StinkyLulu's Home Movies - 2008


Movies Screened at Home since January 1, 2008...

(The "+" or "-" indicates general yay/nay sentiment about a given flick.)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following are generally unedited and routinely rambling riffs on the films in StinkyLulu's haphazard rotation of movies screened at home, in class, for research or just because they happen to be playing on the tube. Comments on this post will read as comments on the entire year's filmlog. But if you've got something to say about these random ramblings, or if you feel strongly I should promote a particular rambling to the mainpage, I genuinely invite you to just holler. Your POV is always especially valued.

• She's a Boy I Knew (2007)-dvd (-)
In this well-made video autobiography, Gwen Haworth, a Canadian MTF trans filmmaker, tells the story of her journey toward and through her gender transition by inviting the six people closest to her (her mother, father, two sisters, male best friend, and ex-wife) to tell their story of Gwen’s transition. Crafted mostly from interviews and home movies, with Gwen’s voiceover charting the narrative through-line, the film presents a measured, starkly emotional portrait of gender transition from the family’s perspective. Pensive yet witty, the film stands as an informative and empathetic portrait of transgender transition as a family experience.I found the film engaging, at times fascinating, but also found myself at a curious remove from the entire proceeding. I liked all these people and quickly developed formidable empathy and admiration for each of them. But there’s an almost clinical detachment within the entire film that I found, ultimately, to be somewhat dissatisfying. And it’s not merely that this very Canadian cast of human characters seems predisposed against histrionics. Rather, it’s as though Haworth herself is maintaining a sense of distance and reserve – the kind she speaks of repeatedly within the film as a feature of her gender dysphoria – and the film inadvertently documents this continuing aspect of Gwen’s evolving selfhood. All of which is to say, fascinating but not particularly satisfying. It’s at once an impressive piece of filmmaking and an ultimately underwhelming film, though not nearly as emotionally challenging as Red Without Blue.
• Manuela y Manuel (2007)-dvd (+)
A sweet romantic farce done telenovela style with a girlpower twist. Manuel/a is a moderately successful female impersonator who's pining for the lover who recently abandoned her when Coco -- Manuela's best friend -- arrives with a problem: she's pregnant, wants to keep the baby, and hopes that Manuel/a will marry her so as not to disappoint her conservative parents. So begins a madcap romp, complete with a variety of wacky female characters including Manuel/a's bible-thumping landlady who waits every day for a letter from her teen suitor; the landlady's niece devastated after her recent divorce; a diva performer who's secretly supporting her boyfriend; and Coco's mother -- a romantic trapped in a loveless marriage. (An added twist is that Coco's father is regular patron at the club where Manuel/a performs.) Manuel/a's decision to don male drag in order to support her friend tosses Manuel/a into an existential crisis about the nature of romance. Should a girl sacrifice all for the promise of love or should she live her own life on her own terms? The characterizations are uncomplicated and broad, directly out of a comic telenovela, with a farcical first conclusion at the wedding at which a womanizing macho finally gets his. The second conclusion is a big girlpower dance number at the club. And the final conclusion shows Manuel/a offering the lessons she's learned to the camera (apparently she's filming a video diary for something or another). An autonomous entertainment, the film feels more like the pilot episode for a series. Everything's pleasant enough, but the film's has neither the emotional depth of an Almodovar nor the glittering melodramatic punch of Priscilla. It's often pretty to look at, with some genuinely sweet moments, but, without any genuinely memorable or distinctive performances, the entire entertainment remains quietly amusing but ultimately fairly thin. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that it's a Puerto Rican film, which -- quite frankly -- we don't get to see a lot of.
• The King of Kong (2007)-dvd (+)
A fascinating documentary that somehow works as a morality tale documenting the struggle between base moral forces -- all set in the peculiar world of competitive classic video gaming. The basic scenario is that a middle class family guy in the Seattle area seems to be threatening the world record for Donkey Kong, a record which has been held for several decades by a leading figure in the "sport." The filmmakers use this contest as a narrative frame for an extensive documentation of the history of classic video games, the ongoing cult of these early games, and the subcultural celebrities and rivalries within this scene. What's excellent about the film is that it makes its story -- a story that should be absolutely arcane and tedious -- absolutely enthralling, complete with flawed heroes and charismatic villains within a social structure as dependent on faith as much as fact. The story within the documentary becomes a nearly universal one about the perils of both pursuing a passion as well as building one's identity around it. A very conventional documentary that actually is completely effective.
• Sweet and Lowdown (1999)-dvd (-)
An innocuous, pensive, romantic rumination about a fictional early jazz legend which quietly emerges as a testimony to the tenuous possibility of love. Sean Penn is genuinely fun to watch as the (fake) jazz guitarist Emmet Ray whose myriad superstitions and idiosyncrasies seem certain to keep him from genuine success in either life or love. Set up as a mockumentary (of the Woody Allen old school) in which talking heads reflect on the history of a fictional figure, the film generally works. There are some genuinely dear moments -- the misbegotten moon, the costumes, the hollywood section -- as well as an array of solid supporting and cameo performances. Allen seems less invested in the vagaries of Emmet Ray's formidable ego as he lapses toward a rumination on fate, love, and generally the accidental nature of life (life happens as you're making other plans). Uma Thurman should be better as a fast-talking wealthy dilettante who takes up with Penn's Emmet in the last portion of the film and Samantha Morton is utterly adorable as the mute Hattie who quietly (!) emerges as the legendary/true love of Emmet's adventurous life (she's the "sweet" to his "lowdown"). The problem here might be obvious as even Morton's savvy performance can't ameliorate the creepily misogynist tinge to Allen's construction of Hattie as a fancifully idealized character. (The perfect woman is to silently wear her transparent emotions on her adorable face...and, of course, it would help if she were incapable of talking back and wasn't afraid to eat a lot.) We all remain grateful that Penn was slated in the role of Emmet Ray, both because Allen originally wrote the role for himself and because the role provides Penn a genuinely sweet and fun character to have a good time playing. The role highlights Penn's largely ignored gift for style and for comedy, while also providing him a fascinating character to contour with interesting nuance. I suspect his Oscar nom was entirely deserved, though I'm not as confident about Morton's worthiness for the same honor. All told, the movie made me want to watch Radio Days.
• The Living End (1992)-dvd (+/-)
A fascinating document of a very particular moment in queer time/history. Araki's film -- an early breakthough in what later became known as independent queer cinema -- holds interest in this careful remastering mostly for the screenplay's acuity in capturing a generational gestalt for those who might have counted themselves citizens of a queer nation. The film remains shocking for its frank portrayal of two attractive, HIV-positive guys finding a sense of purpose (and rebellion) in their erotically charged courtship. This time through I remained unimpressed by Araki's sense of narrative urgency as well as his seeming disinterest in developing sophisticated performances. However, I did encounter some arresting visuality that I don't recall noting before and found the screenplay to be absolutely enthralling. Revisiting the film today also recalibrated -- for me at least -- some aspects of the trend toward a hedonism-chic, the idea that drugs and sex are their own queer rebellion. This film -- which looks startlingly conventional with a 15 year remove -- seems to have instigated a kind of queer cinematic vernacular of hedonistic rebellion. This vernacular, as presented and preserved in this film, emerged from a historical moment of urgency when gay men in their 20s were facing an uncertain future with no viable cures (or therapies) for HIV/AIDS on the horizon. Just five years after this film, however, came the moment of protease inhibitors (as well as Will&Grace). With that quick passage of queer time, the politics of early 1990s rebellious hedonism shifted (even as aspects of its cinematic iteration became conventionalized) nearly as drastically as gay men's lives had changed in the half decade separating the late 1970s from the middle 1980s. What I admired about this film this time through was how legible it became as a document of a very precise moment in queer time and, as such, a marker of the changes that have manifested (in terms of visibility, in terms of consensual and "informed" unprotected anal sex, in terms of what HIV means) in the lives of gay men. As a historical document I find this film absolutely entrancing. As a piece of cinema, I remain underwhelmed and frequently unimpressed. Araki's DIY punk auteur flourishes don't hold up well, although I do acknowledge just how influential this film has proven to be. But Araki's screenplay? Yowza -- it's worth remaking as a period piece, exactly as written.
• Girl, Interrupted (1999)-dvd (-)
• "Godspeed" (2007)-dvd (+)
A short film detailing a transman's problems with impulse control. Jim (played by co-director Lynn Breedlove) is a bike messenger who lives for the rush of speed, both in its crystal and experiential form. Jim's in swoon with intellectual sex worker Ally, who wants him to stay clean but does not trust him to do so. The 15 or so minutes of the film chart how Jim loves his job, even though he loses it because he can't resist visiting the girl he loves when on a rush delivery of a time sensitive parcel. The single requirement that Ally places on Jim is that he stay clean, which he fails to do pretty much immediately upon discovering that he's been fired (the single interaction that clarifies Jim's trans status -- as the boss, while firing him, mocks Jim by calling him Elizabeth). The film -- with simple clarity and effective production values -- details the addictive mind, presenting Jim as a speed junkie who's unable to discern between the various "rushes" that his life provides. The best part of the film is the Breedlove's voiceover, which renders Jim -- who's largely inarticulate in the diegesis -- as a kind of comic raconteur of the queer addict's consciousness. The use of the voiceover creates a surprising tension in the film which allows for an aptly comic poignancy to infuse the basically pathetic story. (The auto-narration of the "fish dance" is profound and hilarious and terrifying all at once.) Because of the voiceover, we are able to like Jim much more than his actions might warrant which -- along with the adept photography and excellent soundtrack -- make this dark film a gratifying experience. Breedlove's status as star and director of this film (while also being the frontwoman for the legendary riot/punk band Tribe8) might help explain how this little film has the best lesbo-feminist punk soundtrack perhaps ever. This soundtrack, in tandem with Jim's voiceover monologs (also likely authored by Breedlove), infuse the film with critical voice that well surpasses the banality of the narrative scenario.
• 25 Cent Preview (2007)-dvd (+)
A vaguely obtuse erotic-laconic "thriller" set amidst the skanktastic environs of male street prostitution in San Francisco's tenderloin district. The elliptical narrative skitters in the wake of Marcus (Merlin Gaspers), a pretty white man who acts like a surly teenager as he tricks and trips his way through a 24 hour period on the street. Marcus and his best street pal, the loquacious DotCom (Dorian Brockington in a frequently excellent, always vivid performance), loop in and out of each other's paths, occasionally tricking together and always looking out for one another. The relationship anchors this trippy, druggy, dazy film (the story is credited to the director and two principal actors, while the dialogue is attributed to "actors). The thematic of the film considers the cycle of victimization as one that doubles back on the victim in ways he might never see, with the final moments suggesting that the simple choice to "not perpetrate" violence or exploitation is the first step toward a kind of humanizing redemption. For the first 2/3 of the film -- at least until the reality of Marcus's anticipated confrontation with the elderly priest who molested him helps to focus the narrative action of the film -- the film is a dark, murky ordeal of partial interactions and curiously complicated scenarios that hold together only circumstantially. (A subplot of Marcus' girlfriend's brother stalking and then bashing him is just distracting -- I can see how it fits in the thematic but I don't feel how it connects to the wispy narrative). Additionally, the improvised dialogue by the actors is only occasionally apt, with only the banter between Brockington's DotCom and Gasper's Marcus elevating beyond the amateurish. Perhaps my biggest challenge with this film, though, was the absence of a director of photography and the reliance on a cinema verite style of natural/situational lite. The scenarios mostly take place outside at night, and the lack of careful lighting muddies much of the project (with the few nighttime interiors flat and unengaging). Occasional visual beauty does punctuate the film, with the climactic sequence during daylight at the shore being actually quite beautiful. I basically found the first 2/3 of the film utterly tiresome, save for Brockington's occasional flashes of excellence, but the genuinely compelling concluding sequence ended up putting me on the bubble....
• Pickup on South Street (1953)-dvd (+)
A delightfully noir genre study in which pickpockets, stool pigeons, and loose women take up the good fight against Communism. Everybody's great. Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter are the plucky pros you expect them to be, even when saddled with often merely adequate material. Jean Peters as the femme fatale and Richard Kiley as the ever-sweaty wannabe secret-seller are delightful (especially Kiley, who's achieves a Hitchcockian dimension of ambivalent/ambiguous menace). The film is captivating and fun, with delicious style often triumphing over the utterly conventional (and occasionally pandering) substance. I really like Fuller's camera work in this. His reverence for Widmark's easy complexity and precision, as well as his obvious adoration for Thelma Ritter (the way Fuller's camera treats Ritter's death soliloquy is the stuff of a film actor's dream), is warranted and welcome. Also, several suspense sequences -- like the awesomely beautiful dumbwaiter sequence -- are worth watching the movie for. Indeed, I quite liked it -- in spite of the essential banality of the narrative and characters and the brazen/craven redbaiting (a narrative detail that instigates an array of tone-deaf platitudes).

