Thursday, October 24, 2013

GLORIA (1980)

“I’d do anything for you, Jeri, but I can’t take [your children]. I hate kids. Espeically yours.”

Today John Cassavettes seems to be known as either one of two men: the Hollywood tough-guy actor of The Dirty Dozen, or the borderline-avant guarde creator of such challenging studies of the human condition as Mikey and Nicky and A Woman Under the Influence. While his highly-scripted movies seem improvisational thanks to his unique directing style, making them darlings of “serious” film scholars, they were so far from being considered commercially viable by Hollywood that they were almost considered a different species of thing all together. Therefore, in order to raise the funds for these personal explorations, Cassavettes took work when it was offered and even then he wasn’t always successful. Between 1977 and 1984, for example, Cassavettes attempted to finance a number of projects by accepting roles in such disparate films as Brian DePalma’s The Fury, an adaptation of Brian Clark’s euthenasia stage play Who’s Life is it Anyway?, and the inarguably trashy sub-B-monster movie The Incubus

In 1980, he wrote what he considered to be a simple pot-boiler for the sake of a direct studio sale. Originally intented for MGM’s meal ticket Ricky Schroeder, mob-moll-on-the-run-with-child screenplay Gloria ultimately wound up at Columbia Pictures. Having written the title role for his wife, Gena Rowlands, Columbia slouched toward the opportunity but only under the condition that Cassavettes also direct. Overnight, the director’s intended sell-off script became his responsibility. Even today, the resulting movie remains an odd duck in his filmography.

Jack Dawn (surprise appearance by Buck Henry) is a mob accountant whose off-hand remark to one of his cronies leads to the discovery that he’s been skimming from the outfit for years. With a price on their heads, the Dawn family is packing up to leave, hoping to be ahead of the button men coming for them—and if it weren’t for the cleaner’s unfamiliarity with the neighborhood, their grace period would have been even shorter—when their middle-aged neighbor, Gloria Swenson, runs out of coffee. Jeri Dawn begs her friend to take the kids with her and hide them, and the hard-nosed Gloria reluctantly agrees, leaving with six-year-old Phil (John Adames). Before he goes, Jack gives Phil a little book, referring to it as the Bible. “This is everything I know about everything in the world. It’s your future. Always be a man. Be tough. Don’t trust anybody.” Phil barely arrives at Gloria’s apartment before his parents’ window explodes out and his father’s voice vanishes from the phone. 

Stunned—and probably more in need of caffienne than before—Gloria is suddenly responsible for a whole other life. “What do I do with you? What do I do? You’re not my family. You’re the neighbor’s kid. You’re probably too young to understand about making a living, but I have a job. I have my own life. My cat…”

With neighbors and cops filing the hallway, Gloria manages to bully her way out of the building with Phil. The kid’s only way of dealing with the situation is to heed his father’s words and “be a man”. Overcompensating, he channels machismo by way of Harvey Keitel, alternately bossing Gloria around and clinging to her out of terror. “Look, I’m trying to tell you something,” he tells her at a flophouse hotel room that night, “You’re a good kid, Gloria. You ever been in love?” Later he gets stuck in a loop, trying to make sense of things. “I am the man! I am the man. You are not the man. You… you are a stupid person. A pig!” 

“You’re not the man,” she tells him calmly, tired beyond words. “You don’t listen. You don’t know anything. You’re driving me crazy.”

It occurs to Gloria just how bad things have become when she realizes that she knows the murderers. Having once been the girlfriend to boss Tony Tenzini, she did time for this relationship. She can’t go to the cops—the media has already painted her as Phil’s abductor—and she can’t go to the crooks. She doesn’t even like this kid, but makes her decision when a car rolls up to them on the street. “We’re not interested in you, Gloria. We just want the kid and his book.” Gloria responds by shooting at them. The car flips and she escapes with Phil on a bus, knowing that she’s in it completely now. 

This all seems like standard thriller material, maybe better suited for Sharon Stone (who starred in the 1999 remake) than the unconventional Rowlands. But it’s Rowlands who makes the journey worth taking. First and foremost, the utter absense of sentimentality raises this above the level of the average kid-com drama. Gloria remains conflicted throughout the film and on several occassions not only entertains the idea of leaving the kid to his own devices, but actually does so at one point. Her crisis of conscience isn’t played for laughs either. She doesn’t return to save him in a gruff-but-loveable way but in a genuine “what choice do I have?” fatalism. The men she’s dealing with aren’t big on the negotiations, so in many cases crisis resolution comes at the barrel of her gun. 

While Gloria is not nurturing, Phil isn’t all that lovable either. Masking his fear behind TV machismo, the little Puerto Rican kid acts like a stunted Freddy Prinze and is frequently obnoxious in a way that only real kids can be. (Fortunately he never sinks to the depths of, say, Shane’s Brandon deWilde, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his glass-shattering whine, lazy eye and Mortimer Snerd overbite. Adames’ performance, however, did earn him a Worst Supporting Actor Razzie award, tying with Sir Laurence Olivier’s whatever-he-was-doing in The Jazz Singer.) We believe his phony bravery and his laughably chauvenistic advances. Yeah, Gloria might pack a gun and talk tough, but she’s still a girl and needs a man. Right? TV says so! “He don’t know the score,” he says of a hotel manager who denies them one of the ritzy room. “He sees a dame like you and a guy like me. He don’t know.” It precisely because he doesn’t burst into wailing tears every few seconds—despite the fact that his whole family has been violently murdered—is what keeps us rooting for him. It’s probably what keeps Gloria from chucking him into traffic as well. 

