Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet This Week

odd, strange, unusual, curious, bizarre, peculiar, weird, uncanny, eccentric, unconventional...

I consider it a compliment.

Favored Nations. According to their Facebook page, Favored Nations is "an eclectic, trans-Pacific three-piece band bridging land and sea, creating entrancing music from studio bases in both Los Angeles and Australia." The sound? "Warm vocal melodies, bouncy baselines, understated disco-tinged guitar lines, perhaps a handclap or two, and some therapeutic synth work." They've recorded a catchy nu disco tune called "Regular Pussy." And, with a clear understanding that cat videos are the most surefire way to get attention on the Internet (after homemade porn or daft conspiracy theories), these guys have created a music video that's a sublimely ridiculous double-entendre feline affair.

Here are the guys behind Favored Nations. Their music is available on iTunes and SoundCloud. You can get a free download of "Regular Pussy" here.

Favored Nations, left to right: James Curd, Morgan Phalen,  Surahn Sidhu

Wanna check out another post in my Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet series? Click here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #15: Ghostbusters

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review 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 52 films that I've never seen before in 52 weeks and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Week 15: Ghostbusters (released June 1984)

Here's the theatrical trailer for one of it's recent re-releases...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Before I dive into my commentary on Ghostbusters, I want to make some observations about the birth of the summer movie blockbuster. Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) is widely regarded as the original one. Universal Pictures devised an innovative marketing plan to strategically position the film as an event -- there was a media blitz of promotion, including an unprecedented amount of money spent on television advertising. People flocked to theaters, records were broken and a cultural phenomenon was born. Jaws made more money than The Godfather (1972) and The Exorcist (1973), films that had been released in March and December, respectively. Because of its success, many movie studios and producers were readily determined to follow Universal's marketing model and deliver a blockbuster event picture every summer.

Jaws is a great movie; did it need unparalleled promotion to succeed? We'll never know if old-fashioned, word-of-mouth buzz would have made it a blockbuster, but my conclusion is a definitive "yes." Making movies has always been a dizzying collision of art and commerce, but Jaws represents a turning point for the industry. Once dubbed "the dream factory," Hollywood dinged that adulatory euphemism by obsessively seeking to manufacture cultural phenomenons after Jaws. And they did it with considerable zeal. Still do.

Take a look at the top ten grossing films of the 1980s: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Batman (1989), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). With the exception of Beverly Hills Cop, a December release, the rest were positioned as summer blockbusters. After the enormous success of Beverly Hills Cop, it's two sequels became summer releases. I only saw five of these in theaters, so perhaps I'm not particularly susceptible to the lure of an overhyped summer blockbuster-to-be.

When I started this series, I decided to deliberately choose some films I've never had any interest in seeing. Like Ghostbusters. Why have I been avoiding this picture for thirty years? Back in 1984, there was about a six month period where the Ghostbusters logo was everywhere and the movie was heavily promoted in a way that made me think it would be silly and terrible, or terribly silly at best. Plus, the fatuous theme song and its abominable music video were all over radio and MTV -- I hate them both without reservation. I'm surprised former vice president and notable warmonger Dick Cheney never incorporated the song into a list of "enhanced interrogation" methods and had it played on a continuous loop for Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Ghostbusters stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis as university professors whose paranormal grant work is terminated by a pompous dean. "Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe. Your methods are sloppy and your conclusions are highly questionable." He fires the apparently untenured trio, so they decide to go into business as professional paranormal investigators who specialize in the elimination of things that go bump in the night... or day. Their TV ad -- "Have you or anyone in your family seen a spook, specter or ghost?" -- appears just in time to help the residents of New York City deal with all kinds of supernatural unrest. One such resident is Dana (Sigourney Weaver), whose refrigerator has become the portal for a demonic spirit named Zuul. With a deadpan tone that infuses the whole movie, Bill Murray muses, "Generally, you don't see that kind of behavior in a major appliance."

