Sunday, November 15, 2020

Flesh for Frankenstein (reprint)

 Here is my essay for the Criterion edition of the Paul Morrissey film, written in 1998.

Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein is one of the goriest film comedies ever made. Yet despite its schlocky sensationalism, it’s still a Paul Morrissey film. That means it has some passionately felt things to say about how we live—and mainly waste—our lives today. Specifically, it blames sexual liberty and individualistic freedom for destroying our personal and social fibre by turning people into commodities. As in his Blood for Dracula (1974) and Beethoven’sNephew (1985), Morrissey suggests that the moral failure exposed in his contemporary films—such as the Flesh trilogy (1968–72), MixedBlood (1984), and Spike of Bensonhurst (1988)—derives from historical romanticism. 

Morrissey deliberately lets his characters speak clichés for his satiric purpose. He lets them act inconsistently to suggest the vagaries of mortal whim. He goes way, way overboard, especially on the in-your-face gore in the rare 3-D version, because he considers both the horror genre and the 3-D fad to be ridiculous indulgences, romantic and commercial respectively. The film is absurd, but that’s calculated—and right in line with Morrissey’s familiar underlying moral spin. 

Morrissey’s key target here is sexual indulgence. The mad Baron Frankenstein (Udo Kier) is married to his sister, Katrin (Monique Van Vooren). With theirtwo children they live a demented sitcom family’s life; hubby rushes off to his lab and wife complains of neglect. With his trusty servant, Otto (Arno Juerging), the baron has constructed a heroic female and now plans to make her a male mate. For him he needs the brain of a lustful primitive “who wants to make love to anything.” Things go awry when the baron transplants the head of a would-be monk (Srdjan Zelenovic) instead of the lusty peasant (Joe Dallesandro), who becomes the baroness’ lover, while the baron is engaged in a barren act of reproduction in his laboratory. 

For Morrissey, the baron’s science represents a sexuality detached from human emotion. The incestuous couple, victims of their parents’ libertinism, show no love in their union. The baron shows no sexual interest in his sister/wife nor jealousy at her infidelities. In contrast, Dallesandro’s peasant suggests a sexuality that is free and natural. With his energy and dedication to his friend, this character is the most positive role that Morrissey gave Dallesandro. 

Yet pointing up the destructiveness of unbridled sexuality, the baroness is killed when she commands the zombie to satisfy her, while the baron and Otto literally forget the place of sexuality in life. Further, by framing the film with shots of the malevolent children, Morrissey suggests that man’s corruption has contaminated the future. 

Finally, there is that sensationalist 3-D—the projectiles show Morrissey’s tongue in cheek. Morrissey shoves man’s physicality at us when he juts his corpse’s feet out of the screen, with the various tumbling guts and spouting blood, and the climactic spearing out of the baron’s guts. Morrissey is satirizing film violence and the genre’s gore in these shots, because they clearly refer more to other films than to reality: “To know death, Otto, you have to. . .” is a pointed parody of Marlon Brando’s pretentious line from Last Tango in Paris

As Alfred Hitchcock often demonstrated, in rather different tones, comedy and horror, laughter and fear, are closely related experiences. In few films are they yoked as exuberantly as in Paul Morrissey’s Fleshfor Frankenstein.

Blood for Dracula (reprint)

Here is my essay on the Paul Morrissey film, that appeared in the Criterion edition in 1998.

Paul Morrissey’s two horror entertainments, Flesh forFrankenstein and Blood for Dracula, have become cult classics for their outrageousness and gross humor. But there is more to both films than meets the funnybone. 

They have much in common with Morrissey’s more characteristic films, the Flesh trilogy of 1968–72 and his New York street sagas, Mixed Blood (1974) and Spike of Bensonhurst (1988). The central figures fail to achieve a full self or life because they have too much freedom and power. Sensual self- indulgence seems the characters’ worst flaw and sexual exploitation the typical human relationship. Morrissey’s period pieces (including Beethoven’s Nephew, 1985) depict the historical roots of the amorality and commodification that Morrissey reflects in his contemporary dramas. So while these films are hearty comedies, they confirm Morrissey’s passionate critique of modern permissiveness. 

