More Than Meets The Mogwai

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

James Ellroy Takes Over TCM

Tonight on Turner Classic Movies, crime novelist James Ellroy has his turn opposite Robert Osbourne as part of the month’s ongoing series of revolving-chair guest programmers. His four selections prove to be a hearty mix of interesting curios and indelible masterpieces, some of which I’ve seen and can endorse, and some of which will be new to me.

First up is Irvin Kershner’s STAKEOUT ON DOPE STREET (1958), which I have not seen, but since it’s a veritable ROCK ALL NIGHT (Corman, 1958) reunion for co-stars Jonathan Haze and Abby Dalton, I can’t pass it up; Irving Lerner’s MURDER BY CONTRACT (1958) follows next, and again, I’ve not seen it, but the last two – Don Siegel’s THE LINEUP (1958) and Richard Fleischer’s ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950) - are both exceptional and definitely not to be missed, especially if you’re an enthusiast of either director.

The Siegel is set in the auteur’s favoured locale of San Francisco, and is notable because it marks the first time he would shoot in these locations. The landmarks are captured in intense black-and-white strokes that add a sense of icy composure, making for a series of images that have since become inextricably intertwined with the way I think of the city. Unforgettable also is the largely silent psychotic hit man Eli Wallach portrays, not to mention his arguably homoerotic relationship with his attentive superior, played by a dapper Robert Keith. Wallach’s abrupt ruthlessness in this film knows no equal.

The Fleischer film, made as a programmer during his tenure at RKO, is less than 70 minutes and can be said to be in the same editorializing style as THE LINEUP. I haven’t seen it in a number of years, but this taut study of a robbery gone wrong was one of the first indications that there was more than meets the eye in the films of Richard Fleischer – I can’t wait to take another look. (TCM follows it up with another Fleischer: 1949’s FOLLOW ME QUIETLY).

Adding to the evening’s rich entertainment will be Ellroy’s observations on the works before and after the airings and it’s these nightly guest intros that have become something of an addiction for me, even when said guests are less than distinguished – Rose McGowan, for instance, who unfortunately didn’t have the chutzpah to choose BARBARELLA!

Not surprisingly, Gore Vidal’s been the best so far, engaging in a discussion about the merits of Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare pictures after his choice of 1935’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Dieterle, Reinhardt) -- he dissed the Olivier's for being so stuffy, but TCM still aired HAMLET after Vidal’s picks anyway, enabling the home viewer to make up their own minds while Vidal’s arguments were still fresh on their brains.

The films start at 7pm CST.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Auteurs and Television Commercials #1: Claude Chabrol and "Winston Cigarettes" (between 1978-1980)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Image (and Film) of the Day: BRIGITTE AND BRIGITTE (Luc Moullet, 1966)

Some typically sparse set decoration for director Luc Moullet, combined with a wicked Claude Chabrol cameo; in this brief jump-cut, he portrays a perverted uncle who can't keep his hands to himself.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Slasher Waves: EYES OF A STRANGER (Ken Wiederhorn, 1981)

Wiederhorn's previous horror excursion, SHOCK WAVES, plays on a t.v. in this early scene from EYES OF A STRANGER.

“There is, for example, no apparent reason why a filmmaker of some intelligence and awareness should not make a teenie-kill movie that, while following the general patterns of the genre, analyzes sexual guilt and opposes it: it would chiefly require characters who are not totally mindless, for whom both filmmaker and spectator could feel some respect.”
--Robin Wood, “Beauty Bests the Beast”, “American Film”, September 1983 [Reprinted as “Returning the Look: Eyes of a Stranger” in “American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film”, editor: Gregory A. Waller, University of Illinois Press: 1987]
“Ultimately my attitude was that if we were going to do this, we were going to do this right, no holding back. Even though there was less blood than you see in many other pictures, I wanted the deaths to be truly horrifying; I didn’t want movie deaths, where people sit around and get off easy because what they’re seeing is gross without really being horrific.”
--director Ken Wiederhorn, as told to Maitland McDonagh, “Filmmaking on the Fringe” [Citadel Press: 1995]

Consistently decried as being nothing more than a mere retread of REAR WINDOW, or HALLOWEEN, or DRESSED TO KILL, or (take your pick), EYES OF A STRANGER is a much more potent mix, content on reutilizing and reinterpreting the conventions of the genre to make pointed critiques of the slasher cycle of films (or, as Wood breaks them down, into the “violence-against-women” and “teenie-kill” subsets) that proved to be ubiquitous at the time.

Almost immediately off the bat, Wiederhorn identifies the killer as a middle-aged, unattractive, bespectacled schlub and this results in two related things occurring: the cathartic responders in the audience now have to rethink where they’re coming from, not being able to “get off” on the violent killings, for surely they can’t relate to such a pathetic figure (Wood goes into detail with this in his essay, correlating it with the non-use of subjective shots of the killer); and secondly, and much more abstractly, there’s now no mystery involved to get caught up in – the more sedate members of the audience, on some level, must confront the reasons as to why they’re wanting to watch a murderer hack up attractive ladies, as the simplistic reasoning as of “to see who did it” is snatched away.

Of course, the who is replaced by the how, as television news reporter Jane Harris (Lauren Tewes) (calling to mind THE HOWLING’s Dee Wallace-Stone’s profession in that film) becomes embroiled in a series of vicious murders that are plaguing Miami and taking the lives of strong, independently-minded females (and some of their unlucky boyfriends). The killer’s (John DiSanti, of Wiederhorn’s previous film, KING FRAT) modus operandi seems to consist of terrorizing his victims mercilessly through a series of phone calls, before slaughtering them -- all in the very same evening.
Jane’s core group consists of Tracy (a debuting Jennifer Jason Leigh), her deaf, dumb and blind sister who became that way as a result of a childhood rape that took place under Jane’s unwatchful eye; and David (Peter DuPre), her belligerent lawyer boyfriend, a man who doesn’t get all that worked up when Jane confesses that she may know who the culprit is. As is reiterated ad nauseam in numerous slasher films (and the essays that discuss them), women’s rigidly defined roles in society are questioned and attempted to be reinforced time and time again, through passive means (her boyfriend’s constant pleas to placate his needs, and to move in with him) and through much more troublesome and deadly channels (the killer who plagues any autonomous female).
Jane quite literally turns the tables on this psychopath later on by using the fact that he doesn’t know who she is to her advantage; in a ballsy scene that’s the spiritual cousin to that rousing rah-rah finale in Quentin Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF, Jane telephones the man to ask him to turn himself in to the police, stomping on the man’s heretofore confidence in the knowledge that his actions have been unseen and anonymous up until this point. It’s a worthwhile scene that almost needs to be there to make up for the rather indulgent sadistic attitude towards women that’s previously been set up until this point.

Wiederhorn plunders through any possibly related suspense film in the interest of exploring the standards of the genre, but also to dissect what goes into creating a successful suspense sequence (he expresses this as his only interest in directing the film in his interview with McDonagh), and he concludes with a WAIT UNTIL DARK (Terence Young, 1967) reworking that pits Tracy against the film’s tormentor (as Jane watches helplessly from the killer’s high-rise apartment and into her own). The shock of a similar attack to the one in her youth proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the introverted Tracy, as she begins to make the transition to seeing and hearing again as this madman lies atop of her, ripping her shirt in half; reaching for her sister’s gun, Tracy shoots the killer in the stomach, and begins a slow stride to the bathroom, rubbing the man’s blood as if it could be the remains of her maidenhead. It’s a confusing, but charged connotation that Wiederhorn isn’t afraid to make in the face of all of this generic material.
And speaking of generic material, it’s at this moment that the killer must resurface for that all-important final attempt/attack, but it’s perfunctory and rote and not at all as interesting as what came before, save for that last shot that decidedly and triumphantly rests on the psychopath’s face, as a solitary bullet wound trickles out with crimson.
Written as part of Final Girl’s Film Club.

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