Friday, May 29, 2009

Tarzan vs. IBM: une etrange aventure du Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was an expectation-defying cherry bomb thrown in the face of conventional narrative cinema in 1960, combining a Brecht-inspired mistrust for escapist storytelling with a genuine love for Hollywood’s output. In the years that followed, he continued to turn out pictures that denied audiences the cinematic cliches and conventions they were used to. His ninth feature, Alphaville; une etrange aventure du Lemmy Caution, may or may not have been conceived as a form of artistic competition with his friend Francoius Truffaut, who would be summoned to Hollywood to adapt Fahrenheit 451. With this film, Godard would create his own dystopic science fiction story, but he would do it his way.

The film’s opening scene is a perfect signifier that we are not in for a traditional ride. Secret agent Lemmy Caution checks into a hotel under a false name. A pretty young chambermaid leads him upstairs to his room. Several members of the hotel staff offer to take his suitcase for him, and he grumpily refuses. To French audiences in the early sixties, this was nothing out of the ordinary. Eddie Constantine had already portrayed the hard-boiled Caution - a character originally invented by pulp novelist Peter Cheyney - in a successful series of Cold War espionage thrillers between 1952 and 1963. They had probably seen him behave in this fashion before.

It doesn’t take long, however, for things to swerve into uncharted territory. The chambermaid offers to run Lemmy a bath, then strips down to her underwear, exposing a number tattooed on her back. Out of nowhere, a fedora-hatted goon attacks Lemmy, smashing clumsily through three fake-looking and easily avoidable plate glass doors. Lemmy shoots him, while the chambermaid sits in the tub, barely batting an eye. She then tells him that she is a Seductress, Second Class. What exactly was going on here?

Without warning, Godard plucked a well-known b-movie character out of his established 20th century setting, and into an otherworldly futuristic one reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. However, in another expectation-defeating (and budget-saving) turn, it’s a future without gadgets of any kind. The film was shot in modern-looking locales around Paris. Alpha 60, the evil supercomputer that rules over the planet, is actually a window fan voiced by a man with an artificial voice box. To simulate space travel, the characters merely drive their cars down the highway, watching the street lights zoom by, and commenting on how lovely the stars look.

In terms of D.I.Y. aesthetic style, Alphaville’s closest cousin is probably Chris Marker’s La Jetee. However, where Marker’s film was a poingant study of love in the face of Armageddon, Alphaville is a fascitious spoof, albeit one grounded in a love for what it criticizes, with a few ideas of its own as to what those things mean to us as a culture. Characters make seemingly contradictory references to 20th century events: despite this being the future, Caution claims to be a veteran of WWII’s Battle of Guadalcanal. There are also (most likely deliberate) factual mistakes, such as when Caution and his partner discuss light years as a measure of time. The point of this crazy exercise, seemingly, is to show how willingly we as an audience will follow storytellers like lemmings off of a cliff, no matter what nonsensical horseshit they feed us.

The story is steeped in layer upon layer of wry meta-humor. Using found urban locations points out how the real future never ends up looking like the future of sci-fi cinema: as a result, most of them end up looking inevitably quaint and indicative of the time in which they were made. In Godard’s mind, there seems to be no point in spending millions of dollars on a picture like Metropolis, if 20 years down the line, audiences will have to make allowances for the sight of bi-planes flying around your art deco skyscrapers. This explains the presence of a film-noir gumshoe protagonist, an archetype that was already somewhat dated by 1965. To his wonderful credit, Constantine performs his role with complete, poker-faced seriousness, no matter how ridiculous his sitation becomes.

Caution’s surname is becomes an ironic joke in relation to his actions. In his mission to destroy the totalitarian Alpha 60, he shoots every complacent technocrat unfortunate enough to cross his path. What’s more, he ends up being fairly useless in his mission to thwart the evil supercomputer, which uses a death ray to annihilate everyone on the planet. (Humorously enough, the working title of the picture was Tarzan versus IBM - which just as well sums up the plot John Boorman’s Point Blank and Zardoz.) What Godard seems to be poking fun at here is how real life often reminds us of allegorical science fiction stories of literature and film, when it really ought to be the other way around.

