Friday, December 28, 2007
"That was quite a war, that World War II...We lost a lot of good boys in that war and we kept some we should've lost."
It is quite astounding that even though The Vietnam War was the defining event of the sixties and seventies, so few movies were made about it as it was occurring. During WWII, countless movies were made about that conflict. The main difference, of course, between these two wars is that WWII was supported by the majority of the American populace whereas Vietnam wasn't. Indeed, one of the only mainstream Vietnam movies, made during that war, that comes to mind is John Wayne's pro-Vietnam War propaganda piece The Green Berets. Thankfully, that movie died a quick and painful death at the box office. It's hard to convince people to spend money to watch a movie promoting a war they feel shitty about.
Aside from The Green Berets, the only other movies made during this time that even remotely dealt with the conflict in Vietnam tended to be drive in fare. Because of their low profiles, the exploitation production houses could make movies dealing with all sorts of controversial subject matters without fears of a backlash from an enraged public. Nowhere was this truer than in the horror movies that these companies produced. Horror movies have long dealt subversively with many a controversial subject. Hell, I could write ten of these posts about the political subtext in the work of George Romero alone. Horror movies have never been taken as seriously as "legitimate movies" and thus have been able to slip under the radar undetected.
It was under these circumstances that Bob Clark helmed his Vietnam horror movie Deathdream. Bob Clark previously made his mark with the underrated zombie movie, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. Although CSPWDT is a somewhat formulaic Night of the Living Dead knockoff, its dark humor got people's attention. To make Deathdream Clark hired the writer and star of CSPWDT, Alan Ormsby, to write the screenplay. What resulted was an exploitation masterpiece.
Deathdream opens right in the middle of a fire fight in Vietnam. Our main character Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is killed before the opening credits even roll -- not that this is an arty or clever device a la Sunset Boulevard. On the contrary, Andy actually turns into a vampire (actually it's more of a combination of a vampire and a zombie). The next time we see Andy he is back in the states hitching a ride from a soon to be victim trucker. The movie isn't exactly clear on how Andy gets back to America, though. Seeing as the military has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to vampire/zombies, I doubt he flew back in a military aircraft. My guess is that he used the, walking on the ocean floor method, employed by the zombies in Lucio Fulci's Zombie.
A very tense Brooks family sits at home having dinner when an Army official comes by to give them the news of Andy's death. Understandably the family is distraught, that is, until Andy comes home where he lurks in the shadows of the living room until his family discovers him. Sure, the Brooks were just informed that Andy was dead and when they find him, Andy has a devious smile and cold dead eyes, but that doesn't mean that anything is wrong. Honestly, Andy might as well be wearing a sign that says, 'I drain and drink the blood of the living so that I may live. Do not trust me.' His family members, specifically his mom Christine (Lynn Carlin), remain oblivious, however.
Andy's dad, Charles, begins to grow suspicious. Charles is played expertly by John Marley, best known as the movie producer who wakes up next to a horse's head in The Godfather. Christine tries to convince him that Andy just needs time to readjust. Actually, everything appears to be fine now. No, wait; Andy is strangling the family dog. He continues on a murdering rampage in which he offs a whole mess o' people undetected.
Through it all, Christine remains committed to her son. Yes Andy killed a doctor, a random trucker, and his girlfriend among others but, gosh-darnit, it's just impossible to stay mad at that adorable psycho vampire/zombie face. In fact, even when Christine learns of her son's deeds, she tries to help him escape from authorities. Hijinks and insanity ensue.
It's a shame that movies of this sort are such a rarity nowadays. In a roundabout way, this movie was dealing with the struggles of reintegrating soldiers back into society. It's like The Best Years of Our Lives but with vampire/zombies." Deathdream actually makes a good companion piece to the Elia Kazan helmed, returning Vietnam Vets movie of a few years earlier, The Visitors. The rare movies from this period that dealt with Vietnam, explored it from the angle of the returning vets. They didn't depict the actual conflict. Americans simply weren't ready to pay money to watch depictions of the carnage that they saw daily on the evening news. A similar thing is happening today. This past year has seen a slew of returning vets movies as we come to grips with the current unpopular war.
Deathdream actually has a direct descendant in Joe Dante's delightful made for Showtime Homecoming. In Dante's movie, the zombies of U.S. soldiers return to America so that they can vote the warmongers out of office. As with Homecoming, when modern horror movies deal in politics it is blunt and in your face. First and foremost, Deathdream was about bringing the scares. It just happened to sneak in some subtext about the Vietnam War.
