaritas I'd probably fuck him.

Crawford's wardrobe is regrettable. Only Trog looks worse. I wanted to blame it on the costume department, but my research turned up an interesting fact: the budget was so tight, Crawford wore some of her own clothes. I know she's supposed to be an anthropologist and all that, but yikes, there are some unflattering outfits here -- even for 1970.

Crawford worked steadily for nearly five decades, starting in silent films with 1925's Pretty Ladies. Along the way she made some really entertaining movies, including: Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), Johnny Guitar (1954) and (arguably her last great film) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The success of Baby Jane should have led to other good parts. It didn't. Left nearly broke from her last marriage, Crawford took the roles she was offered -- lurid, low-budget thrillers like Strait-Jacket (1964), I Saw What You Did (1964) and Berserk! (1967). By her own admission she hated Trog; it became her final feature film performance. But as awful an experience as it might have been for her to make Trog, Crawford commits to the damn thing with a shocking degree of sincerity for someone who's required to act with one of the most unconvincing beasts in celluloid history. Bad as Trog is -- and it's shockingly bad --  Crawford somehow manages to give the whole thing an endearing quality.

The remarkable career of Joan Crawford (1906-1977) has been somewhat eclipsed by the publication of adopted daughter Christina Crawford's harsh 1978 tell-all screed, Mommie Dearest, and its subsequent screen adaptation starring Faye Dunaway ("What's wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers... EVER!"). Here's how I feel about Mommie Dearest: I think the book is probably exaggerated BS from a disgruntled kid, but I regularly regard the film as the best worst movie ever made.

Sorry, I just couldn't resist...

"What's a troglodyte doing in this cave when I told you no troglodytes... EVER!" 

Should You See It? Absolutely. Here are three reasons: (1) this is an unbelievably cheesy, profoundly absurd movie; (2) it's an infamous camp classic that has to be seen to be believed; and (3) Joan Fucking Crawford. 

PS. I would also like to argue (with tongue firmly planted in cheek, sort of) that Trog is a prescient motion picture of significant importance. The Murdoch character -- an intolerant, blustering, overprivileged white male with unwavering contempt for science -- gives us an uncanny glimpse into America's future.

Next Time: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) 

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #32: Shakespeare in Love

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Shakespeare in Love
 (released December 1998)

Shakespeare in Love
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps 

Here's the most recent VOD trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: It's London, circa 1593 -- the glory days of Elizabethan theatre. Young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is struggling to write his latest play, a comedy he intends to call Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. The words aren't coming. "I have lost my gift," he acknowledges with exactly the kind of grandiose woe befitting a self-absorbed writer. He seeks inspiration. The solution, he ascertains, is to find a muse. Preferably one he can take to bed. With actors and theatre owners clamoring for his latest work, Will appeases everyone by promising them a play he's barely begun to write and starts auditioning players. Enter Viola de Lessups (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who loves Shakespeare's poetry and despises the fact that women are banned from performing on stage (yes, that's historically accurate). To circumvent that exclusion, Viola disguises herself as Thomas Kent and auditions for the part of Romeo by performing a bit from Will's earlier works. Convinced he's found his Romeo, Will casts Viola/Kent.

As the play takes shape, Will discovers Viola's ruse, a passionate love affair begins and Shakespeare's comedy morphs into his most famous romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. In other words, he finds his muse. There are, of course, a series of major and minor complications, misunderstandings and revelations for Will and Viola to navigate. For instance, Viola's father has arranged her marriage to the insufferable Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a nobleman who only wants an obedient, grateful and fertile wife with no qualms about relocating to Virginia (which actually did exist in 1593, but did not become a permanent English settlement until 1607... in case you were wondering).

As Shakespeare and Viola, Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow are perfectly cast. Fiennes is a bundle of disconsolation, obsession and verve -- he makes the historically enigmatic Shakespeare amusingly cocky, a bit of a rascal and ultimately affecting. Paltrow seizes the opportunity to play her first fully realized character, a burgeoning young woman who becomes a thoroughly plausible playwright's muse -- she's radiant, ardent and feisty. (Her impeccable English accent never wavers, either.) The supporting cast is a sensational assembly of stalwart Brits: Tom Wilkinson (a stagestruck financier), Rupert Everett (rival playwright Christopher Marlowe), Imelda Staunton (Viola's nurse), Geoffrey Rush (a perpetually harried theatre owner) and the superb Judi Dench (as Queen Elizabeth I, a monarch with vinegar coursing through her veins). Finally, Ben Affleck goes full peacock, spoofing the eternal vanity of self-important stars who covet the largest parts; his comic timing is surprising and impressive.

Screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard have created a sublime pastiche, mimicking the structure and beats of the Elizabethan plays perfected by Shakespeare. They juggle history, fiction, comedy and drama, striking a rare pitch of fervent romance, bawdy fun and marvelous wordplay (that doesn't sound discordant or anachronistic). Early on, they're cribbing of Shakespeare is witty and playful. There's a cheeky irreverence in their characterization of the man, too. But by the end you can feel their admiration for Shakespeare and what he accomplished. It's a smart script, laced with clever literary inside jokes for those who were paying attention in school, but it's most definitely -- and thankfully -- not a pretentious history lesson. It does, however, give you a true sense of the role theatre played in English life at the time -- seriously, not even plague could shut down the playhouses.

Stray Gay Observations. Although there is historical evidence that Shakespeare married early (age 18) and fathered three children, there has been a lot of speculation about his sexuality -- fueled primarily by the fact that a significant number of his sonnets are written about and dedicated to a young man. Some scholars like to refute the possibility that William Shakespeare could have been anything but heterosexual, as if bisexuality is unfathomable. In Shakespeare in Love, the script deliberately flirts with the idea that Will is first drawn to Viola when she is dressed as a young man. Later, when she's still dressed as a man and before Will discovers her scheme, Viola kisses him passionately and he returns the kiss, not pulling away in disgust. When she abruptly departs, Will looks startled and confused by what's just transpired, but not repulsed. It's an interesting choice on the part of the writers and a rather lovely bit of acting by Fiennes.

