James Ensor & Tim Burton: Curation Frustration (aka: Two Things Not Very Alike That I Cram Together, So Deal With It)

So yeah. I’ve visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City several times in the past year to see special exhibits (including one on Yugoslavian minimalist performance art was a baffling and unhappy accident, complete with WARNING SIGNS about LIVE NEKKIDITY WITHIN), and while it’s a privilege and a pleasure to see art that’s been key to the shaping of Contemporary Western Culture, I find visiting this particular museum to be a frustrating experience. And no–not just because it’s full of rubes getting their photos taken in front of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (although that doesn’t help, I assure thee).

I can imagine only imagine the kinds of difficulties one would encounter when curating a special exhibit are enormous. Between getting permission to exhibit the right pieces to formulating a thesis to link seemingly disparate parts of an artist’s career to physically assembling the space needed for the show, it’s the kind of daunting undertaking I’ve explicitly avoided throughout my life. That having been said, I’ve seen two recent shows that left me feeling as though there were a couple of really specific tactics that could have been taken to improve… well, to improve *my* viewing experience, anyway (as in all things–Your Respective Mileage May Vary).
“Keeping Other Humans Out” was not part of my strategy, so BITE YOUR TONGUE.
James Ensor - "Skeleton Painting"
The James Ensor retrospective provided an incredible opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with pieces by a painter whose mastery of the grotesque–and I do mean really, profoundly, scatologically grotesque–in many ways characterized his career. Ensor’s aggressive use of images to convey death, decay, and a general distaste for humanity are what I came to see, and while many of these works were on display, I couldn’t help but feel the overall mood and tone of the show was appreciably sunnier than I’d have liked. It felt as though there was an effort to legitimize the artist by pairing his more horrific works with still lifes and scenes of domesticity. But… let’s be frank here: I like my Boschian excess, and while this decision ultimately emphasized the fact that Ensor’s images still have the power to shock, it felt unfortunate to me.
James Ensor - "Self Portrait with Masks"
As to the Tim Burton show that’s going on right now (in the Photography Special Exhibition Area, which I’d guess is about a third the size of the 6th Floor Special Exhibition Area–just FYI)… it feels a lot like looking at someone’s DeviantArt.com page. Seriously–if I ever get famous, I BEG you not to display my seventh grade cartooning experiments. And you can also lose track of high-school-age submissions to the academic art and literary journal. About twenty percent of the show is devoted to Burton’s adolescent doodlings, and to be honest, it kinda made me and my show-going companion a little embarrassed for the artist. The show just felt very commercial, and was a bit more like going to Planet Hollywood and ooh-ing over the collected props than it was like attending an artist’s career retrospective. Also, it was suspiciously free of images of Burton’s long-time partner Lisa Marie.
James Ensor - "Figures"
So what’s our takeaway from all this? Allow me to elaborate:
  1. I wish curators would embrace the innate bizarreness of art. Everybody LOOOOOOVES art, but artists are a pain in the ass, with their Ideas and Eccentricities.
  2. Anything can be part of your artistic legacy, so be careful what you draw because inevitably, someone who hates you will put it in MoMA solely to embarrass you.
  3. Don’t photobomb Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”
Weirdly enough, I LOVED the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I can’t collect my thoughts on that enough for a write-up. I hate the way my brain works sometimes.
James Ensor - "Death and the Mask"
Note: I decided to illustrate this entry entirely with images created by James Ensor, mainly because I felt like looking at them today. Hope you dug that as I much as I did.

Chiaroscuro, Baby [2009]

"Chiaroscuro, Baby"

Creativity, vision and passion–micro-budget filmmakers need to rely heavily on these three qualities to make up for what they don’t have in cash. Putting together a capable and committed cast, rounding up the appropriate equipment, and finding someplace to shoot are challenging enough. Add in money-leeching elements like costuming, special effects, and elaborate post-production and it’s easy to see why so many film projects go uncompleted or unrealized entirely. When I first heard about “Chiaroscuro, Baby,” a feature-length drama in the style of 60s black-and-white B-Reels, I was curious to see how filmmakers Anthony Kilburn and Halina Lubczanska of KillaCozzy Productions would re-create and maintain the period atmosphere. The answer, friends, is “very well and very cleverly.”

