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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2008

By Matt Mazur


Part One


In discussing her method, or lack or method in her eyes (she never was an Actor’s Studio girl), Lange tried to give the audience a sense of what it is like to really create a character from the inside out. For her quiet storm of a performance in Music Box, her “in” was music. “That character’s sound was a cello. I listened to it all the time.” She went so far as to bring a cello with her on location—her daughter was conveniently taking it up at the time. The infamous film critic Pauline Kael, upon the film’s release, likened Lange’s work to a cello concerto. 


For Titus, she had to learn another language: Shakespearean. And on top of that, her co-star would be one of the greatest living British thespians, Sir Anthony Hopkins. “I was intimidated by the language, but reading Shakespeare is a thousand times easier than reading dialogue from a bad writer,” Lange said. “It’s beautiful, organic. It just takes you. It’s like a locomotive.”


She gave props to Hopkins’ being able to recount his final monologue in one take, during the film’s Grand Guignol finale at the dinner table, as Titus murders his guests one by one (“he had already baked my children into pies,” she laughed). She told a hilarious story about Hopkins going around the table to each of his “victims” and subsequently chastising them one by one, still using the script’s dialogue, only performing as a different actor for each take. “He did [Burt] Lancaster. He did [Ralph] Richardson. He did [John] Gielgud. And he came over to me and he said “I’m saving Larry [Olivier] for you!”


At 50, in one of her most experimental roles, as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, Lange showed she was unafraid to use her body as a canvas. “She’s a ravenous character. All of them are. They’re devouring.” She went to some dark corners that would send most other 50 year old actresses running for the exit: she wore alternately outrageous and beautiful costumes (some rather bondage-inspired), she engaged in evil, murderous plotting, her body was covered in tribal tattoos, and she was frequently in some state of blowsy undress - sometimes nude. It was a testament to her bravery in giving her all to the character, even if perhaps, this state of heightened physicality wasn’t her preferred one.


As French director Jean Renoir once commented on the visage of an actor, “their art is stronger than their physical appearance. The spiritual supersedes the material.” Physicality has always been a double-edged sword for Lange. Insdorf remarked that the use of her body and her physical presence in inventive ways has always been a Lange trademark, especially in relation to actresses who came of age in the ‘80s alongside her like Meryl Streep, Sally Field, and Diane Keaton. Of all of the actresses in her age group, Lange has consistently been praised as being the most intuitive. Even still, as she has aged, her work has been consistently dogged by rumors of cosmetic surgery to her face, more so than other actresses in the same age bracket.


Broken Flowers

Broken Flowers


For everyone sitting on the edge of their seats, clamoring about to know if Jessica looks like Jocelyn Wildenstein in person, you can all chill out: in person, she looked natural and gorgeous in a slim, tailored jacket and pants, with hot black boots, but she also appeared to be in the best shape of her life. When her 2005 film Broken Flowers (opposite Bill Murray, directed by Jim Jarmusch) was released, Village Voice critic Jessica Winter had this to say on the women of the piece: “At least the somber stillness of his [Murray’s] visage is a matter of choice, which can’t be said for a couple of the female performers here, who don the plastic surgeon’s ghoulish mask of Botox, collagen, eye lifts, and cheekbone implants.”


This has not been the only time Lange’s face has been called into question—it is something critics have been buzzing over for about ten years or so. David Edelstein once snarked about her cameo in the film: “It’s a troubling sequence, made more troubling by the way in which Lange has aged. I’m afraid it has come to this with regard to actresses these days: You think, ‘Nature? Cosmetic surgery? Bad cosmetic surgery?’ Only her plastic surgeon knows for sure. But until we have sexual parity, we’re going to have to grapple with the problem of great actresses whose faces have gone slightly haywire.”


It is incomprehensible that, if indeed this is the route Lange has chosen to go it is insulting that the same industry that demands women over 40 chase this particular dragon of youth should then turn around and demonize, and in some cases, belittle a woman for trying to look her best. The age of women getting surgery today is getting younger and younger—why isn’t anyone talking about how absolutely fucked up it is that another Jessica (Simpson, 27), has seen more work done on her face and body than the perpetually under-construction highways of Michigan? This is much more of a telling red flag that our society is more interested in an accomplished woman of a certain age making a personal choice to enhance her appearance, rather than a young woman mutilating herself to become someone else’s idea of what “beautiful” is.


