Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Image stolen from UK Movie Posters

No film addict can survive on a steady diet of the same. You can watch Turner Classic Movies all day long but after such a marathon, you start to hunger for something different. Dare I say even something “worse”. “Worse”, of course, is subjective, so let’s say instead “ridiculous”. After a week of viewing heady and/or heavy movies, movies that made me think and feel, I was in dire need of the ridiculous. You can’t ask for more ridiculous than what is offered by the gory horror-spoof I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle
Director Dirk Campbell, very soon a maestro of children’s television programming, got hold of a script by Mycal Miller and John Wolskel (the latter a frequent writer of English-version anime like Appleseed), rang up half the cast (and sets and even the composer) of the BBC series Boon (including title character Michael Elphick, Neil Morrissey (future voice of Bob the Builder), Amanda Noar (aka Mrs. Morrissey, at the time, anyway), and C:3PO himself, Anthony Daniels. They gathered together and said, to borrow a quote from Daniels’ Priest character, “Right. Let's go kick some bottom!”

I would say that the film’s beginning—taking place in an old churchyard while a biker in a red hood that just screams “Satanist!” is obviously up to no good—with a turf war between two bike clubs, the unnamed Satanists and the vicious rabble “The Road Toads”, occurs for no good reason, but really, reason went out the window with the title. (In fact little happens in this film for any reason, so let’s just suspend that expectation altogether, shall we?) What happens is that The Road Toads lay brutal waste to the rival gang using crossbows and jump cuts. The hooded Satanist most near the center of the frame is cut down in the prime of his incantation, and the little animated Pokemon demon summoned has to quickly find a host. Its new home is the biker’s own abused Norton 850 Commando—as good as any in a pinch and, we’re told, a “quite reliable” vehicle. In a lovely scene, the dying biker-Satanist-guy slashes his throat and bleeds into the tank.

We then meet lovable slacker rascal Nick Oddy (Morrissey)—aka “Noddy”—who purchases the bike for £1100, tells his girlfriend Kim (Noar) he only spent £600, then calls his buddy Buzzer (Daniel Peacock) to take a butcher’s at it to see what it’ll need to make it go. As a gag, Buzzer steals the bike’s gas cap. The next day, he’s found strewn about his apartment (“That’s Buzzy. I’d know his head anywhere.”) but at least the bike runs perfectly now, so long as you don’t try to take it into the sunlight. Inspector Cleaver comes ‘round to make inquiries about who would have it in enough for Buzzer to dismantle him in such a way, but Noddy honestly can’t say. Partly because he doesn’t know and partly because Cleaver’s garlic breath has him momentarily stupified.
While out for a jag, Noddy informally meets The Road Toads and the bike bucks beneath him, running several of them, including their leader, Roach (Andrew Powell, Joshua Then and Now [review coming soon]), the crossbow-wielding mad lad-cum-teddy boy what done in the Satanist biker in the first place.

Later, they have a proper funeral for Buzzer, his coffin stuffed upright in some geezer’s sidecar. No hearse for Buzzer, “He wouldn’t be caught dead in one’a them things.” Noddy and Kim stop off for a pint and in walk Roach and his Road Toads. After a protracted brawl involving the entire pub, most of the crockery and several of the mock battle weapons decorating the walls, Noddy and Kim manage to escape on the bike. Still peckish, they swing by Fu King (ordering from none-other than Inspector Clousseu’s Cato (Burt Kwouk) for some Chinese, but the minute Kim suggests “garlic prawns” the bike takes off with her still on it. Around a corner, it tosses her off and seems about to front wheel her head off when the cross around her neck gleams and makes it back off.
Noddy finds Kim but the bike has gone out into the night to exact revenge on the rest of the Road Toads. First spikes grow out of its tank in punk porcupine fashion, used as both methods of impalation and projectile, then its cracked headlamp develops a chomping action rarely seen in motorcycles of that model. That’s not even to mention its Ben-Hur-styled arrowhead wheel protrusions. Only Roach escapes, albeit with a tie-rod lodged deep in his… er, tailpipe, as it were. Its bloodlust unsated, the motorcycle has a go at a woman Jack the Ripper-style in an alley. Then, just for fun, it eats a parking maid. This bit of greed gives it away. Unable to eat the whole woman, it returns to Noddy’s dark shed and that’s where its owner finds it, sleeping and with a support-hosed leg in its headlamp.

Understanding little of anything is a natural state for Noddy, so he goes off in search of a Vicar. Unfortunately, he has to make do with a Priest. 

 Image stolen from Flat Pack Film Festival

Noddy: “I don’t want to confess. It’s about my motorcycle.”

Priest: “Are you sure it isn’t a garage you want?”

Noddy: “My motorcycle has turned into a vampire!”

Priest: “Pull the other one.”

Soon the Priest understands what he’s up against when, whist attempting to haul the beast out into the sunlight, the clutch handle snaps his hand and severs his fingers. Now the problem arises: unless the Priest knows what demon he’s dealing with, any exorcism performed could just make things infinitely worse. And infinitely worse is what happens. The vampire motorcycle goes on an unprescendented maraude of slaughter and vehicular homicide, eventually trapping Noddy, Kim, the Priest and garlic-breathed Cleaver inside a gym for the chronically steroidal. And dawn is a long way off. Will Birmingham ever again be safe for the god-fearing members of the C. of E.? Or, okay, fine, the Catholics as well?