"Chiaroscuro, Baby"
Calvin is an aspiring painter in present-day Jacksonville, Florida, whose desire to please his girlfriend Nancy is in direct odds with his artistic integrity. Surrounded by eccentric friends whose actions range from scatter-brained to hedonistic to self-destructive, Calvin is confused about where his own loyalties and dreams truly lie. After Calvin produces a series of collages at Nancy’s encouragement (she disapproves of his paintings of figures on salvaged windowpanes), big-time art dealer Arthur Prophet offers him a lucrative deal, even though Calvin dislikes the pieces he’s produced. Things get murkier still for Calvin when he meets Marjorie, a vivacious photographer who encourages him to pursue his painting. The film follows Calvin as he struggles with his own personal choices while dealing with drugs, flawed friendships, and others’ expectations of him.
The success of “Chiaroscuro, Baby” is twofold–it lies both in the strength of many of the performances as well as in its loving attention to detail in the production design.
"Chiaroscuro, Baby"
Christopher Bolla brings a geeky magnetism to his portrayal of Calvin–Marjorie is right that his “awkwardness is vaguely entertaining;” in fact, it’s downright endearing. It would be easy to play Calvin as the spineless nebbish in a sort of “Venus in Furs” scenario with Nancy as the vicious domme, but Bolla plays Calvin as someone who’s confused, but fully-formed as a person. There are some moments of real sensuality between Calvin and the two female leads. The scenes in which Marjorie (played with smirky charm by Milan Alley) models nude for Calvin brim with unrequited sexual tension. On the more… erm… requited tip, Calvin’s relationship with Nancy (Christianna White, who has some eerily Edie-Sedgwick-esque angles) is pathological, but there are moments of chemistry where one can see why the two have stayed together. Nancy is one crazy-ass bitch, and that’s never far from the viewer’s consciousness, but in the spirit of “Crazy Sex Is the Best Sex,” she knows how to keep Calvin in her thrall by using her sensuality.
"Chiaroscuro, Baby"
Regarding the production design, I know at least one of you is scratching his or her head at the juxtaposition of 60’s style and 2000’s setting. You didn’t misread anything–the movie is, in fact, set in the 2000’s but uses many tropes and cliches characteristic of the vintage films that serve as its inspiration. This juxtaposition might seem jarring, but it works as a sly commentary on the fetishization of counter-culture movements of the past. Subplots involving drug addiction, infidelity, homosexuality, and rape come straight from the “Cautionary Tale” films of the mid-1900s, but the way in which they’re handled here reflects the ambiguity of the present. There have been some painstaking hours put in towards creating film and audio grain that succeeds in evoking a low-fi, mid-century look and feel. The cinematography is full of movement, avoiding static shots and adding a hand-held flavor to the proceedings.

"Chiaroscuro, Baby"
“Chiaroscuro, Baby” isn’t without its issues. At over two hours, there’s room for the story to be tightened up, and while the filmmakers avoid the 60’s B-Reel traps of “endless driving scenes” and “endless walking scenes,” there’s a sense that they had difficulty trimming material due to their affection for what they’d filmed. Also, while I enjoyed the fact that the film never settles into a groove of all-out “seriousness” or committed “satire,” I couldn’t help but feel I’d have loved the movie if it owned its comedic elements and amped those up by several degrees. This full-length trailer teases at what the film could’ve achieved if it went further down the satirical route:

Fans of 1960s social melodramas will find plenty to enjoy in “Chiaroscuro, Baby.” The dedication of the filmmakers is clear in every scene, they’re clearly a talented group of creatives, and they’ve produced a film with a unique and well-executed style. I’m eager to see what KillaCozzy Productions comes out with next!

Friday Miscellany–Tenebrous Tumblr and a Rondo Reminder

I think we can all agree that it’s a big internet out there, and there’s a whole lot of cool stuff on it. In the spirit of sharing without over-sharing, I’ve started up a Tumblr account where I’m including images and links from around my virtual travels. Think of it as the liner notes for whatever winds up getting posted here on the Love Train. Also, I feel like my blogroll is getting unwieldy, and there are some truly talented folks out there whose writing I’d love to highlight–I’ll be linking to those especially noteworthy posts on my Tumblr as I come across them (mainly because I’m crappy at remembering stuff when it comes time to post a link round-up).

Curious seekers of weirdness can view my Tumblr here:

Earlier this week, I appeared on Max the Drunken Severed Head’s blog in his second installment of Q&A’s with Rondo Nominees. I’m still pleasantly baffled at being nominated–I’ll just assume that someone out there has a soft spot for trash cinema and surrealist art jammed uncomfortably together on the same internet page. Head on over to Max’s blog and check out:

And then there’s the not-so-small matter of the release of production photos from “Iron Sky” earlier this week. It’s a movie about Nazis on the moon, and I don’t really care whether it’s going to be a comedy or not, because IT’S A MOVIE ABOUT MOTHERFUCKIN’ NAZIS ON THE MOTHERFUCKIN’ MOON and everybody knows that Nazis make the best screen villains. Consider that movie ticket boughtened, friends.

