Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The true essence of America: Robert Vaughn and his clown friends

Each year at this time I return to a piece of footage that really sums up America for me. Herewith, the annual presentation of Robert Vaughn being mocked by clowns (no doubt Macy's employees whose one goal was to be seen on TV) as he read the Constitution at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in the late Eighties. I used to show this clip at every "video night" I hosted and aired it annually on the Funhouse TV show — this week I'll be doing a tribute to the work of George Kuchar, so there wasn't time (although I'm sure George would've approved).

I share it again, in the hopes that all of the world will someday know that THIS is the very essence of our country:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Disc-o-rama: My latest DVD reviews

Readers of this blog might be unaware that I also review new DVD releases regularly for the Disc Dish website. I'm quite proud of the work I do for the DD site, so herewith are the reviews of mine that have appeared in the last few months.

Godard's end-of-Sixties masterpiece Weekend

Robert Aldrich's taut political thriller Twilight's Last Gleaming

British comedian-ventriloquist Nina Conti's documentary about her relation to her very unusual (and funny) act, visiting a ventriloquist convention, and the grieving process, Nina Conti: Her Master's Voice

The great cult anti-sitcom starring Chris Elliott, Get a Life: the CompleteSeries

Robert Bresson's portrait of disaffected youth in the Seventies, The Devil, Probably

Terry Southern co-scripted Aram Avakian's unforgettable The End of the Road

Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer contains all three of Mailer's compulsively watchable “experimental” misfires

Aki Kaurismaki's simply sublime Le Havre

Bergman's trend-setting Summer With Monika made a star and a defiant sex symbol out of Harriet Andersson

John Cassavetes' most personal and disturbing “work-for-hire,” Too Late Blues

Pearls of the Czech New Wave showcases six great Czech films of the Sixties, including the mind-melting Daisies

The French biographical drama The Conquest offers a non-too-flattering look at former French pres Nicolas Sarkozy
The Rat Pack spirit runs through Who's Got the Action?, a totally ridiculous yet very entertaining big-screen sitcom episode starring the one and only Dean Martin

Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life, the Serge Gainsbourg biopic

Fassbinder's complex and brilliant sci-fi telefilm World on a Wire

And proof that Frank Tashlin was the filmmaker who was best able to make Jerry Lewis charming and even (gasp) loveable onscreen, Rock-a-bye Baby

Friday, November 9, 2012

Go, Go Second-Time Virgin!: Deceased Artiste Koji Wakamatsu

Take a look at this filmmaker warning you not to pirate his films:

He may not look it, but that gent, who passed away a few weeks back after being struck by a taxi in Tokyo, was a politically radical filmmaker who was capable of conveying the greatest cruelty and the most delicate uncertainty on film.

He was a critically lauded artist who had a youth among the Yakuza (in fact he directly calls himself a Yakuza in this interview footage) and wasn't allowed to visit the U.S. because of his internationally praised documentary about the terrorist group the United Red Army. (He was thought to have “consorted with” them by making the docu.)

Koji Wakamatsu was indeed a multifaceted filmmaker whose sudden death at 76 calls attention to his 105 films (the number varies from filmo to filmo, but all of his obits mention “over 100 films”). In the last decade of his life he concentrated on crafting “higher” works like Caterpillar (2010), United Red Army (2008), and The Millennial Rapture (2012), as well as a film released this year in Asia about Yukio Mishima's last day called 11.25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate; the film has not yet been shown in NYC and its environs.

Wakamatsu was thus an “arthouse favorite” by the time he became a senior, something that was never foreseen back in the Sixties and Seventies when he was making genre films, most prominently a series of “pink” (read: erotic/softcore) features that are still surprising and often shocking. The reason for this is his jarring mixture of sexual elements, nasty sadistic sequences, the aforementioned poetic images of uncertainty and loss, and politically radical themes and dialogue.

