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Sunday, Feb 4, 2007


It used to be a yearly tradition. For fans of the NFL’s annual love fest, a glorious, bloated example of excess meshed with merchandising, the Super Bowl stood as a benchmark for the Spring/Summer movie line-up. With the Winter and all its awards season brouhaha finally winding down, and the game’s notoriety as a showcase for advertising excellence and experimentation, studios wishing to launch major movie buzz would always buy up large blocks of time to test out the latest trailers. In past years, blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man 2 and Fantastic Four used the massive viewing audience and instant exposure of the gridiron classic to begin the push for warm weather consideration. As with most of the game’s greatest ads, Hollywood usually leveraged its creative conceits to offer up something truly special.


Not this year, however. Granted, it was a bad year overall for Super Bowl commercials. When you consider that Bud Lite and its joke-based series was challenged for entertainment supremacy by the same old GoDaddy.com sexism, it really wasn’t a great year for pigskin-fueled purchasing propaganda. But the four tepid trailers served up by Tinsel Town, each one no more than 30 sloppy seconds and all offering little or nothing in the way of interest or intrigue, were a blight on the pinnacle of the new American pastime. Sadder still, almost all were previewed on the Internet before showing up during the Indianapolis Colts containment of the Chicago Bears. For anyone who sits through the game solely for the chance to see what show business has in store for their future leisure time, there were more compelling ads for CBS shows than viable cinematic substance.


The first movie trailer to appear during the actual Super Bowl broadcast itself (nothing prior to kickoff was considered as those offerings are not, traditionally, touted as part of the post-game Madison Avenue scorecard) was for the feel good sports movie Pride. It’s yet another in a long line of inspirational stories in which a decent and deserving coach – in this case, Hustle and Flow‘s breakout star Terrence Howard – meets up with a band of misfits and/or disenfranchised kids and leads them through life lessons based in teamwork and physical acumen. Howard’s Jim Ellis starts a swim team for underprivileged and troubled black teens at the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. Stinking of the whole “based on/inspired by a true story” stigma, and featuring a graying Bernie Mac as what appears to be the standard sober sage character, this ‘us against them’ workout has the added element of race to make it play more important than it probably is.


Not that the trailer tells us this. Loaded with labored jump cuts and more than a few shots of suspicious Caucasian kids looking at their urban competition with white flight disgust, the key components of the ad appear to be prejudice and prostylitizing. How Hollywood can keep churning out this overdone genre (didn’t we see the same story a few months back when it was starring The Rock and featured a bunch of juvenile delinquents suiting up to play football as part of some Gridiron Gang?) and still expect audiences to respond is a question only a Hum V driving show biz bean counter can answwer. Maybe Howard and his fifteen-years-in-the-making overnight success can sell some tickets. But with four names on the screenplay and untried director Sunu Gonera behind the lens, this looks like a loser, plain and simple.


So does Hannibal Rising, come to think of it. In the world of popular literature, no one has wasted as much salivating cinematic goodwill as Thomas Harris. Lucky to have Michael Mann bring his Red Dragon to life (forget the Brett Ratner remake – its good but not great) as Manhunter, he saw his Silence of the Lambs become a certified Oscar winner and bravura best seller. So what did this inventive author do? Why, he wrote Hannibal, a tome that more or less shit all over the legacy established in his first two Lecter novels. Indeed, the sense of outrage and repugnance was so great in the creative community that the project was stalled for several months, and Jodie Foster blatantly refused to reprise her Clarice Starling role. Since the one time FBI bright light was destined to become the cannibal doctor’s accomplice and lover, the reason for such a rejection seemed pretty clear.


Frankly, someone at MGM should have used the same power of de-persuasion on the morons behind this mockery of a movie. Looking like Little Hanny Goes Nutzoid in the Super Bowl preview (as well as the numerous online ads that have turned up over the last few weeks) French pretty boy Gaspard Ulliel gets the perplexing prequel duties. Forced to inhabit Harris’s new WWII-set storyline about Lecter, his sister, and some flesh feasting members of the Axis powers, this looks like Glamour Shots as grindhouse gratuity. Thanks to the training of some Japanese relative (a widow of an uncle) and something called “The Tale of Genji”, Lecter learns to channel his pain into repugnant, nauseating revenge. Like the recently released Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which promised to show us how Leatherface became a Black and Decker desiring death dealer, Rising is reported to answer all the questions about the compelling character’s past, and people-eating proclivities.


