Meet the Feebles
One summer night in 1996 I was out with a group of friends who ended up at Chicago’s Brew & View movie theater/bar in the Lakeview neighborhood to see something called Meet the Feebles. All I knew about it was from my friend Joe who said that it was supposed to be crazy and involved puppets. I’m not big into degenerate spectacles involving puppets, in theory, but what I saw that night changed my life. It was so incredibly disgusting, yet so powerful, that it took my breath away. A backstage melodrama like nothing I had ever witnessed, I finally had to lie down on the sticky floor of the theater because passions writ so large and impossible on the screen were overwhelming me to the point of exhaustion and I had never been subjected to something so simultaneously powerful and gross in my life.
Meet the Feebles is a film with so many illustrious qualities I’m not sure I’ve even discovered them all. It’s a movie about the corruption of show biz life as embodied by the Feebles, a British Muppets-esque variety show troupe with some really horrific and yet remarkably relatable problems. The film manages to address drug abuse, sexually transmitted disease, the parasitic nature of the entertainment press, the naiveté of young performers just aching to be given a chance, and a lot of incredibly depraved stuff that should probably never have been filmed. And all with a cast of puppets!Continue Reading
Over The Edge
It's exciting knowing that once upon a time the music of Cheap Trick inspired chaos and teen violence. With the Vietnam War over and lost, Nixon out of the White House and Disco past its apex, what was left to rebel against? In the case of these pot smokin' rock'n & rollin juvenal delinquents it's the closing of the local rec center that gets their panties in a wad. Over The Edge is an amazing relic from 1979, like its East-Coast cousin from the same year, The Warriors, it perfectly captures its period and its only-in-America geography. Instead of the ethnically diverse landscape of the street gang classic this one is an all-white, pre-Spielberg suburban West Coast sprawl, when kids were either jocks or burnouts, but all could agree that school sucked, parents are hypocrites, and cops are fascists. I bet the designers of Dazed And Confused took a look at this film's style. Also it's been said that it inspired Kurt Cobain's teen rebellion opus "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
It also mark the debut for Matt Dillon who would reign over filmdom as the king of mumbling teen rebellion for the next decade. What a run he would have. He followed Over The Edge with the summer camp virginity-losing caper, Little Darlings (still not available on DVD and out of print on VHS). He then would play Moody, the ultimate high school bully, in My Bodyguard. And then he would win the James Dean wannabe sweepstakes in the SE Hinton misunderstood teen trifecta of Tex, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish (the later two would mark the end of Francis Ford Coppola as an important filmmaker). Of course in recent years Dillon can be found mugging his way through such dribble as Herbie Fully Loaded (oh, how lucky James Dean was to die young).Continue Reading
Returning from nearly a decade of making films in Europe, Anthony Perkins stars as Dennis Pitt, a mysterious young man with a history of being emotionally disturbed. Like many character actors who had such iconic roles as Perkins (see Psycho), it’s hard to imagine him as anyone else. But in retrospect it is easier to see him as the great talent that he was. Simultaneously charming, terrifying, and maniacal. A slapstick master to boot.
Dennis’s parole officer, Azenauer (the late John Randolph), sets the cautionary tone in the first 5 minutes with his predictive warning to Dennis: ”You’re going out into a very real and tough world. It’s got no place for fantasies.” Not only warning Dennis but we, the audience too. There is a lot of misconception and confusion thrown our way over the next 90 minutes. Dennis settles into a New England industrial town where he meets Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld). Its rural Massachusetts locale isolates it from the tumultuous atmosphere of city life during the 1960s. Essentially in a bubble, this film could’ve been made anywhere, in any time, and I think that’s the real strength of the story.Continue Reading
The ability to suspend disbelief is easiest to do when you're watching films about global conspiracies, justice systems, and especially politics. Having movies like this be shot in a documentary style only aids this experience. After seeing this movie, I can honestly say that I haven't been this motivated to discuss politics and justice in a long time, and I'm glad that a film could have the power to stir the pot. Punishment Park is set in 1970, a year before the film's release. Nixon is president and we are currently occupying Vietnam. Due to the war, America is going through a brutish and frightening phase where even a handful of politicians are resigning from office over their disgust with the nation's actions towards its outspoken citizens and the overall progress of mankind. With new laws and the proposed threat of Russia, there has been a complete re-working of the justice system in which American citizens have lost basic freedoms that were once seen as the staple of American life. These new laws include the "cancellation of immunity," stop and frisk laws, activation of detention camps, the ability to overrule basic amendments of the Constitution during trial, and the McCarran Act—a real law developed in the '50s that called for the ability to investigate Americans who posed a threat to national security, and was later dismissed and "revised."
