Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974)

dir. Jack Hill

"I'm just trying to liberate Andy here from her bra in the interest of higher education."
-Kate Cory

Not a year goes by in which we aren't inundated with a slew of overly experimental/intellectualized filmic treatises on college life. Functioning less as pieces of entertainment, these esoteric films are determinedly abstract in their desire to not only question the institutions of modern capitalistic society but also in tearing down the foundations of narrative film. With Colleges being such bastions of intellectual growth and debate, is it any wonder that the college film would follow suit? Paradoxically, these films have become staid in their singleminded focus on experimentation. Time was, a movie in which a leather clad Jesus raped a homeless man and recited excerpts from Marx's Communist Manifesto all while imagess of Fred Ott's Sneeze and Hello Kitty were superimposed over the proceedings, would produce a reaction other than boredom. Sure, college film students have eschewed these trends and produced their own conventionally entertaining films, but this tendency has yet to catch on in the mainstream. Every so often, however, a Hollywood film about college life comes along that decides to buck the rules and have a little fun.

In the mid seventies, Jack Hill answered this call for a new direction in college films with his picture The Swinging Cheerleaders. Cheerleaders achieves the perfect symbiosis of astute social commentary and awesome rockin' tits. This boobalicious film is equal parts Godard and masturbatory teenage male fantasy.

Cheerleaders follows Mesa State campus activist/feminist Kate Cory (Jo Johnston) in her quest to infiltrate the cheerleading squad for the purpose of writing an expose on this demeaning organization. Aiding her in this endeavor is her activist boyfriend Ron (Ian Sander). Her final treatise on the cheerleading squad is to be published in their radical underground campus paper. Interestingly, the casting of Johnston in the Kate role, continues a long Hollywood tradition of placing actors in high school and college films who are well into their thirties. Appropriately enough, the school's mascot in this film is the Cougar.

Although she is initially disdainful of her fellow cheerleaders, Kate's close contact with them has forced her to reevaluate her opinions. Before long, Kate learns the error of her former ways. Although she previously looked on the jocks and and cheerleaders as remnants of an outdated neanderthal mindset, a roll in the hay with quarterback Buck (Ron Hajek) soon puts her mind straight. It turns out that years of inadequate sex with the idealistic Ron had warped her mind in such a way that she was preoccupied with frivolities like the Equal Rights Amendment and reproductive rights. Thus is presented one of the film's prominent themes: all a woman needs in life is a decent dicking.

After being discarded by Kate, Ron's true colors shine through. He sets about exacting his revenge by bringing some fellow hippies over to gangbang a drunken cheerleader, Andy (Cheryl Smith). The previously meek football player Ross (Ric Carrott) overcomes his timid ways when he learns of this travesty, and treats Ron to a little chin music. Apparently, Cheerleaders' writer director Jack Hill must have once had an experience with hippies similar to one that Jimmy James once had. With this film Hill not only put the final nail in the coffin of the sixties counterculture but also pissed on its well trampled grave.

After abandoning her expose on the cheerleading organization, Kate soon uncovers a scandal she has dubbed the Mesa State Watergate (Now that's what I call timeliness!). It turns out that the alumnus Mr. Putnam (George Wallace) is working in conjunction with Coach Turner (Jack Denton) and the smooth math professor Thorpe (Jason Sommers) to fix football games in order to pull in a little scratch. Discovery of this scandal forces Kate to come to this cogent realization: screw women's lib, college sports point spread fixing is the biggest issue that America's youth needs to concern itself with. And so it is with steely determination that she pursues this story, hoping in the process to bring down the corrupt school officials.

Although this film is quite typical of seventies sexploitation fare, the finesse that director Hill brings to the proceedings is second to none. Hill was the premier exploitation artist of the sixties and seventies. With films running the gamut of Spider Baby's cheeky horror, to the blaxploitation of Foxy Brown and Coffy (his crowning achievement), to the women in prison films The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage; he excelled in all arenas of exploitation filmmaking. His knack for dialogue, in particualr, elevates his pictures slightly above his exploitation peers. Watch, for instance, this scene from Cheerleaders in which Professor Thorpe's cuckquean Jessica (Mae Mercer) confronts the cheerleader Lisa, her husband's bangin' buddy:

Although the tone of this scene is not representative of the film as a whole, it is a triumph of awesomocity. There's a certain poetic quality to a line like: "And make sure you're careful whose man you fuck with the next time you fuck with somebody's man." The beautiful symmetry of the line "you fuck with" repeated at the beginning and end of the sentence weights it with a sense of purpose and conviction. Although some might dismiss such dialogue as mindless vulgarity, there is no denying the craftsmanship here.

