I’ve never understood people that think the world begins and ends in New York City, or revolves around it. Ironically, though, I am not sure I’ll ever leave–not without a great amount of pain and fear, anyway. I’ve grown up here and lived here for most of my life (except for stretches of childhood and four years at Oberlin College in northeastern Ohio). Most people I meet, upon hearing that, expect me to be an eternal New York elitist, but I actually have an intense love-hate relationship with it, which can make my opinions of the city a little confusing. For one, I’m a lifer that has resided for over a decade in Queens, which most transplants to the city never or rarely go to or scoff at or consider “reeeeeally far away.” I’m astounded by the fact that many people who groan about the beyond-their-means cost of living in Manhattan or Brooklyn and the perpetual gentrification/yuppie influence there are the same people that don’t consider the other three boroughs to be worth visiting and wouldn’t dream of living there, even for half the cost they pay now.
I roll my eyes at friends that move here and bitch, bitch, bitch about the long subway rides (“Then bring a book or iPod along to pass the time!” I suggest to them, to no avail) or refuse to journey more than 15 minutes outside of their immediate area. Why would you ever move to or settle in such a vast city and not explore it, instead pretending that everything of worth stretches over a mere two or three miles?
But I’m just as inclined to yell at friends that say such ignorant, unproven things as “There’s no other good city in the US.” How do they know? Where have they gone besides Boston or Philadelphia or maybe Chicago? When they went to, say, Buffalo, which they call the “armpit of the USA,” did they even TRY experiencing Allentown, the artsy neighborhood that has a string of charming bars, or venture out to the only bowling alley in the US–as far as I know–that stays open til 4 AM? How dare they judge a whole town based on one lackluster chicken wings meal and some harsh weather!
So I’m at war with myself, never seeing myself actually settling down here (I don’t have the means to) and never seeing myself leaving. The most pressing reason why I have a hard time envisioning the latter option (especially since starting this blog) is the overwhelming amount of rare film screening options here, at the Museum of Modern Art, Museum of the Moving Image, Anthology Film Archives, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Film Forum and Spectacle Theater, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to name just a few. To have all that within such easy reach is an immensely enviable privilege. It’s also, at times, sheer hell, pulling your hair out having to decide which impossible-to-find film to see when two such screenings clash, or whether you have the energy to argue with your understandably exasperated wife about canceling/postponing plans to watch these films. (I have annoyed so many directors, curators and film foundations over the past year, plaguing them with endless questions about when, if ever, the films whose one-time screenings I missed will be available on DVD).
To my deep chagrin, 2014 was the worst year so far for Hidden Films entries. Part of that is because I’ve been busy with Village Voice reviews and festival write-ups, part of that is because interviews I planned or began over a year ago have been indefinitely delayed–or thwarted by, uh, people dying. But a more agonizing reason is because I’ve filled up countless notebooks attending these theatrical screenings and found no way to organize my notes into coherent blog entries. Sometimes the films are part of a series–the Film Forum, for instance, often does a month-long retrospective on Hitchcock or Capra or film noir in general–in which only a handful of films are unavailable on Netflix. I make a note of which ones I can either download or find on YouTube, Amazon, third party DVD sites or even in screening rooms at university libraries–and which ones I can literally ONLY see at this theater, at this exact time (unless I want to break into some film archivist’s attic!) My notion is that once I have seen ALL of this director or actor or film movement’s works, only then I can write a sensible blog entry.
Well, sometime early this month I grew tired of notebooks piling up on my desk, filled with analyses of movies I’ve been watching at these theaters for the past year and a half that have yet to become blog entries. Life is too short–and too busy–to wait and wait until I have all possible input on a filmmaker before committing to any output. So enough with cohesion, enough with organization, enough with this OCD bullshit! It’s high time I start reporting on these films (before I downright forget everything about them!)
It seems fitting to do this as a beginning-of-year roundup. And also, there is some organization here, in the sense that I indeed saw all these films in public in New York City. And while I hate phrases like “Only in New York,” which too many people say when anything odd happens in public (as if odd things don’t happen everywhere), I can attest to the fact that New York City audiences are one-of-a-kind. They are often ill-tempered, impatient, loudly and proudly sick; they are short-sighted too, and walking contradictions–the same ones that sigh angrily at latecomers and whisperers will often, five minutes later, behave rudely themselves. Commenting on these crowds–which many of my favorite film reviewers like David Denby are known to do–is part of the fun of writing on films seen in a New York City theater (part of a tragically dying breed; who knows how much longer these theaters will even be around?) I’m also lucky to be on the East Coast where there are indeed four seasons, and often the weather or time of year in which you see a movie lends itself to the experience.
