You’re an Odd Man, Charlie Bronson

bronson_600

One of my favorite films of 2009 seems to have been missed by many mainstream audiences at the time. Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive) directs and Tom Hardy (Dark Knight Rises) stars in the British prison film and quasi-biopic based on the life of Charlie Bronson, Bronson (2009).

Prisoner.

Prisoner.

Actor

Actor

Now if you are like me (a.k.a. American), you are probably thinking of Death Wish (1974) star Charles Bronson (also in The Great Escape and Once Upon a Time in the West). I made the same mistake when I first heard the title.

The British Charles Bronson is infamous for being one of the most violent and most expensive prisoners in Great Britain. Born Michael Peterson, this flamboyant, mustachioed figure has become something of a celebrity from his jail cell. He was arrested in 1974 for robbing a post office and, although his original sentence was very short, he has built up his sentence through his violent, troublesome behavior in prison. He has been released a few times, but always has managed to wind up back on the inside. He is in prison today. He has spent the past 30 years in solitary confinement. He has written books about his experiences in prison and about how to keep in shape on a prison diet. Charlie Bronson, despite his propensity for violence, is a truly intriguing personality and the film, Bronson, is an immensely pleasurable romp through his brain.

08_bronson_blu-ray

I first saw Bronson at a special screening at the wonderful Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood. I had no preconceptions going in. I didn’t know much about the film before I saw it. It was a fantastic surprise. Director, Refn, and star, Hardy, answered some questions about the film following the screening. Refn wanted the film to be more of a comment or treatise on art and the artist’s struggle. Refn saw the film more as a metaphorical biopic of himself. Tom Hardy, genuinely fascinated by the real man, said he was just a very weird person, but he has his principles. It was Hardy’s goal to show the real Bronson. Refn’s skill and attention to the craft and Hardy’s fascination with Bronson was channeled into a phenomenal performance inside of a highly energetic and stylistic movie.  Refn did not set out to make a straight biopic about the famous prisoner, or even make your ordinary prison movie. And he succeeds on both counts. Bronson is a lush, kinetic descent into the odd mind of one man who is searching for something elusive and in his search sort of discovers a piece of himself.

bronson

The character of Charlie Bronson becomes a symbol for the artist’s journey. Dissatisfied and unwelcome in this confusing, ever-changing world, the extremely ambitious Bronson seeks to create his own reality within the system.

Violence is just another means of self-expression in this case. The movie takes place almost entirely inside the mind of Bronson. He stands alone on a stage in his head and recounts his story to the attentive and empathetic theater patrons of his imagination. He tells of his boyhood and the fights he would get into. He tells of his first incarceration and the wondrous freedom he discovered inside. He tells of his bare-knuckle boxing career and of the women he may have loved. He tells of his commitment—by the authorities who were confused with what to do with him—to a mental institution he did not particularly care for. He tells of the havoc he vengefully and desperately wreaked on his doctors and wardens. He pridefully tells of the mayhem and chaos he spread throughout the several prisons he was transferred to. He tells of his time in solitary confinement. And he tells of his foray into the world of art.

bronson nude

Bronson flows like a series of alternatively violent and humorous montages set to some of the best compilation of tunes you are likely to find in a single movie. A heavily drugged Bronson struggling to leave a sea of dancing loonies to the Petshop Boys “It’s a Sin” is one of the most hilarious scenes ever (and slightly reminiscent of Twelve Monkeys). The whole movie is a show and it is centered around Charlie Bronson’s (Tom Hardy’s) dynamic performance. In one minute Bronson will be bone-crunching action and in the next minute, cutting comedy…but most of the time it’s a bit of both.

There is no place in the world for a troubled artist or for Charlie Bronson because the people in  charge see the world differently and relate to it differently. What is it that either entity truly desires? Who can put words to it? Bronson is never sure what he is looking for, but he keeps looking anyway. An artist or Charlie Bronson may never hammer out the specifics of their goals, but they will constantly try to change it all and make the world make sense to them by applying their own rules to it.

bronson closeup

Why see it? The music is great and imaginatively employed. The direction and pace are dynamic and beautifully stylized. The tempo and comedy are odd and disturbing (in a very good way). And Tom Hardy’s performance is one of the zaniest and most enjoyable performances I’ve seen in years. The film is an absolute delight. At the end of the day you don’t have to know what the film was really trying to say beneath its tough, rough and tumble exterior because it’s just a really fun movie. Refn has ironically called this “man movie” a rather “feminine film” because of the themes and the way the story is told. You will simply have to watch it and see for yourself.

bronson6

After the screening at the theater I had to shake Mr. Hardy’s hand and thank him for such a wonderful show. It was a privilege I have never had before (thanking the actors of the film following the movie) and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do so with Bronson. Go watch it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 29, 2010.

Advertisements

This Island Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us: Marvin vs. Mifune

The ageless tale of survival in an unfit environment meets up with classic World War II drama in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), starring legendary international cinema tough guys, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. This film stands out because there is a slight twist to the standard war movie plot. There are only two actors for the entire film and it all takes place miles away from battle.

What have you done with Wilson?

What have you done with Wilson?

The backdrop to this cool concept and character study is an uninhabited tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Gruff screen mug, Lee Marvin (The Caine MutinyBad Day at Black Rock, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Dirty Dozen-1967, and many more man-movies), plays a nameless American pilot who has crash landed on the island, and the man from Japan, the explosive powerhouse that is Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Duel at Keymaker’s Corner, Seven SamuraiThe Samurai trilogy, Throne of BloodYojimbo, and the sword-swinging list goes on), plays the marooned Japanese navy captain.

