Bad Cinema: The Exorcist (Dir: William Friedkin, 1973)

 “Do you know what she did? Your cunting daughter?”

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My father turned to me, slightly embarrassed but full of paternal conviction. “I’m not going to lie to you, Jonathon. Sex is a beautiful thing.” I was 10 years old.

This comment didn’t come from nowhere. Saint John Neumann, my Catholic grade school, had a Sex Ed program that started in the 5th grade. Our very prim and proper teacher, Mrs. Stahlhut, looked up from her notes and surveyed the nervous, eager eyes of her students and announced very calmly, placing palm in palm, that “sexual intercourse occurs when the male places his penis inside the female’s vagina.” I had already known the ins and outs (so to speak) of coitus for about a year after my friend Kevin had come back from his annual trip to Florida to tell us with glee that he had bought a condom in a gas station bathroom. We giggled in that way that kids do when they are too ashamed to admit they have no idea what their friends are talking about. And then asked. Ooooohhh. Sex had become a part of my life education early on and there was no turning back.

So when at 14 I begged my relatively progressive mother to watch The Exorcist, despite its crude sexuality, she conceded. As long as I watched it with her. And we watched it during the day. Which I think was more for her benefit than mine.

I had been watching “inappropriate” things with Betty for a while before that. On my and Stephen’s overnight excursions to our grandmother’s, we would have Freddy Krueger marathons, capped by a double dose of American Gladiators and The Jerry Springer Show; The Exorcist felt like one of the few things I HADN’T seen (that is, until I became an adult and saw Sweet Movie and Salo… you want to talk about shocking!…)

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I distinctly remember that first viewing of The Exorcist: my mom and I on the living room couch, surrounded by our golden retrievers; Pazuzu wasn’t getting anywhere near the Saias. I remember being underwhelmed and disgusted, understanding why it was acclaimed, but never needing to see it again.

And then I became obsessed with the film; its edginess, its terror, its legend. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I got the Special Edition VHS for my birthday, complete with the hour long documentary. I purposefully watched it on evenings when I was home alone and could be terrified by the reclusive silence of our two and a half acres and the dark corridors of our two story, open concept home, as the THX shook the walls, hoping the Devil, an entity I didn’t even really believe in, wasn’t lurking about to possess me. The film had achieved its desired effect.

I saw The Version You Have Never Seen Before in theatres and remember being livid at the stupid teenagers that thought it was hilarious. How are you not terrified? How are you not in awe of Friedkin’s magic?! I was so angry I actually called out to the other patrons, those disrespectful mongoloids, to “Shut the fuck up!” Which met with even more laughter.

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And then something happened a few years back. I started to see the film for the mess it is, started oscillating between “masterpiece” and “train wreck”. I have watched this film at least a dozen times and I sadly must settle on the latter. The worst thing is that Friedkin is not (entirely) to blame (For Friedkin at his daring best, see Bug and the amazing Killer Joe; for Friedkin at his camp best, see Cruising…). The shots are gorgeous, the choice of music is inspired, and the lengths to which he went to achieve the special effects and to get some of the performances are legendary (to get the actors’ breaths to show on camera, he built Regan’s room inside a giant freezer; he routinely would fire guns on set to elicit reactions…). But it all climaxes to a giant so-what. The problem with The Exorcist is the script.

First off, I have never read William Peter Blatty’s novel, based on the real life 1949 “possession” of 13 year old “Roland Doe,” so if fans want to give him praise for his adaptation, this would fall on deaf ears. Secondly, I am an atheist who finds the epic battle of “good” vs. “evil” as somewhat ridiculous; so any “spiritual catharsis” found within is also a moot point. However, neither of those things should matter. When taken solely as a film, the screenplay is a patchwork of BS weaving the preposterous with the mundane.

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Let’s address the “reasons” behind Regan’s possession. He suggests that “Captain Howdy” (Regan’s name for Pazuzu) entered her during a game of Ouija. But then we have all of this drama about Regan’s absent father. Are we supposed to think this made her soul vulnerable to possession? Is it really necessary for us to see Chris cussing him out on the phone because he forgot her birthday? Only for us to get a shot of Regan looking distant and numb? Oh, but this is supposed to be an explanation for her outrageous behavior! She heard her mother cussing and is pissed about not having a father (although Linda Blair never for a second plays the pre-possession Regan as having any kind of animosity for her mother or their divorce) that makes her scream obscenities at priests? OK….And why is her possession so lengthy!? If a spirit, particularly a demon spirit, is going to enter you while playing a board game by Milton Bradley, why is it biding its time? It would come in and get down to business. You’re telling me the Devil is going to luxuriously wait for people to think he is in charge when he has an entire world to dominate? Hell, no. Especially when he isn’t even after Regan.

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The beauty of The Exorcist lies in the performance of Jason Miller as Father Karras, the psychiatrist/priest who loses his faith when his mother dies. Throughout his interactions with Pazuzu, Karras’ faith is not strengthened but completely eradicated. The Demon knows every button to push to send him over the edge, appearing as an apparition of his mother and telling us some of the nasty things she is doing to the other people in Hell. Blatty is painting a morality tale that basically says, “If you turn your back from God for even a second, the Devil will come in and destroy you.” And he does. Karras’ death can be read two ways: One, when The Demon enters him, Karras voluntarily throws himself out the window to “kill” Pazuzu. Or when Karras becomes possessed, Pazuzu throws Karras’ body out the window to kill him. Seeing how the death of the physical body would not kill a spirit, one has to go with the latter: The Devil, 1; Karras, 0.

The problem with the film being about the dangers of losing one’s faith is that it makes Regan and her mother pawns in a very elaborate chess game. The Devil chooses Regan because her soul is weakened by the divorce and she invites in danger by playing Ouija (and she has no religious beliefs so is ripe for the picking). And then uses Regan to lure in the services of Father Karras in order to win his soul. Why not just possess Karras? Or Chris! She is a famous movie star! Imagine if he could make her do his bidding? Get people on board with the Satanic Gospel!? Think of it. Julia Roberts getting on YouTube preaching about the benefits of a godless world? What is going to affect the most people? And if Satan’s goal is world domination, why would he try and win soul by soul? Why is Karras so special to get the Devil’s undivided attention? “You can’t rationalize the acts of Satan, Jonathon!” Well, I am calling bullshit. It seems counter-productive and sloppy. If he is the Prince of Darkness maybe he needs to be dethroned.

Is her possession meant to teach Regan and Chris to also believe in God? Maybe Blatty chose for a non-religious child to be possessed so Regan and Chris could also believe. Is he using Old Scratch to make a larger point about the importance of religious conviction? Whatever his intentions, the message is muddled and convoluted, and frankly doesn’t even make for very compelling drama. There is suspense and their is filler. Why do we need the scene on the movie set? To see Father Karras in the audience and to use “Tubular Bells” on her walk home? Why do we need Chris’ party and the drunken showdown between Burt and Chris’ German servant? Or the relationship between Kinderman and Karras? Why do we need all of this ridiculous banter between Regan and Chris, stealing the cookies from the cookie jar and talking of buying horses and sight seeing in Georgetown (a smart cut from the original film)? To show the ominous under the innocuous. Blah. Blatty is building all of this suspense to have us somehow feel sorry for Chris and Regan when we don’t; unless the film is really about the loss of Regan’s innocence.

Forget for a moment that all of the drama happens with Karras and just focus on the Chris/Regan dynamic. Chris is a single mom raising a daughter who is, presumably, going through puberty. Regan is acting out, cursing, moody, taking on a different, practically split personality, while fixating on sex; sounds like a typical teen to me! Maybe The Exorcist is partially an allegory for the growing pains of adolescence and how the sweet little angels our children once were slowly, then all of a sudden, turn into these demonic creatures we no longer recognize. Maybe this is why I initially adored the film, paralleling my own love for my parents and the middle finger attitude that comes with being a teen hell-bent on “controversial” antics. Maybe I am reaching and it is all claptrap.

One thing is for certain: sex is at the heart of The Exorcist, particularly the idea that sex is dirty and comes from the Devil.

Let’s look at the litany of “offenses” that Regan commits while possessed:

1) Masturbation (with a crucifix, no less)
2) Telling her mother to lick her vagina and then forcing her to do it
3) Moving her tongue in a lascivious manner at a priest
4) Telling said priest that his mother sucks cocks in Hell
5) Demanding that the two priests fuck each other
6) Desecrating the statues in the church, giving them giant claw like phalluses

Really? This is all the Devil, in his infinite power, has? Insults and lewd gestures? Lame!

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If the idea of sexual repression (and sexual expression as sin) were not on the forefront of Blatty’s mind, then this is the most obvious accident in the history of the cinema. For a boy who was taught that sex was a beautiful thing not only from his parents, but that it was a gift from God, this damning of sexuality is palpable and very Vatican I.

The Exorcist, inexplicably, went on to net a total of 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, becoming the first horror film to do so. This could partially be explained by the mania. The Exorcist was billed as the scariest film of all time, complete with vomit bags in the theatre (what William Castle must have thought!); lines were around the block and it had become a cultural phenomenon, grossing almost 200 millions dollars in 1973 money. But The Exorcist was also singled out because Friedkin’s previous film, The French Connection, had won a total of five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. All three principal actors in The Exorcist, despite dangerously veering into camp on more than one occasion, were nominated (Burstyn losing to Glenda Jackson for A Touch of Class; Blair losing to another child star, Tatum O’Neal for Paper Moon; and Miller to John Houseman for The Paper Chase) as was Friedkin (who lost to George Roy Hill for The Sting, that year’s Best Picture). The only two awards it did win were for Sound Mixing (a much deserved accolade) and, ironically, for Blatty’s Screenplay. The only award it should have won was for Jason Miller’s touching portrayal of the afflicted (and conflicted) Father Karras; he grounds the film throughout its foolishness with a sense of melancholic hope.

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As all hits, particularly successful horror films, are prone to do, The Exorcist was followed up with two sequels and two prequels. Exorcist II: The Heretic, directed by John Boorman in 1977, was universally panned and is easily one of the worst sequels, if not one of the worst movies, ever made. Oscar winner Louise Fletcher and seven time nominee Richard Burton play Regan’s psychiatrist and a priest who is sent to investigate the death of Father Merrin, respectively. Burton knows that Regan knows what happened and Fletcher is afraid that if he unlocks those memories, she will lose her shit, maybe even kill herself. But Regan already remembers everything. So she agrees to hook up to this machine that allows the participants to telepathically “see” each others’ memories (you just have to go with it…) so Burton can travel to Africa to visit a guy (James Earl Jones!) who once defeated Pazuzu and learn how to slay the demon once and for all. If the Razzies had been around, Richard Burton and Linda Blair most certainly would have been nominated. He is hysterically over the top while she is attempting to be earnest to hilarious results. And Louise Fletcher is flatlining in her thankless role. If the script of The Exorcist is a mess, Exorcist II’s script is a goddamn catastrophe. This is an actual exchange:

“What’s the matter with you?” (says a little autistic girl who is also been treated at the counseling center)
“Oh, I was possessed by a demon…but don’t worry. He’s gone now.”

But fear not, fans of BAD CINEMA. Exorcist II, while indeed horrible, rightfully shamed for its infamous status as tripe, and yes, recommended by yours truly for its sheer camp factor (however, you may need some sort of “assistance” to make it through…) is by no means the worst film in the series. That dubious distinction belongs to both of the prequels.

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Why are there two prequels you may ask? Well, because when Paul Schrader delivered Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist to Morgan Creek Productions, they thought it was garbage and feared that people would stay away in droves. It was not the thriller they had hoped for, instead being a very slow “cerebral” piece of introspection of Father Merrin’s first experience with Pazuzu in Africa, post-WWII. So they hired the guy who made Cliffhanger to come in and take a second pass at the material and amp up the action. Which resulted in an even worse film. So instead of shelving them both, Warner Bros. RELEASED both, making The Exorcist look like the masterwork most people think it is.

But the greatest film in the series is easily The Exorcist III. Why? Because it is actually a thriller.

