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Director: Ivan Dixon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
For the past few months, the United States has been convulsing through an historic moment, and I mean that statement with what is for me unaccustomed irony. The sometimes violent clashes between the black communities in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and, most recently, in Baltimore are historic, as in déjà vu all over again. Despite mind-boggling advances in technology that have reshaped our world in many ways, the needle toward racial harmony has hardly moved at all. If you don’t believe me, I hold The Spook Who Sat by the Door up as Exhibit A that we haven’t come a long way, baby. This 1973 film, cowritten and coproduced by Sam Greenlee from his 1969 novel of the same name, includes scenes that could have been footage from dozens of news reports made within the past week.
The film chronicles the activities of the portentously named Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a black civil rights activist in school who has decided to go the mainstream route to success. He is one of a cohort of black applicants to a CIA affirmative action program foisted upon the agency by the U.S. Senate—hardly a scenario we could imagine today, but also not a sincere effort by the movie senators, who are more worried about approval ratings than equality. The all-male cohort of black hopefuls don’t realize that their white trainers will use every opportunity to eliminate them from contention; they don’t even seem to suspect that the trainers are observing them via a closed-circuit camera while they enjoy cocktails and plot how to land these cushy jobs—not a terribly good recommendation for their fitness to become agents.
By the end of the comprehensive training and testing, Freeman is the only one to have made the grade. He is appointed section chief of reproduction services, aka photocopying, and remains with the agency for five years before returning to his native Chicago to take a higher-paying job as a social worker. There, the real purpose of his CIA stint becomes clear—to use the skills he acquired to recruit and train guerrilla freedom fighters in all the major urban centers in the country to battle Whitey to a standstill and force the Establishment to grant black Americans freedom in exchange for safe and peaceful streets.
Greenlee, a native Chicagoan who died in 2014 at the age of 83, was a firebrand and committed Marxist to the end. His book and screenplay provide a graphic depiction of the lumpenproletariat rising up in a people’s revolution against their bourgeois oppressors. After first establishing Freeman as a charismatic leader who can win respect with his muscles as well as his brains, the film shows him recruiting his former gang, the Cobras, to be his first platoon of revolutionaries. Director Dixon shoots parallel scenes and dialogue of Freeman training his men as he was trained at The Farm, a still-relevant example of American forces opportunistically training people who just as opportunistically will turn on them some day. Relying on the invisibility subservient blacks have in white America, Dixon shoots a humorous scene of one of Freeman’s men, dressed like a window washer, going into the mayor’s office and stealing his carousel of pipes right off his desk while the mayor talks on the phone. Conversely, Freeman uses the “high yellow” members of the gang to stage a bank robbery; dressed in business suits, with slicked-down hair, they are assumed to be white not only because of their appearance, but also because blacks are assumed not to have the cunning to pull off such a daring, daylight raid.
The bourgeoisie and their protectors are represented by Freeman’s lover Joy (Janet League), who leaves him to marry a successful doctor, and his best friend Dawson (J.A. Preston), a Chicago cop. Showing the bourgeoisie selling out their proletarian brothers and sisters to maintain a respectable, comfortable place in society, both Joy and Dawson are quick to turn on Freeman when they realize he is the mysterious “Uncle Tom” who is broadcasting revolutionary messages and organizing the insurrection, beginning with bombing the mayor’s office. The film has no real place for women as active fighters, but Dahomey Queen (Paula Kelly), a black prostitute Freeman hooks up with during his CIA training, becomes an invaluable informer when she overhears the General (Byron Morrow), her white steady “date,” lay plans to go after Freeman—cutting off the head of the snake, as military types put it.
The most harrowing and resonate part of the film occurs after Shorty (Anthony Ray), a young penny-ante drug dealer Freeman tries to help, is shot in the back by police. The ensuing standoff between riot police and angry members of the community is an all-too-familiar sight these days, one that looks like it will end peacefully until some cops bring German shepherds to the scene. This potent symbol of violence from the 1963 Birmingham civil rights demonstrations inflames the crowd, who tear into the police and torch a car and an apartment building. The handheld camera work gets into the chaos, offering some truly frightening, heart-stopping moments that linger long after the final fade. Faced with the violence that we know is absolutely real from recent events, Freeman’s desperate actions “to be free,” as he puts it, are likely to be met with a good deal of sympathy from a larger portion of today’s audiences.
Spook has been lumped into the category of blaxplotation films inaugurated by Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and it does share some common aspects of the genre. There are extended shots of a belly dancer undulating for the camera at a nightclub, thrilling action sequences and explosions, and a judo match that roughly correlates to martial arts sequences in these films. The film was also made independent of studio backing; after cobbling together just under $1 million, the producers had to shut down production after they ran out of money, which may account for some sketchy sequences, particularly at the beginning of the film. In a 2013 radio interview of Greenlee, the writer said the production stole some shots in Chicago when the city refused to issue permits for the production, but that Gary, Ind., welcomed them with open arms, even to the extent of lending them a helicopter free of charge to get overhead shots and one impressive shot moving down the middle of a street.
What Spook does is extend the struggle begun in Sweet Sweetback. Sweetback is a put-upon, ignorant man who struggles to survive. Van Peebles suggests that when next we see Sweetback, he will be coming back to revenge himself on white America. Freeman represents the next step in the struggle for freedom and equality. He’s not scared. He’s both streetwise and worldwise, and he has a philosophy to guide him. The character speaks poignantly about discovering that his grandmother couldn’t read but admonished him to get his education, and how he taught her while pretending that she was teaching him. To Freeman, seeing the light come on in his grandmother’s mind also flipped a switch in him.
The film has no real resolution, with Freeman wearing his African colors but facing a doubtful, possibly short future. In his day, so-called gangs like the Black Panthers were benevolent forces in their communities; recruiting gangs to be revolutionaries was a plausible plotline in 1969 and even 1973, so hope might have lived in its contemporary audiences. Today, gangs are as ruthlessly self-serving as the many other sectors of American society, and the current assault on the credibility of teachers and public education are undermining the hope and possibilities of those in the underclass. In 2012, “Spook” was added to the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American film—nonetheless, its relative obscurity and the currency of its vision would have made Freeman very disappointed.
The film is viewable in its entirety on YouTube.
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Director: Russ Meyer
By Roderick Heath
Roger Ebert’s death last week at the age of 70 brought on a wealth of lionising appreciations and articles, most of which celebrated the obvious and salient fact that he was a dean of mainstream American film criticism. There was another Ebert, however, a side the renowned critic was half-embarrassed by later in life, and one that his one-time partner in critical volleying Gene Siskel often used as a punch-line. Ebert had been a gaudily talented, furtively scurrilous dilettante screenwriter who collaborated with, of all people, Russ Meyer, the closest thing American cinema has ever had to a Rabelais. Ebert wrote three films for Meyer, two under pseudonyms: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! (1976), and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), all frenetic, comedic, deliriously eroticised satires that contemplate the sheer randy zest of the American populace in filmmaking that moves as if demonically possessed. This collaboration between Meyer, who had risen slowly from independent sexploitation productions to signing a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox, and Ebert, a Midwestern film nerd with a literate intelligence blended with hip, ruthless wit that was carefully leavened by his later persona as cuddly advocate, could only have happened in 1970. This, of course, was when Hollywood was desperate to connect with youth audiences who, even then, were the life blood of cinema attendance, but whose tastes were notoriously hard to cater to. Asked to create a follow-up for Mark Robson’s famously awful, enormously successful 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls, adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller, Meyer and Ebert transformed the project into their own freewheeling satire on both the Hollywood scene, which had been infected by the counterculture but still offered excess par excellence, and the Hollywood product itself.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls traces essentially the same arc of morality play about talented, pretty youngsters who hit Los Angeles hoping for fame and fortune but find the seedy underbelly of the Dream Factory. Susann’s story had the appeal of both waggling illicit and vicarious thrills under the nose whilst reinforcing prejudices for the receptive. Meyer and Ebert provide thrills illicit and vicarious alright, through the veil of mimicking the forms and platitudes of soap operas, magazine editorials, talk radio shows, and parochial moralists. The cast’s uncertainty as to whether they were in a comedy or not, an uncertainty enforced by their fear of embarrassing Ebert by having to ask, explains and surely contributed to the film’s volatile temperament: the motifs are authentic, the style ridiculous, the vulgarity supreme, and the emotions often strangely real. Indeed, that uncertainty says a lot about how silly much of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter output is. Funny thing is, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has a perversely acute prognosticative streak under its cheeky leer: Ebert’s script riffed on the then still-reverberating shock and notoriety of the Manson murders, and chose as his villain a figure based loosely on Phil Spector, who much later would reveal a genuine homicidal side to his outsized eccentricity. At a time when all-female rock bands were practically unheard of, Meyer, a professional libertine, and Ebert, dipping his toe in that pond, drummed up a film about one that became a sort of incidental founding text: watching Floria Sigismondi’s much undervalued The Runaways (2011) about that breakthrough act feels like art imitating life imitating art. Similarly, Beyond the Valley helped to invent a subgenre making fun of the licentious fantasies the explosion of the pop music scene in the ’60s engendered in the public consciousness, to be followed by films like Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and creating in such a film an ironic touchstone for people who really aspired to success in music.
Beyond the Valley begins with The Kelly Affair, an all-girl rock band composed of ballsy but cute singer Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), doe-eyed bassist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and sassy black drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), playing for a high school dance. Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) is their manager and Kelly’s boyfriend. Fed up with such paltry scenes, they decide to drive out to L.A. to pursue major success, where Kelly visits her aunt and last remaining family member, Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), a successful fashion designer and sole inheritor of the large family estate, because Kelly’s mother had been disowned as a single mother. Susan, charmed by Kelly, wants to give her a cut of the inheritance, but her scheming, square lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) objects, calling Kelly a fraud. Success proves instantaneous for The Kelly Affair, thanks to their introduction by Susan and Porter to flamboyant music promoter Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar), whose nightly parties, explosions of hip debauchery, are infamous.
