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Sunday, Mar 4, 2007


We Americans apparently love our crap. Give us cinematic Sauvignon and we’d rather swill sickly blockbuster Boone’s Farm. Case in point – the repugnant Wild Hogs, a movie made for a common denominator lower than the lowest one on record. This midlife crisis suburbanite biker garbage raked in $38 million big ones over the 2 March weekend. It bested the police procedural perfection of David Fincher’s Zodiac and took new boy on the block Craig Brewer back to the sophomore slump woodshed with his exploitation attempt, Black Snake Moan. Yes, when offered filet, or at least something that closely resembles some manner of non-processed animal by product, we immediately queue up for the aesthetic-clogging junk.


Just look back over the last month or so. Everyone had Eddie Murphy pegged as the next Denzel Washington, ready to finally find some Oscar love at the end of his rollercoaster career (and personal life) rainbow. Then an unfunny hemorrhoid named Norbit came crashing into your local Cineplex, dragging the comedian’s Academy chances down to the level of the film’s toilet-based wit. While some can argue that the site of a nominee dressed up as a culture’s worst ethnic nightmares had no affect on his Best Supporting Actor chances, it couldn’t have helped. Even as Mr. Murphy stormed out of the Kodak Theater (allegedly), he had his massive bank account (aided by the film’s $75 million take), not the annual victor’s party, to laugh – and fume - all the way to.


It’s hard to see why the comic should care. Everyone should be as lucky as to have his audience appeal. His Teflon talents are apparently so non-stick that he can send the cause of racism back 275 years and still walk away a bankable star. All an Oscar can do is turn him into Cuba Gooding and/or Lou Gossett, Jr. Besides, he knows that his demographic prefers Velveeta to Gruyere. Shrek, Dr. Doolittle, and Daddy Day Care prove that fact. So there’s no reason to worry about a lack of professional legitimacy. As long as the money keeps pouring in, the child support payments will be met and all will be right in the materialistic Murphy universe.


Similarly, Nicholas Cage can calm down as well. His long festering comic book caper Ghost Rider has been trying to deflect a dozen months of bad buzz on its way to an early Spring opening (or what many in Hollywood used to consider the scheduling equivalent of the kiss of death). Even the confirmed geeks over at Ain’t It Cool News couldn’t drum up the usual “be there, cause you’re square” kind of support for this graphic novel nonsense. But thanks to an omnipresent trailer that seemed to be playing constantly since Tom Brady last won a Super Bowl, and clips that focused on Cage’s “good old boy, American Chopper-lite” persona, the satellites surrounding NASCAR nation turned out in droves. 


Actually, that’s not fair. It was cellphone-addicted adolescent retards that drove both of these films. As a matter of fact, it’s teens in general, not film lovers or cinema snobs, that drive the movie business’ heavily insured SUV. Want to know why the unreasonably reviled Titanic still sits among the top grossing films of all time? Just ask your hormonally hopped up wannabe fame whore. Though she will probably admit to the passing fancy – just like her previous worshipping of boy bands…and personal integrity – it was indeed her allowance dollars that crowned James Cameron king. It’s the same with the pleasant Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Girls get to swoon over Johnny Depp’s dark eyeliner and Orlando Bloom’s blushing baby face, while the boys can tap their testosterone with either energetic swordplay, or Keira Knightley.


Oh, and we can’t forget families – those nasty little nuclear units that still believe fruit leather is part of the reconfigured food group pyramid (next to Lunchables, right?). They REALLY love a fat laden filmic repast. When reviewing the highest grossing movies of 2006, over 50% are geared toward the tots. There was Cars ($244 million), Night at the Museum ($205 million), Ice Age: The Meltdown ($195 million), the $190 million Oscar winner Happy Feet (take that, better CGI entries) and Over the Hedge ($155 million). Even more interesting, when looking over #s 11 through 20, not a single kiddie flick can be found. So the answer is obvious – if you want a few more greenbacks in your commercial coffers, make sure the wee ones are part of your production design.


