Monday, June 26, 2017

Fata Morgana (1965)

Although the surrealist movement would expand to numerous countries throughout the 1920’s, by and large France remained the epicenter of surrealism, attracting many an artist associated with the movement who would eventually come to be considered masters in the field. Several of the most well known were Spanish or of Hispanic origin and the Spanish/French crossover within the realm of surrealism can’t be overstated, especially in the world of film. Perhaps the most well known example would be Louis Buñuel with several French productions and co-productions to his name, including the highly influential Un Chien Andalou (1929) with Salvador Dalí, another Spaniard, L'Age d'Or (1930), Bell de jour (1967) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Of course there was also the Panic Movement, the surrealist performance art collective founded by the Chilean born  Alejandro Jodorowsky along with Fernando Arrabal, future director of the surrealist classics Viva la muerte (1971) and I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973), and Frenchman Roland Topor. In the mid 1960’s, a new film movement began in Spain known as the “Barcelona School of Film” and young filmmaker Vicenta Aranda, who would later hit Euro horror pay dirt with The Blood Splattered Bride (1972), and eventually secure many top honors for the brilliant Amantes (1991), delivered Fata Morgana, a benchmark film from the Barcelona School of Film mindset and one of the finest examples of Spanish surrealism.

In a nearly deserted Barcelona, Gim (Teresa Gimpera), a beautiful model decides to stay in the city despite mass evacuations and constant warnings from officials to leave. Despite claiming she feels “safe”, Gim soon receives an ominous warning from one of the few remaining residents that she will soon be murdered. The same warning is given by a professor during a lecture, the thesis being that murder victims are attracted to their killers. While Gim now fears for her life, a mysterious man is sent to traverse the city in a desperate bid to save Gim from her deadly fate as predicted by the professor.

Given the aforementioned connection between Spain and France when it comes to surrealism, its only fitting that despite being a Spanish film that defines a very Spanish film movement, Fata Morgana, or “Left-Handed Fate”, feels very much like a French film at times. Not so much Nouvelle Vague, more Nouvelle Roman in the vein of Alain Robbe-Grillet. While the film doesn’t contain the explicit fourth wall breaking found in Robbe-Grillet’s playful narrative deconstructions, there is a constant feeling of Aranda winking his eye at the audience, saying everything happening on screen is some sort of absurd game, the rules to which are being made up on the spot and could change in a instant. It can be a thoroughly confusing film at times considering that there’s very little set-up and the action just happens at random as if in a fever-dream yet the film begins to make sense after the fact once the meaning of the title “Left-Handed Fate” beings to sink in. The film also has somewhat of a futuristic sci-fi edge to it. While no explanation is given as to why there is a mass evacuation taking place, some sort of nuclear or chemical weapons disaster wouldn’t be a bad guess as in the films most unusual moment, a woman happens upon a man baring severe monster-esque mutations. This could also have been an anti-General Franco political statement on Aranda’s part. Turning Barcelona into a ghost town was a masterstroke on Aranda’s part with all the sparseness adding to the surreality.

Being a surrealist film there are naturally moments of absurdity and humor. Seeing Gimpera followed by an armored tank/bus type of vehicle while the unseen driver tries to chat her up via megaphone is quite the hilarious sight as is the stranger (a spy perhaps?) sent to save Gimpera meeting with the mysterious prophetic professor covered in gauze resembling the Invisible Man in an empty stadium. The film also contains one of the more unique murder weapons found in European genre cinema, a metallic fish with a retractable blade. What’s also interesting is how certain scenes seem to find Aranda, albeit perhaps not intentionally, predicting some of the imagery that would be found in his next feature, the criminally underrated The Exquisite Cadaver (1969), also starring Gimerpa. Equally fascinating is the origin of the name Fata Morgana, the Italian name of Morgan le Fey, the sister of King Arthur and ruler of Avalon who possess supernatural abilities. In the legends she was believed to have been the cause of mirages Strait of Messina. Fata Morgana is also the name of a 1971 Werner Herzog film depicting mirages in the Sahara desert. Fan’s of The Blood Splattered Bride who are unfamiliar with Aranda’s other work should make an effort to dive deeper into the world of one of Spain’s most fierce and fascinating filmmakers with Fata Morgana being an essential part of that world.



Monday, June 12, 2017

Tricked (2012)

Like most maverick auteurs, Paul Verhoeven’s name brings forth a variety of opinions from both fans and critics. Those who dismiss Verhoeven’s work often cite his predilection towards extremities, particularly in the sex and violence departments. While its true that Verhoeven is a master of excess, his films bear all the hallmarks of having their cake and eating it too. To fans, Verhoeven is one of cinema’s greatest satirists with the majority of his films featuring a biting, often sardonic sense of humor and with an anti-authoritarian political edge. Unfortunately, not everybody seems to get Verhoeven’s brand of comedy. Looking back, it seems miraculous that the satire of RoboCop (1987) was widely recognized as it seems to be the only one of Verhoeven’s films where the humor didn’t completely fly over the heads of dense critics. Despite the following that Showgirls (1995) has garnered, there still are those that can’t quite grasp the fierce satirical wit the film possesses and with Starship Troopers (1997), Verhoeven was amazingly accused of being the very thing the film was lampooning. After returning to Holland to helm Black Book (2006), Verhoven did something fascinating by turning to the public to find the material for his next project. The result of the experiment was the mini-film Tricked, which saw Verhoeven’s blackly comedic side come to the forefront for one of his most side-splitting and fun, albeit brief efforts.

During his 50th birthday party thrown by his wife, Remco, an unfaithful businessman gets quite the shock when his former mistress Nadja shows up at the party eight months pregnant. To make matters worse, Remco soon learns that his two business partners are attempting to buy him out of his shares of his company. Knowing Remco’s situation, Merel, the best friend of Remco’s daughter Lieke and also Remco’s current mistress, senses that something just isn’t right, and along with Remco’s son Tobias begins to investigate to uncover the truth about Remco’s troubles.

The elephant in the room in regards to Tricked (Steekspel) would be the fact that, again, it is technically a mini-film and with a brisk run time of only 55 minutes its inevitable that a feeling of what could have been had the film been an extra 25-30 minutes longer will arise. At the same time, for a 55 minute mini-film, Tricked is absolutely perfect and the most fun 55 minutes anyone can spend in front of a screen. While the film doesn’t feature any of the sociopolitical satire that Verhoeven is famous for, the films humor is nevertheless pure Verhoeven. The film is comparable to Showgirls in that the style of humor on display is incredibly barbed and more often than not is based on the characters behaving not so nicely to each other in the most hilarious of ways. Naturally, Remco is the butt of the majority of the films jokes, however nobody in spared and some of the films most laugh out loud moments are the jabs and insults hurled between the characters of Lieke and Tobias and Verhoeven also throws in a brilliant gross-out gag involving vomit and a floating bloody tampon which harkens back to Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1973) days. Along with all the laughs, Verhoeven of course makes time for somewhat of a mystery although it gets solved rather quickly which moves the film along quite nicely as part of the fun becomes wondering how certain characters will react to certain situations which leads to more hilarity.

