Bad Cinema: Sextette (Dir: Ken Hughes, 1978)

“When I’m good I’m very good, but when I’m bad I’m better.”
– Mae West

Oh, how I wish this were true.

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On paper, Mae West is everything an audacious fag could desire: brazen, controversial, and dressed to the nines. She made it through vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway, radio, TV, Vegas, rock and roll albums, and the movies as a writer/performer/provocateur, retaining control (sometimes to her own demise) over her scripts, image, and legend within Hollywood’s Studio System. Her plays Sex and The Drag (an early example of pro-gay literature) got her jailed and stymied by the Morality Police. Her work was seen as shocking, revolutionary, and culturally significant, proving that women could be just as powerful (and interested in sex) as men. Her breakthrough film She Done Him Wrong (1933) saved Paramount from bankruptcy and even today her name is looked upon with respect. Bette Midler and Madonna have repurposed the Westian philosophy of feminine masculinity, crude sexual rebellion, and African-American homage, adding a dash of modernity and musical theatre, to make them one name legends as well. (To wit, Midler is playing Mae West in an upcoming HBO film based on her memoirs…). Yes, on paper, Mae West is everything a man obsessed with sex, censorship, and Hollywood history could ask for.

And yet….

She is an overrated bore that is more important than good.

The problem with Mae as the star of her vehicles is that she is not an actress; she is a personality. Every character, regardless of her name, is Mae West – even Mae West was “Mae West” (watch any interview with her. She is ALWAYS “on”). And unlike W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, The Three Stooges, or any other comedy legend, her personality is frankly not that interesting. She is nothing more than a throbbing clitoris, waiting to be flicked. She bobs her hips, fluffs her hair, throws off a double entendre, croaks out a ditty, and thinks that makes her fabulous. Her characters are empty inside, lacking anything that even resembles human emotion. She is a caricature of a human, a caricature of a woman, and a facsimile of what some refer to as Talent.

In Belle of the Nineties, her “act,” the big time showstopper for the club is nothing more than West posing in various costumes while some tenor sings, sending the crowd into hysterics. Every script is filled with reminders of her beauty and bedroom prowess, every film filled with a supple supply of men begging for her approval (Where does the Satire stop and her Narcissism begin…?). Usually casting herself as the main event chanteuse, West talk/sings her way through an endless array of numbers, ranging from slightly engaging to comatose. Yet these numbers are the reason to suffer through the films in the first place. They contain her gait, her lascivious eye rolls, her signature voice, and her flare for eccentric dress. Watching her attempt to connect with fellow actors in dialogue scenes, however, is downright painful and utterly uncomfortable. It’s as if she is marking time between songs and zingers. I find it difficult to believe that she was such a hit on the stage where acting is more revered and the audience is a lot more critical. Perhaps you just had to be there. West would have been great in the music video era when lip-synching for five minutes through various sexual poses is all that is required to be successful.

But Mae West rightfully earned her place in history. While Louise Brooks adopted the flapper dress and celebrated her boyish body and manly haircut, while Gertrude Stein proved her literary weight at the Algonquin in her pant suit, West employed her style of garish feminism as a traditional woman: buxom and coiffed, Mae brought men to their knees decked out in the most theatrical costume that would accentuate her positives. But she was more than just a sex symbol. She told male studio heads where they could stick their awful scripts, lived a furiously independent life, and was unashamedly self-assured (to the brink of Egotism…). She wrote the checks, cashed them, and laughed all the way to the bank. Yes, Mae West was an anomaly in those early days of Hollywood; a siren luring men into complete submission with her sashay and a song, unafraid of waves crashing around her.

When she is not on screen, her films die. When Mae is not vamping, her films die. And when we spend too much time with her, with no time to miss what makes her special, her films die. From a modern view point, West’s greatest strengths are her audacity (even now her infamous quips seem shocking. In fact, her one-liners were so respected that she was offered to write a column like Will Rogers; she turned it down) and her unabashed joy in her own sexuality (paging Madonna…it seems odd she doesn’t cite Mae in “Vogue,” but makes room for Joe Dimaggio…). But her “talent” is almost moot. It’s not important that Mae West wasn’t great. What’s important is that Mae West existed.