And anyone involved in this project should be proud. The script is knowing and self deprecating, plus it doesn’t mind making Morrissey, the movie’s hero, out to be a lazy male-chauvinist pig. The British predilection with toilet humour is here in full force (the ‘talking turd’ sequence [a nightmare scene in which Buzzy embodies Noddy’s bowel movement] being a particularly disgusting highlight, especially when it jumps into Noddy’s mouth) as is our obsession with having nice cups of tea to solve everything. The music is also suitably ridiculous, ranging an incidental score that sounds like it was lifted from a Carry On movie (yes, they borrowed the composer from Boon, would you believe) to pumping rock tracks, one of which is called “She Runs On Blood... She Don't Run On Gasoline” (which is included in it’s separate entirety as a special feature on the DVD). But the biggest gem in this pot of treasure is seeing Anthony Daniels – Mr C-3PO himself – as a camp gung-ho biker exorcist, complete with razor-sharp throwing-crosses.” (

So, well… does this not summon to mind the word aforementioned: “ridiculous”? I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle is a gleefully gory horror-spoof-slash-homage. Never once does it take itself seriously because, well and again, it’s bloody title is “I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle”. If it were “Tea and Chips with the Missus”, that’d make it something else entirely. Everyone is on board here too, ‘all in’ as ‘they say’.

Truth be told, this was was a blind rental from our late-lamented local store, Incredibly Strange Video, sold by both the title and the prospect of watching His Lord and Lady Anthony Daniels perform sans gold outerwear. While not quite as hysterical as Braindead / Dead*Alive’s Father Jon McGruder (Stuart Devenie) (“I kick arse for the Lord!”), Daniels is highly entertaining and even kicks the film’s absurdity up another notch.

Speaking of the just-mentioned Peter Jackson cult favorite, there are numerous “touches” both movies share. Aside from the Priests and the anarchy, both possess comic relief bikers and a breakneck pace. Since they were released within a few years of each other (1990 for Motorcycle and 1993 for pre-LOTR Jackson), though from different areas of the English-speaking world, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that both Jackson and Campbell hit on the same horror-spoof zeitgeist that drives both films. The biggest difference would be zombies vs. vampiric vehicles and a budget of $3 million versus whatever change was found inside the cushions in the Boon communal couch.

When you’re in need of ridiculous look no further. If ‘ridiculous is as ridiculous does’, then I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle does nicely. 