One of the most fascinating things regarding Tricked is the way the film was crafted with the first three professionally written pages of the script posted online and the rest of the film constructed from submissions from the public, a process that Verhoeven admitted became much more complicated than originally anticipated. While speaking to the BBC, Verhoeven stated “There were some great ideas, but their main failing was that they had no idea of narrative structure. They didn’t know how to build to a crescendo, for everything to come to a head, so we could actually have an ending... Before we started this, I just imagined that I would get two or three scripts that would be outstanding, and myself and (co-writer Robert Thijm) would say, ‘okay, these are the best ideas and we’ll take this from script number two, and this from script number three’ – and half a day later we’ll be putting the finished material up online. Absolutely no way.  Not a chance. It took at least ten days each time to look at the material. It was a nightmare.” In the hands of a lesser director, taking such a chance could have ended in disaster but with a master like Verhoeven at the helm, Tricked ultimately became not just a successful experiment but a testament to Verhoeven’s drive to not become stagnant and a must watch for Verhoeven fans.



Monday, May 29, 2017

Black Book (2006)

Looking at Paul Verhoeven’s filmograpgy, its easy to separate his early Dutch period from his Hollywood era films, yet at the same time that would be doing his entire body of work a disservice. Granted it would probably seem odd to compare a film like Katie Tippel (1975) to RoboCop (1987), but the fact remains that an inspection of all of Verhoeven’s films reveals many reoccurring obsessions that bear the mark of a true auteur. For example, Verhoeven’s science fiction efforts feature strong anti-authoritarian attitudes as well as social satire, therefore it makes complete sense that the same director responsible for films like RoboCop and Starship Troopers (1997) would also be behind an over the top satire like Showgirls (1995). Despite the fact that clueless critics have labeled Verhoeven as a misogynist, strong willed female characters have been another constant in his work going all the way back to his debut feature Business is Business (1971) and would feature prominently in Katie Tippel, Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls. After making six films in Hollywood, Verhoeven began to feel, in his own words, “depressed with himself” following Hollow Man (2000). Seeking artistic inspiration, Verhoeven returned to Holland and relocated his muse in a big way with Black Book, a staggeringly brilliant WWII thriller that saw Verhoeven continue to expand upon his favorite motifs while still remaining fresh, resulting in one of his greatest films.

During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish woman in hiding is forced to flee after the home where she had been hiding is destroyed and her attempt to flee to liberated territory is ambushed by the Nazi’s. With no other option, Rachel joins the underground resistance. Given the alias Ellis de Vries, Rachel is tasked with bugging the Gestapo headquarters as well as seducing Captain Ludwig Müntze, the head of the Gestapo. Corruption amongst the Nazi’s is soon uncovered, however some miscommunication via wiretap has Rachel’s fellow resistance fighters mistake her for a traitor the same time her cover is blown by the Nazi’s. Complicating matters further, Rachel has fallen in love with Müntze for real and both find themselves with enemies from both sides.

“Gripping” is one choice adjective that tends to get plastered on the posters of many a thriller and Black Book (Zwartboek) is certainly a film that epitomizes the term. So much so that any film described as such had better be at least half as good as Black Book, an unrelenting and provocative film wrought with so much intrigue and suspense that its 2 hour and 26 minute running time flies by like nothing. Given the amount of tension and drama Verhoeven conjures up throughout the course of the film, Black Book is definitely  worthy of comparisons to some of Hitchcock’s wartime thrillers, with the twists and shifting allegiances happening right up until the films final half hour. The execution of course, is pure Verhoeven. Much like Flesh + Blood (1985), Verhoeven’s brutal medieval epic, nothing in Black Book is black and white. This is a film defined by its shades of gray, with there being no distinction between right and wrong, good or bad. This is applicable to both the Nazi’s and the resistance fighters which Verhoeven brilliantly uses to toy with the audiences sympathies. The film is also brazenly transgressive by having a Jewish woman fall in love with an SS officer, the development of their relationship making the film all the more captivating. The film is carried by the astonishing performance by Carice van Houten who, following a long line of Verhoeven female leads, is composed of cunning wit and fierce sexuality and determined to use both to her advantage.

At the time of its production, Black Book was the most expensive Dutch film ever made, a feat which Verhoeven knows something about having set the same record first with Katie Tippel and again with its follow up, Verhoeven’s first WWII themed film Solider of Orange (1977). The film would also go on to be one of the most commercially successful Dutch films, breaking box office records and in 2008 it was voted the greatest Dutch film of all time by the public, seven years after Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1973) was awarded that title at the 1999 Netherlands Film Festival. What’s also interesting about the film is that Verhoeven and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, who also collaborated with Verhoeven on Turkish Delight and Solider of Orange, had been working on the script for at least 15 years before the film was green lit. Even more interesting was that the main character was originally male. Its a rare occurrence when so much praise is heaped upon a film that actually deserves it but Black Book is one such film. The response to the film is a testament to not only the Dutch public's good taste in film but also to the type of filmmaker Verhoeven is, going “back to his roots” so to speak, looking to be re-invigorated. It worked, as Black Book is a incredible film that easily stands alongside Verhoeven's earlier Dutch masterpieces.



Monday, May 15, 2017

Hollow Man (2000)

Despite the extended breaks he tends to take in between projects these days, Paul Verhoeven remains one of the most fierce and exciting directors still working today. Verhoeven has had one of the most fascinating careers imaginable, from causing a major stir in his homeland of Holland with the likes of Turkish Delight (1973), Spetters (1980) and The 4th Man (1983) to arriving in Hollywood and making even more noise with RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997). What’s incredible about Verhoeven’s move to America was he was able to make the transition without ever selling out, with each of his Hollywood productions having the same bite as his early Dutch films and some even causing the same amount of trouble, with Basic Instinct causing massive protests just as Spetters had done years before. Verhoeven’s American films also retained a subversive quality with the sociopolitical commentaries of RoboCop and Starship Troopers being widely recognized and the element of satire found in Showgirls managed to completely fly over the heads of critics during the films initial run. 2000’s Hollow Man is to date Verhoeven’s last American film and is very much the black sheep of the bunch. Dismissed by critics and even by Verhoeven himself after the fact, a closer look reveals Hollow Man to be a massively entertaining genre film with Verhoeven’s fingerprints all over it.

Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), a brilliant and egomaniacal scientist along with his team have successfully managed to perfect a serum resulting in invisibility and reversion back to visibility. Although the experiment was a success on animals, it has yet to be tested on humans and against the wishes of his entire team, Sebastian volunteers himself to be the first human test subject. Amazingly, it works, and Sebastian is rendered completely invisible. The revision process however goes wrong and Sebastian is forced to stay out of sight. Confined to the lab, Sebastian’s newfound gift begins to affect his mentality and when his team, whom Sebastian’s resentment towards reaches a boiling point, goes to extreme lengths to keep him from leaving the lab, Sebastian snaps, trapping his colleagues in the underground lab and going on a murderous rampage.  