The ad is certainly sketchy enough – several shots of snow-covered fields, frightened little faces, and an overly groomed adolescent grinning as blood spatters his Abercrombie and Fitch formed face. We see the flash of a blade, hear the sound of steel slicing the air, and then for some strange reason, an illustrated façade of Anthony Hopkins morphs into our youthful lead, iconic restraining mask squarely in place. For anyone who still feels a kinship with Harris’ Grand Guignol post Lambs horror hackwork, this looks like another wanton waste of time. The period piece setting doesn’t do a great deal for the already reaching storyline, and the whole Asian angle feels like a tacked on tip of the hat to the J-horror fad of a few years back. Genre fans will line up for almost anything, but it looks like only the most ardent devotees to dread will queue for this uninspired effort.


Speaking of underwhelming, Disney dished up another glimpse of its under the radar CGI spectacle Meet the Robinsons. So far, the trailers have all played like JOHNNY Neutron: Boy Genius, featuring a real lack of legitimate laughs (seriously – does ANYONE think the overly perky lady wearing dozens of caffeine patches is remotely funny? Or clever?). Even worse, these ads tell very little about the time traveling sci-fi storyline, leaving us to infer what the heck the deal is with the Snidely Whiplash wannabe featured throughout. Granted, the T-Rex’s response is kinda cute, but the latte swipe is just lame. Rumor has it that new Disney animation honcho John Lassiter has provided a little of his patented Pixar magic during post-production. Judging from this lackluster collection of clips, the size of the contribution better be massive. For all intents and purposes, this appears to be another in a long line of House of Mouse missteps, made worse by what is a purposefully vague promotional campaign.


All of which leads to the winner of the worst ad of the entire evening, a preview so painful that members of the Chicago Bears defense actually felt superior to the sizable Super Bowl egg this family friendly flop laid. Here’s hoping that Hairspray can save his hemorrhaging prestige, because John Travolta looks lost in the trailer for Wild Hogs. As a matter of fact, after his last few films, the one time superstar’s resurrected post-Pulp Fiction career seems MIA as well. In the loud, boorish PG-13 comedy (always a sign of generic ordinariness) the once and future Vincent Vega teams up with Tim Allen (ugh!), Martin Lawrence (oh no…) and William H. Macy (hmmm…) as four best friends who decide to micromanage their midlife crisis by taking a cross country trip – on motorcycles. Unfortunately, they run into a band of Hell’s Angels-esque bikers and all manner of stale hijinx ensue.


Representative of the sorry state of onscreen comedy, this creaky, imitative effort from Van Wilder ‘genius” Walt Becker just smacks of creative bankruptcy. The whole ‘born to be mild’ vibe given off by the trailer, a hyperactive ad with ADD that never once slows down to establish mood or character, reminds one of the high concept films of the early 80s. Those prefab farces delivered dumb ideas wrapped around an unlikely onscreen presence – in this case, Lawrence and Macy represent the strained stunt casting – hoping to generate a little off the cuff cleverness. Travolta and Allen appear to be taking turns as pre-adolescent party boys, giving a bad name to growing old gracefully while simultaneously subjecting us to erectile dysfunction jokes (or what appears to be the AARP equivalent of same). It’s a grating, groan-inducing mess, the kind of calculated crap that makes one wonder how it ever found its way inside the biggest sports showcase of the year.


The answer, oddly enough, is Variety. Reporting on the lack of prime Hollywood hoopla this time around, the industry publication discovered that studios would rather sponsor an entire pre-game show or segment (as Eddie Murphy’s Norbit and Sony’s Ghost Rider did) than throw their millions away on an ad with little to no box office impact. According to sources, post-game studies show that more people remember a rabid squirrel protecting its master’s Bud Lite than recall the selling points of some ersatz blockbuster. In fact, ever since Independence Day and it’s exploding White House became a water cooler moments for Tinsel Town trailers back in 1996, film companies have had a love/hate relationship with the big game’s advertising agenda. As prices continue to rise (over $2 million and counting this year) and audiences turn to alternate sources of filmic information, the need to blow a massive amount of the publicity budget on a Super Bowl ad seems silly.