Despite the winning formula, Columbia started to get cold feet as Gloria reached conclusion. Cassavettes was hardly a box office sure-thing like Friedkin or Scorcese and despite the gritty material, his camera spent more time on characters’ faces than on the gun play or set pieces. Cassvettes feared, and for good reason, that the studio might ultimately shelve the film. Fortunately, a well-timed retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art helped to change their mind. It also helped that its screening at the Venice Film Festival resulted in its tying with Louis Malle’s Atlantic City for the Golden Lion award. “It was television fare as a screenplay but handled by the actors to make it better. It’s an adult fairy-tale. And I never pretended it was anything else but fiction. I always thought I understood it. And I was bored because I knew the answer to that picture the minute we began. And that’s why I could never be wildly enthusiastic about the picture—because it’s so simple. Whereas Husbands is not simple, whereas A Woman Under the Influence is not simple, Opening Night is not simple. You have to think about those pictures.” Cassavetes on Cassavetes, By John Cassavetes 

Ironically, the same critics who’d savaged his previous movies for being too esoteric now praised Gloria for its mainstream appeal, while his supporters accused him of pandering to a “Hollywood” audience. “For once, his characters aren't all over the map in nonstop dialogue, as they were in Husbands, the talkathon he made in 1970 with Peter Falk, Gazzara and himself,” wrote RogerEbert. “Gloria is tough, sweet and goofy. […] Well, it's a cute idea for a movie, and maybe that's why they've had this particular idea so often. You start with tough-talking, streetwise gangster types, you hook them up with a little kid, you put them in fear of their lives, and then you milk the situation for poignancy, pathos, excitement, comedy and anything else that turns up. It's the basic situation of Little Miss Marker, the Damon Runyon story that has been filmed three times.” 

(Then there’s this from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who reminds me that film criticism is often, by its very nature, an exercise in masturbation: “According to some local scribes, this all takes place in Never Never Land, unlike such alleged True-Life Adventures as An Unmarried Woman, Manhattan, and Kramer vs. Kramer. I’d argue, on the contrary, that it’s merely a fantasy serving different class, race, and temperamental interests, which include separate definitions of what’s real or important. Recalling Godard’s equations of cinema and voyeurism. I often wonder if “taste” in film criticism is any more than a rationalization of unacknowledged erotic preferences. From this standpoint, Gloria gets me off in a way that middle-class chic never could.”)


