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Posts tagged Cinematic Error

When the infamous Vincent Canby reviewed Fellini’s Casanova he spent some time praising what he saw. It almost feels as though he wanted to like flawed movie, but as he reached his closing summation he issued a frustrated dismissal:

The production is gigantic, but the ideas and feelings are small. One longs to go home and listen to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”Vincent Canby, New York Times, 1977

"And Now...after four years of preparation and production..." Fellin's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976

“And Now…after four years of preparation and production…”
Fellin’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976

Mr. Canby was not alone. Even Woody Allen seemed to take a stab at the film. As Alvy and Annie Hall wait in a cinema ticket holders line, they are forced to listen to a pretentious fellow film-goer rant about the Federico Fellini’s latest self-Indulgence. The latest work was Fellini’s Casanova. I suppose one could argue that Mr. Allen disagreed as he magically pulls Marshall McLuhan into frame. Alvy has the enjoyment of seeing the esteemed media philosopher bring the pompous jerk down to size.  Alvy‘s contempt for this cinephile has more to do with forcing his opinions on everyone around him. No defense is made for Fellini’s Casanova. It is doubtful that the narrator and that film’s title character would find much in Fellini’s adaptation of Giacomo Casanova’s Storia della mia vita or The Story of My Life. The doomed movie simply serves as a jumping point for a great comic bit.

"What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it!" Annie Hall Woody Allen, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“What I wouldn’t give for a large sock with horse manure in it!”
Annie Hall
Woody Allen, 1977
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Vincent Canby’s review of the then long delayed Italian production was a fair and astute critique. If you are familiar with Canby’s style of criticism — he gives the movie a thumbs down, but also manages to praise more than a little of what he saw unspool on the screen. This is not something he was prone to do.

I’m not an expert on Federico Fellini, but I have had reason to watch this film quite a bit in the last two years. In that time I have also researched a good deal regarding the troubled production of Le Casanova de Fellini. As the genius mind often does, the great filmmaker had become obsessed with translating Casanova’s memoirs. His obsession had nothing to do with Casanova. He was fascinated by a man whom he considered to be an evil character.

As Fellini’s film well charts, Casanova did not love. The existence of his being relied upon sexual encounters with no connection to the objects of his interests. Interests would be the best way to term it. Fellini’s Casanova does not even really lust. It was only after shooting began that Fellini began to feel a level of empathy towards his title character. It would be this change of heart regarding his Casanova that would end up framing the entire film.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

The production began with a fundamental problem. His key financier, Alberto Grimaldi, had some very strong opinions about who would play Casanova. These two iconic figures of European Cinema entered into a battle of the wills. Grimaldi insisted that Fellini cast one of several major movie stars of the era: Brando, Redford, Newman or Pacino. Eventually Grimaldi gave in a bit and suggested Michael Caine. It is interesting that the producer even attempted to reign-in the auteur.

Fellini could never be reigned in. He got his way. He cast Donald Sutherland in the role. It was a bit of an odd choice, but it makes sense. Mr. Sutherland was a solid movie star, but not at the titan level of Grimaldi’s suggestion. He knew that Sutherland was a true actor and he also knew that he would not need to wrestle with the typical American Movie Star Ego. Fellini also saw a sadness in the deeply skilled actor. Sutherland’s casual approach also seemed to offer a sort of open canvas upon which he could paint. Or to be more precise — Sutherland was a tall thin form he intended to sculpt.

Donald Sutherland Re-Imagined... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Donald Sutherland Re-Imagined…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini put his star through the paces, but Sutherland was stellar and did all and more than was needed. Fellini had hired him to play an unlikable and hopelessly alienated man. Before and when the shooting began Federico Fellini held the character in contempt. He had Sutherland’s head half shaven, applied a prosthetic nose, chin and other odd distortions served totally re-shape Sutherland. The actor looks the same from every angle. His face and being have been largely restricted. Often the only English speaker in front of the camera, he was not always able to communicate effectively. His eyes are really all he had to utilize on his own. At times it feels as if Sutherland is little more than a puppet with Fellini orchestrating his every move. Surprisingly this restrictive appearance serves Fellini’s purpose effectively, but not well enough to distinguish Sutherland as an essential player within the film.

The film was shot under extremely tight supervision and behind the closed gates of Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. Nothing about this film looks real. Quite the opposite, the entire movie feels like a gorgeous formation of a nightmare. Cold, barren and yet full of things to look at — Fellini’s Casanova is even more obscure than the far superior Fellini Satyricon. This is Surrealism to the infinite. As one expects, every actor on the screen is interesting to study. As is often the case with later Fellini, the grotesque is magnified. The movie is as much perversely disturbing as it is often stunningly beautiful. Anyone who doubts that Fellini was not calling and insisting on every single choice can be satisfied to discover that he had an articulated explanation for every aspect of the movie.

 

Only the actors are real... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Only the actors are real…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

If one wonders why the production design suddenly replaces actual water with black garbage bags, Fellini had demanded this odd choice to his esteemed Production Designer/Art Director/Costume Designer, Danilo Donati. The director chose to replace water with plastic garbage bags to serve as a metaphor for Casanova’s fraudulent identity and fruitless self-journey. Fellini knew exactly what he wanted and refused any level of compromise. As he was walking his actors through a key scene involving nuns, Fellini discovered a feeling of empathy for Casanova.

He quickly came up with two incredibly complex studio set ideas which changed the point of the film and would serve as cinematic bookends within which to hold the film. And these were not simple last minute decisions. They were complex and expensive. Donate and the artists at Cinecittà Studios had to continually succeed against tight deadlines. It speaks volumes for Federico Fellini that his cast, crew and the studio artisans did next to no complaining. The filmmaker was beloved and respected. Only the best work was put forward for their director. And it shows in the finished film.

 

Fighting the choppy sea of plastic garbage bags... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fighting the choppy sea of plastic garbage bags…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

The opening scene of Fellini’s Casanova is remarkable. An ornate and rowdy crowd assembles on the city’s banks waiting for something to emerge from the water. Impossibly complex rigs and tethers begin to pull and strain — a huge statue of Venus begins to emerge. The swelling crowed slips into jubilation as the Goddess of Love begins to peer out over the very real water. It is as if she is rising from the water as a blessing of desire, lust and love. Sadly the ropes and levers quickly buckle. The rigs and ropes snap under the strain. The giant statue promising erotic love and happiness slips forever lost to the bottom of the ocean. It is as if all hope for satisfaction and happiness has sunk. Nino Rota’s brilliant musical score adds to the potency of the visual. This is how Fellini’s Casanova begins.

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

It is far more than grim metaphor. The failed attempt to raise Venus out of the water is never corrected. The film ends with a striking return to the film’s early warning sign. As Casanova attempts to find some form of connection and solace, he will realize that he is standing alone on a vast area of frozen water. The peering eyes of Venus are looking up at both him. Venus’ cold eyes are forever frozen beneath the lonely womanizer’s feet. It all sounds amazing, but one needs to be aware that this is a two hour and thirty-five minute epic of calculated iciness.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

A pal recently suggested that Fellini’s Casanova must be a bit like Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. But this is not a good comparison. True, Ken Russell’s highly experimental and comic-book take on everything from Franz Liszt to Richard Wagner to anti-semitism to WWII may be overtly eager, but there is sense to Russell’s unhinged film. If a person knows their history, Lisztomania is filled with an intentional goofy sort of logic that ties to the truth of the people and situations it satirizes.  Ken Russell was also smart enough to keep his film under the two hour mark by twenty minutes. He keeps the pace up with the surreal actions taking place on the screen.