By catering almost exclusively to the two demographics that support the vast majority of moviemaking profits, the studios feel empowered. The gamble of manufacturing a motion picture gets a little less risky, and returns can be almost guaranteed when buffered by DVD and merchandising tie-ins. Certainly there are examples that buck this carefully micromanaged trend (Lucas’ Star Wars romps, Jackson’s magnificent Lord of the Rings films), and art can frequently find a place on the standard motion picture menu (The Departed, for example). But by in large, the mega-multinational monoliths who overshadow the rest of the media landscape prefer to pay their bills by delivering prepackaged product that goes down easily and leaves no biting or bitter creative aftertaste.


Thus we have a 2007 movie season looming with retreads, sequels and more examples of Wild Hogs harmless hamburger helper. There is nothing wrong with embracing a mindless mid-life crisis picture featuring actors who have all done, and really should all know better, but just like restaurants, Tinsel Town can’t thrive on gourmet fare only. If all you gave the people was Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Prestige, they may be better nourished, aesthetically. But McDonald’s has been around more than half a century for a reason. We apparently want, nay CRAVE, the entertainment equivalent of comfort foods. The Fountain may seem like substantive cinematic sustenance, but all the populace really requires is a tempting Talladega Nights taco or two.


In his recent book on the movie biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet argues that audiences today love mediocrity – indeed, prefer it to artistry or innovation. “The very vacuousness of these films is reassuring”, he states, going on to argue that such shared disappointment creates a kind of communal bond. It’s the same with our varying tastes in vittles. We will occasionally venture out into the world of fiery foreign (film) foodstuffs, or indulge in a bit of eclectic (indie) fare. Yet if there were movie Mac and cheese being served up at our favorite burger joint/Bijou, we’d rather have a super-sized serving of same.


Call it the concept of the collective consciousness experience (people still argue that any genre of film – horror, comedy, actioner – is better when seen with a crowd) or a desire to follow along with the rest of the fad gadget front (can’t be left out of what your fellow filmgoers feel is a cash-worthy creation), but it adds up to one clear conceit – American audiences readily prefer a diet high in saturated stupidity and sugar-laced silliness. They fancy it over a banquet featuring intelligence, wit or authentic emotion. And since it’s impossible to completely cleanse one’s personal preference palate, we will continue to see junk like Wild Hogs (or, perhaps, the upcoming Blades of Glory) dominating the top of the charts.


And what about the more rarified offerings? All one can say is bon voyage, bon appetite.


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Saturday, Mar 3, 2007


Claire Ward, the bewildered wife of famed chemical engineer Charles Dexter Ward (Chris Sarandon) hires private detective John Marsh (John Terry) to find out what her husband is up to. After a seemingly idyllic time as man and wife, Ward has suddenly left home, and now the police are investigating him. There are rumors of grave robbing, the importation of human remains, and disgusting smells coming out of his country home. When Marsh looks into the allegations, all he can find is a belligerent and decidedly formal man who appears a shadow of his former socialite self.


Eventually, the truth is discovered. After inheriting some books and papers from a dead relative, Ward has taken to alchemy. With his newfound powers, he hopes to perfect the art of soul swapping and acquirable immortality. Digging deeper, Marsh discovers that Ward may not even be the man he claims he is. Instead, he could be The Resurrected—that is, the reanimated spirit of a black magician from centuries ago that has inhabited the body of this modern man.


It’s a shame old H.P. Lovecraft had to go and die all those years ago (in 1937, to be exact). Had he hung around long enough to see the invention of the modern movie macabre, he could have cleaned up financially, what with all the residual checks he’d be owed and lawsuits he’d win for the use, “borrowing,” and outright stealing of the plots and particulars of his unique brand of weird fiction. He is responsible for Azathoth, Cthulhu, Dagon, and the Deep Ones. He has also told the tales of Herbert West and the Necronomicon.


Like Poe, he’s inspired countless authors, from Robert Bloch and Stephen King to Clive Barker, and like all writers of fright and fear, he has been belittled and criticized for his vague neo-Victorian way with his monsters and moralizing. You can almost tell a Lovecraftian work by the facets of its forming—ancient rituals, demonic entities, human alienation, and murky, muddled mysteries. You are also almost guaranteed that any movie made of his oeuvre will be middling at best, with only a rare example (Re-Animator, From Beyond) making any real horror headway.


