Monthly Archives: January 2017

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

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*. “Rarebit” isn’t a word. It’s a corruption of “rabbit” that is used, and only used, to describe a dish of melted cheese on toast called Welsh rarebit, which has no rabbit in it. I’ve never had it. It looks disgusting. But then I think fondue is disgusting too. And I like cheese!
*. That said, it’s the Fiend who makes it look disgusting here, cramming enough of it in his mouth to make himself sick. I suspect his delirium, however, is brought about by the bottles he’s kicking back. It’s a remarkable display of excess, complete with pasty eruptions.
*. The source material was a serial comic strip written by Winsor McKay (“Silas”) featuring various dreams and fantasies. The comics were adult in nature, and even quite dark at times, complementing the childhood adventures of Little Nemo (another McKay creation from the same period).
*. It’s probably best remembered today for the scene of the Fiend riding his bed over the city. That’s too bad, as I think this is the weakest effect in the film. My favourite part has the Fiend holding on to a lamppost as it swings like a pendulum while superimposed over a street that seems to be shot from the deck of a boat in rough seas. I can only imagine what contemporary audiences thought of this, as the movement alone is enough to make me feel queasy. I guess they must have liked it though, as Edison sold a lot of copies.
*. I’ve seen several different prints of this one, running from just over five minutes to just over seven (the latter, however, in a print where the film speed seemed to be wrong). In some versions there’s definitely been material cut from the opening dining scene.
*. We may feel a familiar tug watching it today, when comic book movies are our dominant narrative form and effects rule. This movie is a bit different, trying to slip a moral in about the consequences of overindulgence, but at the end of the day it’s just a magic carpet ride. In terms of the story’s structure it resembles A Trip to the Moon, with a fantastic voyage and then a crashing back to Earth. That was a familiar trope in early cinema. Some of the effects, however, have held up really well, like the model shot of the spinning bed or the lamppost sequence I mentioned, and Porter really was one of the most accomplished storytellers of his day.

Sisters (1973)

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*. This is still early De Palma, and he was a director who started off taking a lot of baby steps.
*. He had some real help with this one, including Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt being well cast in the leading roles and Bernard Hermann going crazy with the score. And yet it still doesn’t quite add up.
*. Hermann had to remind De Palma that he (De Palma) wasn’t Hitchcock, but this admonishment only came after the film was in the can. I don’t mind De Palma’s obvious debt to Hitch — the voyeurism, black comedy, and structural perversities — but I can’t help thinking he would have been better off not trying to follow so closely in his master’s footsteps when it came to the actual process of filmmaking. This is primitive Hitchcock, and it makes starkly clear a lot of Hitch’s biggest faults.
*. What I mean, mainly, is a near total indifference to story. De Palma wanted to make “pure cinema,” but I don’t think that works with a concept this muddled and in need of explication. What we’re left with here are a bunch of pieces that don’t cohere into a story — does that sound familiar? — leaving us with a movie that doesn’t involve us very much.
*. I suppose De Palma was nodding to Psycho in killing off a likeable figure that the audience has come to identify with, but it’s pretty shocking how disposable Philip Woode is (that’s the name of the man Danielle brings home). He disappears but nobody seems to notice. You’d think the police would have heard something about a missing person, and connected the dots to his appearance on the TV show with Danielle just the night before, but they seem totally uninterested in Grace’s story about Danielle killing a black man in her apartment the night he disappeared.

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*. The mental hospital out in the boonies feels like pure Cronenberg. Also like Cronenberg is the feeling you get that the idea for the movie is more interesting in the abstract than it is on screen. On the one hand, the Siamese-twin back story is kind of obvious, but then it’s made confused by the mysterious way it’s related: by way of Grace’s hallucinatory hypnosis session. I had the odd feeling that somehow everyone was attached to everyone else at the end.
*. I also had to think of Cronenberg in the scene where Kidder is writhing on the floor of her bathroom because she’s out of meds. Was Cronenberg thinking of this scene when he made Rabid? There’s a very similar scene in that film with Marilyn Chambers going through the same withdrawal symptoms.
*. As far as the Hitchcock goes, there’s one shock moment (that isn’t very well done) and one extended suspense sequence. They seem so deliberately constructed that you notice the intricacy of the construction instead of being absorbed into the moment. The split-screen technique is very well utilized, but it sort of demands that you look at it as technique.
*. Then there’s the ending. Now this I really did like. The man on the pole. The cow. Even the couch that seems to be waiting for someone, if only to sit on it.
*. There’s a name for art that foregrounds (or flaunts) abnormal psychology, visual trickery, and its own knowingness and artificiality. But even without all of this the ending would still make me think of surrealism, if only because there’s nothing more surreal than a Holstein cow. And it’s really this species of lunacy that most differentiates De Palma from Hitch. I mean, could you ever take Bill Finley seriously? He’s just too odd.
*. As I started out by saying, De Palma began his career with a lot of baby steps. This movie is one of them. It’s interesting but not really accomplished on a technical level. I don’t think it’s much more than an inspired student film that ultimately falls apart. However it does have its moments and you can see that De Palma was too darn smart not to make something really good eventually.