Z-Man is immediately taken with Kelly and, after changing the band’s name to The Carrie Nations in reference to the saloon-smashing suffragette, he turns them into a sensation. But the shadow of success and all its evils now falls upon the band, as the cornucopia of sex, drugs, and money they now have access to puts them at the mercy of vampires of many kinds. Kelly is pulled away from Harris, who regards Z-Man and his world dubiously, and thrust into the arms of muscly Aryan gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett). Harris then gives in to the attentions of greedily sensual porn starlet Ashley St. Ives (Edy William). Petronella falls for a law student moonlighting as a waiter at Z-Man’s parties, Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), but in a distraught mood, sleeps with hot-blooded boxing champ Randy Black (Jim Iglehart). Casey, disaffected with men, heads into a lesbian affair with Susan’s collaborator Roxanne (Erica Gavin).
What follows is a remorseless burlesque on the tropes and conceits of trashy melodramas, inflected with Meyer and Ebert’s determined indulgence of that trash. Meyer was a contradictory figure: an extremely talented filmmaker with one of the best eyes for shot and cut in American cinema at the time, he was nonetheless extremely happy to celebrate the niche he found for himself as Hollywood’s greatest sex fiend, whilst playing the waggish commentator on the state of the nation’s bedroom life and psyche. Ebert’s film nerd streak comes out in some fairly obvious touches, like naming Porter Hall after the ubiquitous player of craven roles in ’30s films. A weird flourish that kicks the movie off suggests an immediate and forceful attempt to jam the film’s excessive and gaudy aesthetic in the audience’s faces, and also doubles as another film freak joke, as the climactic scenes unspool under the opening credit. Thus, the film plays the noir game of setting up a shift into flashback (and it should be remembered that Beyond the Valley, like most of Meyer’s films, becomes a noir tale, filtered through a distorting prism), but with the added gag of the credits being styled like the closing credits, as if the projectionist has messed up the reels. The utter bizarreness of what’s glimpsed on screen in this opening does eventually make sense later—well, sort of.
The riotous cornucopia of pansexual and pharmaceutical indulgence that is Z-Man’s abode provides a gladiatorial arena for much of the drama, with Z-Man its deliciously weird master of ceremonies. Kelly’s first entrance to his house is a brilliant display of both Meyer’s visual technique and Ebert’s cheekily loquacious writing, with Z-Man introducing Kelly to each of the vital figures of the upcoming drama with a stream of airily literate descriptions: “Languid Roxanne finds beauty, that delicate pinch of feminine spice with which she often flavours her interludes. Ah, look there, Lance Rocke! Greek god and part-time actor. See how well he performs? The golden hair, the bedroom eyes, the firm young body, all are available for a price!” Z-Man’s ornate word flow and status as unofficial narrator anticipates the more sustained experiment in narration in Ultra-Vixens, and also, weirdly, has a certain rhythm in common with Ebert’s speaking style in his later TV days. Meyer does spectacular work here as he leaps from character to character, interaction to interaction, entwining conversations, many between dancing people, into a rhythmically pulsing visual music, as it is in an earlier montage where his images and the arguments of the band over heading to L.A. turn into a kind of audio-visual beat poetry.
A certain loopy, sarcastic poetry does indeed inflect Ebert’s script, especially through the fount of verbose entertainment that is Z-Man. His declaration about his own party, “This is my Happening and it freaks me out!”, turns ephemeral hipster slang into Shakespearean epigram, whilst he later admonishes Lance, “I accept your fealty and do nobly return it, and beseech you to get thine ass in gear and gird thine angry loins,” and segues into his immortal cry of lunatic offence, “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Reminiscent of Jay Robinson’s fey Caligula in The Robe (1954) whilst anticipating Joel Grey’s pansexual emcee in Cabaret (1972) but more fundamental to the drama, Z-Man is the singular brilliant creation of Beyond the Valley. The spirit and embodiment of an unfettered, polymorphous age, Z-Man fancies himself as Virgil, the orchestrator of tours through Hades, as well as the seductive Mephistopheles dangling temptation, and finally succumbing to it himself, as his own bizarre secret is exposed in the course of sexual humiliation—he’s a hermaphrodite, or a transvestite, or something (Lance calls him “a really ugly broad”) a twist made up almost at the last minute by Ebert, but anyway he runs about for the rest of the film with dinky little tits out—sending him spiralling into a homicidal delirium.
If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s that it mimics the structure of what it’s sending up a little too faithfully (a common fault of such send-ups; 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a recent example), laying out the separate travails of the band and the people they know in overdrawn but not always hugely funny terms. Kelly is manipulated by Lance and abused by Porter, whom she seduces although he’s so uptight he won’t even take off his socks before getting into bed, in a sequence that can best be described as slightly amusing. Emerson catches Petronella and Randy in bed and then gets run down by the boxer when he refuses to budge from in front of his car. Like many of the professional women in the melodramas exemplified Douglas Sirk’s camp works, Susan is rescued from the sterility of success when her former boyfriend Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier) comes back into her life. Harris, increasingly addled and made impotent by narcotics, is soon given the boot by Ashley, who contemptuously suggests he might be gay, and in steaming humiliation he assaults the lippy Lance in Z-Man’s house. Badly beaten, he retreats to Casey’s house where they get stoned and sleep together, only for Casey to awaken the next morning without remembering how it went down, and throw Harris out in horror. But Beyond the Valley’s wicked streak finally crystallises when the story lines collide in a hospital waiting room after Harris has attempted suicide by throwing himself from the rafters of a TV studio where the band was performing. A stream of shocking revelations, including the fact Casey is pregnant by Harris, who’s feared to be paralysed, is accompanied by a droning organ score of the type endemic to soap opera. A kind of critical mass of absurd tropes is reached, and the only place for the narrative to go is into orgiastic self-destruction, something Z-Man is happy to provide.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls bemused and delighted many critics and viewers upon release and ever since for largely the same reasons: through its unabashed willingness to pander precisely the things it was sending up, its an excessiveness of style and attitude, and its eruptive, declarative embrace of what was supposed to be, in more familiar style, winking or happenstance pleasures for stoned collegians and raincoat-clad weirdoes. In this fashion, the director and screenwriter helped to erect something that others had tried but without the cred or the contempt for boundaries: studied, self-reflexive camp (one that pays tribute to an earlier effort by having Casey and Roxanne dress as Batman and Robin, famously camped up on TV in the 1960s).
The peculiar achievement of Beyond the Valley lies therefore in its capacity to strike one viewer as very obviously a lampoon and leave another uncertain, even appalled. The director and writer’s sensibilities are beautifully simpatico, particularly at the very end where Ebert serviced Meyer’s “sick sense of humour” by providing a ridiculous run-through of the characters’ fates in a plummy voiceover that points out the moral of each of their stories, underlining the vapid veneer of moralising assumed by much popular entertainment that actually appeals to base instinct. But there’s an undercurrent that keeps one mindful that Meyer really was the trash auteur where Ebert was a talented dilettante: where you can hear Ebert cackling with laughter bent over his typewriter, Meyer’s lower, debauched chuckle is also audible, as he always finds the money shot, throwing random huge-breasted starlets at the screen and going for broke with a startling moment when a woman is shot in the mouth to a rapidly edited but still spectacularly gruesome glimpse of spurting blood.
Meyer was definitely a director well-schooled in the perverted arts, but he also had a unique, sinuous grasp on the shifting tides of his public, sneaking observations and provocations with strange and disorienting punch into his sex farces. Ebert approached the affair as a mocking pastiche of everything he found silly in popular entertainment and our receptivity to them; for Meyer carnal forces lay deeper, less separable from more proper forms of entertainment, eating away at surface stabilities. A hint of meta self-satire is introduced as Meyer casts his then-wife William as the man-eating porn star (Meyer would close the circle with Ultra-Vixens, turning his own directing into part of the film) who, like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), inverts sexist prerogatives as an aggressively Amazonian libertine who humiliates Harris for his inability to perform. One of Meyer’s most sublime cinematic gags comes when Ashley first seduces Harris, enticing him into the back seat of her luxury car after Harris says he’s never made love in a Rolls-Royce and inspiring her orgasmic reverie, intercut with shots of gleaming hood ornaments: “There’s nothing like a Rolls – not even a Bentley! – Bentley! – Bentley!” Conspicuous consumption indeed, in a scene that beautifully condenses both Meyer’s contemplation of the relationship of sex and money in American society and his own love of the jump cut with sexual technique. The swanky photography by Fred Koenekamp buries the fairly low budget with gloriously overheated hues and worshipful studies of flesh, particularly in a brilliant late montage the depicts Z-Man’s fateful last bacchanal where he, Lance, Casey, and Roxanne take drugs and spiral into ecstatic tactile passion, bathed in sensual hues of green, blue, and red, in a riotous succession of off-kilter angles, geometric figure studies, and jammed-tight close-ups, orgiastic indulgence about to transmute into onanistic rampage.
Where Faster, Pussycat! had diagnosed repression and obsessive, degenerative machismo as secretly crippling atomic-age America and predicting an age of Amazonian superwomen rising out of its ashes, Meyer here, with Ebert’s help, reconnoiters the fallout of the breakdown he predicted. Norms collapsed, generations split, genders melted into a primordial chaos, and alternative and mainstream cultures each sought to exploit the other—late ’60s hip culture crashing headlong into haute capitalist power games. Both men readily admitted they knew little about the counterculture, but that didn’t matter: in fact, it became their secret strength. “Come on, man. I doubt if you’d recognise a hippie,” Kelly jabs at Porter: “I’m a capitalist, baby. I work for my living, not suck off somebody else.” If there’s a “serious’ aspect to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s in its evocation of a very specific moment in popular culture where social and sexual givens were cracking open: Meyer and Ebert give us an upwardly mobile, seriously conceived black couple and an ardent lesbian pairing, amidst the already familiar squares versus cool kids drama that pits Kelly against Hall, an uptight prig who upbraids the young hipsters around Z-Man and attacks Kelly with special viciousness in his efforts to send her packing before Susan endows her with the money he hopes to bilk. But unlike the many attempts to capture the counterculture zeitgeist in films before it, Beyond the Valley has already moved into a vantage of intense irony regarding that schism. It’s clear in retrospect that Ebert and Meyer recognised that youth revolution had already become theatre, and that the Me Decade was about to begin, presaged by Z-Man’s monstrous formlessness.