For most of its running time however, The Resurrected is a good little efficient fright flick. It sets up a plausible premise (a wife seeking information on her secretive husband), an engaging set of characters, and a finale that fulfills the promise of all that preceded it. This doesn’t mean the movie is perfect. Indeed, it drags in spots and can’t seem to get over a middle act desire to over-explain everything. We even get an extended flashback that’s more exposition than excitement. Yet thanks to director Dan O’Bannon’s foundation in fear, we arrive at an intense little thriller with dread and disgust to match.


Many may not have heard of O’Bannon. He made his name mostly as a scriptwriter, working on Alien, Dark Star, Dead and Buried, and Lifeforce. His sole other directorial turn was with the hugely successful—and quite good—The Return of the Living Dead. So Dan knows his nastiness, and he really does deliver here. Aside from a truly splattery ending which involves one of those classic full-blown full body transformation freakouts, the movie’s main set piece takes place in an underground catacomb filled with “failed experiments”—combinations of badly put-together body parts that have been “reanimated.” Using both grotesque effects (including some very effective stop-motion work) and time-honored cinematic trickery (unpredictable flashlights, a dwindling book of matches), we get a sequence that recalls the best of European fright fests—the mixing of the mechanical with the messy with lots and lots of inherent eeriness.


Indeed, much of The Resurrected plays like those Italian geek gorefests of the ‘80s and ‘90s. O’Bannon uses a similar matter-of-fact style, presenting his narrative in easily digestible hunks of clarification. The characters are uncomplicated and well defined, and the acting is low-key and logical. Even Chris Sarandon, who has the tendency to be over-the-top and hammy, plays Ward (and his ancient ancestor) with a nice combination of control and creepiness. In reality, if The Resurrected has one minor flaw, it’s the measured manner in which the movie mixes mystery and macabre. Lovecraft usually posed his prose in the form of a whodunit, and screenwriter Brent Friedman spends as much time on clues and hints as he does on horror. Fans used to a Re-Animator-style chaotic bloodletting may be bored. But those who stick it out will be rewarded with an atmospheric and weird experience. Like many lost movies of the early ‘90s, The Resurrected deserves a second look. It’s a wonderfully wicked little film.


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Friday, Mar 2, 2007


Ask any film fan what his favorite Terry Gilliam movie is, and you’re likely to get a series of startlingly dissimilar answers. Most will mention Brazil or his breakthrough film, Time Bandits. Others will cite the mainstream hits The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys. You’ll get a few squirrelly responses – aficionados lodging votes for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jabberwocky, or the recently released (and quite polarizing) Tideland. But you almost never hear the director’s devotees championing The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Dismissed in a manner similar to his attempted blockbuster, 2005’s The Brothers Grimm, many find his work on said epic a confluence of excess and extremes that never fully comes together as a cohesive cinematic statement.


They would be wrong. Perhaps the most breathlessly original work the filmmaker would ever oversee, Gilliam’s attempted visualization of the famed Germanic folk hero and his infamous gift of exaggeration remains his masterpiece, a completely flawed and overpoweringly brilliant work of pure motion picture art. Yet because it has such a jaded history, many look on it as the Heaven’s Gate of its time. It was the kind of over publicized failure that gave its supporting studio (Columbia) a massive mainstream (and media) headache. It was poorly reviewed, misunderstood by a critical community waiting to pounce on the filmmaker for his noted outrageousness. Some could even argue that it was payback for the whole Brazil battle. After going to bat for his vision on that myopic bit of future shock, journalists perhaps grew tired of carrying the commercial mantle for the notoriously prickly ex-pat Python.


Whatever the case, what was blasted back in 1988 as overdone and dull becomes the fantasy film equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in light of a new, post-millennial mentality. While he can argue all he wants to about the inclusion of this film in his Ageism Trilogy (with Time Bandits representing youth and Brazil marking middle age), what Gilliam really accomplished here is the defining of the very boundaries of the cinematic craft. Recognizable spectacles wish they had this film’s scope. Carefully crafted works of high concept CGI long to be as inventive and imaginative. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with its sole reliance on physical effects, represents craftsmanship at a level superior to those being forged out of bitrates and motherboards. As a matter of fact, the vector-mapping individuals who call themselves artists should step aside and allow a true visionary to pass. Just as Kubrick did with his serious space opera, Gilliam gave the motion picture flight of fancy its brash, brazen benchmark.