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Boyhood (2014)

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*. Boyhood, almost immediately upon its release, took a place as one of the most critically acclaimed American films of the twenty-first century. But it didn’t find a mass audience, which both is and isn’t surprising.
*. It isn’t surprising because it’s not an effects-laden blockbuster with a built-in teen audience. It is surprising because Richard Linklater is, at heart, very much a pop artist.
*. It’s a movie that’s probably best known for being a stunt. It was filmed with the same cast over a period of twelve years, making it a kind of dramatic equivalent to the Up Series.
*. As with any movie that’s a stunt (and I don’t use that term pejoratively), the question that arises is whether it would be as interesting but for the stunt. Like “Would Memento be as good a movie if you ran it forward?” If Linklater had shot the movie in sixty days, using make-up to age Arquette and Hawke and casting three different actors as Mason, would critics have liked it as much?
*. I don’t think so. That’s not to say I think it’s a bad movie, but judged on its merits I think it’s more ordinary than it seems. Though being ordinary is part of what it’s about.

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*. There are various themes and leitmotifs that stand in lieu of a plot. Linklater doesn’t do plot, but he does know rhythm and his movies clop along at a pleasant pace through a series of interesting scenarios.
*. The first theme I was struck by was that of Mason being a spectator of his own life. He seems remarkably passive to me, especially considering the hormonal storm that adolescence is.
*. I don’t know if this was a point Linklater wanted to make, or if it was just the result of his telling Ellar Coltrane to play it down. There was no way he could have known if Coltrane was going to develop as an actor over the course of the project, so perhaps he wanted it to be a role that wouldn’t call for much.
*. The result is a little disappointing. Boyhood is, after all, a portrait of an artist as a young man, but Mason never seems very passionate, or indeed interested, in his photography. It’s even something his teacher upbraids him for at one point. There’s such a thing as being too laid back.
*. Or is this a generational thing? Are all young people like this today? I don’t know many so I can’t be sure.
*. In his Criterion essay on the film, Jonathan Lethem has a side note that gives what I think is a good example of how this passivity plays into our reading of the film. “The bathroom-bullying scene seems to me to exemplify how this film’s impassivity works in concert with its lead actor’s impassivity. Is this bullying important or not? Routine or a one-time thing? Would Mason Junior even recall it? Are these bullies regular players in a chapter of his life to which we’re not privy? Nothing gives us a clue.”
*. The second theme I wanted to flag is that of life as a road through a semi-desert landscape. Texas, sure, but more generic, a ribbon of asphalt representative of nothing happening. At the end of the film Mom (Arquette) tries to look back on a “series of milestones” and realizes the family were all on a road not so much to as through nowhere (it’s probably a road to nowhere as well, but this film doesn’t take us to the end of anything). “I just thought there would be more,” Arquette says, in what I think is the film’s most telling line.
*. I think this emptiness nicely reflects the way we accidentally drift into relationships on the basis of nothing much, then either drift apart or walk away from large or small accidents that may or may not leave scars (I suspect Linklater thinks they do, which is frustrating given the kind of movie this is). Nobody stays together, and all lives are disposable. Boyfriends and girlfriends are just the junk we pick up and then try to get rid of and find substitutes for.