When compared to some of Verhoeven’s other sci-fi ventures, namely RoboCop and Starship Troopers, Hollow Man certainly sticks out on account of its lack of satire although in the films defense, it doesn’t seem that Verhoeven set out to lampoon anything with the film. While Hollow Man may lack Verhoeven’s trademark satirical wit, it more than makes up for it with its astonishing visual design and sheer visceral quality. Hollow Man is a very angry film, even mean spirited at times. Its certainty the nastiest take on an invisible man scenario. The film is essentially split into two halves with the first dealing with Sebastian becoming invisible and the toll it takes on his psyche. Critics have bemoaned that the film doesn’t go all that in-depth in asking the question of what would one do with the power in invisibility although thanks to the gleefully prickish performance from Bacon, who really sells Sebastian’s egotistical, eventually psychotic personality, there is just enough of that in the film so that the first half works as a great set up to when Sebastian finally loses it and the film really takes off and becomes a slasher. Verhoeven really shows what he’s made of behind the camera during the films third act, masterfully utilizing the confinement of the underground lab for maximum tension and knowing just when to let the jaw-dropping special effects come to the forefront, effects that still hold up wonderfully and show what’s possible with digital effects when used in a forward thinking manner.

In a classic case of an artist being their own worst critic, Verhoeven has voiced his disappointment with the film. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Verhoeven stated“I decided after Hollow Man, this is a movie, the first movie that I made that I thought I should not have made. It made money and this and that, but it really is not me anymore. I think many other people could have done that. I don't think many people could have made RoboCop that way, or either Starship Troopers. But Hollow Man, I thought there might have been 20 directors in Hollywood who could have done that.” With all due respect, not just any Hollywood hack would have approached the material the way Verhoeven did nor would just any director have given the film the edge it has or utilized the state of the art effects in the creative way Verhoeven did. The way contemporary American cinema works these days, Hollow Man feels like a product of an era long past. Its an adult minded popcorn flick with an attitude, a rare species indeed, and a film that modern Hollywood could lean a lot from in terms of how to properly use digital effects. Verhoeven may still hold ill will towards the film, however fans of the deviant Dutchman should find plenty of Verhoeven’s brand name excessiveness to enjoy in Hollow Man.




Monday, May 1, 2017

Flesh + Blood (1985)

AKA The Rose and the Sword

While talking to Senses of Cinema in 1998, pioneering French New Wave director Jacques Rivette spoke in defense of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) stating “It’s Verhoeven’s best American film and his most personal… It’s the American film that’s closest to his Dutch work. It has great sincerity, and the script is very honest, guileless… Like every Verhoeven film, it’s very unpleasant: it’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s his philosophy.” Rivette was correct in the assessment that Showgirls bares the closest resemblance to Verhoeven’s Dutch films and the philosophy Rivette speaks of is present in virtually all of Verhoeven’s work. Even when he’s in a witty satirical mode ala RoboCop (1987) or Starship Troopers (1997), Verhoeven’s worldview doesn’t exactly appear to be on the sunny side with visions of the future filled with rampant crime and hyper militarism. A film like Hollow Man (2000) could also be seen as having a misanthropic streak despite the fact that Verhoeven feels it to be an impersonal work. Verhoeven’s first English language film, 1985’s Flesh + Blood is a fascinating entry in his filmograpgy. Dressed in medieval costume, the film is yet another example of Verhoeven’s unique take on the human condition, complete with many an exploitive element and while it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture, as always with Verhoeven there is an undeniable honesty amidst all the unflinching medieval brutality.

After a successful military campaign aiding nobleman Arnolfini reclaim a city from which he’d been booted, Martin (Rutger Hauer), the leader of a band of mercenaries, along with his crew of shady land pirates and wenches find themselves sold out when Arnolfini demands they return all the loot they were promised. Furious, Martin and the rest of his soldiers ambush a hunting caravan seriously wounding Arnolfini and making off with the contents of all the carriages including Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the bride-to-be of Arnolfini’s scholarly son Steven. Martin’s gang, along with Agnes soon overtake a castle a begin living like royalty, meanwhile Steven begins assembling an army and launches and attack on the castle in an attempt to avenge his father and rescue Agnes.

Despite the presence of castles and the plot devise of having a dashing young lad set out on a quest to save his beautiful maiden, those who go into Flesh + Blood expecting a happily ever after fairytale are in for a very rude awakening when confronted with Verhoeven’s particular brand of medieval butchery. With Flesh + Blood, Verhoeven dispenses with the whimsical fantasy elements prevalent in so many medieval tales preferring instead to present 1500’s Europe as a plague infested cesspool populated by cutthroats, backstabbers and rapists. Its no wonder the original posters for the film contained a caption claiming the film to be “A mirror of our time”. That’s not to say the film is without its share of exquisiteness, on the contrary. The settings and costumes are phenomenal, the battle scenes and sword play are expertly choreographed as well as a truly astonishing sequences involving the unveiling of an intricate war machine. Verhoeven also brilliantly blurs the line between good and bad early in the film which leads to one of the most interesting aspects of the film, that being the relationship that develops between Martin and Agnes which remains uncomfortably ambiguous right until the final frame of the film. Verhoeven also finds time to pepper the film with instances of odd humor thanks to the antics of Martin’s cohorts, namely the amazing Susan Tyrell as a drunken foul mouthed floozy as well as an exceptionally loony cardinal whom Verhoeven uses as a springboard for his none-to-subtle views on Christianity.      

Flesh + Blood marked the fifth and final collaboration between Verhoeven and Rutger Hauer with Hauer previously appearing in Turkish Delight (1973), Katie Tippel (1975), Soldier of Orange (1977) and Spetters (1980). Although the two were constant collaborators their working relationship was apparently tumultuous as times. In fact, actor Brion James who played one of Hauer’s fellow mercenaries in Flesh + Blood described their relationship as “love/hate” during an interview for the New York City cult cable access program Media Funhouse. James also went on to describe how rough the film shoot was and admitted to arguing with Verhoeven (whom he refereed to as a “smiling demon”) everyday. Among other things, James recalls the winter in Spain where the film was shot being the coldest in 30 years as well as fearing for his life as a result of doing his own stunts with no safety harness on top of a 200 foot castle. Still though, he claims the finished product was the greatest film ever made about the 15th century. Being his first English language film with an impressive international cast, Flesh + Blood no doubt was a catalyst in Verhoeven’s eventual move to America. Even with an already impressive body of work behind him, Flesh + Blood was yet another feather in the cap for Verhoeven and a perfect stepping stone to the game changing films that Verhoeven would soon helm.



Monday, April 17, 2017

The 4th Man (1983)

The relationship between a filmmaker and their home country is always a fascinating topic especially when it relates to politics and censorship. Paul Verheoven is a particularly interesting case. Unquestionably the most successful Dutch director of all time, Verhoeven’s work has been widely celebrated in the Netherlands. At the 1999 Netherlands Film Festival, Turkish Delight (1973) was given the title of the greatest Dutch film of the century and Black Book (2006), Verhoeven’s return to Holland after several successful years in Hollywood, broke box office records and was voted the greatest Dutch film ever made by the Dutch public. On the flip side, Verhoeven has also had his fair share of controversy with Spetters (1980) causing a massive outrage and several protests from gays, Christians (perhaps the only time both were on the same side while protesting against something!) and the handicapped. The hostile reaction to Spetters is said to have planted to seeds for Verhoeven’s eventual departure to Hollywood with Verhoeven finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the Dutch film industry. Verhoeven did make one more film in Holland prior to leaving, 1983’s The 4th Man, and although Verhoeven’s legacy in Holland had already been cemented, with The 4th Man he made damn sure to leave an even bigger impact at home and abroad with one of his greatest Dutch films and one of the best European films of the 80’s.