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George C. Scott plays Lt. Kinderman, the investigating detective and Karras’ friend from the original film. For the past 15 years, he and Father Dyer (Karras’ confident and fellow priest also from the original) have commemorated Karras’ death with a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life (isn’t that ironic!) and a bite at their favorite coffee shop. But this year, the Gemini Killer (an obvious rip on the Zodiac) has returned to strike again, even though he died…15 years ago. Could Karras be the Gemini Killer? Blatty adapted the screenplay from his own sequel novel, Legion, and ended up directing when Friedkin dropped out. Blatty turned in an edge of your seat film, full of twists and turns and great parallels to the original material (Blatty had nothing to do with Exorcist II so he treated it, like Moustapha Akkad had done with Halloween III: Season of the Witch, as if it had never existed). The only thing that rings false or forced about The Exorcist III is…well, the exorcism. That’s because it was never supposed to be included. Morgan Creek made him add one because what’s an Exorcist movie without an exorcism? The Exorcist covers that ground more than sufficiently (as do the million rips off) so to insert it at the end of The Exorcist III was ridiculous and pointless. And Blatty knew it. He apparently wanted to restructure the film in a director’s cut, but the footage had all “gone missing”. Somehow George C. Scott was nominated for a Razzie against Stallone for Rocky V….which is ludicrous. His performance is fantastic. A tad overblown at times, but not outside of the demands of the material.

If you’ve never seen The Exorcist, by all means, see it. It is a piece of iconic cinematic history. And even as I write, I have a yearning to give it one more shot. It is one of the only films that no matter how many times I have seen it, no matter how many times I have been disappointed by it, I always go into a viewing with eager eyes and an earnest hope that I will return to its glorious splendor (call it, the Eyes Wide Shut syndrome…). Some of the scenes with Karras and Regan are still spectacular; the sound effects are fantastic. But is it the masterpiece it is touted as? Is it the “scariest and greatest horror film of all time”? Not by a long shot (although I’m not sure what would hold that distinction…Halloween? The Silence of the Lambs? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Alien?). And yet its power demands, one could even say possesses me to hop in my car, drive to the library, and watch it this very second. Or, Hell, buy the damn thing (again) so I can watch it on a loop and unravel its mystery.

Damn you, Papa Friedkin. Damn you.

Is The Exorcist a Car Crash, Colonoscopy, Berkley, or Kardashian?
***CAR CRASH (perhaps the biggest one Bad Cinema has ever had)***

What are your thoughts on The Exorcist? What do you think is the scariest movie of all time?

Her House, Her Rules: Why Your Feelings Toward Miley Cyrus Say More About You than Her

Lady Gaga must be pissed.

After all the hype, all the preparation, and after turning in a fantastic performance, the only thing anyone is talking about is Miley Cyrus‘ tongue.

The Internet is agog with commentary about Miley’s “lewd” performance. Everyone from Vanity Fair to the Parents’ Television Council (“Heads should roll at MTV”) to Robin Thicke’s mother (“I can never unsee it!”) are chiming in to complain about the ex-Disney star-gone-bad’s twerking ways. She’s lost her mind! She is raping black culture! She is a bad influence! And frankly, I am really tired of it.

Let’s think for a moment about where it was performed: the MTV Video Music Awards. In case, you have never tuned into MTV in the 30 years it has been on the air, it is a highly sexualized network that has always pushed the levels of taste and decorum because, why? It is marketed for teenagers; the demographic whose job it is to push the levels of taste and decorum.

Concerned parents everywhere are pacing in their K-Mart best about the sexual messages Miley was sending their children through her scantily clad outfits and lascivious grinding on Robin Thicke. She is telling our daughters to go out and have sex! This may come as a shock to you, but your kids already want to have sex. Some of them may even want to have sex with Robin Thicke (and with a name like “thick” possibly more than you think…). Miley Cyrus, nor Madonna, nor Lady Gaga, nor Katy Perry, nor Rihanna, nor any other pop star past present or future is going to change the fact that your teenage girls (and some of your boys) are dreaming of dick.

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But let’s address the real issue here: no one would give a damn about this performance if Miley Cyrus were not already known as a plucky good girl that worked for Disney. We have heard this argument so many times before: Zac Efron. Lindsay Lohan. Chris Brown. Amanda Bynes. Britney Spears. Mary-Kate Olsen. Jodie Sweeten. Macaulay Culkin; child stars who strayed from their child star images of innocence, morphing into people that children “should no longer look up to.”  And you know what, maybe they shouldn’t. But you know what else is also true? These people are NO LONGER CHILDREN. Parents want these “role models” to always stay “role models” for their children, neglecting the fact that their squeaky clean images were fabricated for them by a very large, very rich corporate machine whose only concern is to make their very large, very rich corporate machine even bigger and more wealthy. And in case you don’t remember what it is like to be 20, it is actually quite different than being 13. People evolve, people change.

And I am not arguing that these metamorphoses are always for the better; Chris Brown definitely hit a snag in judgement and who knows what the hell snapped inside Amanda Bynes. But besides having their every move captured and studied and ridiculed, they are no different than your own children. Your own children are going to do irresponsible things, have sex with people that maybe they shouldn’t, and they are even going to do drugs, no matter how many lyrics you demand to be bleeped from the broadcast; these are all parts of growing up. And this is where parents need to look hard in the mirror. Maybe you care so much about how someone else’s child is maturing because you don’t want to deal with your own child’s maturation. Think about that and get back to me.

Did Miley “embarrass” herself by dancing around the stage in a nude bikini, tongue a-flapping? Maybe. From this side of the TV, it was kind of hilarious. But obviously she was having a great time. And the kids in the front row, the ones for whom it was meant, were having a great time. So everybody else can scowl from the sidelines if they want. Miley is not crazy. She is like every other college aged kid with the added hindrance/benefit of having a national stage to act out. Until she starts smashing in parked cars with umbrellas, dousing her dog in lighter fluid, getting arrested for DUIs, or beating the shit out of her boyfriend, I think she is doing OK.

So forget the haters, Miley. Only God can judge you. Remember. It’s you who owns the night.

How to Survive College

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I started college ten years ago. I was a punk-ass 19 year old who thought he knew everything; oh, how life bites you in the ass.

Over the past few years, I have worked with a number of high school kids and have always tried to impart the knowledge I wish I had known when I was their age. Some of them listen intently, others just roll their eyes in that punk-ass way that 19 year olds do.

So I have decided to commit my advice to writing. These are the hard knock lessons I have learned that if you take to heart, I promise will make your transition to adulthood simpler.

1) Apply for every single scholarship you can.

This is first because it is absolutely the most important. Nothing shackles you for life more than the oppressive burden of student debt. These are the only loans that are NOT bankruptable. I don’t care how many essays you have to write or how much it cuts into your friends-forever-daydream called your senior year of high school. Do. It. Trust me. And if are applying for loans, which most of you will be, use private loans as a last resort. Their interest rates are higher and they are ruthless.

2) Work.

So you have gotten a bunch of scholarships and took out federal loans. Great. You are already ahead of the curve. But those loans have expiration dates. You have roughly nine months post-college graduation to get your life together before those letters start coming in the mail from Uncle Sam, asking for his money back. So I don’t care how many classes you are taking nor how important you think your social life is. Get. a. Job. Any job! Maybe it is a student worker program at your school that deducts some of your tuition in lieu of pay. Even better! Anything to get that tuition down to a minimal balance. Oh, and if you are getting loans, chances are you will have taken out more than you actually need, which means the loan company will cut you a refund check. Do yourself a favor and send this money right back to them. This is not free money! The more you borrow, the higher your balance; the higher the balance, the higher the interest payments. And if you aren’t aware, the interest is what is paid first. If you have extra money to pay the loan companies (even if it is just rounding up to the nearest dollar), do it. Anything that you pay over your minimum payment gets accredited to your balance and not the interest.

3) Start a savings account.

OK. So a large chunk of your tuition has been taken care of via scholarships and the rest is being paid for by low-interest, federally subsidized loans AND you have a job so you don’t have to keep the extra money the loan company is sending you. You are off to a good start. What to do with all of that money you are making at the Gap? Well, since you will more than likely have no bills because your meals are rolled into your tuition, your books and incidentals are paid for by your parents, and you are still on your parents’ insurance should you happen to fall ill (a blessing taken far too for granted…), the only thing you really have to spend your money on is…you. So invest it in yourself. Take 10% of every paycheck and put it in a savings account that you will not touch. Imagine how much you will have after four years. This money can be used to pay off your first few months of student debt while you are looking for that dream job.

4) Get an internship.

The fallacy of the American Dream is that it is easy. Anyone from humble beginnings can become successful, can become a star! Why even the next President of the United States! And while all of this is true, the untold truth is that there is A LOT OF WORK involved in the process. My generation, Gen Y, were raised to think that we were special, that the world was ours for the taking, that we would essentially be handed our dreams on a silver platter. We wanted our MTV and we wanted it now! A whole village of the damned of Veruca Salts. Well, the truth is that no one owes you diddly shit. You have to earn it. If you want something you have to put in your 10000 hours. And the best way to do this is to get an internship. You are right in the middle of the universe in which you want to belong with the people who can help you gain employment. You are honing your craft on a daily basis. Get one. This may be the single most important thing you do in college for your post-college career. Other than graduate.

5) Study abroad.

So you know those dreams you have of back-packing through Europe or visiting the Congo or seeing the Great Wall of China? Newsflash. You will probably NEVER do them. Once you get out of college, you are entering the very scary, very mundane, very busy adult world of Work, which you will be a part of for at least 50 more years. Your finances will be tight. What with your student debt, your apartment payments, your car note, your insurance, your food costs, and the very rapid probability of marriage, children, and pets, vacations where you run off to see the world are just not going to happen. So do them in college. Study a semester in Spain. Volunteer for the summer in Zimbabwe, building houses. Teach English to kids in China.

6) See a shrink.

College is much more about discovering who you are than what they teach in books. So go visit the counselor. Everybody’s got that something. That scar that won’t heal. That behavior that won’t change. Start the process now. Believe me. It’s much easier than in your late 20s.

7) Sleep around.

In keeping with your self-discovery, learn what excites you sexually.  Sexuality is a crucial, natural, and beautiful part of the human experience. Live out your fantasies! Discover your boundaries. And crush them. Not only will your adventures make fascinating tales, but you will improve your game. Sex is a skill. It is not a talent. And practice makes perfect. And once you get married, (usually) that is the end of the line. You will be sleeping with one person for the REST OF YOUR LIFE. Think about that. Sleeping with the same person hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. Don’t be left with a handful of coulda-shoulda-wouldas. Besides. Promiscuity helps hone your creativity, which is necessary to sustain a long term relationship. (*Note: with sexual freedom comes sexual responsbility: wrap it up, fellas. And ladies, get on the pill; nothing sends life to a screeching halt faster than a screaming baby)

8) Go home.

Yes, you are an “adult” now. Yes, you don’t need your mother’s hugs the way you used to. But she needs them. And deep down, so do you. Going home, or at least calling home once a week, grounds you in the past and what that meant/means to you (which helps you move to the future while you are in therapy).

9) Figure out a back-up plan.

Life is really easy to plan on paper. But somewhere along the line, a pigeon will swoop down, shit on it, and the garbage man will take it away to the dump to be eaten by rats. A back-up plan is absolutely necessary. Especially if you are trying to be an artist (by the way, if you are trying to be an actor, particularly a musical theatre actor, perhaps a four year degree is not the best way to go. Unless you are going to Juilliard or Carnegie-Mellon, nobody really gives a damn; just be talented. Just go to New York, take dance classes at BDC, acting classes at Michael Howard, and audition for everything). And artists, if you want to paint, write, make movies, tell jokes, don’t just talk about doing them. DO THEM! Find an open mic, start a blog, buy a canvas, and shoot shorts on your iPhone. There is no excuse good enough why you cannot work on your craft. In order to be successful, you MUST commit full time until someone else starts paying you to do what you love. In the meantime, do your part. And find a job that pays well enough that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself. (Catering isn’t awful – you don’t work for tips and you always get fed…)

10) Say yes.

So much of your life post-college is going to be regimented, sometimes beyond your control. College is your opportunity to try new things, go new places, meet new people, and learn new things about yourself. Don’t let fear stand in your way. Say yes to everything. This is also the way you learn your limits. Be daring! Be adventurous. You owe it to your future self.