Friday, June 14, 2013


Andrzej Żuławski wrote Possession, his only English-language film, in the midst of a soul-murdering divorce from his first wife (and star of his first film, Third Part of the Night), actress Malgorzata Braunek. Just prior, he’d spent a handful of years adapting a movie he’d hoped would become his masterpiece, On the Silver Globe, based on a series of novels by his turn-of-the-century Polish writer grand-uncle, Jerzy Żuławski. Just as it was nearing completion, Poland underwent a series of political upheavals. The newly-appointed vice-minister of cultural affairs, Janusz Wilhelmi, saw Żuławski’s science fiction story as being too allegorical to the Polish and their seemingly endless battle with Communism—which infected their country immediately upon the defeat of the genocidal Nazis in WWII. The film, props and costumes of On the Silver Globe were confiscated and believed destroyed. Żuławski was exiled from Poland.
“[S]ocieties are very ugly, basically. And a filmmaker who flatters the society in which he lives for me is a skunk. Almost everyday in the Polish radio, TV and newspapers it slowly, slowly emerges that everyday in the countryside they murdered the Jews, because they were free to do so. And so there are very few clean spots, even as they are kept, of course, magnificently clean. But it is mostly the intelligentsia which preserves this consciousness and moral attitudes.” (“Beginnings Are Useless: A Conversation with Andrzej Żuławski”--Written by The Ferroni Brigade, Published on 12 March 2012)
He returned to his second-home of France in utter emotional turmoil. The venom he felt inside towards Polish politicos, history, filmmaking and women came spilling out of him in the form of a screenplay about the apocalyptic dissolution of a marriage, externalization of unhappiness, basically every cruelty two former lovers can commit on each other. It is also a film about hideous transformations and bloodlust that can come about from internalized rage-fueled need to remake one’s world for satisfaction. A film that Żuławski would attempt to pitch to Paramount head Charles Bluhdorn as, “a film about a woman who fucks an octopus.”
Having waded through the excess and excretion of Possession for two days now and reading as much about it in an attempt to understand it more fully, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one has ever seen the film in the exact same way, nor have they ever seen the film in the same way twice. For all the hysteria, convulsion and viscera, Possession is the visual representation of “mercurial”, slipping and changing from you as you watch. A viewer is a different person at the end of a screening and, therefore by the act of observation, the film has become a different thing as well.
Husband Mark (Sam Neill, fresh off of The Final Conflict: Omen III, which he won "thanks" to his mentor James Mason) has just returned from some sort of vague business trip and Wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) meets him outside their West German apartment complex with the posture of a coiled cobra. The divide between them is already present, and Mark isn’t sure if he should pick up his luggage or leave it on the sidewalk. Finally, he must pursue her into their home, juggling bags as he goes. They have a son, Bob, who enjoys scuba dives in the bathtub. Bob greets Mark warmly, happy to see his father, and in the presence of their son, husband and wife are smiling, doting parents. Later, in bed, the couple try to reconcile their emotional distance.
“Maybe all couples go through this,” Anna suggests, without a hint of belief in her words. “Were you unfaithful to me?”
“Truthfully, not really,” is Mark’s cryptic reply. “Without you I wouldn’t feel anything at all.”
Anna: “And what do you feel?”
Mark: “Are you honestly interested?”
Anna shakes her head, “No.”
The next morning he resigns his position with his firm, giving a suggestion for his successor. He will no longer report on the comings and goings of “their subject” who wears pink socks. When pressed for a reason for his leaving, he answers “Family.”
But as far as Anna is concerned, there is no family any longer. She stays away from them for days at a time. Going through her things, Mark finds a postcard of the Taj Mahal from a man he believes to be her lover. It’s inscribed in block lettering: “I’ve seen half of Gods’s face here. The other half is you… Heinrich.” Back-and-forth follows—Mark destroys a café and must be tackled by several workers before he hurts Anna; Anna leaves, returns to see Bob, leaves again. Mark checks into a hotel for three weeks and undergoes what can only be described as “withdrawl”, foaming at the mouth and rocking. When he returns to their shared apartment, he finds Bob sitting in filth, his face smeared with whatever he’s found to eat. Mommy has been gone “a long time”. When she finally does come back, Mark tells her that he’s taking over and she’s to leave. But she never leaves for good, never long enough for either of them to heal.
During their separation, Mark obsesses over Anna. She never did find the ability to explain to him what went wrong, where he was inadequate. Truthfully, she’s unable to speak coherently to him; whatever breakdown she’s suffering affects her concentration and articulation. While he is gripped with psychotic rage and desperation, she is gripped by desperation of a different kind, as well as an engulfing sense of shame, regret and even schizophrenia.
Confronting Heinrich for himself, Mark finds a middle-aged poseur-philosopher-playboy who swans about and invades Mark’s space, touching him too much and too intimately, yet still manages to beat the husband to a pulp. And the truth is that Heinrich hasn’t seen Anna either. Not for some time, and he’d like to know where she is as well.
Humiliated as much as a man can be, Mark concentrates on Bob, trying to be a good father while constantly teetering on the brink of madness. (Indeed, there are sequences of him in a rocking chair, violently swaying too far back, too far forward, and there is certainly an abyss yawning at his feet.) Meeting Bob’s teacher, Helen, he’s shocked at the resemblance to Anna, convinced his wife is wearing a wig and colored contacts to turn her eyes such magnificent, alien green. Helen is everything that Anna is not: clad in whites and creams as opposed to Anna’s dark blues and blacks; she laughs and the laughter reaches her eyes. She dotes on Bob. For a desperate moment, Mark thinks that she might even be a replacement for Anna, but Bob’s inconsolable nightmare leaves him begging for his real “mommy”, and will not take Helen as a substitute.
Where Mark has desperation, Anna has her mad secrets. In a sharp narrative left-turn, it’s revealed that she’s taken up residence in an unfurnished and decrepit apartment and has been joined by something bloody, fleshy and pulsing in the corner of the bathroom. Confronted by a detective Mark has hired to find her, her reticence in his presence turns to lunatic laughter and finally bloody murder as she slashes his throat with a broken wine bottle. When this man’s partner—and lover—Zimmerman, turns up looking for him, he too becomes something for the mutating creature to consume. Before murdering him as well she indicates the monster to Zimmerman and says, flatly, “He’s very tired. He made love to me all night.”
Breaking points actually come and go from here on out. Still shutting Mark out of her love, she stops his questions by holding an electric carving knife to her neck. After he tenderly sees to his wounds, she rejects him again and he too has a go with the knife, carving furrows into his arm. “It doesn’t hurt.” Anna says. He shakes his head, agreeing. And we know this is all going to come to a horrific conclusion. “Horrific” in the full sense of the word and not because of some phallic creature bloodying up Anna’s sheets. These two people are going to tear each other into atoms and take out everyone around them—Heinrich, Anna’s friend (and Mark’s convenient baby sitter and lover (or “loather” perhaps) Margit, Helen, Bob, Heinrich’s elderly mother—no one here is going to get out alive, no matter what your definition of “alive” might be.
I believe I could describe Possession scene-by-scene in great detail, down to the last shot, and still not give anything away. Looking over my notes, sequences written down don’t correspond with the way I’m remembering them. What is foremost in my mind is the final shot of the film—not to overuse the word, but it is truly apocalyptic, bathed in white light, with the din of war planes dominating the soundtrack; and the final shot of little Bob running from Helen, screaming “don’t open it”, don’t reveal that figure caressing the frosted glass of the front door, hurling himself face down into the tub but refusing to come up for air. Or the scene of Anna and Mark, his past having come out of nowhere to finally destroy them, their faces drenched with blood, kissing and, seemingly, trying to devour the mouth of the other. When the credits rolled, I felt like I’d witnessed something I shouldn’t have, and I’m not speaking hyperbolicly. But I’m not sure if it was the intimate and personal mutual destruction that still makes me uneasy, or if it was—finally, for someone who once-devoured “extreme cinema”—something that may have very well been the definition of taboo. Forbidden.

