Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Venus in Furs (1970)

Now with %30 less footage!

Part EC-inspired rape-revenge movie, part experimental film, and part softcore S&M, Jess Franco's Venus in Furs is nearly as difficult to categorize as it is to follow. Only tangentially related to the novel of the same name, it tells the story of Jimmy Logan (singer James Darren), a jazz trumpeter so talented that his fingers do not have to be even remotely in sync with the music he is producing. Franco makes some half-assed attempts to cover up Jimmy's fingers with foreground elements (other trumpets, the scenery, etc.) but by the end of the movie everyone stops caring and we are treated to a nice closeup.

It begins with voice over narration (suprise!) on a sandy beach. Jimmy wanders around, lamenting recent events that have robbed him of the will to trumpet. He digs the instrument up from under a dock, then spies a prone figure in the surf.

Look Ma, no hands!

After an eternity of optically printed slow-mo running, the figure turns out to be the surprisingly fresh corpse of Wanda Reed, the blonde bombshell who caught his eye in Istanbul before disappearing into the night with a trio of high class weirdos lead by Ol' Bug-eye himself, Klaus Kinski. We jump from the quite well preserved body to a surreal flashback of the night in question.

Voice over narration and flashbacks, huh? I see we're not shooting for any screenwriting awards.

It seems pre-corpse Wanda has a penchant for trotting around in cute stockings and little else. Ahmed Kortobawi (Kinski) and his bizarro sidekicks couldn't stand for that. Later in the party, Jimmy stumbled outside for a smoke and witnessed the trio getting kinky with a whip and poor, topless Wanda. Too cynical to intervene, he looked on as they alternately tortured and made out with her, even taking time to drink some of her blood. (Vampires perchance?)

She's probably fine.

Jimbo is wracked with guilt over his inaction, doubly so when he finds the corpse washed ashore, but his torment quickly turns to terrified confusion when a doppelganger of the young woman arrives to one of his shows in Rio. Thanks to some wavy optical printing effects, he is unable to resist her supernatural charms and the two hit it off with some sweet lovin', much to the chagrin of Jim's steady girl, Rita. (Singer Barbra McNair)

The worlds laziest lounge singer.

Unfortunately for Jim, his trippy new gal appears to actually be Wanda, back from the dead and thirsting for vengeance. In between trysts with her new beau and stock footage of Carnival she slips off to find her killers. One by one she takes them out the only way she knows how, with sexiness. It seems she has just as much fascination with pairing stockings and nothing in death as she did in life.

I was aware that sexuality could be a powerful weapon, but Wanda/Venus shows that it can be so in a direct, literal way. She appears to her first victim, a sweaty English millionare, as an attractive phantom; appearing and disappearing in and out of mirrors to entice him. Eventually the phantasmagorical prick teasing proves too much, and the fiend suffers some sort of aneurism/heart attack/stroke/diarrhea, the life draining out of him as he reaches fruitlessly out to caress his tormentor.

Who can blame him?

Maria Rohm, who plays the titular (hehe) character, exists throughout the film in a strange quantum state of hotness, wherein she is both hot and not hot at the exact same time. (the mind reels) As you can see from these cherry picked stills, she is pretty damn hot, albeit in the overly made-up style endemic to '60s Italian cinema. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.) With the assistance of some occasionally suspect cinematography, she often ends up looking plastic and lifeless, like some sort of alien in drag. The goofy wig and pantsuit combo she gets saddled with later in the picture doesn't do her any favors either.

Here's a fun game: imagine a pantsuit with the same epic cleavage as Venus' on someone like oh... say.... Hillary Clinton. Now try to stop imagining that before it completely fries your brainbone circuitry.

Current status: hot despite wig

Jimmy and Rita try to go on about their lives, but his growing obsession with the mysterious, possibly undead stranger makes things difficult. For the most part, she's surprisingly cool with it--giving him several opportunities to return to the status quo, no questions asked. She can't stop Venus from showing up at his gigs though, and he keeps sneaking off to play hide the salami.