Indeed, gone are the days when David Fincher and Ridley Scott could stop a nation cold with their particular brand of artistic advertising. We no longer live in an era of Super Bowl as super salesman. Unless it has something to do with cars, beer or CSI (in any of its many forms), 2007 will definitely be remembered as the year when Hollywood failed to bring it’s A-Game…not unlike the Monsters of the Midway. Call it contractual obligation, or chasing bad money after worse, but here’s betting that Pride, Wild Hogs, Hannibal Rising and Meet the Robinsons fail to get a single mention when Monday morning Madison Avenue quarterbacking begins. After sitting through the 210 minute marathon to experience them, these trailers tell a tale more troubling than tempting. Based on this lame representation, we could have a spectacularly substandard year at the cinema on our hands.


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Saturday, Feb 3, 2007


Kitty is an angry young woman who channels her aggression in less than helpful ways, usually against the more amoral members of Hong Kong society. When a horny hairdresser hits on her in front of his pregnant girlfriend, the vicious Kitten stabs him repeatedly in the groin with a rat-tailed comb. This gets the attention of Tom, a disgraced police officer recently back on the force after accidentally killing his own brother. The fizzled flatfoot falls instantly in lust with the wild woman, but she has other perverted fish to fry. When her father is killed by an adulterous letch, Kitty seeks revenge by breaking into his office building and killing several hundred people.


But her escape is not guaranteed, and just when it seems she will be caught, a haute couture hit woman named Sister Cindy helps her escape. Cindy offers to train the anti-social angel in the art of the professional assassin. Soon, the deadly duo are crisscrossing the globe, committing all manner of murders for hire. But when fellow female executioners Princess and her gal pal lover Baby (both former students of the glamorous Cindy) become adversaries to Kitty and Company, it sets up a tantalizing game of erotic catfight and mouse between the four fatal females with the troubled Tom caught in the middle. Who lives and who dies in this deadly world of honor, loyalty, and lesbianism will be determined by who is the most skilled, the slyest, and the most capable of being a cold blooded Naked Killer.


It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, not even in your wildest, most freaked out girl-on-girl fantasy. Imagine taking a small bit of John Woo’s The Killer, adding a sprinkling of A Chinese Ghost Story, incorporating Daryl Hannah’s deadly gymnastic replicant from Blade Runner with some of the over the top cinematic style of Peter Jackson circa Dead Alive, and mixing with a heavy dose of erotic Asian lesbianism featuring some incredibly fine looking Chinese chicks who kick all kinds of ass, and you’ve got just a small idea of what the Naked Killer is all about. Except it’s much more than this. It’s a meditation on feminism and chauvinism. It’s a telling cultural commentary on the paternalistic nature of Hong Kong/Chinese society. It’s a take-back-the-night style empowerment statement about sexism and perversion.


But mostly, it’s a fantastic, unbelievably entertaining look at four vivacious kung fu killers, vigilantes of vice who are equal parts beauty and beast, uniformly capable of inflicting pleasure and pain with their deadly hands. Naked Killer uses stylized sets, unusual camera angles and lens, super model montage moments, and your typically brilliant quick-cut Asian action set pieces to create a world unto itself, a place where the police are bumbling incompetents, where fashion plate divas are highly skilled and trained terminators on the destruction prowl for the sexually sick and twisted, and where there is admiration and redemption amongst even the most vicious slayers. Naked Killer is like witnessing the creation of a new form of film language, one in which the cartoon, the carefully choreographed, and the cautionary tale are weaved into one wild, wacky, totally satisfying entertainment experience.


It’s hard to describe, in simple terms, why Naked Killer is so special. It’s like a decadent, deadly Pachinko game come to life. It’s a stylized girlie graphic novelization of psycho hot babe killers as channeled through and re-imagined by Quentin Tarantino. It’s violence made feminine and therefore, far more brutal and precise. With its hierarchy of anti-heroes and villains, we see the seductive and manipulative Sister Cindy sitting on top and playing the battling factions of the dominating Princess, the ersatz innocent Baby, and the femme fatalism of the cruel Kitty against each other until it becomes an entire Asian fetish magazine collection moving and murdering in the flesh. But this is not a film completely bathed in the nonsensical nudity of its cast; in reality, there is very little skin shown here. What we get instead is a sensual, shocking experience where the same sex overtones are far more spicy than any actual bed aerobics.