Armed with proton backpacks and "neutrona" wands (essentially laser flamethrowers), the busters turn the capture and containment of ghosts into a lucrative, high-profile business. But this is a movie in desperate need of some conflict, so an Environmental Protection Agency agent (William Atherton) accuses them of unlicensed waste handling or something, and orders the deactivation of their ghost containment system. That releases all kinds of demons and spirits right back into an unsuspecting New York City. Dana is possessed by refrigerator demon Zuul and her nerdy neighbor (the very funny Rick Moranis) succumbs to a malignant entity called Vinz Clortho. Together, they release a harbinger of destruction named Gozer, an unpleasant ancient god once worshipped by the Hittites, Mesopotamians and Sumerians around 6000 B.C. And all this leads to the film's singularly brilliant scene in which a giant marshmallow man lumbers through the streets of New York like Godzilla.

Ghostbusters was written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis as a vehicle for Aykroyd and John Belushi, who'd parlayed their Saturday Night Live gigs into feature film success with 1980's The Blues Brothers. But Belushi died in March of '82, and then John Candy and Eddie Murphy declined roles that had been written specifically for them. Meanwhile, director Ivan Reitman determined that the film was going to cost a lot more than it's proposed $30 million budget. Aykroyd and Ramis had to rewrite the entire script. Somewhere in the process, everyone generously handed the picture to Bill Murray. Aside from the aforementioned marshmallow man, Murray is the main reason to see this. His performance is skillfully supercilious. At one point, Sigourney Weaver's Dana tells him, "You don't act like a scientist. You're more like a game show host." Well, yes.

The pre-CGI special effects are actually a lot of fun, too. According to the DVD extras, the Ghostbusters crew was filled with people who'd created effects for 1982's Poltergeist. Their challenge was to give scary apparitions and demons a comedic makeover. These are pretty kid-friendly effects, with maybe one or two exceptions. And then there's the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, a fanciful creation accomplished by putting a real human being inside a goofy suit and surrounding him with miniature cars, trees and buildings. It's fantastically stupid and a perfect fit for this film.

Stray Gay Observations: In a queer alternate universe, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man would marry the Michelin Man and adopt the Pillsbury Doughboy.

The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man... more or less evil incarnate.

Should You See It? To me, Ghostbusters mostly shuffles from scene to scene with a kind of clumsy indifference to coherent storytelling. And for a comedy, the direction and pacing are awfully lazy. There's a halting deference to Bill Murray's character that undermines the development of almost every other character in the film. Harold Ramis, a fine actor, is underutilized, and Dan Aykroyd seems uncertain how to play a character he himself wrote. It's flawed, but not terrible, thanks primarily to Murray, Rick Moranis and that marshmallow man.

I know Ghostbusters is a beloved cultural touchstone for a lot of people, but I think there were far better and more self-assured silly comedies made in the 1980s -- Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Airplane! come immediately to mind.

Next Week: Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Beards of Modern Music, Vol. 2

This series is all about bearded guys making mighty fine music. There's a facial hair renaissance going on out there, folks. Check out these beards, but stick around for the sound.

PAPA. This is a collaboration between Los Angeles natives and childhood pals Darren Weiss and Daniel Presant. (Their live shows include brother Evan Weiss and keyboardist Alex Fischel.) In a 2013 interview with indie and hip hop blog Pidgeons & Planes, these guys were asked to describe PAPA in five words or less. Presant said, "Spicy bold amoeba sexy chocolate." Weiss showed mischievous confidence: "Your sexiest nightmare." I was tempted to roll my eyes, but after hearing their music, I'm inclined to agree with both of them. The sound is vibrant, ingratiating, ambitious indie pop -- occasionally raucous and sometimes poetic. Weiss sings and drums barefooted; Presant claims he took hip hop classes to augment his stage presence. Their music is available on iTunes and Soundcloud. PAPA's website is here.

The duo behind PAPA: Darren Weiss (left) & Daniel Presant
Song & Video: "Put Me to Work"

Four Year Strong. Formed in Worcester, Massachusetts back in 2001, these guys have released four albums since 2005. They call their sound "popcore," meaning post hardcore pop punk. It's riotous and rambunctious, as if they're loaded up on energy drinks, but the lyrics are accessible and you can sense they're having great fun. It's easy to dismiss bands like this as mediocre and loud, but the stripped-down acoustic songs they've released prove these guys are very talented musicians. The dueling vocal work between lead singers Dan O'Connor and Alan Day is especially cool. They tour extensively, play lots of festivals and put on a helluva live show. You can find their music on iTunes and SoundCloud. Go here for their website.

