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Thursday, Nov 15, 2007


Somehow, you get the impression they are doing it on purpose. After a pair of underperforming efforts (the tame Intolerable Cruelty and the way too reverent remake of The Ladykillers) Joel and Ethan Coen are back – and they’re trading on their unmitigated masterpieces from the past to achieve something quite startling. As with any great artist, the threads of their genius are laced throughout all facets of their work. And in the case of the majestic No Country for Old Men, the brothers have fashioned a clever combination of everything they’ve tackled before – the Southwestern dread of Blood Simple, the cruel criminality of Miller’s Crossing, etc. – and wound it up into a tight little ball of cinematic razor wire. And as viewers, we are lucky enough to traipse through the stealthy steel death trappings of what is instantly 2007’s best film.


While on a hunting trip, Llewelyn Moss stumbles across a massacre. Bodies are strewn across the desert, cars and trucks riddled with hundreds of bullet holes. Following a trail of blood to a nearby tree, he discovers another corpse – and a case containing over $2 million. Wise enough to realize someone will come looking for the cash, he sends his wife off to her mother’s and prepares to make off with the loot. Unfortunately, insane hitman Anton Chigurh is instantly on his scent. Armed with a pneumatic bolt gun, the kind used by butchers in the slaughter house, he is making a murderous bee line to Moss and the money. The only thing standing in his way – aside from various criminal types and innocent victims – is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Grizzled and wise, he’s seen it all. But with blood flowing this freely and no end to the carnage in sight, he may have finally met his metaphysical match.


Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, No Country for Old Men proves that the Coen Brothers are America’s reigning motion picture Gods. Looking over their creative canon, a body of work that includes Oscar nods, a single win, several career defining films and more than a couple cult classics (“We want the money, Lebowski!”), they argue for their place among the artform’s true greats. Sure, some find them unusually quirky and lost in their own insular world of homages, references, and crudely hidden in-jokes, and in the past, all of those caveats would be concerning. Fact is, they are painted over every frame of their consistently fascinating flights of fancy. But No Country for Old Men is different. Instead of going outside their sphere of influence to the cinematic stalwarts that defined the medium, the Coen’s are riffing on themselves – and by doing so, they forge a near flawless filmic experience.


Acting has never been a problem for the boys. They consistently cast people clued into their eccentric, distinctive style and watch as they deliver performances of stunning depth and clarity. It’s the same here. Josh Brolin moves instantly into the A-list with his turn as Llewelyn, a man just smart enough to stay one step ahead of a psychopath, but too brazen and bullish to see the fatality of such a decision. He’s not really a tragic character in the traditional sense – his smugness is not a flaw so much as the main facet of his personality. But when he finds himself in harm’s way, we do sympathize. That’s because Javier Bardem’s Anton is so horrific. The man is literally evil incarnate. He is instantly one of the top five movie villains of all time.


From the opening sequence where he’s handcuffed and wide-eyed, strangling a police officer with a glee that’s almost erotic, we sense something unhinged about this hired killer. Bardem plays him stealthy and closed-off, trapped in his own realm of murderous intent. When he asks a passing motorist to stand still, bolt gun poised precariously on the forehead of said intended victim, we wince at the proposed slaughter. With his bad Beatle haircut, matinee idol glare, and dogged determination, he electrifies every moment in the movie, even when he’s not onscreen. Like the Terminator (except far more lethal) or a mindless disease, he is terror brought home, an interpersonal plague that has no intention of stopping.


Acting as equalizer between the two is the magnificent Tommy Lee Jones. Completely in his element here and given loads of well written bon mots by the brothers, it’s an Oscar caliber turn by the Academy recognized star. Unlike other small town lawmen that the Coens have focused on (Marge Gunderson in Fargo), Jones is a more seasoned, less naïve peacemaker. He recognizes the inherent wickedness in man, and doesn’t deny it within himself. During No Country for Old Men’s last act, when faced with a particularly difficult decision regarding Llewelyn, the look on his craggy, character-riddled face is almost priceless. It argues for his brilliance as an actor, and the boys’ decision as directors.


Indeed, the Coens typical cinematic fluidity and love of the camera is in full effect here. No Country for Old Men may play out in places that are dry as a dead coyote’s coat and as tumble down as a collection of knotted sagebrush, but these are filmmakers who understand the natural beauty in a desolate landscape, the innate malevolence in a roadside motel. Aside from their typically brilliant compositions and framing, they fill the image with depth and deliver astoundingly pristine tableaus. Forget Grant Wood – this is the real American Gothic. Like the best kind of fright film, No Country for Old Men doesn’t give its characters – or the audience – a break. It’s relentless in its pursuit of pure, unadulterated thrills.


And don’t let others sell this movie short. Some have argued that the ending lacks the vigilante snap we’ve come to expect from our crime genre. Without giving much away, the Coens track the conventional confrontations that should come with this type of material and then throw said motion picture principles right out the door. Things happen to characters that we don’t expect, action plays out in the moments before we, the audience, arrive on the scene. Playing with time and frequently fooling the viewer with the actual continuum of events, such a narrative strategy leaves a lot of air in No Country for Old Men. But when a movie is this tightly wound, when the open prairies of Texas feel as claustrophobic as a locked vehicle on a scorching summer’s day, we’ll gladly take the space.