A shortage of Romanian virgins drives the vampire Count Dracula (Udo Kier) and his faithful servant Anton (Arno Juerging) to Italy. There an aristocratic family is pleased to provide a bride from among their daughters. But the count chokes on their nonvirginal blood. The family handyman, Mario (Joe Dallesandro) rapes the 14-year-old daughter, ostensibly to save her from the vampire. After the climactic carnage, this peasant commands the estate. 

Morrissey obviously has a lark with the vampire film conventions. He seems to be both in and outside the genre, utilizing and satirizing it at the same time. So no explanation is given for why the Italian peasant Mario speaks New York colloquial; a modern character is simply forced onto the period. His Marxist clichés also satirize the political pretensions of the European art cinema. In contrast to Anton’s selfless service to the count, Mario’s seduction of three of his master’s four daughters replaces the higher values of legend with the vices of social reality. 

In the same spirit of being both in- and outside the genre, Morrissey casts two established film directors in significant roles. The master of Italian neorealism, Vittorio De Sica, plays the Marchese di Fiori, and Roman Polanski, a specialist of psychological horror, plays the peasant who bests Anton in a tavern game. This star casting invites a comparison between the impotent, vain aristocrats and the potent, pragmatic peasants. 

The marchese also relates to the count as a romantic striving to sustain traditional values against a corrupt modernity. The count assumes more dignity and pathos from this comparison. Indeed, he becomes a genuinely moving figure when he’s tricked into taking nonvirgin blood. His toilet agonies are laughable, but we are touched when we remember that they are the death throes of a dashing figure who cannot survive in a world without purity. In this corrupt world, sex means death to the romantic hero. 

Mario’s professed Marxism may seem persuasive, but it’s revealed as but another form of oppression. In front of his hammer and sickle insignia, Mario brutalizes his women. When he supplants di Fiori and dispatches Dracula, Mario represents not the triumph of the people but the replacement of one tyranny with another, less dignified. On another level, Dallesandro’s succession of De Sica represents the ascent of Morrissey’s New York neorealism over De Sica’s. 

Blood for Dracula is not a film for the squeamish. It has obvious appeal for the lover of Grand Guignol—but it equally addresses the thoughtful.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Love Trilogy: Reborn (2019)

  Yaron Shani’s Love Trilogy culminates in the bleakly optimistic Reborn (2019). 

Like the surprise revelation of radical flashback in the first film, Stripped (2018; see analysis on this site), the entire Reborn occurs within the period covered by the first two films.  

The second film, Chained (2019; ditto), focused on Avigail’s marriage, which ended in her husband’s double murder and suicide. The third film reaches back to trace the beginning of her love affair with Yael. This woman initially helps her to get pregnant, overcomes her own traumatic childhood to adopt a baby girl, and becomes Avigail’s lover. 

Avigail’s relationship with her teen daughter similarly rewrites the family tone from the earlier view. Here they are warmly intimate as the daughter frees Avigail from her burdensome, inhibiting long braids. However tragic the Chained shadow casts upon Reborn, the film celebrates love in the women’s community.  

Where Chained centered on the violent cop husband, Reborn establishes his victim wife’s superior sensitivity. This heightens the overall sense of tragic loss even as the film closes the trilogy upbeat — until we remember.

In Stripped the motive energy was the younger male Ziv, the music student turned rapist soldier. Here his victim Alice is revisited, as she has recovered from her assault and is reading from her new novel. 

In Reborn the two new men represent opposite concepts of manhood. The positive is the new husband who slides into the bath where his wife has just given birth to their son. (Like the rest of this trilogy but perhaps most obviously, this scene is presented with non-professional actors, with no script and is the product of a single take.) This man is loving, supportive, eager to join in his wife’s immersion.

But the implicitly central maleness in Reborn is the dying, comatose father. Insentient, unresponsive, he still drains the energy, confidence and harmony of his two daughters, Yael and Na’ama. Both women were traumatized by their mother's abandonment and their father's treatment. The clear implication is that he sexually abused the adopted Na’ama, leading to her troubled life as a prostitute and her clashes with Yael. After the two violent male heroes of the first two films, the lingering power of the vegetable father further indicts the male sense of love as dominance.    