Long Day's Journey Into Night

Long Day’s Journey Into Night


Lange’s appearance has always been a hot-button topic, perhaps because her critics can’t seem to wrap their heads around the concept of how someone so naturally beautiful could be so gifted and remain firmly outside of the conventional Hollywood systems. When she was younger, she had to fight off persistent stereotypes about being too beautiful to be taken seriously after a stint as a model and her deliciously sexy turn in the 1979 remake of King Kong.


In a 1995 interview with Mal Vincent of the Virginian-Pilot she said “At first, I was so worried that no one would take me seriously, I thought I was too pretty. Then, it seems like only a day later, I’m 45 and everyone asks me about aging. Now, there are younger actresses and they’ll get some of the roles I might want. People ask why I don’t get plastic surgery—a little nip or a tuck. I don’t think so, although I’ve thought about it.”


In an interview with Dana Kennedy of Entertainment Weekly, Lange had this to say on the subject: ““In all the interviews I’ve done lately, I always get asked about plastic surgery. I think: ‘Would this same interviewer be asking this question of males in my age group?’ Would they actually say to De Niro, ‘Hey, you’re 50 years old, have you thought of having work done on your face?’ It’s such bullshit. It’s very insulting to assume that every woman as she ages is going to become so anxious about it that she’ll consider it.”


As far as I could see in my research, she has never confirmed or denied anything about actually altering her face, but over the subsequent years, she proved herself to be chameleonic, a woman who was able to transcend her appearance and toss aside vanity like few other performers can, surgery or no.


The Glass Menagerie on Broadway

The Glass Menagerie on Broadway


Now that she is older, and challenging the conventions of what a woman of 58 should look like, she’s having just as many problems. So, in a brilliant move, for the upcoming Grey Gardens, in a grand theatrical tradition, she will be nearly unrecognizable as “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale, a distant cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy who resides with her daughter “Little Edie” (played by Drew Barrymore) in a crumbling mansion in the Hamptons.


“Wait until you see this one!” Lange squealed with delight. The project will offer her another opportunity to separate her own identity from her character’s, and for the first time ever, she underwent a daily four-hour transformation via the make-up chair that included putting on a fat suit, a bald cap, a wig, putty, and the whole nine yards. They even sprayed fake “cellulite” onto her arms to get the characters’ body just right. Playing the woman over a span of 40 years offered Lange the chance to play the kind of dynamically-arced part she thought was non-existent. “It’s reassuring there are still these kinds of parts for actresses.”


And she sings for the first time as “Big Edie”! “I’ve never done that before,” she revealed. “I really can’t sing. I have a neurotic thing about singing deep in my psyche.” Fans may try and cite her turn as singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, but Lange said on that film, while she had the sound man turn the volume all the way up so she could synch with Cline’s real voice and nobody would hear her singing along, her real fear was that one day someone would turn the volume all the way down as a practical joke and expose her terrible voice.


Lange’s pet project, an adaptation of Collette’s Cheri has been on again and off again for many years, and the performer acknowledged that it is finally being made—without her! “They needed somebody younger [than me]. It’s proceeding,” she said with a trace of rue and a giggle. “I still feel like I’m probably about 30. I assume that people see you that way, until you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and go ‘Whoa!’”. She went on to say that this was a lesson in humility that she learned while walking in the character’s shoes.


Thousand Acres

Thousand Acres


When Insdorf asked Lange a question about no longer playing the part of a sexually desired object in adolescent boys’ fantasies, it looked for a brief second like fire was going to shoot out of the actresses eyes, or like maybe she was going to answer as Frances Farmer on a bender.


Her character Ginny Cook-Smith, in the misunderstood A Thousand Acres (which I think is one of Lange’s best performances), famously says to her bitter ex-husband “you have it [the last word]. I don’t care.”


