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Sunday, Dec 17, 2006


David Lynch would like you to know that Hollywood will drive you to the brink of insanity and that it certainly cannot be trusted. In fact, it could even kill you. Not exactly a subtle way of saying “up yours” to the very industry that professes to love him while still restraining him, but it’s a clever platform from which to launch his latest, most infuriatingly challenging film, Inland Empire.


Mr. Lynch would also like to share with you his penchant for eerily billowing red velvet curtains. And maybe he harbors a pervy little “thing” for lesbian kisses. The point is David Lynch is weird. At least that seems to be the popular opinion. Generally, there is a point to his eccentricity that is simultaneously elusive and obvious: take for example Lynch’s masterful juxtaposition of the benign comings and goings of denizens of a small town called Twin Peaks with the absolute evil of a supernatural force involved in the murder of a homecoming queen. He is able to mix normal with insane quite effortlessly; Lynch is able to wring suspense out of thin air it seems. Inland Empire is the most daring leap of faith Lynch has asked his cultish audience to take: the film is savagely disjointed, more so than any other offering in the maestro’s cannon. It is jam-packed with so many little tidbits of trademark Lynch-isms that after a certain point you will either just suspend your disbelief and go with the flow or you will hate it. A compelling argument could be made either way, honestly. It all depends on you, the viewer.


Beginning with a hooker and her john making a deal in an Eastern European hotel room, Inland Empire starts out vaguely disturbing almost immediately, and continues for a totally incomprehensible three hours of mind-boggling, awesome nonsense. It somehow weaves together Polish gypsies, a woman with a screwdriver protruding from her gut, and human-sized rabbits on some sort of terrifying sitcom. It’s easy to get lost in all of the bizarre-o details that sometimes don’t really add up to anything. For example, why is star Laura Dern in a hotel room watching a gaggle of whores doing a song and dance routine to “The Loco Motion”? The answer? Who cares? It’s perverse, stupid, and enthralling. You’re not going to see this at the multiplex next to the new Mel Gibson movie and you’re not going to see Reese Witherspoon puking up a torrential amount of blood in her next starring vehicle any time soon, I bet. Inland Empire doesn’t intend to reveal any promises or any explanations. It is a relentless, bleak, and uncompromising film that demands the rigorous participation of it’s viewer’s imagination.


While he might be “weird” according to most people, Lynch is the only American director who elevates the medium to this kind of art form: one that isn’t necessarily polished or beautiful (the film was shot entirely on digital video and each scene was written immediately before it was performed), and one that provokes extreme expressive reactions. He has created his own cinematic language and signature style that is unmistakable, and with Inland Empire Lynch raises the standards he helped to set. Comparisons to everything from Lynch’s own Lost Highway, to silent German cinema and classic ‘40s film noir are applicable here. True to form, Lynch returns to the struggle between good and evil forces, and their mysterious connections to his characters, only this time he manipulates the concepts of reality and identity in an aggressive, almost menacing way that he only began to touch on in 2001’s Mulholland Drive, a movie which serves as a nice companion piece to the proceedings.


While Mulholland Drive is the sort of mystery that, while inexplicable in it’s own right (and also a damning exploration of theme of Hollywood as a brutal mistress), it can be at least partially explained with plausible theories or tidy little answers, Inland Empire doesn’t really afford it’s viewer that luxury: some things just don’t connect, and you will just have deal with it.


Characters appear and disappear without much notice (and are played by such luminaries as Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irons, Mary Steenburgen, Justin Theroux, and William H. Macy). There are wild shifts in time and reality, which when you are flashing between ‘30’s Poland and the troubled emotional life of a character played by an actress in a film within a film, gets a little perplexing. There is an absurdly long sequence in which a rusty screwdriver is wielded by more than one character in a manic, murderous way. This lends an air of ominous unpredictability to the film that feels thrilling some times, exasperating others. Surely there is some sort of connection of these seemingly random events (in the mind of Lynch), but to enjoy this film, such mundane conventions must be abandoned.