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*. The combination of these two themes — Mason’s passivity and life as a journey where nothing happens — gives the film a bland quality. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think most of us have had the experience of looking back on long stretches of our lives and wondering where the time went. The feeling that “it seems like it was just yesterday” really tells us that nothing at all registered in the intervening five, ten, or twenty years.
*. So the blandness adds to the sense of authenticity. It may be why watching Mason’s growing up reminded me of my own life: not because my boyhood was in any way similar but precisely because I had so little in common with him but still came away thinking that we all get older and experience the passing of time in similar ways.
*. But there’s a downside to the blandness as well. I started off by saying that Linklater is a pop artist, which means he wants to be liked. His movies may be experimental, but they’re not offensive or controversial in any way. The same applies here. About the only real heel we meet is the alcoholic and abusive professor. Everybody else is just so darn . . . likeable.
*. Even the more obviously satirical figures are never mocked. We don’t have the sense that Linklater is making fun of the country grandparents who give Mason a red-letter bible and a shotgun for his fifteenth birthday, or the restaurant manager who holds out the opportunity of a promotion to fry cook. These are decent people who genuinely want to help Mason. Hell, the manager even gets invited to his graduation party. I thought that was really weird.
*. If the emphasis is on low-key geniality, this doesn’t leave much for the cast to do. As noted, Coltrane is as close to a blank slate as he could be. Hawke got a lot of praise for his role, but he doesn’t seem to be doing anything very difficult to me. The part doesn’t call for much. I think Arquette’s mom is the only role with any emotional range and that stands out performance-wise. I missed her not having some scenes alone, though this wouldn’t have fit with the film’s design.

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*. I don’t want to belittle Boyhood by calling it a pop movie. I found the experience of watching it to be very moving, if never profound. Should it be profound? Again, the fact that people can’t articulate complex thoughts or feelings is a badge of authenticity. At the same time, it seems to me to reflect Linklater’s scratching at the limits of his art.
*. When Mason asks his dad about the meaning of life, the universe and everything he gets this: “Everything? What’s the point? I mean, I sure as shit don’t know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We’re all just winging it, you know? The good news is you’re feeling stuff. And you’ve got to hold on to that.” Is that lame? Hell yes. But what more could you expect from Hawke’s character?
*. Then there’s the ending. It seems to me that the scene between Mason and Nicole, coming where it does, has to carry some extra weight. But we get the same limp stoner/slacker philosophy that Linklater has made his signature. Nicole: “You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kinda thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like the moment seizes us.” Mason: Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant — the moment. It’s just . . . It’s like it’s always right now, you know?” And that’s it.
*. This all takes me back to Arquette’s complaint that she thought there would be more. And it reminds me of how Linklater originally wanted to end Slacker with Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” Given that this is, or at least seems to be, his take on life, is it fair to complain that he doesn’t give us anything more? That the film simply runs out of time with such a flabby line as the moment seizing us? I don’t know. I suspect, however, that Boyhood may not last, or if it does it will only be as a great pop song of its time.

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Slacker (1991)

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*. A lot of the people who dislike this movie do so because they dislike the people in it. The slackers. They seem like prototypes of the currently (as of this writing) despised hipster. Indeed they might not even be prototypes so much as the advance guard. The London photographer identifies the Anti-artist as “one of those neo-poseur types that hang out at coffee shops and doesn’t do much of anything,” and several other characters are easily identifiable as the hipster type avant la lettre, even without beards and scarves.
*. I don’t dislike these people, at least as a type, and as I was a university student at the same time I can even recognize a bit of myself in them. It’s perhaps because of this identification that instead of finding them annoying they only get me down.
*. The next question is what Richard Linklater’s opinion is of these people. Does he despise them? I don’t think so. He says on the Criterion DVD commentary that he was disappointed when “slacker” entered the mainstream as a pejorative term, having always thought of it as a “badge of honour.” He even says that “doing your own thing,” which is what the slackers are all about, is “kind of heroic.”