Performing at one of his boss' epic length afterparties, Jimmy spots both Venus and Olga, an evil lesbian photographer and one of the three murderers. The two women eyeball each other over and over while the 'musicians' pretend to play. On the second viewing of this rather drawn out scene it becomes apparent that, in a possible cost saving measure, there were only about a half dozen actual shots being cut up and reused. Thanks to the film's fever dream editing style, this is not an isolated case, though it is the most extreme and self contained example.

Throughout we see quick cuts of the various players against a red background and/or wearing different clothes. A wide shot of this "scene" is revealed near the end of the picture, and is then inter-cut with footage from closer to the beginning. I'm sure there is some method to the madness; perhaps an attempt to emphasize the lack of time perception in the characters' (probably) hallucinatory states. Either way, the distinct impression is created that this is an hour long movie being stretched to feature length with clever editing and the liberal application of an optical printer. (Post-slow-mo FTW) Perhaps the location shooting proved too much for the budget and the filmmakers were forced to improvise in post-production.

Clever or cop-out? I'll let you decide.

One of my new all-time favorite shots.

Jimmy interrupts the ladies' makeout session, but can't stop Venus from tracking Olga down later. After an erotically charged photo-session, Venus pulls the old 'now I'm a corpse' trick on her, which somehow induces a bathtub suicide.

Two down, one to go. As an additional treat, Venus gets a jazzy theme song complete with lyrics every-time she takes someone out. It adds a faint air of badassery to the otherwise vulnerable looking, bestockinged nymph.

Clothes come of in 3... 2...

The lovers make a quick escape back to Istanbul, but it looks like Jimmy has been played for a sap, as Venus has her sights on one last victim. Now, as though they weren't already, things start to get strange.

With the stage set for her final confrontation, the story begins to dovetail with that of the original Venus in Furs novel. Klaus (Have I mentioned his enormous eyeballs?) Kinski and Venus/Wanda appear in some sort of flashback/reenactment/alternate-dimension where they play the parts of a wealthy sultan and his hot slave girl. The sultan becomes obsessed with his reluctant concubine, and the girl, in turn, hates the dude's guts. One day, while he is feeling a touch masochistic (Fun Fact: the word "masochist" comes from the last name of the guy who wrote the novel, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.) he decides to trade places with the slave for one day. She gets to rule, and he has to do whatever she says. Before you can say 'par-tay,' she's burned his goofy hat, locked the doors, and strung him up to watch her get it on with various people who are not him.

Much like in the rest of Venus in Furs, the flashback and 'true' chronology slowly begin to merge. Eventually, the sultan gets the worlds most brutal case of blue-balls and joins the choir invisible, only now he is also the 'real' Ahmed and croaks in the 'real' world too. Cue the revenge themesong.

I think this counts as a Goofy Face of Death

Revenge complete. It should all be smooth sailing for Venus and Jimmy from here, right? Sort of, except for the fact that she is still a mysterious revenant, and now Istanbul's finest are hot on their tail. After an obligatory car chase, they lose the cops and end up at a graveyard, and it is right about this point where Venus in Furs goes completely Snooker Loopy.

Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite!

The whole thing finally devolves into the stream-of-consciousness experimental film that it has desperately wanted to be from frame one. Franco pulls out all the stops with the optical printing and goes for broke.

After I ran some blood tests to make sure I hadn't eaten anything hallucinogenic, I determined one main point from the insanity: everybody's dead, Dave. In a final, nonsensical twist, it seems even poor Jimmy can count himself among the recently dead, which really throws a monkey-wrench in my vampire theory.

I guess it's his punishment for not stopping the murder-orgy, but that opens the question "when did he die?" Everyone else finally bit it upon seeing Venus in corpse form, and he does find his own corpse on the same beach that he found hers, so it would make the most sense that he drowned in the beginning. But what sort of waterlogged cadaver takes a trip to Rio, makes sweet love to Barbra McNair (who has confusingly anglo features for an African American) and Maria Rohm, then heads back across the Atlantic to get into some minor GTA action with the Istanbul PD?

If your answer was "the best damn waterlogged corpse around," you get a hundred points.

Off Topic: Videogame Endings

I've got a lot of bile building up on this subject, but Yatzee says it better than I ever could near the end of his review for FEAR 2.