What essentially glues Lynch’s jagged pieces together is Dern’s tremendous performance. In her third outing with Lynch over a period of twenty years (beginning in 1986 with Blue Velvet and their 1990 collaboration Wild at Heart), Dern’s Inland Empire work marks a turning point in her career as an actress: she is fearlessly committed to a performance that is like nothing else you will see this year. She begins the film as a sort of innocuous, prim actress named Nikki (who lives in a cold, luxurious home, and is trying to land a dream role), and ends up as someone else entirely: a character known as “Sue”, who at one point is covered in filth and blood, laying in the gutter of Hollywood Boulevard screaming “I’m a whore, I’m a freak”.


When Nikki gets the part and throws herself into her character, Dern splits her dual identity into so many different personalities that it is impossible to categorize them all: is she a hooker or an actress? Who is real, the actress or the character? Soon she unable to answer that question for herself (“Look at me. Tell me if you recognize me from somewhere”, she says at one point). Co-Producer Dern is capable of navigating all of these wild shifts and nuances with such skill and depth that is impossible to think of any other actress of her generation being capable of doing such an experimental, gutsy part. This is a performance that has some outrageous demands: grotesquerie, murderous rage, romanticism, and humor are among a tiny fraction of the multitude of tasks Dern seems to breeze through in a complicated, ferociously well-thought out performance.


Dern matches Lynch measure for measure in artistry, each of them working at top form. Their collaboration here will no doubt be dismissed by a disappointing amount of people as being typical Lynch weirdness, but if it is an atypical parade of horrifying surrealism that you’re after, Inland Empire is the film for you. His images may be positively harrowing (just take, for one example, the gorgeous black and white shot of a needle skipping on a record player), and his motives may be unclear, but if you blindly trust David Lynch to take you on an emotional artistic journey, you will not be let down. This is the only film this year to be so unapologetic in its artiness and so confident in its lack of vanity, and coming from a heavy-hitter like Lynch, it packs a powerful punch. It is unquestionably a most refreshing, nasty little change from all of the boring coherence and relentless sparkle of the holiday film season’s current offerings.


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Saturday, Dec 16, 2006


Looking to seek their fortune in the Colorado territory, a group of miners follow fellow gold rusher Alferd Packer deep into the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, they run into a band of scurvy trappers who steal Packer’s prized pony Liane. No longer concerned about wealth or riches, angry Al marches the mystified men farther off the well-beaten path and closer to death’s doorway. A stop-off at a local Ute Indian Reservation provides a last chance at avoiding tragedy, but Packer will not be persuaded. He eventually places his party into one Donner of a dilemma. And soon, it’s shinbones and short ribs for everyone as fallen members of the ore obsessives become bar-b-qued and fricasseed. Strangely, only Packer escapes. When pressed, he tells a wild tale of murder, mayhem, and massive helpings of man meat. It’s enough to put you off your pemmican as a Broadway-style back story leads to a tuneful trial and an even more melodious mob scene with everyone trying to determine if Al is a real life butt muncher, or just the subject of an insane song saga called Cannibal!: The Musical.


Outrageous, amateurish, guaranteed to make your toes tap, your fingers snap, and your gag reflex respond all in one sitting, Cannibal!: The Musical is the small, silly sapling from which a mighty comedy oak eventually grew. The titanic tree of unbridled, brave humor is today known as South Park and the creators of that crazy comic chaos are Matt Stone and his partner in perversity, Trey Parker. Trey is the tricky mastermind behind this musical version of the (supposed) crimes of Colorado’s most infamous flesh-eater, Alferd Packer. Anyone who has ever doubted Parker’s flourishing genius with paper cut-out cartoon characters need look no further than this ambitious, anarchic pseudo-student film to realize that he (along with Stone) were bound for bigger, longer, and uncut things. Cannibal! is filled with juvenile humor, unprofessional performances, lapses in taste and tone, and—above all—a severe drop-off in inventiveness toward the end. But it also contains classic tainted Tin Pan Alley tunes, a genuine love of gore horror films, and enough sharp, hilarious wit to outshine a few hundred Hollywood dark gross-out comedies. Cannibal!: The Musical is an idea that shouldn’t work (and occasionally heaves and lurches like a block and tackle about to fail), but thanks to Parker’s vision and his merry band of borderline student psychotics (the film was made while Trey and pals were at the University of Colorado film school), he manages to corral Cannibal‘s potential calamities and make the mess work. It is far from perfect, but it’s also entertaining, endearing, and filled with infectious, fantastic musical numbers.