Indeed, the action scenes are much more passionate and provocative than any babe-on-babe ballyhoo could be. When Cindy and Kitty battle to escape a high rise building parking lot together, the deadly duo’s tag team reign of terror and destruction is far more erotic in its Sappho sisterhood than some softcore exchange of cheek pecks. Between the oversized firearms in Kitty’s “claws” and Cindy’s supersonic throwing daggers, the phallic weapons of man turn the tables on their testosterone fueled creators, helping the “weaker” sex beat and blast their brains out. Naked Killer is girl power gone gonzo, a geek’s wet dream doused with libido lightening messages about Chinese society’s misogyny.


Still, this isn’t all serious political grandstanding. Naked Killer acknowledges that nothing beats incredibly attractive Chinese women massaging and fondling each other, all in the name of honor and power. And the stars are all drop dead(ly) gorgeous. Wai Yu’s performance as Sister Cindy is a combination of socialite and scholar, teacher and terrorist. The fact that her fashion is as deadly as her fists is what makes her such a standout center to the film. Chingmy Yau’s Kitty is dangerously ditzy, the out of control novice who needs a few hard knocks to understand her own inner skills. As the sinister and seductive Princess, Carrie Ng combines menace with exotic mystery perfectly. And Madoka Sugawar as Baby personifies her name, looking childlike and cold-blooded at the same time.


As the sole male lead, Simon Yam as the befuddled cop Tom is also very good, but he does occasionally seem to be lost in a far more intense drama about personal blame and attempted redemption. He doesn’t seem able to capture the proper camp qualities that his cast mates can. Still, under Fok Yiu Leung’s masterful direction, with its eccentric perspectives and brilliant compositions (an overhead shot of Kitty and Cindy lounging is particularly memorable) everything comes together delightfully. Aside from all the gratuitous violence, kinky sex, and hidden sociological agendas, Naked Killer is first and foremost a fun filled rollercoaster ride with a great group of fetching female action stars. What more could you want from a movie?


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Friday, Feb 2, 2007


The duality of Andy Goldsworthy is the film Rivers and Tides is an inspirational example of how the world of a filmmaker can merge seamlessly with the world of an artist to jointly produce a new work altogether. The artist, working intimately with German director/cinematographer/editor Thomas Riedelsheimer, is able to create beautiful, enduring images of nature as art. It is Goldsworthy’s unique, uncompromising visions of the natural world (along with his attempts at explaining his artistic and thought processes) that give the film life. Is Rivers and Tides a film about art or a film about an artist? Is it simply just art?


Juxtaposing the ordinariness of this Scotsman’s home life (in the kitchen with his many children and wife eating bacon or simply milling about his small, picturesque village) with his life in the world of contemporary art, in addition to showcasing him in a way a feature film might present a leading man, the filmmaker smartly creates an art world anti-hero that is easy to root for. He’s not at all like the avant garde Matthew Barney (one of his contemporaries in the world of modern art), you’re not going to be treated to a pretentious three hour art installation/film about whaling, and that’s a good thing. What Goldsworthy brings to the table with his stunningly original eco-friendly artwork is the ability to make high art relatable for those who don’t usually go for it. His rugged personal charisma is as much a tool used for making art here as rocks or wood or leaves.


While the artist tries to offer up simple explanations for why he works (sometimes getting tongue-tied and then wisely stopping; which humanizes him even more), the more interesting thing to watch in Rivers and Tides is the actual construction of his pieces; each step leading up to the completion is a complex, painstaking task in itself. Goldsworthy shows that working with water, potentially hazardous plant material and wood may be incredibly time consuming, but for him, it is a rewarding way to connect with the planet, although the glory can be short-lived. He says that the pieces are all formed to look “effortless”, as though they were assembled by Mother Nature herself.


In Nova Scotia, Goldsworthy meticulously pieces together a sculptural corona of icicles that reflects the sun’s natural light. It then melts when the rays brutally shift towards it. He then constructs a white “whirlpool”-shaped hut made of wood that floats away with the tide. The installation represents, for the artist, movement and “seeing something you’ve never seen before, that you were blind to.”  The challenge that comes with working with such non-traditional art materials can be perplexing with the ice cracking and breaking unexpectedly, yet Goldsworthy soldiers on.
He creates this fleeting imagery out of a noble love of the land and part of the beauty of watching them be constructed is watching them get quietly destroyed. The “whirlpool” is a striking image as it swirls at the convergence of the sea and a river, losing pieces with each turn. His gentle, poetic love of nature, combined with a craggy, Scottish sense of the outdoors make him so relatable that when one of his pieces made of stones falls apart, it’s easy to feel very bad for him, but just as easy to laugh along with him. It’s this particular sense that Goldsworthy lacks any real self-seriousness that makes a film about an experimental artist’s relevance and process more palatable.