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*. Elsewhere he has put it this way: “Slackers might look like the left-behinds of society, but they are actually one step ahead, rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them. The dictionary defines slackers as people who evade duties and responsibilities. A more modern notion would be people who are ultimately being responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might be ultimately striving for.”
*. I’m not so sure about this part. I wouldn’t call everyone here lazy, but society clearly has left them behind in an economic sense. They are not one step ahead of anything. And this is a big part of what gets me down about them.
*. Mostly, the slackers are students. The few who most obviously aren’t are either old men or criminals. But what are they students of? I don’t think they’re MBAs or in law or med school. They’re not engineers or science majors. Instead, the sad joke is that they’re what had become, by the 1980s, the ring of scum around the university bathtub. They are students of the arts and humanities. Their interests are music, literature, film, history, and philosophy. Which means they have no role at all to play in modern life.
*. This is why they seem so adrift. While perhaps not lazy (a charge Linklater fiercely resists), they clearly aren’t getting much done. Hence the refrain we hear throughout the film of people being asked what they are up to and them saying “nothing much” or “um, nothing.” One of them has a band practice in another five hours, so . . . there’s the rest of the day shot.
*. But they are more lost than even this implies. They are a hundred performers in search of an audience. As Linklater sits in the back seat of the cab he drones on about alternate realities while the cabbie is clearly paying no attention to him at all. This encounter becomes the model for almost all the subsequent engagements. Even the band at the end is playing to an empty club. As Linklater points out in his commentary over this scene, most dialogue is a conversation and involves interaction but “this movie is very one-sided.”
*. Essentially what we get are a series of monologues delivered to people, like the cab driver, who give every appearance of being zoned out or wanting to be somewhere else. Linklater specifically instructed these auditors not to respond to the monologues, not to judge anything being said. So we have endless scenes of people talking to human walls.
*. Their response to this is to turn inwards. If the slacker is the first coming of the hipster he is also a prototype of the blogger. It’s 1991 so the Internet hasn’t fully arrived yet, but it’s there glowing on the horizon. We can see it most obviously in the office of the Video backpacker, but also in the carefree envoi as the car full of young people turn their cameras on themselves (doing their bit to pollute a park while they’re at it). You can see this as the film swallowing its own tail, or a preview of the rise of the shaky cam (I half expected to see a monster burst out of the woods and eat them), but I think mostly it’s just the terminal point arrived at by artists (or people who study the arts) who have lost any thought of an audience and are just reveling in self-indulgence. This is the way the arts end: not with a bang but with a YouTube channel that gets twelve views.

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*. One offshoot of this failure — and make no mistake, that is what it is — is the constant self-denigration of the artistic class. Though intelligent, they seem to take delight in making themselves sound stupid. Their monologues are something very different from the arguments about pop culture we get in Tarantino. In Tarantino we’re listening in on people who are talking smarter than they are, much as they dress up-class in suits and ties. Tarantino’s gangsters and sundry aren’t university students, only having been educated in the school of MTV (not life). In comparison, in Slacker the characters are, mostly, very well educated, but don’t act like it, and seem not to care very much about anything they’ve learned. They are representatives of the closing of the American mind: not interested in anything aside from doing their own thing and expressing their own half-baked philosophies.
*. I want to extend the comparison to Tarantino, and in particular Pulp Fiction, just a bit. Like Pulp Fiction, Slacker is a movie built out of talk. But in Tarantino the people argue while in Linklater they deliver set-piece speeches that define individual scenes. As already noted, nobody is really listening to them. Also very different is the importance in Tarantino of structure. His stories intersect in various interesting ways, while in Slacker there is really no attempt at structure at all.
*. Slacker is the type of film that seems to want us to make connections, but offers none. There isn’t even the illusion of a thread holding it all together. I believe only one of the actors appears twice, and I don’t think he’s meant to be playing the same character. None of the stories loops around to be reintroduced later. The people we meet are simply left behind like bubbles in the film’s wake.
*. In this way it’s really an anti-conspiracy film. Conspiracy is a leitmotif  — Been on the moon since the 50’s, the Conspiracy-A-Go-Go author, the Video backpacker, the Old anarchist (if that’s what he is) — but the lack of any connections between the dots frustrates any sense that there might be conspiracies at work.
*. During his commentary for Pink Flamingos, John Water expresses surprise at the credit he was given for having so many long takes. This hadn’t been something he’d done for any aesthetic reason but just because he couldn’t afford editing. I thought of that here. But while long takes are cheap, they are not easy, and Linklater (and his cast and crew) deserve a lot of credit for making them work. It’s really remarkable how a largely non-professional cast pulls them off.
*. The pacing is also nicely maintained. All things considered, this is a very well made film that, if it doesn’t go anywhere, at least doesn’t lag in its peregrinations.

