Wednesday, February 9, 2011


There was this strange period beginning in the mid-60s and lasting through the late ‘70s where classic matinee idols felt forcibly removed from their “comfortable” periods and jammed headlong into the modern day. Sometimes, I refer to this displacement as “whitesploitation”, but that’s hardly accurate. While younger actors like Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis and, later, Al Pacino and Clint Eastwood, seemed at home in movies that were both culturally relevant to the times they were made, others of the strong jawed hero variety didn’t fare too well. Watching guys like John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Mitchum, even Carey Grant, share screen time with hippies and yippies, dealing with “modern” drama, drugs and free love just seemed… uncomfortable. These weren’t guys who lived in the present. They were cowboys, pirates, gangsters. They belonged in their suits, their chaps and spurs, their hats of many styles. We grew up watching them gun down bad guys, not fight off co-ed chippies many, many years their younger. Maybe Wayne and Douglas and their ilk lived a past that never happened, invented by the studios and the directors who crafted the worlds, but that’s how we thought of “the past”, shaped by the movies encapsulating them. Take those guys out of the “then”, as artificial as it may have been, and shoehorn them into the—also artificicial—now just never felt right.

To put it in modern terms, how many people out there prefer the Harrison Ford of Working Girl as compared to his Indiana Jones—or even his comedic cowboy in The ‘Frisco Kid? Put Ford in a suit, he just looks uncomfortable, and that makes us uncomfortable. Sure, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a misfire for multiple reasons, but it wasn’t because Indy looked out of place.

In 1973, Burt Lancaster stepped out of the foggy ‘40s and oppressive ‘50s and joined the modern world of the ‘70s by starring in and co-directing a here-and-now thriller titled The Midnight Man. Lancaster even co-wrote the script with his directing partner, Roland Kibbee, as well as author David Anthony, who wrote the book said script was based on, The Midnight Lady and the Morning Man. Who’s to say who excised the “Lady and the Mourning” from the title?

Set in then present day, Lancaster is an anachronism the minute he steps off a bus in the opening sequence, but for good reason—his Jim Slade is both an ex-cop and an ex-con, older and weary from his time spent in the joint. He takes a job as a night watchman at Jordan College (played by South Carolina’s Clemson University) and almost immediately steps into the middle of a murder conspiracy involving a Senator’s screwed-up daughter, blackmail, backwoods thugs, betrayal and profanity. (No greater shock have I had in my life than witnessing a long-haired hippie-freak tell stalwart Lancaster to “Fuck off” and retain his teeth.)

Burt’s charisma conveys him through a network of character actors including Cameron Mitchell, Charles Tyner, Ed Lauter, Harris Yulin and the future Daisy Duke, Catherine Bach, making her feature film debut. The central mystery begins with a late-night break-in. Several cassette tapes have been stolen from the psych professor’s office, containing the innermost confessions of a handful of students. Slade quickly dismisses two of the suspects—one of whom confesses to being “queer” in order to mess with the professor—and figures out that the target recording belonged to young, nubile Natalie, the emotionally-unstable daughter of a powerful politician. When she is subsequently murdered, Slade is drawn further into the labyrinth where he is frequently accused of various crimes, suspected of others due to his ex-con status, and involved in numerous late-night shenanigans. Meanwhile, he hangs out with his best friend from his police days (Mitchell) and attempts a romance with his fetching parole officer (Susan Clark).

During the course of this overlong movie, we are subjected to the horrors of Lancaster interacting with the various subversive college types straight out of Hair and the creeping discontent smears itself over the viewer by the end. When Lancaster is not attired in his night watchman uniform, he’s in a costume familiar to us: simple suit and fedora, as if he’d brought his wardrobe with him from the set of Sweet Smell of Success. But all around him is paisley and tie-dyed and groovy, long hair, bell-bottoms, joints are smoked and Burt is constantly disrespected. Regardless of your political leanings, you await the eventual hippie-beatdown but it never comes. The movie’s tension comes from the viewer’s disconnect with matinee Burt and the Burt before us, crammed into a world he should never be a part of.