Shakespeare in Love won seven Academy Awards (Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress and Best Picture). Winning that many Oscars almost guarantees a backlash. Shakespeare in Love beat Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture. Some people consider this a grievous, unforgivably tragic Oscar upset. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong... really, really wrong -- Forrest GumpCrash and The Artist, for instance. And sometimes the Academy has to choose between great films. Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan are great films, for wildly different reasons. Spielberg got a well-deserved Oscar for directing Saving Private Ryan, a film that breaks new ground in depicting war and arguably transcends a genre. But I can also argue that Shakespeare in Love transcends the romantic comedy genre, excelling at making something a lot of people dread -- romcoms and Shakespeare! -- into rollicking, accessible-but-not-insulting, bittersweet entertainment. If you want to contend that Saving Private Ryan is a work of greater significance because it's about war, go ahead, but I think that's a specious argument. And you can easily convince me that Ryan triumphs over Shakespeare when it comes to sheer technical virtuosity. But, Ryan is a film I admire (or uneasily appreciate) primarily for its astonishing, brutal and indelible battle sequences -- its epilogue and prologue are unnecessary and the middle section is uneven. I just don't ever want to watch it again because it spends nearly three hours convincing us of something we should already know: war is literally hell on Earth. Shakespeare in Love, on the other hand, has unfettered panache, winking erudition and surprising emotional depth. It's exemplary filmmaking -- an absorbing love story, yes, but also a movie that ultimately becomes an ingenious paean to the art of theatre. If you love this film, there's no reason whatsoever to apologize for it. Shakespeare in Love earned its Best Picture Oscar.

Throughout Shakespeare in Love, the Oscar-winning costumes (by Sandy Powell) are splendid.

For instance...

Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I

Judi Dench won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. Screen time: roughly eight minutes. Scoffing at the brevity of her role, some people don't believe Dench deserved the statue for this performance.  Broken down, Queen Elizabeth functions as a kind of deus ex machina -- and that could have been a major problem. However, Dame Judi's take on the monarch is droll, wicked and show-stopping. She steals those eight minutes. It's not really about the actual length of time she appears in the film. The question should be: How impactful was her work?

For some reason that escapes me entirely, there's a peculiar amount of irrational hatred for Gwyneth Paltrow out there. I don't understand this because, as celebrities go, Paltrow is pretty benign. She's an attractive, talented woman with solid fashion sense who seems to irk people primarily for looking good, winning an Oscar at 26 and having the the nerve to create a curated upscale lifestyle website, Goop, that delivers all kinds of healthy recipes, travel ideas, fashion advice, wellness tips and cultural musings.... that you can totally choose to ignore. It's not like she's ever held anyone hostage and forced them to eat macrobiotic food. Here's the real problem: Americans like their blondes dumb (Anna Nicole Smith), ornate (porn stars, cheerleaders, 97% of all female Fox News anchors), or tragic (Marilyn Monroe). That really doesn't describe Paltrow. The world is filled with awful, awful people that are out there ruining everything. Gwyneth Paltrow isn't one of them.

Originally, they were trying to cast Daniel Day Lewis and Julia Roberts. Him, sure. Julia Roberts? Just no. No. No. NO.

The Lust Factor. According to historians, there's no real evidence that Shakespeare ever commissioned a portrait of himself and there's no written description of his physical appearance. But here's a trio of portraits that reputedly represent him:

Left to right: 
The Cobbe Portrait (1610), The Chandos Portrait (early 1600s) & the Droeshout Portrait (1622) 

So, if you're going to cast someone as William Shakespeare and you want me to take him seriously as a romantic lead, then do this:

Joseph Fiennes

Should You See It? Like some of the best Shakespearean works, Shakespeare in Love is brimming with love, sex, despair, treachery, tragedy, tears, villainy, sword fights, wisecracks, ribald humor and cross-dressing. It's an enormously clever take on the historical figure widely acknowledged as the greatest English language dramatist in the world. Frankly, if you don't like this movie, there's a pretty good chance that you are, (A) averse to Shakespeare, (B) just being contrary, or (c) one of those people who thinks the Transformers franchise is awesome.

Next Time: Trog (1970)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #31: Blue Velvet

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). When my Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Blue Velvet
(released September 1986)

Dennis Hopper (as Frank Booth) & Isabella Rossellini (as Dorothy Vallens) in Blue Velvet

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The opening sequence of Blue Velvet tweaks an all-too-familiar Hollywood version of cozy small-town America: white picket fences, sun-kissed rose bushes, waving firemen, children bounding through carefully patrolled crosswalks, and charming single-family homes. Suddenly, a man watering his lawn collapses -- stroke, heart attack? -- and a yappy little dog drinks water from the hose he's still clutching in his hand. "Oh, that's sad... and kind of perverse" you think. And then the camera slithers through the grass, goes underground and reveals a cluster of icky, frenzied bugs doing their thing. That's writer/director David Lynch's twisted way of warning you that awful things are going on beneath the serenely banal surface of Lumberton, a North Carolina logging town that's about to lose its big-screen virginity in the most unsettling way possible.