One final note: I AM withholding from writing about films made by certain directors that I’ve been planning for a long time to do entries on (including Robert Altman, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Patrick Lung Kong, who died a month after I saw him introduce several films at a week-long Moving Image tribute). I would also rather wait to discuss some of the blacklisted Communist films I saw, as I have not seen enough to write about them in context.
At the end of Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” the schlocky film maven and his sweetheart duck out of the disastrous premiere of “Plan 9 From Outer Space”–still considered by most to be the worst movie of all time–and drive off in blissful self-denial (they think the film will be a hit). A little placard tells us about the sordid, sad final stage of Wood’s life–he died 18 years after “Plan 9’s” 1959 theatrical release, having been reduced for the last ten or so years of his career to shooting softcore porno films in his living room. But very little of Wood’s late output has ever been released.
In September, I attended an Anthology Film Archives screening of “Take It Out in Trade,” which was shot in 1970 and has heretofore only been glimpsed via silent outtakes released on a 1995 VHS tape from Something Weird Video. It’s a hilariously witless, horrendously photographed spoof of dime-store detective novels, about a private eye (Michael Donovan O’Donnell) hired by a rich socialite couple to find their daughter, who’s run away and become a high-priced call girl at a bordello. The detective mostly uses his clients’ money to travel around Europe (we know this because Wood repeats the same shot of an airplane landing, and then poses O’Donnell in front of blurry posters of various landmarks). While there, he sneaks into the homes of various prostitutes he’s encountered, watching them in action with assorted clients. O’Donnell is always perched behind the same stairway banister, whatever city or apartment he’s in, and he seems to be spying on the copulating couples–who are never in the same shot as him–from miles away.
To say the dry-humping sex scenes–most of them accompanied by jazz flute or jungle percussion–are not erotic is putting it mildly, but they’re certainly weird. There is breast chewing. There is a girl who puts make-up on her rear end. There is a man who plays pool, seemingly unaware that two lesbians are pawing at each other on the pool table. There’s a repeated nude shot of the missing call girl, every time her name is mentioned, with xylophone effects. The climax involves the poor detective arriving at the whorehouse, being attacked, tied up and sexually molested by several of the girls, and then finally “rescuing” the missing girl. Her parents, however, refuse to pay him more money. “Then I’m gonna take it out in trade!” he exclaims, carrying the girl off to her bedroom. “The End” is then branded on a pair of buttocks.
Ed Wood, of course, pops up in drag, as the aged prostitute who took the main call girl under her wing. That’s not as funny as the script’s mangling of popular phrases (example: “With all the friends she had, she didn’t need enemies.”)
It’s not fair that New York City audiences are the sole people that got to see the full print (though I can’t say demand is all that high: the theater was about one-third full). The owners of Something Weird Video–if it’s still around–should make a deal and get all 80 minutes distributed.
I’ve generally made it a rule not to write about porno films (even soft-core ones) for this blog. As if I’m not drowning in a sea of rare “legit” films as it is! When the film in question is by Ed Wood, however, I make an exception. And when it’s part of Anthology Film Archives’ tribute not only to Gloria Leonard–the late radical feminist porn star who started the erotica mag High Society–but also to gay directors of straight porn films (in this case, Chuck Vincent), I also make an exception.
Chuck Vincent died, from AIDS, in 1991. He made a slew of purposefully cheesy, tongue-in-cheek smut films and was quite respected, but I’d never heard of him until this screening. I had, however, already seen one of his films, the 1979 romp “Summer Camp,” which I and a few high school friends purchased in 1998 at Sam Goody (the now-defunct record store). There are many ridiculous aspects to that incident. Not only did we buy it at Sam Goody, which, despite its “Adult” VHS section, was a family-friendly store that clearly didn’t sell actual smut; we bought it at a Sam Goody in Southampton, the stodgiest, WASP-iest town in all of New York. Despite all this, we expected “Summer Camp”–and the two other forgettable 1970s soft-core films included on the cassette, which I believe was called “Midnite Movies”–to be legitimate porn.
It isn’t. It’s a masterpiece.