Wednesday, October 23, 2013


On a Disney vacation, the minute you disembark your plane you become a symbiotic part of the company—you’re their guest and your every wish is their command. Surrounded at all times by representatives of happiness, from the perpetually smiley staff to the galavanting costumed characters to the candy-coated facades, the parks especially defy cynicism. The Magic Kingdom was given the title “The Happiest Place on Earth” for a reason, and everyone involved works their asses off to ensure the perfect time for all.  Removed from the Disney spell, the fairy dust and magic, it’s tempting—and easy—to wonder about the company’s base motivations. Of course they want your money and of course they’ll exploit Third World workers to entice you to spend. Merchandise stores occupy a full third of the combined park space, tickets are expensive but come with the promise of luxury. If you stay on property, your credit card is tied to your room key, which also serves as your electronic identification and in return they promise you’ll become one of the priviledged, a member of the Disney Family. 
The darling of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was the inarguably daring debut film of Randy Moore. Shot surreptitiously in both DisneyWorld and Disneyland, Escape From Tomorrow attempts to lift the family-friendly veil from the corporate juggernaut and expose the otherworldly insidiousness lurking behind the hyper-reality composed of all-encompassing artificiality. What demons are hidden behind all the happy animatronics? What horrors lie behind those doors marked “Cast Members Only”? That the Disney Corporation has gone and continues to go to great lengths to protect their intellectual property, grow their brand and consume other corporations only adds to the temptation to seek for alien motivation. Which is why the making of Escape From Tomorrow is as facinating and compelling as it is. The cast and crew went to great lengths to shoot a feature-length film undetected by the parks’ thousands of employees, surveillance and copyright lawyers. As Ain’t It Cool’s Drew McWeeny stated this film “should not exist”. At the very least, you’d expect the corporation to descend like a Biblical plague upon Moore and company for daring to infringe on its slightest copyright and suppress the film from public eyes for eternity. Yet, that isn’t what happened. Unfortunately, the finished film doesn’t compare to its making-of. The story behind the story makes a much better story.
The film opens with Jim White standing on his hotel room balcony, overlooking Disney’s vast Orlando property beyond. His boss fires him over the phone, but Jim is determined to have a perfect “last day” at the parks with his family, which includes his high-strung wife Emily and their two plot-device children, Elliot and Sarah. It’s quickly established that Jim and Emily’s marriage is already strained and that he feels alienated from his children. That Elliot’s introduction involves him locking his father on the balcony then scampering back to bed with his mother can be interpreted in a variety of ways, especially Freudian. From there on, Elliot’s only concern is to ride the Buzz Lightyear attraction. 
The incumbent stress that comes with a family vacation, with the additional tension of losing one’s job during the obsession to have fun—and, due to the cost of the trip, to have a superhuman amount of fun less the money seem wasted—already has Jim and the audience on edge. During the already-intolerable It’s a Small World ride, he begins hallucinating, demonic faces glare back at him from the multi-cultural puppets. Worse, he sees Elliot’s eyes change to solid black, hears Emily lean in and cheerfully delare, “I hate you”, while the ride goes on and on and on. 
Then we’re given a little insight into Jim. He becomes obsessed with two young, pseudo-Sapphic French teenaged girls (including one young enough to still wear braces). Slack-jawed, the Ugly American Father splits from the family unit and uses Elliot as an excuse to stalk the girls through the park. Elliot asks if his father thinks their pretty and he dodges the question. “’Pretty’ is open to interpretation.” When asked if he still finds his wife pretty, Jim responds with a rambling, absent-minded, “Oh, yeah, sure. Your mother’s beautiful. But not in the classic sense. More like an Emily Dickinson, bookish way.” 
On one hand, Jim is entranced with the Disney interpretation of beauty, with its eternally young princesses and their flowing gowns, compared to the beauty of youth of the two teenagers coming out of their awkward stages and embracing their inner nymphets. On the other hand, Jim comes off as enormously creepy almost to the point of criminality. For the next half hour or so, the audience stays with Jim and Elliot as they ride one popular trademark attraction after another as Jim fantasizes about being with the girls as they gush and coo over him. Later, after reuniting with the other half of the family, Emily berates him for neglecting fatherly things like forgetting to put sunscreen on the kids, falling into that stereotype meant to justify Jim’s childish desires for the younger girls. 
Jim’s Freudian desires become reality when he wakes from a seemingly hypnotic trance to find himself tied to a hotel bed, beneath a strange woman who begs him to find her “hidden Mickey”. She may have used her piece of garish costume jewelry to entrance him. She tells him that the actresses playing the princesses sell themselves for thousands of dollars to Asian businessmen. Later, at EPCOT, his drinking and side-tracked amour frustrated Emily to the point of slapping Sarah and storming off. The inebriated Jim loses Sarah and winds up getting tazed by cartoonishly-dressed security. After a five-second INTERMISSION title card, he awakes strapped to a chair beneath Spaceship Earth (the giant golf-ball mascot of EPCOT), while a scientist with an alternating French and German accent operates various SIEMANS’ brand panels (again, the corporate sponsor of the ride) to create a deco-sphere around Jim’s head, purging his imagination. “Almost as great as W.D. himself,” the mysterious man tells him. 
The rest of the film concerns itself with Jim’s now-insidious are-they-or-aren’t-they? halucinations. Combined with the disorienting geography of the parks, the claustrophobia of the crowds, the unwashed lower-class masses upstanding WASPs encounter (portrayed as an overweight Southerner with a neck collar and a rascal scooter whose loutish son pushes Sarah over), plus the warnings of the uber-contagious “cat flu” spreading through the park and you already have a recipe for paranoia. With the inherent surrealism of the park, all kinds of horrible mysteries should be expected. Does Disney work for alien overlords? Is it a front for Hell itself? Have the animatronic robots taken over, Westworld-style? Those are just examples of the roads not traveled in Escape from Tomorrow