This may be the very definition of a cult film. It is a movie made for a specific mindset. You are either “in tune” to its troubled, terrific manic mantra or not. No amount of big screen talkback or audience participation prop pandering will make it click. You will either “get” Cannibal!: The Musical or it will seem static, insipid, and scattered. Just like his efforts on that Comedy Central kiddie show (or the unjustly dumped sitcom spoof That’s My Bush), Parker operates from a big picture, avoiding a non-stop salvo of junky jokes to hopefully create a certain amount of depth and irony to his work. His goal always seems to be the complete deconstruction of typical cinematic and humor norms, only to rebuild them with his own twists. Many critics clamor that Parker and Stone are irrevocably stuck in an infantile world of farts, feces, and offensiveness (stereotyped Japanese men as Ute Indians?). And Cannibal! could very well be used as an example of such salacious obsessions. But in reality, it is a smart take-off on the musical format mixed with historical drama and laced with a noticeably lowbrow sense of stupid humor—and it succeeds more times than it derails. There are some forgivable lapses in character and plot development (the trappers should have had more involvement in the story) and the good-natured goofiness of the songs leave you wanting more of them (there are a couple of lost tracks—a barroom rap/funk spectacular called “I’m Shatterproof” and the cautionary choral entitled “Don’t Be Stupid Motherf******s”). Still, Parker is out to simultaneously celebrate Packer and bury him. And he does so with a little song, a little dance, and a lot of fake blood down the pants.


Surprisingly, Cannibal!: The Musical understands the strange dynamic of having characters break out into song and plays on that unreal magic magnificently. Where else would you find victims of frostbite, so hungry they are unable to move or even sit up straight, singing a joyful—if immobile—roundelay of special sentimental wishes called “That’s All I’m Asking For”? Or how about a lynch mob gaily swing choiring their way through a jubilant reading of the local riot act called “Hang the Bastard!”? The juxtaposition of traditionally non-musical moments with outrageous parodies of Great White Way standards is what marks Cannibal! (and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for that matter) a step above other attempted mismatching. Parker is a gifted writer, and along with original score arrangements by Rich Sanders, the songs are rich, resonant, and instantly memorable. Indeed, this flesh-eating effort may be the first fright flick you’ll ever find yourself humming afterward.


Some of the efforts in the sonic domain would have been better spent in the script department. Admittedly written over a couple of nights, there is a heavy reliance on Cartman and Kyle style curse word putdowns and silly non-sequiturs. But every once in a while, the cast’s comic timing kicks in and the humor is randy, robust, and rib tickling. With exceptional production values (the crew used several actual locations from Packer’s past and a perfectly recreated ghost town to provide untold realistic set design delights) and that great score, Cannibal!: The Musical is a recommended pre-success visit to a podunk mountain town filled with fledgling funny men in training. If the idea of a mock-historical western that is part Brigadoon and mostly Sweeney Todd sends your satire senses into a shiver, then Cannibal!: The Musical is the movie for you. While it may have some substandard elements, it’s still as funny and fresh as a baked potato. It’s a spadoinkle film!


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Friday, Dec 15, 2006


Is there a more misunderstood, misused actor than poor Crispin “Hellion” Glover? From the moment he took the screen in Back to the Future, playing the ultimate social outcast George McFly, this lanky human walking stick with a stilted voice and unhinged persona became an ironic icon, a star wrapped in an insane, introverted skin. He then cemented his sensationalism with The River’s Edge, playing the “dude”-spewing valley psycho Layne. By all accounts, it appeared Master Crispin was poised to become his generations’ James Dean, a twisted mastermind so lost in his own world of performance that he couldn’t help but be compelling onscreen. Instead, he just left the planet Earth altogether and vanished into his own Milky Way of the peculiar.


