What the hell is with me starting these posts off with movies that possess impenetrable narratives? Is it an unconscious drive to get “the hard one” out of the way first, so the rest of the column flows smoothly?
If I ever figure that out, I’ll let you know.
James Fox (cast against type and blowing doors out with his performance, pun unintended) plays Chas, an enforcer with a London protection racket that enjoys his work way too much. When he takes it upon himself to discipline an old rival, the door is opened for assault, murder, and suddenly Chas is on the run from his own mob. While searching for a place to lie low, he lucks onto a flat being rented in the basement of reclusive retired rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). Mind games ensue.
Performance takes its time setting up Chas’ world and how he moves in it, so the sudden immersion into the drugged-out anarchy of Turner’s world is exactly as puzzling and off-putting as it is to Chas; at first Turner refuses to give him refuge, then reverses that decision. Though Chas tries to pass himself off unsuccessfully as a musician on tour, one of Turner’s live-in lovers, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) will tell him that Turner is keeping him around because the musician “lost his devil” and is seeking to resurrect that driving force with Chas’ presence. To that end, Chas is given psylocybin mushrooms without his knowledge (“That’s insane!” says a surprised Turner when Pherber tells him how much), and the two men’s characters begin to bleed into each other.
It is damnably hard to categorize Performance, if that’s even possible or, more to the point, desirable. It is an intriguing time capsule for London in that period, blossoming counterculture and Kray Twins gangsters. References to Jorge Luis Borges abound (in this world, even the gangsters read Borges), and, indeed, this may be one of the best adaptations of Borges’ work that wasn’t actually written by Borges himself. The blending of Chas and Turner is probably best represented by the movie suddenly becoming a music video for Jagger’s “Memo from Turner” (a definite high point) in which Turner becomes the head of the mob Chas has left. Afterwards, Chas is more rock star than enforcer – even the second of Turner’s live-ins, a French waif named Lucy (Michele Breton), who was before frightened by Chas, is now sleeping with him. Turner, on the other hand, has become uncertain and aware of encroaching doom, resulting in one of those final movie shots that has no possible explanation, but which people will nonetheless argue about for years, and have.
Performance was shot in 1968, but delayed for two years after a test screening resulted in the wife of a studio executive vomiting in disgust. History doesn’t record what it was that pushed her tender tummy into revolt, but there is a lot of transgressive stuff here, not just the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. For instance, the homosexual tendencies of the gangsters, which starts out subtle but becomes much more obvious and matter-of-fact as the movie moves on.
Co-director Donald Cammell took the picture for re-cutting (the other co-director, Nicholas Roeg, was in Australia filming Walkabout), and what he returned with is the Performance we are familiar with today, with its opening scenes now possessed of almost avant-garde cross-cutting, and noodling about by Jack Nietzsche on one of the first Moog synthesizers.
Performance is definitely not for all markets, but it is novel and intriguing. I remember many a midnight movie showing billing it as a rock movie, and can only imagine the stunned and puzzled stoners staggering out of the theater into the dead of night.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The corpse is Joe Gillis (William Holden) a down-on-his-luck screenwriter desperately trying to get up enough money that he can save his car from the finance company (in L.A., if you don’t have a car, you might as well be a corpse floating in a swimming pool). Circumstances lead him to concealing the car in the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned mansion; the mansion is, in fact inhabited by silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her devoted manservant Max (Eric von Stroheim). Once Norma discovers Joe is a writer, she hires him to rewrite her comeback script, Salome, moving him into a garage apartment, then the mansion, and finally, into her bedroom.
Joe’s downfall and sideways-seduction into the easy life of a gigolo is countered by a chance relationship with studio reader Betty (Nancy Olsen), who spots a worthwhile section of one of Joe’s old scripts, and he begins to meet with her clandestinely, to collaborate on a project that could revive Joe’s career and move him out of Norma’s mansion. Naturally, Joe and Betty are going to fall in love, and Norma is going to find out, and that is going to lead to Joe burning all his bridges, to Betty for her own good, and to Norma for his own good – which will lead to Joe getting three slugs in the back and one of the most iconic final scenes in movie history.
Chad Plambeck told me that if you consider Sunset Boulevard a film noir, then Joe is the villain, but if you approach it as a horror movie, Norma is the villain. This is perfectly true, but I hold that what writer/director Billy Wilder has created here is an absolutely novel genre, throwing light onto a subject that would be harvested again and again in series like The Twilight Zone and the book Hollywood Babylon – a sort of tabloid scandal character study shot through with melancholy and condemnation.
The amazing thing is it exists at all, and that Paramount studios was willing – and in fact, apparently pleased – to be a character in its own movie. Cecil B. deMille himself has an extended cameo (in which it has to be admitted that he comes off pretty damned well, in a movie so critical of the starmaker machinery). Wilder pretty much invents meta-fiction here, with Norma watching her old silent movies, which we are told later were directed by Max – and the movie being shown is Queen Kelly (1929), starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Eric von Stroheim. Norma has frequent bridge parties attended by friends of the old silent days, and I am ashamed I had to look up two of them (Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). Buster Keaton I managed to recognize on my own.
(I have to mention Jack Webb, because he’s Jack Webb, playing the most un-Jack Webb character I’ve ever seen, Joe’s assistant director pal Artie Green, effervescent, constantly smiling, and Betty’s fiance – oops! Sorry Jack!)