TFB: We think it is one of the ideas that contributes to making your work so personal that you have no other choice but taking it personal. Which may be another reason they don't fit this concept of categorization: Putting things into categories helps to maintain a distance, to keep the art at arm's length.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Distance...well, that is a question which could be debated for hours. I am also a member of the audience, and since I was educated in a certain way I can see so many different kinds of films and like them equally. I don't want to be pretentious and say: That's the only way—my way! And please hate the others, but not my film! That would be absolutely monstrous and I am too aware of the fact that cinema is like a tree. On a tree, of course, you have different branches, but we're all sitting on the same tree. Now it's electronic, but yesterday it was still chemical and theatrical. You have to humble and accept that we all are on that tree. But at the same time I am not humble because I do what I please. And I do this only because I think I am absolutely the same guy as any other guy in the cinema. I am not different.
TFB: That is the democratic idea: that everybody is the same in the audience.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Yes. But sometimes the audience elects Hitler and sometimes they applaud Stalin.
(The Ferroni Brigade)
As said, Żuławski was not in the healthiest frame of mind when he conceived of Possession. Nor, apparently, was he any better during production. The performances of both Adjani and Neill are off-putting from the very beginning. One reviewer wrote that the movie “starts with hysteria and ramps up from there” and that’s very true. Both actors emote like caricatures from the silent era, eyes and tongues lolling, hands grasping at their throats or clawing through the air. For the first half of the film they scream relentlessly at each other, becoming incoherent with their inability to communicate. When the two alpha males meet for the first time, Mark and Heinrich almost literally dance a waltz around each other in the narrow hallway. Even Heinrich’s beating of Mark has a balletic, stylized quality, half Baryshnikov and half Maxwell Smart (he karate-chops a lot).
But where Mark is all Noh Theater, Adjani is given the unenviable task of creating a person out of the beautiful, treacherous china doll Anna. She is all wild eyes, wide eyes, silently mouthing answers and delivering gibbering, nearly nonsensical dialogue while trying to explain herself. In one heart-rending scene, she stands beneath a crucified Christ statue and whimpers, pleads, begs for answers without saying a single word, pleading like a child or a wounded animal for some comfort. Minutes later she walks in an oblivious daze, immune to the world. While on a bus a wino reaches into her groceries and nicks a banana from her bunch, replacing the rest, and she never even looks up.
In the film’s most central set piece, after Mark receives a film shot by Heinrich of Anna teaching ballet—and literally torturing a young ballerina, holding her extended leg in the air and grasping her head back—Anna reveals a moment she experienced within a German subway tunnel. At first stunned and sleepwalking, she bursts into uncontrollable laughter, slamming herself and her satchel of milk against the wall, covering everything in filmy white. Within seconds she is gyrating in the air, seemingly and alternately raped or pleasured by something invisible, her limbs and head lolling like a drunken marionette, hips thrusting and throat choking. Finally she collapses to her knees as blood, and a variety of other-colored liquids, pour out of her, forming a pool between her legs. “I had two sisters fighting inside of me,” she tells Mark. “Sister Faith and Sister Chance, with their fingers clawed around each other’s necks. What I miscarried that day was Sister Faith. All I had left was Sister Chance and I had to take care of her.”
Unlike the other scenes of rampant emoting, the tunnel miscarriage, a five-minute, near-unbroken shot, never takes on a ludicrous edge. We are party to a lone woman’s nervous breakdown. (Indeed, both Mark and Anna are virtually alone throughout the movie. There are only a handful of extras who share the frame with them during the infrequent exterior street scenes.) “Possession is at once a dread-inducing ordeal, a bloody arabesque, and a swooning celebration of Adjani’s long, cloaked form in perpetual motion. The convulsive action reaches its peak, if not its dramatic climax, in the near-real-time scene in which, famously directed to “fuck the air,” contortionist Adjani bounces off the walls of an underground passage, hemorrhaging bloody goo from every orifice.” (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice)
According to Ben Sachs (Andrzej Zulawski's Possession, uncut), Possession is an extraordinary document of actors pushed to their breaking point: it's frightening partly because Neill and Adjani look as if they're really losing their minds. Before shooting began, Żuławski spent several days working them into a trance-like state that allowed them to express freely their most primal emotions. This method was inspired by Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski (a major influence on Żuławski ), who viewed performing as a "total act" and felt that actors should exploit the intimacy of live theater to confront the audience directly. Possession succeeds like few other movies in re-creating this onscreen; in fact Żuławski claims that when Adjani saw the completed film, she couldn't believe what she'd done. She shouted at him, ‘You have no right to put the camera in this way because it looks inside one's soul!’” Despite being crowned Best Actress at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, Adjani was so shaken as witness to her own performances she attempted suicide (some report at the festival itself immediately after the screening).
And even if it is a naively mystical vision, I think there's something [deep] going on stage or screen, if we give up, sacrifice. Of course, I never accept the [productions] such as Possession, which Żuławski thought insulting me [would] make myself better embody my crazy character: never revile me like that ... But interpreting a wandering soul, I know. The female misfortune, I know.” [Adjani, Interview by Fabienne Pascaud (poorly translated by Google Translate and yours truly)- Télérama No. 3089]
“Possession has been singled out lately on the repertory circuit in the U.S. after a very successful run at Film Forum. You’ve called it a “personal” film. What do you think of its recent success?”
“Please, how can I answer that? Possession was born of a totally private experience. After making That Most Important Thing (1975) in France, I went back to Poland to get my family (which at the time was my wife and my kid) and bring them to France. I had two or three interesting proposals to make really big European films. But when I returned to Poland I saw exactly what the guy in Possession sees when he opens the door to his flat, which is an abandoned child in an empty flat and a woman who is doing something somewhere else. It’s so basically private. Now I can go back to it many years later, but even the dialogue in certain kitchen scenes and certain private scenes is like I just wrote it down after some harrowing day. So it’s amazing how such a private thing became a kind of icon. You know Adjani got the prize at Cannes for this film, she got the Cesar which is the French Oscar and 14 other prizes in many festivals. Please believe me, it’s mentally very disturbing to see that your very private little film became something in which so many people recognize something of themselves. Thirty years later I’m still thinking about it.” [Film Comment Interview: Andrzej Zulawski By Margaret Barton-Fumo on 3.6.2012]