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is the son of the man who collapsed on his lawn. He comes home from college to work in his father's hardware story until dad recovers -- incidentally, dad can't speak, his head is locked in some kind of grotesque medical apparatus and whatever happened to him is never explained; he has roughly 35 seconds of screen time, so you can just forget about him. After visiting his father in the hospital, Jeffrey wanders back home through a vacant lot and discovers a human ear. "I found an ear, " he says, surrendering it promptly to a family neighbor, otherwise known as police detective Williams. Obsessed with the ear -- well, wouldn't you be? -- Jeffrey hounds Detective Williams about his investigation, but gets no answers. As he leaves the detective's house one night, high school senior Sandy (Laura Dern) literally emerges from the darkness to ask, "Are you the one who found the ear?" Fortunately for Jeffrey, Sandy is the detective's daughter and her bedroom is right above his home office. She's heard things. Maybe clues about who's missing that ear. It could involve Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a sultry lounge singer with connections to a seedy (trust me, that's a charitable adjective) drug dealer named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

Jeffrey and Sandy scheme like Nancy Drew and one half of the Hardy Boys to gain access to Dorothy's apartment. One sample of the gloriously bent dialogue that emerges from their plotting:

Sandy: "I don't know if you're a detective or a pervert."
Jeffrey: "That's for me to know and you to find out."

Jeffrey gets inside Dorothy's apartment, but when she arrives home unexpectedly, he hides, ending up trapped in a closet and forced to witness her rape (or is it a sexual game?) by the sadomasochistic Frank Booth. This involves scissors, a blue velvet robe, the snorting of some kind of unidentified gas (amyl nitrite?) and the creepiest, most profoundly uncomfortable utterance of "Mommy!" ever. Seriously, ever. A detached human ear pales in comparison to what happens between Dorothy and Frank, so Jeffrey becomes obsessed with the lounge singer. Ostensibly, he wants to help her because Frank has (maybe) kidnapped her husband and small son, but an unhealthy sexual relationship develops between Dorothy and Jeffrey. She's whimpering "help me" one moment and "hit me" the next. He obliges. Simultaneously, Jeffrey and Sandy are falling in love like a couple of high school kids in a very strange 1950s sitcom. Eventually, Frank and Sandy discover that Jeffrey has become Dorothy's "special friend." And Detective Williams more or less proves that he should have picked a different line of work.

Blue Velvet is deeply unsettling, brazenly over the top and built on a mystery -- who's missing the ear? -- that becomes largely irrelevant as the film progresses. Writer/director David Lynch has created a highly-stylized world where everything is off. It's a retro 1950s landscape -- not a single car looks like it was built after 1970 and the pop songs that punctuate various scenes are all from the 1950s or early '60s -- but it's definitely taking place in the mid 1980s. That world is not compelling just because it gets increasingly weirder and more dangerous; weirdness, sex and violence will only get you so far. Lynch establishes a foreboding undercurrent from that opening sequence, but he really excels at two things. First, he's brilliant at juxtaposing the innocent and idyllic with the dark and disturbing; it's a world of opposites. And second, he's given us four characters -- Jeffrey, Sandy, Dorothy and Frank -- that draw you into this world in wildly disparate ways.

Oh, what characters they are. Jeffrey is the bland, clean-cut, all-American boy-next-door who jumps at the chance to visit the dark side of Lumberton. And there he finds Dorothy Vallens, a seductive but complex bundle of neurosis and unique sexual predilections, and Frank Booth, more or less the personification of pure evil. Meanwhile, there's impossibly sweet and decent Sandy, the kind of girl who'd probably be worried about prom night in any other movie. As for the performances, Kyle MacLachlan is the right type for Jeffrey and he's fine, but everyone else is better. Isabella Rossellini (the daughter of legendary Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and Italian director Roberto Rossellini) is beaten, sexually abused, degraded, stripped of her clothing and teeters on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Plus, she has to sing (the 1950s hit "Blue Velvet," naturally) in a lusty and dangerously close to flat voice that instantly explains why she's performing in Lumberton and not Las Vegas. With only a handful of credits before Blue Velvet, the model-turned-actress is convincingly wounded and unstable in what can only be adequately described as a groundbreaking role. As Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper is... well, seriously committed -- and bizarrely comical, creepy and terrifying all at once. Foul-mouthed, deranged, depraved, manic and prone to violent outrage, this is the kind of character that leaves an indelible impression and spins iconic, not unlike Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lechter in The Silence of the Lambs. Nothing about Frank Booth is ever explained or rationalized, which makes him all the more unnerving. And sure, Dorothy and Frank are the showy roles and Rossellini and Hopper got deserved kudos, but Laura Dern flat-out nails the wholesome, hometown Sandy role.

Ultimately, Blue Velvet is the kind of movie that makes you ask, "How did this ever get made?" It frequently plays like a daft satire of small-town life and it gleefully eschews or spoofs Hollywood storytelling conventions. I might even argue that Lynch is trenchantly flogging the shit out of the preposterously quaint 1950s-style American Dream scenario that U.S. conservatives still insist is real, universally desired and attainable through nothing more than hard work. Where there are dreams, there are nightmares, Lynch reminds us in his very own idiosyncratic way.

Of all the films I've reviewed for this series, Blue Velvet has been the most difficult to watch and write about. It's one of the earliest examples of American postmodern cinema -- films with a pastiche of styles that attempt to subvert the mainstream conventions of narrative structure and characterization, plus twiddle with the audience's suspension of disbelief. With Blue Velvet, David Lynch takes the sunny, idealized small-town movie trope and drops it directly into an intensely personal and innovative reinvention of the classic 1940s and '50s film noir genre. It's shockingly uninhibited, freakishly imaginative and boldly absurd in ways that may work for you, or not. I appreciate what Lynch does here, but I ended up admiring Blue Velvet more than I enjoyed it. That's not really a criticism. I've seen plenty of movies that were tepid, safe, artless and instantly forgettable. Blue Velvet isn't one of them.

Stray Gay Observations: If I had to sum up my Blue Velvet viewing experience in one sentence, I'd say something like, "David Lynch just sent me a poisoned valentine." However, there are number of things I unreservedly love about Blue Velvet. The music -- sinuous, jazzy, ominous, old Hollywood, strangely evocative -- is an extraordinary mix of mostly forgotten pop tunes and original compositions by Angelo Badalamenti. Then there's the production design by Patricia Norris and the work of cinematographer Frederick Elmes -- their collaboration expertly defines the light and dark sides of Lumberton, and the distinction is striking. Even the contrast between Sandy (blonde, fresh cheeks and invariably dressed in modest pinks) and Dorothy (black hair, red lips and dark, rich-colored clothing) is fascinatingly extreme -- and taken to an arresting degree when they finally meet face to face. And I just have to mention the appearance of an animatronic bird straight out of Disney's Mary Poppins -- for me it is the single most splendidly perfect and flabbergasting thing about Blue Velvet.