The real-life Jessica Lange, however, isn’t such a wallflower. The actress tossed her long blonde hair around after this question, and with a look of perplexity on her face, coupled with a moment of impeccable comedic timing (a skill that should be utilized more often, casting agents!), she said, after a pregnant pause, “Well, shit!”


Part One


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Tuesday, Jan 15, 2008


A few years back, when it seemed like every mainstream media outlet was jumping on the Giuseppe Andrews bandwagon, the unpredictable auteur announced the unthinkable. After working almost exclusively in the domain of the trailer park, after focusing on the residents there and the relationships he forged, he was abandoning everyone’s favorite surreal cinematic backdrop for ‘greener pastures’. Having gained his regal reputation via his doublewide workouts, leaving behind the setting for something else appeared antithetical to his overall aesthetic. More disconcerting, where would he go next, and what would this new direction look like?


Fans needn’t have worried. While recent efforts have indeed moved to motels and interesting homesteads for their locations, Andrews remains the Salem Cigarettes of the marginalized. In essence, you can take the director out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer park out of the director. Two new films - the vegan variety act Garbanzo Gas and the poignant portrait of one man’s misery, Cat Piss, proves that even when devoid of an RV vista (as in Gas), there is still enough of the filmmakers’ fascinating spirit to propel his passions forward. Indeed, as with the Americano Trilogy, these newer offerings suggest a growing confidence that is occasionally frightening to behold.



When a lucky cow wins an all expense paid weekend at a local hotel, it can’t believe its good fortune. It gets to relax, unwind, and avoid a trip to the slaughterhouse - at least for a few days. Of course, it couldn’t imagine the menagerie of madmen it would run into. Down the hall is a pair of drug addled dimwits who are desperate for something to eat. The cow becomes their main focus. Meanwhile, two different spree killers are wrecking havoc. One murders at the command of some erroneous bath linen. The other listens to a voice inside his shoe, the instructions resulting in even more dead bodies. All the while, our contented animal tries to accommodate everyone’s needs, which typically revolve around a room service meal of meat and potatoes.


Garbanzo Gas is either the most brilliant pro-vegetarian film ever made, or the most maddening deconstruction of meat’s magical allure since the Sawyer clan discovered the value in human hamburger. Centering on the mythical, mouthwatering promise of steak (and a fully dressed baked potato side dish), and using the actual source of such succulence as the pro/con catalyst, Andrews expands outward, taking on suicidal tendencies, homicidal madness, insanity, and fixation. Overflowing with the filmmaker’s trademark deranged dialogue, and incorporating a tender performance from Andrews’ staple Vietnam Ron, this well-meaning message movie is far more effective than a perverse PETA rally in reiterating the value of animal life, and the uselessness of human existence.



Every person we meet in this stunning celluloid statement is an asshole. The two tweaking lowlifes awaiting the hotel’s check-out time to literally do the same are desperate dope fiends, foaming at the mouth over vending machine chips and in-room coffee. They are so hapless and hungry that they even go down to the seashore and try to catch some fish. On the opposite end are two serial killers - one driven to his deeds by a talking towel, the other who imagines he’s mandated by a shoe promising chili cheese fries. While the premises seem laughable, the analogy is crucial. All man wants to do is kill - be it for sustenance, or to fuel some insane psychological desire. And thanks to the performance of Walt Dongo, Matt Dougal, and Tyree, we get that concept loud and lamentably clear.


On the other hand, Vietnam Ron’s quiet, considerate cow is projected as the voice of reason and accommodation. Anything these vacation interlopers want, he is more than willing to provide. Even when faced with dealing out free versions of himself (not literally), he happily obliges. It’s a brilliant casting step by Andrews. Ron is, without a doubt, a subversive superstar. But he’s also an inherently interesting actor, and a man seemingly incapable of outright anger. Sure, he’s been malevolent in the past, but it has always been a put on. Here, his genuine personality comes through, and it’s a stunning display. It makes his last act conversation with a man from the slaughterhouse all the more emotional. Any other member of the Andrews’ crew would not have worked. Garbanzo Gas needs Vietnam Ron to resonate.