The open-minded aspect of the moment was still celebrated and perhaps indeed furthered by this film’s boldness. But it’s quite obvious that the clash between the candy-coloured hippies represented by Kelly and the effete, venal establishment embodied by Porter has already become a cartoonish trope as corny as anything in the soap operas the filmmakers repeatedly reference, fitting in perfectly with the film’s overall R-rated proto-Scooby Doo aesthetic. This is not to say the film is cynical about liberation, but it does have a wryly observant take on some aspects of it: the tendency of modern fashion toward androgynous skinniness is diagnosed in an exchange between Susan and one of her gay designers who keeps complaining about a model’s capacious bust, to which Susan retorts that “you must reconcile yourself to the fact that Cynthia is not a boy.” (If boob-happy Meyer was bound to find anything objectionable in contemporary gender revisions, that was it.) Still, the transposition of a fairly familiar brain-vs.-body romantic choice onto a black woman, who is caught between Randy, who posits himself as a sensitive warrior-poet but is actually a lunatic macho, and the smoother aspirational charm of Emerson, whose path to success is slower and more exacting, captures the “which way now?” question hanging over the post-civil rights era in the African-American community more incisively than many more earnest mainstream takes on the matter. More problematic is the approach to Casey and Roxanne’s affair, which offers up some canards about lesbians—Casey is weepily misanthropic whilst Roxanne is manipulative—but is essentially generous, if only because, in a note that pays off with a gloriously shameless make-out scene that affirms the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure but also critiques it again through excess, Meyer’s affectionately rubbernecking way of saying that liberation is a win/win situation, folks.
By this time, Meyer has given us “Stranger in Paradise” as a musical cue when Z-Man grabs Lance’s cock. The film’s last phase explodes with visions of disintegrating reality and pansexuality segueing into body-in-pieces Freudian fantasy, complete with distraught Z-Man asserting phallocratic power over Roxanne by jamming a gun in her mouth and blowing her brains out, and hacking off the head of Lance, reducing him to a purer lust object. Thus, Z-man brings to a consummating explosion the breakdown of forms into constituent bloody pieces. He also shoots Casey and stabs to death his household servant Otto (Henry Rowland), who’s actually Nazi bigwig Martin Boorman, a weird recurring trope in Meyer and Ebert’s collaborations: in Ultra-Vixens it’s Hitler himself spending his declining years finding fulfilment in erotic dalliance in the American Midwest. The readiness of the rest of the band and their now settled partners to leap to Casey’s rescue, albeit too late, is itself hilarious, as Harris saves the day by crashing into Z-Man with his wheelchair and thereby regaining his ability to walk.
The whole show concludes with a triple wedding for Harris and Kelly, Petronella and Emerson, and Susan and Baxter, whilst Porter watches from outside, ruined by his machinations, the final gloating satire on the moral neatness of melodrama but also linking the story back to Shakespearean pastoral, from which this mode of storytelling draws much of its spirit. If Z-Man’s rampage is surprisingly potent, this scene, and the exposition of the narrator giving us the lowdown on the meaning of it all, concludes the film again on a note of giddy, laugh-yourself-sick excess. But it’s hard not to notice that with Casey and Roxanne sacrificed as victims to Moloch’s twisted breeding with Pan embodied in Z-Man and the remaining couples joined in wedded bliss, the party is surely over. All that’s left after dissolution is reconstitution: reenter the squares, stage right.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Gavin O’Connor
By Roderick Heath
Certain movies seem to ride the currents of the zeitgeist with a blend of fortuitous spiritual accord and opportunistic calculation. Gavin O’Connor, who, after making a mark with Tumbleweeds (1999), has constructed an oeuvre resting solidly on the power of clichéd words—Miracle! Pride! Glory! Warrior!—to communicate their essence instantly to even the most thickly unibrowed of viewers. With Warrior, he channels Great Recession and War on Terror-era angst and the spreading popularity of the haute-macho histrionics of Ultimate Fighting; as such, in 50 years’ time, when cinema and cultural historians want a window into the cultural mood of our time, they may reasonably deduce that the inchoate impulses and desperate straits of the early 2000s led us to beat the living shit out of our brothers rather than figure out who was more worth hitting.
Warrior is the sort of film that leaves me with a nearly physical sense of confusion in trying to reckon with its impact, which is perhaps giving it far more credit than it deserves. Warrior is at once so dizzyingly, gobsmackingly bad that it outrages the critical faculties, and yet it still works on a level of primal melodrama to an extent that it rouses the blood. In fact, I’m not sure if a better, more tasteful movie could summarise the peculiar insanities of our era better. It’s a film that’s not afraid to recycle every fight cliché under the sun or milk every drop of macho gravitas for the sake of trying to keep its presumed audience involved. Warrior could easily have been made in the 1930s and cast, oh, I dunno, James Cagney and Clark Gable as the goofus and gallant pair of tough brothers forced by various crises to battle each other in the ring, minus the bone-cracking detail and pseudo-realistic swathes of angst over histories of familial crack-up, spousal abuse, and posttraumatic stress fall-out.
Instead of Cagney and Gable, we have Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as Tommy and Brendan Conlon, two brothers with an alcoholic, abusive father named Paddy (Nick Nolte) whose lives have taken disparate paths and yet lead back to the same place. Both were trained in the disciplines of wrestling and martial arts, but Tommy eventually fled the house as a teenager with his mother, whilst the older Brendan stayed at home: both now harbour powerful antipathy for their father, who, when the film opens, is newly, if fragilely, on the wagon. Paddy finds Tommy sitting on his doorstop after years away, sipping liquor from a bottle in a brown bag and overflowing with sullen aggression, repeatedly baiting his old man with lines about how he preferred him as a drunk whilst reminding him of the poverty and agony his ex-wife died in. Tommy nonetheless enlists his father to be his trainer: as a teen Tommy had once wanted to best the record of the storied ancient Greek fighter Theogenes.
On a visit to a local gym, Tommy volunteers as a sparring partner for Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes (Erik Apple), a current champ, and promptly beats the hell out of him. This is captured by a bystander on his cell phone, and the footage becomes a You Tube sensation, eventually witnessed by a far-off soldier in Iraq who recognises Tommy as the man who saved his life by pulling him from a shattered tank on the battlefield. At the same time, Brendan, who has retired from the UFC after a near-fatal defeat, has become a high school physics teacher. With a wife, Tess, and children, Brendan has been left heavily in debt in after paying one of his daughters’ medical bills. Threatened with foreclosure, Brendan decides to return to fighting. After winning a bout in the parking lot of a strip joint, Brendan is suspended by his school. Thus he commits to a full return to the sport, talking his old trainer Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) into helping him. The brothers’ fateful paths lead them both to enter Sparta, “the Superbowl of mixed martial arts,” held in Atlantic City.
It feels, as per sporting movie rules, a bit unfair to kick Warrior when it’s down at the box office, but it’s a work that has scored big with those who did see it and many critics, too, and seems destined for a long life on DVD and cable TV like another initially failed and yet seemingly immortal epic of masculine self-pity and triumphalism, The Shawshank Redemption (1994). If Warrior had been made in the ’50s, Marlon Brando would almost certainly have played Tommy, and Hardy, with a hulking physical strength accompanied by a mouth belonging to a Rossetti angel and violently expressive eyes, is definitely a movie star in the mould that produced Brando, Newman, and Dean. Also, if it had been a Brando film made by the cinema artisans of that era, they might have had the good sense to clear the decks of superfluous drama and distraction and work up some depth in portraying Tommy’s conflicted, near-neurotic rage and sadomasochistic impulses. Instead, Warrior tries to sustain two similar, yet distinctive protagonists, which allows the film to stretch out to an ungodly 140 minutes, climax with about a half-dozen fight scenes where two would do, and amass story elements and dramatic tropes as if O’Connor and his fellow screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman bought them up at a fire sale. Unlike David O. Russell’s likeable The Fighter (2009), which retained a seriocomic approach that leavened its well-worn tropes and at least some claim to authenticity, O’Connor’s film is as dourly, joylessly self-serious as any tattooed obsessive UFC heavy, and seems pitched to the types of people who will, when watching it, chime in every five minutes with statements like, “That’s right, yo, ‘cos it’s about respect, you know what I mean, bro?”
In spite of the ancient Greek references and the practically mythical theme of the two brothers doomed to clash in battle, Warrior has no pretensions to Greek tragic style, or, if it does, it hopelessly smothers them. Warrior is rather a Rocky variant where the brothers play Rocky and Apollo, and like those characters, seem to summarise a contemporary schism in the American mindset. The major difficulty O’Connor sets himself is setting up a situation where two characters who might rightfully expect to be the heroes of the piece duke it out. Tommy is a war hero and plans to donate whatever he can win fighting to the widow of his former brother in arms Pilar Fernandez (Vanessa Martinez). Brendan, a beleaguered underdog, is of course fighting to save his middle-class status. Their fighting styles are as polarised as their personalities: Tommy is a lethal pugilist who tries to bash all opponents into the ground immediately, whereas Brendan is a slippery wrestler who absorbs heavy blows before contorting his opponents into agonising knots they can’t escape. A sequel might reasonably see them taking on Godzilla and Mothra.
O’Connor, whose foolish enthusiasm and utter cynicism blend indecipherably, throws in everything but the kitchen sink for the sake of emotionally involving his audience. His dramatic style is much like Tommy’s fighting technique: he hits and keeps on hitting until resistance is shattered. I’d be lying if I said by the end I hadn’t been affected by the film on its most basic level—wanting to see how the film could satisfyingly resolve its thorny moral and emotional quandaries, and see our heroes beat their seemingly indomitable opponents. But afterwards I felt greasy and quite genuinely used: the film pushes buttons, which I’m sure many of us have these days, of latent rage at fiscal institutions and corrupted authority figures, of fears about how to keep roofs over heads in tough times, and anxieties over the psychological and social damage of the wars that have both defined and yet also remained oddly alien from the everyday landscape of our era. And yet Warrior squirms out of making any real investigations into the nature of these crises, because at the same time it attempts to exploit such issues, it also gives a moral and emotional hand job to a presumed audience of conservatives and young men aching for manly validation.