Dennis Hopper dominates every scene he's in, except one -- that's when his character, Frank Booth, and some of his colleagues take Dorothy and Jeffrey to a decidedly unsexy brothel run by a fey and vaguely sinister man named Ben (Dean Stockwell). Frank repeatedly and admiringly compliments Ben, calling him "suave." Stockwell manages to momentarily eclipse Hopper with a bizarrely insidious performance. And when Ben begins to lip-sync a classic old Roy Orbison tune, "In Dreams," the film reaches something like a queer apex.

Dean Stockwell as Ben the lip-syncing brothel owner

After Blue Velvet, David Lynch made another movie (Wild at Heart) and then co-created the revolutionary TV series Twin Peaks (1990-91), about an FBI agent who investigates the mysterious murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer in a Washington state logging town. I know people who think Twin Peaks is a masterpiece. I'd describe it as a hauntingly perverse, occasionally mesmerizing mess that might actually be a masterpiece if David Lynch had wrapped it all up in the first 8-episode season or simply conceived it as a miniseries with a definitive ending. But that's not how TV worked in those days. A network actually expected David Lynch to entertain a mainstream audience and sustain a level of compelling visionary weirdness episode after episode. That's a tall order. Viewers hung in there for a while but abandoned the series as soon as Laura Palmer's murderer was revealed in the seventh episode of the second season (and it's possibly the creepiest and most horrifying moment in scripted television history to that point). Nevertheless, Twin Peaks succeeds as a distinctive experiment that changed the network television landscape forever. And without Blue Velvet, there would never have been Twin Peaks.

Should You See It? After my initial screening, I thought the whole thing was messed up, self-conscious and propelled by forced theatricality. Then I gave myself a few days to think about it before I wrote this review. After some reflection, I still think Blue Velvet is undoubtedly and intentionally all those things. David Lynch is deliberately fucking with me, you, and everyone else. I think he knows exactly what he's doing and he's certainly okay with the fact that a lot of people just aren't going to get it. Whether or not you think there's any merit to what he's doing is open for debate. So, personally, I may not be wildly enthusiastic about Blue Velvet, but I'd recommend it to anyone who prefers their movies dark, vigorously peculiar and unapologetically surreal.

Next: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #30: The Bodyguard

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

The Bodyguard (released November 1992)

Whitney Houston as superstar Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard
(This futuristic Egyptian warrior queen outfit is not the silliest thing about the movie.)

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: The Bodyguard is one of those movies that can literally be summed up in three sentences: Someone is trying to kill superstar singer/actress Rachel Marron. Her handlers hire ex-Secret Service agent Frank Farmer to protect her. Complications arise when Frank and Rachel fall in love. 

Kevin Costner is Frank Farmer. He abandoned his Secret Service career after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981. We're reminded over and over again that he wasn't even on duty that day, but Frank has apparently spent the last decade brooding about the incident while freelancing as a bodyguard. Whitney Houston is Rachel Marron. She lives in a gargantuan mansion surrounded by handlers, a passive-aggressive sister, an adorable eight-year-old son and a security guard whose sole qualification seems to be that he's a big lug. After a Rachel Marron Barbie doll blows up backstage at one of her concerts, Rachel's primary handler, Devaney, seeks Farmer's help. "I don't do celebrities," Frank protests, but you know he's going to change his mind in about ten minutes.

Rachel's been getting death threats for six months. The letters say things like this:

Marron bitch
You have everything
I have nothing
The time is coming
When you shall die

Someone has also gotten into the estate, located Rachel's bedroom and masturbated on her bed. Devaney and Rachel's publicist, Sy, decided not to tell her about any of that stuff, even explaining the bomb away as some kind of "electrical problem." And no, they haven't told the police or the FBI either. Her publicist is worried that all those creepy letters and that anonymous spooge on her bedspread is going to "freak her out." Frank recognizes that Rachel Marron is being handled by idiots and takes the job. He orders all kinds new security measures and moves into a swell guest house on the grounds. And still no one, including Frank, tells Rachel what's really going on. She's alternately enraged and titillated by Frank, constantly poking fun and teasing him with lines like, "You probably won't believe this, but I have a reputation for being a bitch." Whether she's a bitch or not is arguable, but she definitely nails obnoxious.

Anyway, you were promised a love story. So, Frank goes shopping with Rachel in a funky little clothes shop. She tries to engage him in some flirty banter with only a dressing room curtain between them. He's deliberately aloof. She interprets this as disapproval. He grins. She pouts. Back at her super-secure gargantuan estate, Frank watches one of Rachel's music videos on the big TV in his swell guest house. He's so absorbed by her talent and beauty that he can't even blink. All the way up in her bedroom, she hears the music and watches him from her window. Yes, that's exactly how this movie chooses to demonstrate that these two people have fallen in love. Rachel loves Frank because he went shopping with her. Frank loves Rachel because her music video cast some kind of weird spell over him. I guess that music video business is plausible; I fell in love with Michael McDonald, the former lead singer of The Doobie Brothers, after I saw him in a music video for "Sweet Freedom" in 1986.