Four Year Strong, left to right: Joe Weiss, Josh Lyford, Dan O'Connor, Alan Day, Jake Massucco
(Lyford left in 2011 when the band's sound evolved past the need for a keyboardist.)

Song & Video: "Tonight We Feel Alive (On a Saturday)"

John Grant. In 2010, Grant released a critically acclaimed album entitled Queen of Denmark, which Mojo magazine called the best album of the year. The following year he found out he was HIV+ and subsequently disclosed his status to an audience at London's Meltdown Festival. In the summer of 2013, he told HIV Plus magazine: "I talked about it because I was about to sing a song that I'd written about it, and I didn't know if I should say anything. And at that moment, I was like, you know what, it's no big deal. There's millions of people dealing with this... I don't feel like I should be ashamed of it." His next release, Pale Green Ghosts, was a collection of excellent folk/alternative/electronica songs that was easily one of the best albums of 2013. It's an intoxicating mix of visceral truth, fascinating intimacy and devilish wit. His music is available on iTunes, Spotify and Rhapsody. Go here for his website.

John Grant

Song & Video: "GMF"(It's not particularly safe for work. GMF stands for greatest mother fucker.)

You can check out volume one in this series here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #14: Pink Flamingos

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review 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 52 films that I've never seen before in 52 weeks and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Week 14: Pink Flamingos (released October 1972)

Divine as Babs Johnson, AKA "The Filthiest Person Alive"

Here's the original theatrical trailer with an intro by director John Waters that was added for the 25th anniversary release in 1997...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: First, a bit of history, so bear with me. After the release of some sexually daring films and a series of off-screen scandals in the 1920s, Hollywood came under scrutiny by politicians and religious leaders. Fearing censorship from outside the industry, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) decided that self-sanitization was the answer and they assigned Will H. Hays to develop a set of moral censorship guidelines for movie studios. What, you rightfully ask, made Will H. Hays the right man for the job? He was a former chairman of the Republican National Committee (1918-21), the U.S. Postmaster General under President Warren G. Harding (1921-22), and a Presbyterian elder. Also, he just happened to already be the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Yeah, Hollywood and Washington, D.C. have always been strange bedfellows.

Hays developed the Motion Picture Production Code, more popularly known as the Hays Code. Although promoted publicly as a voluntary set of guidelines, filmmakers quickly learned it was mandatory if they wanted their films to play in American theaters. From the early 1930s to 1968, American-made movies were supposed to be governed by three principles: (1) No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. (2) Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented. (3) Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. A little imprecise, right? Not to worry. Hays more explicitly outlined a couple of dozen things filmmakers should just not show us, like nudity, suggestive dancing, sex perversion, childbirth, miscegenation, excessive and lustful kissing, vulgarity or profanity, capital punishment or cruelty to animals and children. It was also not okay to ridicule religion, undermine the sanctity of marriage or disrespect the flag.

Filmmakers creatively navigated the strictures of the Hays Code for decades, but by the late1950s, almost every guideline had been teased, stretched or willfully ignored. Ultimately the Hays Code was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system in 1968 -- what moviegoers now know as G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. There was an X rating in the beginning, but after it became widely associated with pornography only, it was replaced with NC-17. Consider this trajectory: Two of the most popular films of 1959 were Pillow Talk and Some Like it Hot, very ribald comedies that proved filmmakers and American audiences had moved on already. Less than a decade later, Midnight Cowboy (1968) became the first major studio release to earn an X rating. It won the Best Picture Oscar and was re-released with an R rating. Meanwhile, a budding young filmmaker named John Waters spent the 1960s making a series of no-budget short films in Baltimore, Maryland, with an outlandish collection of friends and local actors. Drawn to "forbidden subject matter," Waters successfully illustrates what that means to him with Pink Flamingos, easily one of the most notorious and controversial movies ever made. It's almost as if John Waters sat down with a copy of the Hays Code and wrote a script that painstakingly flouts 97% of the guidelines -- then decided to add some things that were probably inconceivable to Will H. Hays.

As the film opens, on-the-lam criminal Babs Johnson (played by plus-size drag queen Divine) is living off the map in a trailer outside Baltimore with her pervy son, Crackers, her feeble, playpen-bound, egg-obsessed mother, and a kinky female hanger-on named Cotton. According to tabloids, Babs is The Filthiest Person Alive, but a Baltimore couple -- Connie and Raymond Marble -- beg to differ. After all, they operate an illegal adoption agency that imprisons and impregnates women and sells their offspring to lesbian couples. Dismissing Babs as "a common thief and murderer," Connie and Raymond scheme to become known as The Filthiest People Alive. Over the course of roughly 90 minutes, this rivalry involves exhibitionism, cop-killing, rape, something close to bestiality, incest, cannibalism, castration and coprophagy. Go on, Google that last one. Or let me help you: John Waters has a disturbing preoccupation with feces.

Waters originally called Pink Flamingos "an exercise in poor taste." His goal was to shock you with the grossest visuals and sickest humor he could dream up and get on film. He succeeds. If you don't already know what repulses you, see this and you will know conclusively what does. I also suspect that after watching this, you will wish there was at least one thing you could unwatch. So, reviewing Pink Flamingos in a conventional way doesn't make much sense, but I'll try. The photography is lifeless, the camerawork is sloppy and uninspired, and I've seen better performances in church plays (although it has to be acknowledged that Divine's work as Babs Johnson is uninhibited, persuasively ruthless and impressively manic). There are genuinely hilarious situations and gags, but Waters is completely unfamiliar with the concept of less is more. 

Still, as assertively disgusting as it is, I admire Waters for his unapologetic attitude and the perseverance it must have taken to get his vision on screen. The script for Pink Flamingos could have languished in a drawer for decades, never produced, but John Waters got dozens of people to collaborate with him on an experiment in defiantly transgressive, anarchic filmmaking. In Baltimore, Maryland. Pink Flamingos cost about ten thousand dollars to make and Waters chose a very unorthodox distribution model: he screened it at universities across the United States. Campus by campus, the film's notoriety surged. It eventually got a limited studio release, but it won a devoted cult following thanks to its availability on home video in the early 1980s and innumerable midnight showings over the last four decades.  

Stray Gay Observations: Pink Flamingos is one of those movies I'm supposed to love because I'm gay. Other films I'm supposed to love simply because of my sexual orientation include The Women, All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mommie Dearest, Steel Magnolias, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Sordid Lives. I think I will take this opportunity to let you know how I feel about all of them.  The Women and All About Eve are outstanding films that I love and admire very much; I can watch them anytime. I don't really need to see Rocky Horror again -- I think it only works as a midnight movie experience; been there, done that. Look beyond the flamboyant, Oscar-winning costumes in Priscilla and it's a surprisingly moving tale with an estimable amount of humanity. Baby Jane is unjustly categorized as camp; it's really a dark comedy that successfully morphs into a chilling psychological horror movie by its end. I loathe almost every frame of Steel Magnolias, a film so artificial and turgid that it can't even be saved by the down-to-earth charms of Dolly Parton. Sordid Lives is an absurdist train wreck -- you really can't look away. And finally, I will probably go to my grave believing that Mommie Dearest is the best worst movie ever made.

Should You See It? Late in the film, Divine tells the media, "Filth are my politics! Filth is my life." She's not kidding. You don't recommend this movie; you warn people about it. Pink Flamingos is all the things John Waters wanted it to be: shocking, twisted, sickening, and really, really funny. It's also a bit of an endurance test. Now that I've seen it, I never want to see it again.

Next Week: Ghostbusters (1984)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet This Week

odd, strange, unusual, curious, bizarre, peculiar, weird, uncanny, eccentric, unconventional...

I consider it a compliment.

The Wellfleet Snow Bears

It was a harsh winter for a lot of folks. How did everyone survive and stay sane? A couple of Massachusetts men named Rey and Harry got creative (with the help of rapper Pharrell and a special guest star).