 

It is quite manic and strange, but there is logic to the madness... Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Paul Nicholas ponder the horror of a Master Race... Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

It is quite manic and strange, but there is logic to the madness…
Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Paul Nicholas ponder the horror of a Master Race…
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Beyond the fact that both films were greeted negatively by critics and audiences, there is really very little that actually connects the two films. Lisztomania is a Surrealist’s absurd study of music composers connected to the rise of Facism presented through a Looney Tunes like lens. This interpretation is really not that far off base.  

Fellini’s Casanova has no interest in history. This epic film is steadfast in its indifference to logic, time or space. The lover, his reality, his Italy and even the horrific Inquisition are not based in any realm of reality. When those support beams and ropes break and Venus sinks to the bottom of the water — so do the film’s strings to logic. Additionally, the movie is not particularly well paced. Fellini’s Casanova takes its time. However the sets, the costumes, the odd assortment of actors, Rotunno’s cinematography and Rota’s haunting score aid in the propelling motion of the gloomy plot.

A huge phallus carefully placed into frame... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

A huge phallus carefully placed into frame…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

As laborious as it sometimes is, Fellini’s Casanova is visually unforgettable. I cringe as I write the following words, but as Woody Allen’s pompous ticket holder annoyingly laments,  Fellini’s Casanova is painfully self-indulgent. This fact does not mean that there isn’t a great deal of value to be found in this excessive film. A couple of DVD and BluRay distributors have managed to secure limited releasing rights to this film. One even claimed to have fully restored the film to its initial flawed beauty. Those claims have yet to demonstrate any truth. However a restoration should be coming in the not too far future. When it does eventually arrive, I do think  this 40+ year old film warrants owning for home viewing.

I know I’ve just criticized it fairly harshly but… Well… Um, yeah. I really do suggest purchasing a copy when it does become available. Fellini’s Casanova is a brilliant mistake!

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

This experimental epic failed in the 1970’s and it fails now, but not without a great deal of interest. Fellini’s Casanova is a visually stunning mess. Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography is even better than usual. Danilo Donati and the work of Cinecitta Studios is truly other-worldly. Incidentally, Fellini’s film flopped — but Donati won an Academy Award for the innovative costume design. Nino Rota’s score is beautiful, effective and iconic. Chances are you have heard the melody even if you’ve never seen the movie. Odd, grotesque, surreal and lovely —  it is virtually impossible to look away from the screen. Even with a running time over two hours, Fellini’s Casanova is not a dull experience. It just isn’t much fun. This is a true flaw.

Fellini approaches his subject with a strong degree of hubris and judgement. Despite the perversities on display, this film is highly moralistic. The dialogue is often smartly witty, but never comical. This is another critical error. Fellini has checked his sense of humor outside the studio. There is no fun to be found within the gorgeous frames of his Casanova. As if in opposition to the dire tone is the clunky manner in which the film has been dubbed. It’s not that the voices fail to match the mouths as much as it is the intelligence runs against the film’s grain. The actors often appear to be lost within their director’s Mise-en-scène.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

Donald Sutherland lumbers his way through the film. He is essentially nothing more than a sad puppet at the mercy of his filmmaker’s whim. In a strange way, Sutherland’s performance works. Though watching the film now it is hard to wonder if it wasn’t just dumb luck. Vacant, sleepy and possibly bored — his confusion plays directly into the director’s ill-advised endeavor.

It is truly vexing how Fellini has opted out of offering any rays of humor or sexiness in his translation of the infamous Seducer and supposed Lover of women. This film is not the erotic adventure you might anticipate. It is actually un-erotic. Casanova‘s libido and desire have long been lost. Fellini’s film is not just a study of an aging womanizer — it is focused on the tragic existential journey of man who has failed to connect any meaning to sexuality. In fact Fellini’s Casanova does not appear to have ever connected to anyone or anything. This is a lover who’s identity and meaning have gone limp. …both figuratively and literally.

 

Seducing a robotic woman... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Seducing a robotic woman…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Clearly Fellini is pointing a finger at the growing sexual revolution. It is a point not off-mark, but it is consistently made in a haze of staggering showmanship that is often so bad it works its way ’round to being somehow valid.

A man who never speaks ill of women does not love them. For to understand them and to love them one must suffer at their hands. Then and only then can you find happiness at the lips of your beloved.” — Fellini’s Casanova

This character does not dislike women. He is simply indifferent to them. It doesn’t take long to realize his two-way street dilemma. The women do not care about Casanova either. They are only interested in his ability to sex. And sex he can. At least this is true in his youth. But the sex is presented in a dry and often disgusting manner.

Win! He has fucked! Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Win! He has fucked!
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

I think some first time viewers make the mistake of associating this movie with the nunsploitation of the 1970’s. Do not expect that. Sure, the nuns get on the action, but Fellini has no interest in providing even a glimmer of titillation. Yes, it is visually interesting — but there is nothing remotely “naughty” here. It is intended to trouble, worry and depress. Like the bubbling sexual revolution going on just outside the film studio’s gate, Fellini’s Casanova is fucking to prove something.

Sex as sport. Sex as a game. Sex as a dare. Sex as a way to avoid. Sex as a weapon. Sex to hide the pain. Our lover fucks till he can fuck no more. The sexuality expressed in the movie feels like a harbinger of doom. With hindsight this is an interesting perspective. When Casanova finds himself in a sexual tryst with a robotic woman it is visually fascinating, but intellectually heavy-handed.

 

A gift of something to love for the title character... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

A gift of something to love for the title character…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

I find it interesting that the inclusion of this robotic doll of a woman was something Fellini dreamed up just after he began shooting. On the one hand this is a brilliant bit of story telling. Casanova is unable to connect to a living woman. Here Fellini offers him a fuck doll to end all fuck dolls, but there is a major problem. Casanova can pour his sexuality on her without any fear of rejection, failure or need to care. It is a poor choice that Fellini refuses to let up on the dreary tone. Casanova‘s tragic plight with the robotic woman could have been more clever if we were allowed to chuckle. But we are offered no relief from the gloom. Casanova‘s ice cold fuck doll feels like it might be the one thing that Casanova can love. The problem is obvious — a robotic fuck doll is unable to reciprocate love.

Doomed and slipping into the shadows... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Doomed and slipping into the shadows…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

And here we see the simultaneously effective but disappointing cinematic bookend ending. Casanova is left spinning with his love object atop a frozen bay. Peering up at him is the drowned concrete Venus. She is simultaneously a representative for his empty life as well as a goddess who judges him.

It is impossible to deny the artistry. And while the film is too long, it really is not boring. Fellini supplies plenty of eye and ear candy. The movie also has more than its share of WTF Moments. These moments are as not off-putting as they are simply interesting. A film like this could never be made today.

And while I really do disagree with the comparison to Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, it is easy to make the connection. Each film allowed both master filmmakers to pursue their respective visions without interference or restraint. But it must be noted that Russell’s vision and purpose is never placed above the viewers watching out there in the dark cinema. Fellini opted to simply dive into his obsession. A more fitting comparison might be to Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-fated and self-financed indulgence into the movie musical, One From the Heart.

Another director's obsession resulting in a cinematic error. One From the Heart Francis Ford Coppola, 1981 Cinematography | Storer / Garcia

Another director’s obsession resulting in a cinematic error.
One From the Heart
Francis Ford Coppola, 1981
Cinematography | Storer / Garcia

But this is not really fair. One From the Heart is neon beautiful and features some amazing musical work from Tom Waits, but it requires true grit to sit through it. In the case of this 1981 Epic Flop, the director’s passion is dull. There is something maddeningly fascinating about Fellini’s Casanova. If you see it once, you will want to see it again. If you make it through One From the Heart you will want to demand a cookie for your effort.