***

In 1951, after (BLISSFULLY!) turning down Billy Wilder for the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (refusing to consider herself a has-been), West began writing a play: Sextette, about a newly married woman who must juggle her five ex-husbands and restore diplomacy through her…feminine wiles. Unable to find a backer, the play took ten years to mount. Then at 68, Mae returned to the road. In the hopes of finally bringing Sextette to the screen, West accepted a part in 20th Century-Fox’s newest commodity, Myra Breckinridge, her first film in 27 years (“It’s a return, not a comeback” – Norma Desmond to a T…). Of course, under the provision that she retained her famous control of her dialogue. And we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be…

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Though Myra Breckinridge tanked, it thrust Mae West into the Liberation-centered ’70s, where she was heralded for being a champion of gay rights and female empowerment. She appeared on Dick Cavett, wrote two books, and at the age of 84 went into production on her final film, the train wreck adaptation of Sextette.

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Sextette follows the exploits of internationally famed movie star Marlo Manners during her honeymoon. Surrounded by well-wishers, sycophants, and staff, Marlo can’t get a moment alone with Husband No. 6 (the 31 year old Timothy Dalton). To make matters worse, ex-husbands (and muscle bound athletes) start coming out of the wood work, demanding her affection. One ex-husband, a diplomat, refuses to vote for diplomacy unless he can spend one more night with Marlo. Dozens of men are falling over themselves, putting national security at risk even, for the clarion call of her geriatric pussy. Lest we forget this is a musical, there are tap dancing bellhops and a string of horrible, very poorly lip-synched songs, delivered in Mae’s talk/sing moans. If it weren’t all so embarrassing, it would be hilarious.

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Problems begat problems right from the start. The producers were inexperienced, the budget ballooned from 1.5 to 7 million dollars, the director was replaced, and the script was a mess. Like Cleopatra before it, Sextette began rolling without a finished screenplay. Herbert Baker, who was adapting West’s play, wrote scenes the night before or even the morning of shooting, making it impossible for the octogenarian Mae to learn her lines. If her delivery seems to be even more stilted than normal, it’s because she was fitted with a ear piece under her wig, allowing Hughes to feed her her dialogue. This was not the only thing impeded by her advanced age. If her famous gait seems more wobbly than you think it should even for an 84 year old, it’s because her vision kept her from seeing her marks; therefore, a PA had to crawl around as her guide out of frame.

The cast is as random and pointless as the spin-the-wheel call sheet on Sgt. Pepper: George Hamilton, Ringo Starr, and Tony Curtis as a few of her ex-husbands; Alice Cooper as a piano playing waiter; Regis Philbin as a news anchor; Keith Moon as a fashion designer; Walter Pidgeon as the head of the UN; and a scenery chomping Dom Deluise as Marlo’s personal assistant.

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And then there is Mae herself in the rarest of forms, looking visibly exhausted, like a gussied up Baby Jane Hudson, desperately trying to hang on to her glory days. For whatever they were worth.

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Reading her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, you fall in love with her snark, her gregariousness, her charisma, and her catchy turn of phrase; like any good autobiography should do (or any visit to Graceland…). But watching her films is another story. They are unilaterally bad, some downright awful with West herself as their greatest asset – and liability. Sextette may not be the worst of the worst. But it is certainly the strangest.

 ***CAR CRASH***

The Boys in their Bow Ties

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The Boys in their Bow Ties
Whisper in the dark.
Unaware of their taunts,
They flaunt their
Youthful
limbs

Suddenly, I am there
in the halls of the past,
waiting for him to turn the corner.
He kisses her cheek
and brushes her hand
while I bask
in my
Masochism.

***

The Boys in their Bow Ties
SHOUT
their desires
Yet
remain the envy of all

while the boy in his blue jeans –
the pair he cut up the side himself,
thinking it made him sexy;
the boy in his Marilyn Manson t-shirt –
with safety pins galore
and an oversized attitude he thought made him edgy…
…this boy watches
and wishes
in
SILENCE
begging for the chance
to one day know
the choke of a clasp
and the embrace of acceptability

***

The Boys in their Bow Ties
are beautiful.
Yes,
B e a u t i f u l.