After giving a talk to a literary club, Gerard Reve, an alcoholic, bisexual author spends the night with Christine Halslag (Renée Soutendijk), the club’s treasurer. The following morning, Christine implies that Gerard stay which he agrees to. Gerard quickly learns that Christine has another lover, a young hunk named Herman and after seeing a photo of him Gerard becomes almost if not more interested in Herman than Christine. While Christine goes off to fetch Herman, Gerard does some snooping around her house and discovers via home movies that Christine had been married three times with each husband suffering accidental deaths. Gerard, already prone to bizarre dreams and hallucinations, sees this as a premonition and slowly begins to lose his grip on reality, believing Christine to be a witch, a black widow in the flesh who disposes of her mates and that either he or Herman will become the fourth man.

Imagine Hitchcock experiencing an episode of delirium tremens whilst coming down from a whiskey bender. As hyperbolic as such a statement might seem, its nonetheless an apt description of The 4th Man (De vierde man), a sweaty, reality bending mixture of sex, surrealism and religious symbolism. The 4th Man is a film shrouded in ambiguity with the biggest mystery obviously being whether or not Christine is really a murderous black widow or if Gerard’s imagination is getting the better of him. While its clear from the outset that Gerard is certainly the eccentric type with a tendency to daydream, and his visions of the virgin Mary and eventual fear of Christine may very well be the result of alcohol induced visions, Verheoven also leaves enough room to suggest that Christine just might be the entity Gerard believes her to be. Verheoven masterfully paints a nightmarish world where reality and fantasy intertwine inspired by the likes of Dali, Magritte and Delvaux, the later especially as Verheoven essentially recreates portions of Delvaux’s works during Gerard’s encounters with what he perceives to be the virgin Mary. The Magritte inspired imagery is also reminiscent of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La belle captive (1983), also heavily inspired by Magritte and made the same year. In the role of Christine, Renée Soutendijk is beaming with a lethal eroticism that in many ways predicts Sharon Stone’s (allegedly) fatal temptress Catherine Tramell in Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), a film which Verhoeven has even refereed to as an American version of The 4th Man.

Although the heavy handed religious symbolism was somewhat of a sarcastic move on Verhoeven’s part in response to critics who complained that Spetters was too shallow, it was also Verhoeven exploring his fascinating thoughts on religion. In Jonas E. Alexis’s book Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: Surprising Differences, Conflicting Visions, and Worldview Implications--From the Early Church to our Modern Time, Verhoeven was quoted as saying “The Fourth Man has to do with my vision of religion. In my opinion, Christianity is nothing more than one of many interpretations of reality… it looks to me as if the whole Christian religion is a major symptom of schizophrenia in half the world's population… Subsequently, Christianity has a tendency to look like magic or the occult. And I liked that ambiguity, because I wanted my audience to take something home with them.” It wasn’t just Dutch audiences that took something home with them as the film had a small but successful run in the US and even though it would be another four years before Verhoeven made his American debut with RoboCop (1987), the reaction to The 4th Man certainly played a hand in Verhoeven becoming more known in the States. An essential Verhoeven title, The 4th Man is also a must see for fans of outside the box horror films and one of Verhoeven’s most brash films which is saying something considering the director in question!




Monday, April 3, 2017

Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West (1993)

Its funny how the mainstream and adult entertainment worlds are looked at as separate entities yet both have their share of similarities given how the market dictates the product of each. Whereas the money poured into mainstream film results in the bloated, shallow CGI filled blockbusters that dominate the current cinematic ecology, a good portion of the current adult “film” model is based on unambitious internet clips, a far cry from the plot driven and oftentimes stylish films from the golden age or “porno chic” era of the 70's and early 80's. The home video revolution was a double edged sword for adult films, making films readily available to own, yet once audience demands changed and the focus gradually became sex and sex only, coupled with films being shot on video with increasingly lower budgets, the drop in quality was more than apparent. Its precisely this reason why its such a shame that Stephen Sayadian's video features are so under-appreciated. While Sayadian was always an outsider, having alienated adult theater patrons with Nightdreams (1981) and Cafe Flesh (1982), his blatant disregard for what had become the typical adult film conventions is perhaps most pronounced in his six brilliant, two part videos from the early 90's signed with the “Rinse Dream” pseudonym, Party Doll a Go-Go! (1991), Nightdreams 2 and 3 (1991), and the most bewildering of all, Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West.

More or less following the same trajectory as Party Doll a Go-Go!, the first of the two Untamed Cowgirls videos, wonderfully titled The Pillowbiters, finds Sayadian taking all the tactics used in his previous videos to pull the rug out from unsuspecting viewers expecting standard adult fare, the delirious, repetitive editing, pre-sex sketches, interrupting the sex scenes with the performers spouting ingeniously ludicrous dialogue and audio distortions are taken to their most extreme as well as confounding. Per usual with Sayadian's video work, the fourth wall is broke constantly with the performers addressing the viewers, even at one point slyly acknowledging the inherent absurdity of the film where Sayadian cuts back and forth to a perplexed Tami Monroe in the midst of a barrage of rapid fire edits and audio tinkering. As was the case with Party Doll a Go-Go!, most of the sex is presented entirely without context, but The Pillowbiters differs a bit with Sayadian constructing somewhat of a story in-between the sex scenes involving Jeanna Fine and Tami Monroe, who act as this films version of Madison and Tianna from Party Doll a Go-Go!, being perused by a bounty hunter named Swampy. The Pillowbiters also finds Sayadian unveiling some new tricks to mess with the audience by way interjecting title cards into the sex scenes featuring Sayadian's typically irreverent, witty sense of humor. Of course Sayadian's penchant for cheeky euphemisms is ever present as well, highlights include “love butter”, “love crease”, “man mayo” “slut slaw” and fan favorite “girl homo”.

The second video, the even more wonderfully titled Jammy Glands from the Rio Grande, finds Sayadian in an equally mischievous mood, albeit with a slightly different approach. Along with switching up the sex scene pairings, the biggest difference between Jammy Glands and The Pillowbiters is Sayadian's scaling back on the abstract editing and repetition, and the witty banter between the performers is reserved strictly for the pre/post-sex skits. To be sure, Sayadian's modus operandi of deceiving the average video store back room dweller by cutting away from the sex at random intervals is in full swing, although here the title cards that made their debut in The Pillowbiters are Sayadian's main focus. Most are completely nonsensical (“Rinse Dream makes me feel like Bill Shatner's toupee!”) and at times resemble the sarcastic musings of Max Melodramatic, the MC of Cafe Flesh. The early 90's video technology on display also give the title cards an extra bit of charm. Another thing the separates Jammy Glands from The Pillowbiters is the music. Whereas The Pillowbiters consisted of recycled/remixed Double Vision cues, Jammy Glands features an original score, credited to “Gold”, with each piece of music having a different flavor while fitting in with the western theme, at one point even resembling cowpunk pioneers Rank and File crossed with circus music. Much like the first video, the wild west decorated soundstage features Sayadian's typically eye-popping production design and Jammy Glands even features a few appearances from the wide eyed doll thing seen in Sayadian's Dr. Caligari (1989).