Lest this become a criticism of a movie I’d have preferred to see, let me finish by saying that Escape From Tomorrow’s hints at horror have been compared to the works of Polanski and David Lynch, and that the human mind is capable of conjuring inexplicable terrors. Which is not only valid but removes any sort of narrative responsibility from the fiction. Keeping the unreal in Jim’s POV leaves interpretation up to the audience. Is there evil afoot beneath the Disney wholesomeness? Or is it base human need to find flaw in artificial perfection in the way that created stories of Mr. Rogers’ blood-soaked adventures as a sniper in Viet Nam? In this day and age, are things like imagination, wonder and “fairy dust” to be mistrusted and even disdained? Again, the filmmakers leave this responsibility of meaning to the viewer. 
Because Disney is such an unstoppable capitalistic engine, legendary for encompassing lawsuits, strict security and enforcing their own rules, hearing about a movie shot on their property without their knowledge instantly stokes the curiosity. It’s particularly enticing to the legions of Disney-bashers already on the side of the “common man” that fears Disney may have too much power, control or share of the free market. The natural expectation for Escape from Tomorrow is to view something heinously subversive, almost heretical, slinging mud upon the House of Mouse. Expectation is high for scab-picking and wound-poking. The mere suggestion of high-priced Disney hookers should be enough to extract glee, but actually going so far as to show glimpses of the sex inherent in the system! Delicious blasphemy, right? 
Moore’s audacity is the force driving the hype and excitement of Escape from Tomorrow. Scenes were blocked in hotel rooms days in advance prior to filming on park property. Consumer cameras were used to allow the filmmakers to blend in with the rest of the obsessively-filming crowd. Brilliantly, Moore used this compulsive sharing culture as a masquerade. Scripts were hidden on cell phones and the various “units” were organized via call and text. Even Moore himself has expressed shock at what infractions they were able to commit, from groups of people constantly cycling through the same line, having endless varations of the same conversation. The film production was, in fact, operating behind the very veil they were hoping to peel back, with Disney employees (almost) completely ignorant of their presence beyond visitation. 
Paranoia over Disney’s legendary undead cadre of copyright lawyers drove Moore to edit the film in South Korea and he was shocked that the heavily-sponsored Sundance would even accept the film. In fact, the film festival organizers used that paranoia to their advantage by only hinting at the subversion the creators pulled off. Fest attendees climbed over each other to see the movie that got one over on the Great and Powerful Disney Corporation. Heralded as “the ultimate guerrilla film”, Escape from Tomorrow was decreed an impossible feat. Everyone in the business was certain that the film would never see a wide release, that the Happiest Company on Earth would sue the producers into oblivion. In order to circumvent heavier expected fines, Moore removed the “It’s a Small World” earworm song from the track, replacing it with a similarly designed bit of old Hollywood treacle (and brilliantly composed by Abel Korzeniowski), and was careful not to use actual scenes from the animated epics playing on the constant background hum of monitors throughout the park. The beloved Disney characters—particularly Mickey Mouse—was used at an absolute minimum, and the costumed character’s appearance actually serves as a shock cut late in the film. And still, the majority of those who’d borne witness to the film feared worse than a lawsuit—that one day Disney would just blackbag Moore and company, disappearing them forever. 
So with all of this expectation, the eagerness to see the emperor uncloathed, it is impossible for the film to artistically succeed. The story is trite and Jim White is a shallow protagonist. Played by Roy Abramsohn, Jim is nearly impossible to like or sympathize with. Elena Schuber’s Emily is shrill, the kids are pretty much props to get Jim from one end of the park to another, and if they were a real family, you’d go out of your way to change tables at a restaurant if seated near them. Alison Lees-Taylor as the mysterious former-princess who hints at the various immoral activities seems to be having far more fun as a wanton cipher, but by the time the film revisits her and her “game” of stealing children, I was already looking at my watch. I’d been so prepared for shock and outrageousness, to see the triumph of the little indie filmmaker in the face of the corporate giant, that the film’s terrible pace and characterization were the only things that caught me off guard. 
After viewing, my magnificently-witty Facebook post was that the movie was like “the world’s greatest heist where after the thieves spent the loot on chewing gum”. I stand by that. Escape from Tomorrow was doomed to be disappointing, like any over-hyped movie will be, but my main surprise came at how banal the final assemblage was. None of the work and subversion and misdirection that went into the production is visible on screen. In fact, with how careful Moore was with the final product (the name “Disney” is only uttered onscreen once and gets audibly bleeped), the story could have taken place at any theme park. The magic and majesty and real life power of the parks have very little presence. Shooting the film in black and white, to overcome difficult color balancing and lighting requirements, gave the movie an old fashioned look and seems like a lost Wonderful World of Disney special, and indeed Moore does make good use of the iconic monuments, but he rarely integrates them into the story. It’s as if all the risk and chutzpah were unnecessary. The results could have been achieved as an all-greenscreen film. 
When all was said and done, Escape from Tomorrow received a handsome release package from Warner Brothers and is currently available as VOD. Meanwhile, Disney has adopted a cavalier attitude towards it, calling it "An independent surrealistic cult film surreptitiously filmed at Walt Disney World and Disneyland," on its online companion to the Disney A to Z: The Official Encyclopedia. Rather than add to any hype or, as many have suggested, purchasing the film and releasing it under the official banner, thus capitalizing from both Disney supporters and detractors, their official response seems to be more of a shrug. 
Nothing can be taken away from Moore and company: they went up against giants and got away with their scheme. They managed to overcome every obstacle from budget to police, but in the end, it was lack of imagination that scuttles Escape from Tomorrow. "As great as W.D. himself." Whatever his flaws, real or attributed, Uncle Walt's visions extended beyond shagging a pair of barely-legal French girls.
Should Disney decide to base a movie on the making of Escape from Tomorrow, I rather think I’ll be first in line. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