• Hondo (1953)-dvd (-)
An uncharacteristically pensive deployment of the John Wayne persona, with startling touches of visual beauty and emotional complexity. The basic scenario is simple: the Apache are coming and Wayne wants Geraldine Page and her annoying son to hit the high road. The complications to this basic narrative urgency are less conventional, including a nuanced meditation on the imperative of marital fidelity and a complicated empathy for Native American ways of living. Geraldine Page gives a startlingly understated performance, one tethered to an emotional plausibility that tosses the rest of the cardboard characters into a curious relief. Though nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Page is basically/nearly a lead -- certainly the romantic lead if we approach this Western as a romance -- and her centrality to the film's emotional architecture (everything Wayne does is inspired to a greater or lesser extent by his instinct to do "right" by her and her son) elevates the whole project in a subtle but substantive way. And though the apache characters are presented as blood-thirsty savages (only the leaders demonstrate anything approaching ethical restraint), Page's character leads in according the Apache a modicum of human respect. I must say, though, that the plastic center-part wigs, the rusty face paint, the coal black body paint and THE FACT THAT THE INDIANS DON'T WEAR PANTS (despite wearing long sleeved high collar tunics) is just weird. The natural settings look like New Mexico (though 'twas apparently filmed in Mexico) but the built environment looks like SE SoCal (ala Ramona). John Wayne living up to his caricatures but, even with him, Page's intelligence and clarity provides a palpably human anchor to the generalized genre absurdity.
• Near Dark (1987)-dvd (+)
A melancholic, existential romance set against the timeless struggle between neo-cowboys and neo-vampires. Basically, a hoot. With lots of intelligence, strong acting and cute boys to keep things extra entertaining. Kathryn Bigelow accomplishes a stealthily feminist take on things (whether she means to or not) by framing the whole drama from the instigating action of a teen guy wanting to get into a teen girl's pants and not taking "no" for an answer. Here, in what is perhaps the only AIDS reference in the piece, dogging the girl gets the guy a life sentence of struggle, hardship and physical pain. But the date rape instigation of vampirism (which is never explicitly specified in the film's narrative) is only the beginning of a more extended exploration of the dimensions of addiction, detox and recovery -- as the central character of Caleb (a dewy, delicious Adrian Pasdar) refuses to go as low as his craving demands. His refusal to become a killer in service of his painful hunger stands as a surprisingly plausible redeployment of that 80s homily: Just Say No. And through that clarity, Caleb not only reconciles with his biological family but also determines a strategy to detox from his ostensibly permanent addiction. It's a primordial struggle between good and evil, in which we get to know and appreciate evil a little bit more. But the film is smart, gory and entertaining -- with an extraordinary, unforgettable supporting performance by Bill Paxton that becomes the parallel emotional center of the piece. (Indeed, the moment when Paxton's Severen burps lightly after feeding on the stubbly neck of a biker in a skanky bar is one of the most brilliantly, most complexly comic moments in horror.) Even more, I'd put Paxton on my short list of great horror acting (along with Perkins, Laurie and Spacek) for the incredible humanity he brings to his monster, a humanity that helps to calibrate the balance and the "stakes" for this genre-fucking piece. I could talk about this movie for a long time. Unpretentious, off-the-radar brilliance at its best.
• Life After Tomorrow (2006)-dvd (+)
An occasionally fascinating account of life as a kid performer on the Broadway stage (though the most interesting stories seem to come from the national tour). The major accomplishment of the film is the aggregation of these women -- now mostly in their thirties and only a few of whom remain in the business -- who as girls of 8-14 appeared in some iteration of the musical ANNIE. As the women reflect on the nature of the experience, a bunch of things come up: the fleeting aspects of fame; Annie as peculiar cultural phenomenon; the curiosities of being a working child; the irreality of the entertainment business for anyone let alone a kid; growing up way fast in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The main fault of the piece is that there's little in the way of structuring impulse -- just an aggregation of stories, loosely cobbled together thematically, to create an 80 minute diversion. Without an organizing event (a reunion? a revival?) to focus the proceedings, the conceit doesn't really hold together as nothing ends up getting meaningfully sustained attention. It's not really a history of ANNIE, nor is it an examination of fame, success and childhood. (Indeed, it seems some of the more incisive possible themes are blunted to permit a broader participation.) As such, some of the more meditative/spiritual accounts (ie. April Lerman & Sarah Jessica Parker) get confused by the embittered (the Kate & Allie girl), the optimistically nostalgic (the chubby mom), and the just plain weird (the pie faced blonde who got jew-baited; the crazy rocker girl). And what were the creepy collector and the Sandy handler doing there? Disappointing, mostly because I wanted it to be better, because the material's just so rich. Still a decent opener to a conversation about kid labor in the entertainment industry.
• Mogambo (1953)-dvd (-)
• Searching for Debra Winger (2002)-dvd (-)
• Torch Song (1953)-dvd (-)
In the dvd extras, Janine Basinger has a funny little thing where she basically describes this film as a giant WTF, defying easy description, even/especially her own. There you have it; I couldn't agree more. Basinger also suggests that this movie is about stardom, featuring one of the most undeniable stars of the Hollywood era, and thus becomes a whole self-referential circuit about the phenomenon of stardom. This is, I suspect, the most productive way to view this turgid, defiantly unentertaining film: as a cinematic biology experiment, dissecting Hollywood stardom as a formaldehyded frog. Of course, Joan Crawford is that frog. The story is not that complicated: A self-sufficient superstar opens her heart to a man who will always remember her as she was before she got successful/bitter/old (because he's blind and can't witness the changes to her visage). It's a scenario perfect for a sentimental weepy, featuring June Allyson or Jane Wyman (or Delta Burke in the Designing Women episode that follows essentially the same plot). But with Joan Crawford, this sentimental musical melodrama morphs into something epic, something almost scientific. Crawford is amazing -- fierce, brittle, expert in her execution of every line and every moment...but, of course, she's abjectly soulless and utterly terrifying. No wonder the dog barks upon sight of her. She's a beast in this film, tearing into each scene as if she were the lion and it were the gazelle. Perhaps as a result, the movie becomes about the spectacle of Crawford, not the character or the story, and it's fascinating but joyless to behold. It's also a great example lesson of one of the most elusive aspects of the queerest camp pleasures: how it helps when the diva is "in"(to some extent) on the joke. With every turn of this screwball film, however, Crawford is utterly, seriously sincere and it's deadly to watch. There is so much camp material but few camp moments, even with a giant queen as the director. There is much queer pleasure to be taken from Torch Song, but surprisingly little to be found in it. (Though MrStinky really does like "hothouse clotheshorse" as a euphemism for a gay man.)
• Hell House (2003)-dvd (+)
• From Here To Eternity (1953)-dvd (-)
A notably cynical war film. The basic premise of this sustained critique of bureaucratic hypocrisy is that the army really screwed up Pearl Harbor because everyone was so darn caught up in internal boot camp politics to pay attention to the real enemy. Or at least that's the alibi for a sustained, occasionally lurid portrait of GI life. The three male leads each chart a main plot narrative: Burt Lancaster plays an officer's assistant who's having a torrid affair with the officer's wife; Montgomery Clift plays an enlisted guy who refuses to exploit his abilities as a great boxer and a great bugler in order to stay just a regular soldier (he also falls in a romantic affair with a dance hall hostess in town); and Frank Sinatra a regular joe, a party boy with a big mouth who's mostly looking to have a good time in this life (who develops something of a blood feud with a bully). It's a sudsy soap, with each of the three guys curiously devoted to each other's being treated right. The women are barely realized stock characters -- the bad wife, the good whore -- who largely exist to heterosexualize the charged homoeroticism of the main relationships as well as the general scenario. Like much post-1940s moviemaking about the war, the spectacular display of homosocial fraternization in various states of physical exertion and undress makes for quite the testosteronic spectacle. Moreover, this film seems premised upon a curiously masochistic kind of narrative pleasure -- each of the male characters (though especially Clift) opt for a kind of self-abnegation, a self-denial that leads them to curiously spectacular modes of suffering. (The SM dynamics are literalized in the creepy totally electric scenario between Sinatra and Ernest Borgnine as a sadistic prison guard.) It's a strange film with little in the way of generalized pleasure or gratification, but this is totally one of those films you want to see "mashed up" or excerpted -- it doesn't take much to turn this whole movie into an oblique Querelle. The women are props, alibis for the charged erotic relations among the men -- the army a great big, semi-nude, homosocial barracks of teeming queerness. As a free-standing film, though, it's basically underwhelming. Also, Lancaster is occasionally hot but he's still Burt Lancaster. And Clift -- in what many claim is one of his most important roles -- seems a little too genteel for the everyjoe soldier he's playing. He brings a clarity and intelligence to the performance -- which flatters both the character and the audience -- but I can't help but feel he's a little too refined for the role. His uncertainties, his reluctances, his defiances all seem to emerge from a sense of internal decorum -- rather than an elementally frustrated constipation about his view of his role in society. I like Clift more here than I usually do, but I still think he and Reed would have both been more exciting in the Lancaster/Kerr roles.
• Ballad of a Soldier/Ballada o soldate (1959)-dvd (+)