And it really does work. While he avoids the standard abattoir shock treatment (no blood and guts here), Andrews uses shots of sunbathing bovine - and another one of his amazing songs - to finalize the attitude. Yet it’s a cleverly confused conceit. Because of the main characters fascination with steak and all the trimmings, because of how dedicated they are to their misguided mastication, Gas seems to suggest that, while murder, meat is pretty damn tasty. Sure, the contemplative animals argue against the senseless slaughter of same, but when recognizable archetypes scream for slabs of cow carcass, the carnivore in everyone is tantalized. Of course, as a staunch vegetarian, Andrews would argue with that assessment, but when it comes to his art, Garbanzo Gas is more intricate than a standard protest piece.



If you’re looking for simplicity, Cat Piss is the answer. Hailed as a literal return to the trailer park, it centers on Andrews’ newfound friendship with resident Wally Lavern. Under the premise that he would live with the man 24/7 and record their “relationship”, Piss provides the kind of retro-realistic view into the world of the marginalized that few films - let alone filmmakers - would ever dare discuss. As our director helps out around the decaying trailer, as Lavern has imaginary political debates with a broken TV, as flutes are practiced and cats are comforted, this is what the end of one’s days really looks like.


Equally heartbreaking and hilarious, Cat Piss calmly revises our view of Andrews’ environ. Where before, everything was scatology and sexual drive, the implied gimmickry of seeing old people prance around in the all together, here is the way things really are. Matter of fact, unexaggerated for the looming, omniscient camera, this is the very fringes of what we consider to be civilized society. Lavern is not viewed as a joke, or something to be pitied. Instead, Andrews uses his own goofball grace to turn his costar into a perturbing poster boy. It’s the kind of portrayal that we can feel - we can smell the dank air inside the trailer, taste the featureless food bought on a carefully controlled budget. If they were smart, political candidates would hire Andrews to create their pro/con economy ads. No one has a better eye for the travesties of retail existence.



Indeed, this is one of the filmmaker’s most ideological offerings, perhaps even more than Gas. Since Lavern is allowed to rant at the blank boob tube, selling sentiments that may disturb a more liberal mindset, Andrews must counter said caustic conservatism with visuals: the unhappiness on the man’s face; the docile pleasures of playing a plastic flute; the look on a friendly feline’s face. It’s the haves vs. the always have nots all over again. While Gas may have taken the trailer park out into the real world, this is the literal landscape Andrews understands best. It makes what could have been maudlin and morose into an uplifting and quite special experience.


This is true of all of Andrews work, no matter how smutty or silly. His desire to delve beyond the limits of so-called “legitimate” cinema to seek art where it is ample is commendable. Painters know that the imitation of life - any life - is better than a faked foundation. Why shouldn’t filmmakers follow the same inspiration rules? Giuseppe Andrews understands this all too well. This is why his oeuvre is so outstanding. This is why, no matter the pronouncements, he’ll never fully leave behind his trailer town roots.


Scores: Garbanzo Gas
DVD


 

Scores: Cat Piss
DVD



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Tuesday, Jan 15, 2008

by Matt Mazur


Jessica Lange in Bonneville

Jessica Lange in Bonneville


“She’s like a delicate fawn crossed with a Buick”
—Jack Nicholson on Jessica Lange


Spending the night with Jessica Lange is a rare and lovely thing. She is an enigmatic icon who guards her privacy with the same fierceness with which she approached her most famous acting roles. We can safely say Lange has been given the shaft by Hollywood, like most actresses of her age. Lange has been relegated, essentially, to cameos in films by directors like Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders.


And now, the actress is about to come back in a big way with a role she calls “huge”, nicely balanced by subtle, nuanced work in an indie feature. But where exactly did she go?


On the final night of the 92nd Street Y’s excellent 2007-08 film/lecture series, Reel Pieces in New York City (which has, of late, included whip-smart guests like Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day Lewis, and Laura Linney), Lange roared back about the state of women in film, her body of work, and her next project, an adaptation of the Maysles’ brothers’ elegiac documentary Grey Gardens.