KILLER TONGUE (aka La lengua asesina, 1996)

Before she became network TV’s go-to dominatrix, Melinda “Mindy” Clarke gnawed her way into the hearts of horror fans as, aguably, cinema’s first sexy zombie, Julie, in Brian Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead 3. The movie’s poster ghoul, “Julie”, was the ultimate gothy pierced princess and in 1993 her image graced the covers of countless horror magazines, the zombie equivalent of The IT Girl. Clarke followed this iconic role with appearances in other cult hits like Xena: Warrior Princess, Firefly, and the mainstream obsessional CSI (as Gus Grissom’s personal top, “Lady Heather”). 

But before becoming a genre darling, the actress-formerly-known-as-“Mindy” took a delightful side trip to Spain to star in the indescribably goofy La lengua asesina—better known to English speakers as Killer Tongue.

“I know now I should have listened to my mother. And I should have followed her ways. Stayed in our nice harmonious little town in Sombreroland. And become a straight and untroubled, well-respected Valium-bound husband-killer alcoholic. Then cook my head like a turkey in a gas oven on a beautiful Thanksgiving day. Just like she did. But now it’s too late. And anyway things don’t come that easy any more. It all started four years ago with a heist… and a kiss.”

After puling a bank job and betraying their accomplices (Chip and Frank, leaving them tied up with their lips glued together in a painful-to-remove kiss), Johnny and Candy split up to lie low. Johnny gets picked up by the cops—no doubt investigating his suspicious wearing of a gold lame` suit—while Candy gets she to a nunnery and raises giant multi-colored poodles while helping to run the sisters’ side business, God’s Gas & Diesel, a last chance out there in the desert.

Johnny has the ass-end of the deal, having to contend with the vicious Prison Director (Robert Englund appropriately eschewing subtlety) with a confusing message of submission tattooed on his knuckles. While it says “Fuck You”, prisoners are meant to read that as “Fuck Me”. Failure to communicate ensues. Also, he has to be constantly aware of the duplicit nature of his fellow inmates, particularly the Chief’s favorite, Mr. Wigs (Doug Bradley). 

Grown bitter over the intervening four years, Chip and Frank discover the whereabouts of Candy, but she’s already lammed out to rendesvous with Johnny, unaware of his incarceration. In a simple desert shack, Candy dons some domesticity and makes soup for her and her poodles. Just then, a bit of meteorite survives atmospheric entry and lands in their meal. One sip transforms her from a ‘50s housewife to a veiny creature in an armored exoskeleton, with back spines and kinky dark hair. The poodles transform into drag queens. Remi, Loca, Portia and, of course, Rudolph (inexplicably played by Jonathan Rhys Myers). “It’s us, your bitches. Remember? Little fluffy things?”

Before you can evoke the sacred name of Pedro Almodovar, Killer Tongue gets weird. –Er. Namely with the introduction of the titular character, Candy’s oral appendage that talks like Harvey Fierstein, grows to miles in length and can punch through solid objects without effort (including Chip, and then the porcelain tub beneath him, and the floor, and possibly the Earth’s crust). It desires human flesh and is terribly jealous of any mention of Johnny. It also comes with its own theme music.

Speaking of Johnny, he’s escaped into the desert with the Chief in pursuit. Somewhere along the line, he winds up handcuffed to the bumper of the vehicle, which he drags behind him, undeterred in his quest for Candy. 

While waiting for Johnny, Candy bides her time trying to rid herself of the evil alien tongue via iron and butcher knife. In response, the tongue tries to suffocate her by wrapping around her face, suspends her from the ceiling, and ultimately gets her pregnant. 

And if that doesn’t spell entertainment, I don’t know what does. 

Depending on your mood, Killer Tongue runs at a length of time equal to either 90 minutes or forever. Made with a very specific audience in mind, Killer Tongue is the definition of both “campy” and “wacky”. None of the outrageousness is presented with so much as a wink or a tongue-in-cheek. To the filmmakers, the world of Killer Tongue is how the real world should be, transpecies poodles and latex S&M outfits for all. You can’t accuse the cast of being over-the-top because there doesn’t seem to be a baseline. It starts at hysteria and ramps up from there. 

In attempting to short-hand a summary for it, I’ve compared it in turn to “John Waters’ Wild at Heart” and “David Cronenberg’s Raising Arizona.” But really, writer / director Alberto Sciamma has created a chimera that exists all on its own, without mate or even sibling. It actually feels like a ‘50s sitcom reinterpreted by aliens, a Meet the Hollowheads for telenova fans. 

It can’t really be said that the cast are playing their roles “straight”, though every character is presented without irony—in fact, this may be one of the least ironic films ever made. It’s definitely sincere in its insanity even when you can tell it’s lost all sense of a narrative thread in the third act. That being said, there are genuinely inspired bits of character utterly organic to the film’s reality. Clarke’s horror at her 90’ tongue has less to do with the consequences of being infected by an alien parasite and is more about her big plans being ruined for Johnny’s return. Englund’s vicious Prison Chief, for the best example, is as complex as a cartoon character can get. During the day, it’s his job to be foul, brutal and sadistic, beating up men left and right, putting them on dreaded “survey duty”. But at night he walks through the barracks with a simple smile on his face, tucking a blanket around Wig and comforting a wounded dove by making a nest for it out of his toupee. The Chief’s raison d’etre is to make Johnny screw up his probation, but it isn’t too long before you understand he’s doing that less out of sadism and more because he’ll miss the handsome lug when he goes. Englund doesn’t play this with a s

ense of homoeroticism either, but complicated affection. 