He's absolutely right; developers who fail to even try to create satisfying endings because they are assuming there will be a sequel or three need to be shaved, sterilized, and destroyed.

I know endings have always been a sticky spot for game developers, what with them being at the end of the production cycle and there being no guarantee that players will even get that far before being distracted by the next shiny thing. (Bump Mapping! Woo!) Hell even the venerable (Something)Shock games have lame endings and/or final levels, but this has finally passed the point of ridiculousness. Mirror's Edge and Gears of War 2 ended before bothering to even fully explain their respective premises, and GoW is already a goddamn sequel. Gaaaar!

I swear to god I will have a movie review up later this evening. Cross my heart.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

M.I.A. on DVD

Its a celebration of films currently unavailable on region 1 DVD this month over at Moon in the Gutter, and since that dovetails nicely with one of Video Update's major goals, here are a few posts about movies you are not going to be watching anytime soon. (At least without a multi-region DVD player and/or the wherewithal to ford the backwaters of bootleg.)

The Telephone Book - Not officially available anywhere, sadly.

Killdozer! - Also lacking any sort of official release. (But not so sadly)

Nemesis - Once upon a time it had a region 1 release, but it's currently OOP and harder to find than some totally unreleased movies.

Keep you eyes peeled for more unavailable "classics" in the coming weeks; including Class of 1999 and Night of the Creeps.

M.I.A on Region 1 DVD at Moon in the Gutter

Friday, February 20, 2009

How Do You Fuck That Up? - The Convent

"How Do You Fuck That Up?" is a soon to be recurring exploration of b-movies that, based on their covers and/or descriptions, should be too awesome to fail, but somehow manage to anyway.

The first film to get this dubious honor is 2000's The Convent, though I'm sure there are many out there who will vehemently beg to differ.

The official synopsis focuses on the first few minutes of the film, in which a young woman walks into a church with a gas can and a shotgun and proceeds to unload on the present clergy. Decades later, a pack of irritating, collegiate red-shirts break into the decaying chapel and (naturally) unleash demonic forces.

I would charitably describe the movie as Adrienne Barbeau vs. Glow-in-the-Dark Demon Nuns. Sounds awesome, no? The D-cups of justice herself playing a thinly veiled she-Ash with a motorcycle and a bone to pick with possessed corpses that glow under black-lights and dress like Catholic clergyfolk.

So tell me, The Convent, with all you have going for yourself....

How do you fuck that up?

Start with even more annoying than usual victims, sprinkle unfunny comic relief throughout (including that one guy with those YouTube videos), add a pinch of pointless cameos from Bill Moseley and Coolio (who I guess was... available), make sure your "final girl" is completely affectless, don't give Barbeau anything cool or interesting to do, and finally, just be generally incompetent in your writing/directing/editing/gore effects.

The whole mess reminds me of a pre-Mysterious Skin Gregg Araki flick, and I absolutely can't stand his early, campy work.

Seriously, movie, we coulda been pals.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Off Topic: New Alice Videogame!

Breaking News: Electronic Arts just announced a sequel to my wife's favorite non Silent Hill video game: American McGee's Alice.

Kotaku's got the (scant) details on the (tentatively, I hope) titled The Return of American McGee's Alice.

For anyone who doesn't know or can't figure it out from the box cover, Alice is a dark re-imagining of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (sort of in the vein of those Todd McFarlane Wizard of Oz-gone-goth action figures from a few years ago) in the form of a third person shooter/platformer. It's been awhile, but I remember it having sort of "meh" gameplay with outstanding (for the time) visuals and design.

I can never put my finger on it, but there is a strange impression I occasionally get from videogames that I'm running around in a tiny, meticulously constructed diorama. The two most prominent examples I can think of are the first level of Alice and the '30s gangster level in Timesplitters 2.

I call it the House on the Rock effect and I think it is primarily created through the use of lighting.

Anywho, here is hoping that the new Alice game is sufficiently rockin'.

More Fun Stuff From Nemesis

Feast your eyes on a handful of arse-kicking, orphan that I couldn't find homes for in my post about the cyborgsploitation masterpiece Nemesis.