“Summer Camp” is an edge-of-your-seat thriller about the greedy owner of the struggling Camp Malibu, who gets a capital idea: let’s bring the most ardent camp counselors from years past back for a reunion, and they will put that enthusiasm to good cause and fix the place up. Nothing can go wrong, right? There’s no way these crazy kids are still the panty-raiding, girl-chasing horndogs and nymphomaniacs they were 10 years ago, right?
I had no idea at the time that the director of “Summer Camp” was a celebrated, deliberately, uh, campy film director. I thought the film was genuinely aiming for irony-free laughs, and failing miserably. But we sure laughed. At the look of death on the camp owner’s face when a prankster hits him in the face with a pillow. At the way the nervous camp chef, when propositioned by the nymphomaniac to go at it in the industrial freezer, stutters, “Ri-ri-ri-right now?” And at the following exchange, which happens after a cowboy hat-wearing rube is ditched, mid-tryst, by the nympho–who also steals his clothes–and then gets caught by the chef: Chef: “What are you doing?” Rube: “Uh, I’m…workin’!” Chef: “Yeah, right, ‘workin.’ And I bet I know who you were workin’ on!” Rube, dumbfounded: “Ya do?!” (The chef and the rube slap five).
There aren’t that many Chuck Vincent films on Netflix. I don’t have the time or patience to watch even a fraction of them. I can only imagine they are mostly akin to the two I watched at Anthology–“Roommates” and “MisBehavin‘”–intermittently funny but not nearly as funny as “Summer Camp.”
It makes me laugh just to describe the plot of “MisBehavin’,” but before I get into all that, I should describe the oddly serious and pretentious nature of this particular screening. Gloria Leonard died earlier this year. To pay homage to her, several of her former co-stars, now in their sixties and seventies, showed up to the mid-June screening, presumably for a Q&A session after the film. But they raised their voices long before that, while they were still in their theater seats. As a slideshow played photos, pre-screening, of Leonard at her most wily and silly, they began to complain: “There’s supposed to be music over this!” Then they began dictating each photo, who the people were in it, what the event in question was, how strong-willed Gloria Leonard was. They corrected a few things the Anthology announcer said about her. There were audible groans when the announcer said the only version Anthology could find of “MisBehavin'” was a soft-core print. Then previews started, one of them for “Roommates,” which the late Screw Magazine founder Al Goldstein granted the hilarious rave “100%!”
The movie, which only features Leonard in a supporting role, began and I started to write: “Two vaudeville ghosts, one who turned out great in the afterlife because he lived for love, his shorter friend lived for greed. Suddenly a horrible rock band is playing at someone’s riverfront mansion party. It’s set in the present, but all the dialogue is slightly more profane 1930s screwball comedy-style. The party is celebrating a woman’s 13th divorce. Rita, the divorcee, is throwing the party. A Spanish staff member is smitten with her. The smitten guy, whose love is unrequited, tries to light himself on fire, but he can’t ignite the match. Rita’s mother in law, angry at the latest divorce of her son, tries to kill Rita with a rifle but gets attacked by a bear, which the two ghosts (who are watching over the party silently) have conjured up. There’s an orgy in the bathroom with honky-tonk disco music, toe-sucking, a girl masturbating against a pool ladder. All the sounds are muted except ass-slapping. We then find out that the ghosts are making a bet: will Rita and her entourage end up living for love, or money? They create a romantic, handsome male apparition for her to fall for. (The more cynical ghost looks exactly like Patton Oswalt). Meanwhile, Rita is pressured to marry an elderly millionaire, whom she doesn’t love, but is enamored with a Native American hunk; naturally, both of her suitors, as well as a dumb hick, show up at the same time to court her, and she hides them in different rooms, somehow having time for separate, rushed trysts with each of them. The Italian suitor keeps unsuccessfully trying to kill himself. The mother-in-law tries to blow up the lovers with dynamite but instead blows her own ass off when a dog displaces the dynamite. Later, the Italian suitor’s final suicide attempt–with a hairdryer in a bathtub–inadvertently electrocutes the mother-in-law. There’s a stand-off between the suitors. “I’m her fiancee!” the old millionaire shouts. “Well, I’m her fi-an-Sioux!” the Native American responds. She ends up choosing no one and driving off with the ghosts. The rock n’ roll band at the beginning was called Harlequin.”