I suppose one could endlessly argue Żuławski’s misogyny—“I would say that Sam Neill, Francis Huster, and the others had the difficult parts to play because the women in these films appear like a tornado. They were banging into a scene and making a great fuss and being so expressive, and like you said at the beginning, “hysterical,” right? They make all of this noise, but the male actors are just playing the glue between the scenes. They keep the films together, which may not seem like such a fantastic starring role, but they did it with such talent and devotion that I almost like them better than the women. The women got the prizes, they got the applause, they were brilliant, they were spastic. But the men had the hard work of keeping the whole film together.”—and one can make excuses for this by reminding the viewer of the director’s hideous divorce, or the dehumanization he suffered as a Pole growing up under first Nazi rule and then Stalin’s iron fist. To me, these arguments are as hazardous as defending Roman Polanski the man to justify appreciating Polanski the artist. As personal as Possession is—for the director, the actors, Carlo Rambaldi creator of “the creature”—it remains what it is on the screen. What would you think of it on its own if you had none of the information before you?
In point of fact, how would one judge the U.S. release of Possession, cut by over 40 minutes into an incoherent and over-stimulated miasma? “Two men and a woman no one could ever possess,” warns the over dramatic American voice over. “Mortal terror, inhuman ecstasy. Soon you will know the meaning of Possession.” Which is a big fat lie if there ever was one. (See below) If at two hours Żuławski’s cut remains open to interpretation, then the edit for the consumer culture is rendered incomprehensible for pandering to the visceral. The very first time I viewed Possession in 1994, before I was even aware of another version, the videocassette was just an assault of two people screaming at each other, excelling even the most portentous madness to be found in Marat/Sade, which is at least set in a real asylum. This “cut” also beefs up the part of the monster, adding and duplicating shots, optically rendering Anna’s periodic murders in slow motion to get the best of the spurting blood. The ending is altered (from what I remember) and nothing is resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. With the emphasis on the blood and the sex, it’s no wonder Possession got caught up in Great Britain’s “Video Nasty” crusade in the ‘80s; the narrative has been reduced to prurience.
That’s not to say that Żuławski’s version delivers any real satisfaction either. This isn’t a film about resolution by any stretch. Conversations end abruptly, with slamming doors or mutual mutilation, slaps, sneers, bloodied faces. Scenes halt, the players suspended in inaction or impotence (however you want to define that word). Even the ending is just a stopping point and answers pour over the viewer like rain. Is this miscarried, tentacled lover/child of Anna’s her attempt to create a “perfect” version of Mark, for that’s apparently what it’s been morphing into (and with the appearance of a second Mark near the end, one of the few rational suppositions in an irrational narrative)? Is Helen really a doppelganger of Anna, or a more perfect mate that Mark has projected an Anna mask upon, preserving her delicate beauty by stretching it over a genuine Madonna/whore? What was Mark’s “assignment” and why was he hunted for it in the end? And was that part of the story intentionally left up in the air, as a commentary on Poland’s Stasi?
However, the biggest question is the one that begins the film and it’s the only one the characters beg answering: “What happened to us?” “Possession is honest enough to depict the emotional extremes of passion and conflict experienced during a breakup, yet self-aware enough to acknowledge how histrionic and ridiculous such squabbles can appear to outside observers. It’s both uncomfortably candid and deeply cynical. And with its blood-and-gasoline-drenched apocalyptic ending, Possession joins the recent Melancholia in portraying the sense that it must be the literal end of the world simply because it feels that way.” [L. Caldoran, Cinespect]
Rediscovery of Possession is relatively recent. It was unseen in its uncut form until a VHS release in 1999, where it was quickly embraced by many of the same critics who originally dismissed it. It’s been compared to Polanski’s English-language debut, Repulsion, as well as Cronenberg’s The Brood and most recently to Von Trier’s hateful Anti-Christ. And while all of those high-class films touch on similar emotions, Possession remains something ineffable. At times it’s an endurance test, a heartbreaking Scenes of a Marriage, a shrill theatrical camp, a monster movie, an end-of-the-world allegory, a spy thriller. All of these elements keep Possession outside of an appropriate genre box but its these disparities that keep the film, as I said, fluid.
As a jaded film student watching a bastardized version, I was just as quick to dismiss Possession as those who saw it premiere. My initial distaste prevented me from revisiting it despite owning the original cut for several years now. During my first viewing, untainted by much of the film’s or filmmaker’s history, I was put off by the histrionics, the unsatisfying narrative, the seemingly improvisational jumble of dialogue spewed out by Neill and Adjani as if they were given single emotions—rage and despair—to act out. But the film began its transformation approximately ten minutes in, with the introduction of young Bob and the mutable influence he has over his psychopathic parents. During their all-too-brief interactions with their son, one can see the Anna and Mark that existed during the good times. It’s the film’s sole emotional anchor and it leaves an impression deep enough to prevail when the screaming renews.
My second time through, the next day, was more investigative. Now that the shrill surface had washed away, I could see what was really underneath. Specifically: anguish. When Mark goes on his hotel bender, he really does seem to be suffering some sort of withdrawal. He no longer understands the woman he fell in love with. Worse, she doesn’t understand who she is any longer either. Helen and the monster/Mark clone are simultaneously projections, doppelgangers, wishes and manifestations of shame.
Suddenly, the title made much more sense, but in even more esoteric ways. Think of the word, “Possession”. Is Anna literally possessed (as the American trailer would have you believe) by some pseudo-Christian demon? Is Mark possessed by the need to retrieve the Anna who once was? Or is Anna a possession, the flag that Mark and Heinrich scramble over each other to capture?
I suspect that should I revisit this movie in the future, I will have not only different answers to my many questions, but different questions as well. Between viewings #1 and #2, Possession slipped from my grasp, becoming something than I thought it was over the span of less than 24 hours. What would ten years’ worth of insight bring me, now that I know about Żuławski’s history, his inexcusable abuses—both inflicted and inflicted upon? What man will I be the next time I visit Possession? For guaranteed, I will not be watching the same movie I just watched last night.