These are from a completely random scene in the film where a little old lady goes completely Charles Bronson on the evil robo-man who accosts her in the street.
She does quite a bit of damage with that pistol.
This scene had approximately zero percent relivance to the rest of the film. The cyborg is just a faceless goon, the old woman is in no other scenes, and there are no other random moments like this in the entire film. I guess that puts it in the "futuristic ambiance scene" category.

Gun Face Rides Again!

And the obligitory cyborgsploitation eyball-fucking-with.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Top 7 Traumatic Cinematic Experiences

Everyone likes lists, right? Here are my all time most traumatic movie-watching experiences in order of how much psychological damage they caused. You get seven, because I couldn't think of ten. (Damn my resistance to traditional horror film gore.) I'm sure I missed plenty, so please leave a comment with your most mentally injurious viewing experience(s). Childhood traumas don't count; otherwise I would have included Large Marge and the scary T-Rex in the first Land Before Time.

7. Requiem for a Dream
The standard entry for people who started to get into Indie cinema around the time of Pi. Sure Aronofsky's previous film was a little messed up, but nobody was quite prepared for the unending bleakness of Requiem. It's been described as a monster movie where the concept of addiction plays the monster, but it is really just 100 minutes of likable characters making poor decisions and otherwise being boomer-biled on by life. I think the buddy who watched it with me in High School (dating myself terribly here) sput it best when, during the closing credits, he turned to me and asked, "can we watch The Lion King now?"

A strange little Australian movie that will be getting the full Video Updates treatment in the coming weeks, Body Melt is not a particularly coherent or affecting piece of cinema, but it warrants a mention for being the only film that ever made me want to throw up. Gore doesn't usually phase me (I think it's pretty rockin') and I played through Mirror's Edge on a big screen TV with nary a hint of nausea, but during the scene where a man drowns in his own prodigious snot (his anatomy deliquescing, if you will) made me gag a little. Why it is so much worse than eyeball gouging and decapitations, I'll never know.

5. Clockwork Orange with my Mom
For some reason, she thought she had seen it before. I was probably around 15 years old and had no idea what I was in for. Turns out, neither did she. All she could remember were the costumes, so she had probably just seen clips or a parody instead of the actual movie. Awkwardness ensued, but I'm pretty sure we both made it through the whole thing.

Later we went to see Event Horizon in theaters under similarly misguided pretenses. I thought it was awesome; she had nightmares for weeks.

A faux "one long take" movie with a backwards narrative structure, a camera rig that can twirl freely in any direction, rampant use of infrasound, and disturbing undercurrents of homophobia, Irréversible could be one of the most traumatic films ever purely through its art-film pretentiousness. I'm pretty sure Gaspar Noé's intension was for the viewer to viscerally hate him and his movie.

Oh yeah, there is also the little matter of the arm breaking, face smashing, and the infamously excruciating 10-minute, static camera angle rape scene.

To this day, this is the only movie my long suffering wife has refused to sit through. (She did once ask me to stop showing her so many "rape" movies, but, in my defense, there is far more to Straw Dogs than the rape scene.)

It's a simple story of a woman who becomes obsessed with self mutilation. If you watch it, you will probably spend most of the time screaming, "Oh God, what are you doing lady? Stop that! Wait. That's not where that is supposed to go! AAAAAHHHH! That knife isn't clean! No, God No! Don't put it near your eyes! What is wrong with you?!?!?!"


Long story: I had just changed colleges, and was getting the lay of the land at the new campus. The film club had a midnight movie series and this semester was exclusively horror films. What I didn't figure out, was that they did not have a regular schedule. (They might have two weeks in a row with showings and then nothing for a few weeks.) After catching a show the last two weeks, I showed up the next Thursday at 11:45 to see what I thought was going to be Rosemary's Baby. How wrong I was. It turns out that I had shown up during the LGBT film festival, and that they had their own midnight movie: Thundercrack! (From the Killdozer! school of punctuating movie titles.)