Striking and commanding at age 58, the dramatic powder keg who gave us, among other expert creations, Frances Farmer (in Frances), Tamora Queen of the Goths (Titus), and the sex-a-holic Carly Marshall (in 94’s Blue Sky, which won her the Best Actress Oscar), is poised for a special kind of return with several promising projects in development and/or in the can, this despite the fact that she never really went too far away in the first place.


After she won her second Oscar in early 1995 (her first was for Supporting Actress in 1982’s Tootsie), Lange, like many actresses in her age group, began appearing less and less on the big screen. According to the actress and activist, she was just not being offered the kinds of roles that would inspire her to leave her home and her family. She wasn’t being offered anything of substance at all, really. In a sharp contrast to say, France, where legends like Catherine Deneuve are working consistently (with success) into their golden years, the landscape of American film seems to be devoid of interesting women over 50.


To combat this, Lange is gearing up for battle by putting on layers of prosthetic putty and theatrical make-up as armor for her next film, and challenging the stereotypes of how audiences expect a woman of nearly 60 to act and look in both Grey Gardens, and to a lesser degree her newest offering, the female buddy picture Bonneville, in which she appears onscreen as a new brand of woman over 50—sensual, at ease, and soft.


The normally reclusive and shy star appeared onstage following the American premiere of her newest film Bonneville (co-starring Joan Allen and Kathy Bates), relaxed and engaging, opposite moderator Dr. Annette Insdorf (Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University) for an open, honest chat about her technique, the power of rehearsal, and her inspirations. Insdorf cannily captured a side of the performer that is normally closed to the public, eschewing the discussion of almost perfunctory Lange myths, instead drawing out delicious anecdotes about the actresses’ craft that had remained hitherto hidden.


Insdorf, following the screening of Bonneville, asked Lange about working with first time writers and directors, something the performer isn’t afraid of. “I had a safety net”, said Lange, referring to co-stars Allen and Bates. “There was a genuine affection that kind of rises to the top in the story”. She acknowledged being shocked at seeing a script that included three plum roles for women over 50. “Wow! That was beyond our reality in a way, and it was worth investigating.” Lange pointed to 2007’s most acclaimed films—Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, and No Country for Old Men, and stated the obvious - “There aren’t a lot of big Hollywood films that come my way, there never were. That well has dried up pretty much,” she chuckled. “There are a few, small, decent roles for women.”


Influenced by Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, the music of The Band, and studying Buddhism, the Lange on display in Bonneville is not like the damaged, overtly sensual sirens audiences have come to expect from the actress. In the film she plays Arvilla, an Idaho native whose older husband has suddenly died. She enlists the help of her two girlfriends to drive his ashes back to his daughter in California. It’s the first time in a while that the actress has turned her fury inward producing some of her most introspective work. Bonneville is very much an indie-spirited road movie (Lange said that her favorites of the genre include Five Easy Pieces and Badlands), but its nature is light, and it is buoyed by three veteran women’s chemistry.


As unusual as it actually is to see three women over 50 carrying a film, it has become even more unusual to find Lange in a leading role. “You don’t say one day that you’re just going to start playing mothers,” she said, indicating that she had been pigeonholed into a certain niche. Between 1999 and 2006, Lange appeared primarily in supporting roles, and according to her, this was all she was getting offered because of her commitment to her most treasured role as a family woman. She said that when her kids were younger, they would gamely go on location like “gypsies” with their dogs and their stuff and have fun. As her family grew older, and the children started to have lives of their own, Lange found it more interesting to not take work. ““Its amazing being an actor,” Lange cooed. “[But] I didn’t want to leave my house.”


Instead, she headed, like many astute women her age, for television, and the stage, two safe havens in the American pop culture landscape that offer women over 50 a respite.


“I must have been crazy or delusional or something,” Lange said. “To go from Blanche (Dubois, in the New York and London productions of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire), to Mary (Tyrone, in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night), to Amanda (Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie). I’ve been really lucky to play those parts. Mary Tyrone is bar none the greatest female character in the English language. She’s bottomless. She’s a joy to play. I want to get back to play her again.”


Lange has not ever been afraid to criticize her own work. When Insdorf brought up one of her little-seen roles, in 2001’s Prozac Nation as a recent highlight, Lange seemed shocked. “Really?! I’ve never seen it.”