It’s heavily suggested that Paddy’s domestic violence was caused by PTSD after his own military service, and Tommy makes many of the same mistakes, acting with surly, unforgiving aggression towards both father and brother. Yet the film gets off on the sight of soldiers coming to serenade Tommy at his bouts with the Marine hymn. The film outlines the good cause Tommy and Brendan have to be angry with their father, and yet O’Connor spares no effort in wringing our empathy with the pathetic, shambolic old man, as when he’s rebuffed by Brendan outside his house like a poor, panting, lost dog as he tells his kids, who don’t know Paddy at all. Later, the film builds this up to a note that’s both ludicrous and yet kind of affecting when Paddy, exhausted by Tommy’s cruelty, falls off the wagon and screams lines from the talking book version of Moby Dick he’s been toting throughout the film in Tommy’s face, stirring something like filial pity from Tommy at last. O’Connor wants to depict catharsis here, but he fails to gain it precisely because he’s copped out of any actual reckoning with the emotional damage both men have suffered and inflicted. The lack of any essential irony or even genuine consequentiality to this background detail finally hurries up a process I’ve noticed in other recent films, like Jim Sheridan’s dreadful Brothers (2009), of turning the familial and spousal abuse of PTSD-afflicted soldiers into an equivalent of a battle scar—ugly, but part of the job of the good loyal God-fearin’ mom-and-apple-pie-lovin’ soldier.
O’Connor and Co. set up a fascinating set of standards that determine the outcome of the film, leavening Tommy’s lustre of patriotism and military heroism by making him a deserter (that’s bad), but one who deserted because he was angry at the friendly fire incident that killed his buddy (that’s good), who doesn’t care who he hurts on the way to his desired goal (that’s bad), but his desired end is helping out his pal’s cutely ethnic family (that’s good). O’Connor goes for the money every time, whether it’s on a relatively casual level, framing Pilar and her child after a weepy phone conversation with Tommy with a photo of him with her late husband, to the most overt, like the aforementioned singing Marines bit. Truth be told, the main source of tension in the narrative of Warrior comes from waiting to see which cliché and manipulative trope O’Connor will employ next. We’ve got Brendan’s wife—O’Connor makes sure to give us a view of Morrison’s shapely ass during a supposedly serious bathroom confrontation between these two hard-pressed average folks—acting out the compulsory role of whining concernedly about her husband’s health and safety when he wants to get back in the ring but eventually coming around to stand by her man at ringside. We’ve got Brendan’s school principal Zito (Kevin Dunn, of course) chewing him out, suspending him, and fending off the appeals of his students to watch Brendan’s fights, but cheering Brendan when watching him on television, and finally joining the kids to view the climactic bout. O’Connor doesn’t so much deploy information as wallop you over the head with it, resolutely failing the “show, don’t tell” test with a constant stream of backstory-dropping conversations and the incessant yammering of the fight callers Bryan Callen and Sam Sheridan, playing themselves, aptly, as the kinds of ESPN-ish commentators you want to strangle with their own entrails after five minutes.
Hollywood formula depends, of course, on the relative memory of an audience, which might remember one or two variations on a theme but often won’t recall the 2,000 or more before that. But Warrior is something new: a film where just about every scene, line, theme, motif, and visual cue seems to have been clipped out of some preexisting source, with a meretricious veneer of grainy steadicam realism and the gratuitous use of the “Ode to Joy” to make the audience feel just so fucking cultured, you know? The film’s attitude to the sport and the people who engage it in is curious: giving our two triumphant white heroes (Irish, of course, ever a safe niche identity) a small army of stock punks and ethnic foes, reminding us that most of those who fight the sport are “animals” amongst whom a teacher with a Beethoven theme tune is an incongruous stand-out, whilst getting off on the steroid-pumped physiques and blood-spattering action with unremitting gall. Warrior builds to apogees of absurd hooray-for-us hype by the time Brendan has to battle the hulking Russian champion Koba (Kurt Angle), who struts onto stage clad, I shit you not, in a jumpsuit emblazoned with hammer and sickle. O’Connor, who with Miracle (2004) revisited an iconic moment of Reaganite resurgence, makes it clear here that he’s trying to tap into a fantasy on the American Right of revisiting the Cold War battles in the fraught hope it will return coherence to its worldview and mettle to its ranks. Sadly, we don’t even get to hear Koba say “I must breaaak yooou.”
This film does seem, with all due respect to my U.S. friends and readers, to capture something almost pathological in aspects of the current American mindset. Warrior finally presents its two brothers locked in mortal combat where one breaks the arm of the other and bashes him into submission for the sake of pure financial desperation, with the side-effect of providing some decidedly nonfruity psychotherapy about turning rage that might be better expended on other targets on each other. Thus, the mistakes of the past cannot teach: they can only be recommitted with ever more hysterical, blunt force until you’re literally on your last legs, broken and bloodied, still commanding the allegiance of the uniformed ranks you nominally betrayed. In short, it’s hard to get away from the feeling that Warrior is pitching to be the Tea Party’s manifesto movie.
That the film holds together at all, and even develops a charge of emotional involvement that isn’t pure flimflam, is because of Hardy and Edgerton, and, to a lesser extent, Nolte. Edgerton, up until recently a fairly bland Aussie pretty boy kicking about in international cinema looking for a place to land, has, in his too-brief contribution to Animal Kingdom (2010) and this film, begun to age interestingly. His believably minimalist playing of Brendan’s mix of assailed intelligence, anxiety, and fighting gumption nicely contrasts Hardy’s glowering mass of oedipal anger. Thanks to them, a confrontation between the brothers on the Atlantic City beachfront delivers the right charge of lingering resentment curdling with grief to produce a hostility that will drive them to nearly tear each other apart in the ring. Nolte’s climactic moment, shouting Melville in Hardy’s face, is the sort of moment that can easily defeat an actor; I’m not sure even Nolte survives it, but he gives it a herculean try. Now bring on Godzilla and Mothra.
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Director: Albert Zugsmith
By Roderick Heath
Albert Zugsmith was one of those characters who make cinema history much livelier. Like Samuel Fuller, with whom he shared many artistic traits, he was a former journalist with a political backgroud—his sister was an author of “proletarian” novels in the 1930s—but had also spent time working as a lawyer, during which he represented Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster in their suits against DC Comics over Superman profits. He evolved into a maverick cinematic entrepreneur, landing a job high in the ranks of Universal Studios. He gave Orson Welles his last Hollywood project, 1958’s Touch of Evil, and produced several films for Douglas Sirk before striking out as an independent filmmaker as studio Hollywood began to decline on the cusp of the 1960s. The films Zugsmith produced or directed are a series of startling switchbacks in style and ambition, including the teen exploitation flick High School Confidential (1958), the camp satire Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), and the failed Disney-imi Dondi (1961).
Zugsmith also tried to cash in on the early tremors of the counterculture and managed to beat Jack Kerouac to copyrighting the phrase “Beat Generation” for his 1959 film of that name. Zugsmith’s best film took its title and essential mood from the infamous Confessions of an English Opium-Eater of English essayist and critic Thomas De Quincey. At the start of the 19th century, De Quincey wrote about his drug-state visions, and became perhaps the first legitimate psychedelic artist. Zugsmith’s film is not an adaptation, but a kind of purple-poetic fever dream spliced with a swashbuckling noir tale, infused with morbid, semi-tragic pseudo-philosophical discursions and a delight in pounding into unexplored territory, all worthy of a high Romantic artist. Filming on an evidently very low budget, rather than trying to hide that fact, Zugsmith made the mixture of thrift-store hype and underground film invention part of his film’s uniquely woozy texture, and created the world’s first cheapjack pulp-surrealist masterpiece. Confessions of an Opium Eater anticipated not only the trippier excesses of ’60s cinema, but also elements of later action cinema and modern pulp revivalism, including the directly influenced Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and other East-meets-West remixes. It also represents a weird and fascinating islet of virtually experimental cinema in the context of B-movie thrills, rampantly assaulting settled mores of both art and culture in a violently deconstructive fashion.
Vincent Price plays Gilbert De Quincey, supposedly a descendant of Thomas and following in his existential footsteps, an adventurer and occasional opium fiend who washes up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1902. In a lengthy prologue, his voiceover helps weave a fantasy texture as a gang of tough-looking men on a beachfront discover a rotting skeleton wrapped in seaweed, one eye gazing out malevolently, whilst out at sea a boatload of captive Asian women are being transported to the shores of America on a huge junk. The women are hauled out of the hold, and the crewmen herd, batter, wrestle, and hurl the girls into a great cargo net to get them off the ship and onto a waiting schooner before a Coast Guard cutter reaches them. When the schooner’s crew bring them on the beach, the waiting men prove to be rescuers who try to overcome the slavers. One of them, who is revealed later to be crusading newspaper editor George Wah (Richard Loo), engages in a battle with one of the pirates who threatens one of the girls, Lotus (June Kyoto Lu, credited as June Kim). George is knocked down by his opponent, but the pirate is suddenly attacked by a panicked white horse, which kicks him over a cliff. Some of the pirates’ confederates arrive in a car and quell the battle with a blast from a tommy gun. The drag away Lotus from Wah’s crumpled body.
The images of death, the exotic ship emerging from the mystic ocean as reported through De Quincey’s eyes (“I see a junk…”), and the metaphysical image of good easily recognised in the white horse immediately establish a mood of dreamlike strangeness and symbolic fervidness. De Quincey enters the story in downtown San Francisco, mulling over his own aimlessness, as a seagull portentously drops dead at his feet. He has to sneak into Chinatown, which the police have cordoned off because of the threat of tong wars. There he encounters the shadowy factions vying for power in the Chinese community, with Ching Foon (Philip Ahn) seemingly among those trying to continue the crusade of George Wah to end the sexual slavery in Chinatown run by mysterious, ancient kingpin Lin Tang. On the opposing team is ravishing femme fatale Ruby Low (Linda Ho), Lin Tang’s senior madam and operational chief, who runs the labyrinthine demimonde. Breaking into Wah’s offices, he discovers Ching Foon is hiding Lotus in a secret room, but Lin Tang’s tong goons bust their way in and force them to flee via a secret elevator that takes them into the sewers. There, after a valiant effort, De Quincey is knocked out, and Lotus spirited away by the slavers. Awakening deep in the bowels of the underworld, De Quincey encounters Lo Tsen (Caroline Kido), and the midget Child (Yvonne Moray), two women who were once sold in Lin Tang’s flesh market. Now they’re imprisoned in bamboo cages, being starved to death to rid their husbands of their inconvenient persons after they’ve proven too encumbering or problematic. De Quincey and the women try to escape, but that proves a very tall order.