It's a difficult movie to find, so I may never get around to doing a full write-up, but... wow was that a strange movie to sit through all by your lonesome. Written by
George Kuchar, the patron saint of grainy underground wackiness, the film is ostensibly a comedy with the setup of and old horror film (people forced to take shelter in a creepy house during a thunderstorm), the actual plot is more akin to a zany porno. Basically every combination of characters does the nasty in a variety of ways. It begins with penis pumps and creative uses for zucchinis, moves along through your standard heterosexual couplings, then goes completely off the deep end with gorillas giving hand jobs and full dude-on-dude anal while other characters smoke pipes and performs disturbing monologues.

Funny, but I haven't been quite the same ever since.

Poor, poor Rowf and Snitter. Why is life so cruel? From the makers of the more well known childhood punishment, Watership Down, comes an animated children's film so traumatic that it makes Watership look like a slow day on Sesame Street. Two moderately anthropomorphized dogs (one with the voice of John Hurt) escape from a particularly nasty animal testing facility and have adventures. Unfortunately, their adventures consist mainly of suffering and starvation, with occasional bouts of getting chased by the military, who mistakenly believe the pooches to be carriers of bubonic plague. It doesn't end well.

First of all, this is the only children's cartoon I can think of with an unrated version. Second, it is so. fucking. sad. I don't normally get misty-eyed during movies, but The Plague dogs had me balling like an 8-year-old girl and made me depressed for roughly two weeks. I found myself repeatedly watching the end credits on YouTube, and would get sad at the thought of islands. My wife, similarly traumatized, had to read the original novel (with a somewhat more upbeat deus ex machina type ending) in order to exorcise her cuddly cartoon demons.

I can only imagine the damage this movie could do to its target audience. If you are a child, a dog person, or have even a single empathetic braincell untouched by 21st century cynicism, do not watch this high quality and underappreciated animated film.

I'm sad just thinking about it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nemesis (1993)

One of the semi-intentional goals of Video Updates is to take a trip down memory lane and finally watch (or rewatch) the films contained within the amazing VHS covers that so fascinated me as a child wandering through the buzzing fluorescent glow of Mr. Movies. It was the early '90s, and video rental chains everywhere were being flooded with quickie action movies, low budget slashers, and a post-T2 wave of what I like to call Cyborgsploitation.

Arguably the greatest of this obscure micro-genre is Albert Pyun's Nemesis, which despite never even coming close to being considered a good movie, is surprisingly entertaining during the shooty bits. Thankfully those bits make up at least 75% of the total footage.

It begins with a lonely wailing saxophone blatantly cribbed from Blade Runner and the obligatory voiceover to assure us that yes, this is indeed the future. Alex the cybernetically enhanced supercop (Olivier Gruner) is in the process of executing (retiring) a blonde "cyborg" (replicant) in a seedy hotel. On his way out, he bumps into a group of fellow sunglasses enthusiasts, who magically transport with him to a crumbling industrial wasteland for a cybernetically enhanced ultra fight.

This fight shows off two of Nemesis' most hilarious tropes: slapping large scopes onto regular guns and calling them "futuristic" and staging all the battles in cool abandoned warehouses that have no apparent spacial relationships with the "dialog" locations. To try and figure out where the hell the film is taking place at any given time and how the characters got there is essentially quixotic, and will only lead to the same sort of confusion cum apathy normally reserved for Halo 3 cutscenes. In fact, I think Nemesis might work much better as a third person shooter than narrative cinema. Also, I hope the red tinted establishing shot of the LA "skyline" was futuristic enough for you, because that's the closest your going to get to a cyberpunk cityscape.

Not nearly as futuristic as shantytowns and jungles.

Cover is taken, pistols are fired cross-arm akimbo (I really don't see how that helps your aim), explosions happen indiscriminately, and the action turns out to be pretty decent. (In a "kids playing guns" sort of way.) I certainly prefer it to the over-edited, handheld camera montages that pass for fight scenes in contemporary films. Alex kicks a little ass, then gets tagged in the back by a combination shotgun and rocket launcher, which is actually a shotgun with a pipe attached. (I'm currently not sure if it is supposed to be a scope or the actual rocket launching apparatus.) He even manages to rescue a puppy before having most of his robo-parts shot off.