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*. Why would Rachael be worried about the guy at the door licking her wrist when she’s just seen her friend lick her own wrist to get the stamp? That seems like a mistake.
*. It’s a movie that’s very much of its time. I think Linklater is aware of this, as he has a thing for this kind of time-capsule sensibility in his movies. But the time can also become a label, as Linklater is also aware of. On the commentary he talks about the historical moment of the slacker, which included Coupland’s Generation X, Nirvana, and the Seattle grunge scene. The generation became a brand (it was “never content based”): something publicists could roll with and which could be used to sell stuff. The target audience created by marketers became the subject itself and Linklater found this speedy co-option creepy. In his contemporary review Roger Ebert remarks that “We are listening in on a whole stratum of American life that never gets paid attention to in the movies.” That was going to change in a big way.
*. Linklater wanted the song that plays over the end credits to be Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” but couldn’t afford the rights. Thank heavens. What a mistake that would have been. It would have been trite, and without any connection to the people whose lives we’ve just been watching pieces of. Whatever else you think of them, the Butthole Surfers were the correct choice.
*. I like Slacker, in the sense that I enjoy watching it. But it’s not a movie that repays many subsequent viewings. Is it because we’ve grown more familiar with the type, and fallen out of love with them? Perhaps. But the type has always been with us. Maybe it’s the way they’ve become a marketing cliché, or the fact that their patter just doesn’t sound as fresh decades later (the fate of all cleverness).
*. Or perhaps it’s just natural to want to turn the page. Think of the backlash in the 1980s against hippies. People who were once thought, or who thought themselves, to be idealists came to be recognized as either sell-outs or just bums. Twenty-five years later, where are the slackers? Still in the coffee shop I guess. Upstairs is the Austin Film Society. The next generation, self-pitying but not without some justification, might still be redeemed. But it will have to be on YouTube. As for me, I don’t hate them. But even though I want to like them — I really do — I just don’t have it in me.

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Le Tempestaire (1947)

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*. Jean Epstein is probably best known today for the avant-garde silent films he made in the 1920s like La chute de la maison Usher and The Three-Sided Mirror. Le Tempestaire came twenty years later. Can we say it marks a change of sensibility?
*. I don’t think so, though it is representative of a different phase in his career. Epstein’s first major film, Cœur fidèle (1923), was a simple, melodramatic story. That he would turn to even simpler material for this short isn’t surprising. He’d long had an interest in Brittany, and the place itself would be the tale he wanted to tell.
*. It seems less experimental, especially given how late it came in his career, than most of his earlier work. There are still tricks — variations in film speed, a use of thematic montage, superpositions of image and sound — but it’s no longer the kind of film that anyone in 1947 would have considered cutting edge.
*. Though I guess it depends on your definition of avant-garde. If you limit it to an artistic movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, a movement of which Epstein was a part, then I think we can say he was still working within it. If you define it as whatever the frontier of the arts, or a particular art, happens to be at a particular time, then I’m not as sure he was still a member. Le Tempestaire, which is a beautiful little film, wasn’t clearing a way that anyone at this time was likely to follow.

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*. We begin with a moment of anticipation, our breath held. We see figures but they’re frozen, waiting to be put into motion. I’m not sure, but I think these are stills as there is no movement at all by the actors. And then, as though by magic, they come to life. The thread begins to be spun: a metaphor for life, obviously, with the two women representing the Fates, but also an image that recalls the ribbon of film being fed through a projector. Meanwhile, at the docks, the old-timers point to the clouds. A storm is a-brewin’.
*. There’s a clear contrast being made between the world of science, represented by the wireless machine at the lighthouse, and the world of magic, represented by the old weather master. Cinema, however, is a bit of both. Isn’t the weather master Epstein as Prospero, running the film in his hands backward to contain the storm? He’s the Creator of this world, his breath the spirit moving on the waters, just like it was Epstein’s animating breath that brought the figures at the beginning to life and started the film moving through the spinning wheel.

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*. Does that sound a bit much? Maybe, but Epstein is a favourite of mine and I think in this film he is looking back a bit at the history of film and its roots in magic shows and tricks of the eye. I also think he’s playing with the equation of breath with wind as an unseen, life-giving power.
*. Unseen, but far from unheard. I love how the woman’s song seems to keep harmony with the sound of the storm, suggesting another blending of nature and art.
*. A simple story on the surface, but one suggesting profound and poetic depths. Another way of thinking about the avant-garde is to contrast it to commercial filmmaking, which this clearly has no intentions of being. The weather master is not to be bribed by gold or money, but will only perform out of . . . what? Not duty or obligation, or even a sense of play. Instead, I think he’s motivated by artistic pride. He may be an old man now, and the butt of jokes by the keepers of the new machines, but he’s still the only one who can do what he does. Then, like Prospero, he’ll break his staff and deeper than did ever plummet sound he’ll drown his book.