Lacking anything remotely resembling a weak link and populated by supporting players – Barry Corbin, Woody Harrelson, an almost unrecognizable Kelly Macdonald – that illuminate the screen with their talent, No Country for Old Men feels like the culmination of something significant for the Coens. Maybe it was the need to shake off the criticism of their previous passable misfires and find a way back to their almost universally acclaimed past. It could be a simple case of cause and effect – a great project produced an equally stellar film. Perhaps the boys work best when they’re the underdog, shaking off commercial success and mainstream popularity to worm their way along the fringes once again. Whatever the case, they’ve created one of their finest films ever. No Country for Old Men is indeed masterful. That will teach us to doubt Joel and Ethan Coen ever again.



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Wednesday, Nov 14, 2007


Move over f**k – there’s a new expletive in town, and it’s taking over the R-rated motion picture dialogue domain as never before. Where once it was merely a scandalous bit of European slang, a way for one Brit to put down another with sexuality free cheek, it’s now morphed into the mainstream cinema’s number one epithet. Over the last six months alone, it’s been heard in comedies (Knocked Up, The Heartbreak Kid), dramas (Feast of Love, The Brave One), genre efforts (Hostel Part II), and able action fare (Shoot ‘Em Up). Applied to both male and female characters, used as both a humorous and hateful retort, it argues for the desperation of screenwriters eager for another explanatory extreme, and the changing social sentiments toward the acceptability (or lack thereof) of language.


Back in the pre-MPAA days, before David Mamet received his four letter thesaurus, dialogue was almost always mannered. This didn’t mean that people spoke in elaborate Elizabethan couplets laced with poetic pentameters. It simply meant that certain unmentionable words were never considered part of proper human interaction. Adults spoke in carefully peppered bon mots, while kids gave the ‘golly gees’ a run for their money. Even criminals and lowlifes spoke in a guttural jargon that indicated their intrinsic illiteracy while showcasing an inventive use of street slang by the individual at the typewriter. For decades, cursing was considered uncouth, ill-mannered, and a sure sign of a person’s passé moral compass.


All of that changed with the neo-neorealism of ‘60s/’70s Hollywood. When film decided that mimicking real life was a valid artistic approach, it brought along with it all the flaws and foibles that made up the human condition – including the potty mouth. From the introduction of such previously unheard of horrors as s**t, and g*****n, to far more frank allusions toward sex and the reproductive organs, movies started “talking like regular people”. The collective sigh from the critical community (which saw such a brashness as some manner of cinematic sacrilege) was quickly replaced by a heralding of the newer, bolder breed. Suddenly, ‘working blue’ was no longer a taboo. It was a proletariat response to the blatant bourgeois nature of Tinsel Town’s Golden Age.


According to motion picture lore, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H may be the first feature film ever to use the heretofore unmentionable F-bomb. The potent anti-war missive didn’t necessarily popularize the use of the bump and grind euphemism, but as with any cultural dam, once the flood gates were open, the trash talk breached all linguistic levees. Throughout the Me Decade, the infamous FCC terms that were verboten over public airwaves (made infamous by George Carlin’s classic satiric slam on censorship, the “Seven Words”) slowly crept into the lexicon of big screen legitimacy. Thanks to the pulse pounding efforts of blaxploitation, which strove to incorporate the feel of its inner city demographic streets, and equally reflective works by future auteur Martin Scorsese, the medium couldn’t ignore the message. It was right there, up in its m****f***ing face!


Yet it was comedy that probably fueled the final ascent of swearing’s universal acceptability. Humor has an amazing ability to soften even the most miscreant subject. With masters of the foul mouthed art like Richard Pryor suddenly turning superstar, language was no longer seen as a limit. In fact, for someone like the masterful stand-up, the ‘colorful’ conceits of the words he choose made the brutality – and the brilliance – of what he was riffing on that much more pointed, and realistic. Naturally, there were people who took sailor speak to all manner of ridiculous heights (Andrew Dice Clay, anyone?), but for the most part, profanity was excused as a way of masking individual pain with an universal human expression of same.


None of this really excuses or explains the sudden fascination with the ‘C’ word, however. Some would argue that, as with any aspect of film, the overuse of certain stalwarts in combination with the loosening standards concerning same results in artists seeking new or unused ways of courting creativity. When Oliver Stone laced his sensational script for Scarface with as many four, ten, and twelve letter quips as Al Pacino’s quasi-Cuban accent could handle, audiences thought they were experiencing the first of the four horsemen of the cinematic apocalypse. Today, Tony Montana’s trenchant take on his non-mother tongue is viewed as pure screenwriting poetry.


Others will argue that popular culture dictates the dialogue. After almost two decades with rap dominating the First Amendment format, it was only a matter of time before such extremes became commonplace. Heck, even cartoons say s**t now. Yet a scan of lyrical content fails to reveal a general reliance on such specific sexual slang. Even more telling, the use of c**t seems particularly Caucasian. With its continental rooting (a film like Hot Fuzz, from English eccentrics Simon Pegg and Edward Wright, drops the C-bomb dozens of times) and suburban shock value, the application outside a specific demographic seems rather farfetched. Honestly, it’s easier to see Seth Rogen working the vaginal quip than, say, members of the Wu-Tang Clan.