Cut to South of the Border "New America" where a fully repaired Alex and his trusty new dog finish hunting down the terrorists. After the mission, a pair of LAPD femmebot-fatales show up to bring him back to the job. He declines, they argue, everybody seems to be really confused about the difference between cyborgs and robots, and then they kill his dog, rendering its introduction one scene ago completely pointless.

Cut to Rio de Janeiro and some more voice over narration, and it seems that Alex has gone rogue. (or something, I don't know) The LAPD wants him back, so genre staple Thom Mathews shows up with a skull that pops open to reveal a gun (!) and re-fucks Alex up.

Cut to.... god damn it, has the movie started yet?

Alex is in what looks like the Alamo's brig, and Jack Deth himself, Tim Thomerson shows up as the head of the LAPD to continue the incredibly massive exposition dump that is Nemesis.

Here is my best attempt at explaining the plot:

The head of LAPD brings in Alex the Rogue agent as an undercover suicide bomber to track down his ex-girlfriend, who he dumped after discovering she was a cyborg (by which the screenwriter means 'robot') because she has stolen some sort of valuable information. This information (Spoilers! Gasp!) turns out to be the fact that the LAPD commissioner has been replaced by the leader of a rogue group of evil cyborg (robot) duplicates. This is the post twist-reveal, because the pre-twist plot is almost completely incomprehensible. (Despite all the characters providing lengthy oral dissertations on whatever the hell is going on.)

Click for High Octane Ultra-Detail

So Alex ends up in some other non-futuristic third-world heck-hole with his ex-girlfriend/macguffin on a computer chip and a bunch of dudes with machine guns bolted to Steadicam harnesses chasing him. *cough*Aliens*cough* Also, he's got six hours before the bad guys unscramble the "bomb signal scrambler" that another cyborg put in his shoulder by squeezing a spark plug at him. After the jammer is decoded (visualized through a convenient bar of LEDs), it is safe to assume that the bomb will, as another character puts it, "get accident."

Nobody fucks with Tommy Jarvis.

The rest of the movie is just a bunch of excuses for dudes in suits to shoot at each other in cool looking abandoned factories. To be perfectly honest, it is damn entertaining to the primordial, 13-year-old boy parts of the brain. People make goofy poses and shoot Plisken-esque doorways through walls, everyone takes 700 billion rounds of ammunition to die (probably has something to do with them being robots), and Alex makes a dramatic escape by shooting himself holes through every floor in the building.

Take that Underworld.

Eventually, Alex finds himself saddled with an annoyingly spunky sidekick and a 15 minute chase sequence as Jack Deth commissioner Farnsworth pursues them through the jungle with a 12-gauge that shoots magic explosions. He's a pretty badass villian, but listen to the hilarious way he pronounces the word 'humans':

If that's not a dead giveaway that you've been replaced by an evil robo-duplicate, I don't know what is.

Put Terminator, Blade Runner, a pint of tequila, and a little Predator into a blender, and you should end up with Nemesis,* which, despite the lack of originality or remotely competent screenwriting, is most definitely worth checking out. (It was on Netflix instant watch for a little while, but is currently MIA.) Come for the goofily over-the-top action sequences, stay for the hilariously inept treatment of the cyberpunk genre. After all, who needs flying cars and futurescapes when you can just slap some extra bits onto guns, pretend that they make things explode, use made up words like 'Retrocloned,' and make some casual references to Japanese currency being more stable than the dollar. (Remember when everyone was afraid of the Japanese buying our entire economy? Those were the days.) Then, confident in your vision of the future, you can go back to filming in the jungle, because it's cheaper than building sets.

...and for the love of crap, someone please explain to these assholes the semantic differences between robots, androids, and cyborgs.

*Do not attempt; you will actually end up with tequila and DVD shards.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Too Many Children

In honor of Lippy McCrazyPants and her prodigious offspring, I'd like to talk a little bit about one of the greatest films ever made for those of us who are unnerved by children,* David Cronenberg's The Brood.