Alone and desperate, the two testosterone-fueled brutes wage their own personal WWII on the island. Control of the beach, drinkable water, food, and supplies are the objects of their game. The winner gets to survive a little while longer. Another odd thing about this movie is that since neither character speaks the other’s language the dialogue is very minimal and unnecessary for the telling of the story. The viewer doesn’t need to know English or Japanese in order to comprehend exactly what is going on or what each character is thinking.

Mr. Lee Marvin

Mr. Lee Marvin

John Boorman (Point BlankDeliveranceZardoz, and Excalibur) directs this suspenseful and intriguing journey into the minds of these two stubborn and starving characters with much complexity and humanity. Hell in the Pacific is much more than a war movie. It’s anthropology. It’s a study of clashing cultures and a fascinating survivalist story. The American pilot (Marvin) and the Japanese naval officer (Mifune) represent a sort of microcosm for the thoughts of America and Japan during this time in history. Distrust, ethnocentrism, anger, and fear are all featured prominently in this film and capture the mindset of the time, but Boorman puts it all down to two men who are miles away from civilization. Despite their removal from all of their cultural mandates that demand they behave certain ways toward their so-called enemies, the American pilot and Japanese naval officer maintain their preconceptions and paranoia. The added complexity of their impassable language barrier makes things even more difficult to overcome. The film does not remain in this limbo of hate and fear for its entirety however.

Mr. Toshiro Mifune

Mr. Toshiro Mifune

After smoke, fire, sticks, bullets, urine, and other means of sabotage and psychological torment to undo their opponents, Lee Marvin’s character is captured by Toshiro Mifune’s character, but Marvin escapes and batters up Mifune pretty good and makes him his prisoner. The whole scenario is odd because both characters know full well that it is not accepted to take prisoners in a survival situation like this and that they are supposed to kill all enemies, but something seems to stay their hands. Could it be the fear of being truly alone? For whatever reason, they keep each other alive.

Exasperated by the increasing unlikelihood of rescue, Marvin eventually sets Mifune free and shouts “Well, do something!” Mifune is about to run away or attack, but begins to realize that Marvin has given up being a soldier. Their only real enemies right now are the ocean and the jungle. The two develop an uneasy alliance and decide they need to take matters into their own hands and find a way off the island. The only other human for miles may be an enemy—according to their respective governments—but right now they are their only chances at survival. They build a raft (after many inarticulate arguments over how to construct it) and man it together, pass the breakers, and sail on into the ocean. The movie becomes dreamlike as the days dissolve into each other and waves pound against them all night and the sun scorches them all day. Amidst it all, the two battered men begin to show each other bits of human kindness. Marvin tries to flag down a passing US plane, but Mifune stops him for fear of being killed if Americans rescue them. That’s right! —there’s a war still on.

SPOILER ALERT: if you would like the rest of the film to be a surprise and if you haven’t seen it then stop here.

Who's got the conch, now?!

Who’s got the conch, now?!

The final act and finale are also peculiar to the war genre. The two men spot another island and make way toward it. When they discover a Japanese base a rush of memory of who they both are and where they come from floods back, but they have still cultivated something of a friendship together and this supersedes their soldier duties…for the moment.

Mifune runs out to announce their presence, telling Marvin to stay hidden, but Marvin spots some US equipment and quickly realizes the Americans have captured the base so he runs out screaming not to shoot and shouting that the Japanese soldier is his friend. The base, however, is completely deserted. They clean up and shave off their unkempt beards and recline by a makeshift fire, drink sake, and glance over months-old magazines. A bit tipsy, they begin laughing like old friends (reminds me of another cultural gap crossed via alcohol—the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where the Russians dance with the Jews in the bar). The happy moment is abruptly terminated, however, when a drunken Lee Marvin starts abrasively inquiring why the Japanese don’t believe in Jesus Christ and Toshiro Mifune discovers photographs of slaughtered Japanese soldiers next to advertisements and pictures of sexy women in an American magazine. Unable to communicate, the two men begin shouting and becoming increasingly angry with one another. The animal within is back! In the distance we hear aircraft cutting through the night sky and bombs being dropped, ever gaining. Each fed up, they stand and start to leave, bitter enemies once again, but a bomb is dropped right on the deserted base by a passing plane and they are killed together. Despite all their progress, they die foolishly like enemies.

Yeah, that Life of Pi guy was a wussy.

Yeah, that Life of Pi guy was a wussy.

A puzzling ending? A maddening ending? A cop-out ending? I’ve heard it called all three and more. Maybe it is a bit of those, but I think what’s more important is what we learned and not what the characters lost. The DVD release actually features an alternate ending where they are not bombed and they just gather their things and walk off in opposite directions. The DVD also features subtitles for those curious as to what Mifune is muttering through the whole movie (most of it being a combination of “shut up” and “white beard”).

After watching Hell in the Pacific several times and watching almost everyone’s disappointment with the ending I wonder why it still doesn’t bother me so much. It may not have been the best ending, but I got so much out of watching these two characters grow, and my heart was genuinely disturbed by how fragile it all was. I knew things could never be lastingly happy between these two erratic men. Hell in the Pacific is a social and cultural character study more than a war movie and when you take it as such I think it is a much more rewarding experience. . . On another interesting note, both Marvin and Mifune served in WWII (adds another fun dimension to it all, I think).

And you thought "Saving Private Ryan" had a downer ending.

And you thought “Saving Private Ryan” had a downer ending.