I (Don’t) Want My MTV

I work at a college in California. The boys of summer, with their perfectly tanned, perfectly toned bodies, return year after year to rub their nubile precociousness in my face. Of course, they are (mostly) unaware of it. Whatever amount of effort is put forth for their sexiness (and there is effort put forth), my reaction is a by product of their main goal: attracting girls (and the occasional boy) their own age. I am not their audience, yet allow myself to be affected by their actions.

Last night, I fastforwarded through the VMAs. I couldn’t care less who won the awards (OK, I did watch them give out the Best Female Video and somehow Taylor Swift beat Miley Cyrus AND Rihanna…when will the Taylor Swift backlash begin!) and was mostly concerned with the performances. Particularly one.

As many of you know, I have done a lot of shitting on Lady Gaga lately (follow the link if you don’t know why…). So naturally, the expectation for her performance was high and needed to achieve the legendary status she has set forth for herself – and my own admittedly stringent standards for Stefani Germanotta.

And she succeeded.

She was engaging, oozed stage presence, and dripped sex appeal without being trashy (which can’t be said for Miley Cyrus). Her voice was great and dare I admit…her dancing was on point. Perhaps the costume changes were a tad desperate to hit her message home (“I am a chamaleon…and you ain’t seen nothing yet!”), but BY FAR her performance was the best thing on the show; she is at a different level.

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Miley Cyrus, who I don’t think is crazy (she is 20, people, and an ex-Disney star, breaking free of her vanilla image; not everyone from the House of Mouse who displays “odd” behavior will go the way of Brit or LiLo), went the limit with her sexuality last night. Yes, it was trashy, but how much practice does she have being sexy in front of millions of people? Give her time. She will refine her skills. If anyone should be embarrassed it should be Robin Thicke. With his Rico Suave swag that makes me want to vomit and that goddamn song that just won’t go away, he and his other compatriots in their 30s, pandering to teenagers, are almost laughable.

Justin Timberlake, another guy who thinks he is a lot cooler than he really is, won the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award; MTV’s version of a Lifetime Achievement Award. At 32, Timberlake may seem young to be winning Lifetime Achievement Awards, but given the institution that is dishing it out, 32 is damn near ancient (Britney Spears won it when she was 29 and Madonna, arguably the purveyor of the greatest music videos – except, maybe, the guy it’s named after… – won hers in 1986 at 28, before she really did ANYTHING to secure her legend…so this “award” is kind of ridiculous). Timberlake’s performance was also very lackluster, from the trampy girls hanging on to his coattails to his vocals (honestly, what was with the microphones? You could barely hear anyone…except Gaga….) and incredibly long, culminating in the “surprise” reunion of N*S*Y*N*C. They looked uncomfortable and like a Vegas parody of themselves.

Kanye was fine. He jumped around the stage in silhouette, yelling his lyrics that they still felt the need to bleep out. (If censorship is for kids, which we are continuously told, the kids watching this program already know the lyrics. And, really, we can’t say “Molly” on TV, but we can say “Bitch” AND “Faggot”? Ok…) Which brings me to Macklemore and Co.

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I don’t think the candor of the lyrics have really sunk in for me. This is a hit song – a song about how gay people should be treated like everyone else, a song about how gay marriage is a right not a privilege, a song about how hip hop culture tramples on homosexuality – that plays on the radio dozens of times a day. I feel immense pride (and jealousy) that this sentiment is being applauded by teenagers – because really that is who makes hit singles. The tide – a typhoon I never thought growing up in Troy would ever come – is shifting so strongly to wipe away all the hate that, if I allow myself to indulge, it brings me to tears. (When the camera got in Mary Lambert and J.Hud’s faces during their “Not crying on Sunday” chants I thought I was watching one of Hudson’s many PBS performances…). Macklemore’s delivery of the song was the same as Kanye and every hip hop artist with the over-exaggerated arm movements and trampoline aerobics, but to hear those words matched with those movements felt like a revolution.

And then there was Katy Perry. Poor Katy Perry. It was almost impossible to compete with Gaga’s performance. In concept and in execution. Even though “Roar” is a better song than “Applause”. But I don’t know if Katy was tired or nervous or dealing with the cold weather off the East River, but she flatlined big time. Total snoozefest. Maybe she is just a voice. I have never seen her music videos so maybe she has no charisma.

It may seem odd to tune into an award show that honors music videos when I have never seen a music video by arguably the biggest woman in music right now. I have also never seen the “Blurred Lines” music video. And honestly, I only started watching Rihanna’s videos, my favorite artist working today, recently (so far “We Found Love” and “Where Have You Been” are the only two that are worthy of the songs they inspired; how are her videos not epic productions!). I used to see all the videos. And now, for the most part, I don’t give a damn. What happened?

I am from the TRL generation. Music videos used to be a huge part of my music listening experience. Every day I would come home from school, riveted to know where Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me” video landed on the charts (I was so obsessed with the video, and of course Madonna, that I went to Goodwill and bought a cowboy shirt…that I still own today, btw, that forever and always has been called the “Don’t Tell Me” shirt). I wanted to hear Halle Berry pimp her newest shitty movie to Carson Daly. When I lived in New York, I would pass by the gaggle of onlookers on the street behind the barricade and hope to get a glimpse of Aguilera in the studio that was three flights up. On the weekends, I would wake up to Jump Start on VH1 to make sure I caught all the latest news and weighed in on the latest Hoobastank video (which, incidentally, they are all terrible). I needed to know it all, to be in the thick of the culture.

And now I am borderline ambivalent.

WHAT HAPPENED!?

Age.

I was talking with Joshua last night, my longest and dearest friend; the friend who lived through the New York days with a Britney obsession and an Urban Outfitter t-shirt that simply said “Porn”. He had watched the VMAs before me (remember, I needed my fast forward time) and we were discussing the merits and the downfalls of the show.

“You know, this isn’t really for us anymore.”

And then it hit me. Oh my God. He’s right. All the pandering, all the transparent sexuality, all the branding and marketing and ridiculous swag. None of that is meant for me. I am no longer their demographic. I am…too old. The fact that Justin Timberlake, an artist that didn’t exist when I was in grade school, is now getting Lifetime Achievement Awards hits home the reality. That and I didn’t know probably a third of the people they kept cutting to in the audience.

This didn’t sadden me. I am ready for 30, ready for 30 year old things. But it hadn’t occurred to me in such a black and white way before.

I think this is why I harp on Madonna so much. Because her fans (the True Blue ones anyway) are not 17. We are 29. And 35. And 55. But she, and practically every single artist in the game except maybe Tony Bennett, knows they must play to the kids to stay relevant (even Tony has a duet with Gaga). Instead of trusting that their fans will grow with them.

I fear that for Madonna it is too late. She is a perpetual child, stunted in the adolescent petulance of a girl that still gets a thrill crawling out of her bedroom window to go necking with the tattooed boy her father hates. But Gaga. Please. I know I yell at you. I know I tease you. But it is sincerely from a place of respect. This little monster wants you to succeed. I only hope you learn from your idol’s mistakes and embrace the changes of life when they come. And stop treating your fans as props. We are smarter than you think.

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Bad Cinema: Can’t Stop the Music (Dir: Nancy Walker, 1980)

“Oh girls, I just had the most disturbing dream…I was stranded on a desert island with Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, and Steve Guttenberg; Three men and Oh, Baby…Well, I woke up, and I’d only gotten to sleep with Steve Guttenberg. And I’m not even sure who he is.”

 – Blanche Deveraux

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It’s an unavoidable fact: a film’s reputation precedes it. When it is touted as “great,” the expectation is high; sometimes insurmountable (Vertigo comes to mind…). But when films are touted as being “awful,” the expectation is of course very low; sometimes unfairly (The Canyons comes to mind…). And when a film has been deemed so awful, as Can’t Stop the Music has, that it inspired the Razzies, a tongue-in-cheek answer to the Oscars, “honoring” the worst movies of the year, the expectation is abysmal.

And yet, Can’t Stop the Music shines on as glorious camp.

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Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg at the peak of his sexiness; thank you to the costume designer for putting him in form fitting shirts and tight jeans…) is stuck behind the counter of a busy record store, shlepping other people’s music when all he wants to do is make his own! Jack is a DJ that is going places! Why, tonight he has a guest spot at a mediocre club! Calvin Klein’s chauffeur hangs out there! Clearly, this will be his big break. He is so confident of it that when his boss demands he stay late to do inventory, Jack walks right out! Well, to be totally accurate, rolls right out. He is wearing roller skates. Why? Because it is 1980. And apparently that was a thing.

Then, because a single shot of him roller skating through New York City would be too dull, we get an ever evolving kaleidoscopic triptych of Jack jamming to, presumably, his own music on a walkman (“New York – The Sound of the City”, one of many guilty pleasure tunes piping their way into this mess).

Along his way home, he runs into his roommate, the hot (well, 1980s hot) Samantha Simpson (Valerie Perrine), the “Garbo of models” who has decided to retire while still at the top. She encourages his music dreams, but as the older-sister-surrogate, she is worried about his future! She will go see him tonight at the club under one condition: if he is a flop, he must go back to college. He needs a serious career! Says the 40 year old woman who apparently made so much money posing for photographs that she can retire….but still needs a roommate to help pay her bills.

I think it’s safe to say I’m not spoiling the movie by telling you he was a hit – after playing one song, mind you, entitled, yep “Samantha” (it’s actually pretty awesome…). So Samantha decides to make him a star! You see, while Jack was flunking out of college, she was (conveniently) dating the heavy hitters of the record industry. “Momma is connected!”

But first they need a demo tape; something to show the world what Jack Morell is made of. But there’s only one problem: Jack can’t sing (he also mysteriously has no sense of rhythm either; watch how Guttenberg spazzes out to his own track COMPLETELY off the beat). Lucky for him, Momma has her connections and she scrounges up a rag-tag group of people from the Village. Guess who?

Initially, there is just Felipe (the Indian; who, holy Hell, prances around the whole film in a goddamn loin cloth…), Randy (the Cowboy; complete with handlebar moustache), David (the Construction worker; who imparts us with the classic line: “Fame. Fortune. Platinum records. It’s every boy’s dream!”), and Ray (the Cop). They perform the hell out of Jack’s destined-for-stardom hit, “Magic Night” on his back patio (that looks an awful lot like the back patio from The Boys in the Band – could it be the same? Talk about irony…). But they need more men! Well, at least two more.

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So they hold an audition in the law office of Ron White, a guy they met when he delivered a cake to Samantha on behalf of her sister (No, it doesn’t make sense. And no it doesn’t matter. It is just a way to infuse a love story into the damn thing. Oh, yeah. He and Samantha become a thing. Oh, and Ron is played by Bruce Jenner. Yes, THAT Bruce Jenner. Although you wouldn’t recognize him because this is before he had all that work done to make him look like Kathy Hilton). This audition yields Alex (the G.I.) and Glenn (the Leather Daddy; incidentally, Friedkin’s Cruising, a film ripe for Bad Cinema if there ever was one, was shooting on the same lot as Can’t Stop the Music. Due to Glenn’s get-up, the LGBT protesters who were trying to shut down Cruising would sometimes protest Can’t Stop the Music by mistake…).

But Ron’s father isn’t having any of this riffraff in his office and demands he not pursue to represent this type of entertainment (“Cole Porter sat at that piano!”). Well, no one tells Ron White what to do so he quits! The Village People then follow suit so they can devote their lives full-time to the band. Clearly the moral of this film is to give up your job to chase your dream, which will result in riches beyond your imagination and never for a moment put you in financial straits.

But Samantha’s connection, her ex-boyfriend Steve (Paul Sand), a major label head, is not in love with the band; they are too weird –  “What is this Halloween?” – and dismisses them. Or does he? Ever the shyster, he tries to low-ball them and Samantha rejects their offer. But now they are left with a great demo, a band ripe for the zeitgeist, and no publicity! What’s a girl to do!

The one thing she never wanted to do: a TV commercial for milk. She calls up her old agent, Sydney Channing (a wonderful Tammy Grimes; Broadway’s original Molly Brown), and “gives in” to coming back to work. IF the Village People can appear with her. This will give them free PR, of course, but will also raise the necessary funds to put on a pay party in order for the boys to perform and get famous.

