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My Idea of Fun

You know what’s fun? After the fact end-of-the-world predictions! Case in point: THE JUPITER MENACE from 1982, a George Kennedy narrated doco about the “coming” apocalypse that promotes the theory of the March 5, 2000 planetary alliance and the supposed disastrous effects it’ll have on the Earth. A number of religious leaders, scientists, survivalists and psychic nabobs talk with utter certainty about what was supposed to happen (moral: you CANNOT predict the future!). Also included are hilariously cheesy recreations of past calamities and much straight-faced testimony from various militia members (at times this movie almost feels like an infomercial for such groups).
     Yet outside all the silliness the film is an undeniably thought-provoking look at the instability of the Earth and our place on it, bolstered by striking visual effects from the underground filmmaker Scott Bartlett.

     Here’s something that’s NOT fun: dream journals. Truly, there are few things duller than reading about somebody’s dreams, which are of endless fascination to the writer but of scant interest to anyone else. That said, I’ll give the 1961 collection NIGHTS AS DAY, DAYS AS NIGHT, consisting of short accounts of dreams experienced by onetime surrealist-turned-museum curator Michael Leiris, a muted recommendation. Leiris, after all, turned naval-gazing into high art in well-received memoirs like MANHOOD and THE RULES OF THE GAME, and works a similar magic here.
     NIGHTS AS DAY… spans about thirty five years, with the early dreams being extremely fanciful and outrageous (including images of men climbing long poles skewering them) and the later ones far more somber and down to earth. Most intriguing are the entries labeled “real-life,” in which Leiris records his waking exploits in the same detached, bemused style he uses to describe his dreams, thus calling into question the true demarcation between dream and reality.

     You’ll have no such problem with DARK OBSESSION (1991), a stark and unforgiving depiction of a profoundly ugly reality. It is quite simply the darkest, angriest, most corrosive film about the British aristocracy I’ve ever seen. Gabriel Byrne plays a rich asshole who runs down a woman one night and then goes to pieces as his “friends” conspire to cover up the crime. Byrne harasses his hot trophy wife (Amanda Donohoe) incessantly while his buddies turn upon one of their own after he lets slip the dirty secret, leading to an ending that couldn’t possibly be any grimmer.
     British documentarian Nick Broomfield, in his feature filmmaking debut, has delivered a slick film with good performances, although it is somewhat anemic and predictable. It also contains graphic sex scenes that got the film an NC-17 rating in the US, but play like little more than the desperate commercial come-on they in fact were.

     Crass commercialism may explain the mess that is KILL YOUR BOYFRIEND, a one-shot comic from 1994, written by the great GRANT MORRISON. It’s a by-the-numbers account of a chick who gets picked up by a charismatic psychopath who takes her on a killing spree. The psycho commences his rampage by shooting the gal’s nerd boyfriend, and the two then take up with a gang of anarchists who ride around in a psychedelic bus.
     In his afterward to the 1998 reprint edition Morrison acknowledges the story’s similarity to the “ten thousand post-Tarantino thrillers” that followed in its wake, and claims his only influence, outside the plays of Joe Orton, was Terence Malick’s film BADLANDS. I guess he hadn’t seen GUN CRAZY, BREATHLESS, BONNIE AND CLYDE, SOMETHING WILD, WILD AT HEART or TRUE ROMANCE, all young-outlaws-on-the-run accounts that preceded, and far outdo, KILL YOUR BOYFRIEND (for that matter, KYB’s ending is suspiciously similar to that of the 1983 film MONTENEGRO). In many ways this is an all-too-typical post-Tarantino product: it thinks it’s the coolest, most subversive thing around, but in fact it’s just another piece of generic crap.

     L’URLO [THE HOWL] is a film that won’t remind you of anything else. It’s a 1970 feature by Italian fuck movie maestro Tinto Brass (of CALIGULA and SALON KITTY), and quite nearly the apotheosis of late-60’s celluloid self-indulgence. You’d have to view something like Jodorowsky’s HOLY MOUNTAIN to find a similarly twisted mélange of rapid-fire psychosexual lunacy.
     There may be a plot to L’URLO, but I couldn’t find it. Luckily there was more than enough eye-popping imagery to keep me entertained, including a bevy of naked women draped in a tree, folks who unexpectedly turn into horses, a cemetery full of human statues, a talking severed head, a naked dude wearing only a barrel over his privates and an American flag hat, and lots more. There’s also a heavy political angle, and, it being a Brass film, plenty of gratuitous fucking.