The final image summarizes the trilogy’s faith in the generous community of women. The novelist has joined an organization that visits brothels to offer the women free and anonymous medical tests and treatment. That is, they non-judgmentally remediate their abuse by men. This action countermands Na’ama’s comment at novelist Alice’s reading, where she observes the writer presents women as they are defined by their men.

In the film's and the trilogy's last shot the novelist (who has been raped by the young man she trusted) hugs the weeping prostitute (abused by her father) and speaks for both and for all women: “You are not alone.”   


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Love Trilogy: Stripped (2018)

  Yaron Shani’s Love Trilogy began with Stripped (2018), which very subtly introduced the violence and macho psychodrama later amplified in Chained (2019), previously discussed here. 

The central theme inheres in Alice’s assignment to her Cont Ed collage portraiture class: “Make yourself out of parts that aren’t you.”  Both the artist/writer/teacher/filmmaker Alice and the aspiring classical guitarist Ziv uncover uncharacteristic dimensions in themselves through their experiences, especially with each other. 

In the early sections of the film I was troubled by the apparently asynchronous conversation scenes. The dialogue and even music did not quite fit the characters’ movement of lips and fingers. This may have been a technical problem in the print.

Or not. This might be exposed as a narrative strategy at the very end, when the sounds of Alice’s school drawing class continue over the end credits. The image and the sound are more pronouncedly disjunctive than in the earlier conversations. 

More significantly, the narrative pivots on a radical shift in time. A present drama is revealed to have occurred much earlier — and most tellingly. If we do make ourselves up out of parts that aren’t us, it’s because time changes us, for better or worse, as our experiences require. Experience uncovers — or creates — our hidden elements. This is the film’s primary psychological theme.

That also gives the film a political dimension. It pointedly addresses the psychological cost of Israel’s perpetual self-defence, in the national draft that forms the vital army and in the citizenry that depends on it. This is the focus of the young guitarist’s “maturing” into a muscular, possibly overly assertive soldier. Initially he's apparently too shy to accept a girl's overtures. His family name is Zukerman, Sugarman. Such a sweet boy. But he changes -- to the detriment of all concerned.

Alice’s three — dramatically unmatched — dogs represent the life energies that can be harmonized, apparently domesticated, but their savage animal nature persists. Pent up, they growl danger. So, too, shy Ziv ripens into the hardened wiry warrior. This is the human — and social — nature that is stripped of its initial sensitivity. 

The teenage boys’ sexual initiation scene is an exercise of pathetic bravado, in the face of death, that the army will replay on a more serious level. In Alice we see the antithetic movement, into vulnerability, psychological disintegration and the labour of recovery.The titles of her two novels -- before and after the dramatic events of the plot -- record her movement from Rattling the Cage to Open Doors. Similarly, in the two exercises she assigns her class she moves from composing a presentation of one’s self to exploring another person. 

The boys’ sex scene contrasts to the scenes of women’s counselling and supportive companionship. Alice is initially drawn to include Ziv for her documentary on new combat soldiers because he is so atypical, apparently too sensitive, too feminine, for that reduction.  Ziv proves himself with a vengeance.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Love Trilogy: Chained

  Yaron Shani’s Love Trilogy: Chained examines the paradox of Israeli male force on both the personal and political levels. However left implicit, the political extrapolation from an Israeli domestic film is compelling. 

        The 16-year veteran cop Rashi Malka is a forceful but feeling agent of justice. He faces increasing pressure both at work and in his two-year marriage to Avigail, with her 13-year-old daughter Yasmine. In both the issues derive from his strong will and assertive principles.

In the opening scene the man Malka arrests for beating his son claims to have a broken hand. “We’ll put a cast on it,” Malka promises. But as his brusque discipline of Yasmine increasingly alienates Avigail, Malka breaks his own hand. In this domestic procedural Malka dwindles into his opponent. He becomes the Other he prosecuted earlier. 