This film (part of the Janus box set) offers a poignant, elliptical account of a young man negotiating competing instincts of obligation -- should he follow society's rules or should he follow the mandates of his heart? After showing surprising individual heroism, Private Aloysha something or 'nother is allotted a special, short term leave so that he might visit his single mother in their country town. He wants to help her with the roof or something. He rides the rails home and, in so doing, encounters a number of other individuals, each of whom present a particular challenge to his own sense of moral certainty while also delaying his return (and thereby reducing the amount of time he will be able to spend with his mother). The film animates this journey by placing Aloysha in close quarters with a comparably beautiful and young girl and they make much of the journey together. Also, the whole journey is presented within a narrative frame which tells us that Aloysha is a casualty of war, buried anonymously in a grave honored by folks who never knew him. It's an interesting gesture. Through Aloysha's actions -- he's an intrinsically decent guy, savvy without being mercenary, able to appreciate the difference between right and wrong without lapsing into casual arrogance or judgementality -- he seems like a decent, good kid and the knowledge that he dies as a youth creates a nearly intolerable poignancy to the film. This, however, being Soviet era realism -- we are never allowed to lapse into easy romanticism of Aloysha as tragic or special. He's just a soldier -- an everysoldier, we are meant to assume -- and our sense of attachment to him should -- the film suggests -- appreciate every soldier as much as we do Aloysha. I'm foggy right now about the concluding action, writing this now several weeks after screening it, but I am haunted by the gloriously poignant, elegiac visuals of the film. Likewise, the scene where he delivers a present to the deceitful wife of a colleague -- before retrieving the gift and re-gifting it to his comrade's beloved family -- resonates in my memory. The film also is loaded with gorgeously photographed faces, young and old, beautiful and ordinary. Also, I'm recalling how artfully director Grigori Chukrai calibrates the tension of the film: it's a story with a foregone conclusion -- Aloysha dies -- but the film stages any number of animating tensions: will they kiss? will he be able to see his mother? will they be found in the boxcar? All of which help to sustain the delicious bittersweetness of the film as a whole. I'm also reminded how palpably this film reminded me of the Japanese dramatic/aesthetic principle of mono no aware, the delirious tension of fleeting beauty. I didn't necessarily groove on the film when I watched it but it totally stuck with me in ways I'm only discovering now, as I write.
• The Station Agent (2003)-dvd (+)
• Shadowboxer (2005)-dvd (-)
Boy howdy. When bad concepts happen to decent actors. This ostensible thriller adopts several fairly conventional tropes of the "hired gun" genre (existential crisis of faith; love being an luxury) and attempts to tart them up with a handful of hip actors, a high veneer production design, and a familial conceit that aspires to mythic -- or at least Freudian -- symbolism. As best as I can tell, the main hook is that Cuba Gooding's dad cultivated him to be a killer but, after murdering Cuba's mom, he started beating on Cuba until young Helen Mirren killed him. This instigated a kind of neo-Oedipal thing with Cuba and Helen falling into a deep primordial sexual bond, not literally incestuous but yeah. Skip ahead to the present, when Helen's character has got cancer and finds that she can't kill a pregnant woman but instead adopts the mother and child as a surrogate legacy for her family with Cuba. (Of course, not dead pregnant lady -- an entirely adequate Vanessa Ferlito -- is the squeeze of a brutal crimelord -- played with characteristically sleazoid hotness by Stephen Dorff -- the same guy contracted Ferlito's murder.) Fold in a babyfaced shady doctor (a mildly confused Joseph Gordon Leavitt) who's banging his crackhead nurse (Mo'nique in one of the film's better performances) as well as the not-dead pregnant lady's ghetto-ditz best friend (Macy Gray in a nearly inscrutable cameo). Well, you got the makings of a complicated mess of a film that really doesn't know what it wants to be. So it covers over the seams with some heavyhanded color saturation as well as a curiously off-pitch brutality. The film draws a moral line with the violence by establishing evil violence as eroticized (all of Dorff's violations connect in some way to sexuality) while the professional violence is athleticized (Cuba's constant "shadowboxing" of the film's title). Notably, Cuba's breakdown/breakthrough scene is the only on implicating him in sexualized violence. Of course, none of this melange actually makes sense, which makes the conclusion all the more confused. Basically, after Helen's death, Cuba continues to live with Vanessa and her boyspawn until they become his surrogate family. A fake family that's consecrated in the bloody conclusion in which the Oedipal configuration is recast with in the boychild role. The whole shipoopie is aspiring to a kind of mythic status which is just lame. Notably, the film makes much of male nudity while dealing comparatively little with female display. We see an extended scene leading up to the rape/murder of a young man at the beginning, his nude buttocks on full display. We see Dorff's condom covered wang wobbling for an extended shot. We have various approaches to Cuba's buttocks. We even see a man bend over to take it from/like a man, just prior to his murder. It's a weird film, with few pleasures.
• The Ten (2007)-dvd (-)
A potentially excellent experiment (high concept comedic riffs on each of the 10 Commandments) yields unremarkable and consistently unfunny results. It's a high concept comedy piece -- ala Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex -- without the necessary schtick to keep the concepts from reeling irretrievably into abstraction. Everything's fine but little's funny. Sad that a film with such intelligence, with such comedic talent, remains so assertively unfunny. The concept for each commandment become too heavy somehow, casting a labored pall over what might probably needed a featherlight touch. I dunno.... Deeply disappointing but not in a way that hurt my feelings.
• The Bachelor Party (1957)-tcm/dvd (+)
I'm not sure why but Chayefsky really works for me. These chattering sad sacks remain interesting today, making me wonder if Chayefsky -- rather than Miller or Williams -- is actually the most influential screen writer in normalizing the American method as "good' screen acting. Anyway, this film -- which charts 24 hours in one guy's life as he contemplates and then goes on a buddy's bachelor party -- is a cogent and effective piece of midcentury realism. Chayefsky's art is in his ability to make "new" stock characters of mid-century urban types, while also crafting enough room for skilled actors to shade the roles with idiosyncracy and nuance. I like that these guys seems like they would know each other, not from the neighborhood but from the workplace -- each is a guy who's barely a generation away from the blue collar whose white collar fits a touch uncertainly. The movie is "a new york night" movie, where we careen through a variously drunken and desperate evening with a set of microcosm of nominally interesting characters as the central character -- Don Murray, attractive appealing and effective as Charlie Samson -- has an early identity crisis (basically, because his wife has just announced that she's actually pregnant). As always in this period, Chayefsky ends up affirming a fairly traditional view of heteronormativity by the end, but -- along the way -- there are a couple of really interesting surprises. Of course, there's the brilliant and electrifying cameo by Carolyn Jones as The Existentialist. But she's only the most attention-getting. Additionally fascinating to me are: the scene with the working class pro; the extraordinarily frank discussion about abortion instigated by Nancy Marchand as The Sister in Law (an excellent bit of actressing that makes me long for her portrayal of Clara, the girl in Chayefsky's Marty, which she did in the original tv version of the story. And then there's the scene where all the guys watch a stag film and all we see is their expressions. It's a brilliant scene. And in that scene a fascinating queer thread emerges around the character of The Bachelor, who first seems to be a real player but who is slowly revealed to be pretty desperate and lonely. What's interesting about this character -- as played by Jack Warden who's great but possibly miscast -- is that he's curiously devoted to male companionship in a way that almost reads queer (which could just be the idea of male homosexuality being a feature of emotional immaturity, a constellation of ideas quite common in the period) but there's a fascinating exchange in which Warden's character compares the groom's appearance to the man in the stag film. And there's a so so brief queer moment in the Greenwich Village party when an attractive young man notes the humor in a comment made by our main guy. Murray's character doesn't react much to the guy's comment, though Warden does with an immediate, abrupt and somehow knowing rebuff. All of which is to say that there's some really interesting stuff about sexuality in this film which I frankly did not expect at all. Finally, I feel like Scorsese must have been tacitly or directly referencing this film in After Hours. Though there aren't as many women here as in Scorsese's picture, there is a narrative structure -- as well as some art/production design -- that seems very reminiscent. A fascinating and surprising film. Though Carolyn Jones remains possibly the best thing about it...
• One Million Years B.C. (1966)-dvd (+)
WTF? Who knew I would find this so f'n enjoyable. On the one hand, it's complete drek; on the other hand, it's totally cute. I love how it's got the moral allegory sincerity of the original Star Trek series. The cheesy (but creative) special effects working to amplify what is, at its core, a message movie about the necessity to transcend primitive instinct toward hatred/bigotry/violence and unite in the face of potential apocalypse (the volcano explosion at the end a clear reference to the possibility of nuclear annihilation). I mean, really. This is movie -- with Raquel in her bikini -- is the stuff of such disdain, that I was frankly astonished at how much I found to enjoy in it. It's silly. It's scary. It's creative. (I love the way the monsters are both animated puppets AND reptilian stock footage.) I confess to not giving it my full attention, so I don't really know how boring it might be. But I can say the oogabooga gibberish ended up working with surprising effectiveness (half the time I could follow the dialogue, without watching the screen, even though it was all in oogabooga). I'm also impressed at how this might just be one of Raquel's better performances -- she always holds the screen with a strangely passionate alacrity, which can be distracting when she's ostensibly portraying an actual character/person. But, here, where her Loana is ostensibly the first "civilized" woman, her peculiar enthusiasm really suits the role, as does her formidable charisma/presence. I really didn't expect this to be interesting at all, so count me surprised. (I frankly expected it to have all the intelligence and few of the visual treats of the Sinbad movies -- on both counts, i was wrong. It's smarter -- which isn't saying a lot -- and the visual treats are at least as nifty.)