Rey & Harry, the Wellfleet Snow Bears

Watch the Wellfleet Snow Bears shake off those wintertime blues. Welcome spring!

Wanna check out another post in my Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet series? Click here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #13: Pillow Talk

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review 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 52 films that I've never seen before in 52 weeks and write something about each. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Week 13: Pillow Talk (released October 1959)

Doris Day and Rock Hudson share a "party line" in Pillow Talk.

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: If I was a film professor, I'd make my classes watch Pillow Talk for a variety of reasons. It was a huge hit that's generally recognized as the quintessential contemporary bedroom comedy of its day. It proves that the widescreen formats of CinemaScope or Panavision could elevate comedies, not just musicals or spectacles like Ben Hur. But I'd really, really want to show a roomful of smartphone-addicted young adults this movie because the entire plot is propelled by a mostly forgotten twentieth century communications configuration known as the "party line." In other words, two or more customers were connected to the same telephone line and were expected to share nicely. Monopolizing and eavesdropping ensued.

In Pillow Talk, uptight, career-minded interior decorator Jan (Doris Day) shares her line with self-possessed songwriter and womanizer Brad (Rock Hudson). She wants to make business calls from home, but he's always crooning the same love song to a bevy of beautiful women he's bedded or planning to bed. Jan takes her concerns directly to the phone company: "Have you any idea what it's like to be on a party line with a sex maniac?" I'm pretty sure Doris Day's delivery of that line has only gotten funnier with age. Her gripes backfire when the phone company sends a female inspector to have a chat with Brad; Jan's complaints are deemed unwarranted because Brad is "extremely cooperative." Thanks to the phone company, Brad now knows Jan's full name and how to call her directly -- which he does, infuriating her further by suggesting that she stop taking her own "bedroom problems" out on him.

If you're enjoying the crackling chemistry between Day and Hudson before they even meet face to face onscreen, it's a lot easier to accept the string of convenient coincidences that occur when they do. Brad accidentally learns who Jan is, then decides to have some fun with her by pretending to be a Texan named Rex Stetson -- complete with a ridiculous accent and a propensity for saying things like, "You make me feel warmer than a potbellied stove on a frosty morning." Feelings happen, songs are sung and Jan discovers the scam in a pretty ingenious way. Hell hath no fury like an interior decorator scorned.

Doris Day had made comedies before Pillow Talk, but this is where she hit her stride; the film revitalized her career and led to her only Oscar nomination. A string of box-office hits followed, but thanks to a deal negotiated by her late husband, she ended up contractually bound to star in an amusing but unremarkable TV sitcom in 1968. Rock Hudson made a string of serious pictures in the 1950s -- Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Giant, Written on the Wind -- so Pillow Talk was a real departure for him. His character is a scoundrel. In a romantic comedy. It takes a skillful actor to walk that line or an audience won't play along. Hudson delivers; it's a sexy, funny, mischievous performance. Like Day, he ended up on TV in the 1970s, enjoying quite a bit of success playing a police commissioner in McMillan & Wife, making various miniseries and even guest starring on Dynasty before his death in 1985.

Stray Gay Observations: In July of 1985, Rock Hudson appeared at a press conference to promote Doris Day's Best Friends, a talk show hosted by his former costar. His appearance had deteriorated so much since an April episode of Dynasty (his last role) that the public was stunned. Three months later, Hudson died of complications from AIDS, leaving the world to process the fact that one of Hollywood's most recognizable and beloved leading men was a closeted gay man. Arguably, Rock Hudson gave AIDS a real face at a time when most Americans were content to believe it was only happening to "those people." It was early in my career at CNN, but I remember the media frenzy pretty vividly and it was an ugly time in journalism. After a particularly grueling work week, I went home to visit my parents and during a quiet moment with my mother, I asked, "Did you ever think Rock Hudson was gay?" "No," she said. "No one did." Rock Hudson had done his job: he played a  heterosexual persuasively over and over again.

