Saturday, March 31, 2007
Over the years we have been reviewed by a wide variety of sources, including The Los Angeles Times, Variety, The New York Daily News, Richard Schickel, Newsweek, L'Alsace Journal, Kevin Thomas, Reader's Digest, Joe Leydon, even The New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. None of these esteemed publications nor the pundits who write for them have impressed us as much as Joe Vorsas, a rare renaissance man from East Texas. His recent Haiku Review of Needtovent.com's various postings is both succinct and perceptive.
Me likes what you've wrought
If not always what you've writ
Still worth the reading
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Think you've seen it all?
How about murder, rape, arson, sexploitation, depravity, mob violence, religious fervor and cleavage, lots and lots of cleavage, all "extracted from the juice of life" and presented in truly gorgeous black and white by none other than "King Leer" himself?
Step aside Tarantino and Rodriguez, you guys have yet to equal the raw emotion, the debased lust or, especially, the wondrous beauty of the female form found in Russ Meyer's notorious MUDHONEY.
This is delectable decadence for all D-cup devotees. Too bad it was shot in Voyeur-Vision and not in 3-D IMAX. Wouldn't that have been something?
But MUDHONEY is much, much more than what first meets the bulging eye, particularly after the first act which engulfs the viewer with some of the most strident close-ups to ever assault the big screen.
The underlying story is an intelligent, complex morality tale with surprising depth. Calif McKinney (John Furlong) is a drifter on his way to California during the Great Depression. He finds himself stranded on the outskirts of Spooner, Missouri, penniless and in desperate need of a job. He hires on as a farmhand where he falls in love with Hanna Brenshaw (Antoinette Christiani), the gorgeous wife of one of the most sadistic screen villains ever.
Hal Hopper is remarkable as the violently demented Sidney Brenshaw who terrorizes just about everyone in sight -- especially Hanna. When Sidney realizes his wife will no longer tolerate his physical and sexual abuse he employs Brother Hanson, the local fire and brimstone preacher, to enlist the fine, upstanding citizens of Spooner to lynch Calif. Ultimately the plan backfires and Sidney suffers a particularly gruesome demise.
Meyer succeeds in showing how one man's evil can bring an entire community down to his level and onto the brink of unthinkable insanity. The dangers of blind faith, mass hypocrisy, religious fervor and emotionally-driven extremism have rarely been presented in a more stirring, visceral way.
When initially released in 1965, audiences would literally stand up and yell at the screen, cheering for Calif and Hanna while booing Sidney and Brother Hanson. When did you last go to a theatre and experience that kind of reaction?
The entire cast is stellar. As previously mentioned, Hal Hopper's performance is unforgettable, he literally steals the film with his agonizing, slow decent from belligerent drunk to raging lunatic. Frank Bolger, as Brother Hanson, is nearly perfect in his punitive pulpit portrayal as is Princess Livingston in her role as Maggie Marie, the nearby brothel owner. You haven't seen a character like this since Tod Browning's FREAKS.
And no review would be complete without mentioning Lorna Maitland and Rena Horton who play the brothel's buxom vixens, Clara Belle and Eula. Rena has been rightfully called "the embodiment of the body," so be sure to watch for the introductory scene of the deaf and dumb Eula. Talk about splendor in the grass...
Some believe that cult status can be earned overnight or even bought. For example, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE was immediately declared a "cult classic" by Fox Searchlight Pictures. This unwarranted attempt at fame rightfully failed. Clearly it is not the distributor or their marketing department or even the filmmaker himself who can convince the public that a particular motion picture deserves cult status, only audiences and time can do so. It is here, within this time-honored classification, where the true spirit of innovative, risk-taking, independent filmmaking thrives. Russ Meyer may have passed away in 2004, but there's no doubt his unique, singular voice lives on through such engrossing films as MUDHONEY, a legitimate cult classic.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Don't let the trailer mislead you -- BLACK SNAKE MOAN is as much a sermon on the screen as it is sexploitation. Not exactly a Sermon on the Mount, mind you, it's more of a Sermon on the Mountee. Still, there can be no denying that this extremely unique film delivers far more than what the previews choose to reveal.