Suddenly, I am there
on the corner of 8th Avenue,
waiting for The One that doesn’t exist.
He kisses my cheek
and brushes my hand
then ravishes me
as he should.
In the heat of the night,
the morning is cold

and I’m back at the party again.

***

The Boys in their Bow Ties
dance the night away.
Their coy sophistication
catches my sentimental eye.
The DJ plays “Kiss,”
but I want “Diamonds and Pearls”;
I guess it’s just a “Sign O’ the Times”…
But who needs a Prince when there’s a Pharaoh in your bed?
So I put my Lust away
And pull my Heart out instead.

Forgetting all my Humbert dreams
and Annabel Lee fantasies,
I resume my place in the real world
and remember how far I’ve come –
how far we’ve come –
and I smile.
And I smile.

***

The Boys in their Bow Ties
still whisper in the dark
and I guess they always will.
Yet the Men in their Pajamas
sing the sweetest lullabies…

How lucky I am to have found You.

In the Good Old Summertime

It’s a strange, strange feeling
this dance we do;
Loving Him,
But missing You.

We live in the Bubble
Playing our games,
Creating these characters
with funny names.

He’s everything I’ve hoped for –
the warmth, the burn…
But there’s this springtime sadness
when I think of your return.

Your touch
Your smile
Your mysterious ways.
Your distant power
makes me count the days.

It’s a strange, strange feeling
this dance we do;
Needing Him,
But wanting You.

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Bad Cinema: Alien3 (Dir: David Fincher, 1992)

“When they first heard about this thing, it was ‘Crew Expendable.’ The next time they sent in marines. They were expendable too. What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass end of space? You really think they’re gonna let you interfere with their plans for this thing? They think we’re…we’re crud.”

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If you had asked me twenty years ago – ten years ago, two weeks ago! – if there was even the remotest possibility I would entertain the notion one day that Alien3 would be anything less than great, I would have laughed right in your face. The Alien Franchise was a vital and glorious part of my maturation. My friend Kevin and I used to crawl around his house, hiding from xenomorphs, stomping around in our invisible loaders, making flame throwers out of odds and ends, fighting over who would get to play Ripley this go around (and this was before we knew we were gay; talk about throwing flames…). While the first two films in the series are established masterpieces, I have always championed the third installment as its neglected step-sister; the Desperate Living in the canon, if you will. In fact, last week I was excited to write about Alien3 for Good Cinema, ready to remind the world (or the 16 people that would maybe read my review) that this little baby need not be lost in the shadow of its glorious predecessors.

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But 20 minutes into the 2 hour and 24 minute Special Edition, I had the crushing realization that my beloved film – the reason I would fall backwards into a pool with my eyes closed, the reason I would randomly yell “Pour the lead!”, the reason I would curl up into a ball against the wall and pant like Sigourney on the poster, imagining that I was narrowly escaping death by way of the Alien and his phallic mouth – was pure and utter bullshit. Perhaps even worse than the completely ridiculous Alien: Resurrection. 

Before we continue, I want to make the clear distinction between a Sequel and A Quest for Cash Addition to a Series. Not to be misunderstood, I’m under no delusions that all Sequels – good and bad – are made because they think there is great market potential for more material. But the difference between say, Back to the Future Part II and Friday the 13th Part II, is that the former is interested in continuing the story while the latter merely uses a similar device to create a franchise. What is so rare about the Alien films is that they are usually categorized as horror – the genre most guilty of shameless franchise-ment – AND continues the same story; Scream would be another great example of this phenomenon. Alien 1-3 uses Ripley’s relationship with the creatures as its central crux, picking up where the previous film left off and attempting to give us something fresh, something vital, something unforgettable about the universe. Alien is a masterwork of suspense, while Aliens is the best war film ever made. Alien3, however, is a belabored exercise in tone by a rookie director figuring out his style with one great pay-off, mired in an ironic combination of excess and void.