It should be noted that Fellini’s infamous cinematic misstep continued to be challenged with production woes. This was in part due to Fellini’s last minute major changes of fancy but other issues came up. Much of the film was stolen and subsequently lost forever. The notorious theft was actually aimed for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. A great deal of shot footage was forever lost. This included an entire sequence involving actress Barbara Steele. She was unable to return to Italy for reshoots. Sutherland and the other actors made themselves available. Fellini’s Casanova was delayed almost two years.

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

When it became clear that the film was a fail Federico Fellini was crushed. It is important to note that he had considered this his finest work up to that point in his career. It is not difficult to understand how soul-draining a film’s flop can be for its maker, but there is an added measure when it happens to someone of Fellini’s abilities and stature. Fellini’s Casanova was an epic fail. But an epic fail from a cinematic master like Federico Fellini is still a masterful design. Being dull or uninteresting was simply not possible for this cinematic genius. This is a film that merits watching. And if you happen to love experimental film — you will most likely love this oddly flawed cinematic gem.

 

La Casanova de Fellini Federico Fellini, 1976

La Casanova de Fellini
Federico Fellini, 1976

Fingers crossed that we see it arrive to DVD/BluRay in a truly restored/remastered version soon!

Matty Stanfield, 6.16.2016

 

 

 

 

 

Definitions, categorizations and comparisons fill the world of art theory. When it comes to Film Art there seems to be an almost endless stream of terms. Defining “cinema” and determining what films truly achieve “cult” status is not always as easy as it would seem. A great Cinematic Master gave a definition that I’ve always found inappropriate and insulting. However I am forever returning to his definition in much the same way I am constantly re-watching one of his many masterpieces.

"Oh, you ARE sick." Eraserhead David Lynch, 1977

“Oh, you ARE sick.”
Eraserhead
David Lynch, 1977

Federico Fellini once described the art of cinema as “...an old whore, like circus and variety, who knows how to give many kinds of pleasure.”

There is a good deal of validity to this definition. Film has become an integral part of our culture and is quite possibly the most valued art form which screens 24/7 all over the world. It is also based on a model so firmly grounded in marketing and profit earning that is impossible to talk with any filmmaker and not end up discussing the costs to make them and how much they earn. Of course even while money is the requirement and the goal, it takes a backseat to the pleasures it provides to us, its John. And we are a constantly returning customer.  No matter how bad the weather or strapped for cash we might be. This is one service most of us seem to need and we constantly run the risk of being disappointed.

Lonely, isolated and sad. Donald Sutherland Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Lonely, isolated and sad. Mid-1970’s audiences did not know what to think of this strange Surrealist take on Casanova. Three decades later, a whole new audience eagerly awaits a refreshed print. Criterion Collection?
Donald Sutherland
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Sometimes one of the these movies seems to pull us back again and again. We can’t get enough. This of course is not a hooker. This is a film that develops a loyal following no matter its profit margin. And no matter how hard it is to locate. We pursue it. Welcome to the Cult Film. David Lynch’s Eraserhead is an exceptional Cult Film. It is not a bad film. I would argue that this 1977 film represents years of work, dedication and is ultimately a fine work of American Art. But how can a films like Eraserhead and Grey Gardens be lumped into the same category as Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row or Mark Robson’s painfully bad, Valley of the Dolls? Well, it is pretty easy actually.

"They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I've got a man waiting for me." Valley of the Dolls Mark Robson, 1967

“They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I’ve got a man waiting for me.”
Valley of the Dolls
Mark Robson, 1967

Wikipedia prefers to apply the term “Cult Classic” instead of “Cult Film.” The definition provided is “…a film that has acquired a cult following. Cult films are known for their dedicated, passionate fanbase, an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and audience participation. Inclusive definitions allow for major studio productions, especially box office bombs, while exclusive definitions focus more on obscure, transgressive films shunned by the mainstream. The difficulty in defining the term and subjectivity of what qualifies as a cult film mirror classificatory disputes about art. The term cult film itself was first used in the 1970s to describe the culture that surrounded underground films and midnight movies, though cult was in common use in film analysis for decades prior to that. Cult films trace their origin back to controversial and suppressed films kept alive by dedicated fans. In some cases, reclaimed or rediscovered films have acquired cult followings decades after their original release, occasionally for their camp value…

"A good football coach can get away with murder." Uh, oh. Movies do not get much worse or conversely better than... Pretty Maids All In A Row Roger Vadim, 1971

“A good football coach can get away with murder.” Uh, oh. Movies do not get much worse or conversely better than…
Pretty Maids All In A Row
Roger Vadim, 1971

The definition goes on to discuss the fact that Cult Classic is not limited to the campy or the failed. It is often reserved for films that are acclaimed but never quite move into mainstream success. There are some exceptional Cult Classics, or Cult Films as I prefer to call them. These are artistically solid works of Film Art that may not have broken box office records or secured the false acclaim of The Academy Award. In fact there are some fairly new films that are brilliant and are already achieving Cult Film status. There are also a number of God-awful movies that have over the past decade have begun to return to our attention as Cult Films.

Both Roger Vadim’s deeply odd Pretty Maids all in a Row and Mark Robson’s big-budgeted major studio Valley of the Dolls have enjoyed the status of Cult Films for decades. These are both examples of unintended camp. When it comes to Robson’s adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s hugely successful novel, the idea of Cult Film is turned every which way but loose. This film was actually a huge box office hit. When watching this infamous movie it boggles the mind that our parents and grandparents were rushing to local movie theaters to watch this astoundingly bad film. But they did. Drag Queens should be given credit for catching the camp value of this film first, but over the past couple of decades those of us who love a great bad movie have come to love it just as much. At once shamelessly lewd and contradictorily innocent, from start to finish — VOD is continually amping itself up to a seemingly endless escalation of camp.

An exorcise in narcissism featuring fashion designs from the mind of the film's star. Diana Ross Mahogany Berry Gordy, 1975 Cinematography | David Watkin

An exorcise in narcissism featuring fashion designs from the mind of the film’s star. Another painfully bad film that is so desperately horrible it becomes an endless source of fun! 
Diana Ross
Mahogany
Berry Gordy, 1975
Cinematography | David Watkin

Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids was designed to cash in on the idea of the T&A movie merged with once major Hollywood Players. Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson quickly tossed cautiously crafted on-screen personas to prove they were hip to the grooves that had spread across middle America. Keenan Wynn, Telly Savalas and Roddy McDowell were also eager to strap it on for the ride. None seem to be embarrassed as they romp about with semi or fully nude nymphettes. Nor do any seem to be bothered by the fact that the sexual teases were also mixed with serial murder killings. The film was also intended to be a dark comedy. The film flopped. It was decidedly not hip and most certainly far from cool. It was not particularly funny. It did however open a door for Telly Savalas by inspiring the idea of what would become Kojak. After the tragic death of Rock Hudson, this film began to be re-evaluated. It was still bad, but oh so much mind-blowing fun to watch.

As bad as these two major studio films are, neither can top Berry Gordy’s ill-advised star-vehicle for Motown’s own, Miss. Diana Ross.  That film is Mahogany. A hit song did not a hit movie make. When news that the film was being released to DVD, fans rushed to pre-order it. So unwilling to have to even think about the movie, Diana Ross herself held up over 500,000 newly printed DVD’s hostage (!) until someone convinced her it would be cheaper to let the film out. Those of you who know the fun that is Berry Gordy’s Mahogany hold that DVD close to your hearts. Of course it was this film that inspired Rupaul to become the persona she is today! But Mahogany merits its own post. There is not enough room here.

"Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!" Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983

“Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” An example of profound Surrealism that verges toward that of Cinematic Masterpiece is now considered a Cult Film or Cult Classic. As well as a beloved member of The Criterion Collection.
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983

In the early 1980’s David Cronenberg finally secured a modest, but decent budget when he made Videodrome. Featuring Pop-Icon, Debbie Harry, in a pivotal role — this controversial and surreal examination in body horror and paranoia was acclaimed and achieved a slight success in cinemas. Far too grim, graphic and controversial to achieve major box office success — this film was admired. By the time it was released to VHS, Cronenberg’s dark vision had already built a solid fan base that would continue to grow. Videodrome is now rightly viewed as somewhat of a cinematic masterpiece. It is also a member of the esteemed Criterion Collection. This is a Cult Film that is brilliant and some 30 years on — it still threatens to bite. Despite the fact that the technology key to the film’s plot has long been left behind in the dust, this movie remains disturbing, visceral and horrifying. Interestingly, this film also remains controversial in its depiction of BDSM.

But I’d like to shift focus forward to a couple of more recent films that are quickly establishing themselves as Cult Films. One such movie is Evan Glodell’s 2011 independently produced, Bellflower.

"Dude you are fucking Lord Humongous. The master of fire, the king of the wasteland." Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011

“Dude you are fucking Lord Humongous. The master of fire, the king of the wasteland.”
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011

From the first moment Evan Glodell’s writing/directorial debut, Bellflower, starts – – the audience knows that they are about to watch something at once slightly familiar and yet remarkably unique in almost all aspects. Bellflower is not quite like any movie you have seen. Without giving away any spoilers the film begins as a rather humorous and sad take on a relationship between two late twenty-somethings one of whom is a man obsessed with apocalyptic movies and creating weapons in preparation for the end of times.

The main character fill his days and time with his best bud day dreaming about the ultimate apocalypse in which they will each play roles of the Mad Max/Road Warrior types. These two men share a child-like joy in the planning of playing these roles in the Hell that will be left after the world as they know it ends. All the more interesting is the fact that these two “dudes” do not even have any sense of their own immaturity or the irony that their adult feet are planted so firmly in adolescence.

His heart broken and without the maturity to work through a lost first love, Woodrow's mind leads us into a film where reality and fantasy become blurred. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

His heart broken and without the maturity to work through a lost first love, Woodrow’s mind leads us into a film where reality and fantasy become blurred.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

The plot takes a turn for the romantic when Woodrow, played by director/writer, Evan Glodell, meets the beautiful and equally odd, Milly. Like Woodrow and his close pal, Aiden, Milly seems to be stuck in a rut of narcissistic immaturity. Milly and Woodrow fall in love but both lack the maturity to navigate the wild woods of a romantic relationship. It isn’t long before their relationship takes a dead end turn. At that point Bellflower pulls the audience into the darkest corners of damaged heartbreak and rage. Bellflower becomes a devastatingly disturbing apocalyptic journey filtered through the eyes of drug-fueled insanity. Glodell has cleverly created a highly artistic and powerful study of the Love Wounded Boy-Man Walking. As this metaphor that when merges with the stunted emotionality of the character, Bellflower comes close to the trajectory of Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. In fact, Bellflower almost manages to make Apocalypse Now seem like a Disney movie. This impact is quite a cinematic feat.

For one immature slacker, love takes a startlingly apocalyptic turn. Bleeding, violated, defeated and broken -- Evan Glodell and Jessie Wiseman embrace as everything around them seems to fall apart. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

For one immature slacker, love takes a startlingly apocalyptic turn. Bleeding, violated, defeated and broken — Evan Glodell and Jessie Wiseman embrace as everything around them seems to fall apart.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Evan Glodell’s film deals with pain and frustration that every young adult feels in his/her first loves and quite literally blows them to oblivion. It is a gut punch that would make the strongest of people bend over or, at the very least, squirm in their seats. While this film garnished Film Festival attention, it did not fare so well at the box office. Since it was released to DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD, this film has emerged with a fierce following. While it is about as dark as any film can get, it resonates.

This movie is tapping into a current vibe shared by many as we enter the 21st Century. So much is unknown. So much is uncertain. Uncomfortable change and misadventure seem to be in the air. Bellflower plays with that creepy societal feeling to an extreme that turns to an almost manic glee of vengeance. The failure of the characters to have grown into mature/adjusted men and women is presented as a reflection of a generation weaned on TV, bad movies and low expectations. Bellflower grinds into the psyche as a blistering reminder of our shared creation of a generation of people largely misplaced and lost.

Armed with a hand-made weapon of destruction, our tragically lost man-child sets out to right wrongs and assert his masculinity. Bellflower Evan Glodell, 2011 Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Armed with a hand-made weapon of destruction, our tragically lost man-child sets out to right wrongs and assert his masculinity.
Bellflower
Evan Glodell, 2011
Cinematography | Joel Hodge

Bellflower, like Woodrow’s amped up car called Medusa, speeds, twists, turns, shoots out the very flames of fury and spins out of control into crashing oblivion. Horrible heartbreak speeds through the veins of Woodrow without the boundaries of emotional understanding to know when to put on the breaks or slow down at corner. This is spectacular feature film debut. Fingers crossed that Glodell will emerge with a new film soon. But no matter what he does, this dark film lives on in the minds of those who see it. And see it again.

In the Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Shelley Duvall gleefully informs Sissy Spacek, “This is my parking space. It’s the best one!” Later Duvall explains, “That’s Dirty Girtie! Pull her bow and she’ll say hello!” Her delivery of these improvised lines creates an odd and varied response for viewers. Some giggle, some laugh, some are not sure how to react, but many viewers feel the need to go fetal with dread. This film was inspired by a dream Altman experienced. He assembled his cast out in the desert and began filming. While there was a very loose form script, he encouraged both Duvall and Spacek to come up with their own voices for their respective characters. The entire film feels like a hazy dream that offers a glimpse into the psyche’s darkest corners of loneliness, insecurities and unsure identity.

"You're the most perfect person I've met." 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977

“You’re the most perfect person I’ve met.”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977

The majority of film critics of the time loved the film. Sadly there was one exception. That exception caused a great deal of damage to the film’s potential for success. This would be the first Robert Altman film that Pauline Kael would dismiss. The film’s initial release was fairly limited to major cities and on to the Art House screens. Kael’s odd disconnect to this brilliant film kept many intellectuals away.

Millie Lammoreaux strives to be sophisticated and a woman of taste. Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Millie Lammoreaux strives to be sophisticated and a woman of taste.
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Before any sort of “word of mouth” regarding Robert Altman’s surreal experimental film had the chance to spread, it was pulled out of circulation within 8 days. Over the following two decades 3 Women became not only a “Cult Classic” but was largely considered one of the most important American films of the 1970’s. Robert Altman’s study of identity, isolation, loneliness and sexuality is pure cinematic magic. Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek are pitch-perfect. The cinematic experimentation employed is fully realized. His two lead actresses’ visions blend, but most importantly they successfully morph into Altman’s disturbing dream world. Sissy Spacek is outstanding in the film, but it is Shelley Duvall who remains the film’s vital core.

Almost completely improvised, these two actors transform their director's dream into a psychological study of identity that manages to be Surreal, comical and surprisingly horrific all at once. There is a great deal going on here... Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Almost completely improvised, these two actors transform their director’s dream into a psychological study of identity that manages to be Surreal, comical and surprisingly horrific all at once. There is a great deal going on here…
Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Despite the fact that the film was available on only inferior VHS tapes and in loose fragments online — much of which focused on Duvall’s scenes featuring only the eccentricity and comic aspects of her performance — 3 Women has never been short of devoted fans. Thanks to The Criterion Collection, the film was beautifully remastered and issued for all those devoted to grab. And of course, the film has since snared an even bigger audience and reappraisal. Some like to frame this film as an American answer to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but that is a poor framing device. 3 Women is far less tight in construction. It flows over the viewer. While Duvall may make the audience laugh, she also slips in under the skin. Millie‘s awkwardness feels a bit too familiar. Spacek’s Pinky slowly begins to take on a sinister edge. By the time we become aware of the third woman played by a mute Janice Rule, the spell has been cast. This Cult Film goes deeper with each viewing.