The Swinging Cheerleaders certainly doesn't rank up there with Hill's best (Spider Baby, Coffy, The Switchblade Sisters), but it is a noble enterprise nonetheless. Venturing into the kind of politically charged territory that few others dared tread, Hill stripped bare the corruption at the heart of America's vaunted educational system. Where most would examine institutional racism, sexism or class division, Hill laid bare the true unspoken crime -- gambling. He asked the questions that those in the mainstream lacked the testicular fortitude to ask. This world of moral ambiguity is one with few answers and less heroes, and, most importantly, tits.

[Side note: Perhaps I have exaggerated the amount of boobage on display in this picture. Although The Swinging Cheerleaders has its fair share of magnificent racks, plenty of other seventies flicks, such as Hollywood Boulevard, Kentucky Fried Movie, and the works of Russ Meyer, have many more breasts on prominent display. Incidentally, these films belong to a genre I have dubbed, "movies whose existences are based solely or in part on their directors' need for new spank material".]

Dave's Rating:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Movie Theme Song Wednesday: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

dir. John Ford

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" - Gene Pitney

[Side note: I am breaking a little rule here. This song, although made for the movie, was not included in the finished film due to a publishing argument. However, seeing as this movie is my favorite Western and the song is awesome, I'm willing to break this rule once.]

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Stuff (1985)

dir. Larry Cohen

"Yes I do suppose we have to keep the world safe for ice cream."

Ever since the German Dr. Caligari set loose an unthinking, sleepwalking monster to commit unspeakable acts, the horror film has acted as a window to our collective unconscious. Released in the early twenties, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was concerned with a population's propensity to fall lockstep behind evil authoritarians. In laying bare our deepest unspoken fears and vanquishing them, the horror film is the ultimate catharsis. Indeed, the horror film, unlike any other genre, achieves a perfection of political, social commentary. Whereas an obviously political high minded drama such as Crash attacks the issues head-on, the horror film addresses the subject more obliquely. It thereby circumvents the sermonizing douchebaggery of the more mainstream fare. Interestingly, because of the horror film's more roundabout social commentary, it is freer to be more subversive.

While the horror film, for many years, addressed collective fears indirectly, with the arrival of George Romero, everything was laid out in the cold bare open. Unashamedly political, he brought what was previously implied into plain unsubtle gut-munching view. It was no surprise that many other filmmakers would follow in his steps. John Carpenter, an amazing director in his own right, aped the Romero style to winning effect with his They Live. In this film, he attacked the insidious blind optimism of the many devotees to Reagan's vision for America. It was an examination of a docile, consumerist sleepwalking populace that had become too apathetic to question its leaders.

Another film to follow in the Romero tradition was Larry Cohen's The Stuff. Although Cohen had previously tackled social issues, particularly in his debut Bone, The Stuff was his first real step into Romero territory. The Stuff was Cohen's answer to, among other things, the burgeoning Crack epidemic, rampant militarism, and Reagan's America. Borrowing equally from The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the Living Dead series, Cohen set his sights high, possibly a little too high. Although not quite a success, The Stuff is a nevertheless interesting film/cultural artifact.

Michael Moriarty stars as David Mo' Rutherford, an industrial spy who is hired to find the secret ingredient of a massively popular ice cream-esque dessert known as The Stuff. Why do people call him Mo? Because whenever they give him money, he always asks for mo'. As we all know, of course, with mo' money comes mo' problems (Sorry to link to that song. I'm not a huge fan. I'll link to this better song from that album). What Mo uncovers is that The Stuff has an addictive mind-controlling quality. It turns out that this is not a man-made food, but rather a substance that oozes beneath the Earth. In attempting to eliminate the stuff and enlighten the populace on its harmful effects, Mo gathers together a rag tag group made up of: a skeptical child, a former ad creator for the stuff, an ornery cookie magnate, and some paramilitaries.

Undoubtedly, The Stuff's uncontrollably addictive hold on the country was partially a comment on the nation's burgeoning crack epidemic. Mostly, though the quick popularity of The Stuff seems to act as a comment on the hive-mentality of the general population. Honestly, though, getting addicted to the stuff does not seem all that bad to me. Unlike pod people, the people who eat The Stuff do not necessarily become zombified drones. The Stuff acts more like a drug, and it affects everyone to varying degrees. Sure it causes people to act slightly phony and develop anger issues, but it's so tasty. And you can't go wrong with a product whose motto is "Enough is Never Enough".