The way in which we filter our experience of the world through escapist media is examined in numerous instances. Characters have names that are drawn from pop cultural sources to a distracting extent. Caution asks his partner about the whereabouts of Detective Dick Tracy. The inventor of the Alpha 60 goes by two monikers: Dr. Von Braun (after the Nazi-era rocket scientist) and Professor Nosferatu - two famed German boogeymen, one real, and the other fictitious. His assistants are dubbed Dr. Heckle and Dr. Jeckle, after magpies from the Terrytoons cartoons.

What’s fascinating about watching Alphaville today is that many of the concepts it pioneered as parodies of science fiction have been re-worked in serious films and other media. The Alpha 60 appears to be directly related to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL; its perverse plan to save the world by destroying it also employed by Adrien Veidt in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. And of course, Blade Runner, almost 20 years later, would once again meld dystopic sci-fi with film noir into a much more scarily possible setting. Despite Godard’s facetious treatment of the material, we still cling to allegorical sci-fi as an expression of the times. In creating a sci-fi story that went out of its way to be a product of his time, Godard ended up creating one that will always be ahead of it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Celluloid Gypsy Chronicles: The Frank Henenlotter Interview

Frank Henenlotter knows a thing or two about exploitation movies. His best-loved film, the brilliant Basket Case, is a satirical splatter pic that unfolds in a pre-gentrification New York City, back when 42nd street was home to hundreds of XXX theaters. The picture's two sequels, and the seminal Brain Damage and Frankenhooker also lovingly paid tribute to the exploitation flicks of yesteryear while simultaneously poking fun at their politics.

In the many years spent between 1992's Basket Case III: The Progeny and last year's yet-to-be-released Bad Biology, Frank has done untold amounts of research and film preservation work with Something Weird Video, the DVD company which has earned the meant-in-a-good-way nickname "the Criterion of Crap." For the past two decades, Something Weird has restored and released movies from all unloved subgenres: skeezy sex hygiene shorts, nudist camp features, drug scare propaganda, dated and racist jungle documentaries, burlesque show compilations, and pre-home video pornography. They have lovingly cataloged the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, Dan Sonney, Harry Novak, David F. Friedman and Dwain Esper. So when a mutal friend (The Pleasure of Being Robbed actress Eleonore Hendricks) offered to introduce us, I sought to pick Henenlotter's brain about Esper in particular, and 1930's, faux-educational exploitation pictures in general.

We spoke in the the living room of his Lower West Side apartment, which houses a bookshelf containing more monster movie DVDs than you've had hot dinners. Posters for The Crawling Eye and Please Don't Eat My Mother adorn the walls, and Belial, the rubbery, deformed star of Basket Case, sits silently in the corner. Henenlotter is portly and jovial like a favorite uncle; his demeanor puts one almost immediately at ease. The first thing he asked me after I'd introduced myself was "So why the heck are you doing a documentary about Dwain Esper?"

I told him I simply found his films to be fascinating time capsules, and enormously entertaining to boot. I in turn asked him why he loves exploitation films in general. "Well, if you're gonna study one kind of film, you've got to study them all," he replied. "If one kind of film is valid, then they're all valid. And these bottom-of-the-barrel movies we're talking about, that's the underbelly of Hollywood, which is probably a lot more fascinating. I think they reveal a lot more about people and their values, and what times they lived in. The fact that they're not well made, well, that's beside the point.

"On the other hand," he added. "They're really just a hell of a lot of fun. I think the first ten minutes of Sex Madness is madness! The idea that you could go to a burlesque theater, then suddenly come under the clutches of a veracious lesbian, and then go out and rape and kill a child, I think one guy does - and then a whole bunch of guys go out and, 'hey fellas, let's go get syphilis!' It's just wonderful!"

Our conversation turned to the social and political climate that these films flourished in. Essentially, the market for these films sprang up due to the Hays Code, much the same way that the bootlegging industry did in response to Prohibition. "This is a country that has never escaped the clutches of the Church and morality, and we're still fighting that today," Henenlotter sighed. "You know; naughty naughty naughty, even though everyone goes home and closes the curtains and does whatever the hell they want. It was all total hypocrisy.

"But there was a commercial aspect to these films too. They'd only have a couple of thousand bucks for their budget, what can we do with that? Well, we can show a girl in her brassire. Okay, that's good. How about she gets sold to a whorehouse? That'll give us an opportunity to have girls laying around in lingerie. And maybe we'll be able to throw some glimpses of bare breasts in there. Now, a movie like that isn't going to play at a theater that just showed a Paramount film last week. But a lot of these small towns with independent theaters would have been open to that sort of thing, and I think audiences were thrilled with these movies."