While the poodles are meant to enduce squeals of delight and/or derision, each of them having stepped from an episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, their love for Candy is both endearing and evocative of a pet’s love for its human. Even the tongue’s relationship with Candy has an edge of love and devotion, even though it’s technically an alien parasite relying on her to sustain its life. As for her and Johnny’s love, well that’s the sort of devotion you can only find in movies and Shirelles songs. 

Loud and colorful, with an infectious, possibly sexually-transmitted score by Spanish band Fangoria, Killer Tongue is the perfect movie for people who like this sort of thing. I say that smart-assedly, but sincerely. Killer Tongue is one of those cult-films-by-design that you’ll either love or hate. Take all of those cliches for what they’re worth. The only way to measure the film’s success is through personal opinion. I happened to really enjoy it the first time and my love hasn’t waned since. But, then again, I’m not you. As with most cult movies, enjoyment comes with some assembly required. 

Now, unlike most of the movies I yak about, Killer Tongue is not difficult to obtain and shows up on at least two different collections accompanying other wacky wonders like Jack Frost 2 (a killer snowman in the Bahamas!). However, the presentation varies. Try very hard to avoid a full screen version as you not only lose a lot of peripheral happiness, but it also comes with washed out color and a soft image, probably sourced from the original EP mode VHS released before the turn of the milennium. 

If you do manage to fall in love with this film as I have, might I recommend that, upon meeting Melinda Clarke, you refrain from asking her to lick you from across the room. 

Just… trust me on that. She isn’t into it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Apart from my deep dislike of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, my reputation as a film scholar is more often called into question due to my disdain for Italian cinema. It’s especially difficult to be taken seriously as a zombie enthusiast if you find it impossible to embrace the ouevre of Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato or any of the other alphabet soup masters of flesh-eating mayhem. While I am proud to say that among my favorite films you will find Argento’s Deep Red, Suspiria and Tenebrae, my opinion of the maestro’s later work diminishes. I like the visuals of Mario Bava, but the pacing and stories of his masterpieces I’ve often found to be wanting.

This terminal case of “meh” extends beyond the horror genre as well, for I’m loathe to sit through another Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, or, for the love of god, de Sica. Indeed, upon my third class-required viewing of The Bicycle Thief, I began to sympathise with Mussolini.

And please, don’t even get me started with the likes of Leone, Corbucci or Chef Boy-ar-dee. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

As with any rule, I have an exception, and that exception is Maurizio Nichetti. A one-man embodiment of the three Marx Brothers, Nichetti is an Italian Jacques Tati; a pop-eyed, mustachioed clown whose default expression seems to be innocent bewilderment. Nichetti was put on this Earth as reassurance that Italy has something to offer me in terms of its cinema, and seems to have the same problems with The Bicycle Thief as I do, as evinced in his satirical love-letter to Neo-Realism, the hilarious The Icicle Thief.

Unfortunately, as far as America goes, he’s no Roberto Benigni. I see that as a good thing, since the latter wore out his welcome six seconds into the 1997 Academy Awards ceremony, following America’s identity crisis upon embracing Life is Beautiful (The Day the Clown Cried without the good taste). Nichetti is virtually unknown in the Land of the Free, Home of the Bacon and that, my friends, is a cultural tragedy.

Even hardcore film geeks might have a difficult time identifying Nichetti. If his name rings any bells, it’s due to his “starring” role in the live action sections of animator Bruno Bozzetto’s Fantasia parody, Allegro Non Troppo (1976, which Nichetti cowrote). Famous for its extended sequence celebrating evolution, with life springing from a discarded Coca-Cola bottle set to Ravel’s Bolero, Allegro Non Troppo achieved some minor success in the U.S., but when initially released to Home Video, the film’s live-action sequences were excised, rendering Nichetti anonymous again. The majority of his filmography, including movies he wrote, directed and starred in, have never been released in the United States. While this might be great for us more-with-it-than-thou movie geeks, it’s a bit of a tragedy for the rest of the country’s film-goer-to-ers who’ve thusly been robbed.

Nichetti created his own iconic persona, a goofy, bushy everyman prone to misadventure —evoking, for shorthand sake, Chaplin, Groucho, Keaton and Mr. Bean—for his directorial debut, Ratataplan (1979). Playing variations of this role in a half-dozen other movies, he took the idea of human cartoon to its absurdly literal conclusion in the surprising and playful Volere volare.

Co-directed with animator and past collaborator Guido Manuli, Volere volare begins with Martina (Angela Finocchiaro from My Brother is an Only Child) lamenting to her friend Loredana (Mariella Valentini) that she doesn’t need a man in her life to be happy. Marriage is what’s expected, and she refuses to marry only for money. Which is all well and good for her to say since she’s surrounded by rich men. You see, she sees her career as that of a very specialized “social worker”, her job to understand people with personal eccentricities. For instance, one of her best clients is an elderly man with the (disturbing) voice of a toddler, who she bathes and rocks to sleep after his bottle. Then there are the “Architechts”, espresso-drinking twins who silently hang out at her home to watch her sleep, shower, dress for work and then lock up after she leaves. There’s a chef who likes to turn her naked body into elaborate deserts (“including a vat of melted chocolate; soon she's dressed in her sundae best.” Harrington, Washington Post, 1993), but can settle for casually spilling things on her when time is limited. She gets a workout from a married couple who take turns being dead, requiring her to assist the mourning partner left behind, make sure the body gets to the ambulance, etc. Things get difficult on those nights when the couple can’t decide who survived that night. While she refers to these quirks as “fetishes”, she’s never depicted doing anything sexual with her clients. Even the guy who likes her to sit on his photocopier only enjoys admiring the lacework on her underwear. Sex seems to be the furthest thing from their minds. (Thus, I think it’s inaccurate to echo my fellow critics in describing her as a “prostitute”.)