Perhaps the most perplexing element of the across the pond translation is the gender element. In almost every film listed at the top of this piece, c**t is used exclusively as a means of undermining women – and almost always in situations where the female is being victimized or violated. In Hostel Part II, it’s the ‘magic word’ that drives our heroine to acts of castration. Of course, she needs to be beaten and almost-raped before a mere word triggers her ire. Similarly, Jodie Foster’s New Age vigilante is haunted by her acts of murderous desperation, crimes so heinous that no further justification for her gun-based payback seems necessary. And yet she must be referred by the aforementioned derogation before popping her caps in gang member asses.


Even in a sappy, maudlin disease of the week styled film like Feast of Love, the C word shows up to belittle a woman. Granted, the character in this case is an unusually cold and calculating slag who is using her newfound husband as a cash-flow cushion until her married boy toy gets that long promised divorce, but in a movie overloaded with less than likeable characters, our insidious ice queen needs an additional dressing down. So out comes the crudity. And for the most part, it works. Since it’s so new, so untapped as a source of strongly worded disparagement, it’s jarring. It gets the listener’s attention, and changes the entire course of an onscreen discussion. Where f**k has gone from incendiary to inevitable, c**t remains the conversational neutron bomb.


The sudden influx of this heretofore unapproachable word may have some link back to the previous mention of hip-hop after all. Thanks in large part to the ‘b*tches and hos’ stereotyping of the genre, there’s been a decided backlash against the use of that particular canine curse. Indeed, over the decades, the previously impotent b*tch has become fuel for lawsuits, boycotts, and pundit pronouncements. Indeed, when you think about it, the forbidden status of the formerly lax putdown (you can find examples of its casual use in family oriented sitcoms from the ‘80s and ‘90s) required a new, nasty anti-lady remark. But c**t seems much worse than anything an MC can concoct. Film makes it unfathomable.


Indeed, in the context of a UK jive, characters calling each other all manner of acceptable accented atrocities, it tends not to resonate. It seems silly, slightly foolish even. But when an angry male, staring down his opposite with implied hatred, lets fly with such blatant vitriol, the effect is seismic. It stops the story dead, and focuses every element of the narrative on the word itself. Even multi-syllable mouthfuls loose their largeness in comparison. Where once it was unthinkable in even the most adult of companies, the C word has become the exclamation point on a sentence no one ever thought of saying out loud.


Naturally, overuse will deaden its impact. Already, with just a handful of films crass or crafty enough to feature this newfound verbal violation, c**t is becoming cliché. You can almost predict the moment when a fed up individual, incapable of rationally expressing their disapproval or disgust, let’s out a long tirade. After being rebuffed by the smug, seemingly superior female, out comes the reproductive putdown. If feminists had a field day with the chauvinism of the ‘70s, the misogyny of the ‘80s, and the disrespect of the ‘90s, what will the embracing of the C-word bring? Already, performance artists are trying to take back the term, that old standby of empowerment via encroachment. Perhaps they should ask the African American how successfully they’ve been re: the N-word, huh?


While it’s hard to tell if c**t is here to stay, it’s clear that screenwriters feel it’s somehow necessary. In a vocal sparing match, where words replace stylized fisticuffs, it’s apparently the finesse free finishing move that ends discussion and mandates action. Oddly enough, there’s been little fuss over the C-word’s commonplace application. Back in the ‘30s, when a smarting Rhett Butler told a desperate Scarlett O’Hara that he couldn’t give a good “damn”, viewers practically swooned at the vulgarity. Today, our Southern dandy would pull out the C-word. Our spunky heroine would slap his face – or worse, open up a can of semi-automatic whoop-ass on his foul mouthed butt. And audiences would sit back and accept it. Hard to tell what’s worse, when you think about it.


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Tuesday, Nov 13, 2007


Damn but the late Doris Wishman was a cinematic saint. She can entertain with a random shot of feet, or whisk us away on clouds of craziness with just a moment of badly processed post-production dubbing. In a motion-picture oeuvre that contained such breathless exploitation classics as Bad Girls Go to Hell, Another Day, Another Man, Gentleman Prefer Nature Girls, Blaze Starr Goes Nudist, Nude on the Moon, Double Agent 73, and Deadly Weapons, she never once established a single shred of celluloid logic. Her efforts frequently felt like fever dreams produced by too many Rob Roys, an excess of butt steaks, and untold hours sniffing sweat-accented Jean Nate. With stories centering around taboos and their imminent busting together with copious amounts of carnality, Wishman forged a name for herself in a realm where gals were typically given nothing more than a chauvinistic smack on the can. Later on, she would explore the outer reaches of the risqué, dominating the violence-tinged “Roughie” before heading into full-blown hardcore porno mode. But there was always an innocence in what this grindhouse pioneer proposed, a subtext that suggested that, no matter the circumstances, our heroines were genuinely good girls corrupted by the pasty, paternalistic forces of the male-dominated universe. In many ways, Wishman wasn’t just the first feminist—she was Bella Abzug with a Bolex.