But there is more to the movie than just gorgeous shots (Venus rising on the half shell, our characters falling into Vulcan’s volcanic lair) and remarkable ideas. Gilliam has always fancied himself a latter day Don Quixote, battling the worn out windmills of a film business based solely around reasonable returns and the bottom line. In Baron Munchausen, he finds a firm soul mate, the kind of blind-eyed dreamer whose age and appearance is literally affected by his amazing adventures (or lack thereof). In the character, a man at war with both the marauding Turkish army as well as the bumbling bureaucrats trying to moderate the maelstrom, the perfect parallel is drawn to the director. As he steps out onto the cinematic battlefield to confront the daily barrage of moviemaking issues, he must also take on the tightfisted moneymen who determine his entire aesthetic fate.


There is much more to the behind the scenes story of Munchausen‘s making (and eventual post-production unmaking) than can be covered in a single review. As a matter of fact, author Andrew Yule did a remarkable job of exposing the story with his fascinating behind the scenes book Losing the Light. What’s most important about everything that happened – the failed financial backing, the complicated shoot on the fabled backlot of Italy’s Cinniceta Studios, the numerous natural (and unnatural) disasters – is that, through all the stumbling and/or road blocks, Gilliam still managed to make the best movie of his career. Taking the Baron’s fairytale-type story, he was able to merge myth with mediocrity, age with artificiality, and the soulful with the scientific. The result is a film that constantly battles for symbolic substance while generating megatons of major thematic resonance.


The plot, which pits Munchausen against the stifling city fathers who want to negotiate a kind of impossible peace, is combined with an even more unlikely journey to discover our hero’s superhuman servants. One valet is the fastest man on the planet (when locating him, we go from the Turk’s heavenly harem to the King of the Moon’s own pleasure palace), another possesses all the strength in the world (he’s found at the center of the Earth). The other two amazing members of the team – a flawless sharpshooter and a dwarf with amazing hearing and lungpower – are located inside a series of shipwrecks, themselves located within a massive sea creature at the bottom of the ocean. From outer space to the belly of the beast, Gilliam makes sure to venture to each and every one of these remarkable locales. Using any and every thing at his disposal to realize his vision, we find ourselves sitting in eye-opening wonder, waiting for the next awe-inspiring moment to occur.


And occur they do. During the introductory material that opens the movie, Munchausen’s fleet-footed manservant (played by Gilliam’s Python pal Eric Idle) races halfway around the world for a bottle of Port. The narrative is brought to life with stunning detail and delight. When the Baron voyages to the moon in an air balloon made out of lady’s bloomers, the juxtaposition between stormy and still waters, and eventually sandy shores, is just overpowering. But the biggest surprise comes at the end when, hoping to save the city, an elderly Munchausen and his equally old friends wage war one last time, each one utilizing their special skill to defeat the Turk once and for all. From its completely unique storytelling structure (it’s kind of like a play within a fable within a film) to the last act twist that reframes the film’s many eclectic elements, Gilliam proves that there is more to his directorial prowess than pretty pictures and incontrovertible imagery.


With its pitch perfect cast (including an amazing John Neville as the title character) and a delightful denseness that allows for multiple viewings – and meanings – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen stands as the moment when Terry Gilliam announced his importance as filmmaker to the rest of the world. Where Brazil can appear like an ego unleashed, and Fisher King can feel like a purposeful pulling back to sustain a successful career, this blithe and joyful journey into a world of unadulterated inventiveness is poised to stand the test of time. It may take a bit – even Kubrick was labeled a kook before his look at man’s place in the universe scored an eventual Best Ever rating. If greatness was determined on talent alone, all of Gilliam’s movies would be extraordinary. But there is something about this film that transcends an easy classification. And that’s a true sign of long term artistic excellence.