Why did I like it? Well, if it’s not already obvious, I am a fan of both Lee Marvin (ever since I saw The Dirty Dozen as a kid) and Toshiro Mifune (ever since I saw Seven Samurai and started getting into Kurosawa). These are two awesome, salty, manly actors with wonderful screen presence and power. Putting them together to fight and survive on a small island Lord of the Flies-style is great. Having them teach me about another time and different mindset is just the icing on the cake. It’s a pleasure watching these two guys on film and I think the story is more than worth their efforts. It’s smart and different and I love that. I am also a fan of war movies from the 50s and 60s so that adds a lot (some of my favorites being Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, The Guns of Navarone, and The Devil’s Brigade). Hell in the Pacific easily makes my list of great must-see war movies. If you love classic war movies, Lee Marvin, Toshiro Mifune, or stories of survival than you really shouldn’t miss Hell in the Pacific. I strongly recommend it.

For another movie about WWII soldiers stuck on an island (but with vastly different themes), check out Gabriele Salvatores’ Mediterraneo (1991).

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 16, 2010.

Talking Head Tells the Truth

Awhile back I re-watched two movies that I was initially very perplexed by. When I first watched these films I found myself at once curious and fascinated, but I ultimately didn’t know what to make of them. This time around I have new-found respect and admiration for them.  The films were   Stalker (1973) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (brilliant Russian auteur) and  True Stories (1986) directed by David Byrne (of the The Talking Heads). Guess which one I’ve decided to write about.

"I am not an alien."

“I am not an alien.”

I like The Talking Heads and I like unusual movies, but even I was unprepared for the ultra-mellow of True Stories and the ineffable affability of tour guide David Byrne (who always seems like an alien trying to pass for human). As the tagline insists, True Stories is “a completely cool, multi-purpose  movie.” This uber-light foray into the realm of film by Byrne is peculiar in a very 80′s music video kind of a way. In the tradition of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), The Who’s Tommy (1975), Oingo Boingo’s Forbidden Zone (1980), and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), True Stories is a musical featuring many familiar contemporary tunes (this time by The Talking Heads).

The fictitious town of Virgil, Texas is getting ready for their Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness and ten-gallon hat wearing David Byrne can’t help but investigate and share the town and townsfolk with the audience.

TrueStories-WifeWanted

Writer-director David Byrne escorts us through the excitement and weird drama amidst the mounting anticipation for celebration all with the utmost of nonthreatening nonchalance. As he pulls into a parking lot in his red convertible, Byrne tells the audience that what’s going on inside the building behind him “might be part of Virgil’s Celebration of Special-ness. . . or it might not be.”

Byrne introduces us to many odd characters, including the lovable bachelor Louis (John Goodman); homespun voodoo doctor Mr. Tucker (Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples); idiosyncratic but passionate town leader—who is not beyond incorporating a lobster dinner into a visual balletic illustration of how everything works—Earl Culver (Spalding Gray) and his pageant-running wife—whom he never speaks to—Kay Culver (Annie McEnroe); a compulsive liar (Jo Harvey Allen); a conspiracy-theory espousing preacher (John Ingle); and Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz) who is so rich she never has to leave her bed. The movie winds up following all these characters, but perhaps centers mostly around Louis and his quest to find a wife. Byrne wanders in and out of scenes, interacting with characters as old friends or new acquaintances, and then returns to speaking directly to the audience to prepare us for the Celebration to come.

Spalding Gray's economy lesson at dinner.

Spalding Gray’s economy lesson at dinner.

Byrne seems genuinely fascinated by these strange people and their habits as the film unfolds like some sort of peculiar musical experiment in anthropology. David Byrne claimed that most of the characters of True Stories were inspired by “true stories” in local newspapers. The movie features several songs from The Talking Heads including “Wild, Wild Life,” “Dream Operator” (one of my personal favorites from the film, sung by Annie McEnroe as a parade of unusual garments advance along a local fashion runway), “Puzzling Evidence,” “Papa Legba,” “People Like Us,” and others. The film is charming and extremely off-beat in its comedy style.

So what is the film about? Is it about the town of Virgil? Is it about the music? I think more likely it is about the people that make a town. Byrne displays a weird affection for each and everyone of these people. It’s a calming feeling to simply sit back and watch people with all their quirks and foibles live happily and peacefully without real conflict. Everyone has things on their mind, but everyone also shares the anticipation for the Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness. Amidst it all they are united by one thing. Some have labeled this film a satirical parody of American small-town life that’s really having fun at the characters’ expense. I disagree. It’s not like Christopher Guest’s playful jab at small-town America in Waiting for Guffman (1996). True Stories, to me, feels like a tribute and wistful longing for the American small-town in all its idiosyncratic splendor. David Byrne (a Scotsman or possibly space alien) is celebrating the Special-ness of the American small-town, but he’s not afraid to make it an amusing or enjoyable excursion.

"It's a wild, wild life."

“It’s a wild, wild life.”

I like what Byrne says as he drives past several average suburban homes at the edge of the town. He says, “Who can say it isn’t beautiful? Sky. . . bricks. Who do you think lives there? Four-car garage. Hope, fear, excitement, satisfaction.” Some might argue that the simplistic approach comes from a place of mean-spirited irony, but I am not convinced. David Byrne makes this place a place to love. The moments where he just drives along in his red convertible with the obviously rear-projected background rolling passed are priceless, humorous, simple, and gentle. That’s the word for this movie! Gentle. It’s a quiet, funny, and gentle ride into an American small-town and we know that life will be just as fine after we leave as when we were there and before we came.

truestoriescar

True Stories is a very pleasurable cult film with much humor and warmth. It captures the attitudes of pure-hearted small-town Americans and sets it to the tempo and sentiment of many a Talking Heads tune. Fans of The Talking Heads, David Byrne, John Goodman, quirky characters, off-beat comedy, or the 80′s really ought to take the time to revisit this gentle, little film. But pay attention. Underneath much of David Byrne’s humorous deadpan narration resonates a sobering echo of tranquility; of how magical even a place as seemingly mundane as Virgil can be. To quote Bill Watterson’s cartoon creation, Calvin, “it’s a magical world, Hobbes.” I’m inclined to think David Byrne agrees.