Spectacular displays of natural light and other environmental phenomena captured by the filmmaker’s with laser precision (the images of a rainbow in the sky, the moon at night; every work possessed of a violent, natural color) are equally important when framing Goldsworthy’s installations. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of Goldsworthy’s life and mystique and forget that this is also just as much a fantastic achievement for Riedelsheimer. Are we buying into Goldsworthy’s charm, his actual art, or his lifestyle? Luckily Rivers and Tides doesn’t force it’s viewer to make a rash choice, it offers complete package with multiple perspectives on the world of art, each living independently, yet harmoniously and comfortably next to one other.


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Thursday, Feb 1, 2007


A new month, a new line up on your local premium movie channels. Granted, in celebration of African American history, it would be nice to see more efforts by minority moviemakers. But Hollywood and its distribution arm being what it is, limited access for works outside the marketing mainstream are not that easy to come by. Until they get their aesthetic head screwed on right, here are the potential entertainment avenues one can explore, starting on 3 February:
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Premiere Pick


Rize


They call it krumping and it got its start when a kids party clown from South Central Los Angeles decided that urban gatherings needed something more than magic tricks and balloon animals. It wasn’t long before the fad became a phenomenon, with crews setting up and competing against each other in mesmerizing demonstrations of passion and movement. Introduced to the style by some dancers on the set of a music video, photographer and director David LaChappelle decided that someone needed to make a film about this new street theater. The result is one of the best statements on the artistry inherent in the human body ever created. While the personalities featured (including Tommy, the man who started it all) have compelling individual stories, when they start dancing, they speak a unique universal language that transcends their sobering situations. (3 February, Showtime, 7:30PM EST)

Additional Choices


King Kong (2005)


It was a personal dream of Peter Jackson to remake this Hollywood horror classic, and the New Zealand auteur did the big ape proud. This is one of the best films of 2005, grossly undervalued by critics looking to slam the man responsible for the stellar Lord of the Rings trilogy. (3 February, HBO, 8PM EST)

Running Scared


Don’t come looking for Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal. This 2006 attempted action film by South Africa’s Wayne Kramer (The Cooler, Mindhunters) centers around a drug deal gone bad, and the disposal of a dirty gun. Some may find the forced fireworks compelling. Others will simply be bored. (3 February, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


The Benchwarmers


With only Napoleon Dynamite‘s Jon Herder to recommend it, this low brow comedy (also featuring Rob Schneider and David Spade) is your typical ‘dorks against destiny’ sort of effort. If you like your humor limp and uninspired, with enough references to bodily fluids and groins to get you grinning, by all means sign up. (3 February, Starz, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick


In the Bedroom


In 2001, actor Todd Field came out of what seemed like nowhere (he had been making independent short films since the early ‘90s) to direct this devastating look at a family falling apart after an unusual tragedy strikes their home. Featuring amazing acting turns by British heavyweight Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, and enough moral twists and turns to flesh out the suspense, what we end up with is a kind of corrupt American Gothic, a movie that expertly illustrates and then shines a glaring light on the dark side of the human condition. Unsettling and uncompromising, it’s no wonder Field went on to make one of 2006’s best efforts, the stagnancy in suburbia drama Little Children. Such a one two punch assures audiences that this is one filmmaker to watch in the future. (3 February, IFC, 9:05PM EST)

Additional Choices


All About My Mother


Spain’s Pedro Almodovar looks at all facets of womanhood in what many have frequently cited as his masterpiece. Indeed, this complex story of love and loss feels more like a summation of his brilliant career than a singular cinematic effort. (6 February, IFC, 9PM EST)

Cape Fear


Martin Scorsese tread carefully when conceiving this remake of the 1962 Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum classic. By upping the ick factor – both physically and psychologically - he ended up equaling (and some say, surpassing) the original. (6 February, Sundance, 10PM EST)

The List of Adrian Messenger


While it’s mostly a sly whodunit, this John Huston film also employed a weird gimmick to get audiences in the theater. Five famous stars played cameo roles in heavy disguise. The results were rather odd, to say the least. (7 February, Sundance, 7:15PM EST)

Outsider Option


The Battle of Algiers


There is perhaps no better time in global history to revisit Gillo Pontecorvo’s devastating look at the chaos and corruption of war. Dealing with the near impossible task of defining what exactly is revolt, this documentary style masterwork touches on terrorism, sovereignty, individual rights and governmental rule. By employing a group of unknowns (some not even professional actors) and using a riveting cinema verite style, Pontecorvo illustrated the personal toll armed conflict takes, delivering scenes of staggering brutality and bravery. For his work, the director was nominated for an Oscar – a rarity for a non-American. Even today, the film still has a heavy emotional and political impact. As a matter of fact, rumor has it the film was screened by Pentagon officials as part of strategy sessions on Iraq. Not bad for something made 40 years ago. 