Zugsmith’s mise-en-scène, conjured with cinematographer Joseph Biroc, who did similarly great work for Fuller and Robert Aldrich, is at once solid and stripped-down in a fashion familiar from low-budget cinema of the era. Yet it is replete with swiftly glimpsed, oddly elusive images and stylised environs: riddling secret passages, characters who vanish and return, people who seem to switch sides and back again with swiftly adopted and swapped identities, glimpses of corpses, drug-dream visions, inanimate objects filmed as if they’re alive and menacing. Most clever are the ghostly mechanisms of the crane system that the slave girls’ cages slide about on that sees their captives whipped from room to room, sliding unexpectedly out of shadows like spectral emanations.
The effects are often ropy, from the camera speed effects used to give action more pep throughout, to the mid-film surrealist dream where distorted faces and stock footage commingle to wonderfully tacky effect, yet it’s precisely the film’s bald-faced lack of hype that’s part of its unique style. For example, early in the film, De Quincey follows Ruby Lo out onto the street, only for a banner to drop unexpectedly into the frame, signalling the eruption of a tong battle. The soundtrack is filled with the screams of women and children and the rattle of machine guns, and Ruby Lo dashes into a doorway, only for a sliding panel to drop, stopping De Quincey from following and leaving him outside on the completely deserted streets. Trying to break into Wah’s office, he’s assailed by a suddenly looming vision of a dragon’s face, which proves to be only a menacing kite, which he then cleverly uses to hitch a rope to the roof so he can penetrate the building.
Whilst its fleshy texture is clearly compiled from generations of trash sources, Confessions has a tone quite unlike anything before, save for the strangest works of Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang, and little since. De Quincey is a strange and uncommon kind of movie hero, constantly thwarted in his attempts to escape and rescue the captive women. An adventurer who’s scoured the world in search of his destiny, beset by an awareness of his own rootless alienation, he’s a fan of the opium pipe, and gains initial introduction to Ruby Lo because he sports the tattoo by which fans of the drug recognise each other. De Quincey’s literal act of infiltrating Chinatown immediately plunges him into a serpentine jumble of motivations and mysteries, as nobody’s quite sure who’s on what side of the coin, and indeed the notion that there is no coin anymore lingers threateningly. Wah, the liberal hero of Chinatown, so famous that even Lotus had heard of him back in China, is the film’s yardstick of decency and upright morality, and yet he’s believed dead. Everyone else is improvising. The falling bird at the start is definitely the albatross around the neck of the doomed mariner, as he encounters his idol/enemy/lover/angel of death Ruby, who likewise sees in him a personification of something ecstatic and annihilating. Hilariously, at one point when Ruby has De Quincey bound in her apartment, and comes on to him in a lengthy scene where the camera only studies her sensually rapacious features, she kisses him and it seems that they’re about to consummate their forbidden passion. However, they’re both wily survivors, and when De Quincey grabs Ruby’s hair to try to manhandle her, she promptly bashes him unconscious.
The screenplay’s flagrantly weird twists and turns are in accord with screenwriter Robert Hill’s dialogue, a free-styling mix of fortune cookie Orientalisms, philosophy, and hard-boiled noir quips. When De Quincey awakens hanging from a hook in a room filled with exotic costumes and he complains he’s not a side of beef, Ching Foon retorts, “Not sure if you side of beef or a side of man. Look like you man of many sides!” Gilbert De Quincey’s peculiar wandering character and his deep knowledge of Chinese culture mixed with an age of Yankee sarcasm is an interesting prefiguration of a contemporary multicultural ideal, the Indiana Jones type of globetrotting buccaneer who also would cross-cultural barriers, and a kind of prototypical hipster in search of experiences beyond not just the ordinary, but perspective-altering, life-changing, perhaps even life-ending. It feels as if Zugsmith was aware that he was making not just a period fantasia, but also a film about the nascent yearnings of the then-contemporary underworlds — the drug culture, the Beat and psychedelic scene, and the gay world, aspects of the general counterculture just about to grow in force from bohemian hideaways. This aspect is discernible in the importance given to the secret signs by which members recognise each other, the way portals into different realities swing open and slap shut, and how cultural tropes blend in polymorphous fashion or polarise fatally. More than a decade before Robert Towne used the word “Chinatown” to invoke everything unknowable and deceitful in the world, Zugsmith and Hill had already investigated that notion into the ground, for whilst the mystery world of Chinatown is here certainly filled with exotic threat, it’s also a place where the heroes are fighting for its soul and definition. Community is one of the film’s underlying themes, as De Quincey searches for connection with other human beings, a connection he constantly snatches at in trying to make contact with captives through bars and doors, chasing Ruby Lo, Ling Tan, and his own fate like the proverbial white rabbit.
There are hints that Zugsmith’s work with Orson Welles laid seeds that sprout here. The seamy, multitudinous, trash-romantic universe he evokes both resembles The Lady from Shanghai (1946) and Touch of Evil in many places and anticipates Welles’ adaptation of The Trial from the following year in the paranoid atmosphere, the use of sets, lighting, and busy frames with deep-focus photography. Intentionally or not, too, the film’s ideas reach out in accord with both fellow exploit/liberate artists like Russ Meyer (with whom Zugsmith would later work on the failed Fanny Hill ), and Jesus Franco, and overtly arty eccentrics like Kenneth Anger and Jean-Luc Godard. Another comparison that jumps out to me is the same year’s Dr. No, the first James Bond film, which likewise reinvented pulp and serial material in a pop-art fashion, but completely avoided this film’s self-aware, reality-bending appropriation of De Quincey’s alternative reality trippiness, so that the racist fantasies are more or less left intact. You’d have to look to much more recent crossbreeds like The Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010) to see the mainstream assimilation of Zugsmith’s sensibility here, in almost all characteristics—the blend of elemental action and philosophical enquiry, post-modern genre and cultural blending, dream-or-reality quandaries—but still lacking the vitality of this film’s humanism, strangeness, and eroticism.
Speaking of eroticism, Zugsmith gains some mild grindhouse sex appeal from his material, as in the lengthy sequences towards the end in which Lin Tang’s men make their captive women dance in alluring fashion for their would-be purchasers, but yet also manages at the same time to critique this objectification. Zugsmith in Sex Kittens Go to College had cast Mamie Van Doren as a genius no one takes seriously because of her looks; here, ironies proliferate as the brutality of the kidnapped girls’ slavery is emphasised. In one gloriously camp moment that evokes Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1963), one of the audience of girl-buyers irritably tears off the wig hiding the baldness of one of the dancing girls. The sex appeal is literally pasted on to hide the de-feminising punishment doled out to the would-be escapee. Yet the whole project is orchestrated by Ruby Lo, who dresses up to play the part of Lin Tang, who died years ago, leading to the delightful image at the very end in which she tries to stamp on Gilbert’s fingers as he hangs on for dear life, lifting her masculine dress to reveal stilettoed heels. Ruby dreams of using the accumulated treasure of Lin Tang to muster an army of conquest back in China.
De Quincey’s main helpmate is the perverted image of a courtesan imposed on the midget Child, whose own blackly comic sensibility marks her out as one of cinema’s rarest characters. Completely immune to emotional degradation or intimidation, she giggles over the most sadistic designs and sighs laughingly over her fate, having once been the real Lin Tang’s “baby doll” before he sold her to a lettuce farmer in Salinas: “I pick lettuce long time!” When Lo Tsen cries out to De Quincey from her cage for food, Child mocks her: “She crazy. They fed her last week!” And when De Quincey, trying to horsetrade with Child, offers her “her life,” she retorts, “No good. What else you got?” In a particularly nightmarish moment, Gilbert is shown the body of a girl who’s been drowned in a tank with a rock tethered to her neck. The undercurrent of honest brutality in the film helps makes the urgency of Gilbert’s mission more than theoretical.
The film’s most memorable scene comes halfway through, when, having been separated from the women in escaping from Lin Tang’s dungeons, Gilbert hides out in an opium den to which he finds a secret door in a toilet cubical. After smoking a pipe and going into a delirious dream in which severed hands crawl around and Ruby’s face merges with that of a grinning alligator, De Quincey wakes up as enemy goons assault him. Replicating the hero’s dazed, drugged-up state, Zugsmith shoots the next five minutes of the film in woozy slow motion, at first without any sound. De Quincey makes an escape by leaping from bunk to bunk in the opium den, knocking over his assailants, and then hurling himself out a window, only to find he’s on a high floor, and finishes up sliding down a roof to hang desperately from a gutter. Zugsmith draws out the quickest motions to unbearable lengths (aided by composer Albert Glasser’s eerily droning Theremin music), as Gilbert wavers on the edge of a great drop, unable to got back or forward, as a hatchet-clutching henchman leaps after him from one balcony, and another with a gun lines up a shot from a distance away. De Quincey makes a leap through an awning onto an adjoining balcony and climbs through a window, only to encounter a smiling, yet creepy butcher who wields a huge cleaver to cut the head of a pig’s carcass in half. Gilbert runs on through the building, passing through a disarmingly quiet tea parlour and then hearing someone shouting “help!” and following the sound. It proves to be a squawking cockatoo, which is scared off its perch as bullets smack into the wall behind it, and Gilbert is chased again by goons, driving him to take a fall off a balcony where, instead of falling normally to earth, he’s transmogrified into a spinning cut-out. When he awakens next, he gets a dish of water from Ruby right in the face (the camera), ending the dreamy state with a shock. It’s one of the most original and unique action scenes I’ve ever seen, and, in its way, as formally radical as anything being done in the era’s art cinema.
Confessions vibrates with its anarchic assault on many different surface realities within its structure, building to the dizzying finale in which it is revealed that George Wah is still alive. He poses as an elderly girl-buyer and then tries to pass off plaster casts for bushels of opium in payment for buying Lotus. Gilbert and Wah punch their way out, back to back, like Ladd and Heflin in Shane (1953), as George congratulates De Quincey: “You wreck the joint as fast as ever!” The rush of action here is surprising, as both Lo Tsen and Child die battling their captor—Lo Tsen takes a fall with one from a high stairwell, and Child gets a knife in the back, beseeching De Quincey through the portal of a sewer grate to say hello to her ancestors—and a wounded De Quincey and Ruby are swept away in the sewer waters. De Quincey’s final voiceover, as purple as ever, is almost exultant, declaring “all passion spent, all evil behind us…as once again I put out to sea, were these the widening waters of death, or the gates of paradise?” Like the film as a whole, these last moments are both ludicrous, yet rare in their depth of feeling.