Jessica Lange in Normal

Jessica Lange in Normal


Her role in the underrated Normal, in which she plays Irma, the small town wife of a transsexual, almost didn’t happen in the first place—she initially didn’t want to take the part because she was hesitant that the film’s subject matter wouldn’t be translated with the proper dignity. She said that when she learned her co-star would be Tom Wilkinson, she was willing to give it a shot.


Lange felt like the character’s face should begin as very “tight” and slowly become softer and softer, until she was “radiant” and filled with light by the end, as she gave her husband, who has just undergone gender reassignment surgery, a strand of pearls as a gesture of love and acceptance. This was the point in her life where she began studying Buddhism, and the principles of unconditional love, and said this immeasurably helped her in this difficult performance.


Despite being one of her most singular characters, this perfectionist still feels that the finished product could have been even better. “It feels like the ball was dropped”. She credited HBO (producers of Normal and Grey Gardens) with being the premiere place for women over 50 to find these kinds of interesting, multi-dimensional roles—the kind that she prefers to watch on her own time.


My stock question, to let you all in on one of my little secrets, lately, has been “what are your favorite female performances?” When I have asked this question in the past to film fans, directors, and other actors, almost instinctually, many automatically respond: “Jessica Lange in Frances”. When I was offered this potentially once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend this event, I became determined to ask Lange, too, this very question during Reel Pieces.


The format of the lecture that followed the Bonneville screening allowed only for questions written on index cards and fielded by the moderator—no mere mortal would address Lange directly. Somehow, my question was one of three audience questions Lange responded to. And I immediately was afraid she wouldn’t answer the question at all after the incident earlier in the evening, when someone asked “who are your heroes?” (for one of the three questions). This provoked her response: “I hate those questions! I should be prepared for these kinds of questions!” She then buried her face in exasperation until she came up with the Dalai Lama.


Almost immediately, caught off guard, she cited Vivien Leigh’s work in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire as one of her all-time favorites. “She was really out of this world. What she did was brilliant.” She went on to cite both Katharine Hepburn’s later work (notably in On Golden Pond—she loved the realistic details of the relationship between Hepburn and co-star Henry Fonda), and Myrna Loy. “She was always perfect. I’ve been watching a lot of movies from the ‘30s, preparing for Grey Gardens. Those babes, they were great. They were all great.”


What we have in Bonneville is Lange at a crossroads emotionally and physically, joining the pantheon of women she admires, much like Hepburn and Loy did. Women of their generation enjoyed working well into their older years, in a variety of roles, light and heavy. She plays her age, and her experience shows through. As Arvilla, she comes across as more warm, vulnerable, and vibrantly sexy than ever (but more on that later…). It’s a vanity-free, relaxed portrayal that finds her in a place where the tastes of a fickle ticket-buying public are changing as quickly as the technology of filmmaking.


“There is a disconnect between the actor and the director,” she offered, citing her work with directors Costa-Gavras (Music Box, Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Karel Reisz (Sweet Dreams, and Tony Richardson (of Blue Sky, whom she called “a great, exotic bird”). “You could really feel his energy. That doesn’t happen anymore. There is a separation. Nothing went past him. That, to me, is an actor’s director. There is an art to film directing and directing an actor that, in a lot of cases, falls by the wayside. Not one of these directors ever sat behind a monitor, nothing went past them.”


Stay tuned for Part Two on Thursday.


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Monday, Jan 14, 2008


Life. Death. Love. Hate. Family. Friends. Art. Artifice. These are the stalwarts of human existence.  They are the boundaries by which we analyze and legitimize our lives. They are the personality benchmarks, the tactile reflections of our existential image. We embrace most. We avoid others - either purposefully or indirectly - and yet when it comes right down to it, the basis of every individual is figuring out how to deal with these facets and their inate eternal struggle. Media has always played a part in this dissection, from epic poems and the days of Greek theater to novels, television, and motion pictures. But no one has really captured the essence of these competing elements - until now.