Oh yeah, The Stuff also causes this:

And it can do this:

Although the film does not quite hold together as one cohesive whole, it is full of certain pieces of awesomosity. Garrett "Whatever Happened to that Guy" Morris is quite entertaining as a faux Famous Amos, Chocolate Chip Charlie. Also great is Paul Sorvino's over the top paranoid performance as the right wing militia commander Colonel Spears, a character introduced late in the movie. In a movie full of funny lines of dialogue, his stand apart from the crowd. Here are just a few choice pearls, context free:

"Well I wouldn't worry about that son; you'll probably be a casualty."

"I kinda like the sound of blood but this is disgusting."

"We have never lost a war."
"What about 'Nam, sir?"
"We lost that war at home, sonny."

"They took their own lives. Commie bastards, you cheated me."

Of course, the effectiveness of these lines, to a great deal, relies on Sorvino's completely committed performance. As it was most likely the intent of Cohen, this character brings to mind Sterling Hayden's Gen. Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove. Hell, Spears even goes on a rant on the Commie attempt to fluoridate our water supply. Although it is Kubrick-lite, this final third is bitingly funny and delivers the film's best punches. This reveals one of the film's weaknesses: the awesomeness of the last third of the film. It really illuminates how much better the film as a whole could have been. What could have been a worthy companion to Romero's dead films, or at the very least They Live, instead is just a muddled, if entertaining, horror flick with a few sharp political digs. Indeed, much of the first two thirds is unfocused thematic/tone-wise. Although the earlier scenes are marked by attempts at humor, they lack the incisive commentary. One of the chief sources of this muddlednessosity, is the lack of a definable shared traits of Stuff addicts. They range from violent to uber-friendly. It is hard to discern what exactly Cohen was saying here. Like the rest of Cohen's oeuvre, this film is steeped in a general feeling of almost greatness. Indeed, although I quite like many of Cohen's flicks it is hard to pick out one that I absolutely love.


Dave's Rating:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Christopher Walken, The Dancing Pimp

I recently rewatched Pennies From Heaven and was reminded of its sheer awesomeness. Gee, I love a depressing musical. For those who haven't seen it, Steve Martin plays a Depression era song salesman who, to escape from a bleak reality, frequently lets his imagination run wild in the form of thirties style musical numbers. In fact, most of the characters give in to their musical based imaginations. Basically, this movie is a Depression era Brazil with Busby Berkley musical numbers. Pennies From Heaven was really a comment on the disconnect between the optimistic movie fare of thirties and the miserable lives of the audiences for these films. I don't need to write much more, however. If you're wondering whether you should see this picture, just watch this clip.

What the hell. Here's another clip, this one sans Walken.

[Side note: I generally don't even care for musicals, so the fact that I like this movie, sure says something.]

Monday, November 10, 2008

Day of the Outlaw (1959)

dir. Andre De Toth

"You won't find much mercy anywhere in Wyoming."
-Blaise Starrett

During the fifties, the American Western experienced a dramatic reworking. Although most associate the Western revisionist phenomenon with the works of Peckinpah and Leone in the sixties, the skewering that this genre received earlier by the likes of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher was much more startling. Although it would be disingenuous to imply that the Westerns of classic thirties, forties Hollywood hewed to a single-mindedly escapist vision, there is no denying the optimistic promise of the American West that was presented in these pictures. Throughout the fifties, however, filmmakers, more and more, used the West as a prism through which to view the injustices and moral ambiguities of modern life, while simultaneously deflating the Western myth, exposing much of it as fallacy. While still remaining entertaining, Westerns were becoming much less fun. Even the films of Ford (and to a much lesser extent, Hawks) would take a much darker tone in this period.

To the list of Western revisionists already mentioned must be added Robert Aldrich, Sam Fuller and Andre De Toth. Perhaps the least well known among this group, De Toth carved a niche for himself in the forties and fifties as a director of brutal, hyper macho noirs and westerns. He created worlds of nuanced/blunt moral ambiguity. His was a world in which the lines separating good and evil were frequently blurred. Although a director of relative fame among cineastes, he is in dire need of a re-examination. Due to the previous scarcity of De Toth films on home video, he is a director that I had not much familiarity with until recently. Each De Toth picture I've had the pleasure of seeing has been a revelation. My biggest De Toth discovery is undoubtedly Day of the Outlaw. Coming at the tail end of the fifties, this film is one of the bleakest Westerns of the era.