You don’t put John Wayne in a Hawaiian shirt and you don’t surround Burt Lancaster with hippies. It may not be a law of Hollywood, but it should be. 
Eventually, this Gordian knot of a drama that doesn’t so much unravel as it is solved using King Soloman’s methodology. So convoluted, the mystery can’t be “solved” so much as “summed up”, and Slade provides a voice-over that cleaves our knot in twain, literally explaining the preceding events, double-dealings, criss-crossings and nighttime muddlings. And even with Lancaster straight-out telling us what happened, the story still makes precious little sense, resisting all attempts to stuff it into the box labeled “hard boiled mystery”. The story, like Lancaster, doesn’t fit the ‘70s trappings either. It’s drunken, listing Chandler unfolded in a post-political South.

The Midnight Man was not a box office success, though likely for reasons other than existential disconnect, and Lancaster would never direct another film. It would be years before he returned to his rightful place in the past in Zulu Dawn (let’s forget his brief role as Ned Buntline in Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians), but it was too late to go back. Despite a brief stay in the old west in the largely unmemorable cowbrat adventure Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Lancaster never did find his foothold in the previous times. It wasn’t until he embraced himself as an anachronism—re-inventing his Birdman of Alcatraz Robert Stroud character in Atlantic City, a more subdued Elmer Gantry in Local Hero—that a glimmer of “classic” Burt was re-established. He even poked fun at his (and Douglas’s) matinee image in the hit-or-miss action comedy Tough Guys. But until Lancaster settled in the present, succumbing to distinguished dignity in later roles, did he finally make peace with the modern movies. He may not have gone out with a bang in Field of Dreams (transformed into a young Frank Whalley and back) and his later TV roles, but he went out like we expected: head held high, back straight, teeth gleaming.

In the movie afterlife, you can be sure no one ever again got away with telling Burt Lancaster to “fuck off”.

Oh, The Midnight Man pops up on TCM every now and then. It’s not currently available on domestic DVD but there's an expensive PAL Import available on Amazon

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

HISSS (2010)

 According to Indian legend, there is a stone, the “Nagmani”, which will provide immortality to any who possess it. The Nagmani is protected by the snake goddess, Nagin, and she will not relinquish the stone willingly. If one can manage to capture her mate, Nagin can be persuaded to trade the Nagmani for his safety. But her anger will terrible and her grief will be vengeful. A curse will fall upon the land, causing miscarriage and misfortune, and the Nagin will transform from snake to woman and back again until she finds her mate and rights the wrongs that have been done.

This legend, depicted in the film’s prologue, provides the background for Hisss, a new film directed by Jennifer Chambers Lynch (Boxing Helena). Set in modern day India, the story begins with an American named George States (Jeff Doucette) who is suffering from late-stage brain cancer and seeks the Nagamini in a last desperate attempt to save his own life. He and his hired mercenaries track down the Nagin while she is entwined around her mate. Separating the two snakes, George makes off with the male, leaving the female Nagin to thrash in anguish (as much anguish as can be depicted by a snake, anyway). Knowing the Nagin will follow, George and his fearful thugs take the male back to their underground bunker of a lair and wait for the snake goddess to make her move.

Meanwhile, police inspector Gupta (Slumdog Millionaire’s Irrfan Khan) is dealing with the chaos of Holi—the springtime “Festival of Colors”, a holy carnival celebrated en masse by dancing, reveling and spraying colored paint over everyone and everything. He and his wife (Divya Dutta) have tried desperately to conceive a child, only to result in miscarriage (the worst and most-recent coinciding with George’s kidnapping of Nagin’s mate). His job is stressful, his marriage troubled, his live-in mother-in-law demented (she refers to him as her “other daughter” and berates him for being too ugly for a man to want), Gupta is beleaguered.

Meanwhile, the Nagin transforms herself overnight into a beautiful woman (played by Mallika Sherawat). Mute like her snake form, Nagin is confused at first about the human world. She steals a sari to cover herself and makes her way into the city. Once there, she is caught up in the Holi and finds herself captivated by the rhythmic music. Distracted, she is led away by two young punks who intend to rape her. It should go without saying that attempting to rape a snake goddess is way at the top of the List of Very Bad Ideas. Later that day, Gupta is summoned to the blood-soaked flat and surveys the remains of the two punks. One is full of very large holes. The other is little more than a lump of meat, gristle, bone and fabric—as if his body had been regurgitated by a very large snake. Gradually, the stories of Nagin, Gupta and George intertwine, leading to an appropriately gruesome (but surprisingly low-key) climax.  