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Thursday, Mar 1, 2007


When the calendar changes over to a new month, it’s like Christmas for the film fan – figuratively and literally. The anticipation of new movie arrivals on the premium pay channels. The hope that certain motion picture prayers have been or will be answered. The nerve-racking wait as the weekly schedule is released. The utter disappointment when it turns out that, this time around, cinematic Santa Claus is delivering coal, not glad tiding of film viewing joy. Still, there are a few choice sugar plums among the wool socks and dress slacks being screened this weekend, including the premiere of one of 2005’s best films. Naturally, it is featured as SE&L‘s pick for 3 March:


Premiere Pick
V for Vendetta


When it was announced that the Wachowski Brothers, hot off their success with the Matrix movies, would next tackle Alan Moore’s newfangled 1984, the sizable sonic boom emanating from the cinematic nerd contingent was deafening. Then they learned that James McTeigue, not the siblings themselves, would be behind the lens. Suddenly, the fan fires cooled. And then the movie’s opening was nearly pushed back when events stunningly similar to those in Moore’s graphic novel occurred all over London. As a result, many predicted this pointed political commentary would fail to generate much motion picture interest. Surprisingly, it ended up being one of 2005’s best films. While the small screen may lessen some of the story’s sizeable impact, this visually arresting offering speaks volumes about our current social status – and the threats that lie both without, and within. (3 March, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Poseidon


Somewhere in the inner sanctum of the great studio think tanks, this was a real no-brainer. Remake the classic disaster movie using up to date technology and computer generated special effects. The results should be spectacular. Well, the visuals were kind of interesting, and some of the stunt work was stellar. Too bad the acting and storyline were weak and waterlogged. (3 March, HBO, 8PM EST)

Stick It


In the grand tradition of Bring It On and…ummm…Bring It On Again, comes this gymnastics based take on the rebellious teen/team sport metaphor. When a surly snot nose returns to her hometown, she finds herself face to face with the drearily detached Jeff Bridges. He’s the coach who will impart some slightly slack life lessons. She will learn squad spirit. In the end, the title suggests the movie’s viability as entertainment. (3 March, Starz, 9PM EST)


Halloween H20


As Rob Zombie continues the near impossible task of reinventing this once venerable horror franchise, here’s a chance to see someone else’s attempted take on the material. In this case, the one time hot Kevin Scream Williamson oversees the production, bringing Michael Myers face to face with his long lost sister Laurie. Interesting for those looking for narrative closure, but that’s about it. (3 March, ShowToo, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
I Heart Huckabees


For a while, it looked like David O. Russell would become one of Hollywood’s top shelf filmmakers. Then the writer/director started letting his ego drive his projects. After the terrific triumvirate that was Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings, Russell wandered over into metaphysical territory for his next project, the perplexing insular I Heart Huckabees. Featuring a cast most artists would die for and a wealth of psychobabble inspiration, this could have been a clever, biting interpersonal satire. Instead, many of the jokes are jerryrigged to an ideal that Russell wasn’t sharing with his audience. We frequently feel lost in a dreary dramedy without a map, a firm fictional foundation, or a clue. Maybe time has smoothed over some of the harsher edges. Whatever the case, this is one failure that’s definitely worth a look. (5 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Narc


The celebrity ride has been so manic for Joe Carnahan that he must have the world’s worst case of career whiplash. First he’s a noted nobody. Then this film launches him into the realm of potential industry player. Five years later, his Smokin’ Aces tanks at the box office and now he’s back to peddling his scriptwriting wares. To see where it all stared, check out this excellent cop drama.  (4 March, IFC, 9PM EST)

Havoc


Usually known for her heated documentaries (Harlan County USA), director Barbara Kopple took a rare excursion into fiction filmmaking to tell this story of two suburban gals who get in over their heads while trying to score some drugs. Before you know it, cultures and crime collide. Sadly, this over hyped effort is all shill and no substance, promoting its strong sexual content and nudity over its storyline. (5 March, Sundance, 12AM EST)

The Basketball Diaries


Before it went MIA a few years back (thanks to a scene that some felt was too close to the events at Columbine) Leonardo DiCaprio’s take on Jim Carroll’s acclaimed memoir was a well received effort for the young actor. Slowly making its way back to the small screen some 11 years later, it is definitely worth a look. A bit too stylized perhaps, but the performances all around are excellent. (9 March, Sundance, 10PM EST)