“A pay party? How gauche!” When the commercial is shelved, Ron’s mother agrees to let them perform at her party (she is naturally a party planner) in…where? Where else? Gay Mecca, San Francisco. But the party becomes a mere formality when Jack’s mother (June Havoc), giving us her best Mama Rose (fitting because her mother actually WAS Mama Rose…) sweet talks Steve into a very sweet deal. They arrive in San Fran with contracts in hand! The party is a smash, the boys are a hit, and everyone comes on stage, even the extras, for a grand finale; the song, you guessed it, “Can’t Stop the Music.”

"I had a dream...a dream about...my boy turning six queens into a worldwide phenomenon!"

“I had a dream…a dream about…my boy turning six queens into a worldwide phenomenon!”

The irony is that the music can be (and was) stopped. Village People was one of the biggest acts of the ’70s, riding the disco train to the end of the line. I wish I could have lived through their peak to fully comprehend how an obviously gay group (created for gay men using male archetypes as sexual fantasies) could break through to the mainstream. Every time I see a large group of straight people dancing to “YMCA,” complete with the stupid arm spelling, I wonder what percentage of them know it is a song about screwing strange men in a bathhouse…

But when the disco craze hit a backlash at the turn of the decade, Village People (and Can’t Stop the Music) were left in a glitter-filled corner of Studio 54. Incidentally, Village People’s last song to chart on the Billboard 100? “Ready for the ’80’s.”

The Golden Girls quote with which I began is not only relevant because really, Who the Hell is Steve Guttenberg? but because Sophia’s sister was played by none other than Nancy Walker…the director.

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Nancy Walker was a Broadway and TV legend, starring in the hit musicals Best Foot Forward and On the Town. On television, she was most famous for playing Rhoda’s mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and later on Rhoda, directing quite a few episodes of both shows. Can’t Stop the Music was her only feature film (go figure).

Allan Carr, the producer who proudly plasters his name above the title, was a legend of his own. An agent and shameless promoter, Carr represented, among many others, Olivia Newton-John (getting her cast in Grease, a film he also produced), Steve Guttenberg, and Nancy Walker. He was also responsible for that stupid Snow White musical number at the Oscars (if you are too young to know what that is, you must YouTube it; if you thought Seth MacFarlane‘s “We Saw Your Boobs” was bad…).

Arguably his most significant contribution to Can’t Stop the Music was making sure the Village People’s homosexuality was made undetectable, which makes them completely flatline as three dimensional humans. When you are making a loose biopic of a group’s life and eliminate one of the main things that made them a hit, you are in for trouble. Not only did he strip them of their sexuality, but Carr/Walker’s version of the Village People make them come off as completely dull and utterly sexless, despite walking around half naked and/or bulging throughout, and surrounding themselves with naked men at the YMCA who are covered with soap, resembling…well, I’m sure you get the idea. The desperate attempts at making the boys heterosexual are just that: Desperate and Attempts. We know at every moment that they are gay. And if you are going to try and make them seem straight, maybe you should have at least one of them try and fuck Samantha instead of cat calling the senior citizens in the cast.

And yet the gay sensibility is unmistakable.

The fashions! (We really need to bring back the short shorts and the crop top tees)

The homoerotic nudity! (Samantha in the midst of all the boys during “YMCA”? Please. Not since Jane Russell danced with the gym bunnies in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes have we seen such an obvious desire for man on man action…)

The music! (“Liberation” should have been the “Born This Way” of its time…)

The dialogue! (“Anyone who can swallow two snowballs and a ding dong should have no problem with pride”)

I loved this movie. Alright Criterion. Get to it. I need a hot commentary track with Guttenberg. Whoever he is.

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Is Can’t Stop the Music a Car Crash, Colonoscopy, Berkley, or Kardasian?

Trevor tells me every week, “Gurl, I still haven’t figured out what Bad Cinema is!” And the answer I always tell him is, “Neither have I!” The truth is that it is instinctual. Obviously films like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Battleship are painful, almost unbearable experiences that should be decimated down to the ashes of their celluloid. But then there are films like Ernest Goes to Jail or It’s Pat! that I know are terrible, yet fill me with joy. And then of course there is the mother of them all: Showgirlsthe reason this column exists in the first place.

Can’t Stop the Music is a Berkley for sure, yet lacks the style and grace to beat the Best of the Worst. (Although Steve Guttenberg’s over acting is almost as fabulous as Elizabeth’s…)

What do you think of Can’t Stop the Music? Disco? The Village People?

*Available on Netflix Instant

The 40 Films Every Young Filmmaker Should See

Recently, Spike Lee posted a list on his Kickstarter page: the 40 films every young filmmaker should see. This is the same list he passes out to his film students every year to inspire them. In an online video, Spike encourages people to write in if they feel he missed any titles. So I am calling his bluff and making my own list.

I am also asked on occasion, since people know how much I adore movies, to give suggestions on what to see. “I want to get into cinema, but don’t know where to start.” Well, then you have come to the right party. I strongly believe that in order to make movies, you have to understand the history of the movies. Nothing irks me more than people who think that filmmaking starts and ends with Tarantino and people – who are thinking about making movies of their own! – “can’t” watch black and white. This is a ridiculous, insulting claim. Most of the greatest movies ever made are in black and white! This is blasphemy of the highest order.

So whether you are dreaming of being the next Scorsese or just want to get a better understanding of the history of the medium, these are the 40 films I would recommend to anyone so inclined. I am not claiming these are the “best” 40 films, nor am I including what I feel are “osmosis” films like The Wizard of Oz (honestly, who has not seen this? And if you haven’t, you should be ashamed and rent it now). Put another way, these are the 40 films that make me want to be a filmmaker. And a better human. And no, Citizen Kane, The Birth of a Nation, and The Godfather are not included. See them on your own damn time. If you must.

Enjoy and Discuss. I look forward to beginning a dialogue.

In chronological order:

1) One Week (Dir: Buster Keaton – 1920)

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*To look past the obvious to find the funny

Most silent films are really taxing; the pacing is slow, the music melodramatic, the acting over the top. But there is something about silent slapstick that is timeless; pratfalls require no dialogue to make us laugh. Keaton’s directorial debut follows him and his wife as they put together a house from scratch after the instructions are stolen by a thwarted lover. Buster was famous for doing all of his own stunts (and everyone else’s). Watch him fall through the roof and jump through windows, all with his signature stone face.

2) Metropolis (Dir: Fritz Lang – 1927)

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*To find the humanity in the chaos 

Taking a page from George Melies, Lang’s masterpiece revolutionized the science fiction epic and its influences can be seen in everything from Frankenstein to Blade Runner to Madonna‘s “Express Yourself” video. The plight of the common man to overtake the corporate machine is one with which everyone can relate. Stunning cinematography.

3) The Circus (Dir: Charlie Chaplin – 1928)

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*To embrace the emotional

My problem with Chaplin is that he demands that you have you an emotional reaction. As opposed to Keaton who is just the common man meeting adversity with a nonchalant-this-is-the-way-of-the-world-attitude, Chaplin brings in the epic music, the tears, and the embrace. While The Circus doesn’t eschew his desire for grand gestures, the pathos can’t help but find its way into the comedy, culminating in one of the greatest finales of all time.

4) The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dir: Carl Th. Dreyer – 1928)

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*Sometimes all you need is a close-up

Most scenes are a series of master, medium, and close-up shots to establish space and the subjects’ place within. Dreyer throws this theory to the wind, shooting the film mostly in close-up. This masterpiece focuses on the wounded face of Falconetti (in her ONLY film performance; if you have seen this, you realize what a crime against the cinema this is…) and the damning eyes of her accusers during the titular trial. There are no establishing shots and the 180 degree line is broken constantly to give the viewer a feeling of discombobulation. My own film, The Trial of Linda Kasabian, is based on its visual style.

5) Duck Soup (Dir: Leo McCarey – 1933)

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*To never grow up all the way

An anarchist musical? Leave it to The Marx Brothers to make war, democracy, and diplomacy hilarious. The Mirror Sequence has been parodied and copied by everyone from Mickey Mouse to Lucy. The Peanut Stand! “Just Wait Til I Get Through With It”! And Margaret Dumont is in top form as Groucho’s perennial love interest/foil/scapegoat. Unfortunately, Duck Soup is the last of the brothers films where they aren’t encumbered by young lovers or denigrated to subplotery. Easily one of the funniest films of all time.

6) Triumph of the Will (Dir: Leni Riefenstahl – 1935)

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*To find the beautiful in the hideous

The first time I saw this was at the Anthology Archives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They are a film institute that prides themselves on integrity; therefore, no subtitles. There I was watching a German film in German about possibly the most famous German and I couldn’t understand a damn word. But it didn’t matter. Many people spoke throughout, giving speech’s about “Deutschland,” but when Hitler took the stage, more than half way through (smart move, Leni), I was completely drawn to the screen. He was possibly the most charismatic speaker the world has ever known. I found myself desperately yearning to understand his passion (and trying to forget the truth). For one of the most hated people who ever lived, this was no small feat.

Much credit must go to Riefenstahl. Her cinematography is utterly breathtaking, her pacing hypnotic, and as propaganda, succeeded on its most basic level: it made us love Hitler.

George Lucas lifted Hitler’s march to the podium for one of the final shots of Star Wars.

7) Bringing Up Baby (Dir: Howard Hawks – 1938)

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*To remember that romance has no rules; to embrace the madness

Cary Grant as a nerd? Katherine Hepburn as a flighty motor mouth? The best screwball comedy of all time? Yes, yes, yes. Grant plays a paleontologist who has just found a dinosaur bone only to have it stolen by Hepburn’s dog. To add to the mix, there are two leopards (one wild, one domestic), a frigid fiance, an eccentric big game hunter, and a million dollars at stake; and of course, the most hilarious of love stories. I have seen this probably a dozen times and it never gets old or stale.

8) The Bank Dick (Dir: Edward F. Cline – 1940)

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*To remember that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Like The Marx Bros., one does not watch a WC Fields’ movie for its plot; it is about the succession of bits. The Bank Dick sees him get lambasted by his family at the breakfast table, get drunk with Shemp Howard, direct a movie, stop a robbery, and become the local bank’s detective. The sequences are self-contained, but work better as a collective, yet barely work at all; there is some kind of magical kismet that holds the fragmented pieces together – Fields himself. By no means Fields’ greatest film (that distinction belongs to It’s a Gift), The Bank Dick is easily his most iconic and a great place to start to get a handle on his body of work.

9) Sunset Blvd. (Dir: Billy Wilder – 1950)

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*To find the balance in a satire between the light and the dark; to not be a diva

This film gets everything right. But most of all its casting. Who else to play silent queen star Norma Desmond then silent queen star Gloria Swanson? (How could Wilder have even considered Mae West? She would have ruined the script with her signature eye rolls and hip bops, making Norma a caricature) Who else to play Max von Mayerling, one of the greatest directors of the silent era, then Erich von Stroheim, one of the greatest directors of the silent era? (It was Stroheim’s idea to use Queen Kelly, the film that essentially ruined both his and Swanson’s careers, in the screening scene). Or sexy, sardonic William Holden as sexy, sardonic Joe Gillis? The best film about Hollywood and its relationship to age, Sunset Blvd. is a satire ahead of its time, unaware of how relevant it would remain in a world where plastic surgery is standard practice and cougars run supreme.

10) All About Eve (Dir: Joseph Mankiewicz – 1950)

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*To embrace the dialogue

Elegant, bitchy, and better written than life could ever be, Eve is the ultimate example of stars and their fans and the length both will take to keep or achieve what they feel is theirs. Bette Davis’ most famous role, Margo Channing, is childish, entitled, and every bit the star; Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington, which has entered the lexicon as someone deviously manipulative, is unassuming, driven, and every bit the dragon she tries to pretend she isn’t. But George Sanders’ Addison Dewitt can see right through her – and manipulates the manipulator into being his lover (?) – even though never for a minute do we believe he is heterosexual. Co-starring Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, and a young Marilyn Monroe, All About Eve shares the distinction with Titanic of being the most nominated film at the Oscars with 14. The film was turned into the awful musical Applause in the 70s, starring Lauren Bacall as Margo.

11) Singin’ in the Rain (Dir: Stanley Donen – 1952)

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*To linger on the joy as long as possible

So many modern musical films are awful because they are a product of the MTV generation. To watch a dance sequence on film is akin to having a seizure. But back in the Golden Age, musical numbers were actually about exhibiting the talents of the dancers, not the editors. Singin’ in the Rain is full of so many fabulous dance sequences – hell, so many fabulous sequences, period! – it is one of the few movies that are impossible to dislike. And if you do, well, then you are just a wet, old blanket.