It’s a typical sunny day in a pre-‘60s Miami. Duke, a dastardly criminal with robbery on his mind, cons his less than felonious brother Steve into holding up a local banking institution. They argue about it a lot while on the way. The heist goes off without a hitch, but their planned rendezvous to retrieve another getaway car ends in engine trouble. Desperate, they carjack dishy dame Dorothy. Duke wants a ride to somewhere safe while he works out travel arrangement to Cuba with a bewildered boat captain. Steve is more interested in something soft and sensual. When they arrive at Dorothy’s Country Club, it turns out to be a nudist colony. The thugs are initially horrified. Crime is one thing, but bare bodies??? While Duke stays in the room and frets like a ferret, Steve is invited to become one of the many sun-worshippers enjoying the clean living and healthy lifestyle. As numerous naked people frolic and gad about, our potential paramours become much, much closer. Of course, big brother just wants his trip to pre-Castro country, and is brandishing a gun to get it. But when love blooms, especially in a place where wholesomeness and natural beauty thrive, evil cannot win. This is one Hideout in the Sun that may end one goon’s larcenous career - and save another one’s soul.


Hideout in the Sun, the director’s first-ever film (and in color at that), is definitely a throwback to her goody-two-shoes days. Lacking anything remotely randy and giving equal time to both the actual nudists and the professional models hired to play topless, this is early raincoat-crowd fodder at its most tame and blameless. With the Supreme Court ruling that the inherent medical nature of the lifestyle lifted the otherwise solid smut tag, Hideout plays like baby steps into the brazen. It was Wishman’s debut, and yet the recognizable mise-en-mess that would symbolize her cinema is firmly in place. We get shots of shoes, dialogue delivered by individuals off-screen, carefully placed towels and beach balls, as well as numerous sequences of unclothed honeys sitting around, posing. Hideout amplifies some of these soon-to-be clichés as Wishman places lead Dolores Carlos in a fountain setting and lets delightfully dancing waters give her figure a noticeable dowsing. Of course, where there are nudists, there’s volleyball and swimming, and the obvious lack of athleticism is laughable. The guys cavort like girls, and the girls resemble infants just learning to lift their heads. It’s all part of the genre’s ditzy dynamic, and it’s a certifiable scream.

The lawless on the lam narrative, however, is less than successful. Duke is so highly and tightly wound he gives off metaphysical five o’clock shadow sparks. Steve, on the other hand, is like a rump roast reanimated with Brylcream. Even in a watery setting, his slicked-back barber hair is an Exxon Valdez waiting to happen. When actor Earl Bauer turns on his heartlight, however, he’s about as suave as a kidney stone. He should be playing a strip-club owner, not a wussed-out armed robbery wannabe with a penchant to acquiesce to his brother’s every wish. The laughable Cuban subplot, featuring non-Hispanic actors in full Jose Jimenez mode, will prickle your PC penchants, and the general lack of looks among the performers and local color will have you wondering what granddad saw in such shoddy sexuality. Of course, it’s important to remember the role exploitation played in cinema’s coming of age. Without films like Hideout in the Sun, movies made to challenge the status quo when it came to potential subject matter, we wouldn’t have had the ‘70s post-modern explosion in film. They took the lumps while Hollywood and its independent cousins reaped the lax rules rewards. Doris Wishman was doubly important in that she proved a woman’s commercial viability among a very male-eccentric marketplace. While Hideout in the Sun may seem docile by today’s standard, it was positively shocking in 1960, for reasons both in front of and behind the camera.


Oddly enough, this title is not released by longtime Wishman supporters, Something Weird Video. Instead, Retro Seduction Cinema, apart of Pop Cinema, is handling the release, and they do a damn fine job. Offered up in a two disc Deluxe edition, we get two different versions of the film (1.33:1 full screen - the proper OAR - and a newly cropped 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen edition), and it looks very good, even if there are abundant age defects and edit issues. One has to remember that a limited number of prints were struck of these demographically specific movies, and to find one in pristine shape is next to impossible. After traveling around the country for years, suffering the snips and clips of various community standards, that a copy exists÷period - is pretty amazing. Thanks to a digital revamp, the colors are bright, the details deliberate, and the skin tones nice and pasty. It definitely recalls flesh peddling of the early exploitation era.


Sadly, the sonic situation is the same as well. The Dolby Digital Mono is maintained expertly, the title song a hilarious mishmash of jerkwad jazz and lounge lizarding. As for bonus features, we get a commentary with Wishman biographer Michael Bowen (good, if a tad to centered on the man himself), an audio-only interview with the director herself (classic!) and a talk with grindhouse producer extraordinaire David F. Friedman (too short, but sensational nonetheless). Along with postcards from a nudist colony, a 1960 newsreel, a Retro-Seduction Cinema trailer vault, and a wonderful booklet containing articles and Q&A, this is an excellent digital package.


One day, Doris Wishman will be celebrated as the evocative, experimental, avant-garde directorial diva she clearly was. Until then, those of us already in the know can settle in with a selection of her notorious No Wave classics. Thanks to DVD, we can now add Hideout in the Sun to her legacy’s list. It’s a solid sunbathing enchantment.