Unlike Cafe Flesh, Party Doll a Go-Go! and the second and third Nightdreams films, which were distributed by VCA, the two Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West videos were released by Zane Entertainment and ever since their initial VHS runs have gone on to become the most difficult Sayadian titles to track down in psychical form. They also have the distinction of being to date the last films directed by Sayadian. Before getting a new project off the ground in 1995, Sayadian was dealt a massive medical blow and more or less retreated from public view to recover. Incredibly, Sayadian re-emerged in 2013 for a screening of Nightdreams at France's L’Étrange Festival and even directed a musical stage play based on Cafe Flesh and has promised a new film at some point in the future which can't come soon enough. Like Sayadian's 35mm films, the six “Rinse Dream” videos are the work of a maverick artist ready and willing to subvert in a medium where most chose to pander to conventional standards, and what makes the Untamed Cowgirl videos so interesting is how, even with four previous, fairly experimental videos behind him, Sayadian still found new ways to toy around with what was expected from an adult video. Their appeal may be as limited as can be, but a ride to the way out west with these untamed cowgirls is well worth taking.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Nightdreams 2 / Nightdreams 3 (1991)

Although there had been adult films that came before it that cross pollinated sex with elements of the fantasy and horror genres such as The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) and Through the Looking Glass (1976), Nightdreams (1981) was nevertheless a watershed film for the adult medium. Proving just how imaginative an adult film could be, Nightdreams also introduced the cult film world to Stephen Sayadian who, under the pseudonym “Rinse Dream” penned Nightdreams along with Jerry Stahl (“Herbert W. Day”). In a strange way, Sayadian's sheer originality was a bit of a detriment at first as the fusing of sex and surrealism found in Nightdreams wasn't exactly what adult theater attendees wanted to see at the time. While introducing a screening of the film at the 2013 L'Étrange Festival, Sayadian joked that a projectionist who played the film once told him that it was the only time in porn history that audience members actually demanded a refund. While Nightdreams is appropriately considered the first Rinse Dream movie, Sayadian technically didn't direct the film as Francis Delia (“F.X. Pope”) called the action while Sayadian prepared the next set piece. Following his only non-adult feature Dr. Caligari (1989), Sayadian returned to the realm of Nightdreams, this time directing two sequels that retained the spirit of the original film as well as signaling what was to come with the rest of his 90's video output.

The first of Sayadian's 90's videos, Nightdreams 2 is an interesting watch as it more or less sees Sayadian finding his footing with the approach he would take in subsequent films. While “restrained” is hardly the right word, compared to later videos like Party Doll a Go-Go! (1991) and Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West (1993), Nightdreams 2 feels like somewhat of a trial run at times while still fitting in with the rest of Sayadian's filmography. It might be the farthest thing from “conventional”, however in the vein of the original Nightdreams the film revolves around the common narrative thread of doctors Sledge (Lauren Brice) and Haunt (Joey Silvera) observing the fantasies of inmates at their clinic, the star patient being one Mrs. Atkins (Tianna). Whereas Sayadian would develop a habit for interrupting the sex scenes in later films with random bits of nonsense, here Sayadian lets the sex scenes run their course uninterrupted for the most part, only cutting away on occasion to the astonished reactions of Sledge and Haunt. While the quirks that would become the calling cards of Sayadian's video features are in their embryonic stages here, the film is still a bombardment of surrealism, featuring one of the most bizarre sex scenes in Sayadian's oeuvre with two participants dawning strange masks and face paint and the film even crosses over into full-blown Cronenbergian body horror territory with a manic Tianna displaying an extra orifice ala Cronenberg's Rabid (1977) plus an unforgettable enlargement on another region of her person.

Nightdreams 3 is an even more narrative based endeavor and at times portions of the film could be seen as an XXX variation on Dr. Caligari. Lauren Brice once again is Dr. Sledge, who's unorthodox methods of treating the various sexual neurosis of her patients at the Benway clinic have drawn the unwanted attention of her supervisor Dr. Sirk (Tianna). Its here where Sayadian's unconventional approach to the adult video format really begins to take shape with the sex scenes constantly interrupted by disorienting repeated bits of dialogue from previous scenes and much like the previous film, as well as Dr. Caligari, any resemblance to realism is tossed out the window from the beginning with Sayadian's impeccable post-nuclear chic dayglo production design making the “clinics” both films take place in resemble the remnants of an atomic fall out. Being more narrative driven allows for longer breaks in-between the sex scenes, resulting in an excellent turn from the imposing Brice who gets much more to do here as Dr. Sledge than in the second film, including a hilarious pre-sex bit with a hysterically overacting Tom Byron which again is reminiscent of a scene out of Dr. Caligari. Sayadian's irreverent sense of humor shines through on numerous occasions via the always memorable dialogue with lines like “Your a cupcake full of strychnine” and “She's got a thing for longshoreman. Just mention “On the Waterfront” and she gets randy-pants” as well as his habit of giving his characters Manson family surnames, like Fromme, Krenwinkel and Van Houten.

The opening credits to both films reveal a list of names, or rather pseudonyms, that would become a constant throughout the rest of Sayadian's video era. Key players include producer “Sidney Falco”(nom de plume taken from the 1957 film noir Sweet Smell of Success), hair and make-up artist “Purr Delux”, director of photography “Klaus Krupp” and costume designer “Polly Ester” who was also the costume designer for Sayadian's directorial debut Cafe Flesh (1982). Tianna and Tom Byron would also go on to work with Sayadian again with Tianna providing some of the most memorable moments in both Party Doll a Go-Go! videos and Byron also appearing in the Party Doll videos as well as the first Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West video. Perhaps the most valuable of Sayadian's reoccurring collaborators would be Double Vision, who's score for Party Doll a Go-Go! is a major part of what makes those videos so brilliant, provide some of their finest, most hypnotizing work for the second and third Nightdreams films, particularly the third film. Unfortunately, like the rest of Sayadian's 90's videos, the pair of Nightdreams films can be tricky to track down having never been officially issued on DVD and neither may attain the following of the first Nightdreams film, however both are essential pieces to the Sayaidan puzzle showcasing the origins of Sayadian's radical approach to adult videos that he would soon perfect.  
 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Party Doll a Go-Go! (1991)

A go-to, and somewhat overused way to describe the work of filmmakers who work in or around the fringes of genre is how said artists “transcend” genre. For instance the films of David Lynch, Walerian Borowczyk or Andrzej Zulawski, filmmakers who's influences result in films with visions so entirely singular the films essentially become they're very own genre. Perhaps no other filmmaker fits that criteria better than Stephen Sayadian. The first film to come from Sayadian's headspace under the nom de plume “Rinse Dream”, Nightdreams (1981), a film so unlike any other adult film that came before it, alienated adult theater patrons so much the film failed as an adult film yet found its champions in the art crowd. Sayadian's divisive streak would continue with the now legendary Cafe Flesh (1982), which again frustrated the raincoat crowd unprepared for Sayadian's colorful post-apocalyptic fusion of sex and sci-fi, however the film quickly gained a following as a midnight movie and is more likely to be mentioned alongside the likes of Pink Flamingos (1972) or Eraserhead (1977) rather than Deep Throat (1972) or Debbie Does Dallas (1978). Following his only non-hardcore feature Dr. Caligari (1989), Sayadian turned his attention to the adult video market and let loose with six highly unusual videos, potentially even more maddening than his early films to anyone expecting typical adult fare with Party Doll a Go-Go! being the crown jewel.