(4 February, Turner Classic Movies, 10:15PM EST)


Additional Choices


The Beguiled


Not your standard Civil War drama. Clint Eastwood is a prisoner at a Confederate All Girls School. There he learns the hard lesson that war may be Hell, but the wrath of a group of women scorned can be a whole lot worse. (4 February, Encore Western, 6:10PM EST)

Blood Simple


Like a lightning bolt shot out of a canon, the Coen Brothers announced their unique genius with this nasty post-modern noir. Believe it or not, the filmmaking duo only got BETTER after this. (5 February, Flix, 11:15PM EST)

The Madness of King George


With many of the original cast repeating their roles for the big screen adaptation, this delightful drama from playwright Alan Bennet looks at the royal who lost the American colonies, and the insanity that undermined his rule. (6 February, Movieplex, 7PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jan 31, 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: Doris Wishman redefines “the roughie”.

Bad Girls Go to Hell



It’s the lure of the city that calls them, the bright lights matching the twinkle in their eyes and the sparkle of their high hopes. Sensible shoes wear a groove into the pavement as deep as the despair in their hearts as they learn that their fantasy easy street is actually a bleak boulevard of broken dreams. Few survive, and even fewer stay. For those with drive and determination, something close to a living can be squeezed out from in between the hustle and bustle. For others, it’s back alleys and underground clubs filled with sleazy users just waiting for the new crop to rotate in.


And it’s these lost, lonely and desperate women that become the focus of the urban roughie movies of Doris Wishman. In a career that fluctuated between innocent nudist colony films and all-out hardcore pornography, no one understood the metropolitan landscape and its ability to steamroll one’s soul better than Doris did. Her bleak, brave tales of big city seduction and violent passions reflected the times and tenure of America circa 1965-66 better than any mainstream movie or filmmaker. Bad Girls Go to Hell is a masterwork of miscreant behavior and a lost love letter to a social era where men feared the sexual power of women and would do anything to keep it neatly in check.


In the film, our heroine Meg Kelton goes about her daily chores. As she is cleaning the kitchen and taking out the garbage, she is attacked and savaged by the brutish landlord of her apartment building. When he later threatens to tell her husband about the incident, she meets him at his apartment, where she is again assaulted. But this time she bludgeons the bully to death. Frightened and alone, she heads to New York, where she encounters a series of good Samaritans, each with seemingly innocent offers of help. But sooner or later, each situation turns indecent and Meg finds the lecherous landlord’s murder catching up with her.


The creation of the so-called “roughie” is a complicated and critical step in the forward momentum of drive-in and grindhouse adult entertainment. Prior to its appearance as part of the exploitation oeuvre, sex on film was either naughty or nice and usually a little of both. The nudist camp saga showed skin as part of an imagined scientific examination of the lifestyle (mixed with a little tabloid titillation). The nudie took it one step further, making the location insignificant and the amount of body bared ample.


Later, tease would turn into flat-out fornication, where no one shed their clothes unless they meant to press and prod the flesh. These soft-core sexcapades would even veer off into wild and warped “ghoulies,” where gore and murder were added to spice up the sordidness. The roughie, however, existed in that strange middle zone between the tame and the tawdry, in an arena both twisted and tantalizing. The formula was simple enough: feature the man/woman or woman/woman dynamic as a seedy balance of lust and violence, where a man would slug a woman as soon as kiss her, and the woman would sheepishly respond to both.


In these urban decay dramas, sex was power, used to control and contain. Women who understood or flaunted this knowledge were shown the back of a hand or a belt. Only men were allowed to exploit the act for any interpersonal gain. But sex was also seen as comfort, a means for lost souls to find that temporary moment of connection, where loneliness concedes to lingering caresses under the sheets. However, these acts of sensual salvation were always punished. Men did not want women comprehending the power and the glory that existed as part of their physical make-up, aspects never to be explored together.