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Monday, Nov 12, 2007

1965 was a transitional year for international icons The Beatles. It would see the release of their artistic “breakthrough” album, the pot-inspired mostly acoustic gem Rubber Soul. It marked their turn from pop music phenoms into actual artists, dispensing with the cover songs and collective cutesy routine that made up the majority of their marketability. In its place was a growing sense of self, a realization that the mania began on their little British Isle was spreading, unabated, across every aspect of popular culture. And it was the year they reluctantly starred in their second feature film, Help!   Hoping to capitalize on the success of A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester kept the eccentric English humor intact. Gone, however, was the carefree innocence that seemed to spark their first foray into film. In its place was a workmanship and ethic that, while winning, provided portents of careering things to come.


After receiving a ring from an adoring fan, Beatles drummer Ringo finds himself locked in a life or death struggle with the notorious Kaili worshipping cult. Seems the piece of jewelry is one of their sacred ornaments, and whoever wears it will end up a human sacrifice to their god. Trying to avoid the murderous motives of High Priest Clang and his henchman, the boys seek help from a jeweler, the employees of an Indian Restaurant, and a crazed scientist named Foot and his bumbling assistant Algernon. Unfortunately, the only person able to help is fellow cult member Ahme. She seems sweet on Paul, and wants to return the ring to its rightful owner. With the help of Scotland Yard, the band records under heavy military guard, travels to Switzerland to avoid the thugs, and winds up confronting the perplexingly persistent fanatics on the shores of the Bahamas.


It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output—the maddening Magical Mystery Tour, the next to no involvement in the decent Yellow Submarine, the dark and bitter aura of Let It Be - it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve it. Fault it all you want for being a refashioned farce (the script was originally meant for someone else) or a marijuana soaked semi-spectacle, but the film contains some of the best onscreen work the band ever accomplished. It also features some of their most astounding songs of the pre-psychedelia/Sgt. Pepper period.


Help! is actually a hard movie to hate. The Beatles may be a tad dispirited here, less hyper and more humbled by what was rapidly becoming a cultural cocoon trapping them within their own fame (the next year—1966—would mark their decision to stop touring and concentrate on writing and recording only), but they make a perfect proto-punk Marx Brothers. While Ringo is the supposed star, perhaps because of the glowing notices he received from Night, it’s actually the entire foursome that truly shines. The reconfigured screenplay gives every member a standout sequence, from Paul’s amazing adventure ‘on the floor’ to John’s constant taunting of every authority figure in the film. The main narrative still centers on the emblematic drummer with the tendency toward ostentaceous jewelry and a large neb, but the other three turn in delightfully deadpan performances as well. It helps sell the rather clumsy, crackpot concept.


Equally endearing is the superb supporting cast. Made up of many then UK luminaries, Leo McKern and Eleanor Brom are excellent as opposing sides of the killer cult. Handling the pigeon English elements of his role with class and creativity, the future Rumpole of the Bailey never registers a single false note. Brom, on the other hand, is a strange choice for a romantic lead. Dark, imposing and very focused, she is a million miles from the hippy dippy flower children that were coming to mark the midpoint of the ‘60s. Returning to the Beatles camp for a second cinematic go round, Victor Spinetti is the perfect nonsense spewing mad scientist. Along with soon to be inseparable sidekick Roy Kinnear (the two became synonymous because of their brilliant chemistry here) they literally light up the screen. The sequence where they put Ringo into a metal expanding machine is a classic of screwball science shtick. In fact, there is a wonderful balance between physical and intellectual comedy here, something that definitely differentiates Help! from Night’s more normative approach.


And then there’s the music. While different entities love to claim the title of “Originator of the Music Video”, the Beatles will always remain the format’s grandest champions. Unlike Night, which used a performance based paradigm almost exclusively to showcase the songs, Help! creates little mini musical montages that form the foundation for everything MTV would do two decades later. While the title track purposely recalls the previous film, the next number, the fabulous pop tone “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” sets the new standard for such presentations. Playing in a dimly lit studio, their silhouettes barely visible through the fog of cigarette (?) smoke, the boys bang out one of Lennon’s best, a catchy little number with a tantalizingly tough lyrical line. Indeed, most of the songs in Help! would avoid the June/Moon/Spoon musings of their Tin Pan Alley take on rock and roll to enter into realms that are dark, confrontational, and dismissive.



With titles like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (a nice nod to new buddy Bob Dylan), “The Night Before” and “Another Girl”, The Beatles were proving that they’d matured, and indeed, one of the main reasons some fans don’t like this glorified goofball lark is that it posits grown men, ready to explore the mysteries both inside and outside their insular world as juvenile jokesters. Many of the gags are aimed at the lowest levels of wit, and even some of the smarter material is offset by a clear cut cartoonish ideal. Still, there are incredibly clever moments (the opening sequence where we see the boys’ fictional living quarters, the police inspector’s spot-on Ringo impression) when the group’s inherent intelligence shines through. In fact, aside from the standard action film finish which finds the gang involved in car chases and foot races, the verbal humor is on par with anything Night had to offer.