Malka falls under investigation when his invasive examination of boys for possible drug possession leads to an unfair charge of sexual assault. Malka is here quite just. He was acting on a lead, that boys were selling drugs in the park. As he is not in the youth division Malka may lack the protocol but he acts on principle. He deals firmly but properly with the boys’ suspicious resistance. He’s innocent of the particular charge but his persistence has left him vulnerable to the accusation. Under that pressure, he fails the lie detector charge.  

Malka suffers a parallel excess in his family life. He and Avigail are struggling to have a baby. But their relationship is undermined by his rough disciplining of her daughter. The report of a rapist in the neighbourhood helps to justify Malka's concern. But at home as at work, Malka's principles are sound but his action possibly excessive, as when he forcibly hauls Yasmine away from her friends. 

        The aggressiveness that served his policing undermines his family life. That is, his principled strength becomes a weakness. His forcefulness only makes him vulnerable. That’s the paradox in the English title: the strong cop, not the the weak arrested man, is the one who’s “chained.” To that point, the cop hero is named Malka, yiddish for "queen." His name denotes his potential feminine power.

In the central scene of macho posturing Malka drinks with two younger buddy cops. All three are large, powerful men flaunting sexual prowess and liberty. The meeting is supposed to provide relief from his office persecution. Instead it establishes Malka’s radical vulnerability. Here he learns that Avigail has just had an abortion (contrary to her claim that their insemination attempt failed) and that she’s planning to leave him. Malka discovers his greatest vulnerability in the scene that initially flaunts masculine strength.

        Malka's story ends tragically because he is unable to modulate his male force. With Avigail he retreats to childish petulance, spurning her sexual initiative, blocking the exit with a tantrum, in short, turning passive aggressive. His "I'm nothing without you" proves quite true but that dependency is her burden, not a gift. The same assertive ploys also fail with the police investigating team. Malka's tragic end is the extremity of masculine attack, the ultimate end for a man who can deploy nothing but force. 

Across our various cultures there are ample revelations of the weakness inherent in male power: the need for emotional understanding and expression, an openness to others’ will and needs, the development of a less aggressive sensitivity. This theme assumes broader relevance in a society that across its entire 72-year existence (and historically before) has had to be constantly vigilant against mortal enemies. The toughness and resolve that defensiveness requires may have its tragic cost if it fails at temperance. 

        Malka's first name is Rashi, an allusion to one of the sagest rabbis in Judaism. Though the justice of his actions in both plot-lines define his virtue, he fails to live up to the tempered wisdom of his first name and the feminine control of the second. If the tragic ending seems surprising, the idea of family violence was introduced in the opening scene and emphasized in the story of the father who dives to his death after his children.  

        In Israel another dimension emerges from the class distinctions in the characters. Malka, his family and colleagues are all clearly Mizrachi, working class, helpless before the system that oppresses them. The police investigators and the arrested boys are Ashkenazi, the power class. When one boy threatens to sic his father after Malka the hero's persecution is set. As soon as he is charged Malka knows the fix is in. He can't afford a lawyer to defend him.  

        The original Hebrew title evokes "The apple of his eye." In that context the drama warns against the excessive defence of what one most prizes. It can lead to a fatal blindness.


        Chained (2019) is the middle film in Shani's Love Trilogy. Regrettably, I haven't seen the other two films. [CORRECTION: I now have and have analyzed them elsewhere on this site:  Stripped (2018) and the finale, Reborn (2019). 

        And from Wikipedia; "Yaron Shani works with a cast of non-actors, who work without a script, improvising the scenes on-camera. The film is shot in single takes, without rehearsals.[1][3] The lead actor, Eran Naim, is a former police officer, and played a main role in the film Ajami as well.[3]"

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Irresistible (2020)