So it’s strange that he has recently found a small amount of acceptance as a character bad guy, playing everything from a sword-wielding assassin in the Charlie’s Angels movies to an orphanage director in Like Mike. In the meanwhile, he recorded bleak and brazenly bizarre music (his album “The Big Problem =/= The Solution; the Solution = Let It Be” is a must own exploration of one man’s misguided musical brain) and worked on literature as performance art (he has been known to take old Victorian tomes on such strange subjects as rat catching and retrofit them with new art, added text and various other artistic accents). But his true calling has and will always be as an actor, and now, thankfully, he has been given a chance to shine again. 2001 saw him star in Bartleby as the famously inert file clerk (from the short story by Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener). But it seems our cracked actor can never forget his true nature, which makes his appearance in the 2003 remake of Willard so karmic.


Willard is a darkly comic tour de force for its strange star. A cool, complex combination of classic horror film and deliriously campy craziness, it eschews standard monster movie moves for a more robust and black-hearted take on loneliness and friendship. This is not a film about killer rats as much as it is a tale of male empowerment via vermin. Indeed, the story is called Willard for good reason: the pests are secondary here. The real world surrounding our title character is far more chilling and evil. The original 1971 Willard, starring Bruce Davidson and Ernest Borgnine (and taken from Stephen Gilbert’s novel The Ratman’s Notebook) was a similar saga of a lonely young man against an antagonistic set of circumstances. But while Davidson’s troubled soul seemed the direct result of the social stigmas and battles he faced, Glover as Willard is a revelation of repression, a man whose mind has turned inside out from isolation and loss.


Glover makes the movie a constant source of cinematic joy, lending his expressive face and awkward angular frame and grin to grimace line-readings that explode across the screen in delirious, gothic goofiness. The fact that this film is also about a rogue rat with a sinister mind of his own and a few mouse-enhanced murders is merely ancillary icing on Glover’s acting cake. If you want a movie that will scare the droppings out of you, stick with the ‘70s version. If you want to see what makes a mental case tick like a tripwire, check out Glover’s groove.


Both movies are reflections of when they were made. The original Willard tapped into a generation gap protest ideal of revolution against the all powerful establishment patriarchy. Borgnine, the boorish businessman out to destroy Willard and his family one member at a time, is given his comeuppance as a metaphor for questioning and toppling corrupt authority. This new version taps into current philosophies, specifically the advent of the modern male, a socially mandated sensitive sod. Willard here is an emasculated weenie afraid of his own shadow and inner lack of outstanding virility. Challenged for living at home and still being single but also asked to perform the duties of “man about the house” (financially and emotionally), he is torn between the image society craves and the role liberation has chosen for him. Both movies are more character studies than horror films, with a strong premise of disaffection and retribution running through them.


But while Davidson’s Willard seemed determined to rid his immediate life of the obstacles and awfulness surrounding it, Glover is out to destroy the entire world, one asshole at a time. Davidson’s ratboy is reactionary, anger channeled through his pet horde of pests. Glover, on the other hand, is so passive aggressive that the moments when he explodes are shockingly volcanic, you feel the years of pain and anguish rushing out in burst of hot air and Munch’s “Scream” shrillness. Davidson may have essayed a perfect horror hybrid, a killer as misguided manchild, but Glover now owns the role of Willard. His ability to expose and exploit ennui as a means of menace and mercy is uncanny. Besides, we understand Glover’s love of his rats. There is a kinship between them, a give and take (which is manhandled and ultimately bungled by the original) that centers and streamlines the 2003 version. These mice aren’t just his unholy army; they are his true friends.


If one is looking for still deeper meaning to Willard, then it can be argued that our title hero is the ultimate victim, a desperate human null set put upon by every aspect of society. On the outside, Willard is a model of attention and dedication; he keeps his dead father’s memory preserved and present; he cares for his moldering corpse of a mother, a person so old and diseased that she seems made up mostly of tumors and infection; he’s committed to his home and its upkeep, even if its decaying façade has become more than he really can handle. He tries his best to be a model employee, a vital part in the dying machine his late father created for him. But buried beneath his bland façade is a seething core of rage so dark and black that demons avoid his glare. It’s a fury fueled with untold failures and faults. But it is also a passion born out of pain, a serial killer cravenness locked in without an outlet.