Knowing all this, I did experience a couple of queer moments while watching Pillow Talk. For instance, there's a scene where Hudson/Brad's best friend, played by Tony Randall, expresses his concern over Brad's womanizing ways: "You ought to quit all this chasing around. Get married." To which Hudson/Brad replies with a perfectly straight face: "Why?" It's a wee moment of cinematic nirvana.

There's a later scene in which Hudson, pretending to be perfect Texas gentleman Rex Stetson, screws with Jan's head by doing a couple of stereotypically gay things that will confuse her about his sexuality as they sit in a piano bar called The Hidden Door (which incidentally happens to be a real gay bar in Dallas, Texas). And then you realize that you're watching a gay man play a straight man pretending to be a gay man in a piano bar called The Hidden Door. To undo his mischief, he plants a long, sensual kiss on Jan. It's a rather extraordinary thing to behold.

Should You See It: Yes, but not because I think it's a great movie. It's not. The plot depends on far too many contrivances. Doris Day does a little bit too much mugging for the camera. And one of the funniest things about this movie is not necessarily the dialogue, but rather the way it nonchalantly depicts Jan's lifestyle: she can afford a comfortable New York City apartment, a maid and a spectacular designer wardrobe on an interior decorator's salary. Though to be fair, there's a point where her lifestyle becomes an unintentionally hilarious running gag for the modern viewer. Then, why see Pillow Talk? The pure chemistry between Doris Day and Rock Hudson. The scene-stealing work of character actress Thelma Ritter as Jan's perpetually hungover maid. The gowns by costume designer Jean Louis. And the snappy musical score, featuring the title tune and an insanely catchy number called "Roly Poly."

Pillow Talk can (and should) also be appreciated for how it functions as a Hollywood time capsule -- this is the apogee of slick, profitable filmmaking circa 1959. It also manages to successfully update the overworked screwball comedy formula of the 1930s and '40s -- and was rewarded for that with an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. I think it's also important to remember that Pillow Talk hit theaters around the cusp of the American sexual revolution. What looks old-fashioned to us today, was almost entirely fresh to moviegoers of the late 1950s. You really can't find another movie quite like this in that entire decade.

Sure, you can shrug this off as the silly story of a sexually repressed woman who just needs to be liberated by an uninhibited man. Then again, it does appear to mostly reinforce the notion that a woman can have it all, including a man, if that's what she wants. From the opening scene, Jan is depicted as successful and desirable, a woman with integrity who's not inclined to settle for anything but true love. It's randy bachelor Brad that changes, and not because of any manipulation or scheming on Jan's part. I'd say Americans were pretty lucky to have Doris Day and Rock Hudson escort them into the 1960s.

Next Week: Pink Flamingos (1972)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #12: Johnny Guitar

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review 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, filled with movies I never got around to seeing. So, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 52 films that I've never seen in 52 weeks and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters, big-budget flops and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Week 12: Johnny Guitar (released January 1954)

Left to right: 
Ben Cooper (as Turkey), Joan Crawford (as Vienna) & Sterling Hayden (as Johnny Guitar)

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Western films have been around since the silent era. They were always popular, but big producers regarded them as low-budget pulp for smaller studios and B actors. All that changed in 1939 when a handful of high-profile westerns (Dodge City, Destry Rides Again, Stagecoach) with some breakout stars (Errol Flynn, James Stewart, John Wayne) made a lot money and earned critical praise. Author and screenwriter Frank Gruber (1904-1969) once argued that there are only seven basic western plots: something involving the Union Pacific railroad; something about building a ranch from nothing; something about the ranch being threatened by rustlers or competing landowners; something about revenge; something about the cavalry and the Indians; something about an outlaw; something about a lawman. The only things missing from Johnny Guitar are the cavalry and the Indians. Just change the ranch to a saloon and recast the cattle baron and saloonkeeper as women -- Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford, respectively.

With a little research I learned that Joan Crawford bought the rights to an obscure novel and brought it to Republic Pictures, suggesting it as a project for her and director Nicholas Ray. Republic assigned the screenplay to Ben Maddow, but since he'd been dubbed a Communist by Congress's House Committee on Un-American Activities, the studio slapped another writer's name on the script. Meanwhile, Crawford demanded changes that favored her character, Vienna, because she owned the book rights and she's Joan Fucking Crawford.

