Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2019 - Marc Edward Heuck ""

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Film Discoveries of 2019 - Marc Edward Heuck

I’m in a peculiar position this year, in that while I have plenty of wonderful first-time viewing experiences to share with everyone who has followed my contributions here, I’ve been struck with some inarticulance in expanding upon them and what they meant to me. I don’t know if I’ve got writer’s block or if I’ve run out of adjectives to unpack. So I warn you upfront, there won’t be as much prose on some of these picks as you’ve come to expect. My prayer is that you’ll still trust me and seek out these fine movies all the same.

I feel particularly sheepish that I had almost no previous awareness of this very recent film until a valued friend insisted I watch it with them. But thankfully, these circumstances created a very rewarding “blind buy” experience. Mouly Surya finds a new manner to tell a classic revenge saga.

Fassbinder’s gift for adding his own spin to classic melodramatic tropes is well-documented. What struck me most about my first experience with this landmark of his is its meta-layers. Title character Petra is an effectively spoiled child, whose fashion work lets her play dress-up on herself and style idealized looks for others, and who spends most of the story bending others to her will, with the action unfolding entirely on one set. Step up a notch, and notice how all the characters are always well-dressed, made up, and frequently seem to be frozen in tableaux. It’s as if Fassbinder, who himself was notorious as an iron-willed high maintenance personality, bought himself a Barbie Dream House, put a bevy of dolls in it, and put them through his own whims and paces.

This was a good year for catching up with Stephanie Rothman’s CV: both UCLA and TCM gave her a wide berth to speak at length and screen her films. I saw three, and loved them all. THE STUDENT NURSES, as it did for Roger Corman, made me eager for more stories of young women in service profession dramas, and THE VELVET VAMPIRE, besides being a gorgeous moody erotic horror gem, reminded me that for the early '70s, Michael Blodgett was the most handsome man you ever wanted to punch in the face after he started talking in a film - did he ever *not* play fuccbois? However, after years of seeing the trailer, TERMINAL ISLAND is my favorite of this Rothman plunge. Left to her own devices with what could have been a tired women on an island prison outing, Rothman made this movie zag when I expected it to zig. Moreover, its targeted jabs at the media and the patriarchy and its bleak (and increasingly plausible) notions of a police state felt like the groundwork for what Lizzie Borden dramatized so fiercely a few years later in BORN IN FLAMES; they’d make an excellent double feature. And hey, seeing Magnum P.I. getting dressed down like a little boy is quite a sight; maybe that’s the real reason why Selleck spent an '86 David Letterman visit taking passive-aggressive shots at it.

BABYLON (1980)
The co-screenwriter of this movie, Martin Stellman, also co-wrote the screenplay to QUADROPHENIA, which of course went on to be a very influential film to generations of VHS-owning teen rebels. (If you don’t believe me, start chanting “We are the Mods” among a group of Gen-Xers and see how many start pogoing along with you.) Had BABYLON gotten its U.S. release around the same time it came out in the UK, instead of only this year, I argue it would have found just as receptive an audience, especially among the pockets of marginalized youths that didn’t consider themselves Mods or Rockers, who in fact maybe felt threatened by both groups because of the color of their skin or the music they listened to. This is the kind of movie I wish I could have seen when it was supposed to come out, during my own teenage years; it would have been such a cinematic and social education. Just glad maybe we can now have that parity denied in my adolescence.

Similar to BABYLON, here is another film that due to personal and financial misfortunes spent many years in limbo before finally being liberated, the sole feature credit by the late Horace P. Jenkins, which also presents lives and cultures rarely dramatized on film: in this case, the class and historical divides between residents of Louisiana’s early cities founded by people of color. Jenkins previous background in television newsmagazines is a boon to depicting these people and how they balance ordinary living with the constant shadows of the past. Thanks to Sandra Schulberg’s IndieCollect organization, the film has been preserved, and now thanks to Oscilloscope, it will be getting a commercial release later in 2020.

I am sorry it took this long to see this, a touchstone of that subgenre we’d call “cringe comedy.” Its absence from my canon is, well, the cinematic equivalent of having egg salad on my face! Charles Grodin is one of the few performers who can inhabit someone that fully predicts the banal horrors of incel culture and its sense of entitlement in having access to The Beautiful Ones, and yet not make you fully hate him or completely snark in his inevitable fate. And also, think about the poor parenting both Jeannie Berlin and Cybill Shepherd have been dealt in this tale, the former being all-too-eagerly thrust into a rash marriage, the latter coyly cognizant of being regarded as a trophy by her materialistic father and thus willing to string along the wrong man just to rebel back. I'm surprised and sad that some savvy '70s porn producer didn't do a knockoff where their Berlin and Shepherd stand-ins actually meet and decide to ditch the whiny loser they had in common and go live happily ever after. I would love to see this play with Vicente Aranda’s THE BLOOD-SPATTERED BRIDE as a Toxic Honeymoon double feature. Either that, or I wish Elaine May would write and direct her own adaptation of CARMILLA.