Nearby, Maurizio owns a film dubbing company with his brother. They split the work evenly: Maurizio provides the sound effects for old cartoons; Patrizio employs a lingerie-clad stable of mono-lingual actresses for the “specialty” audio of “art” movies. Spending his day either recording sound or searching for interesting noisemakers in hardware stores, Maurizio (called “Little Mustache” by his brother—“Ever since he grew one when he was three.”) manages to just miss meeting Martina on a number of occasions. But fortune won’t stay elusive for long.

One night, Maurizio frequently finds himself in the right place. When both of her “Necrophyles” decide to be dead, Martina finds herself needing an extra pair of hands to wrestle the loving bodies onto a parking lot gurney. Later that evening, he stumbles upon her again and accompanies her on another job, this time with a crazed cab driver who gets off on terrorizing her with his auto-acrobatics. Maurizio does panic better than she does. Finding himself stuck at her apartment—“Where do you live?” she asked. “Where you picked me up.”—he is assaulted by another of her clients who is contientious about stalking her and doesn’t like the competition. In a single night, Martina’s job has him strained, terrorized and assaulted. 

Much to her chagrin, she realizes later that her clients enjoyed the extra company. The thrill waning, Maurizio was just the extra shot in the arm their needs needed. Not wanting to risk losing her income, Martina attempts to hunt him down. The only trouble is, because of the multiple bicycle horns he keeps in his pockets in case of dubbing emergency, she only knows Maurizo by the nickname she’s given him: “Trumpetto”.

Meanwhile, Maurizo is experiencing his own job-related phenomenons. Each time he steps in front of his projector, one or more of the animated co-stars find their way into his pocket. At first, it’s just a simple turtle from a Fleischer Brothers cartoon, which manages to knock over stacks of film cans in its escape. Later, a flock of ducks defect from a Popeye short into the real world to cavort in the rain and get squished flat by cars. This condition becomes contagious, as he discovers on his first “date” with Martina at a swanky restaurant. A persistent itch on his hand reveals yellow cartoon gloves growing beneath his skin. Worse: the hands take on a life of their own—“animated” in all senses of the word—and fly off without him! Fortunately for him, Martina is too distracted by her spill-prone chef and his “accidents” that leave her covered with spaghetti.
The rest of the film follows this comedy of surreal errors to its logical absurdist conclusion: Martina finally finds the love of her life, just as he completes his transformation into a living—and very naked—cartoon character. (Which wasn’t that much of a stretch for Nichetti, being 75% cartoon anyway.) 
Gentle and uncomplicated, Volere volare makes no attept to explain Maurizio’s transformation, just as it sees no reason to explain Martina’s growing attraction to the odd little man. Just like love, human-to-cartoon evolution requires no deconstruction. And if you can allow that to satisfy your left-brain’s needs, that’s all that Volere volare asks of you. Without turning this into a discourse on economical-cultural dichotomy of comedy, the movie should seem unique to those raised on American sex comedies. The American-view blend of Night Shift with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? resulted in Ralph Bakshi’s raunchier Cool World, released just a year later. In contrast, once you become comfortable with the “non-exploitative European-style nudity” (to quote Richard Harrington’s Washington Post review), Volere volare is charming and utterly inoffensive. Even Patrizio’s stable of “actresses” and his blue movies are played for laughs, not titilation. Nichetti keeps the film’s heart in the clouds, rather than the gutter and avoids the cheap laugh in favor of the corny one. (Even more surprising considering that one of the film’s producers was Italy’s infamous prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, whose political career was overshadowed by his notorious “bunga-bunga parties”!)

The usual unfortunate caveat exists here, however. Unlike the better-distributed Allegro Non Troppo, Volere volare is difficult to come by and doesn’t seem to have gotten an international DVD release. The VHS image is dark and grainy, working against the movie’s intrinsic breezy charm. But perhaps, if we all get together and clap our goofy gloved hands together, maybe we can all will a DVD into existence. Or, at least, keep Tinkerbell alive long enough to make us one out of fairy dust. (Sorry, it’s a sexy cartoon fairy tale; I couldn’t resist.)
For added pleasure, please visit Nichetti’s website.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Once upon a time, we didn’t have 24-hour news coverage. As a society, we weren’t bombarded with images of atrocity. But even with the Internet it takes a bit of work to find unedited footage of real death. When Osama bin Laden, arguably America’s greatest villain, was shot and killed by Navy SEALS in 2011, images of his corpse were with held from the public, deemed “too gruesome” and leading to even more theories of conspiracy and government malfeasance. In a way, the post-9/11 culture was denied emotional closure after years of living under outside and domestic terrorism. Contrast that with the horrific execution video of journalist Daniel Pearl by Al-Qaeda operatives, which horrified (and fascinated) all who viewed it, even in its jittery form. As has been stated by countless psychologists, we’re a culture both attracted to and repelled by violence. We are addicted to gazing into the abyss.