"Dreams can't hurt ya." Or maybe they can... Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

“Dreams can’t hurt ya.” Or maybe they can…
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

In many ways, Altman’s 3 Women almost seems more tied to the American Underground Film of the late 1960’s to mid-1970’s. So many interesting works emerged from this Underground. One of the most interesting is also a film which has attracted a huge following over the past 20 years is a notorious epic called Thundercrack!.

"And don't go telling me it's some kind of a popsicle!" Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

“And don’t go telling me it’s some kind of a popsicle!”
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Thundercrack! is truly one of the oddest films ever made. An odd mix of dark humor, surrealism and hardcore pornography — it can be a difficult viewing for some. A movie never intended for all audiences, this movie aims both cerebrally and very much below the belt. This film is a tripped-out work of art by the most bold artists’ of The 1970’s Bay Area. The level of Surrealism and Absurdism should not be denied. And on top of everything else, this twisted epic of a movie is often very funny.  This is a film that makes John Waters’ early films seem tame. Make no mistake, this film plunges into the full-on hardcore porn found in the mid-1970’s. It is like an experimental theatre company gone to seed and given a camera.

The thing about Thundercrack! is that while it is all of these things, it manages to step up toward a twisted version of Art House Cinema. This may be a part of The Underground Trash Cinema subgenre, but it is clearly an artistic venture. Directed by Curt McDowell and co-written with Mark Ellinger (who also serves as the film’s composer and sole musical instrument player!) — the script would also feature some added ideas from the infamous George Kuchar. McDowell was a Queer Artist going places. Tragically, AIDS would steal him away from the world far too soon.

Mrs. Gert Hammond finds her home full of lost souls with more than a few secrets, but all of them are limp when compared to Gert's. Mark Ellinger and Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

Mrs. Gert Hammond finds her home full of lost souls with more than a few secrets, but all of them are limp when compared to Gert’s.
Mark Ellinger and Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Marion Eaton is the film’s “star.” She plays sad Mrs. Gert Hammond. A wealthy, constantly drunk/drugged eccentric, we find Gert drunkenly yelling at her radio. A horrid storm is raging and she soon opens up her home to a wild and often sordid bunch of strangers who need shelter from the raging storm. Each character has a dark secret, but none have a secret that tops the two Mrs. Gert Hammond is keeping. Gradually each secret is revealed until the film builds to its insane crescendo when Gert’s secrets are revealed. Interestingly, this motley crew is willing to accept every secret except for the two belonging to their host. Mrs. Gert Hammond simply goes too far.

A demented and often brilliant vision captures the mood of the mid-1970's Sexual and Cultural Revolution. ...with plenty of lube. Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

A demented and often brilliant vision captures the mood of the mid-1970’s Sexual and Cultural Revolution. …with plenty of lube.
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

 

All manner of things happen. Conflict and melodrama run amok. In between strange scenes of banter, the film features a wide range of sex acts. Leading us back to The Bay Area of the 1970’s when sexual experimentation and exploration were still free of dangers, nothing appears to be off-limits for these characters. This is fluid sex at it’s most hairy. Never actually erotic, the sex scenes seem to serve more as an empowering statement of sexual rebellion and freedom. These actors don’t just go for broke, they are out to break. The most impressive member of the cast is Marion Eaton. Every movement, line and gyration is delivered with theatrical sincerity. The late Ms. Eaton even finds moments of poetry which she delivers as if her life depended upon it.

"Who is it that speaks to me with the voice of a woman?" Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

“Who is it that speaks to me with the voice of a woman?”
Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

Heavily censored and often difficult to find, Thundercrack! has a running time of close to 2.5 hours. It will be too much for many, but for many it is an unexpected, strange and wild trip. Thundercrack! ‘s road to restoration and Blu-Ray/DVD has been a long one. But Synapse Films has finally released it to the Cult that has been waiting patiently. This film is not for everyone, but if you’re feeling adventurous you will discover a movie that can still leave a viewer God-smacked some 40 years since it first screened. This is a film that defies categorization, time, space and your judgement. It does not care what you think. 

Artistic and poetic moments surface between scenes of hardcore sex and absurdist situations... Marion Eaton Thundercrack! Curt McDowell, 1975

Artistic and poetic moments surface between scenes of hardcore sex and absurdist situations…
Marion Eaton
Thundercrack!
Curt McDowell, 1975

As Spencer Susser film begins a middle grade teacher tells his class, “Now today we’re going to talk about ‘metaphor.’” Welcome to the world of  TJ played by Devin Brochu. TJ’s father (played exceptionally by Rainn Wilson) has fallen into a deep depression following the death of his wife and TJ’s mother. They are now living with TJ‘s elderly Grandmother. Piper Laurie delivers a touching performance as an elderly woman who feels helpless as she sees her son vanishing and her grandson losing control.

"Today, we are going to talk about 'metaphor.'" Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010

“Today, we are going to talk about ‘metaphor.'”
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010

Everything takes a very fast change for “the better” when a stoned-out, psychotic, metalhead and ‘pyromatically’-inclined dude named Hesher appears. At first he is a threat to TJ, but soon he becomes a hero. Hesher takes it all on for TJ. Spinning wild tales of drug-fused adventures and sexual escapades. Hesher is sort of like a very sick and twisted id personified. Hesher quickly leads the boy into a string of dangerous, profane, violent and sexually charged situations. Essentially this film is about rage. In fact, it is one of the most interesting explorations of rage I’ve ever seen.

Grief, loss and resulting depression leave a child's world vacant of hope. Rain Wilson, Piper Laurie and Devin Brochu Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010 Cinematography | Morgan Susser

Grief, loss and resulting depression leave a child’s world vacant of hope.
Rain Wilson, Piper Laurie and Devin Brochu
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010
Cinematography | Morgan Susser

TJ has seen his mother killed in a violent car crash, his father is fading away, his Grandmother seems to be on the verge of dying, he is bullied, he is lonely and he is lost. This child is in a deep grief that he can only express through rebellion and righteous anger. Small and unsure, he needs a way to channel his rage.

Enter Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Hesher.

This film is full of strong performances. The mix of realism and surrealism is intentionally vague. It is also one of the key reasons the film begs for repeated viewings. Each revisit reveals a bit more of something that we either did not notice or interpret correctly. Sadly the film’s use of the perverse and its steadfast refusal to hold the audience hand, seemed to cause indifference from film critics. Some dismissed the film as “unbelievable” and others accused it of being unnecessarily offensive. These opinions were short-sighted. It’s valid R-Rating also kept Gordon-Levitt’s mass of young girl fans from gaining access.

A creation of rage and survival. Joseph Gordon-Levitt Hesher Spencer Susser, 2010 Cinematography | Morgan Susser

A creation of rage and survival.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hesher
Spencer Susser, 2010
Cinematography | Morgan Susser

Of course, Hesher is almost all metaphor. It is doubtful that any aspect of Gordon-Levitt’s character is even real. Spencer Susser created a surreal film that many didn’t seem to realize was surreal. Much of this film is in TJ‘s mind — and the rest is propelled by bravery he finds in his imaginary Death Metal Hero. This is an angry and defiant movie told from the perspective of a very sad and traumatized child. This was not a sanitized cineplex movie. This is an Art House Cinema with unexpected edges. Sharp and threatening potential danger, Hesher continues to attract fans. The film is already being reevaluated and gaining a rightful Cult Following.