     1942’s CREEP, SHADOW, CREEP! by A. MERRITT is an ersatz sequel to 1933’s BURN, WITCH, BURN. It’s not widely recognized as one of Merritt’s better works, and indeed it isn’t: the narrative is cluttered and difficult to follow, bearing that unmistakable first draft feel throughout. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book, as it’s simply so insane, dealing as it does with bodiless shadows, reincarnation and a hideous Lovecraftian entity from beyond space.
     It begins with a rational doctor investigating the inexplicable suicide of his friend, who claimed to have been manhandled by a mysterious shadow woman. The protagonist inevitably meets up with said woman, a seductive sorceress he loved in a past life. From there the story grows increasingly outlandish, with bloody human sacrifices, a shadow city, horses galloping on waves and a cameo by the sea god Poseidon. If not for the choppy writing CREEP, SHADOW, CREEP! could have been some kind of classic, but as it is it’s an intriguing but underwhelming curiosity.

     Curious is definitely the word for THE WORM WITHIN by VINCENT EATON and CHRIS BISHOP, an illustrated account found on the internet at http://www.fray.com/drugs/worm/ about a young man’s experiences with a tapeworm. It may or may not be true, but it’s quite disgusting either way.
     The problems start when our hapless narrator, an American living in Belgium, finds what looks like undigested pieces of spaghetti in his crap. He consults a doctor, who informs him that he’s got a massive beef tapeworm living in his intestines. Caught, apparently, from some undercooked Belgian cuisine, the thing has grown so large it’s taken to dropping little bits of itself out of its host’s asshole, “just to let me know how great he was doing.” The doc gives the dude a prescription for a pill that kills the head of the worm, causing severe stomach cramps as the critter slowly dies. The next day the man unexpectedly shits the dead worm out in a restaurant crapper, leaving its remains “twisted around in all sorts of swirls and crisscrosses, resembling limp linguini.” Final line: “I flushed that sucker goodbye.”

     Let’s move on to a more topical subject: Renee Zellwegger. We all know she no longer looks like herself. To see what she did look like once upon a time check out 1995’s unfairly neglected indie THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD. It’s an adaptation of Texas schoolteacher Novalyne Price Ellis’ reminiscence of her 1930’s-era relationship with Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan and supposedly “the best pulp writer in the whole wide world.” Ellis was the only woman the famously maladjusted Howard ever dated, and their let’s-just-be-friends courtship continued up until Howard’s 1935 suicide.
     I read the book, put out by the independent publisher Donald E. Grant as a limited edition hardcover (which of course didn’t stop Sony from touting it as an “international bestseller”), several years ago, and don’t remember any romance occurring between Ellis and Howard. The movie, however, suggests they had some sort of star-crossed love, and even includes a couple make-out scenes--which, again, I don’t remember from the book.
     That quibble aside, THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD is a brilliant transcription of Ellis’ text. The period detail is flawlessly rendered and, most importantly, the film boasts great performances from Vincent D’Onofrio as Howard and a pre-plastified Zellwegger as Ellis.

     I’m not a huge fan of anime, but I have a soft spot for 1990’s ROBOT CARNIVAL, an animated anthology from the land of the rising sun. It’s composed of nine shorts by Japan’s top animators, all centered around robots and a pervasive fear of technology (with the ‘bots here serving roughly the same purpose as Godzilla). It has some slow spots, as most anthology films do, but contains two truly awe-inspiring segments.
     The dialogue-free opening sequence, carried off by AKIRA’S Katsuhiro Otomo, depicts a rural village ravaged by a gigantic monstrosity, the Robot Carnival. With mass destruction and GREAT music, it’s as terrifying and exhilarating as the helicopter attack sequence from APOCALYPSE NOW.
     The other standout segment is “Nightmare,” in which a city is taken over by surreal robotic creatures. Inspired by the “Night on Bald Hill” segment of FANTASIA, this sequence is marked stark, hallucinatory imagery and a superbly ominous score. Other good bits include “Clouds,” a poetic rumination featuring a robot boy trudging across a variety of impressionistic landscapes, and “Deprive,” in which a scientist is destroyed by his robot creation.

     Finally we have THE NIHILESTHETE by RICHARD KALICH (1987), a first novel that fascinates and annoys in equal measure. It’s told via the journal entries of Haberman, a few-bricks-shy-a-load social worker who becomes obsessed with Brodski, an armless man who can’t speak. It seems Brodski’s an aesthete who lives for beauty, in art and life. Haberman schemes Brodski’s guardian--his mother--out of the picture so he can take care of him full time. He then institutes a series of increasingly diabolical “games” designed to curb Brodski’s artistic ambitions, which Haberman views as unnatural and threatening. The games turn increasingly sadistic, yet Brodski continues to show a healthy artistic appetite, much to his keeper’s consternation.
     This story may be intended as an art vs. commerce metaphor or just a twisted look into the darker regions of human nature. The prose, in any event, tends to grate, just as the apathetic (to say the least) narrator does (he’s privy to multiple exclamation points and excessive capitalization). It’s also no trick figuring out where it’s all going, as Haberman’s attempts at breaking his charge grow increasingly desperate, and the latter steadfastly resists to the end.

 

--10/31/14 

     

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