Unmasking the Idol [1986]

Have you ever wondered what James Bond would be like if he was an asshole ninja with a pet karate baboon? What do you mean, you haven’t wondered that? I can pretty much guarantee that you are wondering that now. Thank goodness “Unmasking the Idol” exists to answer this question that’s now burning a hole in your rational brain! Yes, friends, that poster you’re viewing at Screen Right is a real poster, showing real stuff that really happens in “Unmasking the Idol.” Really. This movie is probably the greatest production that has ever borne the MGM logo.

I stumbled upon “Unmasking the Idol” in the listings for Impact: Action on Demand, a digital cable feature that totally justifies what I spend with Comcast on a monthly basis. The plot blurb read something like “a super agent and his karate kicking baboon sidekick must save the world from terrorists intent on starting WW3 with nuclear bombs.” Now, those are all thoughts that, independently of one another, make sense. I was pretty sure that “baboon” was a typo, or at very least an overstatement, and that “super agent” was just referring to a wise-cracking guy in a tux. I was entirely wrong. Unlike so many exploitation films, this one delivered on its promises, because not only WAS there a super agent AND a high-kicking karate baboon, there was A LOT of both, and those SOBs stopped the fuck out of World War III.

"Unmasking the Idol"
Our lead character is Duncan Jax (played by Ian Hunter, a name that is pretty action-tastic all on its own), a monster-truck-driving super-spy with a taste for adventure and cringeworthy mid-80s Orientalism. We are told through dialogue that he’s also “the greatest ninja in the world,” and we learn he’s a super-spy because he winds up in a casino macking on hot exotic babes within the first ten minutes of the film (but only after a helium-balloon escape and a conversation via wristwatch-videophone). Actor Ian Hunter’s only credits are for this film and its sequel, “Order of the Black Eagle,” a fact that is as sad as it is unsurprising. Hunter’s signature acting technique, undoubtedly developed because he knew he’d spend a lot of screen time with a ninja mask covering most of his face, centers around his bulging his eyes to indicate a variety of moods ranging from clever to seductive to dangerous. This only ever makes him look “crazy,” but I kind of love that. He comes across a little like a Steven Seagal-Michael Bolton hybrid acting in a silent film.

"Unmasking the Idol"
Let’s clarify: Duncan Jax is a James Bond-Steven Seagal-Michael Bolton hybrid acting in a silent film who works with a baboon in a karate gi, lives in a secret compound full of ninja babes, and is assisted by a cranky Asian guy who plays the Q role. Oh! And there’s the small matter of his arch-nemesis (a German-probably-Nazi terrorist who killed Jax’s parents) being named Goldtooth.
"Unmasking the Idol"
Goldtooth. Really.

"Unmasking the Idol"
Ernest Hemingway, the Lost Years

There’s a plot that ties all this together–trust me. Jax discovers that Goldtooth is working with Scarlet Leader, a mysterious ninja whose skills rival Jax’s own and whose interests include “feeding old people to piranhas.” They are plotting to steal a whole mess of gold that they’ll use to finance World War III. Casting a Japanese character and a German character as the nemeses in this film is undoubtedly a sly allusion to the Axis powers of WWII… or it’s just lazy post-“G.I. Joe” jingoism (or both; who knows?). Jax is tasked with taking his karate baboon and army of ninja babes to Devil’s Crown Island to thwart the baddies, with the reluctant help of various ill-sketched-yet-colorful characters, including The Whale, a guy who is definitely fat and who might be South American or Russian, depending on the scene you’re watching at that moment.

"Unmasking the Idol"
There are a couple of things about this movie that allow it to populate that magical, elusive plane of true “So Bad It’s Good”* cinema. First off, this movie isn’t jokey–it’s an adventure story in the tradition of Indiana Jones (itself envisioned in the tradition of black-and-white serial stories), or that of the aforementioned James Bond films. Hell, “Unmasking the Idol” even has a completely incredible warbled theme song over the opening credits that sings the praise of Duncan Jax! Secondly, the movie had a budget. Actual cash was dumped into this insane mess, so there are stunts and explosions and sets and everything. Actors wrestle with alligators, dangle from helicopters, and get kicked in the head by ninjas. Thirdly–and maybe MOST importantly–this film is NEVER BORING. Something is always happening, whether it’s in the form of awkward dialogue, monkey hijinx, or ludicrous action.
*I know, I know–I still struggle with this phrase, but the shoe is fitting so well here!