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Deep Throat (1972)

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*. It’s a truism that some cultural products — books, paintings, films — attain a status or level of importance far above their worth or any artistic merit they might have. For whatever reason they become iconic, or mark a particular historical moment, and thus become part of the hive mind.
*. Which brings us to Deep Throat. The title itself is instantly recognizable, even among those who haven’t seen the movie. Indeed the title was writer-director Gerard Damiano’s one claim to inspiration, as the act itself hadn’t been labeled yet and “deep throat” certainly stuck. But what a horrible, awful movie it is.
*. Damiano himself later admitted it was no good. The art director, Lenny Camp, thought it was “a piece of shit film, one of the worst porno movies ever made.” I agree. Al Goldstein, on the other hand, thought it was the greatest porn film ever. But he was young at the time and easily aroused.
*. It’s very bad, and all bad. In the first place, it’s horribly dull, even though it has a running time of only 60 minutes. The opening credits, which have Linda Lovelace (“as herself,” whatever that means, since Lovelace wasn’t her real name) just driving around in her car, seem to drag out forever. The acting is embarrassing, even for porn. Ditto the lighting, as some shots simply disappear into darkness. The music — including a title track (“deep throat, deeper than deep your throat”) that should be so bad it’s funny — is consistently irritating. The one song, “Bubbles,” complete with bubble sound effects, even manages to be a bit disgusting when played in context. There are various attempts at humour, none of which are even remotely funny. The premise — a woman whose clitoris has found its way to the back of her throat — is unerotic and off-putting.
*. Then there’s the sex. For a film based on this particular specialty, the oral technique is awful. Lovelace performs the titular act of sword swallowing with gritty competence, but most of the cast keep their eyes closed as they get on with it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such lethargic cunnilingus. Roger Ebert: “If you have to work this hard at sexual freedom, maybe it isn’t worth the effort.”
*. Finally, some mention has to be made of the squalid back story. The movie was financed (if you can call a budget of $25,000 “financing”) by the mob. Lovelace claimed she was being raped on screen, performing with a gun to her head. Her husband, Chuck Traynor, was allegedly pimping her out. People point to the scene where she’s sitting poolside and the bruise on her leg as a sign of abuse. Others have expressed doubts. The general impression I have is that she led a very unhappy life. In any event, there’s no end to the ugliness of this film. I find it simply unwatchable.
*. And yet, it has a place of some significance in film history. It was one of the first porn movies to have an actual story, instead of just being a bunch of unrelated sex acts. It remains, arguably, the most profitable film ever made, though we’ll likely never know the actual take (mob accounting being nearly as opaque as Hollywood’s). It became a political and legal cause, resulting in a number of landmark cases. And finally it was one of the first porn flicks to get widespread release and receive mainstream critical attention. It stands at the beginning of what’s been called the Golden Age of Porn, or “porno chic” (so christened in a New York Times article by Ralph Blumenthal).
*. This was the annus mirabilis of porno chic, with Behind the Green Door and Devil in Miss Jones (another Damiano project) appearing soon after. Together, these are often considered the Big Three films that made porno chic, though only the latter two are still worth watching today. It’s hard to imagine how a film as ugly as Deep Throat could have ever been considered chic, a word that better applies to the sensibility of Andrew Blake (whose Night Trips only came out in 1989).
*. Deep Throat has certainly had its defenders. Legally, I stand behind it all the way. But then I’m a bit of an absolutist when it comes to free speech and I’ve never understood the schizoid American fascination with brutal violence and puritanical prudery when it comes to matters of sex.
*. I don’t put a lot of stock in other defenses that have been made of it. In the excellent documentary Inside Deep Throat several of these are canvassed. We are told that its production was a courageous act of countercultural rebellion. Hogwash. It was a tawdry piece of exploitation. It was also argued (in court no less) that it was a kind of feminist manifesto, as Linda was seeking her own pleasure in the form of a clitoral orgasm. I think that’s nonsense too. Having her clitoris in her throat just makes Linda into a caricature male fantasy, as she proves when she finally hears the bells and sees the fireworks after blowing Harry Reems and then announces herself “a fulfilled woman” who wants to marry him and “be his slave.”
*. The Inside Deep Throat documentary also makes an interesting point about how, at the time, it was thought that Deep Throat and porno chic were going to be precursors to a merging of porn with mainstream entertainment. That didn’t happen. In Norman Mailer’s words, porn didn’t become an art but rather “dwindled into a mediocre commodity.” I think this is in part because porn doesn’t want to be art, but is content to provide raw stimulation. As such it wants to be more generic and ubiquitous, like fast food. Mailer: “Money is not interested in the little alleys of artistic endeavour. It wants the main highway.” Porn’s home ground would be that highway, the Internet, which it had a big hand in building. You can stream Deep Throat there now, for free. But I don’t think many people do.