This year saw the release of some original, innovative and amazing films. One of the best films to find its way to cinemas this year was John Magary’s feature-length debut, The Mend. Magary’s film presents itself as one thing, but works its way under the skin. A brilliantly conceived and constructed film, The Mend is not simplistic. Always potent, the film’s power grows with each viewing. It has been gathering a following since it’s first screening.

"Hey! Can we go get ice cream?" The Mend John Magary, 2014

“Hey! Can we go get ice cream?”
The Mend
John Magary, 2014

John Magary’s feature length film debut is so impressive it is hard to believe that this is his first movie. Despite a low budget, this is a masterfully constructed work. Assured and rigid in its refusal to dumb itself down or fall back on cinematic trope, this odd dark comedy is sharp. It is cutting and it cuts so fast you do not realize you’re bleeding until well after the closing credits. Josh Lucas, an accomplished actor by any standard, delivers the performance of his career.  Essentially an incisive character study of two brothers. Both are miserable. One represses everything and attempts to force his way through. The other seems to have slipped into an empty world of rage and damage.

Can they change or is the dysfunction shared between two brother a part of their inherited DNA? Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas The Mend John Magary, 2014

Can they change or is the dysfunction shared between two brother a part of their inherited DNA?
Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas
The Mend
John Magary, 2014

As cruel as it is often deeply and artistically insightful. The brothers are caught in vicious cycle of dysfunction that may or may not have been “passed-on” or pulled into their own psyches. This idea of being genetically dysfunctional hoovers over the brothers. While it is often very angry and dark, it is also somehow always funny. The Mend feels a bit like a French film in the way it applies intellectualism and unexpected comedy. The film also has no problem of utilizing an often off-kilter style that doesn’t seem to match the content. Yet as we follow the eccentric narrative of these two broken men, the obscure stylistic leanings begin to make sense.

The Mend automatically lends itself to repeated viewings. Ideas and scenes haunt the viewer long after seeing the film for the first time. The second viewing offers a more firm understanding of what we have already seen. This is not a flaw. This is a brilliant move by Magary. There is nothing surface or easy about this smart film. So much is presented that it is hard to take it all in.

Giving an e-cig a run for it's money. Josh Lucas The Mend John Magary, 2014 Cinematography | Chris Teague

Giving an e-cig a run for it’s money.
Josh Lucas
The Mend
John Magary, 2014
Cinematography | Chris Teague

What could have easily turned out to be yet another in a long line of familial dysfunction and tormented boy-men who refuse to grow up, is actually a brutally realistic glimpse into the human instinct to survive. It is this same survival instinct that trips our two lead characters up as they each realize that they want so much more from life than what they are receiving. While each comes to realizations, it is unclear if either has the ability to escape each other or even their respective selves. Cynical but never satirical or unrealistic, these two brothers know they are sick and getting sicker, but getting well is easier discussed than achieved.  This movie works brilliantly.

A man on the verge... Josh Lucas delivers what is most likely the best work by a male actor in any film released in 2015. The Mend John Magary, 2014 Cinematography | Chris Teague

A man on the verge…
Josh Lucas delivers what is most likely the best work by a male actor in any film released in 2015.
The Mend
John Magary, 2014
Cinematography | Chris Teague

The Mend is still new enough to be seen before it reaches full Cult Film status. However you better hurry or you will be joining the party late.

I realize I should end this rambling post on positive note. I could easily discuss Alejandro Jodorowsky, Slava Tsukerman, John Waters, Andrzej Zuławski, The Coen Brothers, The Brothers Quay, Ed Wood, Peter Greenaway or Terry Gilliam. But instead I would like to turn my attention to the ultimate in my favorite type of Cult Film: The major studio cinematic error and the film that most best embodies the endless possibilities of its results. Yes, I must discuss the demented alchemy of Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest.

"I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at the dirt." Faye Dunaway takes film acting to a whole new operatic level... Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981

“I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.”
Faye Dunaway takes film acting to a whole new operatic level…
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981

Shortly before the movie premiered, Faye Dunaway gave a couple of interviews in which she explained that she felt as if the spirit of Joan Crawford had possessed her. At that time one thought this was just an actor marketing her latest film. Who could have known that there was more truth to Ms. Dunaway’s statement than anyone could have imagined. Unless you are old enough to have sat in a crowded cinema during the first several days that Frank Perry’s legendary Mommie Dearest, you have no way of understanding the way in which this film hammered its way into the film viewing experience. I was still somewhat new to being a teenager as I sat next to my mother watching this doomed movie unspool.

"The meanest mother of them all..." Joan Crawford terrorizing an enfant. Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

“The meanest mother of them all…”
Joan Crawford terrorizing an enfant.
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

It was jarring, odd and it often almost scary. There were smatterings of laughter, but mostly it was a communal jaw-dropping two hours of shared confusion. Mommie Dearest is essentially an epic cinematic error. Constructed in a clumsy manner with dialogue more fitting for a bad 1940’s melodrama and almost all of it delivered with mind-numbing bad performances.

There is a major exception to the bad acting.

That exception is Faye Dunaway. Stuck in a mediocre script better suited for an ABC Made-for-TV Movie of the Week and being led by a director who was clearly in over his head — Dunaway delivers one of the most memorable film performances of all time. That might sound like a good thing, but this is a performance beyond unrestrained.

Part impersonation mixed with passion, theatrical by the way of Kabuki Art and fused with a level of adrenaline that would have killed most athletes — Faye Dunaway goes to a place I’ve never seen another actor go. Fearless and with no net, this is an operatic show of force that threatens to melt the film on which it was captured.

Although notoriously maligned, Faye Dunaway's performance as Joan Crawford is among one of the most interesting ever captured on film. This is an actor performing feats beyond imagination. And she does so without a net. Faye Dunaway Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Although notoriously maligned, Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan Crawford is among one of the most interesting ever captured on film. This is an actor performing feats beyond imagination. And she does so without a net.
Faye Dunaway
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

This transformative take on one of the most iconic movie stars to ever splatter on the screen, Faye Dunaway’s take on Joan Crawford is all persona and moves itself into what can only be called Avant-garde Performance Art. Sure it is funny to watch, but there is an artistic spark here that simply does not allow the audience to dismiss it. Faye Dunaway is more Joan Crawford than Joan Crawford could have ever hoped to be. There is no way this actor can fit nuance or even hint at vulnerability. This is a bold experimental sort of acting turn.

Dunaway is playing it legit, but totally untethered and constantly running it in high gear. And as she held onto balance in spike high heels, there was no net waiting to catch her if she fell. As campy as it gets, this is powerful performance. Her career would never recover. The damage was done, but this is the stuff of legend. Even all these years later, Ms. Dunaway continues to refuse to discuss this movie. And while this is a bit of a bummer, it also adds to this Cult Classic‘s credentials.

Pushing into it’s 35th year, Mommie Dearest remains a film that is impossibly entertaining and is forever cemented as the ultimate in Cult Film. Dialogue from this movie is firmly imprinted in the shared Pop Culture Brain. Wire hangers, rodeos and warning “‘Barbara, ‘PLEASE!” stay with us in darkly comic ways.

While John Water’s Pink Flamingos, David Lynch’s Eraserhead or The Rocky Horror Picture Show might have created the concept of The Midnight Movie, there can be no doubt that this is most likely the most important example of a big budget mainstream movie gone so far off the rails it offers endless hours of viewing. It is fair to call Mommie Dearest a bad film? Yes, but there is no denying its power and entertainment. Sometimes a bad film can come around to a whole new definition of good.

A different kind of Chorus Line... The Rocky Horror Picture Show Jim Sharman, 1975

A different kind of Chorus Line…
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Jim Sharman, 1975

If cinema is as Fellini perversely defined it, an old whore, then I’m more than happy to get lost in the magic of an ever-evolving aged sex worker. Dim the lights and start the movie.

Matty Stanfield, 12.10.2015

 

Perhaps the best example of unintended camp, as funny as it gets -- there is an undeniable level of artistic focus and energy within Faye Dunaway's iconic portrayal of Joan Crawford. Mommie Dearest Frank Perry, 1981 Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

Perhaps the best example of unintended camp, as funny as it gets — there is an undeniable level of artistic focus and energy within Faye Dunaway’s iconic portrayal of Joan Crawford.
Mommie Dearest
Frank Perry, 1981
Cinematography | Paul Lohmann

 

 

One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if John Carpenter had filmed his own script of Eyes of Laura Mars. It is a rather silly question as he did not film his own script. Instead that duty was assigned to the skilled filmmaker, Irvin Kershner. The only director bold enough to stand his ground against the likes of George Lucas while shooting his film for the Star Wars franchise and the director who was able to assist Barbra Streisand tone it all down to play a very believable housewife in a very surreal experimental film of the early 1970’s, Up The Sandbox.

"And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever I can't escape. One minute's so sincere. Then you completely turn against me. And I'm afraid..." An Iconic Movie Poster Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978

“And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever
I can’t escape. One minute’s so sincere.
Then you completely turn against me. And I’m afraid…”
An Iconic Movie Poster
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978

Up until 1977 he had never directed a horror film. It is clear that the under-appreciated film artist was less interested in the terror aspects of Carpenter’s script than in using it to focus on the problematic trend of mixing sex with violence as a form of subversion or perverse eroticism. One merely has to glance at only one of Rebecca Blake’s photographs taken for the film to understand that she is carefully constructing slick photographs in the vein of Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin. Interestingly, these provocative and aggressively misogynistic photographs point toward where Karl Lagerfeld would be headed later on.

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph | Rebecca Blake

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph | Rebecca Blake

John Carpenter’s original screenplay is fairly simple: A Post-Feminist (???) fashion photographer takes controversial photographs which capture not only the erotic elements of the female form in stylish clothing, but acts of brutal violence and murder. Violence and murder usually aimed at women.  Her work is highly profitable and has made her a bit of a celebrity. As a coffee table book collecting some of her most infamous photographs hits the stores, people close to her begin to be murdered in horrible ways that always culminate with their eyes being gouged out.

Even more disturbing, the photographer begins to lose her own vision only to be replaced with the POV of the killer for the duration of each murder. Amping up the horror is the fact that the pop culture princess of fashion photography discovers that all of her photographs mimic a number of brutal and confidential police shots of actual murders. Hence, it would appear that Ms. Mars is somehow psychically linked to a serial killer. It is the psychotic madness of a killer who has been inspiring her art. Art that many are eager to purchase and admire.

Eventually, the killer sets his sites on Laura Mars herself. As the killer tries to kill her she is put in the chilling position of POV limitation — she can only see herself as the killer goes after her. Essentially blind with only disorienting and panicked visions of her own body as target, she is a prisoner of the killer’s eyes ...and her own.

Taking aim... Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Taking aim…
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

John Carpenter deserves a great deal of credit with coming up with an original and scary concept. It is unlikely he viewed as any sort of cultural or pop art commentary, but the circumstance of the imagined situation opens that door. Enter the decision to hire Irvin Kershner as the director. By securing the respected film director, the already infamous producer of the project was able to seal a deal with Faye Dunaway to play the lead character. In 1977, this was a casting coup. Dunaway was at the height of her cinematic power in the mid to late 1970’s. A beautiful and respected Academy Award winning actress, Ms. Dunaway was sought after.

Initially Jon Peters was rumored to have wanted to talk his then Life Partner, Barbra Streisand, into taking the role. The script was too violent and dark for Streisand’s taste. She did agree to sing a theme song which turned out to be a surprisingly rock-driven song. The esteemed Conrad Hall was rumored to be first choice to serve as the film’s cinematographer, but Kershner wanted Victor J. Kemper. He got him.

Several gorgeous models were hired to serve as models and actors. Tommy Lee Jones was secured for the leading male love interest. And thanks to a large paycheck, several respected actors were cast in supporting roles — most notably Brad Dourif and Raul Julia. This was an A List Production out of the gate.

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak. Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak.
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

When the results of the finished film screened in 1978, viewers were presented with a cinematic cornucopia of ideas and images. Some of these worked. Others failed. Mixed together — Eyes of Laura Mars became a largely mixed experience for film critics and an often vexing one for the audience. The film was a hit. Though filled with tension, the movie failed to actually be scary.

While Laura Mars‘ photographs are violently and sexually graphic, the film is surprisingly restrained. Most certainly the violence and amount of nudity earned the film an R rating, but there was a loopy sort of immature logic holding the film together.

Some did find the movie disturbing. Some found it to be a fun ride with more than a few unexpected twists. Others were just left a bit confused.

A male's smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

A male’s smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

37 years later Eyes of Laura Mars continues to entertain. Sadly, much of the entertainment grows out of unintentional camp.

This is not to say that this odd bit of big-budget 1970’s filmmaking does not hold some merit. But the film’s merits are easily over-powered by the strange plot, Dunaways’s soap-opera like turn and some deeply campy “stupid model” moments. The movie is a fun, pretty and ungrounded mess. And over the past decade it has developed a sizable cult following.

Most view Eyes one of those “So Bad It’s Great” cinematic guilty pleasures. While I can understand ascribing this uncomfortable thriller to that genre, I’ve never been certain that it should be regarded as a bad film.

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

I grew up in a fairly small town in Texas. We were not too far from Houston, but we did not always get movies when they “opened.” More often than not, movies arrived to our town several weeks or a month after the movie had already been in circulation. This was the case with Eyes. It opened late into its run at our fairly new mall cineplex.

My father had no understanding of what was or wasn’t appropriate for a child. He took me with him to see this movie. The woman who sold us out tickets already knew me as the kid who she would often pull out of a movie to ask where my parents were. I’m not sure if it was before or after the time my father took me to see Eyes of Laura Mars, but this theater manager pitched a fit when my father took me to see Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Hurry! I Need more film! I'll push my skirt up further while you take care of that! Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Hurry! I Need more film! I’ll push my skirt up further while you take care of that!
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Her attempts to prevent my father from taking his little boy to see adult movies always failed. Mr. Goodbar was a traumatic experience. But Eyes was not one. In fact nothing I saw made my jaw drop or caused me any real confusion.

The thing I most remember about seeing this movie was that my father was forced to really get his shit together because no one was admitted after the first ten minutes of the movie’s start. My father had the annoying habit of arriving at the middle of a movie and then staying to see the first half at the next screening. But he had to arrive on time for Eyes of Laura Mars. I also remember noting that he was truly glued to the screen. It seemed like the casually naked models and the violent photographs interested him.

I was not scared by the movie. While I had not yet become educated in filmmaking, I did know who John Carpenter was — and I was frustrated that the Halloween dude wasn’t making a movie he wrote.

"This is Lulu & Michele! We're not home so go to Hell! But if you're not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!" Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

“This is Lulu & Michele! We’re not home so go to Hell! But if you’re not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!”
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars is not a truly bad movie. It may not be scary, but it has its share of intense moments. It also offers a rather lucid capture of 1970’s NYC and its fashion scene.

Sony did issue the film to DVD, but the HD download currently available via iTunes is far superior to the non-remastered print that the ever-cheap Sony put on DVD. One major thing about the Sony DVD is that it features a film-length commentary from the late Irvin Kershner. In that commentary he speaks of not having had much knowledge of the fashion world at that time. He was surprised when he heard female models talking, disrobing, doing drugs and giggling like school girls.

A staunch liberal, Kershner was also more than a little repulsed by discovering that there seemed to be a misogynistic attitude toward women by an industry devoted to women as their focal demographic. This concerning misogyny would change the film’s tone. No new comer to the Sexual Revolution, he was very much surprised by the attitude of the female models he encountered as well as what he saw as The Studio 54 Culture. Clearly this is what motivated Kershner.

Oh, the model's life and selling cars while being abused and killed... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photography by Rebecca Blake

Oh, the model’s life and selling fashion! No prob with nudity or killing or being killed. But they do have problems with the color of the dresses… Sex, violence and Misogyny Sells Clothing!
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photography by Rebecca Blake

At the time of the film’s release more than a few critics were annoyed by the ample use of casual nudity and the constant stream of violence against women. Kershner explains that he didn’t need to include all the nudity and explicitness of the faked photographs, but these aspects of the plot tied to the world of fashion greatly disturbed and interested him. These aspects seemed to signal that this once simple slasher movie could serve as something a bit deeper in the form of societal and cultural commentary. Or so it seemed.

It wasn’t so much the clothes that the photographers were wanting to capture as the sexuality of the models. And the models were more than happy to comply. Sex was their commodity and it was taking on a sinister tone from Kershner’s perspective. The non-actor models didn’t need to be asked or walked-thru to be nude for the film. They treated their scenes as they would a provocative fashion spread. Off came the clothing and on went the vapid conversing and drug-taking.

Kershner saw and attempted to capture a world in which the female model had no issue with being nude or posing as a victim, but their psyches were challenged when they had to wear “pink” or any color that they didn’t like. Carpenter’s original screenplay was re-crafted to “realistically” capture this world. A intriguing idea in theory does not always manage to fully morph onto the screen.

A lovely book for the late 1970's coffee table? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A lovely book for the late 1970’s coffee table?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Kershner was very careful not to discuss too much about Faye Dunaway. It is no secret that she became frustrated with the making of the film but also the way in which it was promoted. This was really the first film in which Dunaway failed to connect to the production.

A deeply stylized and theatrical actor, Faye Dunaway always had a 1940’s sensibility about her — hence her success in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Towering Inferno and Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown. She had managed to take her style of acting to a whole new level for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network and won the Oscar.

As Laura Mars Faye Dunaway appears to be a bit lost. It often feels as if she is fighting against what Kershner wanted. Continually dressed in flowing robes or gowns, Laura Mars seems to edge toward Gothica. She is power-dressed with purpose and that purpose is not to be sexy.

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models? Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models?
Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Surrounded by The Beautiful Elite of the modeling world, Dunaway is constantly subverting her assigned wardrobe to a new purposes. It seems almost comical to watch her photographing a fake car crash tragedy with her models either playing dead or cat-fighting in undies and minks. Kershner’s commentary avoids much discussion, but it seems an odd choice that Dunaway’s Laura Mars opts to hike up her skirt and do a Old-School Hollywood leg reveal as she shoots her pictures.

Decidedly not sexy, it just seems uncomfortable. Dunaway strictly refused any nudity in her love scenes with Tommy Lee Jones. But one suspects she desperately wanted in on some of the semi-nude cat fights she was left to “photograph.” The audience is less interested in Dunaway’s Laura as they are in the barely clothed fighting beauties amidst the wreckage.

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura's eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura’s eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars gets the late 1970’s NYC Fashion World down correctly. The clothes feel and look very much from the 1977 era. The fashions being photographed look legit. And the wealthy photographer may edge toward the dramatic, but her clothing is clearly upscale and in style.

Kershner also captures the feel and look of the true 1977 NYC. Hell’s Kitchen, Columbus Circle and the Fashion District look like they are from another reality compared to now. This is most assuredly an on location shoot. The grime and grit plays a key role to the film. And although he did not shoot there, one of the movie’s early moments features a PR party given in honor of Laura Mars‘ work and new book that could easily be mistaken for a Studio 54 event.

At this event, Kershner makes no excuses for the vapidity of models like Lulu and Michelle, but both Darlanne Fluegel and Lisa Taylor are comically believable in their roles. It is in this early scene we are given a glimpse into their characters’ personalities.

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura's killing portrait... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura’s killing portrait…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The director is also to be credited for showing the importance of gay male culture within the world of Laura Mars without falling into homophobia. Little is actually articulated, but we know these men are gay. Rene Auberjonois delivers a solid performance as Laura’s close friend and business manager. We not meant to make fun of him.

And while both Raul Julia and Brad Dourif are wasted, they put forward great work here. Tommy Lee Jones is also strong except when pitted against Dunaway’s convulsively confusing turns. Jones is playing the role as realistically as possible, but he often finds himself in bad soap opera territory when kissing or making love to his leading lady. This is not his fault. Dunaway’s work here often feels like that of an insecure fading movie star who is afraid of losing her place at the table. Sadly Kershner didn’t seem to be strong enough to talk her down. This is of particular surprise given his track record for getting the best out of his actors. It is safe to say that Dunaway’s finest work has been given under infamous duress with tempermental directors.

Roman Polanski or Barbet Schroeder anyone?

Art crime? Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Art crime?
Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

While it was most definitely a fail on the part of Kershner to not better execute the horror of a film that was obviously intended to be a slasher flick, I doubt we would really remember this film if it had followed that path.

It should be noted that one of the few genuinely creepy moments in the movie is when we are limited to Laura Mars‘ POV which is trapped in the POV of the serial killer who is chasing her at full speed with intent to kill. Arte Kane’s musical score is manically-pitched and when edited into this threatening but non-violent scene, it does illicit a good deal of tension.

Even still, there is a major bit of let down when acts of actual real-time murders happen. Thanks to the musical score and the trippy use of POV there is some suspense, but the cinematic pay-off in these slasher scenes feel like something you might have seen on Charlie’s Angels.

Well, minus the nudity.

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance! Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance!
Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

This is very little gore in this film’s violence. Of course the film’s Big Reveal which Columbia Studios built up by closing ticket sales after the first ten minutes of the movie, has never seemed at all shocking to me. Even as a child I had figured out the identity of the killer before the film decides to reveal it.

Even still, it is a nightmarish situation that is interesting when compared to the “fashion art” our heroine has been crafting with her stylishly perched skinny leg and handy Nikon camera. This is perhaps the film’s most winning turn of horror — it is the film’s use of murder as fashion and violent death as eroticism that leaves a queasy sort of taste on the cinematic palate.

Killing to sell a car... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Killing to sell a car…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Irvin Kershner’s take on Carpenter’s script may not have gone to the logical horror route of the Slasher Film, but it’s twisted turns guide the audience to a surprisingly gruesome walk toward the pop culture of the future.

And Faye Dunaway’s odd performance does leave an impression.

It should be noted that this performance does not straddle an artistic line as her work in the ill-advised Mommie Dearest. Instead her work as Laura Mars is consistently up-ending itself. The manic and insecure diva-ish turn has, over the years, added a level of paranoia.

This paranoia plays well into both schisms of the infamous movie: The Uncomfortable and The Cult of Camp.

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Perhaps it is unfair to lay Dunaway’s failure all on her. She is given some very strange dialog:

While in a post orgasmic embrace she murmurs:

“I can’t understand. [slight pause] how it’s possible. [slightly longer pause] to live your whole life. [pause ] without someone. [slight pause] and be doing more or less OK. And then suddenly you find them. You recognize them.”

cue lush love theme as Tommy Lee Jones plants a big smooch on her face.

What do those words even mean?

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Perhaps Eyes of Laura Mars is a bad movie. Or maybe it is simply flawed. It doesn’t matter. Once you see it you will never forget it.

Matty Stanfield, 12.4.15