"Unmasking the Idol"
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that director Worth Keeter is responsible for a number of “Power Rangers” episodes as well as such direct-to-video flicks as “Snapdragon” (starring a pre-Amanda-Lepore-ed Pam Anderson) and “L.A. Bounty” (Wings Hauser *and* Sybil Danning–digest that for a moment, won’t you?). I haven’t seen any of those movies, but I’m going to go out on a rickety limb her and claim that “Unmasking the Idol” is his masterpiece, and probably also the greatest film ever to be made on the sandy shores of the Carolinas. I’ll also assume at least one of two things regarding story-creator and producer Robert P. Eaton is true: he was eleven years old at the time he created the tale of Duncan Jax and/or this is a pseudonym for Robert Hamburger.

"Unmasking the Idol"
This baboon just kicked your ass, and now he’s flipping you off. F’reals.

None of you believe that this exists, I can feel it. You think I’m just making shit up, or that this is some Godfrey Ho-style microbudget junkgasm. Oh no, no-no-no, friends–this is ever so real. For those of you who are Comcast subscribers, dial up this bad boy today, or watch it online on their Fancast service. Those less fortunate folks will have to go down a less-traveled series of tubes, but in the mean time, check out the trailer–it’s in German, but that just makes it radder:

The Howl [1970]

Long before his career as one of the premiere makers of erotic films, and before his double-play of historical excess in the form of “Salon Kitty”* and “Caligula,” director Tinto Brass explored the murky waters of surrealist filmmaking with “The Howl.” And believe you me, this film is neck-deep in those waters.

*A film that captures the Tenebrous Aesthetic to a truly alarming degree–in that you should probably be alarmed by that fact.
A statement on the revolutionary nature of the late 1960s and Europe’s post-World-War-II legacy, “The Howl” rejects standard film structure in favor of throwing as much weird shit at its audience as possible. While Brass states that he was not influenced by the Panic Movement, the aggressive, performance-oriented school of 1960s surrealism in which “El Topo” director Alejandro Jodorowsky was a key player, “The Howl” plays out like its leading down the Panic Movement’s blind alley. Panic artists embraced savagery, occult and religious symbolism, and grotesque acting-out as a response to the chaotic social landscape of the Sixties. “The Howl” feels like a Panic Movement film in every way, from the use of deeply-symbolic imagery to the disjointed narrative to the casting of a famous clown as the male lead. This type of fiercely iconoclastic art is really a reflection of the zeitgeist, embodying the rebellion and upheaval of the time. This is a film of rich metaphor invested with personal meaning, built not on plot but on linked images and setpieces.

"The Howl"
Tonight, the role of Admiral Ackbar will be played by a gorgeous, nude French woman. You’re welcome.

Films like “The Howl” aren’t meant to tell a captivating story, so much as they’re intended to evoke the atmosphere of a place and time. What I mean to say is, “the story of this film is batshit krazee, so if you’re planning on watching this, settle in and let your rational brain take a break.” Think of watching this movie as like viewing a painting–let its milieu wash over you and don’t think you can judge it based on traditional cinematic standards.
"The Howl"
The film follows a man and a woman–Anita and Coso–as they travel through a surrealist landscape populated by metaphorical characters and situations. Coso rescues Anita from jail and attempts to marry her. Marriage is, for Anita, a trap–she is a symbol of anti-establishmentarianism–and so she flees from Coso, and yet with Coso, leading the two on a variety of adventures. The couple encounter a number of scenarios that are symbolic of authority: the philosopher who turns out to be a cannibal, the madhouse/prison run by an Emperor Nero figure, the town turned mad from fascism. The very structure of the film is a rejection of order. Anita and Coso play a number of roles as they travel through the world gone mad: a prostitute and an escaped felon, a picnicking couple from the fin de siecle, and a priestess and her partner.

"The Howl"
The film is about breaking with tradition and with history, a reaction to the established norms not only of capital-C Culture, but of Italian filmmaking itself. Brass states in the commentary on the Cult Epics DVD release of this film that he includes the English refrain “to break, broke, broken” throughout the story as a deliberate antagonism of his producer’s insistence on casting English-speaking leads in the film (a suggestion Brass refused).

"The Howl"
Napoleon Hitler Midget. You’re not ready for “The Howl.”
A film like “The Howl” lends itself to deep and probably-maddening analysis–there are several symbols packed into every frame, some more obvious than others. For me, the film peaked early with Coso and Anita walking through a labyrinth of rooms in which people are engaged in fantastical, fetishistic couplings. This montage is reminiscent of the training sequence from “Salon Kitty,” with its grotesque, over-the-top sexuality. The montage is more dreamlike here, with overt allusions to surrealist art scattered throughout the frames.

"The Howl"
Per Brass’ commentary, actress Tina Aumont, who plays Anita, was the inspiration for this film. His deep admiration for Aumont comes across in the way he films her, because she is luminous in this movie. She bravely conveys a feral madness throughout the film, never falling into self-parody or silliness, even when engaged in ludicrous scenarios.

"The Howl"
As a document of late-Sixties surrealism, “The Howl” is fascinating, if significantly less captivating than Jodorowsky’s work from the same period. I’ve watched this movie three times and I’ll confess I like it much better now than upon first viewing (per Baron XIII, this movie is louder and more obnoxious than anything I’ve watched since he’s known me so… yeah, caveat emptor). For those folks interested in this type of filmmaking, or who are curious about Tinto Brass’ body of work outside of his more infamous efforts, “The Howl” comes with my seal of approval. All others should proceed at your own collective risk!

Ms. 45 [1981]

The two most frequently-cited entries in the rape-revenge canon of the grindhouse era are undoubtedly “The Last House on the Left,” a Looney Tunes reimagining of “The Virgin Spring,” and “I Spit On Your Grave,” a work of pornographic excess cynically (not to mention thinly) masquerading as a dark fairy tale of feminist empowerment. It takes some pretty serious intellectual gymnastics to justify the merits of either film past their significant shock value. They’re ultra-violent versions of those Lifetime “Dangers Of Being a Woman” Movies: cautionary tales about the inherent rapeyness of the lower class and the inescapable vulnerability that comes with having a vagina. Past some graphic content enacted with undeniable ferocity by the cast and unflinchingly committed to film, there’s not a lot going on there, all arguments of verisimilitude and the cathartic power of female revenge aside. And that’s fine–as a culture, it’s time to banish the term “Guilty Pleasure” and own the fact that sometimes, we get a thrill out of watching grotesque things.