BLACK SNAKE MOAN mambos slowly, adeptly, unexpectedly. Yes, there's chained heat -- literally -- and plenty of delicious decadence, especially within the first hour. But under the skillful direction of Craig Brewer there's also a surprisingly tender narrative that is reminiscent of the parables found within the pages of the Bible where individuals experience not only a change in their lives, but true forgiveness as well. That's mighty powerful stuff.
The character arcs are as well drawn as any in recent memory. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) is a God-fearing black man who once played the blues. He now lives them, what with his wife walking out of his life to be with his brother of all people. Rae (Christina Ricci) is a delectable Dixie chick with an insatiable itch, the kind that starts in the head but quickly works its way southward. Two down-and-out characters who pretty much exist outside both society and the law, living on the fringe, both literally and figuratively, and both desperately in need of healing.
"I'm going to cure your wickedness," says Lazarus. What follows is nothing short of an evangelical exorcism ending in an upbeat, redemptive finale; proof that with the help of God even the most wayward of lives can be saved.
Jackson is damn near perfect in the complex role of Lazarus. Even his blues singing comes across with conviction and passion. Likewise, Ricci is unforgettable as the white trash nymph every Duke lacrosse player can only dream about. She literally bares all in giving the perfomance of a lifetime. Justin Timberlake, S. Epatha Merkerson and John Cothran, Jr. round out the cast and are excellent as well.
In the final analysis, BLACK SNAKE MOAN (the title is from a 1927 blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson) is a radical departure from mainstream cinema. It may be a B-movie in theory, but it rises way above that classification to achieve a genuinely affirmative and entertaining cinematic experience.
"Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with that judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged; with what measures ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." These words from the Sermon on the Mount ring true, and so it is with careful consideration that I hereby declare that BLACK SNAKE MOAN is, in my judgement, a film worth seeing. I do not feel I am bearing false witness, although that pesky, perky Jehovah's Witness lady that keeps coming by might disagree.
Oh no -- she's at my door again...
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
METROPOLIS is the mother of them all -- not only is it the first science fiction epic to grace the world's theatre screens, it set the standard for futuristic imagery that has not been surpassed even to this day. Utilizing a stunning mixture of Germanic Gothicism and Art Deco, Director Fritz Lang's vivid vision of a future dystopic world where the urban proletariat workers must live and toil underground continues to haunt viewers today just as much as it did upon its initial theatrical release in 1926.
Taking almost two full years to shoot and utilizing over 37,000 extras, METROPOLIS was produced on a scale that staggers the imagination. It is a cinematic classic set in the distant future, where the splendid skyscraper city of Metropolis is divided into two distinct castes: the workers, who toil in the gloomy underground and go drearily about the chore of running machines that power the city; and the elite, who inhabit the gleaming towers of the surface world and live a life of luxury. Two groups of citizens, separate from one another in physical space and social influence, where one works and has little wealth while the other has wealth and does little or no work.
When a beautiful young girl implores the son of the Master Industrialist that the subterranean workers are "his brothers," it is feared that she is a threat to the order and security of the status quo. A crazed inventor is ordered to build a robot in the girl's likeness and a convoluted plan to quell any surging hope for a better, more equitable life for the underground laborers backfires. The ensuing revolt destroys much of the city. In the end, however, labor and capital join hands to make a better place for one and all.
Director Fritz Lange's plea for human dignity is inexorably tied to the social climate of Germany in the mid-twenties. It serves as a cultural mirror of a time and place heavily influenced by the horrors of the First World War, when Victorian infatuation with mechanical progress became fouled with the massacres and inhumanity created by the industrialism that produced conscript armies where millions died in front of machine guns and tanks and flame throwers and other mass-produced mechanized instruments of destruction. Back then scientific progress was usually measured in terms of productivity, not on mankind's betterment. Sadly, things aren't much different today.