As part of the long awaited DVD presentation from Capital Records and Apple Corps, we learn about the difficulty director Richard Lester had in coming up with another Beatles project. Popularity was demanding the boys’ return to the big screen, but since another mock documentary about their career was out of the question, something slightly more surreal had to be created. On the second disc of added content (sadly, sans current input of the remaining band members) we hear stories about the infamous amount of ganja on set, the description of a disastrous sequence that didn’t make the final cut, and confirm what many at the time were already quite aware of—the Beatles were chaffing at their continued closed-off existence. It was almost impossible for them to travel anywhere—even on set—without crowds of screaming fans isolating them. It’s clear that what seemed exciting in A Hard Day’s Night was becoming more and more unbearable by Help!


This is perhaps why the film feels strained to some. The madcap mop tops who captured everyone’s hearts a year before had become slightly dampened slaves to their incalculable success. The notion that they were now international trend setters, mocked and mimicked by every group looking to ride the cresting British Invasion must have manifested itself in ways that, subconsciously, snuck onto the celluloid. It is clear that the fun loving blokes we see cascading down the Alps to the glorious sounds of John Lennon’s classic “Ticket To Ride” would soon become introspective—and independent—parts of an unique whole. They would go on to make albums that transcended the medium, offering timeless examples of composition as art. But Help! remains a wonderful testament to a time when being a Beatle was still satisfying—at least, on the cinematic surface.   



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Sunday, Nov 11, 2007


Many have never heard of him. Others only know selected works—the ‘80s effort Santa Sangre, the consistently mentioned “midnight movie” El Topo - but even for those who claim an intimate knowledge of cinema, director, poet, agitator, self-described “deity” Alejandro Jodorowsky remains an enigma. This could be due to the fact that the filmmaker has only helmed seven projects in the 50 years he’s been in the business (that’s right, seven in half a century behind the camera). Part of the problem is also that Jodorowsky remains a vehemently idiosyncratic artist. Like many Latino moviemakers, he lives his works and is only driven to create when the passion (and the fiscal possibility) strikes him. The final issue with his covert career is the lack of access to his major films - Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain. Only the first title has ever appeared on DVD, the other two considered “lost” due to ongoing animosity between the director and infamous ‘70s business bully Allen Klein. Now, with all wounds apparently healed. The recently released Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky box set provides a chance to see the works that loom largest in the auteur’s considerable legend.


In the grand tradition of fellow experimentalists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Alejandro Jodorowsky is, at his heart, a surrealist. He works in the weird and fashions out of the freakish. Like all artists working within said medium, the Chilean-born Renaissance man loves to break convention as he embraces the recognizable. In fact, it’s safe to say that Jodorowsky is the most arcane avant-gardist ever to take up the genre’s mantle. Typically, a surrealist tackles the real world from a ridiculous yet recognizable avenue. But Jodorowsky isn’t content to simply shock and confuse. His is an aesthetic of contradiction, the juxtaposing of the sacred with the profane, the beautiful with the grotesque, the simple along with the complex. Out of said incongruities, he hopes to unlock the secrets of love, desire, death, evil, happiness, hate, terror, wisdom, God, man, the Devil, and the bifurcated nature of spirituality and physicality. Sometimes he succeeds in stunning fashion. But even his missteps are fabulous in their fascination.


After beginning life as a performance artist and theatrical “terrorist” (part of the Panic Movement—inspired by the god Pan—in early ‘60s France) Jodorowsky’s move to film was seen as a way of extending his influence beyond the simplicity of the stage. After fooling around with a work about a lady who sells substitute heads - La Cravate - he went off to tackle his first full-length project; a quasi-adaptation of a play written by Fernando Arrabal. While neither was completely successful, they proved that Jodorowsky had an eye for cinema and could really tell a story visually. Anyone who was lucky enough to see Cravate may recognize Thomas Mann’s 1940 absurdist effort The Transposed Heads. Using players from his Panic productions, and an obvious bow to Marcel Marceau and the mime movement that was popular during the time, the scant story was saved by the unique visual approach the director brought to the project. Resembling the German Expressionism of the early 20th Century with the precision of a painter like Chagall, the colorful, confusing tale remains something visually sumptuous, but rather empty and vague.



Fando y Lis, on the other hand, was prepped as Jodorowsky’s grand statement of social perception. In Arrabal’s play, the title couple is searching for a kind of literal nirvana, a place where he can live free and she can escape her life of handicapped helplessness. The magical city of Tar is basically a metaphor for acceptance and, all throughout the film, Jodorowsky drives that direct point home. This helps explain the movie’s vignette-oriented approach. Across an amazing monochrome wasteland, the pair are poked at, prodded, perverted, played with, and made to feel equally ashamed of their desire to live outside the surreal norm, while wholly trapped in a universe of unexplainable horrors and happenings. Sex plays a major role in the narrative, as many of the people our leads meet seem locked in a lustful lewdness that brings out their worst, most abhorrent behavior. Even Fando gives in, beating the helpless Lis mercilessly and abandoning her for sequences at a time. In the end, his act of brutality is meant as a kind of consciousness cleansing, a way of showing the supposed hero what a bad man he really is.