It has been thought by some critics that the reason he included such a pungent mix of elements was his desire to shock the censors, and while that is undoubtedly true, one has the impression watching his “pink” films that they were made by a filmmaker who was both *well* acquainted with the work of the French New Wave (the opening montage of Violated Angels [see below] is definitely derived from the work of Marker and Godard) and who firmly believed in the viewpoints espoused in his films, which ranged from Marxism to pure nihilism.

His obits and the interviews found online sketch his early years as a young man from a small town who moved to Tokyo and wound up “working with gangsters” (as noted, he himself was not so coy in his wording). He maintained that the turning point was when he went to prison for a time – the bullying he received at the hands of the guards hardened his anti-establishment beliefs and made him want to use the most potent “weapon” he could think of to get back at society’s gatekeepers, namely film. 

He initially worked for the famous Nikkatsu Studio but was fired in the mid-Sixties for crossing the line in one of his “pink” pictures. He then started up his own production company, for which he cranked out features with jarring images and un-fucking-forgettable titles, starting with The Embryo Hunts in Secret (1966). Other great Wakamatsu movie names include: Secrets Beyond the Wall; Abortion; Violated Angels; Naked Bullet; Violent Virgin; Serial Rapist; Go, Go Second-time Virgin; The Woman Who Wanted to Die; Shinjuku-Mad; Ecstasy of Angels; and the wonderfully dramatic Running in Madness, Dying in Love.

Although he acquired respectability on the film festival circuit in the last decade and his art movies remain for me “a subject for further research” (thanks, Mr. Sarris), I thought I would direct you to three excellent examples of Wakamatsu's very wild and VERY unconventional “erotic” cinema. I should also note for the record that he served as the executive producer of Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, (1976), giving him an “arthouse” credit long before films like Caterpillar had caught the eyes of Western critics.

And on to the clips. First, a chunky bit of his 1972 film Ecstasy of the Angels, which conveys the delirium inherent in his work:

I edited together and uploaded two montages of Wakamatsu at his most poetic, and “incredibly strange.” The first is comprised of three excerpts from his “pink” film Violated Angels (1967), his feverish variation on the story of serial killer Richard Speck, who preyed on student nurses. The opening sequence here is a real stunner that shows KW's debt to both Godard and (especially) Marker.

The second montage is a distillation of ten minutes of one of the uniquely titled films of all time, Wakamatsu's hyper-Sixties celebration of nihilism and suicide, Go, Go Second-Time Virgin (1969). How many movie theme songs have the name "Norman Mailer" in them? The final segment from the film I include here counterpoints violent images from manga with pics of Sharon Tate, just in case you didn't know which murder-spree this film took its inspiration from (the repeated use of the word "pig" might've clued you in beforehand).

Oh, and how could I forget to mention that KW's staccato surname definitely belongs in the short of list of filmmaker names that can be said over and over and over again? (For what reason? Do you REALLY require a reason?)

Thanks to Paul G. for the subtitled copies of the films and the list of film titles in translation.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

“Frankenstorm” and the three nannies

The media coverage of Hurricane Sandy last week was utterly fascinating, in that it primarily consisted of photogenic anchors vamping for entire segments of TV time, somewhat dowdier (and definitely windswept) on-location reporters standing around in the real depths of the story, and three politicians constantly holding press conferences – governors Cuomo and Christie, and Little Lord Fauntleroy himself, the billionaire mayor.

The last-mentioned held press conferences every few hours (given the way they were rerun, it felt like every few minutes); Cuomo and Bloomberg dealt with the “Frankenstorm” by shutting city transit down, telling people to stay at home (unless, of course, they needed evacuation), and saying in essence “just listen to us, we know what's best for you” (that's a politician-b.s.-to-Ed translation).

What was galling about the results of this 12-hour storm — millions of people losing their power (due to an explosion at a power station), the subways tunnels being flooded, and random other first-time occurrences — was that the city had a dry run for this whole disastrous affair last year with Hurricane Irene, when nothing of any heavy consequence happened weather-wise in NYC, and clearly NOTHING was learned by the “nannies” in office in the way of prevention of some aspects of this crisis.