It’s a two-word title. With a shift in colour writer-director Jon Stewart isolates the “resist” in “irresistible.” If the larger word suggests resignation the inner one calls for action, for reform. If the body seems a political satire the film concludes with a mule's kick.
The epilogue identifies both the narrative’s central target — the huge amount of money both spent on election campaigns and open to misappropriation and abuse — and a call for a radical transformation of America’s electoral system. It’s broken, every which way, as off-screen Stewart’s brief interview with a federal official affirms. 
The film’s opening sets the national context: Donald Trump’s 2016 surprise defeat of Hilary Clinton. The plot sends Democrat organizer Gary Zimmer to a small Wisconsin town to use a mayoralty race to launch a local hero in the party’s cause. Both parties pour huge bucks and tech resources into the minor election, afraid to lose a potential toehold.
If the plot seems outlandish, wait. It’s a funhouse version of the 2017 special election for Georgia's 6th congressional district, where the two parties and supporting groups blew over $55 million — without the happy ending here.
The local tragedy and several jokes reflect the current national situation. Certainly the town’s crumbling from the loss of its main industry speaks for the nation of small (and large) towns under duress. Both Zimmer and GOP spinner Faith blatantly confess the falsity of the spin-room. In an echo of the Trump lying streak, when Faith bald-faced claims to be from that small town Zimmer caves: “She said it. Now it’s true.” CNN and Fox News both come in for satiric slams. 
But the main drive is the exposure of the system. As Zimmer meets the small town the characters are played as the rubes and hicks we’ve come to expect from the urban pundits. But here the country mice turn the tables on the city mouse. 
When the joke turns out to be on Zimmer it’s also on us. Spoiler alert: they’ve been playing him, exploiting the political system to con big buck donations to save their town. Justice happens but only through a surprise deception and the locals’ exploitation of the Washington (and hence our) dismissive prejudices and false assumption of superiority.  
Why, the two roughnecks even know the diff between a simile and a metaphor! Is no prejudice sacred?
As we expect of Stewart, he inclines away from the Trump party and administration. But he also hasn’t lost his larger understanding that the problem goes beyond the parties, to the system’s abdication of American values and fairness. As Stewart views the nation’s paralysis, waste and dysfunction he utters this plague upon both their houses. 

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Midwife

In Martin Provost’s The Midwife, the title could be plural. While Claire is the actual midwife, having delivered a generation of newborns into the world, her antithetical Beatrice also serves as a kind of midwife when she brings Claire into new life. The rootless amoral wastrel Beatrice breathes new energy, spirit and joie de vivre into the abstemious midwife, pulling her out of her womb of natal duty. 
Beatrice is aided by Paule, the long-distance trucker whose garden abuts Claire’s. When he leads her to a spectacular high panoramic view he repeats the midwife’s instructions at birth: “Breathe. Take a deep breath.” Paule confirms Beatrice’s urge to accumulate as much pleasure as she can as she succumbs to the cancer in her brain.
Another rebirth occurs at the professional level. The clinic is closing for want of funds.  Claire’s colleagues are happily joining an ultra-modern, high-tech and profitable new super-clinic. Claire’s early reluctance to join them is confirmed when her visit discovers that the new tech will make her experience and values obsolescent. 
She rejects that rebirth — a conversion to the technical — and instead renews her faith in the human values of her profession. She will teach her old ways rather than abandon herself to the new. That reaffirmation of herself is itself a rebirth, if rather a renewal than a conversion.
Claire’s son Simon parallels her movement. Not faring well in his plan to become a surgeon, he decides to become a midwife himself. Or as the new world has it: birth technician. This as his own fiancee is pregnant.  
Dramatically, Claire’s last delivery in the old institute is an emergency operation on a young woman whom she delivered 28 years ago — whose life she saved by providing her own blood. “Lucky we had the same rhesus,” she adds modestly, feeling she was only doing her job.
Beatrice hardly seems a likely agent for Claire’s salvation. Beatrice was Claire’s father’s mistress. They spent enjoyable time together until Beatrice’s abrupt departure drove the father to kill himself. Unaware of that event, Beatrice returns hoping to see him one last time before she dies, to make amends. Deprived of that opportunity, she manages to break down Claire’s understandable antagonism and work out a kind of salvation for both.
The drama runs two parallel plot lines: Beatrice’s death and Claire’s renewed interest in life and the pursuit of pleasure. As both heroines leave their respective pasts the last shot seems their metaphoric standin: Paule notes that the old rowboat that was collecting water is now sinking completely away. The water closes serenely over its ruin, closing over it like a lost memory.