Individuals seen as a threat to national security include those who start riots or do any sort of activism that carries a violent message; those evading or refusing the draft; those charged with Communism; and even a privileged 19-year old whose pop music is accused of having harmful messages and promoting violence. As a particular group of people are being given a ludicrous trial by a bonkers committee of trustees, a batch of people who have already received their own trials are being transported to Punishment Park—the alternative option to a prison sentence after being found guilty.Continue Reading
There are multiple attitudes through which one can examine the film Radio On. It’s another example of the phenomenon of a film critic becoming a director. Christopher Petit was the editor for the film section of Time Out London from 1973 to 1978, and though he never achieved the notoriety of the Nouvelle Vague directors who once wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, his film career has turned out far better then Roger Ebert (who penned the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) or Susan Sontag (who lost some of her critical credibility for the ill received Duet for Cannibals). Radio On is also a unique British-German coproduction, written and directed by an Englishman, but produced and shot by two Germans, Wim Wenders and Wenders’ ubiquitous cameraman Martin SchÃ¤ffer. The art direction of the film is best compared to David Bowie’s album cover for Low, no coincidence considering Bowie’s “Heroes/Helden” is the song that starts the film. Actually, Radio On might one day be added to the list of films that will be better remembered for their soundtrack’s significance than the film’s cinematic merit. The film makes prominent use of hipster favorites like Kraftwerk, Ian Dury, and Devo, and includes a cameo from Sting in one of his first roles. Now Sting is not a hipster favorite, and probably never will be after boasting of his tantric exploits to multiple media outlets while promoting his adult contemporary hit “Desert Rose” in a slick Jaguar commercial. That doesn’t mean that we should forget Sting is a gifted actor, his performance in Brimstone & Treacle being a particular favorite.
It’s perfunctory to synopsize the plot in any film review, but here it seems somewhat irrelevant. A factory DJ drives to Bristol to investigate the mysterious death of his brother, but the plot is only a pretext for long periods of listening to the radio broadcasting the hip music and chaotic news reports of Northern Ireland bloodshed and conservative outrage that prevailed in Thatcherite England, as well as to look out the window at the excellently photographed landscapes. Once the DJ arrives in Bristol he becomes distracted by a German woman (Lisa Kreuzer) looking for her five-year-old daughter, Alice. This is a clumsy attempt by Wenders to expand the narrative of one of his own characters from his 1974 film Alice in the Cities, where Kreuzer plays a woman who abandons her daughter nine-year-old daughter of the same name. Wenders tries to create an impromptu prequel and belatedly illuminate the viewers of his previous film that Alice’s mother had once traveled to England to search for the child she would subsequently abandon. Considering Radio On is so sensitive to the politics and music of the decade it occupies, it was unwise of Wenders to ignore the glaring asynchronicity of Alice being five in 1980 and nine in 1974.Continue Reading
Alejandro Jodorowsky. The name is familiar among cult fanatics, and to some, is one that requires forgiving. Film critics over the years have regarded him as a has-been for the most part, looking only to his most popular works, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, as his redeeming accomplishments. His filmography, while considerably short, is oddly consistent in a strange way. Fando and Lis is fairly well liked, and for a surrealist working very little well-past middle age, having at least a few adored films is something to be proud of. Besides Tusk and Rainbow Thief (both regarded as disasters), Santa Sangre remained his most inaccessible film; I'm sure diehard fans remember their efforts to hunt down bootlegs and imports of these works. For the first time in a very long time, Santa Sangre has been given a formal U.S. release on DVD and Blu-ray, though it was a bit of a letdown to hear that the rumor of a Criterion release was untrue.
The movie has an enthralling background and was made almost two decades after Holy Mountain. It is thought to be his one and only horror film and was produced by Claudio Argento, the brother of Dario Argento. I should add, with no disrespect to Argento fans, that the imagery and use of color in this film far surpasses any Italian horror film to date. The going rumor is that Jodorowsky was inspired to direct the film after meeting a serial killer in real life. So, mixing that with the lack of limitations from an uptight producer, Jodorowsky created a movie that was truly more unique than his others, which also stars his sons and shares similarities with what are thought to be his best works.Continue Reading
Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb
The Bolex Brothers production, The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, is a creepy, yet enchanting, twist on the classic fairytale. It conjures up all sorts of menacing, unnerving, and violent imagery—unlike that of the traditional tale. It's set in a seedy tenement building where an unsuspecting couple conceive a tiny baby—a child so small that they name him Tom Thumb. We quickly see that the world is a harsh place, as Tom's mother is slain and he is kidnapped by sinister men who want to use him for experimentation and genetic research. The plot unfolds around how this tiny creature, with the help of some very unusual friends and the love of his father, escapes the evil forces holding him hostage; the subtext revolving around how this amazing child remains innocent and caring in a world full of fear, reactionary hatred, and prejudice.