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Director/Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller
By Roderick Heath
Sam Fuller’s gloriously overheated oeuvre, with his Brutalist-like fondness for aesthetic rough edges, journalistic punch of perspective, and crisp visual stylistics, retains the power to compel and surprise long after its heyday. But in his own time Fuller’s rugged, non-conformist attitude and penchant for bold and declarative, controversy-courting themes condemned him to a precipitous slide from the status of big studio director to independent scrounger. Fuller’s career trailed off into a thirty-year stretch of occasional films, many barely noticed by the critics who were championing his ‘50s work. Shock Corridor was one of the last of the run of aggressively energetic, intelligent but hyped-up flicks he made when he was trying to sustain himself on poverty row budgets in Hollywood. Shock Corridor is supposedly a murder mystery set in a hospital for mentally disturbed patients, but really has virtually nothing to do with then-contemporary psychiatry and everything to do with Fuller’s analysis of a social landscape that seems to have struck him as 95 percent crazy. Johnny Barrett’s (Peter Breck) self-appointed mission to win a Pulitzer Prize by finding the killer of a man named Sloan hidden amongst the hospital residents is the starting point for a long journey through the twists of the American moral and sexual psyche circa 1963 that is, on occasions, one of the best metaphors for a social project since Melville sent his mariners after the white whale. Some directors lose their will and wit in low-budget genre work, but Fuller seemed to revel in it: he could make raw melodrama, sexploitation, seamy production, and unfiltered sensationalism work for him.
Johnny, at the outset, has gained the approval of his editor, “Swanee” Swanson (Bill Zuckert), to pursue the story, and Swanee has pressed his psychiatrist friend Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) to tutor Johnny on how to fool doctors, police, and hospital staff to get himself placed in the hospital. His girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) is integral to the plan: she has to pose as his sister, to whom he’s supposed to be incestuously attracted, as the first manifestation of a dangerous instability that will require incarceration. But Cathy, an scholarly woman who’s probably smarter than Johnny but who works as a stripper to makes ends meet, is vehemently afraid of the plan, sensing something strange and masochistic in Johnny’s pursuit. Cathy and Johnny’s verbal combat over the advisability of the plan instantly ignites the powder keg Fuller has amassed, Cathy swiping a cigarette out of Johnny’s hand in rage and then pleading with him to reconsider; their dialogue explicitly evokes Hamlet and Greek tragedy as leitmotif (pretending to be mad, illusory identity, secret incest) and mission statement. The film has already quoted Euripides at the outset: “Those whom God wishes to destroy they first make mad.” But whom does God wish to destroy?
Johnny’s subsequent emotional coercion of Cathy finally forces her to present the false story to the police, and Johnny assaults the psychiatrist who interviews him, landing him squarely where he wants to be. In the hospital, he encounters a panoply of bizarre patients, like rotund opera freak Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), and some equally disturbing staff. He works his way into the lives of the three men who witnessed the murder. Stuart (James Best) is a hick who believes he’s Confederate Cavalry General Jeb Stuart; Trent (Hari Rhodes), an African-American student who went crazy after being used as an integration guinea pig; and Boden (Gene Evans), a former nuclear scientist who’s reverted to a childish state. Just how tenuous Johnny’s hold on to sanity himself is soon evident—when he’s been sedated and locked up even before hospitalization, he hallucinates Cathy in her performing persona, making taunting come-ons and resting on his shoulder like a psychosexual Jiminy Cricket.
Each of his quarries in the hospital is enacting a trauma that is linked to the others. Stuart’s mind snapped after he returned from Korea, where he’d deserted and adopted Communism, the first time in his life he’d felt any pride in himself after being raised by racist redneck parents. The example of an heroic, genuinely patriotic POW finally brought him back to the fold, but he was still ostracised on return and took refuge in the fantasy of being a Southern military hero, one who leaps to his feet in joyful salute when Johnny poses as Nathan Bedford Forrest, Stuart’s commander and also the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. That works as well, if differently, with Trent, for he, in his psychosis, spouts white supremacist rhetoric and claims himself to have founded the Klan. Boden’s mind was broken by his part in inventing the atomic bomb. Between the three of them, they suggest the whole state of postwar America has been defined by deranged, fractious responses to the Age of Anxiety, with roots going back to the Civil War and beyond and resolving logically in the mass paranoia of the Cold War, racial strife, and the nuclear era. Suddenly it starts to look a whole lot like Fuller had his entire country in mind when quoting Euripides. “The last egghead I had in here was Ben Franklin!” snaps an aggressive orderly about another patient as Johnny enters, and one doubts the reference to the brainiest of the Founding Fathers is accidental.
Fuller’s metaphors are suspect, but he tackles them with such electric intensity and personally felt passion that he converts his hoary raw material into an orchestral psychodrama. Fuller repeatedly references his own life and career(s) as well as invoking a sociohistorical survey—the film is punctuated by colour documentary footage that Fuller shot himself whilst on location for various film projects. From the very first scene, the faintly nails-on-a-chalkboard emotional intensity is sustained, and the relationship of Johnny and Cathy sets the urgent tone of the proceedings. Johnny strikes up an uneasy friendship with Pagliacci, who awakens him one night bellowing Verdi in his ear and then playacts murder on him, a blackly funny and peculiar mix of feigned violence and tender, possibly homoerotic intimacy; Dr. Cristo (John Matthews), the hospital’s medical chief, assures Johnny the Pagliacci is actually harmless. Later, Johnny pretends to embark on a paddle-steamer ride with Trent. Meanwhile Cathy’s gnawing anxiety manifests in one priceless little moment when, in speaking with Cristo, she rattles her fingernails repeatedly on a desktop, tipping him off to something peculiar in her psyche, too. Not knowing the truth he begins to assume that the fictional incest wasn’t entirely one-sided.
The notion of a man acting crazy so well that he becomes crazy is hoary, but more dynamic is the idea of a man being drawn to an institution to fulfill a need within himself that beckons with greatness, but proves to be madness, oddly anticipates Kubrick’s The Shining. Breck’s performance is modulated in a similar way to Jack Nicholson’s in Kubrick’s film, already acting ever so vaguely dissociative and regressive under the guise of cocksure determination as Cathy tries to make herself heard. The innermost enigma of Johnny’s search for the murderer proves to have been motivated not by hate or irrationality, but by sex—the murderer, the seemingly friendly orderly Wilkes (Chuck Roberson), was molesting catatonic female patients, and Sloan was murdered for knowing this. Equal and opposite gender savagery is manifest when Johnny finds himself unexpectedly in a ward for nymphomaniacs; rather than a paradise of pleasure, the women lurk like waiting birds of prey, one of them singing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” as a mocking chant, menace thick in the air. Fuller stages the scene like a set piece from Psycho as Johnny can’t open the door behind him and tries to leave quietly, only for the women to assault him in carnivorous passion like the Bacchantes falling on Orpheus in a devouring love-rage. Their unhinged sexuality contrasts Cathy’s efforts to play the falsified love-object whilst simultaneously asserting her wisdom.
Fuller cumulatively suggests through Johnny’s search that the great American need to penetrate and triumph is part of its problem. Simultaneously, the spectacle of individuals acting the opposite of what they are to save them from reality is the repeated motif. Unlike a lot of pleading-spouse duets, Johnny and Cathy’s relationship is vital to this story, in part because both are subsuming themselves—Cathy less happily—in roles to get ahead. Her burlesque act gives Fuller ample opportunity to lift the eye candy quotient in the movie, but he also hits a note of uniquely odd romanticism as Cathy sings her song for the patrons, heavily made-up face floating in a feather boa as she steadily disrobes before a tacky backdrop festooned with tinsel hearts. Towers is gorgeous and the song lustrous, yet there’s something sublimely forlorn about the whole sequence that lays down the emotional groundwork for what follows. Later, when she pleads with Swanee to make him aware of Johnny’s mental state, Fuller stacks the deck tellingly by having him patronise her whilst she’s dressed in skintight leotards.
Cathy is defined, sequentially, as an intellectual, a stripper, and a tragic lover, and Fuller photographs her as lonely, distinct from her milieu, standing out all the more individually the more Johnny sinks into his, often presenting an overt contrast between her fraying emotions and her ludicrous dress, whilst patronised all the while about her concerns about Johnny. Johnny puts his body on the line in an even more profound way than she does, partly, it’s hinted, out of frustration. Cathy’s stage act is comparatively tame, whilst one of the more dim-witted women she works with remarks that the only act that would be worth anything is one that goes all the way, which is precisely the enterprise Johnny’s engaged in. Johnny’s fantasy of Cathy has nothing to do with the real woman, but the one who embodies the wispy erotic-emotional fantasy on stage. Later, he entirely reconstructs her into an untouchable icon of desire by identifying her with the fake sister she’s embodying, unable to reconcile the disparate versions of womanhood Cathy inhabits that he can’t cope with.
As equally trenchant, and more easily discernable, as Cathy’s mask is the self-made Klan hood that Trent dons to rant racist rhetoric and chase down one of his fellow black patients, presenting the feverishly sick spectacle of the frightened older man being pursued by the whipped-up loonies led by another black man wearing the ghoulish camouflage of race-hate (“Let’s get him before he marries my daughter!” he shouts). Johnny’s choice to identify himself as Forrest is canny not merely in how it taps into both Stuart’s and Trent’s delusions, but also in explicating how conjoined the neuroses of war, caste, and colour are in American society. The ritual form of Johnny’s encounters with his three quarries is to satiate their fantasies, allowing them to have moments of lucidity presaged by dreams that evoke their buried traumas tangentially. Fuller introduces a self-reflexive note by having the dreamers remark that they have their dreams “in colour,” thus acknowledging that their world is an inauthentic, black-and-white one. Trent’s dream of tribal rituals with masked dancers is accompanied by his voiceover disquisitions on the dates of the crucial Supreme Court desegregation decisions—associating legal rulings with tribal lore: the political is primal—and memories of vicious assaults by clansmen. When the madmen have moments of clarity, Johnny’s pursuit of his truth comes constantly at the cost of his inability to hear their crucial stories; his specific objective is finally distinct from broader truths he’s not interested in discerning.