All that having been said, it’s my opinion that the greatest of the American rape-revenge flicks is Abel Ferrara’s 1981 film “Ms. 45.” It’s a film with a deceptively simple narrative that, through its details, opens itself up to a multitude of interpretations and manages to say some pretty disturbing things about the culture we live in.
"Ms. 45"
Petite, doe-eyed Thana lives in Manhattan–PRE-Giuliani Manhattan; the one that inspired “The Warriors” and “Escape from New York,” where you could rent an apartment as a single person making under a quarter of a million dollars a year. While walking home from her job as a seamstress in a mid-range fashion house, Thana is pulled into an alleyway and raped by a masked gunman (played with oily fervor by director Ferrara). Shaken and still in a state of disarray from her assault, she comes home only to find a burglar has broken into her apartment, and seizing the opportunity, he violates her for the second time that day. The burglar underestimates Thana’s ability to defend herself, and after gaining the upper hand, she bludgeons him to death with a flat iron. Now–this is where the “Last House” and “Grave” narratives end: the heroine of the film has earned back her womanhood through an act of violence. “Ms. 45” is only minutes into its story.
"Ms. 45"
Faced with the seriousness of her self-defense, Thana drags the rapist’s body into her bathroom and dismembers it, storing the bags of his body parts in her refrigerator so she can dispose of them methodically in various blighted locations across the city. Her reaction to her extreme act of self-defense is not joy or catharsis, but rather a compounding of her terror–her first attacker is still on the loose, and she begins to see threats everywhere. She begins to carry the dead rapist’s .45 caliber pistol in her purse. Having shown the gun in Act 1, the story doesn’t wait until Act 2 to have it go off–Thana kills a man who chases her into an alleyway only minutes’ worth of screen time after placing that gun into her bag.
"Ms. 45"
Many critics talk about how “Ms. 45” is a story about a woman who “snaps” after having been raped twice. That’s not entirely correct. Thana doesn’t immediately snap and turn into the “Angel of Vengeance” of the film’s alternate title directly after her rapes–rather, she is absolutely horrified by having acted out in a violent fashion. This film isn’t nearly so tidy–the story deals with the aftermath of trauma and the ways in which ordinary people are pressed into extreme actions by the aggressiveness of urban life.
"Ms. 45"
Rather than snapping, Thana is worn down by repeated assaults and terrifying events that ultimately lead to her desire to seize for herself some of the power that comes from violent acting-out. Upon realizing that she is now in possession of not only a means of ultimate self-defense, but of offense, Thana begins to target the city’s misogynists in an after-dark shooting spree. The initially shy and reserved woman decks herself out in a series of eroticized outfits. Her victims slowly transform from men who have threatened Thana directly to men that Thana assumes are capable of abusing women. She’s no longer engaging in self-defense, but in vigilanteism, and as the film reaches its climax–at a Halloween party that Thana attends, dressed as a nun–her acts threaten to fall into cold-blooded murder.
"Ms. 45"
Now, this is all heavy stuff, and I can see why some readers would still wonder how “Ms. 45” is a vastly superior film than the aforementioned Big Two of American rape-revenge movies. Ferrara’s story is not a bleak morality play like other films in the revenge subgenre–it’s a blacker-than-black comedy. And we’re not talking about the “zany sheriffs shoe-horned into an otherwise gritty story” flavor of black comedy. There’s a turning point somewhere around the time of Thana’s decision to dismember and dispose of her rapist’s corpse that one realizes that there’s a twisted sense of humor operating here. This is where we need to give some serious credit to actress Zoë Lund’s portrayal of Thana–she takes the character from an introverted, girlish young woman to a cunning, half-smiling sexpot in an entirely dialogue-free performance. While her attackers have no characterization outside of their vile actions, the supporting characters in Thana’s life are played for wry laughs, from the sleazy fashion designer who employs her to her eccentric, low-rent Norma Desmond landlady, Ms. Nasone. Several of Thana’s victims are characterized for comedic effect as well. The would-be fashion photographer who follows her after engaging in some very public displays of sexuality with an anonymous woman is such a sleazebag stereotype that he’s funny at the same time that he’s coming across as threatening. Another smirk-worthy scene occurs when Thana encounters a jilted husband at a bar–I won’t spoil this interaction other than to say that it’s just so unexpected and uncomfortable, it’s got to be experienced.
This is a very thoughtfully-lensed film. Cinematographer James Lemmo also worked with Ferrara on his cult classic “Driller Killer,” and the streets of the city rarely looked more authentically threatening than they do in these films. There’s a sense of grime and dread everywhere, from the leering men who line the sidewalks to the dirty windows of the apartments.
"Ms. 45"
The scary thing about “Ms. 45” is how much its themes resonate with me, as someone who’s lived her entire adult life in urban environments. It’s all too easy to see life as a constant stream of tiny indignities that slowly scrape away one’s ability to cope with adversity. There’s something richly rewarding in seeing a person who would otherwise be powerless–both on account of her femaleness and her speechlessness–taking justice into her own hands. Thana is clearly a bit mad, but she’s been shaped that way by her surroundings.
“Ms. 45” is a film that will undoubtedly have more impact on certain audiences than on others and may very well leave some cold entirely. Its uncomfortable narrative ties together elements from “Taxi Driver” and “I Spit on Your Grave,” and adds a twisted sense of humor that would feel at home in a John Waters film. Simply put–I love this movie. It’s suspenseful, filled with unexpected moments of shock and comedy, and has a kickass punk rock/new wave attitude that comes from a place of fierce creativity.

Dolph Lundgren’s Leather Man Adventure

Look, friends–I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that I understand the subtleties of what’s going on in this Swedish-language clip. What I can tell you is that it features action star Dolph Lundgren going full-on leather daddy (complete with artificial moustache–the best KIND of moustache) in order to infiltrate a gay bar (which I now know is translated as GAYKLUBB in Swedish–useful!). I can’t imagine this being any better if I understood the language. In fact, the linguistic obfuscation just makes this all the more magical. Witness:
And in case THAT wasn’t proof enough that Dolph is cooler than all of us, know that he’s got a Masters in Chemical Engineering, speaks five languages, AND completed his Swedish military service as an Amphibious Ranger. That means that he could beat you in a fight and render you down to your essential elements… and tell the world about your shameful defeat IN FIVE LANGUAGES.
In unrelated-to-Dolph news, I’m cooking up some new content, but I wound up getting myself in deeper than I’d anticipated in topics that I’d intended to have posted this week. Also, the Tenebrous Day Job keeps making demands on my time, so I’m stretched a wee bit thin! I’ve really dug all the great comments on my recent stuff–thank you to everyone who’s chiming in and PLEASE don’t stop! I’ll swing by to respond appropriately once I’m Among the Living again.

The Horrors of Men’s Fashion – "Erotic" Jewelry

Let me tell you about one of the more AWESOME things about being a woman: it’s a scientific fact that accessories and slogans that would make a man look like a prick tend to look subversive and outre when worn by a woman. I would totally talk to this lady, but this dude is running a severe risk of receiving a cockpunching. I know it’s not fair, but cupcakes–life ain’t fair.

In that spirit, let’s enjoy some incredible EROTIC jewelry designs sold in men’s magazine advertisements during the mid-1970s, shall we?
Male Chauvinist Pin
The “Male Chauvinist Pin” is kind of a nice shorthand. The same way I’d be able to identify fellow Phi Beta Kappa members by the pin on their lapels, I’d have a nice fore-warning that the man wearing this pin is to be avoided at all costs. I like it when people give me a heads-up that way! That having been said, *I* should probably wear one of these in order to warn others of my own sass-mouth tendencies.
Erotique Collection Rings
These rings raise more questions than they offer answers. Firstly, they challenge the very definition of “erotic,” at least as I understand that word, and secondly they make one wonder what “leasure” indicates. Still, I’m not going to lie and tell you I *wouldn’t* wear the “Screw You” ring.
Time to F*** Watch
I like the 1970s because it was a time in which one could assume that the same person who would wear this gold-tone “Time to Fuck” watch would also know what a sybarite was. And yes, friends, this IS another fine Leasure Time product. I wonder how many people matched Leasure Time jewelry with their Lew Magram Soho Bodysuits

Comix Art Mash-Ups in Guido Crepax’s VALENTINA

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but Guido Crepax’s fumetti series centering around sexy fashion photographer Valentina is one of the great works of pop surrealism. Setting Valentina’s stories in an erotic dream-world allowed Crepax free reign to explore kinky themes, to allow outlandish events to transpire, and to appropriate freely from the pop culture landscape.

"Valentina: Bonnie & Clyde"
First published in 1968, Crepax’s “Bonnie and Clyde” casts Valentina in the former role as the infamous female bandit. Influenced more by Faye Dunaway’s iconic turn in the 1967 film than by any kind of inconvenient and unpleasant historical reality, this short story shows Valentina’s daydream of criminal glamour.
"Valentina nel Metro"
If I had to pick a favorite Valentina story, I’d have to go with “Valentina nel Metro” (also from 1968), a tale that finds our heroine roaming from car to car on an exceptionally bizarre train ride. Each car in the train is a different comic-book universe, ranging from that of familiar Eurocomix characters like Diabolik (shown above) to literary figures such as Dracula.
"Valentina nel Metro"
In each of these worlds, Crepax blends his style with that of the artists who originated the characters. This panel, influenced by the work of George Pichard (specifically, his Carmen can be seen at center left) merges Crepax’s complex, aggressive linework with Pichard’s more precise stippling technique.
"Valentina nel Metro"
Of course, there’s some rather Crepax-ian license taken with these characters. Here, The Phantom leaves his mark on Valentina in a uniquely adult manner (bonus points for the gratuitous shark appearance).
"Valentina nel Metro"
Now–really–what walk down this particular kinky lane would be complete without an homage to the work of John Willie? Crepax lovingly re-creates the bondage maestro’s elaborate ropework and towering heels in this panel that once again finds hapless Valentina at the mercy of a cruel captor.

The Virgin Spring [1960] and Last House on the Left [1972]

DISCLAIMER: Junk’s going to get all kinds of sociological this morning, so if you’re not game for that sort of thing, I recommend clicking on tags like “Lucha Libre” or “Head-Explodey,” which are WAY free-er of academic mumbo-jumbo. What can I say? Sometimes my thoughts, they get provoked.

One of the things that fascinates me about movies made with the intent of evoking a direct reaction from an audience–be that reaction laughter, horror, sentiment, or any combination of a hundred others–is that these movies often have their roots in pre-cinematic traditions. Even though I poke fun at the claims of literary inspiration in nunsploitation films, they are in fact the direct inheritors of late Eighteenth Century and early Nineteenth Century anti-Catholic stories like “I Promessi Sposi,” “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk,” and Matthew G. Lewis’ “The Monk.” The folkloric sources of tales of supernatural creatures like werewolves and vampires have been thoroughly catalogued by more academic minds than mine, and ghost stories are as ancient as the art of storytelling itself.

It might surprise some fans of genre entertainment to learn that one of the most quintessentially grindhouse, quintessentially American, quintessentially cynical and vicious shock films in the history of horror cinema, Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left,” draws heavily from an Ingmar Bergman film titled “The Virgin Spring,” which was itself based on a medieval ballad.