12) Ikiru (Dir: Akira Kurosawa – 1952)

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*To seize the moment

What if you realized that your entire life was a waste? You’re strapped with a job you hate, a child who hates you, and a time bomb rapidly ticking inside, ready to destroy you at a moment’s notice. What would you do?

After being diagnosed with cancer, city employee Kanji Wantanabe (Takashi Shimura) makes up for lost time by overseeing the renovation of a deserted lot from cesspool to park. Along the way, he learns what it means to be a human through his friendship with a bubbly young girl. Almost an art house precursor to Office Space, Kurosawa’s beautiful treatise on regret challenges us to make our lives count for something before it’s too late.

13) The Misfits (Dir: John Huston – 1961)

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*To surround yourself with happiness

John Huston’s unsung masterpiece gathers two of the most famous actors of all time – Gable and Monroe – for their last film (Gable died of a heart attack, Monroe reputedly from a drug overdose). The Misfits, written by Monroe’s husband Arthur Miller, is the tale of three drifters (Gable, Eli Wallach, and a post car accident Montgomery Clift) and their struggle for the affection of Roselyn, a troubled divorcee (Monroe in her greatest performance). The five of them (including Thelma Ritter, who sadly disappears mid-film) create their own Xanadu, living off the land and planning for the future until a confrontation over power erupts, threatening to destroy them all.

14) The Birds (Dir: Alfred Hitchcock – 1963)

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*To listen to the poetry

Told in a series of linked vignettes that somewhat culminate in a plot, The Birds paints mood and characterization above all else. Fantastic Tippi Hedren turns in her debut performance as Melanie Daniels – a 1960s, much more interesting version of Paris Hilton – the eye-fucking debutante who must come of age. The birds themselves have been called a metaphor for the apocalypse or atomic war, but I think these are unlikely theories; the birds signify nothing more than nature. Stunted adolescent Melanie must face the inevitable Nature and grow up, just as Lydia (Jessica Tandy!) must face the fact that Nature comes in cycles and that includes Death and allowing your children to become adults. Notice Cathy’s 11th birthday party when the birds attack, exploding the balloons shaped like genitalia. Coincidence? I think not. Or the scene between Lydia and Melanie, sandwiched by the attack at the Brinkmeyer farm and the attack at the school house, where they discuss the death of her husband and get the sense that they are on the road to mother/daughter redemption. Nowhere in Hitch’s ouevre – or cinema’s – is subtext so beautifully played.

15) Seconds (Dir: John Frankenheimer – 1966)

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*To be careful what you wish for

What if you had a second chance at life? What would you do differently? Rock Hudson (in a performance where his stilted delivery is an asset) is a Frankenstein version of an unhappy, older man who has been blackmailed into getting reconstructive surgery to regain his youth (that’s all I will say about the premise…). Helmed by the man who directed The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds spins the Faust legend on its corporate head. A criminally unknown masterpiece.

16) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Dir: Mike Nichols – 1966)

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*To not be afraid of the classics

Imagine Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie making a volatile film that explored the darkest corners of marriage. That’s the only possible, modern lens one could see Woolf through (although Revolutionary Road came close with Winslet in front and Mendes behind the camera). Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor starred in Nichol’s adaptation of the hit play at the peak of their fame and stardom and internationally obsessed over marriage. Burton was long seen as an amazing actor who could handle Shakespeare and Broadway musicals; Taylor, despite an Oscar (won under dubious circumstances) and numerous nominations was seen in many circles as a pretty face. After playing Martha, one of the most well written, difficult characters of the American Theatre, all theories of The Babe Factor went out the window. Frumped down and amped up, Taylor turns in arguably the Greatest Female Performance in the History of Cinema. Oscillating between scenery chewing and quiet insularity, Taylor makes Martha a marked woman who simultaneously loathes and loves her role as sadist to masochistic husband George. Burton matches her at every turn, creating a playfully violent milieu for midnight guests George Segal and Sandy Dennis. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?‘s then obscene language and sexual mind games led to the creation of the MPAA.

17) Persona (Dir: Ingmar Bergman – 1966)

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*Never be afraid of looking in the mirror

At its most basic, Persona deals with the idea that when we spend a lot of time with another, we take on some of their characteristics. Woody Allen, Bergman’s biggest fan, explores this theme in his own film, Zelig (1983), a strange mockumentary that has its main character physically manifest these transformations. Persona’s changes, however, are more of an insular kind.

An actress (the always amazing Liv Ullman, in her second movie ever) stops talking one night during a performance; she refuses to be false. At the behest of her doctor, she heads to the country with her nurse (an equally brilliant Bibi Anderson who does 95% of the talking in the film) to heal. While there, they form some sort of mother/daughter/sister/lover bond that comforts, troubles, and damages them both. Bergman is explicitly theatrical, Brechtian even, in his storytelling. Circling back on itself like a mobius strip, this is a movie that defies conventional synopses. It should be seen to be understood and to be understood, it should be seen dozens of times. Pure brilliance.

18) The Last Picture Show (Dir: Peter Bogdanovich – 1971)

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*To write what you know; to never give up on your dreams

Growing up in Small Town Americana, The Last Picture Show hit me like a freight train. Immediately following the credits, I sat down to draft an idea for a film of my own about my family and friends from Troy. This film eventually morphed into a television series. I worked on this project for close to a year and due to various reasons, it fell by the way side. Every now and then, I think about that project and what it could have been. I think of that slow dolly into Eileen Brennan’s character as she talks about her lost dreams. The Last Picture Show serves as a constant inspiration to never let others – including myself – stand in the way of what I want. And Peter Bogdanovich inspires me to continue to research Hollywood history in the hopes that one day, I will get to sit down and ask a new crop of filmmakers, Who the Devil Made It?

19) Aguirre, Wrath of God (Dir: Werner Herzog – 1972)

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*Remember. Mood is 75% of your film

Like Malick, what is experienced here is more important than what is said. Herzog creates a mood piece, a demented sister version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from his breathtaking opening shot of the mountain (as if descending from Heaven) to the hypnotic final trance of Aguirre’s primate infested raft. He scores the film with celestial sounds – the voice of God? – and cuts together a montage of life up the Amazon (slaves plotting, mice protecting their young, and royalty expecting royal treatment).

Klaus Kinski’s mad mad mad mad performance as Aguirre, the mutinous commander in charge of discovering the hidden city of El Dorado, is one for the record books. His adopted stagger and psychopathic stare tells us from the beginning that he is insane. However, when he finally goes rogue and leads the men (and his own daughter) into danger for the sake of fortune and glory, then loses control of the expedition, he pushes past the point of no return. Film legend as it that the character of “Aguirre” – actually shot on location, through the muck and mire of the jungle, on the river in ramshackle rafts – could have described Herzog himself, stopping at nothing to make his film (a few years later, he returned to the jungle with Kinski to make Fitzcarraldo about a man who builds an opera house on a mountain and without special effects, hauls an ocean liner up the side of the mountain, to the danger of everyone involved). Kinski and Herzog worked together on numerous films and had an enmitous friendship, culminating in the documentary, My Best Fiend.

20) Pink Flamingos (Dir: John Waters – 1972)

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*Make the art you want to make – your audience will find you

Hilarious, gross, shocking, witty, satirical, over the top, bold, guerrilla, awesomeness, Pink Flamingos is the film (along with Annie Hall) that made me want to write and direct movies.  It is the tale of two families trying to outdo each other in their filthiness – so naturally all bets are off. More than other artist, John Waters inspires me to live life to the fullest; to be daring and shocking and not be afraid of pleasing everyone, whether in life or my work. See it now. And see it stoned.

21) A Woman Under the Influence (Dir: John Cassavetes – 1974)

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*Sometimes all you need is an actor and a camera

Gena Rowlands’ flawless performance as the titular heroine should be homework in every acting class. You can’t for a moment take your eyes off of her, as she spirals ever downward into madness. Cassavetes is very smart in remaining ambiguous as to the nature of her ailment. Is she high? Is she drunk? Is she having a psychotic break? Or all of the above? His films feel like home movies, which can become tedious and feel amateurish at times, but A Woman Under the Influence is his strongest and most rewarding work.

22) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Dir: Tobe Hooper – 1974)

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*Give them suspense, then shock

Still one of the most terrifying films ever made, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a low budget slasher done with artistic panache. Definitely not light on shock, this ancestor of the slasher – like its greatest descendant, Halloween – matches its terror in its set-up, almost to the point of boredom. But then once the screams begin, they are non-stop (literally) for 15 minutes.

23) The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

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*Never forget. Sound is half of your film

Yes, The Godfather is excellent. We all know this. But how is The Conversation forgotten in, well, conversations about the cinema of the 70s? Nominated alongside (and lost to) Coppola’s Godfather Part II (a feat not duplicated until Soderbergh faced off against himself in 2000 with Traffic and Erin Brockovich), The Conversation follows a tortured surveillance expert (a career best Gene Hackman) who thinks he overhears a murder plot. If he saves them, he will out his boss and could suffer dire consequences. But if he lets them die, how will he deal with his guilt? Teri Garr, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, and Cindy Laverne and Shirley Williams co-star.

24) Blazing Saddles (Dir: Mel Brooks – 1974)

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*Where is the line of good taste? And can I cross it? 

Politically incorrect isn’t even the word for this film. With all of the organizations designed to keep overly sensitive people from being offended, this film could never be made today. Thankfully, Mel Brooks existed in the ’70s, a time of unprecedented and unrepeated freedom in cinema. Full of fart jokes, dick jokes, and the “n” word, Blazing Saddles is a satire on the Old West, race, and one of the funniest films ever made. Please Mel. Abandon all plans to take this one to the stage.

25) Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder – 1974)

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*To keep working

The center remake in the trifecta of All That Heaven Allows (1956) and Far From Heaven (2002), Fassbinder takes Sirk’s study of different classes in love one step further by adding the elements of race and age. The ridiculously prolific German filmmaker (directing over 40 films in 15 years, including the 15 ½ hour mini series Berlin Alexanderplatz) uses frames within frames within frames to always remind us we are on the outside looking in and breaks the rules of content curve to make us examine the unattractive face of 60 year old Emmi. Her lover in the film, the 30 year old Moroccan emigrant Ali, is played by Fassbinder’s real life lover El Hedi ben Salem. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul beautifully marries autobiography (with unattractive Brigitte Mira standing in for unattractive Fassbinder) and Sirk’s flair for melodrama, bridging the parallel between homosexual love and its interracial metaphor. Look for the director as Emmi’s son in law, disgusted by their relationship; he kicks her television in (the Christmas gift from Jane Wyman’s children in All That Heaven Allows designed to keep her away from Rock Hudson) smashing love’s conventions in the process. Sadly, things did not end so well for Fassbinder; Salem hanged himself while in prison.

26) Sweet Movie (Dir: Dusan Makavejev – 1974)

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*To go the limit

Whenever I am asked, “What is the strangest movie you have ever seen,” there is only one answer: Sweet Movie. The director claims the film is some kind of anarchic statement about the dissolution of Yugoslavia. And that may be true. But when you have a woman seducing children with a striptease and people vomiting, and peeing, and shitting on one another (for 20 minutes), all kinds of symbolism really just go out the window.

27) Annie Hall (Dir: Woody Allen – 1977)

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*To enjoy the love when it comes; to think outside the box

The culmination of all the neuroses, all the romance, all of the Judaism, all of the New York local color, and all of the characters who can’t seem to get out of their own way that has defined Woody for 40 years. Seen as the turning point between “earlier, funnier” Allen and Allen the Serious, Annie is a cornucopia of filmmaking reinvention, including animation, the obliteration of the 4th Wall, non-chronological story telling, split-screens, actors who walk in and out of the frame at will, and characters whose inner thoughts appear as subtitles. The film won Woody Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture (besting Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind!) and forever cemented Allen as the Sexy, Thinking Man and the ultimate auteur.