• Kansas City Bomber (1972)-dvd (+)
What a hoot. Roller Derby Melodrama with a neofeminist twist. Basically, the scenario is that KC (Welch) is a charismatic and successful Roller Derby racer who's pulling the gig mostly because she's a single mother trying to make a living. She's beautiful, good at her job, and always running into catfighty nonsense with fellow skaters. She's torn between wanting to be a nice person in an inhuman job, wanting to have success without compromising her morals, and wanting to be near her kids. She's also an athlete in a sport driven by business interests in the spectacle and showmanship she's capable of providing. The basic arc is that KC can't do anything right, without pissing someone off -- her boss, her kids, her teammates -- so how can she live her life on tolerable terms. The melodrama is punctuated by a whole variety of nemeses, as well as repeated returns to the spectacle of Roller Derby matches. The plot culminates when KC determines to run a final race against her arch nemesis honestly -- skating to win (rather than throwing it the way her boss wants her to) and she does win (thus screwing the deal her boss has made with a guy buying the franchise). By the way, KC's been sleeping with her boss and he's been trading/firing any skater that threatens to mess up his sweetheart deal with KC as both lover and business property. The film struggles to maintain the basic clarity of the throughline while sustaining the totally tack scenario of the Roller Derby races. The film is an excellent document of the earlier days of this hyperbolic bloodsport in local American culture, with the admonition for "Color!" being a job requirement that all these performers are capable of doing. The other part of this film that's a real hoot to watch is the behavior of the fans -- some of the freakiest early 70s faces you'll ever see on screen, mostly middle aged and female, who are snarling shrieking fans of the sport and the skaters. A total hoot. And I actually like the melodrama overlay for the way that it expands the reach of the aspirational drama (she's just a single gal trying to make her way in a man's world) which places the lurid derby stuff in a whole different relief. As for Welch, she's totally game for what the film requires of her. (Though her passionate screen kisses are a little scary in their voracious gape-jawed fashion.) The putatively lesbian rivalry is nearly opaque to today's eyes. A wild and often fascinating time capsule.
• 100 Rifles (1969)-dvd (-)
So brilliant in its deplorable way. The basic scenario is fascinating: Jim Brown plays an American sheriff, sent from Arizona to frontier Mexico in the immediate aftermath of the Mexican revolution (and, implicitly, immediately subsquent Arizona's admission to statehood) in 1912. He's pursuing Burt Reynolds, a half-breed Yaqui Indian (his daddy's from Alabama) who's charged with stealing $6000 from an Arizona bank. In the middle of all of this is Raquel Welch as Sarita a Yaqui maiden who's been politicized by the predations of the Mexican military officials (who are being advised by American business interests and German military advisors to exploit the indigenous people and their land as they build trading routes through Yaqui territory). Brown's only really interested in collecting his bounty (Reynolds) but, in pursuing him (and the 100 rifles that the money's tied up in), Brown and Reynolds end up being cuffed together ala The Defiant Ones (and because Welch is the freedom fighter who's looking to Reynolds for munitions, she's along for the ride as well). Madcap hilarity ensues -- or would if this were a comedy. Instead, elaborately complex contests between the Yaquis, this threesome and the evil Mexican military (lorded over by Fernando Lamas portraying a mercenary, racist Mexican general). Somehow in this Brown becomes the central hero, and he and Welch develop a mostly erotic friendship. The famous Raquel Welch bathing scene comes as a decoy moment at a climactic moment in the caper. Ultimately, the anti-heroes prove triumphant with the American business guy aligning with the rebel threesome once it's clear that they have the most power. Reynolds and Brown emerge triumphant from a final blowout battle, with Brown releasing Reynolds having retrieved the rifles. Reynolds wants to stay together and form a team. Raquel's Sarita, however, is killed in the final battle, thereby releasing Brown from that relationship (while also releasing the film from a possibly miscegenated future). What's interesting about this film is how Indian the Yaquis are presented as being, with the Mexican revolutionary imagery of both Sarita and Yaqui Joe Herrera as being reappropriated as icons of an indigenous rebellion. Meanwhile, the Mexican's are presented as banana republic warlords -- aspirational Europeans in affect, demeanor and barbarism (the US is figured as mendacious and Europe ala the German military advisor -- portrayed by Eric "Victor Newman" Braeden, sans stache -- is figured as brutal, inhuman and mercenary, with few compunctions regarding the human cost of military success). Additionally, the spectacle of lynched Indians punctuates many scenes, a visual mechanism that racializes the struggle in particularly American terms. As for Raquel, as she's playing the Yaqui Sarita, she does so at full Latin tilt -- lotsa JH sounds and standard Welchian shriekiness. But she's clearly playing Sarita as Latin (the Yaquis speak Spanish and wear campesino outfits -- as well as black brush straw wigs).
• Myra Breckenridge (1970)-dvd (-)
This is just such a categorically unpleasant film. Which is I so love it, when I love it. When I'm not in the place to love it, the noxious unpleasantness makes it really tough. This time through, when I was admittedly giving it less than my full attention, I was struck by two main things. First, how complex the intercutting of Hollywood stock footage is and how essential it is the to operation of the narrative (not just the film but the narrative). Second, how perfect Raquel Welch is in the role. It plays upon her particular gifts: her presence, her beauty, that vague impression of superiority that she somehow always conveys, and her ability to be absolutely, believably, sincerely artificial. It's not a simple vacuousness (ala Farrah Fawcett's really sweet performance as the dimwitted actress) but it's a studied artificiality that Welch is able to do well and here it suits the role. (Indeed, that simplicity is what throws Mae West off -- her presence is completely artificial but always somehow also insincere.) Raquel Welch is really good in this part, perhaps because her weaknesses as an actress are totally suited to this character. Got a few key ideas from the opening sequence. Otherwise, thsi was an un-fun screening, reminding me how much this film really comes alive on a big screen.
• Sayonara (1957)-vhs (+)
Always an amazing experience to watch this film. As MrStinky noted, the central story of Major Gruver and Hana-Ogi being structured as a romantic comedy, with the ancillary storylines creating the contours of the romantic tragedy. Of course, the reason I watched this was to think through the Nakamura story (Ricardo Montalban as the Kabuki actor) but what became more clear was how the all the likable characters are involved in some American on Japanese action, which for some reason I did not recall. The narrative locates the interracial/international romance in terms of unjust laws - social conventions that are legally sustained and which do not acknowledge the maneuvers of the human heart. It's an anti-segregationist, anti-JimCrow view of international/interracial romance, with the old guard (military authority as embodied both by the general, as well as the cracker colonel; society rules as embodied by Martha Scott's Mrs. Webster; even the hoodlums at the end) standing stubbornly in the way of blossoming new love. Michael's right this is the basic, in a Northrop Frye sense, of the romantic comedy. The media interest in the Gruver/HanaOgi romance is itself an interesting redeployment of the society: the press and the fans as a way to suggest a new model of societal sanction. The thing that's important to note about Montalban's presence in the film is how segregated he is: the only named MALE Japanese character, the only Japanese character to be not performed by a Japanese or Japanese American actor. Montalban's presence in the film is also the only vision of a masculine spectacular. His near nudity in the early costuming scenes, his light brown skin and lanky limbs connoting a clearly non-white physicality even as his skin is whitened. The contrast of the whiteness of his makeup and his undergarments, as well as the lean musculature of his frame, are some of the only extended scenes of individuated physical spectacularity of any gendered body in the film. In contrast, Red Buttons' scene in the bath is a spectacle of Katsumi's domestic service; Hana-Ogi's performance montage (notably, her virtuosity here is constructed not as skill of performance, but much more in the Ziegfield sense of a model wearing different outfits). The only male physical spectacle that is anywhere as pronounced is Brando's "gone native" scene in which he greets Eileen Webster (Patricia Owens) wearing a kimono, a kimono notably in the same shades of steel blue as his military uniform. The other thing to note about Nakamura as a character is that he's the only character who demonstrates any meaningful cosmopolitanism, as lucid in American cultural referents as he is enmeshed in Japanese tradition. He becomes, like Eileen, the only presence aware of the complexity of the interracial/international romance, in emotional, cultural and political terms. Eileen's final line renders an open space of unexamined and undiscussed possibility ("There's only one person I want to talk about this, mother, and he's JAPANESE!") -- the implication is that the interracial/international romances are not truncated by the governmental policies or social sanction, that they will continue on their own terms -- not to survive, necessarily, but to continue on their own terms. Nakamura's character is a racially queer figure -- neither white nor Japanese, neither American nor not American -- and his physical attractiveness is alibied by his Latinness. (The Marilyn Monroe references anchoring his heterosexuality, while the female fandom -- think of the American woman who claims that her young daughter is a big fan -- anchors his appeal as being different than competitive masculinity.) Nowhere does the film suggest that Eileen chooses Nakamura over Gruver, but the film does go far to imply that she enjoys more chemistry with Nakamura, that she might prefer Nakamura though she would of course choose Gruver.