As I noted last year, Irene was a landmark event in NYC history, as it marked the first time the entirety of the subway system was shut down, in anticipation of flooding. The MTA and public transit currently being the most unreliable, randomly executed, shiftless, and downright shitty aspect of living in this city (being self-regulating and reporting to no government official at all), I thought this was a bad idea, and it turned out to be an unnecessary one then, since Irene was mostly a non-starter in the tri-state area. (Those living by the water always experience outages and grief during severe storms.)

This time out it was a good idea to turn off the subways – although the fact that that the badly run MTA needs more than a full 24 hours to turn the whole godawful system off, thus doing the nanny trick of immobilizing the city when it shouldn't be immobilized, is part of the “we're doing what's best for you!” attitude that has proven to be the standard operating principle of the Bloomberg administration.

So as the week moved on from Monday through Wednesday the news coverage was a series of Cuomo-Bloomberg press conferences, followed by facts, figures, and “closings” of businesses and institutions. The most interesting aspect of the press conferences was the fact that on Tuesday and Wednesday both politicians were solidly patting themselves on the back for a job well done. (Note: I leave the lout Christie and N.J. out of this discussion because I live over here and can't address N.J. issues — I don't have a driver's license, don't have a car, and don't live near the water.)

By Thursday and Friday, it became apparent that a BIG portion of the city was without power, so in fact, the gov and tiny billionaire hadn't really done a great job, they had put on a great show. And were in fact still putting on a great show — please remember that Bloomberg constantly has to fight the “I don't care about anyone in the city I run, I was having my usual weekend jaunt at my summer home in Bermuda” image that emerged back in 2010 when the city was inundated by snow, and he attended to the problem when he goddamned felt like it.

These press conferences from the “tough” governor and the fey, monotone, wouldn't-care-about-you-if-you-were-bleeding-in-front-of-him (unless you were one of his billionaire cronies) mayor are still continuing as of today (Sunday), and they contain much less back-patting.

The sight of Bloomberg being yelled at by citizens in Rockaway the other day was a joyous one – of course it made no impression on him because the average working individual is not someone Mayor Mike has any care for, nor does he encounter them on a regular basis. He does want to change their diet and personal habits, though, from smoking to drinking soda to nursing their baby with formula.

The New York Times reported that Bloomberg was dead set on having the NYC Marathon take place today, despite the fact that it would divert resources from those who needed them most – the citizens of the city the tiny billionaire chose to run (again, I think of Citizen Kane: "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper" – insert "a major city" in place of "newspaper"). He was only convinced to cancel it when he was informed that such a callous act would impact badly on his legacy. He does NOT care about the citizens of this city.

Perhaps NYCers, who will most likely go to the polls this Tuesday and vote for our Democratic president, can THINK for a second before they pull the lever for yet another Republican for NYC mayor when that election comes around (it will have been 20 years of rule-by-nanny by the time Bloomberg becomes a “private citizen” again).

Then again, I continue to vote for Democrats and will continue to do so (I don't earn enough to support Republicans, or their evil, “hipper” twins, Libertarians), but the amount of disappointment and disillusion one feels as a result of the Dems' stunningly wimpish behavior is a major sadness. Cuomo was indeed just as big a windbag during Hurricane Sandy as Bloomberg was.

Climate change is for real, and all over the world people are experiencing extreme weather on a regular basis. We will see what city administrators have learned from this sudden, very expected crisis, and whether they will discuss with city services and... oh, I don't know, Con Edison... what measures can be put in place to guard against the effects of a hurricane, most importantly retaining power during and after the storm. (Every blackout we have in America seems to have an “oops!” aspect to it; preemptive action and infrastructure are things we do not believe in at all.)

Hurricane Irene meant nothing to these numbskulls and found them doing nothing to prepare for the occurrence of an actual hurricane hitting the city. Now that we have had a “severe weather event” that eclipsed most of the past torrents and monsoons, perhaps they will work to PREPARE for the inevitable annual reocurrence of this kind of weather.