So, Frank and Rachel have a date night -- a movie, then drinks at a bar -- and no one recognizes her. At all. Even though she's a superstar singer and actress. They slow dance to a country version of Houston's hit, "I Will Always Love You." For a minute, Frank is nervous that someone in this country bar where no one recognizes her is going to kill her. So, they end up back at his place for some puzzling, not remotely erotic Samurai sword foreplay. Then they sleep together. Frank immediately regrets this. Rachel gets petulant. Her songs keep invading the soundtrack. She gets nominated for an Oscar. A boat explodes. Her sister sings "Jesus Loves Me." And somebody still wants to kill her. Truthfully, about an hour and ten minutes into this mess, I wanted to kill her, too.

Kevin Costner -- an often underrated actor --  isn't half bad as the bodyguard. The script requires him to perform plenty of cartoonish heroics, but there are moments when he almost makes you believe you're watching a much better movie. He tries everything short of rubbing sticks and stones together to ignite sparks between himself and Whitney Houston. There's just no chemistry. It's easy to contend that Houston is miscast -- she is -- but the problem with Rachel Marron is twofold. First, she's just a badly written character -- fractious, selfish and clueless one minute, schizophrenically lusting after her bodyguard the next. For a superstar, she barely works. For a mother, she has almost no contact with her child. In fact, she has exactly one inconsequential scene alone with her son and it lasts less than thirty seconds -- Frank has multiple interactions with the kid. Rachel lacks most of the human characteristics that might make her relatable or recognizably vulnerable. Are we really supposed to like a woman that sits by the pool listening to her own songs on headphones? And second, I'm not sure anyone could have made this awful part work, but Whitney Houston simply did not have the skills -- this was her debut role -- to convince you of anything other than the fact that she had a phenomenal singing voice (and we already knew that). She couldn't sell lines like, "Frank, I need you. I'm afraid. And I hate my fear."

I was genuinely surprised that The Bodyguard is such a bad, bad movie. It blusters right on past unbelievable to become the perfect storm of stupid in its last half hour -- that's when all is revealed and somebody tries to kill Rachel at the Academy Awards in front of a worldwide audience. Sound dramatic enough for you? Don't worry, the filmmakers depiction of an Oscar ceremony is so hilariously wrong that the movie finally becomes a can't-look-away-belly-flop into the deep end of the camp pool. (A refresher: Camp is what happens when a bunch of creative people come together to make a serious drama, but something goes monumentally awry in the process and they unintentionally make a comedy... and they don't know it until the audience starts laughing in all the wrong places.)

Stray Gay Observations:

There's an idea for a gay remake stirring around in my head: Ryan Gosling is the bodyguard for Kanye West.

The Bodyguard was written by Lawrence Kasdan. According to my research, it was Kasdan's first script, originally submitted to studios in 1976. At one point it was supposed to star Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, then Ryan O'Neal and Diana Ross. I doubt the outcome would have been much different.

After seeing the godawful movie that eventually got made from his first script, it's kind of amazing that Lawrence Kasdan also wrote the screenplays for some fine American films -- Raiders of the Lost ArkBody Heat, The Big ChillThe Empire Strikes BackThe Accidental Tourist and Grand Canyon.

Should You See It? As ill-conceived Hollywood star vehicles go, The Bodyguard crashes and burns in all kinds of enjoyable ways.

Next Time: Blue Velvet (1986)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Cruel Summer Music Mix 2014 - Vol. 6

As a southerner, I've been listening to these seven words all my life: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I call that southern science. And it's not particularly comforting when the sweat is rolling down my back into my ass crack. Anyway, it's going to take more than sunscreen, shade, AC or lots of citrus-kissed blonde ales to get me through the season. Summer needs a soundtrack! The sixth and final volume in this year's series features earworms from Bear Hands, Dirty Heads and Team Me.

Bear Hands. Formed in 2006, things started clicking for this Brooklyn band in 2010. Their sound is an experimental (but very self-assured) kind of alternative post-punk rock. There's some amazing variety on their albums. Check out their website here.

The men of Bear Hands
Left to right: Dylan Rau, Ted Feldman, Val Loper & TJ Orscher

Song & Video -- "Giants." It's a propulsive, infectious track with a terrific guitar riff and a lyrical hook that hits a sweet spot. The video? Director Mark Pellington had this to say about it: "I wanted to make a sexy noisy pop blast. The energy and weird electric sense of desire and aggressiveness of the track was our theme. Love this band and this piece." (Me, too.)

Dirty Heads.
Named one of the best bands of 2010 by Rolling Stone, these California dudes successfully mix a variety of genres -- hip hop, reggae, rock -- into an, unexpected, uncomplicated sound. Vocalist Jared Watson says, at the end of the day, "We just want to make you feel good." Check out their website here.     

Dirty Heads
Left to right: David Foral, Jared Watson, Dustin Bushnell, Matt Ochoa & Jon Olazabel

Song & Video -- "My Sweet Summer." Sounding a little more poppish than usual, the Heads have created an end-of-the-season groove with a bittersweet edge. There are two versions of the video. One features a puppet and it's weird and cheerfully vulgar. I'm showing you the alternate version that features a hot bearded guy. Because hot bearded guy.

Team Me. The six members of this splendid indie pop band come from a little town called Elverum, outside Oslo, Norway. They came together in 2010 to compete in a Norwegian national radio contest for unsigned bands. They got a recording contract and enough attention to book show dates and festivals. Their innovative sound is a mix of grandiose, fragile and intimate elements. Check out their website here.

Team Me

Song & Video -- "Blind as Night." The track is layered, orchestral, haunting, almost ethereal, and genuinely gorgeous. Listen to it on headphones. Immediately. The video is a dreamy, surreal, mesmerizing stunner featuring the band.

Wanna check out the other five entries in this series? Just click on any one the links below.

Volume 5


Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #29: Forrest Gump

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Forrest Gump
(released July 1994)

Tom Hanks as the title character in Forrest Gump

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Forrest Gump establishes it's idiosyncratic sense of humor and structure right away. The simpleminded titular character, a man in his 30s, strikes up a conversation about his childhood with an African American woman while siting on a bench waiting for a bus. With naive obliviousness, he tells her he was named after a distant relative, "the great Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest." And then he adds a bit more biographical information: "He started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan." I'd have appreciated seeing her reaction to that because, you know, that would make some sense. But, no. Instead, the movie jumps head first into a rabbit hole of flashbacks. Forrest (Tom Hanks) is going to tell his life story to anyone who sits down next to him on that bench, whether they like it or not.