Roger Ebert said of Bette Davis that the smartest career move she ever made was getting older, and that also goes for William Holden. This was his most significant role in the 11 years since his breakthrough, Golden Boy, and his experience in the intervening years has tempered him (and Good Lord, can the man wear a tuxedo. Not everyone can pull off white tie and tails, and he does so with panache). His career only rose from here, and it is in recent years that I find myself really appreciating his work in the 60s and 70s, and the way he so effortlessly projected a sort of vulnerable, weary masculinity in his roles.
But there is no denying that this movie belongs to Gloria Swanson, who was only 50 at the time the movie was made, but was harshly lit to make her look older – talk about bravery in an actress! She applies exactly as much over-the-top to Norma Desmond as is required of a character who considers her life to be one long silent film. Alternately delusional, grandiose and pathetic, this is a role for the ages. and of course, Hollywood being what it is, it offered her nothing afterwards except different versions of Norma Desmond.
Sometimes the meta is a little too close to reality.
Ms. 45 (1981)
A very common thread in my postings here is “Why did it take me so long to get to this movie?” but this time the cause is easier to determine – it simply wasn’t available for some time. I had a close friend who ran one of those grey market VHS mail-order services and for literally years his big seller was Ms. 45, off a videotape he’d bought even further back. He’s since moved on to less grey pursuits, but it wasn’t until only recently that Drafthouse Films put out a legit version of it on blu-ray, a strange thing for a movie that is praised in many movie history books as a classic.
Zoe Lund (Tamerlis) plays Thana, a mute woman working in a small sweatshop in New York’s garment district. On one particularly bad day she is raped twice – once in an alley (by director Abel Ferrara) and then again in her apartment, where she gains the upper hand on the burglar and beats him to death with an iron.
Instead of going to the police or her admittedly terrifying landlady (Editta Sherman), she hacks up the body in her bathtub and stores the trash-bag wrapped pieces in her refrigerator. She carries the dead man’s gun around with her as she distributes the body parts around the city, and winds up killing a cat-calling schmoe who was trying to chase her down with one of the bags; after that, Thana’s mind begins to go seriously south as she tracks down males she feels are predacious and takes them out of the gene pool forcibly, even walking though Central Park at night to find targets. Her choices become more questionable as her mind deteriorates, leading up to a slow-motion massacre at a Halloween party where it is deemed good enough that the recipients of her bullets are simply male.
This was Ferrara’s follow-up to his proto-slasher film, The Driller-Killer (which predates Friday the 13th by a year or more). Doing a distaff version of 1972’s Death Wish is kind of a no-brainer for exploitation filmmakers, but Ferrara’s approach to the subject matter is what has helped its reputation endure for decades. The disposal of the body parts – a continuing thread throughout the movie – is handled with much dark humor and cleverness. I would normally say that the movie provides a good document of the streets of good old bad old New York, which it does – but a cursory search of YouTube will net you videos of women being catcalled and propositioned in the street, and those videos are a few months old, not years. Nothing has changed.
Ms. 45 is often mentioned in the same breath as Bo Arne Vibenius’ Thriller, A Cruel Picture, another iconic rape-revenge movie, but Thriller is a lot more interested in brutalizing the viewer as much as its protagonist, and the revenge segment of the story feels episodic and unfocused. Ms .45′s vengeance cuts a much broader and less discerning swath, edging it into the realm of horror movies, and its episodic nature feels more like a solid directorial choice. I doubt I’ll ever watch Thriller again, but Ms .45, equal parts Death Wish, Taxi Driver and still its own creature – possesses more than enough artistry to deserve another look.
The question is how, in this day and age, do you distribute a movie with a deliberately inflammatory title? The answer turns out to be very simple, in that you simply excise the inflammatory part. You know the title of this is Boss Nigger. I know the title of this is Boss Nigger. once you get into the opening credits, the movie certainly knows its title is Boss Nigger. But all things considered, I’m perfectly happy just calling it Boss.
Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and D’Urville Martin are black bounty hunter in the post-Civil War West (The Hammer is only referred to as “Boss”), and they find out one of the members of their latest group of bounties is carrying a letter from the corrupt Mayor (R.G. Armstrong!) of a nearby town, naming the bandit the new Sheriff. Boss rides into town and claims the office as his own, hoping to flush out their big bounty, the gang leader Jed Clayton (William Smith).
This was released a full year after Blazing Saddles worked a similar setup for laughs, and Boss works it from the opposite direction; most of the townsfolk are dismayed that the new Sheriff is not at all white, and Martin’s gleeful posting and enforcement of fines related to racial epithets and other forms of rudeness is played for any comic possibilities; the oppressed become the oppressors for a bit, then Boss remembers it has a story to tell. The script, written by Williamson, meanders too much for its own good, but is fairly entertaining in a weekend afternoon sort of way.
Williamson’s schtick may have been somewhat limited, but he is very good at it. Martin, Armstrong and Smith are all reliable character actors. Probably the most valuable player of all, though, is veteran director Jack Arnold, who at this stage of his career was directing mainly episode TV. There’s a steady workmanship that keeps Boss moving even when the script is being improbable, and if there is a negative, it’s that Boss feels like a TV movie, with a little more swearing and more dropping of the N-word. A lot of outlets, including the IMDb, describe Boss as a comedy, but a Shakespearean body count at the end – all the bad guys, damn near all the sympathetic characters, black and white, and even Boss’ survival in question – sorta belies that.
Entertaining enough, and a welcome change to the typical blaxploitation formula; but alas, no classic.