In the same way that genre films traffic in subtle differences between things that are pretty much the same (EXAMPLE: Bela Lugosi and Richard Roxburgh both played the Dracula character on film; you remember one of these performances), “The Virgin Spring” and “The Last House on the Left” tell stories of young women whose lives are taken by lustful murderers and whose parents take ghastly revenge on those murderers when they unwittingly end up taking refuge in the familial abode. It’s important to note here that neither film is “About Women”–rape is violence and it’s a societal ill that should upset ALL people. Both of these films are “About Violence” and “About Reactions To Violence.” While the events in both films are very similar, the message of each film is incredibly different. “The Virgin Spring” is a meditation on the intersection between faith and personal tragedy while “The Last House on the Left” exalts the cathartic power of revenge.
There are many places where one can draw comparisons between these two films, and there’s a lot of rich discussion to be had about the differing intentions of the filmmakers. To me, the most provocative difference between the two films is the way in which they deal with Difficult Women. For the shorthand purposes of a blog entry, I’ll define a “difficult woman” as a female who challenges narrow cultural expectations by her aggressiveness and “un-femininity.” In “The Virgin Spring” and “The Last House on the Left,” there are female characters who are difficult, and the handling of these difficult women is a reflection of the culture in which each movie was created.
In “The Virgin Spring,” Karin, the golden-haired daughter of wealthy medieval landowners Töre and Märeta, is set upon by three goat-herders as she travels from her farm to a church. If this sounds as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull, that’s only because we haven’t gotten into the details yet! Karin is accompanied by Ingeri, a pregnant teenager and practitioner of Norse paganism who works on the family farm. Ingeri harbors a simmering resentment towards the privileged girl, realizing that the community’s perception of Karin as pure and therefore valuable is due largely to her social station. She rages at this chasm between her own lowly upbringing and Karin’s entitlement. Simply put, Ingeri is difficult. Her jealousy of Karin isn’t unfounded, and her anger comes from a place of frustration rather than of malice. In the scene where Karin is raped and murdered, which is lensed with a documentarian’s matter-of-fact eye, Ingeri looks on, powerless, horrified that her ill-wishes towards Karin have come to pass. She feels a sense of guilt that her spite has somehow caused Karin’s death and once she is back at the homestead of Karin’s family, she confesses what she feels is her involvement in the tragedy. It’s noteworthy that Karin’s father responds to Ingeri’s confession with grace and forgiveness–her perception of her criminality is left for her to work through, while the men who murdered Karin are punished with death.
There is no room for Ingeri’s ambiguity in the universe of “The Last House on the Left,” a film that divides the world into Good and Bad and casts its teenaged female leads as catalysts of crime being punished for daring to fraternize with people outside their upper-middle-class caste, smoke dope, and listen to rock music. A female character who struggles with jealousy and violent urges in a complicated fashion doesn’t belong here, so she is split into two characters: Phyllis and Sadie. Phyllis is the more worldly of the two teen victims, having lost her virginity and dabbled in drugs, and Sadie* is the sole female member of the gang of criminals who rape and murder the two unfortunate teens. Ingeri’s disrespect for cultural norms is hacksawed from her envy and rage to create the kind of one-dimensional characters that propel “The Last House on the Left” to its explosive climax. Where Ingeri wishes Karin ill, she is horrified when this comes to pass–Sadie, on the other hand, takes a malicious delight in the defilement of the two upper-middle-class women. It’s all about the release of pent-up violence in “The Last House on the Left,” whether it’s the outburst of jealousy on the part of the murderers that results in the deaths of the young women, or the purging of the parents’ fury.
*It’s interesting to note that Manson Family murderer Susan Atkins adopted the moniker “Sadie Mae Glutz” during the cult’s reign of terror.
“The Virgin Spring” closes with Karin’s parents recovering her lifeless body and vowing to build a church in their daughter’s memory, breaking the cycle of violence. “Last House on the Left” ends on a freeze-frame of blood-spattered survivors who have triumphed in a battle of upper-middle-class family values over the anarchy of the inner city. To put it in terms of an extreme understatement: the parents in “The Last House on the Left” are NOT going to be building any churches anytime soon.
It’s interesting that the messages of these two films, which are intended for very different audiences (in fairness: there’s that thin sliver of a Venn Diagram that represents “me and some like-minded deviants”) draw such drastically different meanings from similar material. One wonders what that medieval balladeer who wrote the original song would have thought about all of this!