Raised in a rural part of Alabama in the 1950s and '60s, Young Forrest (played wonderfully by Michael Connor Humphreys) has to wear braces on his legs for some kind of medical condition that never gets a name -- the whole movie is going to be like that, so get used to it. The local public school principal informs Mrs. Gump (Sally Field) that Forrest has an IQ of 75 and needs to go to a special school. Forrest is "a bit on the slow side," she concedes, but her child is going to get the same education as everyone else, so she sleeps with the principal to make sure that happens. It's never clear if she has to sleep with a new administrator or teacher every year just to keep the kid enrolled, but this is not a movie that's interested in details like that anyway. This is a movie that wants you to react to the fact that Forrest overhears that business about his IQ and the sexual encounter his mother has with the principal. This is also not a movie that has any interest in telling you what happened to Forrest's father. At all. Did he die? Did he disappear? Did Mrs. Gump murder Mr. Gump, butcher the parts and feed him to the inhabitants of her boarding house? It's a mystery.

Nobody wants to have anything do with Young Forrest except a classmate named Jenny. They hang out, climb trees together and she encourages him to run fast whenever the school bullies are chasing him or pummeling him with rocks. Jenny comes from a broken home and her father sexually abuses her. But this is not a movie that's going to dwell on that for more that 30 seconds, so let's all just move on. Jenny and Forrest (somehow, miraculously) graduate high school. Jenny is college material. Forrest can run really, really fast. One day he runs through a football scrimmage and impresses the coach so much that he ends up playing football at the University of Alabama. And earning a college degree. So, let's review: IQ of 75, high school and university graduate, college football star. Do we ever see Forrest in even one classroom situation? Nope. This is not a movie that believes you need to see someone with borderline intellectual functioning, you know, struggling to comprehend something.

Forrest enlists in the Army after a recruiter asks, "Have you given any thought to your future?" He ends up in Vietnam, giving the filmmakers lots of opportunities to blow up stuff while they pack the soundtrack with some of the era's most popular songs. Forrest does take a bullet to the "but-tocks," but still fares better than everyone around him and is awarded the Medal of Honor. Meanwhile, Jenny (Robin Wright) pursues her dream. "I wanna be famous. I wanna be a singer like Joan Baez." Interestingly, Joan Baez does not appear on the soundtrack. Anyway, Jenny poses for Playboy, gets a job as a topless folk singer in a dive bar where no one is interested in her voice, turns into an anti-war hippie with bad taste in men, and then falls under the spell of disco and cocaine.  Forrest and Jenny cross paths throughout the movie, interacting just long enough to for you to ascertain that he loves her and she's a sad, tragic mess with pretty good fashion sense.

Adapting a not particularly well-received book by Winston Groom, screenwriter Eric Roth departs significantly from the source material to create something like an epic, genre-bending fusion of melodrama, comedy, reality and fantasy. As Forrest guilelessly stumbles through a tumultuous time in American history, the movie plays like a goofy ode to the latter half of the 20th century. Broken down, a significant portion of the film is made up of loose vignettes that provide excuses for the visual effects technicians to seamlessly insert Forrest into a number of preposterous scenarios -- he meets Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon; he starts college at the same time the University of Alabama is integrated; and he appears on a talk show seated next to John Lennon. These are all awe-inspiring effects, even 20 years later, but Roth and director Robert Zemeckis don't know when to stop with the technical wizardry and historical grave robbing and just tell a story. I was amused by an early scene where Young Forrest inspires Elvis Presley to actualize his signature hip-swiveling dance moves, but I was rolling my eyes by the time Adult Forrest inadvertently motivates John Lennon to write "Imagine."

Forrest Gump moves along briskly. It's infused with a quirky sense of humor and filled with extraordinary visuals. Tom Hanks is probably about as good as an actor could be in a role like this. Forrest views the world simply and truthfully -- Hanks nails that, conscientiously avoiding the kind of acting that would make the character pitiable. As Forrest's Vietnam platoon leader, Gary Sinese has the film's most emotionally resonant character arc -- it's heavy-handed stuff, but Sinese doesn't overplay the material. And that's the good. The bad? Alan Silvestri's swelling musical score and all those pop tunes are designed to thrash your heart and rattle every nostalgic bone in your body. Sally Field is utterly wasted as Mrs. Gump -- the character is peripheral at best and should have been fleshed out by a good character actress who might have at least tried to get the Alabama accent right; Field's star power is just distracting. The Forrest/Jenny relationship is the movie's only real through line. We're supposed to care whether they end up together or not. Hanks and Robin Wright try hard to keep us invested, but the overwhelming number of superfluous elements and historical digressions supplant the narrative.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, The Polar Express) stages some amazing "Look what we can do!" sequences. The problem is that there's just no dramatic basis for all the big moments in Roth's script. Forrest is rubbing up against all those presidents because Hollywood figured out how to convincingly insert real actors into archival footage. Forrest becomes a world champion ping pong player because Hollywood figured out how to make it look like he's hitting a ball that's not even there. All these brilliant technical advancements make Forrest Gump an achievement, not a good movie. You have to ask yourself, among other things: "Why is Forrest sitting on that bus stop bench eagerly telling his emphatically absurd life story to strangers anyway?" The movie is a goddamn epic, so what's the point? Well, it does try to make some kind of point about destiny vs. the randomness of fate, I think. But it mostly ends up suggesting that the borderline intellectual functioning meek will inherit the earth.