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Like the beginning of Aliens, Alien3 begins with Ripley coming out of an extended hypersleep. This time, instead of being picked up by a salvage team and taken back to Earth, Ripley’s escape pod crash lands on Fury 161, an almost abandoned planet housing a maximum security prison. We learn through a series of didactic conversations that the authorities wanted to shut the place down entirely, but a group of 20 prisoners who had found religion requested to stay and wait for the apocalypse. Seeing how they were a gang of rapists and murderers, the establishment had no problem leaving them in someone else’s hands. Dillon (Charles S. Dutton at his most ministerial) leads the others in prayer and harmony – until Ripley, the first woman they have seen in years, shows up to disrupt the delicate balance.

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For the first hour of the film, we hear nothing of the creature. There is a long drawn out, slow motion look-at-me-I-started-in-music-videos directorial touch where Ripley is rescued. There is Newt’s autopsy. There are gratuitous shots of surgical equipment and infrastructure. There is flirtation and sex between Ellen and the good doctor. There is an averted rape. There are muddled speeches, drowned out by the incessant use of music and horrible acoustics in the complex that force you to watch the movie with subtitles only to discover you really aren’t missing much. And there is the ticking of your own clock on the wall as it taunts you minute after minute, embarrassed for Sigourney Weaver that she was actually a producer on this thing and that her acting is for the first time maybe in her whole career melodramatic, making you long for something as pointless as Ghostbusters II  to help you forget you actually got up early to watch this mess.

So then the creature miraculously appears in the belly of a dead cow they find in the trash heap. The mythology of the xenomorph is that the Queen lays eggs. The eggs hatch these scorpion looking creatures who impregnate their prey by attaching to their face and basically cumming down their throat. Then the fetus bursts out of the chest of its host and grows into the fearsome, acid-for-blood motherfucker we all know and love. So that means somewhere there would have had to have been an egg/facehugger in the prison (which seems HIGHLY coincidental that they Aliens are everywhere Ripley happens to be) OR survived the crash water landing of Ripley’s ship, swam to shore, and attacked some unsuspecting bovine. The film isn’t exceptionally clear on its theory; it doesn’t care. The point is that the ball needs to roll and a dead cow is as good a host as any.

The prisoners learn to keep their dicks in their pants long enough because maybe Ripley knows how to stop this thing. Easily, almost too easily, they trap it in a space with no air ducts and six foot thick steel walls. But there are still 45 minutes of run time so you know shit is going to hit the fan. One of the nutso prisoners thinks that the Alien is giving him secret instructions to…who knows. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the Alien escapes so they have to catch it again.

While the creature runs free, Ripley decides to give herself a CAT scan. It is unclear why, other than to facilitate Plot Point 2, which is that Ripley has an Alien inside of her. Now THIS is an inspired piece of writing. Of course Ripley would be the host this go around. It is Part III, the theoretical end, the perfect way to complete the series. Ripley, carrying their Queen, serves as the guinea pig to lure the Alien to its death, before she murders herself and its progeny.

But of course, the old “company” – those nameless Maleficents that only want to study, only want to bring back, only want to protect the creature for its bio-weapons division – have returned and demand that Ripley and the fetus inside of her be saved at all costs. They even send Bishop, the man who invented the droid, as a friendly face to convince her they will take it out safely and destroy it. But Ellen is no novice to this game. She can smell his lies! And does the only thing she can: falls into a giant pool of molten lead to protect humanity.

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Like Laurie Strode’s decapitation of Michael at the end of H20: 20 Years Later, Ripley’s sacrifice is the best way to end her relationship with the xenomorph – and the series. But where there is money to be made, there are convoluted explanations to be concocted. “That wasn’t REALLY Michael in the mask. She killed some other guy who happened to be chasing her for hours and trying to murder her.” “Yeah, Ripley jumped into the fire, BUT we were able to abstract her DNA from the ashes and create a clone of her and the Alien.” Um, OK.

Alien: Resurrection could have been chosen for this column; it is awful too. But at least it gives us a different take on the Ripley character. Weaver is werking as the mischievous clone and Winona Ryder is…well, she is at least employed. But Alien3 is a disaster, an utter fail without redemption. Unless you are a die hard fan of the series or want to see Fincher developing his style, to paraphrase a much better film:

“Stay away from this movie….you bitch.”