28) Halloween (Dir: John Carpenter – 1978)

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*To see things from the other guy’s perspective; to remember that not seeing the monster is actually scarier than seeing him

In an impressive opening POV shot lifted from Welles’ Touch of Evil, Carpenter sets up a dual narrative. We are allowed to see the world through the eyes of a killer, but through the sympathies of his victims. Like Jaws before it, Carpenter knew that NOT seeing something makes it that much scarier when you do. In film business, Halloween was listed as the highest grossing film (budget to profit) ever until The Blair Witch Project took its throne in 1999 (the jury is still out on where Deep Throat figures into all this); in film history, Halloween became the Rosetta Stone of every slasher film since, creating the worlds of Camp Crystal Lake, Freddy Krueger, Hellraiser, Chucky, and Sleep Away Camp, and continues the tradition George A. Romero solidified ten years prior with its silent, slow, unkillable antagonist who will stop at nothing to fulfill his blood lust. And of course, Halloween gave the world the amazing Ms. Jamie Lee Curtis. The perfect horror film.

29) Dressed to Kill (Dir: Brian De Palma – 1980)

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*To learn how to do a proper homage

Brian De Palma has never made it a secret that he owes his career to Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcockian elements, characters, and plots are present in practically all of his films and yet they feel fresh, original, and eerie as fuck. Dressed to Kill is essentially De Palma’s Psycho “remake”, casting Michael Caine as Norman Bates and Angie Dickenson as Marion Crane; Gus van Sant wishes his film was this good.

30) Showgirls (Dir: Paul Verhoeven – 1995)

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*To remember that things don’t always work out the way you plan

In order to know what is great, we must know what is awful. And Showgirls is the Best of the Worst. Like an All About Eve in stilettos, Showgirls follows Nomi Malone (the fabulously awful Elizabeth Berkley) as she claws her way to the top in the flashy world of topless dancing. The writing is terrible, the direction is terrible, and the acting is like passing a very large kidney stone. It inspired me to write my weekly column Bad Cinema, in hopes of finding other Wonderfully Bad films like it. If you have not seen Showgirls, it is the last film from this list I would watch. Not because it is the worst (which it is), but so after three dozen masterpieces, you can appreciate it in all of its terrible glory.

31) Dancer in the Dark (Dir: Lars von Trier – 2000)

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*Sometimes all we need to see is what we need to see

Bjork as a blind factory worker in a musical by Lars von Trier? Where do I sign up? A fabulously strange, part camp-part melodrama, Dancer in the Dark was shot with over one hundred cameras in order to capture the dance numbers in real time. Lars von Trier’s famous jump cut editing style allows us to see life as it really is: in fragments. Bjork’s performance won her Best Actress at Cannes; right after she vowed never to act again.

32) Bad Education (Dir: Pedro Almodovar – 2002)

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*Writing is Rewriting

Almodovar’s crowning second act achievement, Bad Education weaves a web of sex and manipulation. Two boys meet and fall in love at a Catholic grade school only to be separated by a priest’s obsessive lust for one of them. A terrific yarn on the effects of child abuse, Almodovar uses his lush cinematography to accentuate the beautiful performances (and stunning bodies) of Fele Martinez and the sinfully sensual Gael Garcia Bernal in a triple performance. Almodovar’s perfectly woven script is a master class in suspense and resolution.

33) Bowling for Columbine (Dir: Michael Moore – 2002)

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*To always get your man

Michael Moore is anything but unbiased. His Fahrenheit 9/11 was made with the singular purpose to make sure George W. was not reelected (sadly, it failed) and his Oscar acceptance speech met with as many boos as it did cheers. Bowling for Columbine, his most politically neutral film, makes America look at itself and ask, “Why do we love violence? And what the hell are we going to do about it?” Bombastic and divisive, Moore goes the limit for a cause he believes in, reading K-Mart for selling bullets and calling out Charlton Heston – in his own house! – for being an insensitive schmuck. Props, Mike.

34) Lost in Translation (Dir: Sofia Coppola – 2003)

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*To enjoy the silence

Easily the best – and least depressing – film about loneliness, Coppolla Jr. introduces us to two people trying to find their way in pre-ordained worlds. Practically a silent movie, when the characters do speak, it always counts. Scarlett Johannson does an excellent job of being the director’s surrogate and there are no words to describe Bill Murray’s performance other than: Bill Murray. He is sublime.

35) Inland Empire (Dir: David Lynch – 2006)

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*To trust the process

What makes this film so frustrating/rewarding/impressive is knowing its back story. Lynch wanted to make a digital film, something about “a woman in trouble.” Over a two-year span, he would write scenes as they came to him without a game plan to where the footage would end up in the final version. Dern’s magnificent performance – truly, I can’t overstress its greatness – is all the more amazing without the benefit of a completed script or a character arc. She abandons all pretense – a film full of close-ups in gritty digital and a lot of crying (Dern is a really ugly cryer) – remains present in every moment, and puts her utmost faith in the director that made her a star.

36) Synechdoche, New York (Dir: Charlie Kaufman – 2006)

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*To never stop discovering yourself

Kaufman has positioned himself as the thinking man’s screenwriter for over a decade with his acid-trip like films Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In Synechdoche, New York, Kaufman takes us into the world of experimental theatre where Caden Cotard (played brilliantly by the always brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman) has been given a seemingly endless supply of money from the MacArthur Foundation to create a work of art. He decides to create a living, evolving play in a gigantic warehouse with hundreds of people (including his wife, his lover, and three versions of himself) playing out their day under his watchful eye to capture the true essence of the moments. When the film arrives at its third act (with the immaculate Dianne Wiest now playing Caden), consciousness has completely succumbed to the subconscious, reality for fiction, forcing the viewer to question which is true, which is worth living. Leaving behind the world of human connection, Caden learns that the journey inward brings him to the place we will all find, no matter how hard we try to understand others and the world around us: we are alone.

37) I Think We’re Alone Now (Dir: Sean Donnelly – 2008)

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*To respect your subjects

I Think We’re Alone Now is an odd, disturbing documentary about two Tiffany stalkers (yes, the pop star Tiffany has stalkers) and the depths of their obsessions. The film could very easily go into exploitation, but Donnelly never judges his subjects; he merely points and shoots. It makes you assess how far a filmmaker can and should go with his subjects; particularly when they are clearly mentally ill.

38) Margaret (Dir: Kenneth Lonergan – 2011)

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*To love the mundane

Anna Paquin turns in the performance of a lifetime as a young girl traumatized by a bus accident. Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) does the unthinkable: he makes the movie about the moments in between, the moments other films would discard as irrelevant to the central drama and puts them center stage. The film is a snail-paced powder keg of tears that, like life, erupts at a moments notice; giving not closure, not catharsis, but a momentary connection between humanity.

Margaret is peppered with famous people in small roles (Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo), divorcing themselves completely from the star quality they could yield. The film’s legal battles over its promised running time kept if from being released for five years. When it was finally released (for two weeks in LA and NY) in 2011, the film and Paquin were unanimously praised. I promise. It is nowhere near as conventional or sappy as this trailer tries to paint it.

39) The Tree of Life (Dir: Terrence Malick – 2011)

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*To remember everything is everything

Forget for a moment Malick’s pretentiousness; The Tree of Life parallels the creation of the universe to how one family raises their children in the 1950s. And feast your eyes on The Tree of Life for its very existent. Its breadth. Its color. Its emotional impact. Probably one of the cinema’s most spiritual directors, Malick takes us on the history of the world through the celestial and the organic; merging the Big Bang with “God” and how the ways we choose to live our lives impact those around us. See this only in the theatre. Wait for a retrospective. Trust me.

40) The Canyons (Dir: Paul Schrader – 2013)

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*To stop making excuses and just do it

The Canyons is a product of the Kickstarter craze. Made on a shoestring $250000, this tale of rich Angelenos has been butchered and praised from all corners. It is a very divisive film, muting ambivalence for passionate outbursts. Starring Lindsay Lohan and a porn star, written by Bret Easton Ellis, and directed by the guy who wrote Taxi Driver, The Canyons is dark and brooding and heavily stylized. And yet, it is fun, campy, and utterly singular. The Canyons, like Lovelace and Bubble before it, was specifically made for the VOD market, simultaneously released in the theatres and on iTunes. Whatever merits you may find (or not find ) within the film, see it for what it represents: the wave of the future.

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I welcome all thoughts and comments…

 

 

The Edge of Obnoxious: Or Why Lady Gaga Needs to Sit the Fuck Down

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Mother Monster and I have a strained relationship.

Not in any Perez Hilton kind of way, which if those rumors are true, Stefani needs to take a serious reality pill; no, Gaga and I have never met, yet our relationship is just as tense. Frankly, if we ever do, I’m not sure what my reaction would be. Would I ignore her? Would I freak out and beg for a photograph? Or would I spit in her face and laugh?

No other celebrity – except Madonna, of course – sends me into a typhoon of emotion quite like Lady Gaga. I want to love her. Her musical skills are unquestionable (Jesus Christ, “Marry the Night”….); as Randy Jackson would say, she really can sing anything – and sing it live, which in today’s pop scene is a sadly rare commodity. And her imagery, her fashion, her grandiosity, and her obsession to detail, even though it can be taxing as hell, at least make us talk about her – which of course is the point.

No, Gaga annoys me – maddens me! – beyond comprehension for her transparent pretentiousness. First, let’s address her egomania. Taking a page from her idol, Gaga one ups Madonna in the claims that she makes. With ARTPOP (a post-modern title if there ever was one), Gaga calls it her “reverse Warholian experience”; meaning that Warhol took pop culture and made it art. She is going to take “art” and make it popular. Because Lady Gaga is the barometer of what “art” is. And if you are going to make fantastical claims about the importance of your music, it would help that it actually lives up to your own hype. “Applause” is hot garbage. Catchy, yes, but hot garbage, nevertheless.

She has also stated that she is “every icon”; a combination of “all the colors on the palette at every time.” In other words: “I’m going to throw as many things in the blender as I can, launch them at you, and see what sticks.” You could call this Gaga’s mantra. I call it lazy and unfocused. This explains her constant aping of other artists. Whether it’s “Born This Way”‘s obvious rip on “Express Yourself” (like you didn’t know what you were doing, Stefani!), the Marilyn Manson scowls she seems to employ in every music video, stealing Bette Midler’s mermaid-in-a-wheelchair bit, and her very blatant “homage” to Bowie and Grace Jones in “Applause,” Lady Gaga is far from original. She seems to pride herself on being a very fabricated amalgam of her influences; the Frankenstein of Pop. While her fans, her “little monsters,” eat up her every goddamn move, none the wiser.

Let’s address the “little monsters”. Every artist is indebted to their fans; without them, they would not exist in any public arena. But Lady Gaga takes her adoration for her fans to a sickening level. In her Good Morning America interview, Gaga goes on about how during her recuperation from a hip injury, she “thought of nothing but [her] fans every moment of [her] rehab.” But her outpour of nauseating “love” didn’t stop there. Listen to her explanation of the “Applause” cover art:

(Watch 2:10-3:20)

Notice how she completely invalidates the lyrics to her own song. “I live for the applause. I live for the way that you scream and cheer for me…”

Let’s get honest here. EVERY artist becomes an artist because they want the applause. They want to be noticed. They feel they have something important to say and that others should hear it too; a simultaneous plea for attention and a validation of your worth  – and a way to make a LOT of money. If you are unconsidered about applause/money, you would make your art for yourself and not show it to anyone. So the sentiment of “Applause” is one to which everyone who reaches for Fame can relate.

So don’t go making this song and then say, “it’s all for the fans.” OK. Fine. Maybe some of it is for your fans. But altruism is a goddamn lie. It is for your fans insofar that they continue to love YOU. To validate YOU. To continue to make YOU famous. Lady Gaga is a fucking phony and she makes me sick to my stomach.

But Gaga has always (and by “always” I mean the 5 YEARS she has been around) been this odd combination of Narcissist, making these grand claims that her music is “the anthem of this generation,” and Saint, playing coy in the corner that it’s all about giving love to her fans; Gaga wants to have her meat and wear it too.

Gaga, more than any other artist, except maybe Madge, exemplifies the challenge that musicians, particularly ones who live such an over-the-top public life, face: the line of reality. The line for actors is easy; they are always playing someone else; therefore, they can have very defined “professional” and “personal” lives. But the lines for musicians, whose music is expected to be a reflection of their personal lives, is somewhat more gray. Is Janet singing “What About” about Rene Elizondo? Did he really beat her? Or is she putting on a character? Rihanna is clearly singing “Nobody’s Business” about Chris Brown (it is a duet between them!), but can the same be said for “Stay” or “Mother Mary”? Or is she acting? “Little Star” and “Mer Girl” are without a doubt about Madonna’s family, but who is “She’s Not Me” about? Was Guy Ritchie living foul? Or is she acting?