In 1981, Leonard Schrader, brother of filmmaker Paul Schrader (whose films are far from pacifist), wrote The Killing of America for the Japanese market. Uncomfortably lumped in with the sensationalistic so-called “mondo” movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Killing of America is a deadly serious look at the rise of gun violence in the country. As a catalyst, it starts its analysis with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, repeating a tight close-up of the infamous Zapruder footage so familiar to us now from Oliver Stone’s JFK. During the images of the aftermath, the funeral procession and the iconically uncomfortable prompting of John Jr. to salute the body of his father, we are presented with a montage of Wild West Shows, the attempted assassinations of Ronald Reagan, Jim Brady, George Wallace. On a regular afternoon, police gun down “sidewalk sniper” Sam Brown at point-blank range. As he collapses to the sidewalk the narration tells us, “America is the only industrialized country with the murder rate of countries at civil war like Cambodia and Nicaragua. An attempted murder every 3 minutes. A murder every 20 minutes.” It leaves us with a statistic of 20,000 murders a year by 1980. (Today, according to some sources, that number has grown to 100,000 deaths by gunshot annually.)

Following RFK’s assassination from the gun of Palestinian fanatic Sirhan Sirhan—“He looked like a saint. I wish that Son of a Gun were alive today. So I wouldn’t be here. […] I’m not mentally ill, sir, but I’m not perfect either.”—Charles Whitman’s sniper rampage in ’66, it’s posited that these incidents gave rise to a “new kind of killer,” and a surge of “the random murder of strangers.” At no point does the camera shy away from the true-life tragedy captured by news cameras. The viewer sees blood spurting and bodies dropping in a way that belies all the cinematic heroic bloodshed we’ve been conditioned against. The raw, grainy imagery screams “reality” in a way that the crispness of modern-day reality does not. Maybe it’s the impact of history, but there’s an element of The Killing of America that doesn’t offer a release. The footage is, to use the coveted marketing phrase, “shocking”. 

Chuck Riley’s narration drags us through twenty years of violence, touching on the familiar like John Wayne Gacy and the chilling off-handed confessions of Ed Kemper, who threw darts at his mother’s severed head, “I did it in my society.”—the less-familiar like “Mondays are so boring” child-killer Brenda Spencer, through events obscure but no less hideous. James Hoskins’ unhinged 1980 take-over of a TV station following his murder of his girlfriend; bystander Richard Townsend forced to rob a bank at gun point; mortgage broker Richard Hall taken hostage in his own office by bartender Anthony Karitzis, who wired a shotgun to the back of Hall’s head and marched him through Manhattan for three days. “I hope that this doesn’t go off, I’m having too much fun.” The birth of the murderer as cause celebre. 

As the film progresses, it stretches the causation of “more guns equal more lunatics” that the right constantly accuses the left of using erroneously, but it’s hard to argue when heads are bursting undramatically before your eyes. Following Whitman’s rampage, the practice of ordering guns and rifles through the mail was suspended, which, the movie posits, resulted in the skyrocketing of private gun ownership. During the 1980 candle light vigil for John Lennon which caps the documentary—the only footage I personally witnessed in my lifetime—over the inevitable soundtrack of “Imagine”, the narration tells us, “While you watched this movie, five people were murdered. One was the random killing of a stranger.”

While history supports that gun violence did taper off during the mid-80s and through the ‘90s, thanks in part to the Brady Bill, following 9/11 it’s difficult to dispute that gun violence has once again been on the rise, and in a manner that the documentary could not have foreseen, despite all of its portents. The tragedies in Sandy Hook, in Columbine, in Aurora, Colorado, would seem to indicate that we’ve returned to the cycle of violence so persuasive through the ‘60s and ‘70s, making Killing of America all the more relevant today. 

Since 1981, we’ve grown accustomed to sensationalistic reporting and biased, agenda-driven “enternewsment”. Which makes the hindsight viewing of Killing of America so much more powerful. Modern eyes may take a few minutes to adjust because the film is presented without irony, without self-reflection. It states its case that America has grown increasingly dangerous because of political disillusionment, special interest groups and the decline of mental health care. Today this message is still espoused, but it’s tinged with barely-related self-righteous outrage from both sides of the political divide, the dialogue almost as violent as the misanthropic gunfire. Just as today, America had as many voices shouting for the right to own murder weapons versus those who shout for the complete eradication of firearms. Neither side is any more willing to discuss the problem now than they ever were. 

As Vonnegut would say, “And so it goes.”

The Killing of America was released on a special edition DVD through Exploited. It may be difficult to find, but a good starting point is