International Trailer

Gloriously misleading and ridiculous US Trailer

Saturday, June 8, 2013

DON’S PLUM (2001)

LEONARDO DICAPRIO; TOBEY MAGUIRE; and DOES 1 through 25, Inclusive, Defendants.
Case Number B C189400. 


FILED Los Angeles Superior Court
Apr. 14, 1998.


(Excerpt from The Smoking Gun)

      “Two young actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire were anxious to make a film with a group of their friends. They induced plaintiff to make the film and agreed to act in it. Plaintiff made the film, employing DiCaprio, Maguire and a group of their friends as actors and another of their friends as director. DiCaprio expressed great enthusiams for the completed film. But, later, although plaintiff had done everything he had promised, Maguire and DiCaprio decided to “stop” the film for their own egomaniacal purposes. Using DiCaprio’s “clout” as a newly anointed “superstar,” they carried out a fraudulent and coercive campaing to prevent release of the film and destroy its value, depriving not only plaintiff, but also numerous members of the cast and crew, of the proceeds of exploiting the film for which they had labored and on which they had relied.”

In 1995, future superstars DiCaprio and Maguire joined a large cast of other soon-to-be-famous actors, including Amber Benson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Drones), Kevin Connolly (“E” from Entourage), Jenny Lewis (actress and member of band Rilo Kiley), Scott Bloom (“FBI Agent #3” from Smoking Aces (and “Jesse” from Who’s the Boss), Heather McComb (the first mutant “Jubilee” as seen in Generation X) and Meadow Sisto (Captain Ron), whose young brother, Jeremy Sisto (May, Suburgatory), appears in a brief cameo at the beginning of the film, literally kicking Benson out of his car (thus winning no points from Amberholics). Cameo appearances include My Name is Earl’s Ethan Suplee, Nikki Cox (who’s part is so brief, she must’ve been Connolly’s ride that night), and Byron Thames (young Johnny Dangerously) as the titular Don. Not to mention Gaffer and Key Grip “Cool Breeze” as “the Slappee”. The whole thing was written by Bethany Ashton, Tawd Hackman, David Stutman, and Dale Wheatley and directed by A Christmas Story’s Schwartz (the kid who doesn’t get his tongue stuck to a pole or go on to do porn), R.D. Robb, who also contributed to the script. Which was then, apparently, thrown away in favor of heavy improv. 

Originally a short titled The Saturday Night Club, additional scenes were shot a year later in order to bring the running time to feature length. Don’s Plum plays like a post-modern and very unsentimental version of Diner, about a quartet of fellows who enjoy bringing new female companions to the titular restaurant/bar, and hope to impress them with their candor, coolness and brilliance. The movie begins with Ian (Maguire) sitting in a jazz club, not listening to admittedly cool Toledo Diamond and his dancers, begging the likes of Marissas Ribisi and Ryan (married to Sisto at the time), to come with him to meet his friends. Similarly, Derek (DiCaprio) is similarly striking out after calling half a dozen people with his friend’s paving brick-sized portable phone. Eventually, Ian convinces waitress Juliet (Meadow Sisto) to accompany him. Derek arrives solo.