Almost playing out like a video experiment more than an actual movie, Party Doll a Go-Go! finds Sayadian taking the cliched popular consensus of what an adult video is, all sex and no plot, and brilliantly contorting it into this lunatic creation bound to confuse as opposed to titillate. Sayadian has gone on record saying that eroticism was never a main goal for him which might seem like an odd mindset going into an adult film, yet its exactly what makes Party Doll a Go-Go! and the rest of Sayadian's video work that followed so unique. The film may be built around five random sex scenes but Sayadian disposes with any set-up, presenting the sex without context, thereby eliminating the fantasy element making any eroticism purely incidental based on how attractive anyone viewing the film finds the performers. While making the sex the least interesting aspect of an adult feature would be enough to set Party Doll apart from every other adult video, what makes the film such an innovative and memorable watch is everything else Sayadian peppers the film with, from the delirious editing with numerous instances of repetition, to Sayadian's always highly innovative, almost baroque production design. Without question though the films biggest strength is the writing, with the pre-sex skits and Sayadian's routine interrupting of the sex scenes, with the performers offering hilariously witty commentary, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience, spouting some of the most ingeniously absurd and endlessly quotable dialogue ever uttered on film or videotape.

The same freewheeling, nonsensical irreverence is carried over into Party Doll a Go-Go! Part 2 with some slight adjustments to the sex scene pairings and and even more off the wall pre-sex vignettes. Opening with Jeanna Fine frantically fishing for an “artificial man-thing” (a dildo being dangled in front of her on a wire) while Madison and Tianna comment in astonishment “Did you see that Cecil disappear? Talk about lost in space!” and featuring a vignette where Tianna manically gyrates due to her being unable to “turn off the wiggle” while Madison pleads with the other party dolls to give advice, leading to such suggestions as “Electroshock therapy?” and “Load up the RV and head for corn country!”, Sayadian turns up both the wiggle and the frivolity for the second video. The lively banter between the performers is ever present as well, and the second video in particular makes use of the tongue placed firmly in cheek innuendos and euphemisms that would feature prominently in Sayadian's video works, gut-busting terms like “special tingle”, “lucky spasm”, “boy jerky”, “girl biscuit” and “girl homo”. Both videos also benefit greatly from the finest ensemble Sayadian ever had at his disposal featuring the likes of Patricia Kennedy, Bionca, Raven, Nikki Wilde, Peter North, Randy Spears and Tom Byron alongside the aforementioned Jeanna Fine, Madison and Tianna. All are clearly enjoying doing something so different, particulary Madison and Tianna, who own the dialogue delivery and in a way could be seen as the defacto hostesses of both videos.

As if the two videos didn't already have enough going for them by way of the enthusiastic performances, flamboyant production design and kooky dialogue, another one of the films strongest selling points is the incredible soundtrack courtesy of Double Vision, sounding like an alien variation of one of the soundtracks to a 60's surf/beach party film. The films main theme even sounds like a riff on The Ventures take on the classic instrumental “Walk Don't Run”. The pieces accompanying each scene along with the occasional vocal heard in some of the tracks just further emphasize the not of this planet vibe of both videos. Really the only negative thing regarding both Party Doll a Go-Go! videos are their unfortunate current home video status, with the double feature DVD issued by the now defunct VCA, who also distributed the two videos upon their initial VHS releases as well as both films on laserdisc, is long out of print and commands unjustifiably high prices. While NightdreamsCafe Flesh and Dr. Caligari have their places in cult film history firmly secured, Sayadian's later video work remains woefully neglectged. Being Sayadian features, both Party Doll a Go-Go! videos have the distinction of being niche films in an already niche realm, however adventurous viewers willing to celebrate Sayadian's strange aesthetic should have no trouble rightfully hailing both Party Doll a Go-Go! features as the mischievous masterpieces both are.



Monday, February 20, 2017

Joë Caligula (1966)

While the banning of any film is an unnecessary and fascistic act, the history of such instances will always remain an endless source of fascination and frustration for film fans. Obviously the most famous list of persecuted titles will always be the “Video Nasties”, which sparked one of the most ludicrous outbreaks of moral panic in recent memory. A more contemporary example would the be banning of Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius (2013) in Kim’s home country of South Korea, forcing Kim to make several cuts in order to secure theatrical distribution. In Australia, a country notorious for draconian censorship practices, innumerable films have been refused classification, which is tantamount to banning, one such film being Larry Clark’s Ken Park (2002). In response to this, film critic and TV personality Margaret Pomeranz held a protest screening of the film which was subsequently shout down by the police. Then of course there was the banning of Takashi Miike’s Imprint (2006) by Showtime, a supposedly "uncensored" cable channel. One of the most egregious example of the banning of a film would be the decision by the French censor board to ban José Bénazéraf’s Joë Caligula the night before its intended premier and after it had already been given a rating. Bénazéraf took it personally and rightfully so as Joë Caligula is one of the purest examples of Bénazéraf’s cinematic anarchy and an crucial film in Bénazéraf’s oeuvre.

In an attempt to take over the ranks of organized crime in Paris, “Joe Caligula” (nicknamed as such do to his vanity, penchant for sadism and his incestuous feelings for his sister Brigitte), a young gangster and his crew of thugs wage war on the old guard of the Parisian underworld and get the attention of the established bosses after kidnapping and roughing up one of the big names demanding money. Joe and his crew continue their crusade although they soon go too far, setting fire to another high ranking gangster from a rival gang resulting in an eruption of violence, the consequences of which can only be tragic.

On paper Joë Caligula probably sounds like a fairly straightforward crime film about gang warfare, however with Bénazéraf at the helm the film becomes something else entirely, something wild and transgressive, borderline surreal at times. The film does follow a linear narrative, however Bénazéraf’s off-center sensibilities give way to an unpredictable and stream of consciousness type of storytelling with very few of the characters behaving like normal human beings and Bénazéraf peppering the film with random, matter of fact scenarios such as Joe and his crew posing in new outfits, a dance outbreak in a diner, Brigitte stopping in the middle of a walk to pose like a mannequin outside a storefront window and a classic Bénazéraf striptease performance set to the tune of “I'm Evil” that plays not once but twice. Also typical of  Bénazéraf’s films from this period is the distinct lack of dialogue and tense moodiness that results from the moments of silence with Bénazéraf focusing more on the brooding faces of the actors, the languid atmosphere of the film only being broken by the bursts of casual violence and manic free jazz score. What’s incredible is that despite the incidental nature of a good portion of the film, emotional investment comes rather easy, particularly later in the film when the score becomes mournful and Bénazéraf gives Brigitte, easily the most fascinating and enigmatic character in the film, his full attention, leading to a surprisingly heartfelt climax which in turn gives way to the haunting imagery that ends the film.