• Casting About
(2004)-dvd (+)
Fascinating tribute to the work of acting. The conceit of the film - 184 actresses auditioning for roles in an independent film which features the audition footage as a component of the film, a film which was never made - allows for startling insight into the work of actressing. The hard-to-define distinctions between good and bad, interesting and banal, competent and excellent. Most interesting is how the unvarnished aspects of the auditioner performance -- especially the single takes and the lack of professional makeup -- all of that makes the "feel" of the acting work very different. It's great to see the same monologue done by two actresses simultaneously. It's great to see the montage of different women answering the nudity question. It's great to see an actor tell a true story before moving into a similarly intense monolog, only to realize that she was a more compelling screen presence when she didn't have lines to say. Also great was the actress toward the end, Naomi Krass I think, who performed mostly in German but who was just amazing. A fascinating film but mostly for actressexual and acting geeks, probably.

• Indie Sex - Taboos & Interviews (2007)-dvd (+)
Really good. I love this series. The interviews were great - the producers arranged some of the talking head commentary into topical/thematic sections. It's excellent to hear actors/directors especially talk about the experience of nudity and filming a sex scene. Perhaps the most interesting approach to the topic I've seen. Definitely usable for class. The Taboo film again avoided race, which is just weird, instead emphasizing kink in ways that seem very sensible from a sexuality perspective but less so from social history perspective.