Avant-godhead Giuseppe Andrews has created a near 200 minutes masterwork of pain, passion, and perversion. Labeled The Americano Trilogy, it stands as one of cinema’s greatest accounts of that humble state known as humanity. Actually, Andrews has made three amazing movies, linked thematically by their desire to delve deep into the heart of what makes us tick. Consisting of the wedding farce Golden Embers, the relationship lunacy of Holiday Weekend, and the demented death meditation Everlasting Pine, we see the same actors essaying different characters, acting out frequently incongruent plots. But taken together, these films become a perfect satiric amalgamation of everything our society sits on.



When we first meet the characters from Golden Embers, they are people in transition. One is a bride to be, hoping her ex-addict brother can stay sober long enough to walk her down the aisle. The sibling is a sexually obsessed dope fiend, desperate for any kind of psychosexual release - and lots of wacky white powder. Locked up in a hotel room, freebasing his sordid memories and many erotic needs, he slowly comes unglued. Soon, we are witnessing rampant mood swings, murderous hallucinations, and the world’s most misguided nuptials, complete with dancing.


As Giuseppe Andrews movies go, Golden Embers is almost a one man show. Miles Dougal gives an amazing, tour de force performance as a man awkwardly coming to grips with losing his baby sister. Riddled with guilt over something from his past, and replacing the loss with unspeakable acts of self-indulgence, this is a David Lynch drama on badly cut cocaine. During the course of his motor lodge madness, Dougal speaks to angels, a defiant version of himself, and various real (and imaginary) drug dealers. We see snippets of a dream, a non-nightmare of sorts where our harried hero believes his is trying to slay his sibling. Of course, this all leads back to abandonment issues, and Dougal’s desire to crawl back into the carnal comforts of the womb - any womb.


This is the first indication that Andrews can draw beyond the trailer park for his squalid slices of life. We barely visit the tornado magnets of previous epics as beach settings, backyards and other real world locales get the savant surreality treatment. As usual, the director finds freakish faces to realize his most vivid fever day dreams, and along with long time collaborators Vietnam Ron and Walt Dongo, we are introduced to Tommy Salami, Ed, and the amazing Elaine Bongos. All these new people provide a window into the fresh way Andrews is working. Even the standard scatology that comes with the territory is metered out in a far more humorous and heart-wrenching fashion. 



Because it is a middle act, the narrative driving Holiday Weekend is centered on people and how they relate to each other. A young couple quibbles over an impulsive decision to steal a coffee machine, while the victimized pair sans Sanka plays an unusual game of affection and abuse. A young man with werewolf-ism moves in with a fledgling songwriter, while elsewhere, an injured individual with Tourettes seeks council from a high priced lawyer. All the while, some elderly homosexual lovers reunite, dancing to celebrate the rekindling of their long dormant love.


Referencing Mr. Eraserhead once again, and giving us his spin on spirituality and the afterlife, Holiday Weekend is like several smart sketches that add up to one indelible portrait. We are definitely dealing with the standard relationship conceits - anger and codependency, trust and its violation, acceptance and forgiveness, and realizing that love has no prejudice, no pride, and no presumptions. In between trips to a hotel bathroom (which acts as a way station of sorts for God’s judgmental wrath) and another Dougal rant as the victim of some loose cobblestones, Andrews offers up insights into a world we all know, but dare not acknowledge. Even the more fanciful element - a man who suffers from a paranormal problem, a killer automaton - can be boiled down to issues of personal space and its disturbing violation.


Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this story is the coffee maker-less couple. She’s a clean freak, locked in cycles of endless scrubbing and scouring. He’s an ox like ogre, a bully bent on getting his way with his fists and a facile sense of sensitivity. Of the three amazing films, this is the best written. Andrews’ dialogue jumps off the screen, offering memorable bits like the scene where an old man declares his lust for his 80-plus year old paramour, web tech dissections, and more grade-A porn poetry. Clearly, Andrews is exploring the theme of outside manipulation - either by a so-called Supreme Being, or a deranged mad scientist who builds a remote controlled robot bent on killing. We are supposed to see that all life is driven by unseen forces, things we can’t anticipate or expect.