Fuller makes a meal out of his own former profession’s capacity to pursue the sensational and ignore the contextual. His punishment for Johnny is the most lethally amusing one that can be imposed on a media creature: he is stricken by a recurring inability to speak. When he does finally extract the identity of the killer, Johnny’s own collapsing psyche, pushed along by submission to electroshock therapy, prevents him from offering it up, and then he forgets it; only his own colour dream and psychotic fantasy of being trapped in an indoor rainstorm hands him the metaphoric key, the memory that Wilkes, the murderer, supervises the hydrotherapy cures. Whilst Johnny does manage the conventionally heroic act of uncovering the killer and defeating him in a furious physical showdown, it’s at the cost of his sanity—he descends into a catatonic state after he’s written his prize-winning story. Fuller’s breathless histrionics, as evinced in the rainstorm scene, with Breck contorting and screaming, tend to be so heightened in concept that they cease being naïve and becomes hallucinatory.
In spite of the low budget, Shock Corridor is technically superior, with former Orson Welles collaborator Stanley Cortez providing no-nonsense cinematography and Jerome Thoms’ compulsive, occasionally disjunctive editing. The acting, particularly by Towers and Rhodes, is remarkably good in the context. One of Fuller’s subtler technical coups comes in a dinner sequence when Johnny sits between Pagliacci and another patient, the uneasy silence punctuated only by the amplified sounds of food being chewed, inevitably resolving in a violent eruption. The very finish, with Cathy desperately trying to mould Johnny’s arms so that he’ll embrace her, is a logical terminus indeed; he’s now the perfect, immobile love object, completely calcified and mindless, and Cathy’s devoted sanity seems as crazy as he is. It’s a gruesomely affecting end to a perversely brilliant film. l
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Russ Meyer
By Roderick Heath
Life-loving, out-for-kicks, bobble-hipped blonde Billie (Lori Williams), equine-shouldered Italian Rosie (Haji), and competitive, sadistic she-hulk Varla (Tura Satana) are go-go dancers. They’re glimpsed in the delirious opening of Russ Meyer’s iconic cult classic gyrating in feigned ecstatics to the hypnotized, lustful joy of leering male patrons, before exploding out into the countryside on their hot rods hunting for action, evoking Macbeth’s three witches out to have fun and create chaos. And not just your sham girls-gone-wild crap either: Varla’s the kind who’s not happy unless she’s snapped your spine, stolen your cash, and left your girlfriend dead in a ditch after a lesbian gangbang. Straight from Meyer’s horny id via its actresses’ pissed-off superegos to you, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is one of those rare outré cult movies that is great cinema, too.
Meyer’s is a name to conjure with, if not without a certain ironic fizz, as a director whose most famous work straddled a narrow hinterland of soft-core that stands between standard exploitation cinema and porn. His films, always populated by buxom, semiclad lovelies, had the quality of a kind of performance-art joke mixed with a scurrilously satiric and chaos-courting sensibility. Barbara Steele once accurately described the essence of the cult movie as possessing an “element of unease” sourced in “anarchy, transgressing certain taboos; they are almost always excessive and camp and speak to the counterculture.” Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! became almost immediately iconic for the then-emerging camp brand, particularly a young John Waters, who turned Divine into his personal Tura Satana, as well as future punks and pop artists. From its title, a deliberate combination of elements Meyer thought would be alluring for audiences—speed, sex, violence—to its final frames, Meyer’s breakthrough movie is almost hallucinatory in its depraved intensity.
Satana, Japanese-born and Chicago-raised, had been working as an exotic dancer since the age of 13 and had also become a proficient martial artist. She took an active part in inventing for Meyer a character she and a lot of women she knew wanted to be like: fearless, physically indomitable, and utterly powerful to the point of psychopathy. Varla suggests a cross between a superhero, the villainess of a vintage girly S&M comic a la John Willie, and a gender-blurred anticipation of the kinds of unstoppable juggernauts played by Schwarzenegger and his ilk. The odd thing about Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is that, in many ways, it’s merely a sturdy film noir executed with a rocketing pace and force that would have made Don Siegel and Sam Fuller proud, revolving as it does around a feminised variation on a Starkweather-esque thrill-killing scenario. The film’s sweaty, overheated demeanor is the product of a film director expert at building and sustaining several varieties of tension. The editing by Meyer and the photography invest the film with the kind of subliminal force that makes it an ideal: the fantasy of trash you’ve always wanted to see but never dreamt someone actually made.
The usual veneer of sociological import is suggested by the opening voiceover by John Furlong, which rings in the ears as animated bars resembling soundtrack strips slide down the screen before the explosive editing of the go-go club scene, an opening that’s a unit of sheer pop art perfection. Meyer aims to deliver cheap thrills immediately with the dancing sequence followed by fast driving and then a spat between Rosie and Billie that sees the two dripping-wet pussycats grappling in an angry brawl, whilst Varla looks on in amused irritation. Soon enough, the film takes a dark turn when the trio, having arrived at a salt lake racing track, encounter Tommy (Ray Barlow), a speed enthusiast with gentlemanly affectations, and his trim, bikini-clad girly girl, Linda (Susan Bernard). Varla provokes Tommy effortlessly into competing with her in a lap race. When it looks like he’ll win, Varla cuts a corner and forces Tommy off course, almost causing an accident, and then starts bullying Linda. When Tommy is sucked into asserting himself violently against Varla, she takes great delight in beating him bloody and then breaking his back.
It’s a moment that retains some shocking force, and the undercurrent of menace makes it a logical conclusion to an uneasy confrontation in both the clear about-face of relative strength and the ambiguity of its purpose: what is Varla reacting to, and what does she really want? Control is the answer, and money soon proves to be as good a tool for that as any. When the threesome pauses in a small town to refuel, with Linda a drugged-up captive, they get wind of a fortune for the taking when they spy a wheelchair-bound old man (Stuart Lancaster) and the hunky son he calls Vegetable (Dennis Busch), and learn that the old man sits on a huge compensation pay-out he received after the accident that left him crippled. He was struck down by a train while saving the life of a girl who blithely left on the next train, leaving him with a poisonous misogyny that he gets the Vegetable to act out by raping and killing young women who near his dirt farm. Varla, Rosie, and Billie invent a cover story—that they’re escorting the unbalanced Linda home to her rich parents after she lost her boyfriend in a racing accident—and set the stage for a savage gender war.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! would probably still have gained a less slanted variety of admiration without the ripe conceit of its central bevy of amazons, if they had been men or more traditional wiles-over-brawn femmes fatale. But it would have been a much less enthused fetishisation, for the blatantly sexualised, yet oddly untouchable, trio both delight and unsettle the sensual imagination, their physicality wielded as sharply as knives at the men and women they try to bewitch and intimidate. Emerging through Billie’s mocking, coded dialogue is the fact that Varla and Rosie are lovers, whilst Billie swings both ways, and a running subplot of the film is Billie’s dissatisfaction and desire for some man-lovin’ she hopes Vegetable can fulfill. But that dimwit’s head has been tied in knots by his loony tunes papa, leaving him both unable to perform in spite of his musclebound image of potency, and childlike in his emotional attachments. They could all have stepped out of various Grecian myths, the three wild amazons and the controlling, female-loathing, tragedy-provoking overlord.
The wild card in this elemental stand-off is the old man’s second son, Kirk (Paul Trinka), the only character who seems psychically to have advanced beyond a moral and intellectual pagan age, taking up such pursuits as reading and thinking. “He’s growing away from us,” the old man notes to Vegetable. When Linda temporarily escapes this grotesque situation after the old man tries to get a piece of her, Kirk picks her up as he’s driving back to the ranch, accidentally returning her to the trap she just left. She’s utterly distraught and bewildered that he could have sprung from this regressive, barbarian race. Kirk is vaguely prissy and emasculated, something Varla senses, and she decides to manipulate him through sex to get him to cough up the location of the hidden moolah. This agenda also shades in a more honest flirtation, for Varla seems to genuinely like Kirk’s submissive, sensitive-seeming side, where any sign of resistance, even from him, turns her into a bestial slayer.
The second great notion of Faster, Pussycat!, after its villainesses, is the idea of playing them off against masculine characters who are enacting the kind of twisted macho intrigue then very popular in mainstream American drama, in theatrical works like Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and movies, especially in many 1950s westerns, where a failing patriarch and rebellious, insufficient sons battle out their psychodramas. In those works, women are usually passive or manipulative bystanders, but here the genders are actively at war, an idea that both subverts and extends that theme. There’s a kind of fantastic equality in the equation that was utterly new when the film came out. The film’s lone interval of relieving cordiality occurs when the two camps sit down for a meal; all parties act their various parts and tenuous amities form between Billie and the old man through their shared love of whiskey, Billie sympathizing with the captive Linda, and Varla coming on to Kirk. Soon enough, however, the situation erupts, when Billie deliberately gets drunk enough to give Linda a chance to escape. The old man hopes to track her down first and subject her to Vegetable’s abuse, causing the others to reflexively chase after her to thwart his depraved intent.
The fact that cutesy little Linda is threatened on both sides with fatal, sexualized violence—what Varla and company really intend to do with her is ambiguous, considering they would have done far better to have killed her off, if that’s what they wanted, back where they left Tommy—gives the film a compulsive edge. Billie, although complicit in crime, is not instinctively antisocial like Varla, instead merely hungry for thrills; she is the most humane and likeable of the three girls, a tendency, however, that makes her the odd one out. A tenuous understanding seems possible when Vegetable can’t bring himself to assault Linda. When Kirk slaps his father trying to extricate the key to the family’s truck from him, it seems the father’s power is broken, and Varla is momentarily humanised and dizzied by this spectacle of human frailty and warped values. That possibility, however, soon disintegrates when Billie decides to dispatch her wicked friends: Varla lances her in the back with a switchblade knife, an act that so deranges Vegetable that he stabs Rosie to death in revenge, whilst Varla runs down the old man, his shattered wheelchair disgorging the money he’s literally been sitting on.
Seeing Rosie dead, Varla attempts to run down Vegetable, too, but in an amazing spectacle of competing forces, he proves strong enough to hold off Varla’s car as she tries to crush him against a wall, but he still falls flat, broken and twisted. Varla then sets off to finish the last of her potential enemies, Kirk and Linda. The conclusion leaves the safely, sparely hetero-normative couple of Kirk and Linda standing in an ending not without ironies. The finale, where Kirk and Linda try to escape and battle the relentless, remorseless Varla, resembles the last act of dozens of subsequent thrillers and action films, like Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Michael Mann’s Collateral (2003), with the exception that in almost all of those films the juggernauts are male. Bookish Kirk puts up a better fight against Varla than anyone else, fending off a threat to his newly designated mate Linda like a caveman in a primal contest that takes place in an arena in the surrounding wastelands—except that rather than fending off a wild animal or rival male, he’s coming off second best to a stripper. In the end, it is Linda who defeats Varla by ramming her with the truck, thus taking on some of the overt empowerment and fighting potency of the amazon women as both anarchic femininity and vicious patriarchy having finally destroyed each other.