• Protagonist (2007)-dvd (+)
Wow. Jessica Yu is brilliant. This meditation on the plays and characters of Euripedes becomes a profound meditation on masculinity, performativity and character. Four articulate men who have led extraordinary lives tell their stories and, in concert, create a portrait of identity, struggle, obstacles, catharsis, redemption and awareness that are epic in their emotional, spiritual and dramatic scope. But the simple (albeit insanely smart) comingling of these stories is not what makes the stories so powerful. It's the puppets and the cartoons. Yu uses text from Euripedes to frame the whole inquiry, animating the "beats" of the hero's journey with core concepts, while also having little carved wooden puppets enact both the Euripedes text and selected scenes from each narrator's life. The puppets both elevate and abstract the emotional stakes of the conflicts being depicted. The guys tell their stories as talking heads, but -- through visual montage and through the use of the puppets -- so much more than reenactments happen. It's just an astonishingly smart, meditative documentary. A meditative essay, really, with great subjects telling enthralling stories of humanness. And Jessica Yu's little interview is excellent as well, explaining and elaborating so many of the most interesting features of the documentary. So nice to see a little interview rather than listening to the extended director's commentary. A great piece, really. I'd love to teach using it but I'm not sure how...

• Fame
(1980)-dvd (+)
I do love this movie. I've easily seen it more times than any other, but this time through it was the first time I screened the dvd with the director's track playing. Parker's self-aggrandizing track didn't provide much in the way of information except that (a) Parker and Barry Miller didn't get along, that Miller was difficult and even Maureen Teefy didn't like him; (b) that they didn't get to film in the real school because the school district was concerned about the 4-letter words and that Parker might -- in the words of one administrator -- "do for NY public high schools what he did for turkish prisons" in Midnight Express; which (c) forced him to find alternate locations which was really much better; and (d) the film is a hybrid of the school for Performing Arts as well as Music and Art. He must have made each of those points 19,000 times. I do love how much he hates the tv show; at one point, he calls it "hideous." A few thoughts came up: why was Barry Miller cast as Ralph? Why no Puerto Rican actor? Why is Ralph the only character who graduates who's missing from the finale? (It's only Ralph and Hilary who aren't in "Body Electric" and, for Hilary, it makes sense but not so for Ralph.) I think the main thing I kept thinking about during the film was the character of Montgomery MacNeil. Again a character who's casting I wonder about. But more importantly I'd love to hear a little bit more about the character, what the creators were thinking in setting Montgomery up as the only queer kid at PA. I love the character but there's something absurdly heterosexist in the way the character is situated in the film: pathetic, lonely, isolated. What I sorta love about the character is that he's a normal, basically masculine gay man who's aesthetically inclined, shy and lost in the big city. The friendship between Doris and Montgomery makes sense, same too for his friendship and empathy for Ralph, but I'm wondering what informed the decision to emphasize his difference through tropes of loneliness and isolation when (really) he's in NYC at the end of the 1970s at a performing arts school (where plenty of sissy guys are getting all fierce in "Fame"). That said, when you place Montgomery's very existence in the context of all the ensemble microcosmic melodramas of the 1970s and 1980s, Montgomery becomes all the more remarkable for the fact of his existence in that all heterosexual genre. (I can think only of Fame and The Decline of the American Empire, which each include a gay man, albeit problematically, where Nashville, American Graffiti, Secaucus Seven, Big Chill, St. Elmo's Fire, Breakfast Club, etc, are all unquestioningly heterosexual.) I should probably do a performance profile of Paul McCrane in some blogathon because I'm really interested in the way the character operates... But I could watch this movie again and again and again.

• Indie Sex: Extremes (2007)-dvd (-)
What's perhaps most interesting about this entry into the Indie Sex series is that it's the most personal, the most intimate, the most exploratory. To a one, the commentators share what feel to be more intimate details about their own spectatorial histories and how films about "alternative sexualities"" (which, here, seem mostly to refer to fetish/kink/sm etc) have informed their own fantasy lives. Also, the idea of "the emotional dimensions of human experience" comes up a lot (via intense films like Belle du Jour, The Night Porter, The Piano Teacher). Alternately, the commentators note their own naivete in encountering the dimensions of kink. Again, this one chooses a fairly arbitrary starting point (Lolita) that feels late to me. The section toward the end where the commentators offer their perspective on the distinction between pornography and art: Catherine Breillart says if you have to ask the question then it's art; Jami Bernard says it's the subtext; the British critic says it's the lighting. But they all go back to the question of character, context and narrative (beyond scenario), underscoring the basic argument of this section of the series (that taboos press upon the limits of social convention, but also on the emotional dimensions of the human experience). Also, the notion of "unsimulated sex" is very useful (getting away from "real" or "explicit" or whatever to modify "the act") -- an interesting conceptual conceit... John Cameron Mitchell -- "there's nothing 'natural' about putting sex on camera" and his discussion of the group sex scene in Shortbus. Another key conceit is that cinema is a "safe" space to explore the more drastic dimensions of the sex as a component of human experience, which is how the film maintains its defiantly "sex positive" vibe while also dabbling in the darker aspects of sex on screen.