In the end, Willard is all about the raving insane ingenuity of its star. Glover is a savant of strangeness, an absolutely out of control living piece of performance art channeled inside a modernized meshing of Ichabod Crane and Charles Manson. The magical sprites that speak strange mysteries into his mid-brain are given vocal victory with every stammer and stutter in his innocent idiot performance inventory. He turns Willard into a part silent movie, part over-the-top pantomime ballet of body movements and position. If for no other reason, he is the reason to watch this movie. Glen Morgan, who along with partner/producer Wong worked on The X-Files and created Millennium and the Final Destination series, decide to amp up the arch qualities, turning Willard’s domain in to a doomed dimension of exaggeration and empathy. Thanks to their efforts, and the brilliant work of Glover, Willard becomes a rare example of cult classic as actual work of artistic integrity.


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Thursday, Dec 14, 2006


Can you feel it? For those of you waiting to exhale after this exhaustive holiday season, the time for such a substantial sigh is just around the corner. Just a few more days and you can sit back and relax, letting the weeks of workaholic stress and materialistic fretting fall away like flakes of fresh, new fallen snow. At that very moment, when the commercialized competition to celebrate the season disappears, and the terror of facing a new year fiscally strapped has yet to arrive, you can entertain yourself with one of the motion picture offerings on your favorite pay cable channel – that is, if there is anything worth watching. Sadly, there is only one qualified title this week, and it’s a hard thinking drama with a staunch ideological agenda and scenes of George Clooney being tortured. Sounds like the perfect slice of Saturnalia heaven, right? Otherwise, the other movie channels are dragging out the dregs before 2007 arrives, and a whole new batch of bunkum can be foisted on a weary, worn out public. Maybe you’d be better off keeping that breath in for a little while longer. You’ll want all the energy you can muster to manage your way through the films being presented for the weekend of 16 December:


HBORebound

Apparently, Martin Lawrence has caught a bad case of Eddie Murphy-itis. He’s done the buddy pics, the stand up comedy concert films loaded with offensive content and ever-present expletives. He’s had the public meltdowns (similar to Eddie’s freakish fascination with Elvis), his poorly accepted attempts at action heroism, and his clueless comedic comebacks (Big Momma’s House 2???). Now, he’s going the family film route, following Dr. Daddy Doolittle Day Care all the way to the PG-13 or lower savings and loan. Here, we are supposed to believe that Lawrence is a famed basketball coach, demoted to helming a junior high school team after a public temper tantrum. Naturally, there are all kinds of lame life lessons and juvenile jokes about self-esteem and bodily functions to be found in this underwhelming effort. Lawrence better be smart with his next few projects or he will end up an afterthought in Hollywood’s bankability book – if he hasn’t already. (Premieres Saturday 2 December, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxSyriana*

Talk about your major man crushes – George Clooney has done the near impossible in the world of entertainment. He has gone from low budget lameness (Return to Horror High, Return of the Killer Tomatoes) and silly sitcom stardom (Roseanne, The Facts of Life) to become the preeminent example of new Hollywood glamour – and he’s done so on his own unique terms. Mixing mainstream hits like Oceans Eleven with more artistic endeavors like this well-received political drama, Clooney has managed to build on his formidable fanbase, attracting both women and men to his occasionally arcane efforts. Even better, he’s fomulating a behind the camera oeuvre that’s even more impressive, including Good Night and Good Luck and the undervalued Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Thanks to his turn here, he finally found the industry respect he craved, taking home an Oscar for playing the part of a CIA fall guy. It’s a searing, sensational performance, on par with his typical exemplary work. (Premieres Saturday 2 December, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzFreedomland

This is a tough one. Frankly, how can you knock a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore, based on a terrific urban thriller by none other than Richard Clockers Price. Easy, put producer turned no-talent director Joe Roth behind the camera and watch the mediocrity fly! With a resume that screams substandard (Christmas with the Kranks, Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise) and a Price penned script that saw some substantial pre-production doctoring, it’s obvious that the cinematic stars were not aligned on this one. While the actors apparently managed to make their case and leave more or less unscathed, Roth is finally being regarded as the filmmaking faker he’s been all along. While his production credits continue unabated (and awful – he oversaw the Wayans’ worthless Little Man), there’s nary a sign of another stint behind the lens for this cinematic washout. Hurrah! (Premieres Saturday 9 December, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