The Q&A session afterwards had many interesting tidbits. Leonard was described as “intimidating, Mensa-smart, tall.” One of the porn stars went on a double date with her–and Gary Busey! She allegedly knew Robin Leach, dated Ted Turner, had a disastrous date with Larry King, who was rude and forceful with her. The ingenue star of “MisBehavin'” (Leslie Bovee) left the trade, became very religious and never talks about her past. Leonard was a free speech advocate, a single Mom, a huge proponent of AIDS tests being a mandatory measure for porn performers. Her Dad rejected her and she was an accident, which he told her directly. She was supposed to be in a mainstream Chuck Vincent film, but he blacklisted her after she outed him in a magazine article. She made adult films on and off until the age of 59 and died at 73.
In “Roommates,” a drama major ditches college–and her thankless affair with her married professor–and heads to New York City to become a star. She moves in with a pill-popping fashion model and an ex-prostitute, whose former matron (Leonard) cajoles her to return. Instead she gets work as an actress in a cornball catfood commercial, but the advertising business is just as if not more sleazy; quickly her agent pimps her out to a client played by, of course, Ron Jeremy (he’s a premature ejaculator). At one point, a former john of hers from Cleveland shows up at the girls’ apartment; when she refuses to service him, he delivers the immortal line, “I’m only in New York twice a year and I want a blowjob!” The campiness is temporarily offset by the very ugly subplot in which the model’s creepy boyfriend involves her in a horrible gang rape; he later beats her half to death. Fortunately the actress has a happier time; she lands a part in a hit play, then suddenly turns her hunky gay co-star straight! (I wonder if it was Vincent who came up with that offensive little plot point; he shared scriptwriting duties with Rick Marx). The whore-turned-commercial actress gets to punch her sleazy agent in the face. The model gets no such revenge on her tormentor, but she does kick her drug habit and move back home with her mom.
I later found out that an R-rated version of the film was released at the Quad Cinema in New York City, and raved about by Judith Crist in the New Yorker. It is not high art but it has genuinely intelligent and interesting female characters, who are treated with decency and sympathy, indeed a rare thing to find in hardcore (or even most softcore) porn.
“Black God, White Devil” is one of two films I attended at MoMA’s two-month-long retrospective on experimental 1960s and 1970s Brazilian cinema. At the forefront of the leftist Cinema Novo movement was filmmaker Glauber Rocha, who made “Black God” in 1964. I brought my wife along as we had just returned two weeks earlier from our honeymoon in Brazil; the film was shot and set in the Bahia region, in the Northeast near Salvador, our favorite spot on the trip. But this is certainly a far different Bahia from the one we experienced. There’s no carts selling shrimp and palm oil sauce fritters, no charming oceanfront scenery. In fact, the characters hallucinate about oceans, after the false god they encounter claims the barren, arid ranch lands they live on will soon part and turn into water. The movie is as stark, fierce and unsettling as its landscape; unfortunately, it’s sometimes just as boring, too.
The film is somewhat stylized from the getgo. Over shots of dead cattle, armies of flies and cowboys, a Western-style ballad–sung by an omniscient narrator, “Blind Julio,” who eventually sings on-camera rather than off, injecting himself into the action–gives us a brief backstory of Manuel and Rosa, a dirt-poor husband and wife with an infant son. Manuel is a lowly ranch worker, and when his greedy landowner employer refuses to pay him, he kills him and the couple must flee. They end up at Monte Santo, the punishing mountain encampment of Sebastian, a black missionary who promises miracles to his flock of followers if they follow his every ritual. Sebastian trains Manuel and the others to fight the greedy land barons who are ruining Brazil, while Rosa, not buying Sebastian’s preaching, sulks on the sidelines. Meanwhile, an outlaw, Antonio, is hired by the church, which fears Sebastian’s radical ways, to assassinate Sebastian.
In one of many torturous rites, Manuel is forced by Sebastian to walk up all of Monte Santo (which, in a stunning wide shot, looks as vast as the Great Wall of China) on his knees, while carrying a heavy stone over his head. (In real life, Geraldo Del Rey, the actor playing Manuel, insisted on doing this himself, and had to leave the production for two days due to exhaustion). Eventually Manuel is so brainwashed he believes Sebastian’s claim that he won’t be “purified” unless he sacrifices his baby and “cleanses” Rosa’s head with the baby’s blood. He does this, and just when the assassin shows up to do his deed, Rosa explodes with emotion and stabs Sebastian to death. A massacre ensues, but Antonio mysteriously spares Rosa and Manuel so, he later explains, they can “tell their story”; perhaps he respects their capacity to kill.