Brad (Bloom) has just had casual sex with Sara (Lewis) and she joins him in the increasingly-crowded booth. Budding actor Jeremy (Connelly) comes to “hippie chick” Amy’s (Benson) rescue. And finally Constance, Sara’s lesbian (or bisexual) stalker, joins the party. Together they harass poor Flo the Ditzy Waitress (Stephanie Cambria – billed as Stephanie Friedman), brazenly mock the other patrons, worry Don the owner, break up and incite fist fights between themselves and others. Mostly, what they do is talk, doing their best to shock and awe the potential paramours.

But much to their surprise, the girls are easily their matches—if not betters—in terms of conversational raunch, insult and psychobabble. Discussions range from whether women masturbate, a male’s “anal g-spot” and how to stimulate it, why it’s less acceptable for men to be bisexual than women (because of the whole “AIDS thing”). This latter point of view is initiated by Sara, just after she cavalierly makes out with Constance, and amazingly enough is shouted down as being “narrow” by Ian and Derek. Even though, later, Derek outs Brad as bi in front of the others, either intentionally or un-.

Before and after all of this, Derek and Amy take an instant dislike to each other, resulting in her hurling a birkenstock at him (allegedly a serious throw as the shoe broke on impact with said target’s cranium) as she storms out and takes a bat to Jeremy’s jeep. Having already been abused by Sisto, she is obviously under extreme duress. Jeremy makes a very positive impression on a movie producer (co-producer Bethany Ashton Wolf), Derek is provoked into making a very personal confession that almost explains his misogyny, and every character has brief “bathroom interludes” where they reveal their true selves (why they’re there despite disliking the group, whether they’re worth loving, various bouts of ethical self-loathing).
Shot in high-contrast black and white, the movie has an immediate and familiar feel to it. Again, this is no Diner, nor are the characters cut from the Harmony Korine Kids cloth. As a group, they’re rattled when the stranger, Amy, calls them out for being shallow and crude. The guys care about each other’s friendship, but their ribbing of each other is far from harmless—best displayed during a variation of “I’ve Never” called “Fuck You Because”. There are underlying glimpses of insecurity, uncertainty, confusion (sexual and otherwise) and an overall sense of aimlessly trying to connect with people outside of their little group.

Don’s Plum is at turns ingratiating and grating, a ruderless Clerks talkfest with some moments of truth peppered in amongst the put downs, “fuck you”s and “bro”s (DiCaprio’s Derek ends every sentence with “bro”, no matter who he’s talking to). Anyone watching either knows someone like these characters or has been (and might still be) like these characters. They’re just kids hanging out on a Saturday night who “think they’re kings” (according to Flo during one of her “bathroom interludes” where she reveals that the “sexy ditz” thing is all an act) but really have no place in the world at the current time. Maybe that will change sooner than later, maybe for some, particularly Derek, that change will never come at all.

But when you get right down to it, Don’s Plum only stands out in its sea of Generation X “Decade of the Indie” movies because of its cast. If it weren’t for the presences of DiCaprio, Maguire and Benson, and the ensuing controversy that followed, Don’s Plum would be off the radar in the same way as Reality Bites and Threesome. As far as the two main leads go, you don’t see much in the way of future brilliance. They both have an unmistakable presence, but Connelly is the more animated character. And all of the guys are put to shame by the women, many of whom aren’t even acting much today. Lewis, as Sara, does the most to carve out a character, but Sisto and McComb are more appealing, laughing at the limp machismo and shock talk. The main tragedy, and I’m not saying this just as a Benson devotee, is that the hippie chick Amy’s part in the film is too brief. It’s understandable that someone so offended by Derek’s hatred of women (and the others’ tolerance of his rudeness) would storm off and find a new ride to Vegas, but it would have been interesting if Amy had stayed with the group in spite of herself, to further interject the complete outsider’s point of view. After a while, the group just solidifies in circular argument, breaking up into exhausted animosity, but real antagonism stops when Amy exits.

Still, it was a movie starring a number of soon-to-be superstars and was interesting enough to hold attention. But just prior to its prospective premiere at Sundance and possible pick-up from Miramax, Maguire and DiCaprio apparently sabotaged the film. According to the lawsuit brought against them (and later dropped) by the producers, initial screenings were met with enthusiasm by DiCaprio and the rest of the cast. Then, as told in paragraph 9:

“Meanwhile, Maguire and his manager had determined that, in the Film, Maguire did not come off as strong a “leading man” as DiCaprio and that some of the improvisational comments Maguire had made durng the Film revealed personal experiences or tendencies that would undermine the public image he and his manager were trying to project. Accordingly, they set out to do everything in their power to stop the Film. Maguire used his long and close relationship with DiCaprio to cause DiCaprio to join him in a campaign to prevent release of the Film. Maguire carefully kept his plan a secret from Plaintiff, telling Plaintiff, like DiCaprio, that he really, really liked the film and though it was “great”.”

Later in the lawsuit, it describes how Maguire got in Robb’s face and screamed that he was taking advantage of their fame and decried the producers for trying to exhibit the film, going so far as to strong arm distributors, not the least of which the House that Indie Built, Miramax. Personally, while I’ve never met either of the gentlemen, I doubt if I were screamed at by Tobey Maguire I’d be able to keep a straight face. I mean, really, he’s what now? In his 60s? And he still looks like a teenager. And even though DiCaprio already had an Oscar nom under his belt, neither of these guys would have been able to pull off this sort of obstructionism if not for one little thing: Titanic, another little indie that could. Released in 1997, James Cameron put these words in DiCaprio’s mouth (before finally uttering them himself at the Academy Awards): “I’m king of the world!”

