Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Karen Black Film Festival, now playing: Day of the Locust and The Great Gatsby. Two films showing the 20's and 30's as they seemed in the 70's.

Day of the Locust , released in 1976, is a deeply disturbing film that feels about 20 minutes too long. But the film does an impressive job of evoking 1930's Hollywood, the cruelty of the film industry, and has some truly masterful performances by Karen Black, Burgess Meredith and Donald Southerland.

The story, relentlessly faithful to Nathaniel West's apocalyptic, misogynist 1939 novella, charts the disillusionment of college-educated East Coast transplant Todd Hackett (William Atherton) as he works as set designer on B movies during the depression. Beginning at a scruffy apartment complex, grandly named The San Bernadino Arms, Hackett rents the "Earthquake Suite" complete with a deep fissure in the wall. From this bungalow on the brink of Armageddon, Hackett works on a vast painting of Los Angeles being destroyed by fire, and meets other show biz hangers-on such as Abe Kusich (played by Billy Barty with foul-mouthed bravado), peroxide blonde film extra, Faye Greener (Karen Black) and her vaudevillian father Harry (portrayed with all the shabby grace of a true vaudevillian by Burgess Meredith).

Both Ms. Black and Mr. Meredith received academy Award nominations, and both of them bring real pain to the grotesque and stylized father-daughter dynamic. A scene in which Faye belts out "Jeepers Creepers" to torment her father, in particular, is marvelously executed. Both Faye and Harry are first and foremost performers who will take an audience wherever they can get one. Selling snake oil door to door, Harry does his entire vaudeville routine for any chump unlucky enough open their door. To the point where the snake oil is merely a pretext. When Faye turns in the doorway with the light behind her and says to Todd: "I could only ever let a rich man love me," you know that Faye has said this many times before, and probably practiced it in her bedroom, staring into her mirror surrounded with movie star photos clipped from newspapers. Both Ms. Black and Mr. Meredith do an excellent job of of presenting us with people for whom artificiality is the only genuine they've got.

Ms. Black disappears into the role Faye. And here we get into a mis-en-abyme, because Faye is also playing the role of Faye. I love the scene at the movies, with Faye watching herself on screen as an extra in an Arabian Nights type of picture. She mirrors herself, admires herself,critiques herself, presents what was edited out, and opens a window into into Faye's performative life. As with the opening sequence of the film which shows Faye as an extra in a 19th Century costume chewing gum. We watch her transform at the very last moment into a duchess when the camera focuses on her.

One of the many things I enjoy about Karen Black's oeuvre is that she never really plays an ingenue. Her characters are always weighted down with too many problems, and cast into a world far too cut-throat, to follow an ingenue's trajectory. Yet, they still contain within them an ingenue's soft-focus feelings which have no place in this world and can only seep out at the margins. To say that Faye is just a cold-hearted chiseler who uses the severely damaged Homer Simpson as her butter and egg man is true. But her only other option, presented quite matter-of factly, is prostitution. When Faye humiliates Homer in the night club scene, we see her treating him as she has always been treated. In fact, he's the only person, oddly enough, who doesn't exploit her. And when she explains this to Todd, Ms. Black shows us the softest part of the very tough Faye. Todd's violent rage against Faye is not because she's amoral (which she is), and not because he actually cares about her (because he doesn't). He's angry that she has deprived him of the pleasure of exploiting her himself. It is the rage of the privileged. He's just slumming in Hollywood, but this is the poisoned soil that everyone else is rooted in. I think Mr. Atherton does a good job, but his character was so repulsive I found it hard to watch.

Day of the Locust depicts a grotesque and violent world that I didn't particularly enjoy spending time in. We end with massive riots in Los Angeles, all sorts of casual violence and sadism in the streets. The only possible ending for a world this bleak. The performances are great and Ann Roth won a BAFTA for Best Costume and she richly deserves it. Donald Sutherland is amazing as Homer Simpson, and like Ms. Black he totally disappears into the role. Geraldine Page does a star turn as a preacher in a marvelous scene that is also not to be missed. But overall the movie was too dark and cynical even for me,and I like Fassbinder. (Though in all frankness, I couldn't make it all the way through Berlin Alexanderplatz, so maybe I'm just lily-livered.) I thought They Shoot Horses Don't They? (another 70's take on the 30's) was more uplifting.

Whatever you do, do not watch The Great Gatsby. There are some terrific costumes, and Theoni V. Aldredge deserved that Oscar for Best Costume Design, but the only really good thing in this movie is Karen Black, as Myrtle. She's just not in it enough for you to slog all the way through it. It runs at a bloated 2 and a half hours long, it just feels like 12 hours. Save some time and watch her clips on youtube. Ms. Black has a terrific monologue where she describes falling for this lout of a rich guy. The camera pulls in for a claustrophobic close-up of her sweaty face and she delivers Masterpiece Theater. All of her longings and a lifetime of mistreatment are compressed into the way she says "patent-leather shoes." (You can watch it here, as part of a medley of scenes from great Karen Black films.) Ms. Black won a Golden Globe for her performance and this film is only watchable when she is in it.