Deathdream is an important movie in many respects. For one, it employs the killer's POV shot that would become de rigeur in later slasher movies such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. Deathdream is also the first movie that I can think of in which a vampire uses a syringe to drain the blood of his victims. This method would later be used in George Romero's quiet masterpiece, Martin. Most importantly, Deathdream marked Tom Savini's first movie as a makeup artist. Savini would eventually become inextricably linked to the works of George Romero. Interestingly, Savini was originally slated to work on the make up effects for Night of the Living Dead but was called to active duty in Vietnam where he worked as a combat photographer. He would eventually cite his experience in Vietnam as an inspiration for his work as a makeup artist. Although Savini's work on Deathdream is tame when compared to his later work, it did employ his signature zombie makeup.
Deathdream is every bit as awesome as its premise implies. This is one of the few movies that more than lived up to my expectations. It is everything one would expect it to be and then some. This movie also makes me sad in that it reminds me how far Bob Clark fell in the subsequent years. For a while he could do no wrong. He made both the original Black Christmas and the perennial Christmas favorite A Christmas Story. The man loved himself some Christmas movies. His most recent movies, however, included the two Baby Geniuses movies and The Karate Dog. Ouch. I don't know whether he just stopped caring by the end of his career or if he was never any good and just happened to luck into great projects early on. My guess is that it was a combination of the two. Sure his most recent movies were complete and utter crap, but it it is impossible to watch a movie like Deathdream and deny that the director had talent.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
"Wall Street has collapsed."
"No wall I ever built collapsed."
Few filmic depictions of revenge are as cathartic as, Peter Gibbons sabotaging his workplace, in Mike Judge's Office Space. Most any American worker can relate to this sentiment. Most workers, however, are cowardly people who want to continue earning paychecks (what pussies). Thus they commit their acts of revenge in subtler ways. Namely, they do half assed jobs. Hell, I'm writing this blog while I'm at work (side note: if my boss has found out about this blog and is reading it, I didn't actually write this at work). A few brave souls, however, have taken the Gibbons route and committed out and out treason against their employers. Edward Dmytryk was one of these brave souls.
During the forties, Dmytryk directed a string of socially conscious message pictures including Tender Comrade and Crossfire. When the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating Hollywood for Communist sympathies in the late forties, Dmytryk was near the top of its list. Of course, many people caved in and named names at the HUAC hearings. A few, including Dmytryk, were brave enough, however, to defy the government. They were blacklisted for their impudence. Hollywood wasn't gonna let some reds infiltrate their community and peddle this hogwash about workers' rights. In fact, the studio heads were shocked, shocked to find out that some of these nogoodniks had been sneaking their ideology into Hollywood fare for years (The Grapes of Wrath couldn't have been a red movie. Good old Jack Ford directed that).
The folks who got blacklisted had little to no options as to their next career moves. One option was to make movies independently in the states -- a near impossibility. Herbert Biberman did this with his ballsy Salt of the Earth, a proto-feminist, Mexican workers' rights movie made entirely with a blacklisted crew. The other option was to produce movies in foreign countries. Jules Dassin had an amazing career choosing this path. Initially, Edward Dmytryk chose the Dassin route when he got the UK to finance his workers' rights movie, Christ in Concrete.
Christ in Concrete shares a similarity with Salt of the Earth in that it seemed to be motivated, solely, by getting revenge on the Hollywood studios for blacklisting him. Dmytryk seemed to be saying, "You think I was making red propaganda before? Wait 'til you get a load of this." Indeed, Christ in Concrete also shares a distinction with Salt of the Earth in being one of the Commiest movies an American ever produced.
The majority of Christ in Concrete is told in a flashback. Chronologically, the story begins in the early twenties. It centers around Geremio (Sam Wanamaker), a humble New York bricklayer who has dreams of marrying the beautiful Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan). She, however, does not think that he can earn enough dough as a bricklayer to feed her voracious appetite for the finer things in life. After being rebuffed by her, Geremio asks his coworker Luigi (Charles Goldner) about a beautiful relative of his whose picture Geremio once admired. Her name is Annuziata (Lea Padovani) and she lives in Italy. She will not move to America unless she can find a man who owns a home. After Geremio promises her a home, she travels to the states to marry him. What she doesn't know is that he doesn't actually have a home. Awkward.