Stray Gay Observations:

What the hell is this movie supposed to be? Is Forrest Gump a parable? For that to be true, there needs to be some kind of discernible moral or spiritual lesson. Here's what you get: "My Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." I do understand someone with an IQ of 75 mistaking that for a deep philosophical message, but the rest of us have no excuse. Really, the only things missing from Forrest Gump are talking animals. If there were talking animals, I might be able to call this story a fable. Fables typically feature some talking animals and a lesson. But even a talking animal couldn't sell that business about the box of chocolates.

During one vignette, Forrest runs back and forth across the country, from coast to coast. It takes him, to be exact, "three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours." This is really no more farfetched than anything else in the movie, except for the fact that the filmmakers not-so-subtly bestow a Christ-like quality upon Forrest around the same time. That's when I started to worry that this movie was going to end with Forrest ascending into heaven and taking a seat at the right hand of the Father.

You know those movies where a character visits someone's grave and has a heartfelt, teary-eyed conversation with a headstone? That's probably my least favorite cinematic trope of all time -- it's lazy, hackneyed and mawkish. If there are real, live human beings who go to cemeteries and spill their guts to slabs of granite, I don't want to know them. Forrest Gump does this twice -- twice! -- in the movie, and I'm not inclined to give him a pass just because he has an IQ of 75.

Forrest Gump ends around 1983, just in time for one character to be diagnosed with "a virus." They're talking about HIV, of course. It's introduced awkwardly, handled superficially and feels like a punishment -- for the character and the audience.

In the twenty years since its release, I've heard Forrest Gump described as a patriotic film and a paean to the American Dream. Jumping to either of those conclusions must take some fancy mental gymnastics. It's simply impossible for me to ignore the film's twisted central premise: Forrest Gump is the luckiest dumb bastard in the world. He succeeds at everything, accidentally and without ambition. Just about everyone else in his orbit fails, flounders or becomes a fatality (seriously, dude is like the Angel of Death). So, it's possible to read the film as a dark, dark comedy about the fickleness and mendacity of the American Dream. Or, it's possible to read it as a curious grand mockery of the American Dream. And I'd be fine with either of those scenarios because a solid, subversive skewering of the so-called American Dream should never be off limits. I just don't think the filmmakers were that clever. Forrest Gump is a tone deaf, super-sized amalgam of whimsy, bathos and tragedy.

Should You See It? Well, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences thinks so. It won six Oscars -- Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Picture. If you want to see what state of the art visual effects looked like in 1994, Forrest Gump is worth a look. Otherwise, this movie is so calculatedly manipulative that I found myself actively disliking it at fairly regular intervals. I unequivocally hated the last thirty minutes.

Next: The Bodyguard (1992)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #28: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (released October 1974)

Gunnar Hansen as "Leatherface" in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Here's the trailer for the 40th anniversary re-release in summer 2014...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: It all begins with one of those portentous opening scrolls, read aloud by the most serious-sounding dude they could find...
The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Okay, three things... (1) The actual title of this movie is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, not The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's right there in the opening scroll. Since I never see chainsaw spelled as two words, I looked it up. The Oxford, Cambridge and Urban dictionaries all assured me it's just one word. Merriam-Webster says it's two words, with no explanation for their contrariness. (2) This is not based on a true story. Nope. It's just inspired by Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer and grave robber who fashioned trophies and keepsakes from bones and human skin. Writer/director Tobe Hooper added a chainsaw to the mix after spotting one while standing in line at a hardware store; Gein never used one. (3) That "idyllic summer afternoon drive" mentioned in the scroll? No. The reason these five twentysomethings are driving around rural Texas in triple-digit heat is because of news reports about vandalized graves -- Sally assembles everyone and makes her boyfriend drive his van to a cemetery in the middle of nowhere to see if her great-grandfather is still resting in peace. What's idyllic about that? That's a terrible way to spend a summer afternoon. In fact, this is like a horrific lost episode of Scooby Doo.

So, who do we have in the van? There's Sally and her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin. Sally's boyfriend, Jerry, and their friends, Pam and Kirk. Hearing a lot of bad news on the radio, amateur astrologer Pam explains it to the gang: "Saturn is a bad influence. It's just a particularly bad influence now because it's in retrograde." And then they spot a hitchhiker, have five seconds of conversation about how he probably works for the local cattle slaughterhouse and decide to give him a ride, primarily to spare him from the heat. Pam's the only one with an objection to this. "Oh, he's weird-looking. No!" There's a streak of blood on his face, he's got an animal-fur man purse hanging around his neck, and he over-shares about the best way to kill a cow. Hint: You hit them on the head with a mallet. Repeatedly. Until they die. And then the hitchhiker starts waving a knife around, cutting himself and Franklin before they can throw him out of the van.

This is the hitchhiker. I mean, seriously. 
The gang stops for gas, but the twitchy attendant tells them the pumps are empty, so they head off to find the farmhouse Sally's family abandoned years ago. They find it -- dilapidated, filled with spiders, but within walking distance of another house. Kirk and Pam think maybe the owners might give them some gasoline if they ask politely enough. That turns out to be one of the worst ideas in the history of cinema, of course, because the occupants are a cannibal family with an intellectually disabled, chainsaw-wielding adult son who probably can't read or write but excels at the kind of skills one might pick up working in a cattle slaughterhouse.

Here's the truth: I've been avoiding this movie for a long time. I'd even relegated The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to what I like to call the That-Shit-Can-Really-Happen subgenre of horror movies. Other famous entries in this category include Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. See, I can certainly be scared by movies about haunted houses, ghosts, demonic possession or monsters, but I don't believe in any of those things. Haven't for years. Silent, savage killers like Jason or Michael Myers from the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises, respectively, have been given supernatural strengths (and immortality) by the filmmakers, so I just don't find them authentic or compelling. What really freaks me out are profoundly unbalanced people with knives or chainsaws and a sickening inclination for torture and killing and doing incomprehensible things with human body parts. Because... That. Shit. Can. Happen.