"We're on a road to nowhere."

“We’re on a road to nowhere.”

picture references:

artoftheguillotine.com

filmfanatic.org

ytimg.com

creativebloom.co.uk

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 9, 2010.

Curio Curia

What is it about novelty exploitation cinema that tickles us so? What? You’re not tickled? Well, maybe it’s just me then.

A tumbleweed rolls by a stark western street. A buzzard caws and flaps away. A rock tumbles down a stony plateau. Suddenly, in the distance, the thunderous patter of horse hooves on the tough desert floor. A miniature carriage erupts passed a rickety wooden gate. It is pulled by a dozen adorable Shetland ponies. The diminutive driver whips the dwarf steeds to a fine halt and the little people inside disembark. It’s a wild west inhabited entirely by little people! So what do The Wizard of Oz and classic cowboy melodramas have in common? Well, if you’re referring to The Terror of Tiny Town they share a lot of the same cast (the Munchkins anyway).

Ruggero Deodato’s infamous “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980)

Curios and novelty films are generally categorized by their kookiness and, occasionally, exploitation-type setups. Exploitation cinema generally targets specific obsessions such as blaxploitation, sexploitation, nunsploitation, etc. They find a controversial theme and make the given novelty a sort of mini-genre unto itself. They went in waves…and the surf took a much harder pounding in the 1970s. There was a whole world of movies catering to all sorts of peculiar tastes and usually without the benefit of a large budget. Jungle cannibals, ethnic retoolings, vampire lesbians, shocking violence, schlocky monsters, and weird pagan rites abound in this realm.

Sometimes they weren’t just shocking or bad. I am actually particularly fond of a few of these oddball curios. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) was an all little-person cast cowboy movie and it was never meant to be a really good movie, but you know what? I liked it. Chained for Life (1951) starring the famous conjoined twins, the Hilton Sisters, and the legendary original shockumentary Mondo Cane (1962) are also worthy of a looksie in my opinion. They may not have been made to be great, but they might just still entertain you.

tiny town

The Terror of Tiny Town is a fun little western flick with all the classic twists of a full-size cowboy melodrama. This movie gets written off as a mere triviality, but it’s actually a prime example of how an endearing curio can work. There is nothing in the plot, characters, or random musical numbers that is particularly great. It’s your typically thin B-grade ’30s cowboy plot with the good guys and the bad guys, and it would be great enjoyable pulp in any size. The kicker is that its novelty makes it something of a standout. If the cast was full of big people nobody would care about this movie, but since the story has been adapted for all folks under 4′ 10″ it becomes unique. I was actually surprised the film didn’t take more cheap shots at its stars (considering it’s supposed to be an “exploitation” movie). Although scenes of ten-gallon-hat-wearing desperadoes walking underneath the saloon doors might be considered somewhat insensitive, it’s still a good joke and I do thrill at the racing Shetland pony-drawn coaches. It’s got some decent songs, laughs, action, and splosions.

What actually struck me as being more odd than a midget western, was that most of the actors had heavy German accents.

tiny town 2

As a fan of Time Bandits, For Y’ur Height Only, and Even Dwarfs Started Small I hesitate not to add The Terror of Tiny Town to my list of must-see little person movies.

Next movie! I first became acquainted with the conjoined Hilton Twins from the spectacular movie Freaks (1932), directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, The Unholy Three). They played the only thing they could play: themselves. Joined at the hip, the Hilton Twins had to do everything together. A popular vaudeville act, they were used to being billed as a novelty, but one thing you definitely notice when watching them in both Freaks and Chained for Life is that they are very natural and there really isn’t anything “freakish” about them. 

chained for life'

Chained for Life (director Harry Fraser’s last film) has Violet and Daisy Hilton starring as a conjoined Vaudeville singing act, Vivian and Dorothy Hamilton (not too big a stretch with the names there). The movie is a sort of flashback from a trial. Vivian has murdered her sister Dorothy’s husband, but the courts are not sure how to prosecute the guilty party while sparing the innocent. Through the many testimonial flashbacks we see how it all happened. Dorothy was conned into a publicity marriage by her manager (played by Allen Jenkins who I mainly remember as being the elevator guy in Pillow Talk) and a slick double-crossing stage magician, Andre Pariseau (Mario Laval). The movie depicts Dorothy’s longing to be separated so she can have a normal life; Vivian’s shrewdness and ardent distrust for Andre; and Andre’s two-timing. The courts refuse to let Dorothy obtain a marriage license because they would consider it bigamy. They are outraged, but they make it swing via an oblivious blind minister. After the publicity marriage, Andre dumps Dorothy and Vivian vengefully murders him. The film avoids resolution and instead tries to stump the audience with its bookend scenes of the judge (Norval Mithcell) openly asking the audience how he should rule.

chained shot

A few things that make Chained for Life so intriguing is how they manage to keep half the twins in the dark about certain information. Usually one has to be asleep or there’s a curtain between them. It tends to create very odd juxtapositions that almost feel like a metaphor for the dual nature of mankind. The other fun aspect of the film is the frequent use of Vaudeville acts (I suspect to pad the film to feature-length). There’s a wise-cracking juggler, a man who does bicycle stunts, and an accordion player who blasts through The William Tell Overture in record time, in addition to the Hilton Twins three duets they sing together.

It’s meant to be pulpy and forgettable, but it does delve into some fascinating subject matter regarding the lives and limitations of conjoined twins (particularly in the prudent early 1950s). All in all Freaks is a billion times better, but this is a welcome treat for people who want more of the Hilton Twins.

mondocane2

Mondo Cane (1962) is famous for being what is considered the first shock-umentary. Shockumentaries take controversial, perverse, sensational, disturbing, and yes, shocking, documentary subjects and show you, the viewer, just what kind of strange sickness exists in this world. Often times they stage much of the main action and embellish the facts to make things more than what they really are. Mondo Cane was the first and would influence a whole new genre, the most famous offspring being Faces of Death (1980) and its sequels. Cane, the product of filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi, is a warped, ironic, and actually quite humorous look into strange and disturbing customs all around the world. Where the film obtains its charm is not from its unflinching gluttony for its disturbing subject matter, but the humor it finds in juxtaposing the most bizarre and grotesque exotic rituals with more familiar “civilized” acts that mirror them. This film loves irony. Almost the whole movie could be described by a narrator saying, “You think that’s gross? Well, take a look at what your neighbor does.” The narrator is probably the best part of the movie too. He almost sounds like the guiding voice through a classic Disneyland ride like The Haunted Mansion. 

You will see pet cemeteries; people cutting their legs with broken glass as they run through the streets; geese force-fed meal all day; tribal ladies cooped up in cages and waited upon; dogs being cooked; people exalting effigies of Rudolfo Valentino; women painting their bodies blue to create “art”; a woman breastfeeding a pig; Japanese businessmen getting hosed off in a strange spa; shark torture; and much, much, much more.

mondo_cane

Although some of the movie is fabrication, that is not necessarily the point. Flaherty staged a lot for Nanook of the North (1922) to show the world what the life of an Eskimo might look like, not necessarily an Eskimo named “Nanook” specifically. Cavara, Jacopetti, and Prosperi just want to have fun at your expense and present the world as one weird, sick, funny place. More than present true realities, it wants you to reconsider your own lifestyle before judging others and it attempts to put these seemingly shocking incongruities in perspective. I may not appreciate the entire shockumentary mentality, but I did enjoy Mondo Cane.

These movies sometimes get unfairly looked down upon, but you know something? They’re still entertaining little curios, novelty or not. For singing dwarf cowboys, conjoined twin murder trials, and a buffet of international eccentricities check out The Terror of Tiny Town, Chained for Life, and Mondo Cane.

Hail to the King, Baby

Shut up!

Yeah. The title is a line from “Army of Darkness.” So what?

One of the most iconic, important, groundbreaking, and memorable movie monsters continues to be King Kong. Any way you slice it Kong is king. Unlike the more prolific Godzilla, Kong starred in only one movie. There was only one sequel (the aptly titled Son of Kong which starred his son and wasn’t as good). Many people have tried to remake King Kong from John Guillermin to Ishiro Honda to Peter Jackson. While Jackson may come closest to the original, none have been able to capture the cinematic magic and horror of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s extravagant original vision from 1933.

Fearful Wray

Fay Wray: babe of the 30s.

Merian C. Cooper, a bold adventurous man, was inspired to deviate from his wild documentaries—shot in the remotest locations and most dangerous jungles—in favor of this landmark fantasy adventure when told a story by his good friend, Edgar Wallace. Wallace was already a prolific novelist and screenwriter and his tale of a mysterious island fraught with peril and giant monsters sounded exactly like what Cooper had been looking for in his documentaries. Capturing unexplored natural dangers untethered was irresistible and teaming up with friend and producer Ernest B. Schoedsack to make this grand fictional epic was just the icing on the cake. It may come as no surprise that the main character of the wildly ambitious and peril-provoking movie director, Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), was greatly modeled after Cooper himself. . . which is also another reason I was disappointed Jack Black’s snaky performance for the 2005 version (although it is miles better than Charles Grodin’s in 1976).

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

With actress Fay Wray as the lovely damsel in distress, Ann Darrow, and Max Steiner’s grand score—that very effectively mirrored the onscreen action in addition to providing a very tone-setting overture—and actors like Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, and Noble Johnson, there was just one thing missing: Kong. In the thirties many special effects were still in their pioneering stages, and Willis O’Brien (who would later teach the great Ray Harryhausen his trade) was a no-brainer for the job. O’Brien’s magnificent special effects which brought to life the prehistoric leviathan’s of Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925) caught much attention. The finale of The Lost World, in which a brontosaurus terrorizes downtown London, would be the basis for Kong’s rampage through New York City. O’Brien, who had been having trouble and was forced to scrap several pet projects, was hired by Cooper and Schoedsack and to work they did set.

In watching Schoedsack’s earlier film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), you’ll notice not only the recurrence of Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Noble Johnson, but also many of the same sets used later in King Kong.

king_kong__1933____the_venture_crew_by_kriegdersterne77-d52mmws

Do you think they’ve spotted us?

The story is simple enough. An “enthusiastic” movie director, Carl Denham (Armstrong), wants to make the greatest wildlife documentary the world has ever seen. He wants to dazzle audiences with corners of the world never before seen by civilized men. His producers demand he get an attractive woman to throw into the picture to give it some sex appeal. Denham then takes to the Depression-era New York City streets in hopes of finding a desperate young lady who might agree to go along on their crazy expedition. He finds Ann Darrow (Wray) and they set sail for Skull Island. Let me repeat that. SKULL ISLAND. During their long sea voyage, Ann begins to fall in love with the stoic first mate, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Soon the mysterious island is spotted and they disembark to investigate. A primitive tribal ceremony is disrupted by their presence and the film crew manages to get away, but that night the tribesmen board the ship and kidnap Ann to sacrifice to their mysterious and legendary jungle god known as Kong.

It's not racist if it's film history.

It’s not racist if it’s film history 🙂

Kong shows up (in what is was of the best screen entrances of all time), but rather than kill Ann he takes her deep into the jungle. Perhaps it was merely her screams that sparked his curiosity or perhaps it was her beauty that stayed his hand. Driscoll, Denham, and the crew race into the jungle to save Ann—without any idea as to what awaits them. Inside the jungle, many men are killed by territorial and bloodthirsty monsters, dinosaurs, and Kong himself. It seems the ferocious Kong just wants some time alone to perv out with Ann, but with all the little men, dinosaurs, and giant snakes attacking, he can’t seem to get any peace with his screaming nonconsensual bride.

Kong uses some awesome boxing and wrestling moves to fight a nasty Tyrannosaurus-rex. It’s pretty cool stuff. Giant ape socking T-rex in the jaw and flipping him over? This is why fantasy was invented.

king kong t rex

Just look at how gorgeous this picture is.

There’s a lot of build-up leading to the main action, but it is all well paced and ominous. The music doesn’t even start until they get to Skull Island. Once the intrepid (and ill-fated) crew passes the ancient wall and pursues the gargantuan primate into the jungle the action is pretty quick. Stegosaurs, Brontosaurs, Ptersaurs, Tyrannosaurs, and imagined prehistoric horrors abound in the dense foliage, so there is plenty of violence. Life of Skull Island must be a nightmare.

Eventually Driscoll rescues Ann and Kong is captured (but not before he destroys the native village). Denham brings him back to New York City to show the public something they’ve never seen: Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. Long story short; Kong breaks free of his fetters in the opera house and runs murderously amok in the strange new environment, searching for Ann. Instead of giant snakes, Kong battles subway trains. Instead of vicious pterodactyls, Kong must battle biplanes. When Kong does find Ann he takes her to where he can be alone with her: the top of the Empire State Building (and in 1933 it was the tallest building in the world. How romantic). The planes come and Kong must let Ann go as he plummets to his death.

Come at me, bra.

Come at me, bra.

The special effects (although nearly a century old) still have amazing power and wonderful charm. The titanic monster battles are some of the best and most impressive ever filmed. O’Brien and his team had to invent most of the special effects shots for this film as they went along. There are scenes that feature live action people in the foreground and background, while stop-motion monsters battle in between. Plumes of steam from geysers steadily rise, stop-motion birds fly overhead, and the environments are sometimes  miniature sets that extend several feet behind the main action with painted landscape beyond that. The violence is still shocking (as when Kong chomps people in his jaws or mercilessly pummels a passenger train into dead silence), but for some reason we still love Kong. We fall in love with this big, hairy, murderous beast. Even though his performance is only the painstaking animations of a puppet, we still feel he is alive. Unlike other monster movies where we take our point of view from one of the frightened onlookers of the grisly carnage, King Kong makes the monster the central character. Kong is all alone and against the world and the movie audience, for some reason, readily embraces him.

Why you lookin' at my woman like that?

*Samuel Jackson’s monologue from Pulp Fiction*

Subsequent remakes have all tried to cast Kong as a softer, more sanitized, and sympathetic character; a misunderstood animal who the human protagonists eventually come to respect. . . and Kong only justifiably kills bad people. Remakes have cast him as a definite gorilla, but the original Kong’s species is somewhat more ambiguous.

In the original, Kong is a violent force of nature who murders indescriminately: cowering innocents; fleeing pedestrians; even the tribesmen who worshipped him. He doesn’t have a beautiful magical connection with Ann. He’s actually a bit more like a rapist. He is more lost ancient god than biological freak. Ann never warms up to Kong. None of the characters like Kong, in fact. Denham only wants to exhibit him to show the world something they’ve never seen. There is no awkward environmentalist or anti-capitalist message. To the contrary, the film is riddled with cultural ignorance, racism, sexism, and unsentimental depictions of animal cruelty (like the old Tarzan movies). It is very much an escapist product of its time, but for some reason I can forgive it all its faults just as I can forgive Kong for his incorrigible carnage. If it is unapologetic it is because it is a part of our history, and what an entertaining historical document it is.

King Kong 7

Acrophobic yet?

King Kong is easily one of the cinema’s most dazzling adventure stories. The colossal group effort of these daring men in the pioneering days of film, during a time when there was still a lot left of this earth that was unexplored, make King Kong something very special. In setting out to make an adventure movie to end all adventure movies—or maybe a monster movie to end all monster movies—I personally feel that the winning team behind King Kong succeeded with gusto. If you’ve only ever heard of King Kong as legend, myth, or saw him in any of the lesser remakes, I encourage you to revisit this fantastic classic. For my money King Kong (1933) is one of the best American movies ever made and not to be missed.

I am not an animal!

I am not an animal!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” September 25, 2009

Being an Extra

Extra! Extra!

What does the world of television look like from the background? Who are all these extra people wordlessly inhabiting these fictitious streets? How much room to breath is there in the “atmosphere?”

I am an extra person. By definition it implies I am expendable. Anybody can be me. It takes no skill and I certainly don’t put much effort forth. Don’t need to.

In TV Land there are several castes. Production and crew personnel, gaffers, makeup, costumes, the talent, the caterers, etcetera, but beneath all of these tiers is the extra…and beneath that seemingly final rung lurks the non-union extra (beneath that there is only the non-union spec who gets turned away). The entertainment world and its hierarchy of calculated arbitrariness is a twisted, haunted safari and being an extra can sometimes feel like swimming with man-eating sharks.

I am writing this because I cannot sleep. I have a call time that requires me to be up at 5 am tomorrow morning and so in preparation for my necessarily near-nocturnal departure I attempted to go to bed early. Mistake. When the body clock is so in tuned with going to bed at a certain hour, it takes more than simple logic to shut it down prematurely, hence my nightly restlessness. If I could even now forcibly bring about a state of dreamless unconsciousness I might be able to squeeze in 3 hours of stressless bliss. Doubtful.