Here’s the part of the article where I admit to having almost no experience with the cinema of “Bollywood”. During my research, I discovered just how deeply my ignorance runs as “Bollywood” refers only to Hindi-language movies, while Tamil-language films from Sri Lanka fall into the categories of “Jallywood”, while Indian Tamil cinema is referred to as “Kollywood”. Therefore, I am not only unfamiliar with one subset of the largest output of films in the world, but also two others. This realization was, to say the least, very damaging to my ego and is rectifying this is sure to suck up a lot of free time in the future.

My lack of education in this area meant that while I knew Irrfan Khan looked familiar (due to his appearing in Western films like A Mighty Heart and particularly Slumdog), I’m more versed in the ouvre of Newhart’s Jeff Doucette (he played “Harley”, the chronically unemployed goof). I was even less familiar with the beautiful Sherawat, who is gradually breaking through in Hollywood by co-starring (for good or bad) in Jackie Chan’s The Myth and William Dear’s upcoming Politics of Love (aka Love, Barack). And while my innate nerd provided me a passing knowledge of the “Naga” animal people (not primarily snakes) of Hindu culture, I was completely ignorant of the previous Indian films detailing the story, including Nagin (1976), Nagina (1986) and it’s sequel Nigahen (1989).

In truth, Hisss may have escaped my attention entirely were it not for my slavish devotion to special effects artist Robert Kurtzman, who designed the Nagin’s transformation and half-snake/half-human appearances. (On a personal note, I got to see some of these early designs in person during a visit to Kurtzman’s studio – I mention this only because I think it’s cool and I like to work it into casual conversation.) After Lynch Jr.’s disastrous Boxing Helena and the irritation Surveillance, were it not for Kurtzman’s involvement, I may have given Hisss a misss (sorry, couldn’t resissst) entirely, giant snake-woman or not. 
While there is a rather beautiful partially-diagetic musical number set during the Hori, with Sherawat front and center of the dance amid swirling silk and spraying color, the emphasis in Hisss is definitely on the horror/mystery aspects, so the movie leans more towards the effects end of the spectrum. That being said, while Kurtzman’s practical makeup—the costume, prosthetics and larger puppets—are extremely satisfying for the horror geek, the CGI bounces along the “okay” to “what-the-?” on this harshly-scored scale. Keen-eyed effects hounds will also notice, very quickly, when Lynch’s direction lets the effects down, particularly during shots of the beautifully-crafted male snake puppet (the film is quick to point out at the beginning that no live snakes were actually used). Perhaps this can be shoved onto the shoulders of editor Tony Ciccone, but an editor can only work with what he’s given.

On the other hand, there are numerous “quiet” moments of both horror and beauty, particularly a standout scene where a naked Sherawat slithers up a lamp post and sleeps beneath its warmth. Khan’s fleeting moments with Dutta as they address their strained marriage also packs tiny gut punches unmatched by event the most glorious of gore (and an autopsy of the regurgitated lump of rapist is especially nasty—praise be to Ganeesh).

A quick view of the IMDb reviews reveals that Hisss was not well-received in its initial Indian release, with many reviewers from that part of the world denigrating it as “low-grade” and a “B-Movie” unbefitting of an actor of Khan’s stature. High marks are given all around to Sherawat’s body, but little is made of her nearly-silent and wonderfully communicated performance as the bewildered “Ichhadhari Nagin” in human form. One reviewer was confused as to the film’s setting, due to a number of different dialects spoken on-screen. When Hisss is finally released in the U.S., this is unlikely to be a problem, as Lynch shot the film simultaneously in English and Hindi and it’s not like many of the unwashed horror fans will catch the difference between Malayalam dialect of Kerala and the more-common Hindi speech of Mumbai. I certainly didn’t, though I did chuckle at the Hindi-dubbed voice of Doucette, expecting the “dum-de-dum” voice of Harley. But that’s because I am, sadly, a member of the unwashed Ugly American horror masses. (Another chuckle came from the fact that Hisss utilized the “studios of Filmistan”, which sounds like something Garry Trudeau would invent. I know, I’m a bad person.)

The version of Hisss I was fortunate enough to view was a Hindi-language foreign press screener DVD. There is no word on the film’s official website when—or if—there will be an American release. If one does not surface, it will be an honest shame because I, for one, am grateful to Hisss for opening the doors for me to Indian cinema and I think it’s a perfect introduction to that world for similar horror fans. No matter what the language or culture, nearly all of us appreciate a gorgeous girl who can turn into a giant snake. It’s one of those common loves that keeps this wonderful world turning. 

Marketing Department: Why use this

When there's something as boring as this available?