Of course, that’s just one interpretation, and Fando y Lis is a movie that can mean many things to whoever sees it. Because black-and-white deadens the dimensions in the imagery - color both corrupts and clarifies your standard visual responses - much of the movie feels flat. Not lifeless, mind you, just strangely similar, almost repetitive. Fando and Lis argue, one or the other looses their temper, a oddball collection of people enter into their psychological space (old ladies playing cards for lychee nuts and the sexual favors of a male prostitute, a holy man who worships a nauseatingly naked female), and then its time to ease on down the tarmac path toward happiness. When viewed with the films he would go on to make, Fando y Lis is best described as a mangled minor masterwork. It lacks the resonance that would come when Jodorowsky dropped the pretense and shot straight from his psyche. It also offers incomplete characters whose flaws are much more memorable than their finer moments. Visually, there is no denying the talent - Fando y Lis announces a major motion-picture player. But it would be his second film that solidified the director’s status as a surrealistic God.



Believe it when you hear it - El Topo is brazenly brilliant, a true motion-picture masterpiece of epic and undeniable proportions. All the legends you’ve heard, all the myths made up about the film’s founding the midnight movie craze are completely legitimate. Everything promised in Fando y Lis is present and perfectly built upon in what is, in essence, a spaghetti western sans the saddle sores. While he touched on it some in his first film, El Topo begins the clear contravention of organized religion and the meaningless morality given to the ethics of good and evil. Forged in two parts, the first centering on the viability of violence, the second scourging the reward of benefice, what we have here is a personal journey amplified into a statement of cosmic consensus. Jodorowsky himself plays the lead—a gunslinger whose life is empty inside—and he pours on the preposterous visuals and stunningly imaginative imagery with grace and gratuity.


When we first meet “The Mole” (the translation of El Topo), he is harboring a young naked boy - perhaps, as a protégé, perhaps for something more salacious. It is never explained, and Jodorowsky likes it that way. Soon, a choice must be made and, with it, comes the first-half condemnation of our lead. Working his standard scattered narrative approach perfectly, our hero must find the four greatest gunfighters in the desert and defeat each and every one. Many have likened this half of the film to the Old Testament, with El Topo taking on the four main prophets in the Biblical text. Others simply see it as a regular rite of passage, with each foe representing an element of the main character’s consciousness that he must confront and conquer. In each battle, El Topo twists the rules to his own ends. When he finally falls, it’s not by the hand of any of the masters. No, he is double crossed by the faith of his own heart, and the woman who pledged her undying love for saving her.


Now it’s true that Jodorowsky is tough on women. Some would even argue that he’s a clear-cut misogynist who views the female as festering and wicked, only capable of tricking men and then using their failing feminine wiles throughout the rest of their sad, sexually repressed life. But for every act of abuse, for every slap in the face, or tableau where overweight grandmothers draped in lingerie strut and fret like fools, we have characters who try to countermand that image. The dwarf girl, who helps El Topo after he is mortally wounded and left for dead, represents the one area that Jodorowsky tends not to mock - the maternal instinct of a caring woman. Throughout the second act of the film, when our hero goes from sinner to savior, desperate and willing to do anything to build a tunnel into town, the little lady by his side is grace and giving personified. Jodorowsky was obviously influenced by Fellini and his Satyricon-era style. Human oddities, disfigured and disturbing in their limbless, twisted deformities, are prevalent in the director’s work and, if you were to ask him why, he’d probably say, “They are interesting to look at, no?” In fact, a great deal of what he does as a filmmaker exists solely because it looks good locked in a timeless frame of celluloid.


Because of its clear narrative focus - unlike Fando and Lis, who never really get anywhere during their journey - El Topo is a series of cause-and-effect story sequences and visionary vibe. It’s not surprising to learn that Jodorowsky became an early ‘70s sensation, championed by none other than John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The ex-Beatle, a man of principle and awareness totally tapped into the fading remnants of the generation he helped form, felt a kinship with the director. Using images straight out of the counterculture’s cookbook (including the notorious self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc), Jodorowsky was purposefully taking the piss out of the era’s symbols and icons. This went down well with a musician who spent the first half of his solo career primal screaming the Fab Four out of his system. Thanks to the influence of Allen Klein (in charge of the business operations of the Beatles’ Apple Corp), El Topo got attention—including some much-needed press and distribution in the United States. This led to the film’s frequent showings at midnight and, thus, the resulting legend. Even better, when Jodorowsky was looking for financing for his next project, Klein and the Lennons gladly stepped in.



What they got was almost more astounding than El Topo. The Holy Mountain - an unambiguous bashing of faith, church, God, enlightenment, and Eastern theology - became a serious scandal. While Jodorowsky was no stranger to bad audience reactions (the first screening of Fando y Lis turned into a riot, and the director had to be smuggled out of the theater to avoid the angry mob), nothing could have prepared him for the denouncement he received when the final cut premiered at Cannes. Condemned as blasphemous and sacrilegious, critics and crowds couldn’t get past the striking similarity between the lead thief and a certain Jesus of Nazareth. Even worse, Jodorowsky went on to strip his Messianic character – literally - having the actor playing the part more or less nude throughout the film’s opening act. By making our substitute savior a criminal, a con artist, and a partaker of perversion (he is helped along by an armless and legless dwarf who enjoys kissing his carrier on the mouth), the director was obviously arguing for the corruption buried inside Christianity. When our figure of faith finally meets the Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself), all he wants to know is the secret of turning shit into gold. How shocking!


