Sunday, November 10, 2019

Sean Gill's "16 More Auteurs Weigh In On Whether 'Marvel Is Cinema'" in Slackjaw

My latest humor piece, "16 More Auteurs Weigh In On Whether 'Marvel Is Cinema'"––in response to the recent dust-ups between Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Marvel––has been published online by Slackjaw.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Only now does it occur to me... DR. MABUSE––THE GAMBLER

Only now does it occur to me... a few thoughts about DR. MABUSE––THE GAMBLER, a criminally underrated work in the Fritz Lang oeuvre. 

While, like some epics of the era, it doesn't quite have enough plot to justify it's four-and-a-half hour runtime, it's still a dizzying, edgy roller-coaster of pure Weimar id, German Expressionistic fantasy, and creeping zeitgeist horror. Probably better translated as "DR. MABUSE––THE PLAYER" (in German, "spieler" refers to game-player, gambler, actor, and puppeteer, and Dr. Mabuse is certainly all four). 
Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge, the mad doctor of METROPOLIS) is a hypnotist/gangster/psychologist/master-of-disguise/general trickster/proto-Batman villain whose schemes have enveloped most of Berlin. The great film theorist Siegfried Kracauer saw Mabuse as among a "procession of tyrants" in post-WWI German film who foreshadowed the rise of Hitler.

Fritz Lang is really at the height of his powers here: in his staging and imagery, in his use of texture and dimension, in his contrast between stillness and motion––whether he's depicting a the mass hallucination of a Bedouin procession in a Berlin theater:

Otherworldly séances:

Powerful tableaus that resemble Renaissance paintings:

The expressionistic/Bauhaus interior design of Weimar's 1%:
For all its stylish exaggerations, it's an important time capsule of the era.

Decadent Weimar nightlife realness:

Which includes one unforgettably over-the-top display of insanity, whereupon a pas de trois commences between a dancer and two giant, terrifying (papier-mâché?) heads with exceptionally phallic noses and suspiciously testicular cheekbones.
These dudes seem to like the production design just fine

Then, in a visual worthy of Ken Russell, she ascends the noses and dances atop them until they climax with a "sneeze" that, incidentally, blows away most of her outfit and leaves her with
a creepy baby...
Hot damn, Fritz! Legitimately one of the more unexpected sequences in a silent––or any––film.

Finally, I must note the majesty of  Mabuse's descent into madness, which definitely prefigures the Moloch sequence from METROPOLIS. Here, pieces of industrial equipment are reimagined as quasi-mythical monstrosities which come to life and torment the much-deserving Dr. Mabuse.
It's also worth noting that this is the state in which we find Mabuse at the beginning of THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933), Fritz Lang's brilliant sequel, which I also cannot recommend enough.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Only now does it occur to me... THE NEW KIDS

Only now does it occur to me... that Sean S. Cunningham has more up his sleeve than merely dead camp counselors, rip-offs of THE ABYSS, or haunted house movies with CHEERS cast members. No, he's an, um, sophisticated filmmaker capable of crafting an elegant revenge-drama/thriller/'80s bully movie. Allow me to present: the six most remarkable things about Sean S. Cunningham's THE NEW KIDS. 

#1. He chooses to begin with a workout/strength-training montage set to the sultry tunes of Lalo Schifrin. 
A bold move, because it's the sort of thing that usually occurs at the end of a movie's second act, right before the heavyweight champion bout or whatever. You'll note that we're looking at FULL HOUSE's Lori Laughlin, there on the left (and on the far right is Shannon Presby, essentially a poor man's Michael Biehn, who is playing her brother). In the center is their dad, played by

#2. Tom mutherluvin' Atkins, of "John Carpenter/LETHAL WEAPON/NIGHT OF THE CREEPS/everything good in this world" fame.
Don't get too excited, though, because he's not long for this world. That's right––General Tom Atkins gets a heart-stringy farewell
before being killed, offscreen, in a car accident. The now-orphaned siblings leave to live with their sketchy uncle at his dilapidated creepy Christmas theme park in the middle of nowhere. As transplants in a small southern town, they have now become the eponymous... "new kids."