Day of the Outlaw contains a cornucopia of TV and character actors of the period including: David Nelson of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" fame, "Gilligan's Island"'s Tina Louise, Burl Ives, Elisha Cook Jr., and Jack Lambert. Rounding out the cast is the distinguished actor and frequent movie heavy Robert Ryan. How a film with such a cast could slip under my radar for so long is mind boggling. The prospect of seeing Ryan, Ginger, and Sam the Snowman in one movie should be reason enough for anyone to check out this picture. Fortunately, De Toth makes particularly good use of these performers in this hard hitting film.

As the film opens, Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and Dan (Nehemiah Persoff) travel through a snow covered landscape to the town of Bitters, Wyoming. Much like the rest of the film, this town's name is a delicious bit of obvious metaphor. In opening on a snowy landscape, De Toth also announces, immediately, the dramatic departure from Western norms that will mark this film. In contrast to the liberating arid wide open spaces of most Westerns, the setting here creates a feeling of suffocating claustrophobia.

De Toth wastes no time in setting up the story. During the opening credits, Blaise and Dan debate the need to murder a farmer, Hal Crane (Alan Marshal). Blaise is a rancher and former gunslinger who is riled up over the Crane's use of barb wire to protect his farm land. This constriction of previously open land has proved extremely detrimental to Blaise's cattle. In these few opening mintes De Toth has set up a classic Western them -- Civilization versus freedom. Blaise's entry into town creates a tense atmosphere, especially after it is revealed that Blaise previously had relations with Crane's wife Helen (Tina Louise).

Blaise and the townsfolk are soon stuck in a tense saloon showdown. Before any bullets have a chance to fly, however, a brutal gang of marauders/thieves and their commander Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) burst into the drinkery. Seeing his group is on the run from the cavalry, Bruhn decides hold the townsfolk hostage while making a stop in the town. Suddenly, the film has turned into a wholly different beast. The previous enemies, the townsfolk and Blaise, must now join forces in defending their town against the intruders. Although, on one level, this plot development is an extreme departure, it is in keeping with the film's central conflict of freedom versus civilization. The marauders, in their wish to run roughshod over the town and its denizens, represent a perverted distortion of the freedom that Blaise has espoused. The subsequent battle of wills forces Blaise to come to grips with his murderous intentions toward Crane and to question his beliefs. This debate over freedom versus civilization is one that continues even today.

Fortunately for the citizenry, the marauders are held in check by the dying Bruhn. Because he is racked with guilt over his complicity in a previous rampage, Bruhn has made it his duty to prevent any further bloodshed. Sure Bruhn is a thief, but he has standards. Bruhn merely sees this town as stop on his way to a destination. He wants to make his group's stay as hassle/murder free for the population as possible. In this clip, Bruhn's attempt at creating harmony between the townsfolk and the thieves comes off as a little hokey, however:

Also unnecessary is this scene in which the town's womenfolk are forced to put on a show for the marauders:

Sensing that Bruhn will soon expire, turning the city into a rampage free for all, Blaise devises to trick these men into following him down a mountain path to nowhere.
(Artist's rendition of a rampage)

In this, the final third of the film, the thieves traverse a snowy mountainous deathscape. Leading the pack with a suicidal determination, Blaise's goal is to drive all these men to their cold induced deaths. Fortunately for Blaise, their greed aids him in his quest as they soon off each other so as to take bigger portions of the shared loot. Although the film's finale contains redemption for a few characters, this final third of the film is about as cynical a statement on humanity as has been seen.

Like last week's entry, this film is a great example of economic storytelling. De Toth packs a surprising number of plot elements into this ninety minute movie. Day of the Outlaw is essentially three movies wrapped up into one awesome whole. Although constructing a movie in this manner can many times result in a jumbled mess, the story shifts here work surprisingly well. Aiding this is a unity of theme. Despite the abrupt story shifts, Day of the Outlaw remains a treatise on freedom versus civilization. Although the film eventually comes down on the side of civilization it is not before infusing the debate with a purposeful sense of ambiguity. In addition to the unity of theme, the picture has an underlying unity of style. Particularly striking is De Toth's Fordian sense of framing. Equally adept at composing snow-swept fields and crowded interiors, De Toth directs a film in which not a single shot is without purpose. A movie that could have turned into another example of an ambitious failure is instead an artistic success. How De Toth is not more well known is beyond me.