Lady Gaga has never been elusive about the fact she is playing a character; we all know her real name, we all know where she is from, and we all know of her meteoric rise to fame after dropping out of NYU. She has talked to Barbara Walters about her family and, next to Rihanna, is THE preeminent artist of the Internet Generation; the dialogue between Stefani and Her Fans is continuous and often. And I wish I knew nothing about her. I wish she would commit to the character completely or not at all (although, I’m sure she learned from Bowie, this can be “dangerous” and make her “doubt [her sanity]”). It’s all so painfully fake and unironic.

And the way she needs to explain all of her artistic choices so we never miss any of the “deep” things she is doing (Gaga is sitting in a chair made of microchips above to symbolize her connection to the digital world and her, yep, you guessed it, fans…)

And the (“alleged”) plastic surgery! From a woman who spends all of her time telling other people how much to love themselves. I guess he didn’t make you perfect, babe.

And you are not gay! We don’t need you to fight our fucking battles! Sit DOWN! You and Kathy Griffin can both go sit on a disco stick.

I wonder if other people notice how lucent she is. I wonder if she knows! Or does she sincerely think she is being clever and cute? Do people notice how plastic and forced and contrived pop music is in general? Is this something that comes with age? Is this why everything is marketed to teenagers and tweens? How did it take me until damn near 30 to realize that Madonna has always been a shameless cunt? Or do people know and just don’t care?

The bitch of it all is that I know, no matter how much I pull my hair and yell at my TV, that I will continue to support Lady Gaga, financially and otherwise. Like Lindsay Lohan and, yes, even Madonna, Lady Gaga will get an unlimited number of chances to transgress. I wish I could throw my arms up and be done with her, but there is…something about her. And she knows it. Which makes me hate her even more.

Bad Cinema: Battleship (Dir: Peter Berg, 2012)

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In case you can’t read the tagline, it says: “The battle for Earth begins at sea.” Prepare to begin rolling your eyes….now!

What can be said about a movie so stupid, so painful, and so sadly American? A movie based on a fucking board game from the ’60s, co-starring Liam Neeson and Rihanna. Yes. Schindler meets the Neo-Queen of Pop, y’all.

OK. Here goes. Two brothers (Taylor Kitsch and Alexander Skarsgard) are at a bar. One brother is clearly directionless and a horndog; the other has all of his life together. We learn this by their haircuts. Alex has long hair; Stone has a crew cut. In order to impress some strange girl at a bar – a girl who demands a chicken burrito after the “kitchen” (read: microwave) closes – Alex decides to break into the across-the-street-Asian-owned convenient store to get this dime-a-dozen blond, Sam (Brooklyn Decker), her coveted 4th meal. We see his crazy shenanigans via a belabored montage of security camera clips and as the cops chase him down the street, tazing him, he will not rest until the burrito is in Sam’s hands (feel free to insert penis joke here; if the filmmakers knew anything about subtext, this would be intentional).

The next morning, somehow not arrested, Alex wakes up to roommate/brother Stone (who also – surprise! – pays all the bills) yelling (like I-am-going-to-murder-you yelling) at him to do something with his life! And then it dawns on him! “You are joining the Navy with me!”

Cut to Alex with a crew cut playing in some naval soccer game. (I don’t know why other than to have something athletic happening). He gets in a scuffle on the field with some Asian-American player from the other team (his heritage bears mention for how it relates to the mid point), and continues the brawl with him in the bathroom, conveniently right before he was supposed to ask the Admiral for his daughter’s hand in marriage. (Of course, the semi-hot burrito girl from the beginning is his girlfriend and of course her father is his boss and of course, in a movie about archaic values, he would go through the archaic process of asking permission while commenting on how archaic the process is; Battleship is getting post-modern, people!)

"You will show me some respect! Because I sure as hell don't have any for my career."

“You will show me some respect! Because I sure as hell don’t have any for my career.”

Well, naturally, bloodied and in trouble, this is not the moment to hit the old man up for a favor. Besides. There is no time! The world is under attack by alien invaders! I’ll let you read that sentence again. Yes, Battleship, a movie based on a board game, is not only a romance, but a bromance, a war film, a sci-fi epic, and a catastrophe picture; when you can’t decide what type of movie to make, make them all!

You see, way back in the year 2005, NASA sent a signal out to this distant Earth-like planet. Seven years later, they answered with a vengeance! The way all creatures from outer space do: by force! Their spaceships swoop in and sink four of the five destroyers in the American fleet. Except the one lone battleship: the USS Missouri. (Remember! The point of the board game, on which this fucking trash is based, is to sink all five of your opponents’ battleships…gaaaaawwwwddddd)

The USS Missouri was the ship that defeated the Japanese in Dubaya-Dubaya Two and has subsequently been turned into a museum. But despite the aliens guns-a-blazin’ invasion, the Missouri still stood like a beacon of hope. (See why he had to battle with an Asian!? AND why his nemesis at the convenient store was Asian?!!!!! Amuricah is here to save the day! Subtle…) But who could possibly sail this hunk of junk?

Enter the “Greatest Generation”. Dozens of retired vets appear as if they are living on the boat to, once again, defend their country from an alien invasion. Only this time, they are from outer space.

I’ll spare you the mind-numbing details of their mission and its execution because, frankly, I was so goddamn bored that I drifted in and out of various levels of consciousness throughout, ranging from complete catatonia to Fucking Hell This Shit is Still On?! Obviously, being an American film, the Americans win, the aliens lose, and Alex is a hero. Now finally he can go to the Admiral and ask for his daughter’s hand!

“No.”
“Sir. I saved the world.”
“Saving the world is one thing. But my daughter is quite another. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for lunch. I think I’ll have a…chicken burrito.”

And with this piece of wit, we proudly cut to the director’s title card as CCR’s “Fortunate Son” blares in the background.

This was beyond a painful experience. Not only was it moronically conceived, executed, and delivered, but goddamn it, I am sick and tired of these films about American Greatness and how it relates to the creation of the “American male”; a conscious political/advertising movement during the early parts of the 20th Century as an influx of homosexuals began to appear in the urban markets, which in turn caused us to rigidly define gender to alleviate ambiguity as an aid in targeting groups to consume more products (case in point: Marlboro, a “healthier” cigarette created for women that was marketed to men by the use of the Marlboro Man; a cowboy alone with his horse and his nicotine, celebrating the ideals of the “Rough-Rider,” popularized by Teddy Roosevelt as the peak of masculinity).

And let’s address the “Greatest Generation”. Fine. They defeated the Nazis. And reaped the prosperity that winning a war affords you, making America the major world power, which as history as proven, is a dubious accolade at best. But let’s see. This greatest generation also interned the Japanese, didn’t allow black people to vote, lobotomized homosexuals, and treated women as things to be seen and not heard. So everyone cheer for this amazing era.

Films like Battleship, with their guns and their masculine hero worship in the form of the American soldier, are tacitly designed not only to solidify America as the best and strongest nation in the world, but also to reinforce the ideals of masculinity, equating them with bravery and force; just as movies like The Wedding Planner are designed to teach women that if you work too hard you may miss your chance at happiness, which of course, equals the attention of a gorgeous doctor with whom you can live happily ever after and pro-create, giving the world more stupid children who are taught these same stupid values, continuing this same stupid cycle. These tropes are dangerous and counter-productive!!! When will we wake up?!

Not even Riri – with her sexy sass (her first line is, “What’s wrong with you, drama queen!” while rocking it in her soccer uniform), going for her best Vasquez, and posing her fellow sailors in a montage of selfies –  could save this bullshit.

"I told you baby! I'm a ROCKSTAR! Don't fuck with me!" #rihannareignjustwontletup #whythehellwasthismyfilmdebut

“I told you baby! I’m a ROCKSTAR! Don’t fuck with me!” #rihannareignjustwontletup #whythehellwasthismyfilmdebut

Is Battleship a Car Crash, Colonoscopy, Berkley, or Kardashian?
***Battleship is the movie they would make you watch in the hospital after you got in a car accident with Elizabeth Berkley and Kris Jenner; an accident so terrible that they would check you for internal bleeding via a rectal exam***

Bad Cinema: Angela, The Fireworks Woman (Dir: Wes Craven, 1975)

With his performance in The Canyons, James Deen joins Sasha Grey, Traci Lords, Ron Jeremy, and Jenna Jameson on the road to “respectability” from porn star to mainstreamer. Only time will tell how seamless his transition, particularly while he still continues to make adult films, but as the aforementioned actors know all too well, it is not a smooth road. But with the constant marriage of sex in cinema, including the addition of hardcore sex in mainstream movies, the pavement has much less potholes than it used to.

If you are a director, however, it has always been much easier to hide or overcome your involvement in pornography (Francis Ford Coppola is the most famous example, directing soft-core porn, Tonight for Sure in 1962). However, there are some people – Lars von Trier and Madonna come to mind – who seem to ape their pornographic ties to continue their controversial reign (von Trier – in addition to real sex in his films Antichrist and the upcoming Nymphomaniac, where Shia LeBouf will fuck on camera! – produces a series of X rated films for his production company, Zentropa; Madge, of course, with her infamous Sex book and continuing, sadly, to flash her nipples at fans during her concerts and to act a damn fool anywhere she can…). Then, there are people, like Wes Craven, who admits to having a pornographic past, but refuses to name names. Thankfully, imdb is not so coy.

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Wes Craven’s career is a frustratingly curious one. He is fully capable of turning in a really great, scary movie: A Nightmare on Elm Street made us all afraid to go to sleep; The Hills Have Eyes made us all afraid to go into the desert; and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the Scream franchise are the preeminent post-modern horror flicks, making even the most cynical of movie goers jump in their seats. He has also turned in solid, yet uneven work that leaves you wondering whether to scream, laugh, or scream with laughter; the line between comedy and horror is very thin (which is why horror musicals don’t work because they become unintentional camp): Vampire in Brooklyn was probably the best example of a horror-comedy since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yet the jokes are obvious and the horror predictable; and The Last House on the Left undercuts its own devastating terrors by scoring it with hokey ’70s singer-songwriter tunes and uses banjo music to make the police officers nothing more than Keystone Cops. He also turned in some of the worst horror films ever made: Deadly Blessing attempts to make the Hittites ominous (Children of the Corn, this ain’t); The Hills Have Eyes 2 takes what was great about the original and flushes it through a giant Brita filter, complete with the unnecessary, taxing flashbacks that plague most sequels; and the late career string of duds Cursed, Red Eye, and My Soul to Take shows, like John Carpenter’s The Ward, that maybe the old guy just doesn’t give a damn anymore. And then there is the curious case of The Serpent and the Rainbow, a beautifully made cross between Jacob’s Ladder, Gorillas in the Mist, and Raiders of the Lost Ark that you would never guess was made by one of the “masters” of horror; a film that while I was watching it made me zone in and out, trying to discern what was lacking, but as I sit here and write, I want to give it a proper chance, because maybe, just maybe, it could be Wes’ best work.

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But the most curious specimen in Wes’ uneven career is Angela, The Fireworks Woman, a porno he made between The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Yes, you read that correctly. Wes Craven, between two of his most acclaimed, best films, made a porno. And not just some soft-core-people-are-naked-European-style-sexual-liberation-exercise. But a full-on-Deep-Throat-style-penetration-piece-of-pulp-70s-trash.

Wes Craven got his start working on a Sean Cunningham faux sex documentary Together, starring the soon-t0-be-porn-star Marilyn Chambers, who was cast in adult classic Behind the Green Door on the strength of her performance. Wes and Sean took the profits and put it into making what was originally going to be a hardcore-exploitation “roughie,” The Last House on the Left. Many of House‘s cast and crew (actors Sandra Cassell, Lucy Grantham, Fred J. Lincoln, Gaylord St. James; DP Victor Hurwitz) came from sexploitation films. But despite the “taming down” of its more pornographic elements, The Last House on the Left is still 40 years later, a shocking, revenge rape film in the vein of I Spit on Your Grave; a film so controversial, projectionists made their own edits and Wes Craven had trouble getting another job. Where could a burgeoning director/ex-English professor turn? Porn, of course!