Showtime BeyondThe Machinist*

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Christian Bale, besides the fact that he was once a cherubic child actor glorifying Stephen Spielberg’s criminally ignored World War II fable Empire of the Sun, is the significant career choices he’s made since maturing. Not only is he the new – and some say, picture perfect – Dark Knight, but he’s parlayed cult and commercial success into a string of significant offbeat pictures. While 2006 was a banner year for the 32 year old (he starred in The Prestige, Harsh Times and Rescue Dawn) this 2004 surrealist mystery saw Bale take a giant step into major Method acting territory. He dropped an alarming 60 pounds - from 180 to a staggering 120 – to play the role of a troubled factory worker dying of insomnia. Once the madness sets in, things go from dire to disturbed in this enigmatic psychological thriller. It may be hard to follow at times, but for Bale’s performance alone, this unique film demands any cinephile’s attention. (Saturday 9 December, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 15/16 December, the late, great Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney, is featured in:


The Unholy 3
This remarkable silent effort from Dracula‘s Tod Browning features the first real genre star of cinema, Lon Chaney, as a ventriloquist who teams up with a dwarf and a strong man to start a crime spree. (3:15am EST)


 


The 12 Films of Christmas

Like that lame little ditty we all find ourselves humming around this time of year, SE&L will select three films each week from now until the end of the holiday as our Secret Santa treat for film fans. Granted, the pickings are incredibly slim (how many GOOD X-mas movies are there, really?) and you may find a lump of coal in your cinematic stocking once in a while, but at least it beats endless repeats of Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, right? The three festive treats on tap for the week of 16 December are:


It’s a Wonderful Life
(NBC, 16 December, 8:00PM EST)
Frank Capra’s subversive holiday allegory (labeled as such by the FBI) is now a Yuletide tradition – decades after it’s initial box office failure.


National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
(USA Network, 17 December, 9:00PM EST)
A perfect example of one too many trips to the tired comedy well, this seasonal satire secured Chevy Chase’s descent into certified has-been status. 


How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
(ABC Family Channel, 17 December 8:00PM EST)
Ron Howard rapes the legacy of Dr. Seuss by placing Jim Carrey in a live action remake of the classic Chuck Jone’s cartoon from 1966.


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Wednesday, Dec 13, 2006


Van Smith never won an Oscar. He was never idolized or celebrated by a vehement genre audience like Dick Smith or Tom Savini. If his chief collaborator, cinematic genius John Waters, was the ‘Pope of Puke’, Smith was his primary prophet, a pure fashion forecaster who violated the mandates of style while creating his own kitsch couture along the way. Noted for finding the ugly underneath the beautiful, and more importantly, the glamour inside the gross, the mad make-up artist/costumer designer is more famous for taking the simple drag queen elements of one Harris Glen Milstead – a.k.a. Divine – and twisting them into pop culture iconography. Through a combination of scars, blackheads, pimples and other occlusions, Smith stood fearless in the face of misunderstanding mockery. Years later, when his approach was stolen outright for the catwalks of Paris and Milan, he and his friends in Waters’ Dreamland Studios had that long awaited, hard last laugh.


When you think about it, Smith did indeed start the whole vogue/vile concept behind well done exaggerated drag. Prior to his poisoning of the standards of beauty, males masquerading as women usually strove for the slight hyperrealism of the typical suburban spouse. Waters has even been quoted as saying that before Divine came along, most gay men “wanted to look like Bess Myerson”. Smith and his symbol changed all that. Using the limited budgets that a Dreamland production would provide, a Baltimore loaded with thrift and welfare shops, a penchant for bargain basement cosmetics, untold amounts of sequins, and an aesthetic that shouted “More! More! More!” this Matisse of Maybelline redefined the notion of what was trash and what was tasteful. Basically blurring the lines between the two, and throwing in some of his own Smith secrets, he created a signature sensibility that few, if any, have been able to mimic or match to this day.


Born Walter Avant Smith Jr. in Mirianna, Florida on 17 August, 1945, the renamed Van first ran into Waters after he graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1968. Living in an apartment complex inhabited by many of the future director’s antisocial company, he started hanging around the sets of Water’s early works. It wasn’t long before Smith was tapped to create Divine’s character of Babs Johnson for the seminal Midnight movie masterpiece Pink Flamingos. Designing a deranged fishtail gown, and shaving the actor’s hairline back toward the middle of his head (to make room for more make-up, Smith explained), he gave birth to a laugh out loud legendary look that has carried over for more than 35 years. It was a difficult accomplishment when you consider that Waters had little money, Divine was over 300 pounds and hard to fit, and Smith had to hand create everything, from dresses to hairpieces, fake breasts and the necessary female cheater (read: false vagina) for any nude scenes.