Socially, it is understandable where this cinematic philosophy comes from. The ‘60s were a time of great sexual and personal liberation, where women came into their own as sensual and political beings. Gone were the meek mousy housewives of the ‘50s. In their place were ripe, passionate pieces of erotic fruit. Before the games of suburban roulette, where husbands took back control and traded vows (and wives) for keys to the kinky kingdom, the roughie marked a time when men attempted payback for the loss of sexual and gender power. And in the soiled, soggy streets of the metropolis, within the walls of its catacomb like apartments, the battle of the bruised sexes played out.


There is no denying that director Doris Wishman understands this metropolitan landscape, aware as to how to translate its power and pulse into a raw cinematic sensation. She focuses on the little moments, the small slices of the city that exemplify and accurately paint a portrait of life in New York. She refrains from long shots of Manhattan, or perfectly framed compositions of tall buildings scraping the sky. Instead, she leads us down back streets and into tiny neighborhoods and boroughs where people struggle to exist. We linger in the city’s few remaining open spaces, desolate and serene as large monolithic apartment blocks overlook the fertile land like greedy developers. In these sequences she captures the city as simultaneously oppressive and infinite, the cell structure living rooms opening onto streets of endless seduction and sin. And like the magic that only the movies can provide, the monochromatic color scheme creates the only sense of black and white that will exist in this world filled with gray areas. There are no winners or losers in this Gotham, just the walking wounded, waiting for someone to dress their battered bodies and shattered lives.


As a director, Wishman never cast for beauty or good looks. She wanted her actors to embody the desire, the defects, and the destinies of their characters. She picked men who exuded Scotch and cigarettes, wearing their wounded male pride on rolled up shirtsleeves stained with blood, nicotine, and lipstick. As for the women, they all had hair piled high on their head like a bouffant crown or frame, and bodies bound under fishnet unitards and undersized brassieres. Their aura silently screamed desire and fertility from beneath their weathered unusual attractiveness, their glamour and good looks offset by the sharp edges of a life unfulfilled and the severe vogue of the current fashion. Everyone seems exhausted, as if beaten down so hard by the world that Hell was still somewhere high above. Acting talent or temperament was of no concern. As long as they looked the part on screen, Doris would find a way to make the performance work. It has been noted that, like Fellini, Wishman never recorded live sound with her films. Everything, from effects to dialogue, was dubbed in later during post. While this is not always true, it does exist here and it adds another layer of foggy, depersonalized confusion as to who and what we are watching. Characters become moral enigmas, too astray to speak in their own voices, too dulled and sullied by life to own a distinct, individual personality.


In her films, Wishman employs standard melodramatic plot lines and then inverts the parameters to impose illicit acts and criminal vice into the fray. Bad Girls casts our heroine as a carnal Candide, living from one sexual misadventure and debasement to the next. No circumstance is safe for her, not the kindly couple with the room for rent, not the lesbian hooker with a gold plated dime store heart. For Meg, men and women are a constant threat, one looming over and ogling her in ripe desire for defilement. She finds herself caught in a never-ending pool of prurience that comes when one forsakes their virtue for a life of vice. While this may be reading too much into what should be a standard exploitation narrative, Bad Girls does have something to say about the social and biological politics between man and woman, between the so-called weaker sex and the caveman king of the castle. There is no courting, no sweet talk or handholding. It’s a story of men looting women like sexual candy stores, stuffing their mouths and grabbing goodies by the fistful. And all these unlucky ladies can do is grind and bear it for another vanished day.


Newcomers to the genre may wonder what all the amateurish fuss is about. After all, there are probably 75 shots of shoes in Bad Girls Go to Hell alone. Wishman loves to move away from the action, from the groping and humping and onto inanimate objects like a fruit basket or a clown wall hanging. Some will argue that this is done to avoid the decency and censorship laws, but a trained eye looks deeper, and sees a message. These are not acts of love. This is not an erotic exchange. This is violent, rough sex play for authority, and no one needs to see it directly. Wanting to watch means acceptance and compliance. The extended shot of a desk set symbolizes the deplorable nature of what is going on. But what about the continuity errors, the bad dubbing, and the horrendous under/over acting? Again, all of it exists to set a tone and tarnish the tales being told. Doris Wishman was a woman making movies about the corruption of woman. Her celluloid crime scene is riddled with the evidence of honor usurped, of dignity fouled.


 


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