Wes also has a cameo in the film...thankfully, he keeps all of his clothes on.

Wes also has a cameo in the film…thankfully, he keeps all of his clothes on.

After editing skin-flicks It Happened in Hollywood (1973) and Kitty Can’t Help It (1975), Craven, under the pseudonym Abe Snake, directed Angela, The Fireworks Woman, which follows the sexual exploits of a girl in love with her brother. But even though Peter feels the same way about his sister, he can’t handle his incestuous yearnings and after a passionate night with her, joins the priesthood. But Angela and her loins are unstoppable! So she has a string of sexual encounters (a menage with her boss and a visitor, a menage with a set of strangers, gets raped by two fishermen, and has an orgy at a house party during the film’s…ughm…climax) before Peter comes to his senses and realizes he will never be as happy with God as he fucking his sister. So he comes to the orgy and saves her. And they all live happily ever after.

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Craven doesn’t shy away from the coitus. In fact, the men always pull out for their cum shots and the women, particularly Angela, will go to town on any dick (or pussy) if given the chance (and in true ’70s fashion her bush could be styled with a curling iron). Angela, the Fireworks Woman is also reaching for art, back in the days before gonzo was the norm; the days of Porno Chic; an era when adult films were shot on film, attended by the upper classes, and the stigma of sex could be met with a modicum of respectability (until AIDS and the Reagan ’80s sent sex back in the dirty corners of the closet); thankfully, Michael Lucas and Wicked Pictures have picked up the charge, proving that modern porn doesn’t have to be cheap, demeaning, or artless.

The opening sequence of Angela, The Fireworks Woman reminds me of Frankenheimer’s masterpiece Seconds and the first threesome screams of European flicks, particularly early Paul Verhoeven films, Katie Tippel and Business is Business. And yet for all its attempts at Art with a Capital A, Angela must be deemed “Bad Cinema,” not because it is a porn, but because from a writing and acting stand point, like most pornos, even the best ones, it fluctuates from laughable to painfully dull. And like most ’70s porns, even the sex scenes are populated with sub-attractive people who somehow were chosen to try and turn us on.

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Angela, The Fireworks Woman is a unique entry in the Craven canon as well as a nostalgic reminiscence to the Golden Age of Porn. Check it out for yourself here.

Is Angela, The Fireworks Woman a Car Crash, Colonoscopy, Berkley, or Kardashain?
***
BERKLEY***

What are your thoughts on Wes Craven? Angela, The Fireworks Woman? Pornography?

Good Cinema: The Canyons (Dir: Paul Schrader, 2013)

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Last night, in a Microsoft office in downtown Venice, I witnessed the resurrection of Lindsay Lohan.

Picture it: there I am in my green “Censorship is Objectionable” t-shirt I got from the Newseum in Washington D.C., sitting in some office space by the beach, drinking free wine, waiting to watch an invite only screening of a film for its Kickstarter backers, starring Lindsay Lohan, after which the director, the writer, and the producer will be doing a Q&A. It doesn’t get much more LA than this.

My cousin Matt is an excellent screenwriter. He has taken two of the most “unadaptable” books, American Psycho and You Shall Know Our Velocity! and not only created fabulous page turners full of wit and power, but captured both Ellis’ and Eggers’ idiosyncratic whimsy. His version of American Psycho was going to be made by Oliver Stone, but as projects often do in LaLa Land, Hollywood decided to go in another direction. His Velocity! script, if Hollywood is smart, will win him the Academy Award.

Being a member of the Church of LiLo, of course I knew of The Canyons, the newest “comeback” film in a string of her would-be-comeback films. I also knew of the bad reviews it had been getting, the rumor that her performance was the reason they couldn’t find a distributor, and that her leading man, James Deen, a porn star, acted circles around her. The clips they decided to leak didn’t do much to negate this or really prepare the viewer for what was in store. But I didn’t care. I HAD to see The Canyons, Bad Cinema or not. Had to see Lindsay!

So when Matt couldn’t use the tickets he got for donating to Kickstarter, I was only too happy to see that they wouldn’t go to waste.

I told myself that I was going to be sociable. The time is now! Saia is stepping outside of his box! But instead of talking to the handful of guys my age, I tried to strike up a conversation with a man who could be my grandfather; somewhere deep inside, I still harbor this fear of young straight men. Plus, to try and muscle in on some conversation about film between two bearded 27 year olds in flannel seemed disingenuous and shamelessly transparent; there is networking and there is being awkward. And then there is awkward networking. The old man smiled and dashed off to the bathroom.

So I did what I always do. I sat myself down in between two groups of women. I felt protected. And at peace.

“What is the over/under that Lindsay shows up tonight?” one of them said to the other. I knew this was my chance.

“OMG. Are we talking about Lohan?”

“Of course! I just love her.”

“Oh, me too. Is she coming? If she’s here, I think I’m going to shit the floor.” Two sentences in and I was already talking about shitting on the goddamned floor to a stranger. Smooth.

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I can’t fully explain what it is about Lindsay that drives my desire – my obsession – to see her succeed. There are many actors who are equally as talented, equally as beautiful, that entertain us without drama, without the ringing of the hands that make us throw our heads back in torment to exclaim, “Why?!” And yet, fewer actresses excite me more than LiLo. Friends and lovers alike scoff at my unfailing belief in her power to arise, triumphant, like a Phoenix from the burning embers of her once promising career.

And it was once promising. Before the arrests and the rehab, before the breakdowns and the gaunt like frame, before the shameless ways her parents tried to make a name off her infamy, Lindsay Lohan was one of the most exciting rising stars in the game. The Parent Trap made her a star at 12, Mean Girls made her a household name at 18, and her trifecta of strong work in A Prairie Home Companion, Bobby, and Georgia Rule, along side Meryl Streep, Sharon Stone, and Jane Fonda, made her an actress to envy and admire at 20.

But a string of duds (I Know Who Killed Me, Labor Pains, Machete, and particularly the dreadful Liz and Dick), coupled with her out-of-control life broadcast on the hour by TMZ, made even the staunchest fans wonder, Is Lindsay gone for good?

And the answer is a resounding: Hell NO!

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The Canyons is a neo-noir set in modern times about a trust fund film director (Deen), his bored girlfriend (Lohan), and their sexual improprieties. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot of the film because it is best to go into it with little to no expectations. The trailers create an ambiance that the film delivers, but it is much darker and richer than what you may imagine.

In fact, Paul Schrader, the director, actually cut “parody” trailers meant to deceive the audience.

In the Q&A, Paul and Bret talked a lot about the look of the film. To the uninformed viewer, which I considered myself until about half way through, the film looks cheap. I remember thinking to myself, “This is Paul Schrader? This looks like some kid made this in film school!” And I would be right on both accounts. The film was made for $250,000, over half of which came from Kickstarter.

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I am at a crossroads with Kickstarter. For the unknown and the underfunded, Kickstarter is a great idea. But ask Julian. I have definitely not been shy about shitting on Zach Braff and Spike Lee for trying to rape money from fans. But, like I am prone to do, sometimes I speak on things without thinking them through or knowing all of the facts.

“You’re telling me Spike Lee doesn’t have 2 million dollars to fund his own goddamn movie?”

Well, of course he does. But the point is that everyone in Hollywood of any clout has the funding to finance their own movies. But they don’t. They turn to studios. Or friends. Or the actors. But the system is changing drastically. We are officially the Digital Age. In one of the biggest pieces of irony, the Kodak Theatre, the place where the Oscars are held, is now called the Dolby; Schrader and Ellis beautifully portray this shift in The Canyons with their intermittent still frames of abandoned movie theatres, shot of course, on digital. Most small movies actually can’t get outside funding because they need to make 100s of millions of dollars to be considered “successful” so they turn to TV, or the once dreaded VOD, instead. Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra was estimated at costing 10-15 million dollars to make, plus an additional 10-15 million in publicity, which for a “gay indie” was way too much money for studios to “waste.” So HBO made it for 23 million, and piped it into the homes of their 93 million paying subscribers.

Looking on Spike and Zach’s Kickstarter page, the incentives to give are actually really fabulous. Yes, for nominal amounts, you get signed swag and premiere parties like the one I went to for The Canyons. But for the more substantial donations you can have a private party with Zach, take Spike’s film class, and even sit with Spike front row at the Knicks. And for those interested in actually being in the industry, for $500 or more, you get to participate in Spike’s boot camp, culminating in an interview to be a PA on the new Spike Lee Joint. That may seem extravagant, but juxtapose that with the price of film school. And after film school, you aren’t guaranteed a shot at a job with a legendary director.

What made me gain even more respect for The Canyons is that the filmmakers put their money where their mouth was. Paul Schrader, Bret Easton Ellis, and producer Braxton Pope, all chipped in $30000 of their own money. Lindsay Lohan even deferred her $250000 payday. They believed in the film financially, which made me look at the solicitation of fan money in a new way. I don’t know if Spike or Zach are spending any of their money. I hope so.

Even though The Canyons isn’t the first micro-budget film to be made by famous people (Edward Burns has made three), it has definitely made some of the most press, given the controversial, high profile people involved, garnering reviews in The Village Voice, the New York Times, and EW.

The film shines with an amateurish mastery. Its budget is pronounced, but never a hindrance. Schrader does wonders with what he has. Particularly the actors. You would never know that James Deen comes from porn (except his giant penis certainly makes you wish); his “limited” ability works well for a sociopath’s emptiness.

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Nolan Funk is perfect as the young actor trying to seem older than his years; and where his acting seems disjointed, his body picks up the slack.

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And then there is Lohan. Her performance is so lived in, so unforced, people will inevitably claim she is playing herself. Which is a discredit to her talent. Does she know what it’s like to be bored and rich in LA? Of course. Does she knows what it’s like to feel followed? Of course. Does she know what it’s like to have orgies? Perhaps. But all actors draw from their personal lives. Lindsay wears Tara like an old familiar coat. Every breath, every uncomfortable glance away, every chuckle comes from a real place. In fact, she is the only actor in the film that always rings true. It slightly reminded me of Closer. Julia Roberts was the only one attempting for real life on camera, while her three co-stars most definitely thought they were in a play. The Canyons, with its stylistic flourishes, including Ellis’ sing song hipster speech, can, like Woody Allen, seem almost a caricature if not in the right hands. Lohan delivers her dialogue with aplomb, capturing the subtle moments in between, as well as the heavy emotions asked of her. Brava, Lindsay. Brava.

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The Canyons is an inspiring film to watch as a young filmmaker. The fact that Paul Schrader can still have trouble funding projects and then make such a great one on a quarter of a million dollars leaves me without excuses to make my own work happen. Or to let fear keep me from engaging in new situations. Like introducing myself to Bret Easton Ellis.

Of course Matt knows Bret Easton Ellis, which is still a surreal thing for me to comprehend; I am one step removed from an iconoclast. Somewhere within me is still that little kid from Troy who is pinching himself that he works the Oscars and gets to go to events like these; like Anne Hathaway, only not fucking obnoxious and affected.

Matt had sent me with instructions to say “hello,” partially, I think/I hope, so that when we meet again at some dinner party at Matt and Lisa’s we will already be old friends. I was nervous, but the longer I am in Hollywood and the closer I get to achieving my goals and interacting with the famous, it is much less intimidating. I’ve waited on innumerable celebs, work for Judge Judy, almost smoked a hot J with Sarah Silverman, and a TV treatment I wrote made it into Martin Scorsese’s circle. I have definitely not seen it all, but the old trope is true: they are just like us. Even Diana Ross sleeps on an air mattress in Harlem when she visits her daughter.

Bret was exactly what I had hoped he would be, but not what I expected. His prose is so alive, so visceral; his Twitter feed rightfully notorious, and yet he was very calm, polite, and unaffected; the perfect separation of art and artist. I felt like an idiot, stammering, trying to come up with interesting things to say, and all the while he made me feel heard and important, even with thirty other people around. Which felt indicative to The Canyons. For all his infamy of being bombastic, The Canyons was almost romantic in its lyrical hypnosis. I can’t wait to see it again.

Do yourself a favor. Ignore the critics. Even me! Go see The Canyons. Hell, download it! Order it on demand! Just see it and make your own conclusions. If nothing else, it is an interesting exercise in guerrilla filmmaking. An exercise that will be the wave of our future.