Although she is annoyed at his con, Annuziata falls in love with Geremio. They soon resolve to save enough money to buy a home. They move into a dirt cheap tenement in lower Manhattan and save as much as they can in order to put a down payment on a house in Brooklyn (Side note: I wonder how much that tenement would go for today). Over the course of the next ten years, the two of them have a whole heap of kids. Regardless of this, they still manage to continue saving money for a house. They come within a few dollars of the $500 that they need and, wouldn't you know it, the stock market crashes.
Geremio must now fight with his bricklayer friends for a chance at getting some of the rare jobs that spring up. By the way, these are some of the most sophisticated laborers I have ever seen in a movie. The performers in this movie act in a manner befitting a pompous Shakespearian production. Their dialogue is also quite stilted with nary a contraction to be heard. It is quite jarring, but more on that later.
At his wits end, Geremio gets a visit from a contractor who offers him a supervisory position on a new construction project. What's the catch, you ask? Well, the contractor is cutting every corner imaginable and as a result the lives of all the workers would be in danger. After heavy contemplation, Geremio decides to take the job. To make matters worse, he even decides to take up with that hot dish Kathleen again. He is truly heading down a dark path. To put his conscience at ease he decides to get tanked every night. One night after feeling sorry for himself, he slams his fist on a spiked fence post causing an open gash in his hand. Stigmata much? The religious imagery here is about as subtle as...well, it's as subtle as naming a movie Christ in Concrete.
When his guilt finally overpowers him, Geremio decides to rebel against his boss by using the proper safety precautions for his men. His men are in the process of bracing the walls when one of the ceilings collapses, pushing Geremio into a hole which slowly fills with concrete. At which point he screams, "I can be saved. Save me." Again with the religious imagery.
Honestly, this movie is quite hard to sit through. The story was compelling. The photography was beautifully natural. The characters were interesting. But that dialogue. I couldn't get past that dialogue. I have such a hard time with non-naturalistic dialogue that I couldn't enjoy this movie. Throughout most of the movie I wanted to yell at the TV, "That's not how bricklayers talk! What the fuck is wrong with you? Stupid TV, be more real." Truth be told, in the pre-On the Waterfront days, movie dialogue tended to be more stylized and less naturalistic. The dialogue in movies from this period rarely bothers me, however. In fact, I usually quite enjoy it. The screenwriters generally used appropriate slang and there was a cleverness to the dialogue that remains fun to listen to. The dialogue here is completely divorced from reality. Here are some examples:
"In the house of Julio, the air has become hunger. Stomachs have become wounds. In the house of Julio, children's hearts have become swollen vessels."
"I am willing to let the bad that has transpired remain a thing of the past."
"I too felt laughter within me just now. What have we to laugh about?"
While watching this I was reminded of John Turturro as Barton Fink's titular character. He had a deep desire to make a theater of the common man and yet was completely out of touch with very people he wrote about. Christ in Concrete was actually an adaptation of a book by Pietro Di Donato. I never read the book, so I don't know whether Di Donato or the screenwriter, Ben Barzman, is at fault. But somebody fucked up.
I also have a problem with severely didactic movies. The minute a movie starts getting preachy, I tune out. This movie constantly hits the viewer over the head in an overbearing and condescending way with "the truth." I definitely admire this movie for its ballsiness. It is simply something that I can't enjoy.
I should also say that Dmytryk, unfortunately, would eventually name names at a later HUAC hearing. In fact, the aforementioned Jules Dassin was one of the people that Dmytryk named in a hearing in 1952. I think Dmytryk became a rat when he realized, "Hey, I've been making a lot of money directing movies for Hollywood. Why would I throw that away? I don't wanna get a real job." And so it goes.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
dir. David Lynch
Based on some of the reviews I read shortly after
Naomi Watts’ character, Betty, is analogous to the shattered dreams of many of the starlets who have gone to Hollywood in search of fame, the tragic figure who arrives in Los Angeles all wide eyed and innocent. In typical Lynch fashion, he has Naomi Watts over act the naïve wide eyed innocent to get his point across (think the naïve innocence of the beginning of Blue Velvet). Her story is reminiscent of Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia, a young girl who left a small town in Massachusetts to become an actress in Hollywood. In 1947 at the age of 22 her body was found bisected in two and totally drained of blood. This was as potent a symbol as any of Hollywood broken dreams.