Kim Ki-young’s domestic potboiler about an upward-aspiring family undone by their mercenarial lower-class maid has been gaining some new attention since Bong Joon-ho has cited it as an influence on his worldwide smash PARASITE. Though exercising standard sixties-era discretion, it’s startling and exciting to take in this film bluntly addressing infidelity, abortion, and murder in a year where, in America, we still had a foot-on-the-floor rule about onscreen lovemaking.

I had been hungry to see Isaac Julien's first narrative feature ever since I’d missed its too-brief U.S. release by Jeff Lipsky's short-lived Prestige division of Miramax. Then I stewed over the fact that for years it was one of the few Miramax movies that seemed to never hit home video, though I have now discovered that Strand quietly put out a DVD in 2007, for which I cannot find a single review of its PQ, so great work building word of mouth to the fanbase, gentlemen! 28 years later, thanks to Brendan Lucas, Outfest, and UCLA Film & Television Archive, I finally saw it in a gorgeous 35mm print from the BFI. And what a joyous blast it was. Dare I channel Stefon, but this movie had *everything* I love: gorgeous actors in all manner of interracial and pansexual coupling, a kicking soundtrack of '70s deep cut funk, stunning color and art direction, pirate radio, social commentary (including yuuuge indictments of white nationalism, bully-boy cops, and self-righteous punk poseurs), and yeah, even a murder mystery! It reminded me of the frisson I felt watching Denys Arcand's LOVE AND HUMAN REMAINS in '95. And I think I even spotted a super-baby-faced Aiden Gillen from "THE WIRE" in one of the club scenes. I'm still pissed though that I didn't see it in my 20s, when I could have been proselytizing about it sooner, because it is damned criminal that this movie is not part of our modern indie canon.

The New Beverly’s all-female-created May programming gave a large amount of space to Dorothy Arzner, and I was happy to be immersed in the sly subversive style of its trailblazing director. And CRAIG'S WIFE - holeeee sheeeeit - this is the movie GONE GIRL so desperately thought it was as it succumbed to glib nihilism and failed ironic misogyny. 73 tight minutes of fire and vinegar that, as Kim Morgan points out in her excellent essay, never resorts to cheap one-dimensionalism in depicting its impossible protagonist and her horrifying life choices.

Last year I had THE 14 with Jack Wild on my list, and talked about my love of the late child star and his streak of interesting films in the ‘70s. This Lemony Snicket-esque adventure was a title I had cited but not yet seen for myself, which got rectified this year when New Beverly screened it, possibly its first theatrical exposure in decades. The playdate provided me opportunity to write at length about Wild’s life and the making of this project, and how art was effectively imitating life for the young actor. And then somehow, I got name-checked in the Irish Times as they made an argument that the film should be a St. Patrick’s Day perennial. Really though, if you want to watch something really heartfelt at any time of year, with or without children accompanying you, this is one to seek.

The names and locations have changed, but where other late ‘60s youth-in-revolt stories may feel married to their time, the central themes of Robert Kaufman’s screenplay and Richard Rush’s direction are painfully still relevant. Elliott Gould well inhabits his character of a blood-shedding political agitator who, now slightly older than the students he mentors, is trying to handle the adult trials of paying rent and keeping a job, confronting his own hypocrisy about ideals versus practice, dealing with looser-cannoned personalities all around him, and watching himself gradually being regarded as a former great when he still feels he has something to offer. It has the energy, humor, and escalating fury that a couple decades later would make DO THE RIGHT THING equally incendiary and constant. There’s a special chill as he faces entrenched notions of how things oughta be versus what they are, and he exasperatedly screams, "Will you let go? LET GO! Stop trying to hold back the hands of the clock! IT'LL TEAR YOUR ARMS OUT!" because right here, right now, we’re having that same fight, and no matter how we want to recognize nuance, we’re going to have to decide whether to pick up and hurl that brick...or that garbage can.

1 comment:

TimPhan44 said...

Glad you saw all 3 Stephanie Rothman flicks! The Student Nurses and The Velvet Vampire are the best! Terminal Island is just okay and seems to be be a bit more trashy,but it was paycheck for a lot of young actors.