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Nightmare (1964)

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*. Nightmare is a typical “modern” thriller from Hammer. It’s representative of their work in this field — very much of a piece with Paranoiac and Maniac (both of which were released the previous year) — but it’s far from their best in the genre.
*. The credits tell you most of what you need to know. Written and produced by Jimmy Sangster (who also wrote Paranoiac and Maniac) and directed by Freddie Francis (who directed Paranoiac). So you know the drill. A Boileau-Narcejac plot involving mental manipulation and people who might not be dead, atmospherically shot at Oakley Court.
*. I can’t really explain what’s going on. I have a hunch it doesn’t really make any sense. I don’t just mean the improbability of the old latex-mask trick, or the larger game being played by the downstairs staff, but questions like what was up with Janet’s mother, and why Janet’s murder of Baxter’s wife seems to surprise and upset no one at the time and is written off so lightly.

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*. There just seems to be more plot here than the movie can digest. The film also awkwardly splits in two, with the character of Janet disappearing into an asylum at the half-way mark, never to be seen or heard from again.
*. On our first sight of Janet at boarding school I thought she was too old. In fact, Jennie Linden was 25 and was brought in to replace Julie Christie, who would have been 30.
*. Was Freddie Francis a great director? He was a great cinematographer, but there’s a difference. He does the deep, gothic noir looks nicely here, but he had little feel for building a narrative or working a scene.
*. In short, it’s a lovely little picture to look at, but not one you want to spend any time thinking about. You may go mad.

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Paranoiac (1963)

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*. The title is obviously just a throwaway, but it still bugs me. There are lots of crazy people, but who in the film is paranoid?
*. I’ve always had a special fondness for this film and think it’s perhaps the best of Hammer’s “contemporary” efforts. Why do I enjoy it so much? I think just because it’s such silly fun.
*. In most respects it’s very much of a piece with other films that Hammer was making at the time. Directed by Freddie Francis and written by Jimmy Sangster, it has a plot that I’ve elsewhere described as Boileau-Narcejac. I call it that because the French authors of the source material for Les Diaboliques and Vertigo basically trademarked this kind of story involving people who may or may not be dead and schemes to drive other people insane. Other Hammer films of this same period, like Maniac and Nightmare, stuck to the same script.
*. Paranoiac is actually based, very loosely, on a Josephine Tey novel, Brat Farrar (which was in turn loosely based on the real-life Tichborne case). And the basic plot involving possible ghosts and driving people over the edge can be traced back even further (Rebecca comes to mind). But I think the French influence is the most direct. The scene where “Tony” rescues Eleanor from drowning herself is a direct steal from Vertigo.

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*. But Paranoiac gives us another turn of the screw. In the first place there’s Oliver Reed, driving his Jag through the flower bed and generally doing everything but chewing the furniture. I thought I remembered him actually chewing the drapes in one scene, but on re-watching it I guess he only lifts them to his mouth. And the way he goes into spasms and babbles incoherently when making his final descent of the staircase is still there to be amazed by.
*. Then there’s Aunt Harriet. She really is quite obliging, dressing up like a little choir boy for Simon’s mad organ playing, isn’t she? Is everyone in this family bonkers? There’s also a suggestion of something more than family loyalty in her affection for Simon (“Simon belongs to me!”), which is echoed in the faux-incest between Eleanor and the fake Tony. This movie is demented.
*. I wonder if Reed’s fascination with the nurse’s shoulders is one of those stand-ins for a kinkier obsession they couldn’t show directly. It has that feel to it.
*. The story is hard to credit. Just how the hell does fake Tony figure out what happened to the real Tony? It’s beyond intuition. And it’s hard to credit anyone being fooled by the pretender anyway (or him passing the far more thorough legal investigation that must  be pending).
*. It’s all nutty as hell, but it’s nicely turned out and wraps up quickly. Like all of the best Hammer films, it’s a piece well played in a minor key.

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