In makes a perfect tie-in to the final film. In Everlasting Pine, a famed composer is having problems with his wife. She’s still vital and alive, seeking occasional sexual congress from a new age Yoga guru. He, on the other hand, is moody and temperamental, lost in a world of ritualistic habits and dark obsessions. When he is commissioned by a friend to write a requiem for his dead father, the same old feelings flare up. When the cuckold learns of the price his problems have wrought, he sees only one violent way out.


Focusing on a single person once again (Vietnam Ron is spectacular as the screwed up musician) and using his plight as a frame of reference for all the other issues in the story, Andrews brings his triptych to a close in brilliant fashion. Contentment, and its lack of curative properties propel this story, as we see one man (Dongo’s yoga master) requiring sex to fill in the gaps missing in his spiritual quest, while Ron’s composer can’t abide by much except coffee and the occasional roll in the sack. Both men are viewed as masters of their domain, capable of great and glorious things. But when you remove the pretense of fame, when you take away what they’ve done in the past for what they’re responsible for now, it seems like charlatanism meshed with good old fashioned flim flam.


Andrews again fleshes out his supporting roles by including newcomer Ed (a guitar virtuoso who has collaborated with the writer/director on several of his amazing CDs) and the plain speaking Salami. It’s important to note that the filmmakers personal flame, the intriguing Marybeth Spychalski handles the main female roles in each story, and her voice of reason vibrancy matched with her uncanny ability to blend with her clearly amateur costars turn her into an instant source of audience access. Indeed, what many may wonder about the work of Giuseppe Andrews is, given its source, its structure, its star power, and its frequent bouts of strangeness, how accessible can it really be? Thanks to Spychalski, and her beau’s ability behind the typewriter, lens, and portable recording studio, the answer is self-evident. You’ll have to work a little - these are interactive films by inherent definition - but your efforts will be rewarded over and over again.



Indeed, like all his work, Andrews’ Americano Trilogy is a mesmerizing triumph. It’s not car wreck compelling or freak show undeniable. Instead, these films easily transcend their oddball obviousness to become canvases in a gallery of mankind’s many individual incarnations. We see ourselves here, even if the conversation is centering around various references to female genitalia and not how this month’s budget will get balanced. For every whiff of authenticity, Andrews tosses in awkward moments of undeniable art. It’s there when an over the hill whore strips naked and lets her sags show. It’s present in an acting performance that damns the standard torpedoes and piles on the scenery chewing splendor. It’s buried inside the insular references, and it’s lost amid incomplete line readings and on camera nerves.


Currently only available on Andrews’ personal website (www.giuseppeandrews.net) Americano masks the horrors of everyday living by turning the twisted into the tame, the grotesque into the gorgeous. There will be some small minded movie fans that look at what is accomplished here as nothing more than hackneyed home movies made by a supposedly talented Hollywood himbo and a group of his marginalized Sterno-fueled friends. Nothing could be further from the truth. In an era where ability is finally being met by machinery, Golden Embers, Holiday Weekend, and Everlasting Pine are the films the New Wave would have made had they not had state sponsored studios staring over their shoulder. They’re the true post-modern efforts the ‘70s just couldn’t touch. All revolution is part freedom, part fear. Get rid of the dread and you’ll discover the jaundiced joys awaiting you in this terrific trio.


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Monday, Jan 14, 2008

While I’m grateful to PopMatters for publishing my list of Best Music Scribing, I wanna note another place that’s toasting writers and publications now.  Music Press Report just gave out their own set of awards.  As editor CJ Chilvers told me, “Many participated in the nominations, but only a few hundred actual went to the ballots - which is how I wanted it. I didn’t want anyone to spam the voting, so I really limited who could vote and how.”  Nice to see more writers/pubs getting toasted as they get so much bad news otherwise nowadays and most of the general journalism awards rarely note music criticism, which is a shame. 


And though I’m weary/leery of polls, I also want to note another music one that doesn’t have the same winners you’ll necessarily see in Pazz/Jop and Idolator.  Blues Critic ran its own readers poll with J. Blackfoot, Latimore and William Bell getting their due, which you won’t find in many other polls nowadays.


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