Despite the obvious similarities with the real life unsolved crime, David Lynch was not going for biography in this film. I believe he utilized some of the details from the real life murder as a tool for depicting the darker aspects of what Hollywood does to innocence. In addition, he also utilized Hollywood movies themselves as metaphor in Mulholland Drive. Here are only some of the many devices Lynch apparently employed to make his point:
The dwarf that called all the shots/the man behind the curtain:
The odd little man who wants Camilla to get the coveted part in the director’s movie represents the invisible hand behind the scenes that can ruin a director’s control of his own film, metaphorically the man behind the curtain (The Wizard of Oz). Having him at a distance and behind a glass wall, speaking in monosyllables only adds to that aloof mystique. The dwarf is a continuing device in Lynch’s movies, and usually represents some mysterious and evil foreboding.
The diner/Boulevard of Broken Dreams:
The diner represents the classic Edward Hopper painting and subsequent Hollywood spin off “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. Early in the picture, a man relates a nightmare to a friend. In the nightmare, he is in the diner, but it is dusk (as in the painting). There is a strange man behind the diner. This strange man later comes from around a corner and causes the man to drop dead. I believe that this bum represents the roll that chance plays in the lives of the starlets who arrive in Hollywood in hopes of fabulous careers. In the movie, this happenstance comes alive in the grotesque features of the bum, a character so demonic in destroying people’s lives that the man’s heart literally stops when he sees him. The evil controlling influence of this bum is later reinforced when it is shown that this character actually has the black box (Pandora’s Box?) that Rita eventually opens, thus unleashing the tragic nightmare/reality (through the looking glass) on herself and Betty. The bum is also shown unleashing the sinister older couple who had met Betty on the plane in the beginning of the movie. Even in the beginning, you could tell the couple had sinister intent based on their obvious sneering laughter. Were they laughing at Betty’s innocence, or because they were to be the eventual cause of her downfall? Does Lynch want us to see this couple as representing the general public’s draining of the lifeblood from the icons they supposedly admire (think Marilyn Monroe)? At the end of the movie, this perverse couple literally hounds Betty to her doom. In reality, we hound our own celebrities to their doom.
Sunset Boulevard and the Rehearsal Scene:
Rita and Betty meet at Betty’s aunt’s house on Sunset Boulevard. Betty’s aunt is supposed to be an actress. The use of this street is an obvious reference to the classic movie of a starlet’s demise, Sunset Boulevard. This street name has now become synonymous with movie failure. When Betty and Rita finish their little over the top rehearsal scene Betty even speaks in the vernacular of Marlene Dietrich, “thank you dahhlink.” Marlene Deitrich represents the time period of the aging starlet from the prior classic. Later, when Betty actually does her rehearsal for the director it is great. It is no longer over the top. The director, however, appears oblivious to the obvious talent he’s just witnessed. Could it be that the rehearsal was not as great as it appears? Was it in reality as over the top and bad as the one Betty had done earlier with Rita? Is the great rehearsal scene only a product of Betty’s imagination? Or is this all part of a dream? My guess is that Lynch would like to leave us wondering.
The Dream vs. Reality Theme:
In typical David Lynch manner, the dream (Betty’s reality) comes to an abrupt end as the camera pans slowly into the now open little blue box. When Betty and Rita disappear, Betty’s so-called Aunt comes into the bedroom thinking she’s heard something. But there’s nothing there. You begin to realize that this woman doesn’t even know Betty. Betty no longer exits in that world. Think of the opening scene of Blue Velvet when Kyle MacLachlan’s nightmare begins with the camera’s panning into the severed human ear. In both movies, this takes the main character out of a Pollyanna world and into some seedy underworld, a new reality. In Mulholland Drive the camera panning into the box leads Betty into her horrific real life. The fun loving dream where she is in control is now over. In her dream life Betty imagines she is a great actress. She’s apparently unable to face the fact that she isn’t any good and must rely on the kindness of her ex-lover for bit parts.
In her dream world, Camilla is given a good part because of some bizarre collusion from above, the man behind the curtain. Betty can’t face that Camilla is actually the good actress. Also, in Betty’s dream world her aunt is a famous actress who is letting Betty use her luxury apartment while she’s away on a foreign film shoot. In reality Dianne’s aunt is dead and had left her just enough money for a small apartment.
This magical dream vs. stark reality world is epitomized in the contrast between the magical blue key that goes to the mysterious blue box of Betty’s dream, and the ordinary yet menacing blue key, which is left after the murder of Betty’s former lover.