According to the French censor board, the official reason for the banning of the film was violence however Bénazéraf saw it as politically motivated. Bénazéraf had a habit of giving his characters radical political speeches and in his mind, the banning of Joë Caligula was an attempt to silence him. Bénazéraf stated in Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984, "It was revenge. Because of my opposition to all that administration and bureaucracy. So they fucked me and they fucked me well." Indeed, as not only did the banning of the film irritate Bénazéraf but it also cost him around two million of his own Francs and left him with 30 prints of the film and no way to distribute. Although it would be about a decade before Bénazéraf fully crossed over into the hardcore adult film market, its been suggested that the films banning planted the seeds for Bénazéraf's decision to leave mainstream cinema behind, having become so fed up with his films being censored. Interestingly, the film is available for streaming via Amazon Instant Video although the film has yet to receive an official English friendly DVD release, so for those who prefer psychical media DVD-R’s will have to do. No matter how the film is viewed what’s important is that Joë Caligula is an essential Bénazéraf title and a must watch for anyone with an interest in fringe cinema.



Monday, February 6, 2017

L'éternité pour nous (1963)

AKA Sin on the Beach and Le Cri de la Chair (The Cry of the Flesh)

One of the most fascinating things regarding the career of José Bénazéraf was his relationship with the French New Wave. It might seem a bit perplexing that the man responsible for direct to video hardcore titles like Lusty Widow (1985) and Olinka, Grand Priestess of Love (1985) would have been mentioned in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma along with the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Rivette and Chabrol, yet Bénazéraf began making films the same time as many of the aforementioned nouvelle vague directors and several of Bénazéraf’s early films feature the innovative stylistic tendencies that would go on to define the French New Wave. In fact, Bénazéraf even made a cameo in Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) as an unlucky man about to have his car stolen (his actual car was the one used in the film). Many of the techniques utilized by the New Wave filmmakers were considered radical at the time, a description that was invented for the likes of Bénazéraf and his early 60’s films certainty had an experimental bend to them with their long stretches of silence and free-form, stream of consciousness narratives. Following a stint as a producer, Bénazéraf made his directorial debut with L'éternité pour nous, a film which not only fits in comfortably with other “outsider” films of the time but also would play a major part in the development of European erotic cinema.

Pianist Jean-Marc (Michel Lemoine) and his singer/dancer girlfriend Brigitte (Sylvia Sorrente) arrive at an island resort to provide the entertainment for the summer. Almost immediately after arriving tensions soon arise due to the obvious attraction shared between Jean-Marc and Maria, the owner of the resort. The mood at the resort is also tense on account of Maria’s ailing husband and when Maria’s husband dies, accusations of murder begin to fly. Maria invites Jean-Marc and Brigitte to stay at the resort during the off-season so Jean-Marc can concentrate on composing, a decision that will dramatically impact the lives of all three.

Although it does predict the improvised style that Bénazéraf would employ in future films such as Sexus (1965) and Joë Caligula (1966), L'éternité pour nous (Eternity for Us) is a classic case of an artist finding themselves. Unlike the films that would follow, there is more of an emphasis on script here making the film more conventionally minded. More classical than jazz so to speak. Still, even with the story more at the forefront than in other Bénazéraf films, there are many instances of the quirks that Bénazéraf would stamp on subsequent works. Bénazéraf’s wandering eye quickly becomes apparent and there are countless moments in the film where the camera saunters off to focus on the resorts island surroundings or extended takes of the actors simply walking around said surroundings. Such moments are crucial to another Bénazéraf signature that the film features in abundance, that being mood. What’s unique about the mood of L'éternité pour nous is the prevailing sense of melancholy that would factor in select future Bénazéraf titles. These are bored and alienated characters and the constant showcasing of the empty beaches (save for the three main players) during the cold off-season at the resort further emphasize the void in their lives. There is also an air of pessimism to the film with Lemoine’s non-stop existential musings and Bénazéraf presenting a cynical view on the idea of relationships. Even the title “Eternity for Us” is left open to interpretation as to whether or not such a thing is good or bad.

Bénazéraf recalled the humorously simple way the film came about during the episode of the 1999 Channel 4 documentary series Erotika! entitled “A Life in Four Chapters”, claiming he was lounging on the beach reading a book and suddenly got a glimpse of Sylvia Sorrente rising out the water. Bénazéraf walked up to her, asked if she wanted to be an actress and fifteen days later the film commenced shooting. Even though Bénazéraf began directing films to prove he could make a better film than the ones he had produced, he was surprised by how far the film traveled outside of France, even to Japan and America where it was regrettably butchered and dubbed under the title of Sin on the Beach. The film also set in motion the collaborative relationship between Bénazéraf and Michel Lemoine who would also appear in Bénazéraf’s follow up to L'éternité pour nous, Le concerto de la peur (1963) and would also go on to co-write the script to Bénazéraf’s masterpiece Frustration (1971). Lemoine even credits working with Bénazéraf as the spark that gave him the drive to eventually make his own films. Despite being aggravatingly unavailable on DVD outside of France which is par for the course when it comes to Bénazéraf’s output, L'éternité pour nous is a crucial film that announced the arrival of a maverick filmmaker and really changed the landscape of erotically charged films.







Monday, January 23, 2017

The Blackout (1997)

In March 2015, Abel Ferrara issued a cease and desist letter to IFC Films, the American distributor for his Dominique Strauss-Kahn inspired Welcome to New York (2014) and Wild Bunch, the films global distributor on account of both IFC and Wild Bunch releasing the film to theatres and VOD outlets in an edited form, enraging Ferrara. An unfortunate situation yet hardly anything new for Ferrara who is no stranger to distribution issues. When the indie boom of the 90’s began to cool off, Ferrara began finding it increasingly difficult to secure legitimate distribution deals without being ripped off and the majority of his output since The Funeral (1996) has found itself is one form of distribution hell or another with films like Mary (2005) and Go-Go Tales (2007) playing the festival circuit only to disappear after the fact, or in the case of a film like ’R Xmas (2001), only be booked in three theatres in the US with no advertising by a distributor that one has one print. Ferrara also experienced mistreatment by the Hollywood studio system when Warner Bros. sidelined Body Snatchers (1993) by sneaking the film into a minuscule amount of theaters. The Blackout is yet another one of Ferrara’s films to be swept aside by distributors and with this film its especially tragic seeing as its one of Ferrara’s most fascinating and stylishly grim journeys into the human psyche.