Being an extra can give one much stress. One has to be on set early and ready and one must be able to locate the set and not get lost. One must be prepared to wait for hours on end in seedy, uncomfortable rooms or sometimes one gets put outside in plastic chairs beneath feverishly rigged awnings. One must deal with being yelled at by production and bossed about by malcontented wranglers and one must be prepared to “act.” And one must be prepared to suck fumes from LA’s gloriously carcinogenic atmosphere for hours in congested traffic to and from set.

familiar iconI have observed legendary cinematographers at work from only inches away. I have been manhandled by Hollywood celebrity waxworks. I have been scorned by Oscar winning costumers. I am an extra. I am faceless, disposable, and insignificant. You haven’t lived until you’ve “crowd tiled” in the Coliseum, friend.

The plus side? The food is good. Strike that. It’s downright great sometimes.

I realized something when I said a surprising thing on the last commercial shoot I was on. I was asked to walk into frame and sit down (in the background of course), but I had to squat so I could not be seen by the camera at first. I squatted uncomfortably (I also had to remove my shoes so I would not make footsteps) and then one of the crew graciously offered me an apple box to sit on. I was deeply moved and thanked him and one lady—who had been rather grouchy to me the whole day—gazed over her Versace shades to express surprise that I might presume I would be forced to squat, barefoot on some tangled wires. I looked at her and half-jokingly muttered, “I’m used to being mistreated.”

That was a shocker to myself as much as anyone who heard it and gave a crap. Maybe more. “I’m used to being mistreated.” Was I? Had I just been conditioned to know that I am bottom rung fish filth on set? I thought back. I had gotten used to scorching in the sun for hours at a time, sitting in concrete holding rooms for hours, eating last, and being yelled at for bizarre things no natural person would presuppose. Being an extra and being in show business is not natural. It is all artifice and frequently unpleasant. Sure, there had been some good shoots where I wasn’t treated like a parrot turd with a number on it, but on the whole being an extra had not been worth it.

I gazed into the eyes and face of the lead actor for this last particular ad. I was sitting right next to him and was asked to stare stone-faced at him while he ad-libbed some lines. He was a talented fellow. A nice man and a funny man, but I could not help but shake one persistent feeling: this is what I am striving for? As an extra you come to meet thousands of folks with similar hopes and aspirations. They come from all over the globe to this hub. Here at entertainment’s central nerve a lowly extra can dream of one day being randomly selected to give a line in a TV show or a movie. For many this is the equivalent of drinking ambrosia from the skull of a manatee. Many times, that is the highlight of their on-camera career too. They work to be one day seen or heard, even if only briefly and vast numbers never even get that fleeting moment, that moment where they feel somewhat important and more than an extra.

How sad.

I watched the man perform next to me. He had achieved what most extras will only ever wish for. He was the lead actor in a commercial that will be seen by a few people as they flip through the stations for a few months and then it will most likely be burned. How fleeting even that is. I was also struck by how unappealing it all looked up close. He was saying some condensed gibberish to entice people to purchase another dumb product and he had to do it over and over and over again for 8 hours. All this with a camera 6 inches from his face.

It didn’t strike me as fun like the freebie acting I have enjoyed for independent and student shorts and stage. But I know what most people would say: “You’ve got to be willing to lower yourself and your standards in the beginning.” But why? And to what end? After a long week I went to the movies and I saw a film that featured the big name actors; the household name actors. What acting were they doing in this “more reputable” venue? They were selling a movie. They were not telling a story by crafting great characters, they were simply involved in another, much longer ad. And I bought it…at first.

St. Augustine said, “the Church is a whore, but she is also my mother.” I say, “Hollywood is a whore…also it’s an abusive step-dad with a drinking problem.” There does not seem to be much reason to bend over and take it from mainstream entertainment. I see no fulfillment in it. I see only greed and headache.

Perhaps I am being unfairly cynical. The food is really good.

Maybe extras deserve to be pushed around and looked down upon. Most of them are terrible people. But it goes without saying that most people are terrible people. I’m not sure, however, if there is a more whiny, discontented person with panache for cheap fibbery and braggadocio than the TV extra. Everyone’s got a story about how they only do it sometimes when things get slow because they really all have a script being considered by Fox or some obscure Australian production company or they used to have the number one hit single in Fiji. Heck, even I have similar stories, but who are we really trying to fool? Other bottom-rung non-union extras? Even our peers we must make lower than us?and we even come in inflatable form

I’ve come to understand that almost everyone in the entertainment industry has the spiritual gift of unconditional falsehood weaving, but it surprises even me who we all want to impress. We all want to be important and so we lie. We all believe that somehow the dead-end tedium of extra-ing will one day lead to better things. We all desperately hope that the next call will be the last one we have to do and that maybe there will be chairs in the holding room and maybe the wranglers will be nice to us.

Everyone in Hollywood is sick. Everyone down the ladder from the pigs at the top to the refuse at the bottom. Everyone except the caterers, God bless ’em.

I say this world is a haunted safari. You go there expecting to see elegant and exotic mega-fauna; the wild beasts of myth. But what you discover is a land of ghosts. The animals are transparent and they’re giving off bad vibrations. The lions and tigers are fake, but they still think they can fool you up close. The wild elephants are skeletons here and we are all blood-sucking mosquitoes searching for an artery on a dry scapula. To what end? To be a bony behemoth like them? Maybe so…because we know we might look like something from a safe distance to strange anonymous folk. Then we can fool them too and imagine we truly are something.

Alice in Svankmajerland

I once had a double-feature with this movie and The Happiness of the Katakuris. It was epic, I tell you.