Outsider Option
The Return of the Secaucus 7


When it premiered 27 year ago, no one thought it would be a hit. It featured a cast of complete unknowns, was created by a man who made his money doctoring scripts for the likes of Roger Corman, and consisted almost entirely of baby boomers sitting around, talking. Of course, when Lawrence Kasdan “borrowed” the idea for his own generational yakfest, 1983’s The Big Chill, the mostly name actors helped sell the concept to a conversation-wary audience. What makes Secaucus superior to that baffling Yuppie scumbucket is that Sayles is more interested in people than problems. He wants us to sympathize with the wayward lives of these determinedly decent individuals, not worry who’s going to hook up over alcohol and Motown music cues. Indeed, this indie is much more endearing than its Tinsel Town counterpart. (4 March, Flix, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Three O’Clock High


Back when the teen comedy was the genre du jour of the ‘80s entertainment industry, this sly and clever film was a witty reimagining of the standard high school stereotypes. Combining a riff on High Noon with all the typical adolescent angst and social stigmas, what seemed rather radical 20 years ago plays perfectly today. Besides, this is the film that brought Phil Joanou to the forefront – if just for a little while. (5 March, Encore, 7:30PM EST)

The Age of Innocence


As the fanbase continues to bask in the warm, welcome glow of Martin Scorsese’s recent Oscar win, here’s a chance to revisit one of his earlier masterworks. While some may find it hard to believe that the man who created Raging Bull and Goodfellas can handle pure period drama, the American auteur delivers an amazing motion picture experience, one definitely worthy of his considerable directorial skill. (6 March, Movieplex, 9PM EST)

Kiss Me Deadly


It’s odd that, in our current cinematic frame of mind, more studios aren’t greenlighting movies based on the works of Mickey Spillane. After all, he’s Quentin Tarantino without the geek boy glare, and his tough as nails narratives would play perfectly for a generation raised on the Hong Kong school of crime storytelling. While not the best example of the man’s manic machismo, this 1955 effort is a good place to start. (6 March, Turner Classic Movies, 12AM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Feb 28, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: the raincoat crowd becomes the target for the bump and grind tease of the burlesque house.

Dream Follies/ Dreamland Capers



It’s hard to imagine it, but there was a time when the striptease artist was considered one of the classiest acts in all of entertainment. Now we are not referring to the joyless jiggler who straddles a metal pole in some isolated dive for a few dollars every day. Mentioning original glamour gals like Lili St. Cyr, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Tempest Storm in the same breath as the trailer trash giving hard-up he-men a preview of their next gynecological exam, is blasphemy. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, a night out to a burlesque show was good, clean adult amusement. There was no question about corrupting youth or affecting the children. There were no suggestions that people were being exploited or degraded.


Big, beefy breadwinners everywhere came home after a hard day of larding the bacon, simply wanting to inhale their all-fat dinner and then take their subservient honeys out for a night of laughs and lighthearted fun. And with its combination of dirty jokes, inoffensive blackout skits, and scantily clad ladies, the local strip show was the swanky avenue of the in-crowd. It calmed and cured what ailed the paternalistic society. It is only in the last few years that the fight for the right to bare all has turned most exotic dancers into militant mercenaries, only in it for the tips and the lap-dance power trip. All the artistry and show-woman-ship is gone. In its place are varying degrees of attractiveness and hygiene.


While still in its infancy, exploitation producers soon realized that the inherent legitimacy carried by burlesque could help heft the reputation of the shamelessly seedy genre. Like its close kin vaudeville and the more mainstream variety show (a television staple that is today as scarce as a dial set), the serious striptease show combated its aura of smutty sophistication with an equal dose of self-effacing farce. Even better, it was deemed acceptable to a society awash in post-War conservatism and age old Puritanical prudishness. But what the men behind the burgeoning industry realized was that everyday people couldn’t complain about the cinematic version of their standard Saturday night celebration. It would be a little hypocritical should the moral watchdogs condemn a film featuring nothing more than the standard pasties and panty spectacle.