But it’s not just religion that gets a reaming here. Our maverick moviemaker is out to undermine capitalism, the law, government cronyism/incompetence, pop culture, the police force, war, and the sovereignty of the state, all in one fell swoop. He does this by creating the council of immortals - eight enterprising people of power who represent the planets within the solar system. For a fee, including complete obedience and a rejection of material things, the Alchemist will provide a path to enlightenment and a chance to replace a similar group already residing on Lotus Island. There, they will supposedly live forever, free from all the issues they themselves create in the typical, tainted social structure. With this road-movie plotline in place, Jodorowsky is free to indulge his every visual whim, resulting in, hands down, one of the most sumptuous and sublime optical experiences ever captured on film. As if in reaction to everything El Topo stood for, the filmmaker purposefully avoids the elements that made said movie so shocking.


The Peckinpah-like bloodshed in Topo, grue flowing freely and effortlessly from various violated bodies, is now a striking psychedelic array of rainbow humors. The ample nudity is presented pristinely, lacking the down-and-dirty qualities that made his whacked-out western so erotically charged. The former subtle slaps at religion are now big, bold, brash bombshells, like the skinned goats substituting for Christs on a procession of crosses. Once we get to the moment of clarity, when temptation tries to thwart our pilgrims from their progress, Jodorowsky goes all out, mixing swinging ‘60s jet-set cool with a graveyard setting to up the sacrilege. Of course, it’s not surprising to learn that all the events of the last 90 minutes are meant as a kind of cinematic in-joke. The final bits of dialogue in the movie pull the rug out of the previous pomp and circumstance, operating like an affecting “F-You” from Jodorowsky to anyone who would take him seriously as a sage. While it lacked the personal touch of a strong lead character (unlike El Topo himself, the Alchemist and his charges are fairly interchangeable), The Holy Mountain proved that his previous efforts were no fluke. Jodorowsky was a filmmaker to be reckoned with. All he needed now was a mainstream success.


It was to come in the form of Dune. In 1975, the filmmaker gathered together an eclectic crew including H. R. Giger (for design), Pink Floyd (for musical score), and French comic book artist Jean Giraud. His goal - bring Frank Herbert’s incredibly popular sci-fi allegory to the big screen. Hoping to cast famous faces (Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger as his son Feyd) and to once again revisit some familiar narrative themes (Dune definitely matches a certain Messianic story), Jodorowsky was eager and excited. Then that old familiar foe – money - reared its ugly halting head, and it wasn’t long before the entire production was shut down and sold off. Bitter over this turn of events and the way Klein was carrying out their business arrangements, Jodorowsky started shunning the spotlight. He made a couple more films in the next 30 years - a 1980 children’s film entitled Tusk, 1989’s well-received Santa Sangre, and 1990’s The Rainbow Thief. Several times he tried to jump start a sequel to El Topo, this time following the child of the main character (he wanted to call it Son of El Topo or Abelcain). Yet aside from an appearance in the 1994 documentary about his career, La Constellation Jodorowsky, he stuck to comics and graphic art.


Because of his lack of output, Jodorowsky has since been marginalized. He’s been considered a fluke, a one (or, in the case of Mountain, two) hit wonder, a difficult creator who can’t understand a need to compromise for his craft. Instead, he remains staunchly defiant, even allowing his movies to fall out of print until the issues with Klein could be resolved. What this has meant, sadly, is that audiences for over 30-plus years have been deprived of some of the most amazing motion pictures ever created. Visually stunning, deeply personal, and philosophical without being preachy or intellectually obtuse, both El Topo and The Holy Mountain are merely fables formulated out of fever dreams, one man’s attempts to depict a crisis of the soul via pictures and predicaments. Unlike the work of some surrealists, who seem to be tossing random images at the camera for the sake of their own oddness, Jodorowsky tries to tie everything together, giving his apparent arbitrariness a lasting heft that transcends the art form’s tricks. His films can be hard to look at, even more appalling in their approach, but there’s also a beauty and an elegance generated by his frequently fractured dynamic that’s impossible to avoid.


Surrealism, by its very nature, sets itself up for constant criticism. There are those people who simply do not respond well to such a mannered approach to ideas, as well as the seemingly impenetrable insularity of it all. For them, Alejandro Jodorowsky will be the poster boy for the problematic, a man obviously obsessed with death, sex, God, and man. If you take away the various visual elements, the sense of narrative experimentation and nonlinear logistics, all you’d have left is one man’s arrogant interpretation of the world around him. Thanks to surrealism and, at the same time, the counterculture movement he functioned within, this director managed a kind of miracle. He took nonsense and seriousness, reality and the ridiculous, and managed to find a way of having a crackpot combination of them all equal intelligence and insight. The proof of such an artistic triumph is located here, in this collection of brazen borderline masterpieces. If one walks away from his films, it should be an appreciation of one of medium’s forgotten renegades. He may not have been the first, but he is definitely one of the medium’s best - and most baffling.


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