Yet he never let the lack of cash destroy his imagination. For his next pairing with Waters, the amazingly anarchic Female Trouble, Smith got to take Divine from teenager to tramp, lumpy housewife to scandalous supermodel. The transformations were terrific (including the use of some latex to mottle the star’s face with fake acid burns) and Smith even created outrageous outfits for co-stars Edith Massey (in particular, a laced leather item that still seems pornographic today) and Mink Stole (whose tumbled down school girl Taffy predates anything ever considered by Courtney Love or the rock band Babes in Toyland). The highpoint had to be the main character, Dawn Davenport’s, death row ensemble. Sure, her crazed cat suit with an off the shoulder strapless look and a single gloved arm leading to a connected set of razor sharp nails is amazing, but when limited to a potato sack like prison outfit, and a head completely bereft of hair, Divine’s dour, dumpy persona perfectly encapsulated the Waters/Smith ideal. The director has always stated that his make-up maven had a sense of “inner rot” and nothing shows this better than an obese drag queen being prepared for a little capital punishment.


Smith’s crowning achievement, however, is still Desperate Living. With Divine unavailable for filming (he/she was in San Francisco starring in her successful stage show) and former striptease sensation Liz Renay on tap to play a loco lipstick lesbian, Smith outdid himself. Sticking to the main theme of the movie, he took cast members like Mink Stole, Jean Hill, and Susan Lowe and magically transformed them into the hopeless citizenry of Mortville, a seedy sanctuary where criminals, vagabonds and other social misfits could come and live out there wrong footed wretched existence. The only problem was, they had to conform to the contemptible demands of the demented Queen Carlotta. While almost any talented designer can conceive of a shower curtain dress or a fluorescent green tutu for a 500 pound black woman, Smith made it all seem like part of the plot. In fact, the main element that people often forget about this amazing artist is that he never once tried to overshadow Waters’ worlds. Instead, he hoped to complement their corruptness by flawlessly visualizing their inner deceit. And he usually did.


When Waters went ‘legit’, first with Polyester, and later with Hairspray and Cry Baby, Smith was right along side, toning down his approach but never once abandoning his ethic. His work in the two trips back into Baltimore nostalgia – Hairspray centering on a ‘60s teen TV dance show, Cry Baby a cheesy chunk of ‘50s juvenile delinquency – proved that Smith could handle historically accurate and shockingly ridiculous at the same time. Continuing on with costumes only for the rest of Waters oeuvre (up to and including the man’s most recent effort, 2004’s A Dirty Shame) Smith was one of the last original Dreamlanders, a group that saw death (Divine, David Lochery) and the passage of time take away many of the merry band. When his aging mother grew ill, Smith moved back to Mirianna to take care of her. It is there where, on 5 December 2006, he had a fatal heart attack. Among fans of film, the loss was immediate and irreplaceable. Not only was Van Smith that rare individualist in a realm loaded with no name journeymen, but his vision lives on in that stronger than ever subculture of gay life.


It is clear that, from a purely symbolic standpoint, the mythos of Divine would be substantially mitigated if Van Smith had not been on hand to create her crackpot composite. It’s a look that’s so unsettlingly unique that only that rare combination of performer and packager can pull it off successfully. Smith once stated that his generic approach to Divine’s basic look was a meshing of Jayne Mansfield and Clarabelle the Clown. No doubt, the actor frequently looked sexy and sick, sinister and silly, a harlequin, a horror and a honey all rolled into one great big ball of brazenness. Many critics have pointed out that Waters seemed to lose his edge once Divine passed away in 1988. It will be interesting to see where the filmmaker goes now that his guru of gruesomeness, his trident of tastelessness, his imaginer of ick is gone as well. Waters did manage to make movies without his longtime friend and celebrated star. This, however, may be an aesthetic blow to great to completely compensate for.


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