Thus the Burly-Q movie was born. Nothing more than a simple recreation of an already open (or, typically, about to close) production, managers would hire local film companies, pay them to come to the club after hours, and set up their cameras directly in front of the stage. Then the entire performance would be filmed – comedians, singers, novelty acts…and, above all, the bevy of beauties with ‘come hither’ nicknames like “The Body Beautiful” and “The Pocket Venus”. Sometimes, the shooting would move to a local gymnasium or high school auditorium when a club owner couldn’t be convinced - fiscally or pragmatically - to let his joint be utilized. Then there were those instances where a clever promoter, hoping to gain an advanced booking or two, would simply ‘stage’ an entire show for the lens. He would gather up gals and other variety acts, dress up a soundstage with a massive curtain, and film the pretend pageant.


Initially, this was all that was required. From the ‘40s through the ‘60s, dozens of features hit local theaters, each one offering nothing more than an hour to 90 minutes of old fashioned pandering pulchritude. There was no attempt to dress up the dynamic, no nonsensical narrative foisted onto the fun. The closest these films came to something original were the differing level of baggy pants comics and soc-called star attractions. Sometimes the level of wit and comedic timing were so spectacular, one wondered how these talented individuals ended up as the buffer for more bump and grind. In other instances the humor was as horrifyingly inept as the ladies losing their costumes. In movies like Varietease and Teaserama, stunt casting was the ruse employed, someone like Bettie Page or Lili St. Cyr prominently featured (and advertised) to bring in the curious crowd. Then there were those times when a filmmaker fidgeted with the format to try and create something new and novel.


This is clearly the case with Dream Follies. The setup for the striptease within the storyline has an office full of female-ogling fools looking for ways to trick the boss into a little time off. Once free from their employment, obligations, they swing down to the local burlesque house and pay to peek through the stage entrance. One of the leering losers is none other than the late, great Lenny Bruce. Uncredited, he also plays the role of a Hitler-like servant trying to help one of the guys impress a client. The comedian wrote the script for this slightly surreal example of the genre, and his presence is about the only truly unique thing about this film. Hardly an actor, Bruce bops around like a beatnik after one too many double espressos, his hands constantly flailing in a Gene Crupa jumpin’ jive manner. His material is limited to obvious entendres and overdone insults. The genius that would later go on to challenge the concepts of stand-up comedy decency is nowhere to be seen.


Not that they would fit in with what is really nothing more than a bunch of ho-hum honeys dropping gaudy evening wear for the mostly male masses. Each gal as part of the Dream Follies (referring to the theatrical company – kind of like ‘Baby Dolls’ or ‘Earth Angels’) has a three-pronged approach to her carefully choreographed routine. She will first flit around the stage, body in a kind of perverted perpetual motion. Arms will swing and sway in the air as hips tilt ever so slightly fore and aft. Then she will steal behind the curtain to end part one. Next up, she removes her sheer brassiere and bottom cover (usually some manner of crinoline drape) and cavorts around some more. Another trip backstage, and it’s time for the big reveal. The remaining garments are removed, and without batting an eye, our dancer finishes up her routine, kicking and clicking in a style that suggests grace and gratuity, art and ardor.


In between, the martini and male pattern baldness master of ceremonies interacts with dirty joke dodging comics, introduces blousy ‘broads’ whose sole purpose is to belt out a filth-inferring song (usually something about their “first time” or love of “hot nuts”) and more or less keeps the proceedings prancing along. In the case of Follies, it’s Bruce and his bunch of amateur actors taking the place of this black out material. In a film like Dreamland Capers (a DVD companion piece to Follies, found on a recent Something Weird Video release), the authenticity of the in-theater experience is maintained. We only get goofy skits about bad restaurants, desperate dames selling damaged goods, and the ancient art of making belly dancers materialize from behind the stage scrim.


Capers is the kind of burlesque picture that most exploitation film fans are aware of – a decent collection of nubile nakedness, the odd variety act or two (in this case, a ‘body movement artist’ – read contortionist – and a female rodeo rope trick dancer???) and loads of prehistoric as dino dung comedy bits. Oddly enough, when compared to Bruce’s bumbling, unfunny filler, Capers’ anarchic asides are really quite humorous. In fact, Bruce would only make one other movie (something called Dance Hall Racket) and its clear from watching said film that he was destined for a life outside of cinema. The movie, made by Phil Tucker (also responsible for Follies and the abysmal Robot Monster), is like a collection of crime tips looking for a police blotter to plotz on. It’s worth seeing, if only to experience early talent being tainted by bad (or desperate) career choices.