The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb uses stop-motion animation in ways that I have never seen before to create scenes of epic discomfort and fear. Live actors are combined in scenes with clay-mation figures, which causes an uncomfortable, almost anxiety driven performance by the actors, who move with a lurching stagger and speak with a mumbling coo. It took dozens of hours to animate the live actors for seconds of film—an amazing feat! But it's not just the way the live actors are animated that makes this a visual triumph. Every scene is covered in tiny animated insects, the walls seem to breathe, and the earth to shake. The sets are awe-inspiring, to say the least.Continue Reading
Sid and Nancy
Like most bios of contemporary controversial figures, Sid and Nancy has its naysayers. Some music historians and punk aficionados have claimed that the film misrepresents some of its real life characters and their time line. Those complaints may be true. But no one has a qualm with the two stunning lead performances by Chloe Webb as the beyond annoying groupie, Nancy, and Gary Oldman as the drugged out Sex Pistols bassist, Sid Vicious (actually just window dressing for the group, he had the look, but never played on the records). The two make for an insane couple; it's a deranged Romeo & Juliet, two lost souls in a sea of heroin and self-destruction. This is a love story, with some dark humor mixed in, like a gutter version of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.
Coming off his cult hit Repo Man director Alex Cox beautifully captures the ugliness of the late '70s/early '80s punk and drug culture in London and New York. The film opens with Sid being arrested for murdering Nancy at The Chelsea Hotel (in real life many believed that he was genuinely innocent, done in by lazy New York cops who didn't want to search out the real killer). The film goes back and traces the two meeting as the Sex Pistols were taking off in London, the cover boys for the fledgling punk music scene. Nancy was an American, a stripper and a hooker who chased rock stars and drugs. After being rejected by the other Pistols, she found a willing victim in the rather naive and dim Sid. In the film she gets him hooked on the needle and becomes the voice in his head (a kinda less charming and less intelligent Yoko Ono).Continue Reading
Sins of the Fleshapoids
For those of you who do not know of Mike and George Kuchar, I highly recommend the documentary It Came From Kuchar which gives a thrilling account of their lives as underground filmmakers and artists. For those of you who know about them and are unable to find their work, I suggest looking at the releasing company Other Cinema, and the DVD compilations, Experiments in Terror. The documentary highlights their works, but three films stand out: The Devil's Cleavage, Born of the Wind, and Sins of the Fleshapoids. I was beyond thrilled to discover that some of their films were available for purchase, even if it's a just a few. The Other Cinema release of Fleshapoids also includes The Craven Sluck, and The Secret of Wendel Samson. Shot with consumer grade film with a cast of the director's friends, Fleshapoids is an experience in underground cinema that is not to be missed.
The Kuchars were at the tender age of 23 when they made this film, with Mike behind the camera and George in a starring role. The music assemblage and narration is done by Bob Cowan, and George Kuchar co-wrote the script. It takes place a million years in the future, where humans have enslaved androids with shells of human flesh, using them to do menial tasks and obey their every command. The earth suffered a nuclear war, turning rivers to poison and causing the near-death of all living things. The quest for scientific and mechanical knowledge brought about great turmoil, and now humans only indulge in the fulfillment of the senses. Picture hippies who wear mardi gras beads and fake furs. Their lairs are filled with leopard print, jewels, and bountiful displays of food. They call on the fleshapoids for massages and the ability to have everything done for them.Continue Reading
Zack Carlson, co-author of the new book Destroy All Movies, opened a screening of this movie the other night with a little note on what the film meant to punk exposure in cinema. He made a good point when talking about the fact that "punks" were often presented in films only as a cue to something negative, or were placed in an environment in order to tell the audience that the story was now unfolding in a bad part of town. American movies before, and during, the '80s have always done this sort of thing, be it with bikers, blacks, or just about any group most audiences were unfamiliar with. Eventually, these groups were shown respect and understanding in cinema, and Suburbia marks a big part of that transformation for those in the punk scene, and really, for homeless teenagers and runaways.
Shortly after Spheeris directed Decline of Western Civilization, she decided to make this movie, which follows the everyday happenings of a group of punk runaways. Perhaps the most impressive part about the movie is the tension built between the kids and the people who live in the suburbs; there is something tasteful about presenting a presumed safe place, like a suburb, as a rotting warzone. Aside from its bittersweet and often hilarious story, Suburbia also has performances placed into the plot from The Vandals, D.I., and T.S.O.L.Continue Reading