In the film, the infamously misogynistic Oliver Reed plays a psychotherapist who has developed an experimental technique that allows patients to manifest their negative emotions as physiological changes to their biology. (Heavy) His star pupil, played by Samantha Eggar, takes the process and runs it across the end-zone, using the bad vibes created by her nasty custody battle with leading man Art Hindle to create a small army of mutant pod children.

Side Note: What is up with early Cronenberg and flat, boring heroes? Thankfully that tendency peaked with captain monotone in Scanners.

The mutants, driven by the dark impulses of their fuck-nutty "mother," don terrifying little primary-colored snowsuits (to hide the nutrient sacks fueling them) and do terrible things like beat a kindergarten teacher to death with wooden mallets in front of her class. (I'd hate to have to pay those kids therapy bills.)

As terrifying as that is, nothing can compare to Cronenberg's god awful day-for-night establishing shots.... I mean the climax. Big spoiler ahead.

When the hero finally confronts his estranged wife, she reveals to him the ultimate baby bump: a multitude of tumor like pods growing from her stomach that eventually rupture into little broodlings that she lovingly licks clean. (Gross)

Look long and hard at this still, then go back and examine the frightening pictures of Crazy McLotsObabies and her freaking huge stomach. If she ever comes to Minnesota and dresses her offspring in brightly colored snowsuits, I'm going to plotz.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Telephone Book (1971)

My first reaction to reading Watchmen (after the first movie trailer, like a big poseur) was: "How come nobody told me this was the best comic ever?!?!"

I had a similar reaction during the end credits of The Telephone Book, but I can't stay mad at the myself or the universe, because very few members of said universe have even heard of the film, let alone tracked down a copy. There is a severe dearth of information floating around online; most of what I have managed to glean comes from the cast members' surprisingly long IMDB pages. (Despite the flick's obscurity, it is very probable that at least one of the actors will seem vaguely familiar to you.) The writer/director, Nelson Lyon, is particularly mysterious; all I know is that he was a writer on the '81-82 season of SNL, and that he was one of the people consuming epic amounts of cocaine with John Belushi on the night of his death. Other than that, it is as though The Telephone Book was created in a vacuum (or was at least dropped from the heavens by magical pixies/extraterrestrials).

Normally I make no bones about spoilers, but after seeing this film with no foreknowledge other than the tagline/premise, half the fun was wondering what the hell the movie was going to do next. So if you take my word for its awesomeness, and feel like there is a strong chance you might track down your own copy, then read ahead with caution. Not that the "plot" is full of twists and turns, or even makes much in the way of sense; it just adds another couple layers of weird to the proceedings. By the midway point, the director could have started splicing in footage of the Nuremberg trials reenacted with Martians and I wouldn't have been surprised.

The opening quickly establishes a style and mood somewhere between Soviet Montage and a 16mm student film, (minimal camera movement, clever editing) as a young woman rolls around on an American flag bedspread in a loft apartment wallpapered with pornography. The bubbly, helium-voiced Alice (Sarah Kennedy) could quite possibly be the physical embodiment of cuteness, especially while wearing the world's largest goggles and little else.

Her idleness is interrupted by a call from John Smith, a self proclaimed master of the obscene telephone call, who seduces her with smooth talk of unorthodox applications for hot fudge sundaes. The audience (to protect our fragile minds) is spared full exposure to his call through the careful use of sound editing and subtitles, but Alice is so enamored that, when he calls back later, she demands to see him in person. While reluctant, the mysterious, trenchcoated figure eventually agrees to meet in the flesh, provided she can track him down... in the book.

Thus begins a manic quest to call every John Smith in the phone book. But before Alice can begin, the film is interrupted by "interview" footage from an ex-obscene phone caller. These confessional monologues are peppered throughout the entire picture, often in places too inappropriate to have been randomly chosen. They shred the pacing of the story for some decent laughs, and are possibly meant to satirize the clunky pseudo-documentary style of Mondo and sexploitation films.

These segments are joined by a creepy pitchman/narrator with a naked person on his desk, and, near the end of the film, a bald police officer explaining new obscene-phone-call thwarting tactics. (This fellow, according to IMDB, is the fat zombie who causes the destruction of NY in Zombi 2. Awesome.)

The interruptions bring all sorts of new and different kinds of strange to the film, but nothing can compare to the following pipe smoking gentleman, who deadpans the most bizarre non-sequiturs imaginable:

Back in The Telephone Book proper, Alice meets a variety of odd and perverse New Yorkers. The first John Smith to take credit for the dirty calls, turns out to be stag film actor Har Poon (the recently deceased Barry Morse), who is in the middle of auditions for his latest opus. Alice looks on with amusement as Poon calls forth a small army of naked women to perform "position 72."

On the subway, Alice is accosted by a perverted exhibitionist, but ends up driving him away with her superior trenchcoat opening skills. The man turns out to be a cynical psychoanalyst, who takes a keen interest in providing her with all the nickels she'll ever need for the payphone. Played by Star Trek spacepimp and mustache olympian, Roger C. Carmel, the analyst rubs a coin changer suggestively as he attempts to elicit dirty talk from the squeaky blonde.

Seriously, that 'stache can probably bench more than I can.

She complies by regaling him with the story of her "best fuck," which was an attempt to rescue a man (William Hickey, the crotchety geezer from... nearly everything) too embarrassed over a rare case of gigantic, unending morning wood to get out of bed.

After the story reaches its inevitable conclusion, the analyst "showers" her with coins. Alice makes her exit and is swiftly mugged, then taken in by a middle-aged woman with a pram. Naturally, this can only lead to further adult situations.

Eventually making it back to her obscenely wallpapered loft, Alice is greeted by a mysterious figure wearing a
Papier-mâché pig mask. This is John Smith, who, in between being incredibly creepy, bursts forth with strange monologues about how he came to be the world's greatest obscene phone caller.

With the exception of the "documentary" segments, the film becomes even more formally experimental at this point. Smith, appropriately played by the voice of Juan Valdez, Norman Rose, floats in rotating bubbles and stares at optically printed buttocks. He explains his straitlaced former life, his brief, paradigm shifting stint at NASA, and how he went from his first, crude dirty call, to being able to seduce random octogenarians in mere minutes. His tale is not unlike that of the confessing callers, but is told in the soothing baritone of a professional voice actor and with a certain megalomaniacal glee that quickly alternates between charming and scary.

Unwilling or unable to fulfill Alice's request physically perform the actions described in his calls, Smith takes her to a pair of side-by-side phone booths wherein he performs the greatest obscene phone call known to man. A call so powerful that it can only be visualized through a montage of crude, dirty, and bizarre cartoons.

If you can overlook the often crude production values and the atrocious quality of the bootlegs floating around (the 4:3 aspect ratio was clearly cropped from something wider), The Telephone Book is a film that has to be seen to be truly believed. While its (literally) X-rated nudity and frank discussion of sexuality are hardly shocking in the 21st century, the offbeat humor and profound strangeness seem amplified by the decades. Beyond that, there seems to be a very intelligent undercurrent to the madcap randomness.

Alice, despite her frank attitudes and voracious sexual appetites, exudes good natured innocence and naivete. She is completely comfortable with and confident in who she is and what gets her rocks off. By contrast, her various... er... suitors all lack any similar brand of unselfconsciousness. Unable to reconcile their inner desires with their "square" outward appearances, the other characters repress themselves until they snap and/or find an outlet: either Alice, making dirty phone calls, or making dirty phone calls to Alice.

This is not to imply that Alice is by any means perfect. (She's no "magical nympho") Before Smith's first call, we see her huddled in the corner of her apartment, listening to a dial-a-prayer recording. Later, when imploring a friend to let her come over to use the phone, she explains that she doesn't want to go home because staying there too long makes her want to kill herself, which "totally bums her out." Boredom, it seems, is the pixie's fatal weakness. Perhaps the film is trying to make a point about how the telephone depersonalizes human relationships. ("How quaint" scoffs the Twitter addicts.) Or, maybe this is supposed to be the downside of sexual liberation; that's certainly a murky enough message for post '60s Manhattan.

It is a real shame that a movie as fun and unique as The Telephone Book must languish in an obscurity so great that I had never even heard of it before the screening, but at least comfort can be taken in the fact that there are still some diamonds in the rough to be uncovered in the world of cult movies.