• Indie Sex: Teens
(2007)-dvd (-)
Not nearly as competent as "Indie Sex: Censored" from the same series. This installment suffers from a presentist bias, that skews the teen-ness to everything post Porky's. We don't get a useful discussion of the construction of teenagers in the US, just that it's an especially US thing. The clips and featured films are fine enough, but there's no historical or analytic frame through which to view the products of the last 30 years, nothing to anchor these in productive context, either culturally or in terms of industrial practice. Basically, if this film is to be believed, there is no such thing as a teen movie prior to Halloween (1978). (The premise is that teen audiences were cheaper to reach in the blockbuster era.) The problem with this is that you don't get any sense of teen audiences being important in the 1930s or 1950s (periods when concern about teen movie consumption fueled cultural debate and industrial reform). We get a real quick nod back to 1950s rock'n'roll pictures during an extended section on Dirty Dancing, but that's it. Further, the film stays pretty literal with teen sex, without edging at all into the erotics of horror and the importance of horror as a consistent genre for teen sexuality. And once again, I'm left to wonder why Little Darlings has not been released on dvd.

• Indie Sex: Censored
(2007)-dvd (+)
Screening this to possibly use in my course this semester. Verdict - I think I will. Cinematically, it's nothing: a VH1/Bravo style survey of great moments in popcultural history. What's nice about this one is that it's so current and that it's got a lotta ween. Shockingly frank male nudity frames the story, basically -- and the narrative is one which frames nudity/sexuality/censorship as a push-pull story between technology and regulation. The nudity makes me a little anxious, for teaching purposes. But there's a really nice "cultural history of sexuality in popular performance" narrative that I think might be handy, if only to introduce undergrads to the broad U.S. cultural trends regarding the ubiquity of sexual expressiveness in performance cultures and also the moments of breakthrough/retreat. This film does a really nice job with the Production Code, detailing some of the way that "coded" presentations helped to convey sexuality when frankness was forbidden. Likewise, it does a nice job introducing the tensions: local/national; male vs female nudity; private consumption vs public gathering; the levels of censorship that prevail; the historic breaks in constitutional law. I'm not sure where I'm going to squeeze this in; let alone how I'm going to frame the whole nudity thing; but it does cover a wide range of ground. A nice primer on the whole history of sexual censorship in the 20th century.

• The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959)-tcm/dvd (+)
So interesting to see this so soon on the heels of I Am Legend. This apocolypse fantasy also builds from an accidental decimation of the earth's population leaving a black man as apparently the single surviving human in NYC. The parallels are striking -- the super-competence of the sole surviving black man; the radio transmission every noon; and -- perhaps most conspicuously -- the use of mannequins as a faux community with whom the isolated man builds a kind of comic communitysuggesting that the makers of I Am Legend drew consciously upon this film. The substantial pleasures of the depopulated NYC are continuous between the two films. Here, though, the arty high-modern angles are thrilling in a different way and the montage of the miscellaneous lions in NYC in this film is just really cool. The biggest difference between the two films is the disparate source of tension between them. In I Am Legend, it's the virus-infected zombies; here, the possibility of contagion has passed (the nuclear poison was, apparently, deadly for only a week or so) and the real threat is the possibility that the evils of the prior civilization (especially, even singly, racial privilege and segregation) will survive in this new world. The film rides on Harry Belafonte as Ralph Burton, a black man who happened to be working underground when the nuclearness happened. Belafonte carries the first third (or so) of the movie alone. Inger Stevens (as Sarah Crandall, the last woman, who happens to be white) arrives and focuses the next third, with the two of them becoming friends and stirring the beginnings of an obliquely, but intensely, erotic connection. The scene where Sarah orders Ralph to cut her flaxen blonde hair is just fraught with erotic tension, he just hacks away at the fetish of her blonde hair, she coaxes him in palpably erotic tones. He ends up refusing her, for reasons that are not entirely clear, though he does speak of her casual embrace of white privilege. Then, right when it looks like Ralph and Sarah are going to get together, a third arrives in New York. A white man on a boat - Ben Thacker (Mel Ferrer). When Ralph introduces himself and Sarah as the "total population of New York," Ben introduces himself as the "total population of the southern hemisphere" (though it later turns out that he lived with his wife and kids in NYC on Sutton Place, was he at sea at the time of the nuclearness?). With Ben's arrival, the tension of the piece becomes all about the romantic triangle, with Belafonte's Ralph stepping waaaaaaaaaay back and allowing the white folks to get it on, though Sarah's loyalty to Ralph ends up thwarting Ben's desire to get with her and start with the business of repopulating the globe. (There's a big no-sex-sex scene with Ben and Sarah too, where Sarah demands that Ben make love to her, even shouting "harder" etc -- in both she's the instigator and the more active partner, coordinating the film's economy that femininity equals sexuality.) Ultimately, the two men have a series of confrontation over Sarah, culminating in the climactic sequence in which Ben basically starts hunting Ralph in the urban jungle. Ralph, of course, has an existentialist moment affirming pacifism which end up diffusing the whole situation and, as Ralph determines to leave town, Sarah insists that they stay together, an extended shot of their clasped hands signaling the very distinct possibility of a miscegenated future. (Of course, in the film's final final moment Sarah reincorporates Ben as well, making it really complicated.) This premise of a mixed race future is underscored by the film's concluding title: THE BEGINNING, as these three actors walk hand in hand into the urban horizon.

• Red without Blue (2007)-dvd (-)
A tender but ultimately banal account of the extraordinary story of twins, whose journey through life together begins as sissy boys in Missoula, Montana. The film recounts the complexly comingled histories of divorce, peer sexual abuse, a shared suicide attempt, and enforced estrangement as such informs the twins's current lives in their early 20s, as Mark (who has taken to calling himself Oliver) seeks love and companionship in San Francisco and as Clair (formerly Alex) completes college in NY while contemplating the surgical completion of her transition to femaleness. The film does well respecting the intricate layers of hurt, fear and uncertainty as the two maneuver independent but forever connected lives amidst the concentric circles of relation created by their mother, father, and community in Missoula. Add into this a family history of Christian Science -- wherein any physical ailment is the manifestation of something wrong between you and god -- and a deeply wounded but loving mother who's got a complex intimate life of her own (she shares her home, her bed, and her life with a woman but adamantly refuses to be identified as gay)... All told, Red without Blue -- the title derives from the colors worn by twins when they were small boys -- operates from a fascinating premise. The film is less fascinating, at least as a film. There's an incredible ethical sensibility at work that I admire, but the film is neither visually nor emotionally compelling. (Though the use of snapshot montages and intertitles are occasionally quite effective.) The POV of the film is a bit obtuse and I can't tell whether it's adopting a posture of radical nonjudgmentality or whether its just Indie Oprah. In either case, this is not a film built around a polemic, though an inclination toward advocacy for social justice does infuse it nearly completely; rather, it's more of an old school documentary ethic, a belief in the power of people telling their own stories. It's ok. The ideas are powerful. And the slow slog to acceptance of family as it is (rather than as we might like it to be) remains a powerful modality of documentary inquiry. Might be interesting to watch next to something like Daughter from Danang. (The additional interviews with the filmmakers, as well as Mark and Clair, are really great. Helping to amplify the communal/collaborative aspects of the filmmaking process.)

