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.