You can see Betty’s delusions, her escape from reality, in the way she romanticizes her self and her affect on others. But isn’t Lynch saying that Hollywood is the ultimate dream world a.k.a. the dream factory? And of course, in true Film Noir style, the dream becomes a nightmare.
The strange nightclub:
In the nightclub, the sleazy MC speaks of things not being as they seem. A horn player and a singer are found to be lip-syncing. This is Lynch’s salute to the magic (or deception) of movie making, the escape from or to reality. Think the demented MC of “Cabaret.” This is dramatically illustrated by having the woman sing “Crying” in Spanish. Betty and Rita cry during this song. Are they crying because they understand the lyrics or are they crying for their own lost innocence? When the woman collapses on stage and the singing continues, the two girls stop crying and look on in shock. Are they shocked because they were taken in by the act? Is Lynch saying that we are all taken in by the façade of the movies, as the MC has already implied?
Using the dark side of Hollywood as the central theme Lynch shows us the loss of identity that comes with it. He conveys this in an obvious, acting sense (consider Betty's two contrasting rehearsals of the same scene). But Lynch also employs this in the plot. Rita has the most obvious case of identity loss. She has amnesia, a common movie malady, and appropriately takes on the name of a real actress. By the end of the movie Rita and Betty appear to have switched rolls. Betty even drives in the back seat of the same car going up the same road that Rita had in the beginning of the movie. The audience is left wondering at this point just who is whom. Lynch shows the audience the schizophrenia of the film world when Betty calls Diane’s phone at one point and says, “it feels weird calling yourself.” Later in the film we find out that Betty actually is Diane.
Near the end of the movie we find that Diane had gotten her dream name from the nametag of a waitress at the diner, a common cliché first job of many actresses. Earlier in the movie Betty notices that the waitress’s nametag says “Diane”. There appears to be a foreshadowing recognition on Betty’s face but it passes.
Hollywood History and Time Period:
The cowboy that is the threatening thug appears as a perverse Tom Mix, an early Silent movie cowboy. This is one of Lynch’s many little nods to Hollywood’s past. He also has hired famous names from the past for the movie. Ann Miller, a 1940’s Hollywood hoofer, Chad Everett, a TV heart throb from the 1970’s. David Lynch also sends up musicals with his depiction of the 1950’s bebop rehearsal. There’s even a 1940’s jitterbug contest opening the movie. And of course, there’s Betty doing a poor imitation of Marlene Deitrich. Finally, there is an undercurrent of Film Noir throughout the film, building to the ultimate tragedy so common to that genre.
Lynch also incorporates many of his old film devices and side references. He utilizes his now famous flickering lights in the scene with the cowboy at the ranch. There are flickering electrical noises so common in Eraserhead in the scene when the killer shoots a vacuum cleaner. And he also employs cultural references. Each of his films seems to be timeless in that they appear to take place in the 1950’s and yet have modern problems, dilemmas and artifacts.
In the nightclub scene the Spanish singer belts out her song on a stage reminiscent of the singer and stage in Henry’s little heating grate world of Eraserhead. But the singer in Mulholland Drive also has another reference. As she sings “Crying” she has a fake tear on her cheek. Is this Lynch’s little reference to Opera ala the clown in “Barber of Seville?”
And, in typical Lynch fashion, there are also characters and scenes that don’t seem to fit into the plot. This, I believe, is Lynch being weird for the sake of being weird, Lynch allowing himself to have fun, to be artsy. In David Lynch’s movies, as in the real world, sometimes shit just happens. However, despite the oddness, I believe Lynch has an overall meaning to this movie. If you are at all familiar with Lynch’s art work as well as his early movies, you are also aware that at times he does appear to be displaying weirdness for the sake of weirdness. But he also paints his analogies and metaphors with a broad brush. At a minimum, I think most critics would agree that he definitely is poking fun at the Hollywood movie machine. However, I definitely think that a number of the critics are just lazy and prefer to think the movie meant nothing at all, that Lynch is just trying too hard to be avant garde. I think this is just too easy a cop-out.
Some basic similarities between the Betty in the movie and the real Black Dahlia, Betty Short:
· The attempted murder in the movie takes place in the hills overlooking the “
· Like Rita (who not so coincidentally takes on the name of the famous actress, Rita Hayworth), Elizabeth Short had dark hair and always wore black.
· Elizabeth Short was known as Betty to her friends.
· Betty Short left a small town in
· Both Betty Short and Betty in the movie slept with women.
· Both died violently.