After proposing to his pregnant girlfriend Annie in Miami, hotshot movie star and addict Mattie (Matthew Modine) is shocked to lean that Annie had an abortion to prevent her child from growing up with an alcoholic and drug addicted father. Distraught, Mattie goes out partying with his eccentric director friend Mickey (Dennis Hopper) which leads to a blackout. Fast forward 18 months later and Mattie is clean and sober, now living in New York and in a stable relationship with a new girlfriend. Mattie’s past however continues to haunt him. Desperately seeking closure for how things ended with Annie, Mattie returns to Miami to finally clear his conscience although it isn’t long before he slips back into his old ways and in the process discovers the dark truth about what happened the night of his blackout.

There have been many films that have tried to recreate drug induced experiences and more often that not the results have a tendency to be rather corny. With The Blackout however, Ferrara succeeds in crafting a legitimately disorienting experience which literally does feel like stepping into the cloudy headspace of an individual on a two day bender, believably portrayed by Modine. Ferrara not only achieves this visually with hallucinatory Lynchian editing and at times changing stock going from film to video which recalls Ferrara’s earlier Dangerous Game (1993), but also in the way Ferrara has the story play out. The film is intentionally incoherent, staggering from one random scenario to another seemingly without purpose much like an actual drunken evening, the consequences of which allow Ferrara to really delve deep into the ideas of overwhelming regret and guilt later on the film (another area where Modine really shines) which again places the film side by side with Dangerous Game. Ferrara also toys around with the concept of the doppelganger and chasing the ghosts of the past ala Hitchcock and Vertigo (1958) by introducing a second Annie in the middle of the film and certain scenes between her and Mattie further blur the memories of both Mattie and the audience and steer the film into almost Robbe-Grillet territory. There is also a debauched feeling of unreality to many of the scenes featuring Dennis Hopper with Mickey’s actions not making much logical sense yet still making enough sense within the overall context of the film.

The Blackout played at the Cannes Film Festival where according to critic Dave Kehr, the film “caused a stampede” and the film played other festivals throughout 1998. Afterwards the film began to suffer the distribution woes that Ferrara has become all too familiar with, and it wasn’t until 2001 when the film finally saw a home video release. Speaking to the AV Club in 2002, Ferrara spoke candidly about the films distribution issues stating  “The story with The Blackout is unbelievable… We made a deal with Destination Films that set up a distribution system. They bought two or three films, including The Blackout, raised $100 million, and never distributed anything. Five years later, they're trying to go bankrupt, saying all that's left is $35,000 out of $100 million, even though they never distributed one film… I'm just one of a ton of people this company screwed over. Can you imagine these pricks? They're basically trying to steal $100 million. It's a fucking robbery.” Even now The Blackout still seems to be a relatively obscure title to more casual viewers even after getting its belated DVD release. While its become one of Ferrara’s most divisive films to those who’ve seen it, its yet another example of Ferrara’s knack of dealing with heavy subject matter in a manner that is both slick and gritty. A brilliant, challenging film that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.






Monday, January 9, 2017

Dangerous Game (1993)

AKA Snake Eyes

1993 was a strange year for Abel Ferrara with the maverick New Yorker helming two very worthwhile films that were unceremoniously thrown under the bus upon their respective releases. Coming off of the grimy and fiercely independent Bad Lieutenant (1992), Ferrara did something interesting and unexpected by taking on the most ambitious project of his career, Body Snatchers (1993), the third adaptation of Jack Finney’s book. Body Snatchers was a huge undertaking with the largest budget Ferrara ever had and according to Ferrara, the shoot was a nightmare plagued by studio interference and the technical challenges inherent in such large scale productions. Nevertheless, Ferrara soldiered on and delivered a fantastic sci-fi/horror film. Unfortunately the film would get buried by its own studio. After years of hype in various genre magazines and millions of dollars spent, the film essentially went direct to video after only being released in a handful of theaters. With Dangerous Game, his second film that year, Ferrara went in the complete opposite direction. Despite starring one of the biggest pop stars in the world in Madonna, Dangerous Game is one of Ferrara’s most uncommercial films, a deeply personal look into the world of filmmaking that seemed to bewilder a good number of critics upon its initial release. The Ferrara faithful however know better and over the years have rightfully championed Dangerous Game for what it truly is, a misunderstood masterpiece.

New York based director Eddie Israel (Harvey Keitel) arrives in Hollywood to begin production on his latest film entitled “Mother of Mirrors” which centers around the dissolution of a marriage between a hard partying husband and a remorseful wife who recently found religion and changed her ways. Almost immediately, the films leads Sarah Jennings (Madonna) and Frank Burns (James Russo) begin an affair and it isn’t long until Sarah finds her way into Eddie’s bed as well. The shoot quickly turns sour however with Jennings and Burns unable to get along and Eddie constantly pushing both to their emotional limits for the best performances. The more tensions on the set increase along with Eddie’s own personal transgressions gradually eating away at his conscience, the more the plot of “Mother of Mirrors” begins to mirror reality and vice-versa.

Snake Eyes”, the films alternate title couldn’t have been more apt as Dangerous Game is a venomous film featuring Ferrara’s typically downbeat outlook as well as some of screenwriter Nicholas St. John’s most vicious dialogue. In some ways the film is comparable to another film within a film, Andrzej Zulawski’s La femme publique (1984) as its been suggested that Francis Huster’s character of director Lucas Kessling was meant to be a stand in for Zulawski the same way that Keitel’s Eddie Israel could represent Ferrara himself. Again, “personal” is the adjective that could be used to define the film and at times almost uncomfortably so. There are times when the film feels confessional, particularly when Eddie confesses his infidelities to his wife, played by Nancy Ferrara, Abel’s wife at the time. Ferrara’s approach to the film within a film devise is interesting both from a narrative standpoint as well as stylistically in that its almost always obvious when a scene from “Mother of Mirrors” is being shot, however given the attitudes of the characters towards each other, what’s taking place in the film could easily be going on behind the scenes as well. The same could be said for Keitel’s pressuring of the actors which could also echo Ferrara’s own techniques which, if indeed is the case, they work as the performances are astounding. While Madonna is rightfully praised for her performance, the unsung hero of the film is James Russo who gives an unbelievably raw and fierce performance, downright visceral at times.

Dangerous Game was the first film produced by Madonna’s own Maverick Pictures and ironically it was the leading lady that led the charge against the film. In a 2002 interview with the AV Club, Ferrara remarked “It was just another one of our films that never came out. But on that one, the audience didn't really like the film. Madonna killed it. The first impression people get on a movie is the one that never gets out of their mind. So after Madonna got so trashed for doing Body of Evidence (1993), she thought she was going to beat the critics to the punch and badmouth the film. And she actually got good reviews. She never got a good review from the Voice or The New York Times in her life, but she got good reviews for this movie, which she came out and trashed. I'll never forgive her for it.” Ferrara went on to say “…I never had an actor badmouth a movie. It's just something that isn't done. But she's not a film-business person” and “ It's being paranoid and scared, and that's the reason she can't act, because she hasn't got confidence.” Whatever she or some critic may or may not think of the film at this point doesn’t matter, what does is the fact that Dangerous Game is one of Ferrara’s most confrontational, introspective, cathartic and ultimately brilliant films.