This almost perfect parable, expressed in the most overheated of manners, makes Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! especially compelling as a fetish saga and social satire, though the film works very well as a standard thriller. It’s for the best that Varla dies at the end, because she’s too crazy and destructive to be allowed to remain. But, of course, it’s also disappointing that a galvanising force (think James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett with massive knockers) in her transgressive, reprehensible delight has to meet an end at the hands of lesser mortals. She could well have gone on to star in a long-running series, wavering from one side of the law to the other. Satana’s a great presence on screen, but not much of an actress, with her line readings coming out in the same bristling, harsh enunciation. All three of the leads are limited, with Lancaster giving the only “good” performance, but the stylisation of their personae is perfect for the material. Meyer’s determination to cultivate his peccadilloes eventually stymied his chance to ascend high up the ladder of American filmmakers, an ascent he could have managed given his fearsome cinematic technique. Perhaps in the end, like his antiheroine Varla, Meyer was just too much for the squares, and too much himself to care. l
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Directors: Melvin Van Peebles/Mario Van Peebles
One Punch, Twice the Damage: The Double Bill Blogathon
The Films THE MAN Doesn’t Want You to See
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Right after we finished viewing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the hubby’s brother turned to us and said, “That’s the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.” Obviously, the brother doesn’t spend enough time with us. If he did, he’d recognize this film for what it is—the almost prototypical fever dream of the independent filmmaker.
One interesting thing about Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is that it came on the heels of a hit film Melvin Van Peebles made for Columbia Pictures called Watermelon Man, in which a white bigot wakes up one day to discover that he’s turned into Godfrey Cambridge. It’s not clear what drove this black director off the course of mainstream success, but his next effort, largely financed with his own money, was nothing short of revolutionary for the film industry. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song launched the genre known as blaxploitation (can anyone explain that term to me?), which brought a slew of heroic black enforcers and sexy black women to the screen for the mass consumption of a large, previously ignored black audience.
The explanation for Melvin’s change of direction is suggested in Baadasssss!, son Mario’s docudrama about the making of Sweet Sweetback. There was a lot of political foment in the world, and several heroes of the black community in America—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, JFK, RFK, Medgar Evers—had been slaughtered. The black community was up in arms and looking for a life in the United States on their own terms. For Melvin Van Pebbles (the “Van” is an affectation to signal his self-proclaimed stature in America), the decision to make Sweet Sweetback was both a political statement and a shrewd move to cash in on an audience he knew was not being served. His move paid off; Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song made $15 million dollars, the highest-grossing independent film in its release year.
So what is it that black audiences wanted in 1971-72? The story of Sweetback starts when he was taken off the streets of Los Angeles by the kind-hearted residents of a house of prostitution. We watch as they fawn over the raggedy Sweetback and feed him full to bursting. The brothel becomes Sweetback’s home and the place where he gets his sexually charged name when a prostitute initiates the young man (Mario Van Peebles) and uses the term for him as they have sex.
Fast-forward to the adult Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) who is a regular part of the live sex show that turns a tidy profit for his employer Beetle (Simon Chuckster). Two white cops to whom Beetle pays protection come by and ask to borrow one of his “boys” for the evening to show headquarters they’re working on a case. Beetle complains that he’s shorthanded: “George is sick.” The cops wait to get an eyeful of the sex show, then borrow Sweetback.
The cops arrest a young Black Panther named Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales) and drive to a place where they can rough him up. Sweetback is handcuffed, for appearances, to one of the cops. One of them apologizes to him and unlocks one of the cuffs so he doesn’t have to be part of the beating. Sweetback watches silently and makes a life-changing decision. He wraps his hand in the open cuff and uses it like brass knuckles to beat the cops senseless and help Mu-Mu escape. From that moment on, Sweetback is a man on the run who is dedicated to protecting Mu-Mu, who he sees as the future of the black community.
The search for Sweetback by the police gives Van Peebles a chance to showcase the faces of ordinary members of the black community in all their variety as the police canvass them for information. One particularly brutal part of this search has the cops burst in on Beetle as he plays happily with two kittens and permanently deafen him by firing a service revolver next to each of his ears. This man who unself-consciously sat on the toilet in a shower cap as he spoke to Sweetback is the first of several affecting sacrifices in the film.
Van Peebles packs the movie with plenty of Sweetback sex, which if we are to judge from the worker compensation claim the director filed for getting gonorrhea from one of the girls, was not simulated. One sex scene in which Sweetback, captured by a white motorcycle gang, is forced to have sex with the female head of the gang is just plain bizarre. The gang pretend to hide Sweetback and Mu-Mu but actually call the police. Sweetback is forced to kill the cops; a black motorcyclist played by John Amos happens by and carries Mu-Mu to safety as Sweetback heads through the California desert toward Mexico.
This is a good-looking film, despite the 16mm stock that Van Peebles was forced to use to keep costs down. The film has a driving pace set by quick cuts, chase sequences, and frame insets set to a funky score written and performed by the budding group Earth, Wind, and Fire. Van Peebles wrote several primitive-sounding songs as well, and the line “You bled my Momma—You bled my Poppa—But you won’t bleed me” sounds again and again as Sweetback eludes capture.
At the beginning, Van Peebles projects a title card that says “Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man.” The famous title card at the end promising, “A Baad Asssss Nigger Is Coming Back to Collect Some Dues” speaks for all of the murdered and abused black characters in the film. In a way, I suppose he also meant it to avenge all of the maid, shoeshine boy, and Oreo characters Hollywood forced on its black actors and actresses before Melvin Van Peebles changed everything.
By the time Mario Van Peebles was ready to tell the story of Sweet Sweetback, the lot of the independent filmmaker had changed. Indies were a hot commodity in the industry, with the Sundance Fim Festival a high-profile event for both independent filmmakers and studio honchos looking for the next sensation. Mario Van Peebles was a bonafide star among black actors, and his father was (and is) revered in some circles for paving the way for black filmmakers. Baadasssss!, therefore, boasts first-rate production values, known performers, and advances in storytelling technique that reflect its purer pedigree.
A telling quote from the movie about sums up the trials Baadasssss! depicts. Mario Van Peebles, playing his father Melvin, says to Priscilla (the wonderful Joy Bryant), his production secretary and an actress who puts on mini-auditions every time she comes near him, “Is this something negative, Priscilla? Because if it’s negative, I can’t even deal with it right now. I’m a broke, pissed-off nigger from Chicago, and I’m down to my last cigar.”
Of course, Melvin doesn’t start out that way. Baadasssss! shows Melvin holed up in a room for several weeks struggling to give shape to his vision. In one particularly inspired moment, Melvin steps through a mirror into a sepia-toned black neighborhood, looking at all the faces and focusing on a young boy bouncing on a trampoline while wearing angel wings. This boy will become his guardian angel, singing “You bled my Momma…” at various points to keep Melvin on track. The moment also will inspire him to call the black community the stars of his film.
Melvin’s early attempts at financing are set up by a hippie named Bill Harris (Rainn Wilson). All are disasters, particularly one in which Melvin visits the Malibu home of someone identified only as Bert who, as camped to the hilt by Adam West, comes on to Melvin by disrobing at poolside and suggesting they take a swim together. Eventually, Melvin decides to use his own money, which changes the production considerably.
Cutting the shooting schedule to under 20 days, Melvin also gets around union rules by fooling the production shop stewards into thinking he is shooting a porn movie. The union considers such films beneath them. Melvin goes so far as to hire a porn producer named Clyde Houston (David Alan Grier) to act as his assistant director.
The most controversial part of the shooting is Sweetback losing his virginity. Melvin’s girlfriend Sandra (Nia Long) can’t think he’s serious about using Mario in the scene. Melvin is so driven by his ambition for the film, as well as alienated from his son who normally lives with his mother, that he sees nothing wrong with it. He even instructs Nora (Les Miller), the make-up supervisor, to cut Mario’s afro and shave patches in it to make it look as though Sweetback has ringworm. Throughout the course of the film, the growing closeness between Melvin and Mario becomes a secondary, but important story and one that makes Baadasssss! distinctively the work of its director.
The film has some great comic moments. When Big T (Terry Crews), a meat smoker of prodigious size, is told he will be reporting to Bob Maxwell (Robert Peters), a short, white sound engineer, he goes all black power on Melvin. The physical contrast of this odd couple makes for several great sight gags; in the end, the pair go on to work together in more films. In fact, Mario documents a great moment in moviemaking by recounting the crew Melvin put together, a full 50 percent of which was composed of minority workers.
The most dramatic moment of Baadasssss! comes when Melvin learns from his distribution company, a no-name outfit called Cinemation, that because of its X rating, the film will open in only two theatres, one in Atlanta and one in Detroit. Melvin decides he has to make a pitch to the theatre owners, twin brothers named Goldberg, both beautifully played by Len Lesser. This blogathon concerns double bills, but in Goldberg’s urban theaters, triple bills were the norm because the public demanded the most bang for its dollar. Melvin convinces the Goldbergs to run Sweet Sweetback alone. If the film doesn’t draw an audience, he will buy them both suits from the tailor of their choice.
The first showing brings in one man wearing a beret and dark glasses, as well as an older married couple. The man walks out; then the couple, scandalized by the motorcycle gang sex scene, leave as well. The Goldbergs are already preparing to change the marquee, when a group of 23 come up to the ticket booth. “We don’t issue refunds,” the nervous ticket taker says. “We want to buy tickets,” says the leader, the same Black Panther who was in the theatre earlier. Soon the theatre fills to capacity, and every showing has people lined up around the block. The emotional involvement of the audience in Sweetback’s escape is breathtakingly captured. And the Goldbergs buy Melvin a new suit.
Baadasssss! is a richly detailed, funny, and important document of a maverick filmmaking experience. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a thoroughly independent affair that bursts with energy and urgency. They make a great double bill. If you want to try for a triple bill like the Goldbergs used to do, add the documentary How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) for Melvin in all his sassy splendor.