In Racket, Bruce is Vincent, the kind of mobster mook who talks fast, carries a switchblade, and offs mugs just for looking at him wrong. He works for Scalli, played by b-movie favorite Timothy Farrell. Here he’s essaying the same shifty lowlife who runs the Racket Girls (a film about female wrestling) and pimps The Devil’s Sleep (a late ‘40s expose on drug peddling). Also along for the ride are Bruce’s mother Sally Marr, and wife Honey. That being said, Farrell is the only actor here capable of creating a convincing criminal element. In addition, the dime-a-dance setting of this film offers the only truly differing dynamic. When customs learn that Scalli is buying smuggled diamonds, they send a reformed crook into his club to gain information. Lots of illogical hijinx ensue, as women cut the rug with rejects, all for the sake of a 12 cent ticket. Eventually, Bruce blows his top and starts a criminal coup. Luckily, the police are around to aerate him with a little well placed ammunition.


As baffling as Follies feels, Racket is that much more confusing (it too is part of the SWV release). The movie appears to walk the fine line between exploitation (we frequently find the female workforce “changing” in the club’s backroom, and there is even some minor erotica as the clientele ask for a “trip to Hawaii” - a private lip lock with a dancer). But for the most part, this film is a flimsy excuse for wise guy dialogue and incoherent action. One moment, a sidekick named Icepick is preparing for a score. The next, he is asking to be let out of the gang to get married (!?!?). As a complement to Bruce’s time as part of the grindhouse, Racket is a rarity. But when set alongside the pure pleasures of the burlesque films, you’ll be at a loss for wanton words.


Now, before you run out to buy any of these films thinking you’re about to grab a few dozen dreamy dolls dropping their dungarees for the sake of some epidermis exposure, you better be a little more savvy in your understanding of stripping. Burlesque was never about the flesh only. It always focused on the overall package, the gals and the guys, the singers and the silly men. Unless fashioned into a loop for private or peep show viewing, the actual exotic dancing was incorporated into the complete flow of the show (sometimes in all aspects of it). And the title “striptease” is actually a very accurate statement about how these dance numbers functioned as flesh feasts. If you consider modern stripping as the equivalent of the sex act itself, then the old-fashioned bump and grind is all harmless foreplay. Taking it a step further, it corresponds to heavy petting. There is very little “bare second,” and everything is above board or reproach.


Watching examples of this theatrical taunt teaches you that there were certain aesthetic elements always included in an act. Unless they were ethnic, the women almost all wore elaborate ball gowns, flashy with sequins and glitter. Long, luxuriant arm gloves were optional, but usually part of the ensemble. Multiple layers of ever-revealing lingerie (perfect for suggestive covering removal) helped to elongate the final reveal (and the routine). There was never any pelvic nudity. Indeed, the farthest the ladies would ever go is a g-string and pasties. In keeping with the stage show mentality, there were very few if any close-ups in the filming, and the medium shot was held static to make sure all the dance moves were recorded.


Every one of these caveats covers Dream Follies/ Dreamland Capers. As a historical artifact to a long-lost entertainment art form, they shimmer with golden moments and incalculable pleasures. And strangely enough, when you cast aside all the camp value and the kitsch appeal, you’ll see just how talented and tough these glamour gals really were. Remember that the world of amusement was far more localized in their time. No national stage existed for them to perform on (not like the fledgling field of television would have given them a crack at the big time), so reputations needed making the hard way; by hitting the road and playing the circuit over and over.


Fame came at the price of five shows a night, drunken, disrespectful audiences and a less-than-flattering personal reputation. These women were ripe for ogling and objectifying, but that’s really where the mainstreaming ended. For all their grace and showmanship, for all the fashions and features they used to highlight their femininity, the public still saw them as strippers. If people back then had a crystal ball capable of seeing the pole jockeys of today’s “gentleman’s clubs,” they may have thought twice about branding these beauties as wanton women. But just like with most things in our society, when it comes to sex, the puritan beats the prurient every time.



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD of Dream Follies/Dreamland Capers was released on 20 February, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


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