I observed that while modern audiences may scoff at the dated and over-the-top nature of 30's exploitation films, the popularity of "Flavor of Love," the Saw movies, and Two Girls One Cup suggests that really not much has changed about humans' attraction to the forbidden, lowest-common-denominator images. "I think you're absolutely right," said Henenlotter. "And that's especially what I love about Esper's stuff. He would try to fit in as much taboo stuff in his films whether it was related to the story or not. For example, in Marihuana, there's a shot of a guy sitting at the bar pouring a beer, but from the angle it's shot, it looks like he's taking a piss. What a sick little turd of a joke! And in Maniac - the cat eating a human heart, the guy eating the cat's eye, the women fighting with the hypo needles. You just make a checklist of everything that shouldn't have been done, and it's in that film!"

I went on to ask Henenlotter about Dwain Esper the man, of whom there is significantly less written than Dwain Esper the filmmaker. "You've gotta read Dave [Friedman's] book [Youth in Babylon,]" he said. "He and this other guy we interviewed, a roadshow guy named Claude Alexander, both said the same thing about Esper - that he was probably the crookedest guy on the face of the earth. Alexander was burned by him - Esper sold him some childbirth footage that had been duped from another source. Alexander was pissed - he wanted to sue him, but Esper said 'No, no, don't do that, come over to my house for dinner, and we'll sort this thing out.' So he went over there, ended up staying there for a couple of days, and grew to love the guy. And he said that that was the work of a true con man."

There are scores of other tall tales about Esper, from being drugged and stripped naked by Illinois puritans to suing Dan Sonney over footage from the gorillia picture Ingagi (which Esper did not own) to inexplicably getting his movies played in the most uptight parts of the country. Henenlotter admits to having always wondered how he managed to roadshow Freaks as an exploitation film when it was currently under a self-imposed studio ban at MGM in the 40's. "I think it was like a lot of the movies he showed: he talked the talk, so people just assmumed he had the rights."

We went on further to discuss the circus sideshow-like promotion and exhibition of these types of films in the 30's and 40's, and then Henenlotter went to his DVD shelf and pulled out Something Weird's double feature of Street Corner and Because of Eve. "The roadshow guys had to make it seem like they were doing a good deed by showing these films." He popped in Because of Eve, which starts with a couple visiting a grandfatherly doctor. The doctor says something along the lines of "Hi there, Johnny - that case of VD clearing up I hope? How about you, Mary? How's your baby, why, she must be about two years old now." Needless to say, both parties are rather shocked and uncomfortable. The doctor proceeds to give them the straight-up birds-and-the-bees speech, illustrated with copious imagery of STD-ridden genitals.

Just then, the film stops, and cuts to a color video meant to simulate the intermission of the film. David Friedman steps onscreen and launches into what Henenlotter told me was a memorized speech from his days as a promoter for exploiteer Kroger Babb. Sexual hygiene, as Friedman tells us, is the most important issue among young people today. He implores us that we should purchase a set of sex-ed pamphlets, which he believes belong on the living room mantelpiece, right next to the family Bible, in every house in America. "We shot this right over there, in front of those curtains," Henenlotter told me.

I asked Henenlotter if he believed that exploitation films had paved the way for the serious treatment of taboo subjects in later years - after all, Marihuana and Child Bride were made long before The Man with the Golden Arm and Lolita. Henenlotter said he didn't think so. "The thing you have to understand is, these films were in a ghetto. They may seem tame today, but back then, that was the height of pornography. Pornography has never really crossed over into the mainstream, except arguably for Russ Meyer's films in the 60's, and Deep Throat in the '70's. But Esper didn't influence Otto Preminger or anybody like that. He didn't knock down any censorship walls, those walls were comin' down anyway."

Just before I left, I asked Henenlotter when the general public will finally get to see his latest film, Bad Biology. He told me that the film's co-producer, rapper R.A. the Rugged Man, is currently negotiating with Media Blasters for a DVD release. "[The movie] is a lot of fun," Henenlotter smiled. "It's an exploitation movie in an era when there shouldn't be any exploitation movies." I'd argue that that's is exactly when we need them the most.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day!