Audiences were expecting a western version of the typical Crawford vehicle. What they got was a baroque, highly-stylized melodrama filmed in something called Trucolor, a process best described as Technicolor's crude little brother. Yes, it looks like a western for about the first five minutes. Our titular character -- played with stiff, stoic ease by Sterling Hayden -- is on horseback, riding through a section of Arizona's mountainous terrain where railroad workers are dynamiting the hell out of things to make way for tracks. Johnny Guitar surreptitiously witnesses a stagecoach robbery, then rides on to his destination, Vienna's saloon and gambling hall. Enter Crawford's Vienna, who sent for the guitar player to be her establishment's entertainment. One male employee sums her up for us: "Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one. And sometimes makes me feel like I'm not." That's followed by an extended, somewhat stagey, semi-surreal but remarkably sustained first act scene that introduces every main character and establishes the nasty rivalry between Vienna and the local cattle baron, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).

Mr. Guitar muses, "When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee." Then all hell breaks loose: fistfights, gunslinging, a bank holdup, horseback chases, more dynamite, an impressive fire and a lynching party. Sounds like a western, right? The cliches and conventions are all there, but everything about this movie is emphatically askew -- Crawford's costumes bounce back and forth between masculinized western wear and girly clothes; the revered Vienna and feared Emma literally appear to be the only two women in the whole town; half the cast is acting in a proper western and the other half is chewing through the sensational Arizona scenery with abandon.

Which brings us to Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge. Before Johnny Guitar, Crawford had already made over 80 movies. McCambridge had made a handful of films and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1949's All the King's Men. Crawford wanted Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Claire Trevor -- all too expensive or unavailable. Director Nicholas Ray settled on McCambridge. Credible sources (including McCambridge herself) swear that both women were battling alcoholism and developed a deep animosity for each other during the production. I don't know what these performances would look like if they weren't tinged with booze and acrimony. All I know is this: It's damn near impossible to upstage Joan Crawford, but McCambridge does it with a performance that's pitched between fermented belligerence and unrestrained mania. McCambridge did a lot of episodic TV roles after Johnny Guitar, but her later career is eclipsed by one shockingly good performance delivered off screen: she's the demonic voice emanating from a possessed teenage girl in 1973's The Exorcist.

Stray Gay Observations: I'm going to tell you why I almost never enjoy westerns: Because I feel sorry for the horses. They're always having to ride past scary fires and explosions, or carry people across rivers. Invariably, somebody slaps one of them with a strap and yells, "Faster!" So, you can distract me with the hot cowboys, but I'm probably never going to stop thinking that their horses are doleful about the whole Wild West lifestyle.

And then there's this dress. Perfect for any occasion -- a piano recital, a lynching...

The gown was designed by Sheila O'Brien. She got her start on The Wizard of Oz.

Should You See It? Oh, come on. You have to see this! It has characters named Vienna, Johnny Guitar, The Dancin' Kid and Turkey. It's like a goofy fever dream. I was utterly fascinated and regularly gobsmacked by Johnny Guitar. It's not "Joan's Greatest Triumph," despite the movie poster's hyperbolical header. By this phase of her career, the triumphs were behind her -- Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945) and Possessed (1947). And some of the reviews were blunt and harsh. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther dismissed it as a fiasco, concluding that Crawford "is as sexless as the lions on the public library steps and as sharp and romantically forbidding as a package of unwrapped razor blades." Ouch.

Opinions have certainly shifted since then. In 2008, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress selected Johnny Guitar for preservation, deeming it "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." In the 60 years since it's release, plenty of critics and filmmakers have reevaluated and praised the film. Roger Ebert cites it as "surely one of the most blatant psychosexual melodramas ever to disguise itself in that most commodious of genres, the western." In a DVD extra, Martin Scorsese extols: "Johnny Guitar is an example of a minor film growing to achieve the status of a classic. It's modern sensibility has induced a number of different readings from the feminist analysis of the film to the Freudian subtext in the perverse sexuality running through it." Well, I am certainly not going to argue with Martin Scorsese.

Next Week: Pillow Talk (1959)