• Lost Boundaries (1949)-tcm/dvd (+)
Another social problem film, though ostensibly based on a true story as told in The Reader's Digest. The basic scenario is that a light skinned black couple are forced by circumstance -- too light to work in a Negro hospital, and just black enough to have no chance in a white hospital -- to choose to "pass" in a remote New Hampshire town. The ruse begins in the 1920s and picks up again in the 1940s, when the couples are established and beloved in their town and have two teenage kids. What's interesting is that there's enough back story to make this deeper than your standard passing melodrama. Plus, the Northern setting allows for a different depiction of both white racism and the various sites of integration. (Indeed, the sights of integration -- at the med school graduation, the post graduation party, the Harlem precinct -- are fairly astonishing in cinema from this period.) It's a fascinating account of the black middle class, and a reasonable depiction of how working class professions were some of the only options for educated black men in particular. The more I'm thinking about it, the more I really like the whole set up and the way that the filmmakers incorporate aspects of social reality into the melodrama. Especially interesting is how segregationist policies (ie. segregated blood supply; no commissions for Negro enlistees) are the nemeses and crucibles for action. Canada Lee is excellent as the Harlem police officer who helps the identity crisis of the newly black teen who's come to Harlem to figure out what it means to be black. The female performances are really bad, but the male performances are much more solid. Carleton Carpenter is really neat in a bit part as the teen daughter's naive beau. Some great/weird moments: wife's paranoia that her child's being named after a black man might out them; the fact that he passes unwillingly, maintaining a life of principle commuting to a negro hospital in the city one day a week; the weird way the daughter grooves to black swing music; the mysterious ending with the daughter leaving the church at the end; the son's dream sequence where his family transforms into broad-nosed, brown-skinned folks. The whole narrative aims toward desegregationist sentiment, even to the point of "interracial" romance, and there's a fascinating diversity of respectable folks who are racist as well as a comparable array who are anti-racist. Additionally, the phenomena of passing is framed as a social perversion, a mutation borne of the social injustice of racist culture and society. (It's a collision between american ideals of opportunity and the social injustices of racist prohibition.) Mel Ferrer is a really interesting presence among the "passing" characters -- he's by far the most visually distinctive, his cadaverous skull making him a very vivid presence. He's ok, but the most interesting aspect of his performance is the ease he demonstrates being white and being black, while also conveying an implicit sense of political awareness.

• Intruder in the Dust
(1949)-tcm/dvd (-)
An interesting enough social problem picture from the late 1940s. I caught snatches of it when it broadcast as part of TCM's Race in Cinema series, paying attention to it mostly because it starred/featured Juano Hernandez in a central role. The basic premise is a cross between To Kill a Mockingbird, Tobacco Road and some formulaic procedural. Basically, a black man (Juano Hernandez) in a southern town in apprehended as the suspect in a mysterious murder of some redneck up on redneck hill. As he's being led into the jail, amidst an agitated mob of snarling southern faces, he catches the attention of a young white teen and beseeches him for help. The teen runs home, late for dinner, and over dinner details his history with the black man -- the man saved his life and the white teen insisted on treating him as his inferior, arriving to a confused lesson along the lines of "negroes are people too". The teen's uncle or somesuch is an attorney, the only one in town who'd be willing to defend a black man accused of killing a white man. Soon a set of circumstances emerges, wherein, basically, the kid and some old white lady become convinced that the black man didn't kill the white man and, in the dark of night, they retrieve proof from the empty grave of the dead man. So it becomes a stand off, between a small gaggle of sympathetic white characters and a large horde of snarling crackers intent on breaking into the jail and lynching the black man. The old white lady (Miss Haversham) fends off the vigilantes by parking herself on the jailhouse steps, depending on their deference to white womanhood. Ultimately, in a twisty twist, the real killer is revealed and the black man set free. The whole film is pretty declamatory, with little in the way of nuance. The only performances that warrant any real attention -- aside, of course, from Juano Hernandez's -- are Will Arnett (aka Grampa Walton) as the curiously sympathetic sheriff and Elizabeth Patterson, in an appealing character turn as Miss Haversham. A lanky Claude Jarman (the iconic kid star of The Yearling) is an awkward lead, which is unfortunate since it is his pov that the film most depends. As the accused black man, Lucas Beauchamp (pronounced "Beecham") Hernandez gives what is for me an emblematic performance. He's enigmatic, charismatic, formidable, immediately likeable, and yet fundamentally non-threatening. The character of Lucas Beauchamp -- I should have probably said this before -- is something of a town freak in that he's a nominally successful farmer, planting on his own land which he never sharecropped. In an interesting way, he's positioned as living in a kind of exile -- between the black and white communities in that he's a landowner and not a laborer, which affords him a sort of status not acceptable for a black man in his community. What's worse, his utter lack of obsequiousness and deference to whites makes him an even greater menace. It's an interesting character -- and it showcases Hernandez's particular gift for playing a different sort of black man. (There's also a really odd opening shot with an attractive white man running in and taking a shower; it's so not clear how it relates to the narrative - may need to look at that section again to see if I missed the connection.)

• Girl27 (2007)-dvd (+)
As far as Hollywood insider documentaries go, this one's just so so. But as a meditation on the way cultural ideas about rape have (and have not) changed in 75 years, it's pretty interesting. The film tells the story of how a Hollywood historian unearthed a relatively obscure Hollywood scandal -- a 17 year old actress, raped and beaten at a big inhouse MGM event, sues in federal court before disappearing into relative oblivion -- and his journey in piecing together the fragments of this true Hollywood story. As a documentary, it's not unlike what you might see on any cable channel but there's a heart there, derived from the historian's growing emotional investment in the story and its central figure, "Girl27" Patricia Douglas. As a film, the piece successfully maintains the suspense (will he find her, will she meet with him, will she participate in the documentary, etc) while basically spelling out the barebones of the story and the clear implication of a concerted effort on the part of MGM and LA County officials to suppress the story, the case, etc. The film emerges as an emotionally intriguing meditation on the idea of cultural complicity in sexual assault, and a big part of the film's premise is that Patricia Douglas was a brave hero for standing up and claiming her rights as a victim of a crime (and the concomitant injustice that followed the mishandling of the case). I also admired the film's willingness to position Douglas as a difficult figure, with a lot of family wreckage behind her that may or may not have been the result of her assault. The film doesn't really delve into the historical coincidence of the silencing of the Douglas case and MGM's embrace of the Production Code at nearly precisely the same historical moment. And Greta Van Susteran (as a talking head) is lamely declamatory without offering any particular insight. But all told - not a bad vehicle for thinking seriously about mainstream US film and its complicity in a culture that blithely endorses violence against women.

• September (1987)-dvd (-)
I know next to nothing about this generally disregarded Woody Allen film. MrStinky wanted to revisit some Woody Allen, and requested this film, so here we go. I was nearly asleep for much of the movie, so forgive me, and I spend the first half of the film loudly proclaiming "who are these people and what are they talking about" but by the end several hours later (oh, wait, the film was only 83 minutes it just felt hours long) but by the end I did land upon several interesting-ish observations, so I feel nominally justified in sharing. Basically, my take -- which might be in the press materials for all I know about this film -- on September is this: if Hannah and Her Sisters is Allen's riff on Chekhov's The Three Sisters, then September must be his spin on Uncle Vanya. I didn't catch on until the very end but, when I did, boy howdy was it obvious. Mia Farrow is at her hangdog, whiny, depressive worst as the Vanya/Sonya character, who loathes her powerfully charismatic mother (Elaine Stritch in a performance that would be utterly brilliant on the stage, human and precise, but which reads a little large on camera) and has fallen in swoon with her idly attractive neighbor. Oh well I don't really have the energy to go into the Chekhovian algebraics, which are ultimately less important than the fact that Allen really goes to the existential despair at the expense of the comedy YET the only things that really work about the piece are aspects of the Chekhovian original. Stritch and Jack Warden are great; Sam Waterston and Dianne Wiest are game; Denholm Elliott is utterly lost; and Mia Farrow is awful. But it's still often fascinating -- possibly just because Woody Allen is always fairly fascinating even when everything's just mostly bad.

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