***Rip van Winkle***

Bad Cinema: Flashdance (Dir: Adrian Lyne, 1983)

My first mistake was watching this after 9 1/2 Weeks, Lyne’s masterpiece of seduction and tone, the film that makes us wonder, “Why the hell is Kim Basinger not a bigger star?” and “My God, Mickey Rourke, what did you do to your face?” If you haven’t seen it, rent it from your local library tomorrow! But make sure you get the uncut version. That ice cube scene is rightfully famous. And that scene on the kitchen floor with the food when Basinger chugs the milk…oh my God. I need to own this movie.

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But Lyne’s previous outing, Flashdance – the “musical” (soooo not a musical) that spawned the whole off-the-shoulder-sweatshirt look about a welder by day/exotic dancer by night who longs to be a ballerina – is a piece of garbage. A celluloid diaper. Damn near unwatchable.

The two films have practically the same opening sequence – red lettering against a black screen with pop music underscoring a city montage featuring the heroine – and the scenes seem to serve as interstitials to the main events (the dancing and the sex, respectively). The difference lies in the script and the acting. Basinger and Rourke are exquisite, award worthy even, as the sado-masochistic duo; Basinger especially as she traverses the complicated emotions of excitement, shame, affection, rebellion, and disappointment sometimes in the same scene. (The crawling for the money sequence comes to mind…honestly how was she nominated for a Razzie?!!!!). Jennifer Beals and…what’s his name…Michael Nouri? OK sure…flatline at every turn. You never buy their romance (as much as one can buy a May-December romance) nor do you ever for one moment give a damn if she gets admitted to the dance school. Beals is nothing but a body, a good body at that, on the screen who occasionally is called upon to say some bullshit or react to some bullshit written by Joe Eszterhas.

Yes. Joe Eszterhas. The writer of Showgirls and Jade and Sliver was brought in as the SCRIPT DOCTOR on this piece of crap. That tells you all you need to know about the quality of the original screenplay. It is painfully obvious the scenes for which he was responsible: the awful Polack jokes, the cliche ridden romantic drivel, and the dialogue between the other exotic dancers (a warm up for Nomi and Friends, for sure). The film is best on mute. Go ahead. Try it. I had Sun Ra on in the background. As long as you unmute the dance sequences; the soundtrack is pretty awesome. How will you know that there is a dance sequence coming up? Because it looks like a music video. Flashdance, like Purple Rain or Vamp, is nothing more than a series of music videos with a killer score, connected by some vague plot, enacted by people who can’t act.

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On the topic of acting, it’s hilarious to me that Jennifer Beals was cast at all. Yes, she’s pretty. So what. So are millions of other girls. Yes, she has a coquettish smile and knows how to pose in the light. So do millions of other girls. They are called models. In a film about dancing, she does not do her own dancing. Let me repeat that. She. Does. Not. Do. Her. Own. Dancing. No less than four dance doubles are used, one of them a man (watch the audition sequence when “she” break dances; suddenly her legs get very muscular…). It’s no accident that the dance sequences are shot in silhouette, from a distance, and have her donning heavy white make-up with crazy hair that hides her face. Whereas Natalie Portman’s dance assistance was made irrelevant by her Oscar winning acting (one of the great performances of the 21st century), Beals’ whole presence becomes irrelevant. Seriously. How bad of an actress were the other girls dancing in her place? For one example of Beals’ horribleness, check out the scene where her character must confront the improbability of her dreams after a heart to heart with a fellow dancer. She tries to muster a tear, but it comes off as believable as Berkley’s “I hate you”/sniffle.

Flashdance sort of tries to flesh out her character and the plot by giving her two friends, the comedian chef and the ice skating stripper, who are supposed to serve as parallels to her journey, but all of them are so underdeveloped it seems like a waste of effort. The only thing worth watching are the MOMA installation style dance sequences, which thankfully you can just see on Youtube. Seriously though. What type of strip club has this caliber of avant-garde talent AND patrons who sit patiently in almost silence to watch it?

 

***Rip van Winkle***