Over eighty years later, METROPOLIS remains a thought-provoking cinematic experience; a timeless warning against fascist tyranny, communist oppression and capitalism run amuck. As the closing of the film declares, "There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain, unless the heart acts as a mediator." A simple missive from a previous age of anxiety. It was true then. It remains true today.
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Mary was billed as "the largest living land animal on earth." At least that was how Charlie Sparks, the owner of Sparks World Famous Shows, promoted her, claiming she was three inches taller than Jumbo, P. T. Barnum's famous pachyderm. At 30 years of age, Mary was five tons of pure talent. It was claimed she could "play 25 tunes on the musical horns without missing a note." Perhaps more intriguing, she was the pitcher for the circus baseball team and her batting average of .400 "astonished millions in New York."
On Monday, September 11, 1916, Mary was given a new "trainer," a totally inexperienced drifter named Red Eldridge who had dropped into town earlier in the day from a passing Norfolk and Western boxcar looking for some quick cash. That afternoon he marched beside Mary in the circus parade in St. Paul, Virginia, a tiny mining town in the Clinch River Valley. Witnesses claim that what Mr. Eldridge lacked in handling skill and knowledge, he more than made up for it with go-for-broke bravado. A small man carrying a big stick...
The next day the circus was in Kingsport, Tennessee. It was here that Mr. Eldridge met his demise. The details vary, but what we do know is that Mary was suffering from two abscessed teeth which caused her such agony that she went beserk when her new trainer slapped her one too many times with his stick. These infections were, of course, discovered only after Mary was killed.
Regardless of the exact circumstances, the ultimate end was the same -- a man dead. Old Testament frontier justice had to be served. Man's insatiable hunger for grotesquery had to be satisfied.
Guns, of course, were the first course of action. Blacksmith Hench Cox fired his 32-20 five times at Mary; the bullets hardly phased her. Sheriff Gallahan "knocked chips out of her hide a little" with his .45, according to witness Bud Jones. But as the circus manager stated, "There ain't gun enough in this country that could do the trick."
Some suggested hooking Mary to two opposing railroad engines and dismembering her, or crushing her between two facing engines. Both were dismissed as too cruel. And so it was decided, instead, that "Murderous Mary" would be hung by the neck from a derrick car.
More than 2,500 witnesses gathered to watch Mary swing near the powerhouse at the nearby Clinchfield Railyards in Erwin, Tennessee. The roustabouts chained Mary's leg to the rail while they struggled to get another chain around her neck. When they began to lift her up the crowd was horrified to hear the bones and ligaments cracking in her tethered foot. She was lowered and released from the rail and a second attempt ensued.
It doesn't seem surprising that the chain from which Mary hung snapped shortly after she was raised off the ground. It was, after all, just a 7/8" chain and Mary weighed 10,000 pounds. She hit the ground and sat upright, immobilized from the pain of a broken hip.
A stronger chain was attached, the winch was put into motion yet again, and this time Mary died. They left her hanging for a half-hour and then dumped her in the grave they had dug with a steam shovel.
There is a final irony, one that firmly places Mary's murder in a specific time and place. You see, some oral histories claim that Mary was not buried but burned on a pile of crossties. According to the March 1971 issue of the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, author Thomas Burton reports that this inaccurate recall "stems from confusion of the hanging with another incident that occurred in Erwin, the burning on a pile of railroad ties of a Negro who allegedly abducted a white girl."
There is an antique shop in Erwin memorializing -- or should I say capitalizing -- on Mary's death. The owners of the Hanging Elephant Antiques Shop sell T-shirts emblazoned with Mary's likeness, which also graces the side of their building. I think I may go there some day. If I do, I'll be sure to bring some crossties and a Zippo.
(Inspired by an article appearing in Blue Ridge Country Magazine)