Often described as a watershed moment in American horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre essentially ratchets Psycho up to 11 and perennially lands on every list of the best/scariest horror movies of all time -- usually in the top 5. Made for around $85,000 with an inexperienced cast , it endures right alongside The Exorcist (1973), an $8 million studio blockbuster with stars and state-of-the-art technical wizardry. And while both provoked media controversy, it was Chain Saw that was rejected by theaters and banned in countries all over the world. Both films break new ground in horror, so why the difference in treatment? I have a personal theory. The Exorcist and Chain Saw were released less than a year apart. Because of their R ratings, I was too young to see either without a parent or adult guardian. My sister, eleven years older than me, said, "Do you want to see The Exorcist?" I did. My mother agreed to this because it was a major studio release based on a best-selling book and she recognized some of the actors involved. What could go wrong? (Well, for one thing, I didn't sleep for three nights after I saw it.) On the other hand,  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre sounds like a lurid, low-budget exploitation flick explicitly made for people with bad taste and twisted minds. Civic-minded theater owners, movie critics and mothers tend to unite in their disapproval over a thing like that.

But there's a reason Chain Saw is recognized as a classic today: it's good. Sure, I could quibble about that deceptive and wholly unnecessary opening scroll, but it's the only real misstep. Writer and director Tobe Hooper relies more on atmosphere and tension than gore -- from the sounds of a shovel breaking dirt, crackling bones and disembodied radio voices to the sights of skeletal remains, meat hooks and a man in a homemade mask of human skin. It may take a solid 30 minutes for the first death to happen, but that time is never wasted -- the characters are sketched out enough for you to care about their fates and the dread becomes palpable. Hooper draws unexpectedly strong performances from his cast of unknowns, too, particularly Marilyn Burns as Sally. Once that chainsaw starts buzzing away, Burns goes from desperate woman to abject terror personified. She may actually be the Meryl Streep of scream queens.

I also want to talk about Tobe Hooper's script because it's so much smarter than it ever had to be with a title like that. He's written his doomed characters as ordinary and unlucky, not horny and stupid. The chainsaw-wielding "Leatherface" is one of the most iconic killers in history, but Hooper gives him no supernatural or superhuman characteristics -- he's obviously an intellectually disabled young adult who's been taught to butcher people by a deeply depraved and impoverished family. His human skin mask looks like the bizarre craft project of an untalented child. Amidst all the gruesome mayhem, Hooper pulls back just long enough to give the audience a quiet moment alone with Leatherface. It's hard not to think, "This poor creature has probably never had any sense of right or wrong." You're still terrified, but it's almost as if Hooper is saying, "Come on, I dare you not to feel some pity for this guy."

When I reviewed Pink Flamingos (1972) for this series, I acknowledged that while it's an assertively disgusting film, I really admired writer/director John Waters for his unapologetic attitude and the perseverance it must have taken to get his vision on screen. I feel similarly about first-time writer/director Tobe Hooper here. Waters and Hooper excelled at defiantly transgressive, anarchic filmmaking. The difference, for me, is that Hooper is a better storyteller and a better filmmaker. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is deceptively simple, absolutely harrowing and most giddily sick, but I'd be willing to defend it as a near-masterpiece that absolutely earned its place in New York's Museum of Modern Art permanent film collection. Can you name another movie that starts out as straight-up horror and fluidly pivots into an astonishingly dark comedy?

Stray Gay Observations:

Somewhere in the United States, a cannibal family is shopping at Walmart right now. I'm convinced of it.

Naturally, I noticed the costumes. Lots of bell bottom pants, a fashion trend that bridged the 1960s and '70s, then reappeared in the 1990s and 2000s. In other words, Cher has been around long enough to both popularize the style and refuse to have anything to do with its rebirth.

Think about this: how often do you hear male characters scream in a movie? Very rarely, and usually for comic effect. In Chain Saw, one on the guys is abruptly confronted by the man in the human skin mask. He has the single most natural male scream I've ever heard in a film. And it's not funny.

Now, I'm going to show you a picture of William Vail, the actor who plays Kirk. I'm just showing you this because he's hot. His death was particularly unsettling for me because he's hot. And no, I don't think you needed a spoiler alert about that; massacre is right there in the title. Vail made four movies and then became a set decorator.

William Vail (far right) as Kirk. Far too cute to be a chainsaw massacre victim.

You probably won't believe this, but Marilyn Burns was found dead in her Houston home the same day I watched this movie. She was 65. When I read the news online, I immediately thought, "Wow, that's eerie." And then I found out she was born in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Burns earned a Bachelor's degree in Drama from the University of Texas at Austin in 1971. She made about a dozen films, but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, shot in the summer of 1973, was her first film role. In a 2013 interview, Burns said, "Never in my wildest dreams did I think that almost 40 years later I would be talking about it."

Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty -- a manic, bloody mess by the end of the movie.

Originally, the house used in the film was located in Round Rock, Texas. In 1998, it was cut up into little pieces... um, sections... and transported to Kingsland, Texas. It was put back together and renovated into a restaurant. Because, you know, that's the kind of thing we do in America.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Restaurant
(Actually, as of this writing it's called Grand Central Cafe.)

Should You See It? To my surprise, I liked The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a lot. I've probably seen a couple of hundred horror movies in my life, but this one has a visceral edge and a striking aural intensity that really works your nerves. You'll recognize so many familiar tropes here -- the creepy hitchhiker, the crazy old man with an opaque warning about evil in the world, the masked slayer and the lone survivor, otherwise known as the Final Girl. This is pretty much the movie that invented them all 40 years ago, and it's been ripped off in every way since then. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has spawned sequels, remakes and reboots -- six to be exact -- and I'm not interested in seeing a single one of them because I imagine the only things they have to offer are increasingly sophisticated special effects and bigger body counts. This is not a movie that needed a do-over. They got it right the first time.

Next: Forrest Gump (1994)