At this point, the movie seems to end and begin again. Rosa and Sebastian meet an even crazier false idol, a bloodthirsty man named Corisco, who believes he was made immortal by St. George and given a spear to slay landowners and protect the poor. He is Antonio’s mortal enemy, for Antonio killed Corisco’s personal God, whom he still worships. Corisco and his henchmen recruit Manuel to join them in slaughtering or castrating landowners (“Geld his loins!” he commands Manuel, in the film’s most brutal scene) and raping their wives. Again Rosa watches in silent horror, though later she becomes smitten with (or maybe just brainwashed by) Corisco. The film ends with an elaborate gunfight between Antonio and Corisco, as Manuel (who seems even more indifferent towards Rosa than before) dashes toward an emerging sea that is probably his hallucination.
“Black God, White Devil” isn’t a great film. Parts drag, and I did not find the symbolism to be all that involving or shocking or meaningful. The film is a none-too-subtle condemnation of false idols and, more broadly, of certain savage aspects of organized religion. But the violence is quite startling and the mood is ominous and Rocha is clearly a formidable craftsman; the luminous black and white photography is the film’s greatest asset. It’s a goal of mine to see the rest of his repertoire.
A Region 2 DVD with subtitles can be purchased on Amazon for around $30.
The second Brazilian film I saw at MoMA was Neville D’Almeida’s 1971 film “Mangue-Bangue,” which MoMA received the only surviving copy of in 2010 and restored. D’Almeida introduced the screening and said that his first two films, shot in the late 1960s, were never shown because of Brazil’s dictatorship at the time.
Barely over an hour long, “Mangue-Bangue” is a look at the transgendered section of Rio de Janeiro’s red light district, which D’Almeida was introduced to by avant-garde pioneer Hélio Oiticica. There is no dialogue and scant plot, just a succession of images–sometimes alluring, sometimes jarring and sometimes just plain disgusting–that are meant to evoke poverty, as the music alternates between flamenco, hard rock, an ominous Jew’s harp and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
The film is most notable for its almost constant nudity. Whether the predominantly rail-thin characters are out prostituting themselves in the street, or breast-feeding, or smoking reefer, or defecating in the woods, they often do so with little to no clothing on. D’Almeida intercuts scenes of very poor people shooting up or dancing in the streets or showering with dizzying, hand-held shots of frantic traders on the stock room floor; at random times, he throws in shots of cock-fighting. One of the traders becomes ill and begins to vomit and we see lightining-fast cutting between the vomit and a chicken’s eye, vomit, eye, vomit, eye, vomit. (Perhaps this sickly man is investing in failing chicken futures??) He stumbles out of his corporate hellhole into the street, where he collapses in mud. One of the dirt-poor transgendered people meets the sick man, who is somehow miraculously clean, but still nonetheless on the street, imperiled. They embrace and giggle.
The rest of the film cuts between a skeletal, very feminine transgendered person lounging around her barebones apartment and in the woods (at one point, she scrawls the word “Renascer,” Portuguese for “rebirth,” on her chest with a Sharpie); a decidedly more masculine, hairy transgendered person urinating and shaving in the shower; and the now ruined stockbroker, reduced to a naked, ass-scratching, shitting, primordial creature in the woods (he even eats his own pubic hair lint). So while light on narrative, “Mangue-Bangue” is certainly heavy on symbolism, a warning cry about inescapable poverty and self-destruction and the sorry state of Brazil at the time.
At the Q&A session following the screening, D’Almeida said he wanted to make a “totally inappropriate” film as a response to the suffocating dictatorship, and also to make a “free movie” that shows people at their most intimate. For instance, he wanted to record the actual length of a shower rather than condense such a scene. Indeed, the film can be compared with the late-1960s Paul Morrissey-Andy Warhol collaborations, with their paucity of plot and lengthy shower scenes. But I found it far more exciting, powerful and (I mean this as a compliment) revolting than the Warhol-Morrissey experiments. The MoMA curators should take further steps into getting the film distributed; surely D’Almeida, who was excited to be watching the lost film for the first time since its initial showing at MoMA in 1973, is not standing in their way.