Curiouser and curiouser!

As some held their breath in eager anticipation to see what director Tim Burton (Batman, Ed Wood) would do to Lewis Carroll’s much-celebrated—and oft times committed to celluloid—classic novel, I recalled an earlier adaptation: Jan Svankmajer’s  Alice (aka Neco z Alenky) (1988). If you are like me and hated the Burton incarnation then maybe you should check this one out.

Don't be scared.

Here’s Alice…

I am a huge fan of Lewis Carroll’s work and both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) and am always excited to see another artist’s take on the strange tale. The earliest film adaptation I’ve seen was Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland which was made in 1903. It’s a charming short film with some interesting effects. The most famous version is probably Walt Disney’s 1951 animated classic. The Disney cartoon is full of wonderful colors and imaginative surprises and deserves its slot next to Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) as some of Disney’s finest animated achievements (those are my personal favorites anyway). Lewis Carroll’s book has been filmed so many times and has employed the aid of such talents as Peter Sellers, W. C. Fields, Kate Beckinsale, Gene Wilder, Johnny Depp, and even once scored by Ravi Shankar, but perhaps the most innovative and fascinating take on this treasured story is from the soil and pipe-filled mind of surreal Czech animator, Jan Svankmajer (Faust, Conspirators of PleasureLittle Otik, and Lunacy).

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

As a fan and follower of Mr. Svankmajer and a great admirer of his aforementioned features and short subject works (The Ossuary, Dimensions of Dialogue, Down to the Cellar, Et Cetera, etc.), I can honestly say that Alice (1988) is my favorite of his. Despite the stylistic liberties the jarring and idiosyncratic director takes, Svankmajer stays surprisingly true to the spirit and the plot (or plotlessness) of Carroll’s book—it does lack the poetry and clever wordplay, but Svankmajer employs his own unique brand of humor and wit. Those of you familiar with the story of Alice and her adventures will recall it all began when Alice followed a little white rabbit down a tunnel where she became suddenly immersed in a world of nonsense. By combining live action (mostly the part of Alice played by Kristyna Kohoutova) and brain-bending stop-motion, Svankmajer fashions a dark, near-nightmarish world fashioned from earth, termite-ridden wood, peeling paint, drafty basements, sawdust, animal skeletons, rotting meat and vegetables (all his favorite obsessions).

alice cookies

Magic cookies!

The White Rabbit is a taxidermy beast with bug-eyes, a velvet hat and coat, and a huge rip in his chest that bleeds wood chips and sawdust (so he fastens himself shut with a safety pin, licks clean his pocket watch, and scurries off hastily). Alice pursues the White Rabbit across a barren field of plowed dirt where she crawls into a writing desk and emerges in a dank, winding basement. She tumbles through the floor, takes a dark, ramshackle elevator passing skulls and jars of preserved foods. Alice grows big and small in a tiny, dirty room while she sobs about not being able to get into the beautiful garden on the other side of the door. Alice is harassed by an army of animals sculpted from the mismatched bones and bits of strange creatures, crockery, and other taxidermy critters. She frequently becomes a toy doll during the course of her journey as well. Alice enters a room full of tube socks burrowing through the wooden floors whilst she converses with a denture-wearing “Caterpillar.” She participates in a hallucinatory tea party with the wind-up March Hare and wooden, obsessive-compulsive Mad Hatter. She accepts the Fish Footman’s invitation and is placed on trial before the Queen of Hearts where a most nonsensical proceeding follows.

Bwahahahaha!

Bwahahahaha!

There is no music and almost no dialogue—every spoken word is uttered by Alice herself and the camera cuts away to an extreme closeup of Alice’s mouth reciting “said the white rabbit/caterpillar/mad hatter, etc.”

Did I molt again?

Did I molt again?

Svankmajer does little to alter the story, but his visuals are not exactly inspired by Sir John Tenniel. The oneiric atmosphere is startling and disturbing. It’s a film you can almost taste and feel underneath your fingernails. Watching Alice is like watching a tapeworm choke out a mouse dressed as the pope, it’s disgusting but at the same time immensely unique and sort of funny. Svankmajer is a master of textures (and none of them smooth or soft). He likes the dirt and pine needles strewn about the floor and the coming of the maggots when the meat turns rancid. These are fascinating subjects that he explores in many of his works. Svankmajer seems to like to give every minuscule object a history and past. Every nick in the chair, every bit of mold in the drain, every stain on the wall, or gnawed bit of turnip tells a story and makes the atmosphere alive and dense in an almost too vivid and unsettling way. He is a filmmaker you will either love or hate. His visuals are potent. His comedy is dark and strange. His sound effects are abrasive and tinny. And his take on Alice might be the most original.

"Time's fun when you're having flies." ---Kermit the Frog

“Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” —Kermit the Frog

If you don’t like uncooked steaks scuttling across a shelf or for bread to sprout nails when you try to bite it or if the thought of a mouse pounding spikes into your head and building a fire in your hair bothers you, then perhaps this movie is not for you. If you don’t like the taste of sawdust, ink, or fruit jams filled with tacks then maybe you should watch something else. If dark, enclosed, cold spaces full of bony creatures lurking in the corners aren’t your cup of tea then I suggest you do something else with your time. HOWEVER, if you are bold and adventurous and willing to experience a different type of filmmaking then I hesitate not to recommend this brilliantly bent masterpiece of the surreal. For tickets to live in the wet and warped mind of Jan Svankmajer for an hour and a half, find a copy of Alice (1988). You’ll never forget where he takes you. Consider yourself warned. Now go with my blessing.

Keep your temper.

Keep your temper.

And for godsakes, skip the Burton one.

alice test gif

SHIRT?

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 16, 2010.