I've seen mannequins in department store windows with more personality than was shown by Robert Redford in this movie. In contrast, Mia Farrow does a great job as Daisy. That is to say that she plays the unbearable Daisy just as she is written: vain, shallow, narcissistic, entitled. The kind of person who sucks all the air out of a room. And there is a stupid scene where Gatsby throws all of his Easter Egg-colored shirts into the air. There is a horrible narrator-as-neighbor contrivance, there are soft focus flash backs, badly edited party sequences: all terrible.

The fault lies with the source material. The Great Gatsby is one lousy book. I don't know why it remains on reading lists for U.S. high school students. The book has that same stilted neighbor-as-narrator device. It has the insufferable egotist Daisy who we are supposed to find charming. Gatsby is a cardboard cut-out, a haircut masquerading as a person. It romanticizes status, conspicuous consumption, big ostentatious houses. Not to mention a hot summer where a rich ditz commits vehicular manslaughter, and her racist husband manipulates a gas station attendant into committing murder. The social commentary consists of pointing out that rich people can be mean, and even kill you if they feel like it (well, duh), but it kinda loves them for it.

And after two people are dead, all the neighbor-narrator can say is that Daisy and Tom are "careless." Or more specifically, since it is also said in the film: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness..."

Careless means you neglected to RSVP. Careless means losing your gloves on the bus, whereas vehicular homicide, in many states last I checked, is a felony.

There has been considerable recent scholarship claiming that Zelda Fitzgerald authored much of F. Scott's output. Or, at the very least, that he plagiarized her diaries to get the meat of his text. Does that exonerate him or damn her?

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Karen Black Film Festival continues. At last. It was on hiatus for some time, but since it is taking place in my apartment, it was re-scheduled for my convenience.

I just watched Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock's last movie, made in 1976, when he was 76. It has a risible, inconsistent plot that veers from thriller to slapstick, sometimes within the same scene. Two sets of grifters intersect in landscape that is not quite Los Angeles and but not really San Francisco either. In fact, locations from both cities were used to create a dreamy placelessness. The film is beautifully shot, adding to the oneiric quality. John Williams' score leans heavily on the harpsichord, giving it a touch of whimsy and mid-70s cache. As you well know, I am a total sucker for a harpsichord. (Some of these tracks have been released on CD.)

We begin at a seance, in which a wealthy older woman is being blatantly manipulated by a psychic named Blanche, played by Barbara Harris. Blanche has been promised $10,000 if she can find the long lost nephew who is to inherit the old dame's millions. Thankfully Blanche has a cab-driving, out-of work actor boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) to do the leg work that her smokey-voiced spirit guide Henry (voiced by Blanche herself) cannot provide.

The two cross paths with Fran (Karen Black) and Arthur Adamson (William Devane) a kidnapper/jewel thief duo, who really don't seem to need the millions they are raking in in ransoms. Instead of fencing the jewels, they hang them from the chandelier in their entranceway, kept in plain view like The Purloined Letter. Devane has an uncanny resemblance to Jack Nicholson, at least in this film. He even has his sneering cadence of speech.

Ms. Black is especially gorgeous in this film. She is well served by the slick costumes designed by Edith Head. In the film's opening, she struts into a police station, toting a gun and wearing a blonde pageboy wig and sunglasses at night. Of course she's wearing a trench coat though it isn't raining as well. Without a word, she boards a helicopter to lead them to the kidnapped tycoon. After collecting an enormous diamond. It's such an exciting image that is has been repeated elsewhere, consciously or not. (I could swear that this opening scene was used as the entire premise for Brian DePalma's unwatchable 1980 Michael Caine vehicle Dressed to Kill.) Ms. Black's character is slowly shown to be the only one with a conscience. Though she doesn't have much to work with, she gives Fran warmth.

There are a couple of wonderful moments that are worth seeing, besides reveling in Ms. Black's charisma. There is a scene from the point of view of the windshield of a car with no brakes that has a nightmare's vividness and artificiality. And there is a kidnapping in a Cathedral that shares that same immediacy of a dream. Both seem bluntly Freudian. I think it's Hitchcock's ability to focus on the details: Fran's feet as she stands up in the Cathedral, the letter on blue paper, that give the film its intensity. Vertigo, this movie ain't. But in brief flashes, some of that feeling is there.

One of the oddest things is the casual vulgarity that pervades. (Kind of like Katherine Hepburn's last film where she curses.) Blanche and George have some ribald banter: what was hinted at in double entendre in previous Hitchcock films is said quite plainly. It seems to make the characters less neurotic, but not anymore well-adjusted. It felt tacked on, like trying to be 70's groovy, as did the slapstick scenes that were not at all funny.

There is a cameo for one of my favorite actresses, Katherine Helmond. I just adore her and have done a film festival for her in the past. I know that Soap is her magnum opus, but I love her in Brazil (Terry Gilliam seems to adore her as well). She appears here in a small role as the mechanic's wife, and brings all sorts of doomed gravitas in a simple look.

I thought I had written reviews of the two other films in the festival so far: Day of the Locust, and The Great Gatsby, but I now see that I have been remiss.

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