While Maguire wasn’t yet endowed with Peter Parker clout, DiCaprio pretty much punched his own ticket after Titanic, and if his lil buddy Tobey wasn’t happy with Don’s Plum, then by-golly no one else would be either. Neither of the stars have spoken much publically about the debacle, what is known is that they were sued twice, once by Stutman and again by another producer named John Schindler. The first was dropped and the second was settled with the upshot being that the film would not be released or distributed in the United States or Canada. Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa Films wound up as the highest bidder for distribution (which is where the copious bootlegs originate) and it premiered to equal parts huzzahs and derision at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival.

It’s the controversy that’s driven the continuing interest in the film. Between the lawsuits and the restricted release the press made sure to keep curious the prurient and conjecture yellow. Fer instance:

LEO'S GAY FILM PAST ON SHOW; Cannes date for movie he tried to ban. “Leo, currently starring in The Beach with Robert Carlyle, is Hollywood's biggest male sex symbol. But his private life has been dogged by rumours he is gay.”

And this bit from the obsessive and exhaustive A DON’S PLUM PAGE:

“According to numerous sources of ours (at least five), during the film, which was shot in a very free-form fashion, with the actors and actresses improvising much of the dialogue, Tobey's character, "Ian," who is allegedly based on Tobey himself, asks whether or not any of the others who hang out in his group at their favorite diner, "Don's Plum," get off by inserting their pinky fingers . . . ah . . . rectally within themselves while . . . ah . . . er . . . achieving orgasm during sex? (Which is not of course, how Tobey/Ian phrases it!) What follows is a conversation which not only grosses out some of his fellow characters, but (allegedly) also grossed out some of his cast mates, as well.

"SO! Just what does Tobey like to do at the moment of "the little death," and with whom does Tobey like to do it? Frankly, we have no idea, but the consensus seems in on what the Tobey-like character of "Ian" likes. The verdict is still out as to whether or not Ian actually got it on with "Derek" (Leonardo DiCaprio's character), but, as we have said, by all reputable reports which we have received, Leo really liked the first screening of Don's Plum, and only turned against the film when his good buddy Tobey got upset that hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people would be listening in on "Ian's" pinky sex conversation.”

There were also wildly imaginative explanations: 

"At this point Don's Plum became a bit of a Hollywood legend: what exactly was in it that the actors didn't want America to see? Some news outlets covering the court case described Don's Plum as "the story of a young man exploring all kinds of sexuality and human emotion," which featured "Leonardo DiCaprio as a bisexual who appears nude in one scene." Adjectives like "sexy" and "steamy" were liberally thrown around, making it seem like this was the next Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee tape." (

 Strangely, the most bizarre tidbit might be the closest to the truth: “The actors have said they made the film as a favor to a friend, under the agreement that it would never be promoted as a feature-length movie.”

Unlike the gossip-rag reporting, doing a film under the condition it never be seen actually employs Hollywood Logic. Certainly, it makes less human sense than buyer’s guilt over a film that may out two big stars as having “experimented” with each other or others—Tobey’s “Ian” is certainly quick to jump to Brad’s defense of having been “outed” as bi—Hollywood Logic is far more Machiavellian and supports both Maguire’s alleged accusation that Robb and the producers were rubbing their hands over having a “lost” film involving the stars of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Cider House Rules, as well as said-stars managers, agents, entourages and hangers-on wanting to protect the carefully crafted heart-throb reputations of their respective pots of gold.
As my esteemed Film Threat colleague, Phil Hall, wrote in his analysis of Don’s Plum

“In retrospect, the idea of doing a no-budget black-and-white movie as a favor with the promise that the film never get shown seems a bit odd, especially since DiCaprio was already established as an Oscar-nominated movie star (Maguire’s fame took a little longer to secure). […] According to both Stutman and Schindler’s respective lawsuits, DiCaprio and Maguire used their influence to shoo away major distributors, with the alleged threat that neither actor would work with any company that picked up the film. In fairness, it seems strange given that “Don’s Plum” would not be considered as multiplex material given its style and substance. One could imagine a smaller boutique distributor expressing interest, but a Hollywood studio would probably balk at the flick even with its well-known stars.” 
All in all, this is all sound and fury over what amounts to very little. If you’re seeking out Don’s Plum to see embryonic genius from the two bad boys of law suits now that The Great Gatsby has captured the hearts and wallets of the American public, you’re going to be disappointed. While I wouldn’t go as far as to declare them “awful” as Phil does, neither are very interesting, unless you’re impressed with Leo’s ability to be, simultaneously, a sympathetic scumbag. The girls steal the show right out from under the power players anyway and the film’s delay certainly didn’t hurt any careers, except maybe that of poor Schwartz, who hasn’t done much of anything since. Certainly not any directing.  As the Daily Telegraph reported from Berlin:

"Yeah, it's a divorce," Robb managed to say between phrases of lawyer-speak like "We want to put this misunderstanding behind us." Constrained by a gag order not to discuss the settlement, a cheerful Robb got a kick out of his inquisition-style handling at the press conference.” (16.02.01 SF Said reports from the Berlin Film Festival”)


And, hell, you can see the whole movie here: