More Than Meets The Mogwai

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Jerry Schatzberg's STREET SMART (1987)

Perhaps the sole bright spot (or, at least, the most representative of his earlier work) for director Jerry Schatzberg’s [THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK; SCARECROW; THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN] career in the eighties, STREET SMART begins with the novel premise of a New York journalist (Christopher Reeve) fabricating a magazine story only for it to bite him on the ass through its apparent validity in the details of an actual person. Unfortunately, the film dispenses with its well-earned bits of street-life profundities in a cop-out finale that conveniently relieves our main protagonist (Reeve) from any hasty wrongdoings. The villain (Morgan Freeman, in a chilling meat-and-potatoes kind of part that had me wishing he’d attack such roles more often) ends up face down in the street, taken out by one of his minions. It’s a move that smacks of studio interference, a tidy ribbon that suggests that Cannon Pictures couldn’t deal with their newly licensed Superman actor having to actually, you know, deal with the prickly situation that he himself has wrought.

The seedy underbelly of pimps and prostitutes as seen through the lens of Schatzberg is authentically rendered through all of the street poetry and surface crudity that those worlds suggest (filmed partly in Montreal, on St. Catherine’s St.). Schatzberg, a former photographer who shot the famed cover photo for Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”, didn’t shoot the film himself (that honor goes to Adam Holender, who began his career with MIDNIGHT COWBOY before following it up with Scatzberg’s directorial debut, the little-seen, but mesmerizing PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD), but one glance at Schatzberg's website and their unmistakable similarities in some of the “Reportage” shots reveals the director’s fascination with urban squalor and its denizens.

Reeve, as our window into the world, is the stock Schatzberg stand-in. At first, he allows his wife (Mimi Rogers) to enter the fray to help procure the genuine story of “A Day with a Pimp” that he’s pitched to his editor (he dismisses the idea when a volatile pimp (Rick Aviles) tries to turn her into a woman of the evening). A brief coffee with a genuine street walker (Kathy Baker, the other actor singled out for her performance besides Freeman when the picture was originally released), and Reeve settles in for an all-night bout with his ancient word processor to dish out a work of fiction that becomes a media sensation, not to mention scarily prescient and accurate for a trial-bound pimp, Fast Black (Freeman), and his attorney. Eventually, Reeve winds up on a news program, slyly filming rip-off businesses and corrupted officials in order to report their crooked activities.

Reeve and Freeman’s parasitic relationship comes to the fore for the entire middle act, a classical friendship trope that's contentedly configured here between a classy, up-and-coming journalist and a low-grade pimp, each giving glimpses into their respective universes. Danger lurks around the corner -- and I hasten to bring up the ignominious conclusion once again -- but the moments that stick with me are the scenes involving success hot on Reeve’s coattails, while Freeman plays around in the margins, satisfied with all of the attention he receives from the upper echelons at the magazine.

Schatzberg’s prime observations are sussed out in such moments, but my favorite scene may be the clever de-emphasis on the sound mix during a seduction scene between Baker and Reeve, as their unimportant, almost inane getting-to-know-you chatter falls in and out of earspace while Aretha Franklin intones on the soundtrack. In moments like those, I couldn’t care less about how the cards shake out in the end.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

DEVIL FETUS [Mo tai] (Lau Hung Chuen, 1983) HONG KONG

Shown as part of an ongoing weekly horror series at the Winnipeg Cinematheque, and preceded by the trailer for David Cronenberg’s seminal SCANNERS (comprised solely of the gore-laden, brain-busting centerpiece scene), Lau Hung Chuen’s debut film is a messy “see-what-sticks” concoction full of bright phantasmagorical Disney nights, black mass rituals, spotty kung-fu set pieces, and stop-motion trickery involving a possessed spirit parasitically hopping from body to body.

What I recall above all else is what’s not in the film, mainly the absence of any of kind of sickly birthing sequence featuring devil spawn (all we see is the expanding belly of a corpse). Instead, the story’s focus is on what happens when a jade vase/ancient sex toy winds up in the hands of a sexually frustrated woman via an unconventional swap meet. After rubbing it for salacious purposes, a scaly-skinned apparition appears to engage in a bout of lovemaking, impregnating the woman before her suitor enters to catch her en flagrante. It’s a hysterically eccentric sight to behold, and acts almost as if a cue to the viewer that any traditional narrative path has been averted.

Several years pass after the woman’s premature death, but once her consecrated resting place is disturbed, the unearthly spirit awakes to wreak havoc on the remnants of her extended family, namely her sister and her husband, and their two boys (shown in an early scene to be fascinated by their aunt’s potent artifact). What follows involves some quickly paced kung-fu fights between a grand wizard and the demonically possessed young man, an incestuous encounter initiated by said young man, a maggot-ridden birthday cake, and a kindly grandmother whose constant monotonous drum-beating may hold the key to defeating this demon-seed.

DEVIL FETUS is a curious relic to dig up a film print for, but a perfectly ludicrous example from the heyday of anything-goes Hong Kong filmmaking of the 1980s. The practical make-up effects and in-camera deceptions have no choice but to endear themselves to the spectator, reminding people of my generation of “Fangoria” back issues, when a spotlight on a particular special effects artist could coexist with a retrospective interview conducted with, say, director Phil Tucker (ROBOT MONSTER). I have no definitive proof that this film has never before been issued on home video in North America, but some quick ‘net research intimidates that it’s ever only been available on a low-quality VCD; if so, it speaks wonders to the notion that there are tons and tons of similarly minded genre gems the world over awaiting discovery, resurrection, and a prime Midnight Movies' timeslot.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

A MOVIE ORGY in more ways than one...

Through sheer good luck and the kind offering of a couch to crash on, I was able to make a pilgrimage to the recent Joe Dante festival at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, arriving just in time for the last night of the double-bill of THE SADIST and THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER (seated in front of me? John Landis!) and staying on for the transcendental showing of the almost never-seen THE MOVIE ORGY just this past Tuesday. (To put it into perspective, the last time this assemblage of 16mm film clips, trailers, television spots, game show absurdities, and other odd ephemera screened was -- before I was born!)

The rest of my trip was even better, with sights seen and heroes met, but for now, I feel indebted to point to my friend Dennis Cozzalio's ecstatic, glowing, mesmerizing review of said MOVIE ORGY. It may be the next best thing to having actually been there...