#3. James Spader. When I heard James Spader played a bully in a film called THE NEW KIDS, I assumed that it was set at a Bret Easton Ellis yuppie/boarding school/douchebag academy.  I was picturing LESS THAN ZERO, I guess.
Nope, here he has a spotty southern accent, a subpar dye job, a car on cement blocks in his yard, and spends his free time tormenting new kids and taking potshots at pesky varmints. As everyone knows, '80s Spader is the Platonic ideal of "bully," though, so obviously he really turns it up to eleven. You could even say his entire performance is the embodiment of the moment in Tim Burton's BATMAN when Michael Keaton says, "You wanna get nuts? Let's get nuts!"

And was there any question that his character would be a cokehead?

This is a very subtle movie, is what I'm saying.

So Spader and his bully gang launch a campaign of terror against the new kids, at one point even killing their beloved pet bunny in a moment that is very proto-FATAL ATTRACTION. As a part of this campaign, the movie must reckon with

#4. Toxic masculinity. So Spader's gang o' yuppies-attempting-Southern-accents is meant to be sexually inappropriate in their interactions with Lori Laughlin. Because this was the same decade that brought us plenty of sexual misconduct and outright assault packaged as the acceptable teenage experience (i.e., SIXTEEN CANDLES, PORKY'S, REVENGE OF THE NERDS, et al.), this meant that they really had to overplay it to signify that these were Bad Guys. Because, for instance, almost every '80s teen movie had a scene where a guy asked out a girl and refused take "no" for an answer––and often was rewarded and lauded for his persistence––how could THE NEW KIDS possibly demonstrate an example of said behavior being "bad?" Well, this particular member of Spader's gang begins with dogfight invitations,

moves on to hair-licking,

and quickly escalates with death threats.

Here's how they differentiate Spader's stalking from, say, John Cusack's in SAY ANYTHING:

The only real difference between these scenes and the ones from, perhaps, a John Hughes film, is of degree.

#5. Eric Stoltz. As the "ginger nerd" who romances Lori Laughlin and attempts to save her from a gang of would-be rapists at a school dance, this sort of affords us a glimpse of what it would have been like to see Eric Stoltz play Marty McFly in BACK TO THE FUTURE.

Though I count myself a Stoltz fan, I absolutely think Zemeckis made the right call in replacing him with Michael J. Fox––Stoltz has a sweet, hangdog vibe that doesn't quite match the likability Fox projects so effortlessly. I imagine a Stoltz BACK TO THE FUTURE would have been a slower burn, with its Oedipal scenarios turned excruciatingly awkward. It would probably have a cult following, but I really don't think it would have been the epochal sort of classic that it remains today.

Anyway, that's just rank speculation. So here's a screengrab of Stoltz falling victim to "the ol' crouch n' shove."

#6. Finally, you know what, this gets its own slot: James Spader lighting the stream on a gas pump and turning it into a makeshift flamethrower for purposes of trying to murder Aunt Becky.

That about sums it up, ladies and gentlemen. THE NEW KIDS.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Only now does it occur to me... DEATH WATCH

Only now does it occur to me... that I would ever see Harvey Keitel trying to strangle Harry Dean Stanton while Max von Sydow tries to stop the violence.

The circumstances of this assault involve a sleazy television producer (Stanton) and his "camera-man" with cameras installed in his eyeballs via science-fictional contrivance (Keitel). Keitel has been tasked with filming the voyeuristic drama of woman's (Romy Schneider) excruciating death in a world where illness has otherwise almost been eradicated. Max von Sydow is the dying woman's husband.

The film––made in 1980 and directed by Bertrand Tavernier––is melancholy as hell and beautifully photographed by Pierre-William Glenn (DAY FOR NIGHT, COUP DE TORCHON). It's based on a spectacular novel called THE CONTINUOUS KATHERINE MORTENHOE (1973) by D.G. Compton which is said (and rightfully so) to have predicted the trajectory of reality television. I  recommend both works––especially the film, which feels very proto-Atom Egoyan in its assessment of an alienating mediascape.