Dave's Rating:

Monday, November 3, 2008

This Looks Familiar

I'm sure someone has posted this clip already, but I'll do it anyways:

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

dir. Ida Lupino

"You oughta be all over that windshield. You got lucky. I hit an empty chamber. I had to use it a while back."
-Emmett Myers

Brevity. Is there any sweeter word in the world of cinema. With the tendency in modern movies being, all too often, to overstay one's welcome; it is always a breath of fresh air when a film achieves a perfection of economic storytelling. The great mathematician Paul Erdos spoke of math proofs that came straight from the Supreme Fascist(God)'s book. These proofs used elemental methods and were demonstrated in the simplest manner possible. There was an ultimate beauty to be found in these elegant proofs. This is not to say that a long proof would be excluded from the book. The sole criterion for inclusion in the book would be that a proof is presented in the simplest form possible. Short proofs could also be excluded from the book if it would be possible for them to be told in simpler terms. [Side Note: I am not a mathematician, so if I am misinterpreting the definition of Erdos' book proofs in any way, please correct me.]. To a certain extent, I like to apply this rule to films; not that it always works, as films are a subjective medium as opposed to math. Whereas a relatively short movie such as The Brown Bunny would be the equivalent of a masturbatory, unnecessarily long proof, a longer movie such as Sergio Leone's long Director's Cut of Once Upon a Time in America could not be shortened without a loss in cohesion and clarity.

Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker is the equivalent of a proof straight from the book. The best of both worlds, this film presents a simple concept told in the tightest manner possible. It was with great enthusiasm that I read The Hitch-Hiker's opening scrawl.
Seventy minutes. Sweet, sweet music to my ears. Perhaps it is a result of my attention-span-of-a-fly-brain being unable to concentrate on movies of significant length, but it is always a joy when I can find a movie so simple and to the point.

Announcing her presence as a skilled visual storyteller, Lupino opens the film with with the self assured intensity of a director such as Sam Fuller. In the opening, all shot below the waist level of the actors, a hitch-hiker walks up to a car and enters. After a short drive, he exits the car, whereupon we hear a woman's scream and then a gunshot. A purse falls to the road, the hitch-hiker snatches the cash, and walks off. Approaching the abandoned car is a flashlight examining the crime. The light beam soon falls on two dead bodies in the car, a couple. We cut to the face of the cop holding the flashlight, the first face seen in the film. From there, the faceless hitch-hiker goes on to kill another victim. It is not until the next potential victims, Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), are introduced that any significant dialogue is spoken. With the faceless victims presented in the opening, Lupino drives home the point presented in the opening scrawl: these victims could be anyone, even you [cue ominous music]. Adding to the mystery and sense of danger is the absence of dialogue here.

It is not long before Collins and Bowen, on their way to a fishing trip, pick up the mysterious hitch-hiker, soon to be revealed as ex-con Emmett Myers (William Talman). During the next tense sixty odd minutes, Myers holds these two men hostage as they traverse the Mexican desert, their fates hanging in the balance. Myers is a man less interested in the win than in the hunt. Although he would like to rob them blind, he is more interested in watching them squirm. In their road trip with the devil, it is only a matter of when, not if, Collins and Bowen will get snubbed out. Luckily for the two victims, American and Mexican police forces are working together in a race against time to hunt down Myers before he can wreak any more havoc.

Myers is a mythic, almost cartoonishly unstoppable force, similar in a way to Robert Mitchum's chilling villain Harry Powell of Night of the Hunter fame. For chrissakes, Myers literally sleeps with one eye open. Most diabolically, however, Myers works to turn his two victims against each other. Calling them soft and stating that when he wants something he takes it, he almost eggs them on to try something. Inevitably, this creates a schism between the two men as they argue over the efficacy of a revolt. Much to Myers' delight, he has revealed a hidden rift between these two buddies.

As is the case with most Noirs, The Hitch-Hiker is more than the sum of its parts. Although on the surface this is a tense standoff between a psychopath and his prey, it is also an examination of the postwar psyche. In one telling moment Gil reveals to Roy, "You know, except for the war, this is the first time I've been away from Morty and the kids." A populace hardened by war longed for the stability promised in postwar America. More damaging than the thought of any danger to these two men, is the possibility of a destruction of the nuclear family.

It should be noted that Lupino, the film's director, although an accomplished actress, did not take a part in this movie. The reason being that there are no significant female roles in this movie. Much like Kathryn Bigelow, Lupino equaled, if not bested, men at their own film genres. In this way, she showed that film was anyone's game. Her directing success would not be long lived, however. Although Lupino had a promising start, she spent the rest of her directing career in TV, interrupted by the Hayley Mills vehicle The Trouble with Angels. Most movie goers would remeber her most for acting. Hers was a problem all too common among female directors. After initially gaining acclaim, they are soon relegated to the filmmaking ghetto. As much as she declined, however, at least she didn't direct a movie written by Tom Arnold.

By the way, in case anyone is wondering, I am not abandoning the killer animal themed movies; I am simply taking a break for a while. I will return periodically to these movies whenever I get the urge.

Dave's Rating: