Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Distinguished Citizen

  I read this film as an anatomy of the artist’s ego. From the opening ceremony to his panic flight from his home town Daniel Mantovani is a completely self-absorbed and destructive figure. Whether the resultant novels balance the scales is an unanswerable question. But the question stands: How far can art go to excuse the artist from the criteria for a good human being?     

        Daniel starts in the catbird seat — receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature — but in an aggressively disrespectful manner. He eschews the tuxedo, refuses to bow to the presiding royals and declares that he will now cease writing because that very award suggests he has not been upsetting enough to the literary world. He stands silently in front of the stunned audience — until they arise to applaud. As he expected.

He lives in a palatial estate. The massive library curving under his main floor suggests that culture is the foundation of his house, his life. As he proceeds through a litany of refusing invitations and cancelling engagements that anchor seems to weigh him down. Impetuously accepting an immediate visit to his small home town confirms his exclusive self-concern. Distinguished he may well be, but he falls far short on "citizen."

Daniel’s return to the small town which he fled — and refused to return to, even for his father’s funeral — is into the lion’s den. What begins as the town’s fulsome celebration of their world-famous escapee turns into their vicious rejection. His succession of car breakdowns proves the animosity mutual.

Daniel has been basing his stories on the people and places he remembers from that town, Salas. We see it as a dismal, empty, pedestrian community that shrinks further in its every pretension to honour him: the windy mayor, the honorary citizen medal, the volunteer fire department, the vapid beauty queen. On the spectrum of classical music it’s a Mantovani.

Whatever his reason for returning there, Daniel refuses to respect the town and its people. He’s courteous to the man who invites him home for lunch. But the request to fund a young man’s $10,000 wheelchair becomes an opportunity for him to lecture the father on the inappropriateness of personal charity. 

The disaster begins when Daniel heads a jury selecting works for the community art show. He shows no respect for the community’s needs and responsibilities, rejecting works here for the reasons he might in Buenos Aires or Madrid. He promotes one work for an accidental expressiveness that attests to Daniel’s sophistication not the artist’s. The consequent attack on him spreads from his disrespect for their efforts to his insulting treatment of their people and traditions jn his fiction.  

Given the references to Borges and the Latin American setting, we might be primed to expect Magic Realism. The stark colours in the streets, the vulgarity in the Volcano bar, the extravagant characterization may approach that — but the ending cinches it. 

Daniel is forcibly taken on a wild pig hunt by his old friend Antonio (who married Daniel’s old girlfriend Irene) and the yob dating their daughter. Still jealous of Irene’s long-held love for Daniel, Antonio takes great pleasure in running him out of town, especially as he fires his rifle at him, narrowly missing. But Daniel is felled by the yob, whose specialty has been defined as efficiently killing the prey their clients miss.

So. Does Daniel die there? Could be. Then the epilogue in which his publisher presents him with his new novel, based on that trip, could be the last story the novelist tells. He’s telling it to himself. His reappearance sans beard lets him live the story he told earlier of the two rival brothers, both doomed to murder.  

Or Daniel survives the marksman’s shot, is rushed to a hospital and flown home, where his replay of the adventures we have witnessed turns into his new novel. The scar he reveals could be from that hunt — or some other accident. This ending may be harder to believe. It’s also undercut by the pointlessly loud glasses he wears at the end, implying an exaggeration of vision.

We don’t have to choose between those endings. For the point is that Daniel is compelled to tell stories. To pontificate, as re:the wheelchair. To strike a posture whether dominant or recessive, as when he responds to the young woman’s question about whether an artist needs to suffer in order to create. No, he says now, but she pops up with the proof that he said the reverse elsewhere.

It’s because he has to tell a story that he can’t maintain an ethical responsibility. So he'll abandon the wheelchair denial. He slips into the matinee seduction by that young woman. Indeed he’s on the verge of describing it to friend Antonio when the woman appears — she’s Irene’s and Antonio’s daughter. 

Daniel will do anything, on impulse, for the sake of a good story. That’s why he leans over to kiss Irene in her stalled car — as if testing a new (and disastrous) plot-line. He lives to narrate. His roots are in his library not his emotions and relationships. Great artists live by their own standards. That’s how we lesser console ourselves. 

  

Friday, February 19, 2021

Boreg (Self-made)

  Israeli director Shira Geffen interweaves the alienation of two women, a famous Israeli avant-garde artist and a beleaguered Palestinian labourer. Both move through life detached, stymied by the world around them. 

        She initially connects them with a missing screw. Indeed. the Israeli title means "screw loose." Artist Michal loses one while trying to put together a new Ikea-style bed. (The company name Itaka suggests  'ethics'). After her raging complaint, Nadine is unjustly fired for apparently having failed to bag the correct number of screws. She drops screws on her path to help her find her way home. That’s her prosaic version of Michal’s exploratory installation, performance and video art.

When the women cross paths— at a checkpoint, of course, where their cultures collide — they assume each other’s lives. Complicating that variation on the Prince and the Pauper story, the women look nothing like each other. Yet everyone accepts them in their new role. 

From that we can infer the general insensitivity to women’s character, needs, desires, the failure either to sense or to accept individuation. Palestinian, Israeli — for women bearing the next generation of enemies the distinctions are irrelevant. So, too, Michal’s husband — away on a tech conference — looks like the neighbour Nadine is having a furtive affair with. The Israeli soldier’s lover in the last scene could pass for Arab. Alternatively, the individuating traits we see are irrelevant to the issues of humanity in that conflicted climate. 

In one key shot the women meet on opposing escalators in the furniture store. But the shot has them moving sideways, laterally, as if to deny the characters’ vertical stratification. Neither rises, descends, or moves to progress. In the opening scene Michal lies in silence across the screen before falling out of bed, bruising her head. Her horizontality confirms her passivity, whether earlier as a very successful but politically ineffectual artist, or now in her amnesia.  

Perhaps the film’s key metaphor is the musical chef’s note that crabs wear their skeletons on the outside. That’s why he plays violin music to soften them for Michal’s romantic anniversary dinner (that her husband will miss). When the violinist has an organism from his own music he points to the onanistic nature of Michal's abstruse art. Michal’s exhibition is titled “Rolling the Insides Out.” Her new Biennale piece features the womb she has had removed, an artistic realization of her resolve not to have children.  "I don't want children" she screams on the phone to the furniture store manager, "I want a bed." 

        In contrast to the self-revealing Michal, Nadine lives a simpler, more prosaic manner. But her taciturn solidity and sexual initiative suggests she has a more solid character. She nurtures a private inner life that sustains her through her personal and job issues.

         Suggesting a marriage tension, Michal's husband has an additional problem, which is related to the society's reduction of women. His computer has been overrun with graphic pornography. The techie hired to purge it advises Michal to warn her husband against inviting it. In one compelling shot, Michal can't give her father a screen kiss because his face has been reduced to a small square on the porn woman's vagina. That is a perverse parody of birthing.   

The heroines' exchange of roles is heavily symbolic. Initially Michal has literally forgotten who she is. Nadine continues Michal’s catatonic remove from her interview with a German TV crew. When the German cameraman provokes her violence he exposes his own, gloating that the supposed Israeli peacenik is violent herself. His self-projecting allegation of violence is directed against the Israeli but could also apply to the Palestinian. Nadine’s pregnancy turns functional the profusion of nursery furniture the store has dumped on Michal. 

Completing the switch, Michal is equipped with the suicidal bomb assigned Nadine. We don’t know whether she will achieve that end or not. The fatal mission is at least delayed when Nadine’s neighbour’s younger son pauses to buy roses — for his mother. On the stone wall Michal passes her painting of large yellow flowers, the hopeful emblem of art reviving a hardened obstructive nature. Small flowers adorn both women's dresses as they cross their lateral paths in the store. 

The English title is pointedly ambiguous. The store deals in furniture their customers will put together — make — themselves. But as both women try to find coherence in their fragmented, numbing lives, they are fumblingly trying to find their own integrity, wholeness, being. They are as boxed a bunch of pieces as the eruption of Itaka cartons brings.

This region's political drama is usually played out in films by the men. Warriors play their war. Ms Geffen instead opts for a richly, ambiguously poetic vision that disables precise literalism. It is as moving as it is evocative.  

        There are a couple of personal notes. The director's actor husband plays the delivery man who asks if Michal needs help putting the furniture together -- then leaves before she can reply. Later the young soldier's leave cancellation means she must miss a concert by the director's singer brother. Geffen's art assumes a public platform and subject more committed than Michal's art scene, which is sharply satirized.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Pretend It's a City -- Episodes 1, 2



The wit of a maverick woman comedian may seem an unlikely subject for film director Martin Scorsese. The educated Association Test would rather come up with “the Mafia,” “urban violence,” “macho macho miserables,” than a very literate woman comic.

But that’s where Fran Lebowitz comes in. Both in her abandoned writing career and in her current standup/sitdown comedy performances she strikes a fighter’s pose to battle against the absurdities and dangers of contemporary city life. Especially NYC.

For there is violence in civilized behaviour as well as in Scorses’s mean streets, alleys and boxing rings. Indeed that is what drew him to film Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence — the privileged woman’s novel that he and Lebowitz discuss briefly in Episode 2. While Lebowitz is front, center and the dominant presence of the film, the auteur is Scorsese. In his selection of the material and — especially — his arrangement of it, this is as much a Scorsese film as Taxi Driver is. It's just that Fran Lebowitz is no Travis Bickle.


Episode 1


“Pretend it’s a city,” Lebowitz declares and the phrase sticks as the series title. 

We know NYC is a city so what’s there to ‘pretend’? Well, it’s supposed to be a city but is it? Beyond the streets and population figures, is it really a city? Or is it an arena for thoughtless, uncivilized, dangerous, insensitive mis-conduct. The urban behaviour Lebowitz satirizes here points to the latter.

“Speaking of people in the street,” does it bother you that…” an audience member starts to ask. “Yes,” snaps Fran. People in the street do bother her. They are unthinking, self-absorbed, confident in their own invulnerability and completely careless about others. A city should be a community, not a collision of insensitive atoms. Absent that, we can only pretend it’s a city. Only once we acknowledge our mutual responsibilities will we have the community the true city connotes. 

Scorsese’s setting for the comedian’s riffs is telling. From the street symphonic beginning to the big bluesy end — and in between — the music romanticizes The Big Apple. This is the mythic New York of popular lore. The satirist’s reality will play against that.Scorsese, remember, also directed that musical drama New York, New York.

Fran’s routines, whether onstage or in interview, are intercut with two series of shots of her moving through the streets. In one: with Scorsese and the photographer unseen, she strides alone — a solid dark-cloaked figure cutting through the heedless crowds. The other is a dramatic contrast: she towers over a miniature model of the sprawling metropolis. It’s a brilliant visual representation of her perception — detached from the street scene, towering over it, rendering physical the moral detachment and judging the artist will bring to bear.  

“Do you tend to look down on people?” Scorsese asks. Of course she does, when she finds them failing in humanity. When they disagree with her. She is enraged that she has no power to change them. “The only person in the city looking where she’s going is me.” A  young man steering his bicycle with his elbows while texting on his phone and eating a pizza almost hits her in a crosswalk. She is continually besieged by tourists asking direction, obstructing her movement, engrossed in their cellphones, maddeningly selfish. Someone smashed her windshield to steal an apple and a 50-cent pack of cigarettes — and she accepts blame for the temptation.  Responsibility is what’s pretended to in this city.

Lebowitz exults in being out of step. Hence her advice to Robert Stigwood: “A musical about Eva Peron? Don’t do it!” He did it — and earned “a million a minute.” Meanwhile, buildings like the Mercer Center simply collapse into dust by their neglect.

The city remains a challenge. Nothing is permanent there, not even the $40-million concrete couches the mayor ordered for Times Square. Nor all the benches, planters, trinkets, that make the city “look like my grandmother’s apartment.” This heavy whimsey is another way New York City fails itself. So, too, it’s expensiveness: “No-one can afford to live in New York. Yet 80 million do? How? We don’t know." But move there anyway. “You will do enough things to live here.” And even better: “You’ll have contempt for the people who don’t have the guts to do it.”  


Episode 2


Here’s another way Scorsese finds Lebowitz’s wit sympatico.  Her moral satire is firmly in the tradition of Jewish comedy. And in America — Italian, Jewish, what’s the difference? Both are minority culture communities, tightly bound within but firmly Outside the society’s mainstream, indeed frozen in malicious stereotype. Jewish comedy derives from the feeling of being a fringe observer, excluded, indeed always endangered, but with the consequent privilege of being able to observe, discriminate and judge. That’s the satirist’s mission.

Lebowitz works in the tradition of Mel Brooks, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, indeed drawing back to the noble profession of the Old Testament prophets, licensed to rail against the follies of their day. The Jewish spirit pervades her work here, less in specific jokes than in the marginalized wit’s moral indignation. 

There’s a rare Jewish joke in the second episode. Lebowitz gave up her passion for making art because “It was too pleasurable.” Life is not supposed to be pleasurable. That’s why Jews are forbidden bacon. 

This self-denial is central to Jewish comedy. First, it’s rooted in the Jewish history of persecution and danger, a life constantly at risk. Pleasures and confidence are to be reined in — dismissed with a spit — lest they bestir The Evil Eye. So, too, as a girl Fran was advised not to be funny around boys. Despite such restraint in her nurture, though, the compulsion of wit was sufficiently entrenched in her nature that it remains her — yes, career, but mainly her —  way to live.

The second episode focuses on the comedian’s practice of her Art. The opening joke pivots from the first episode’s focus on civility into considering the nature of art. The bigoted baker refuses to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because it would  violate his “art.” No, says Lebowitz, that’s not art; it’s “a snack.” She proceeds to consider the nature of art. 

So, too, the opening reverses the title: “It’s a city” then “Pretend.” Because we’re in a city, a community, we have to pretend, i.e., play, fictionalize, make art. Pretending is what the artist does, in whatever art. Of course, the primary pretence is that the work is just a fabrication, unreal, an escape from reality. But as the purveyors of fictions and constructions in the other arts know, it’s rather the realest real.  

Two scenes demonstrate this explicitly. In one Lebowitz rejects Spike Lee’s proposal that basketball star Michael Jordan ranks with Picasso as an artist. He may be in the pantheon as an athlete, she admits, but because his work is ephemeral, i.e., it cannot be accessed or repeated, he is equivalent to a dancer. Unlike music or theatre, in a game once we know the ending the grip is lost. 

In the second she notes that a Picasso painting is introduced to an auction house’s silence, but a hearty round of applause greets its sale for $160 million. The commodity outweighs the art. Instead of “Isn’t he good at painting?” we get “Aren’t you good at buying.”

As New York is enriched by its art and its liberty, it provides a refuge from provincialism: “What’s not here? Wherever you’re from.” A density of angry homosexuals is one sign of the city’s health. 

Toni Morrison says she writes so as not to be “stuck with life.” Lebowitz defines her profession as a writer as “making distinctions,” judging, i.e., exerting a social conscience. In the series of artists she shows here — Leonard Bernstein, Toni Morrison, Marvin Gaye, Charlie Mingus and Duke Ellington — the preponderance are African Americans, the historic -- and kindred -- underclass. Calder is in the cufflinks. Even Bernstein manages to “pass,” as his jazz symphonies connect with Ellington’s symphonic jazz. The Jewish Lebowitz typically connects to the African American artist.

Lebowitz’s stories about the tormented Mingus — whom her mother appreciated as “a good eater” — are a dramatic counterpoint to her exalting of music as the most satisfying art, musicians the most beloved, for expressing emotions and memories and providing happiness. “It’s like a drug that doesn’t kill you.” There is joy in the music, pain in the production. 

        Scorsese cites Wharton’s Age of Innocence not because he filmed it but because a school exam was criticized for citing its reference to the Countess having lost her looks. That might disturb schoolgirls, the silly Culture Canceller contended. But art is not intended to lull and to reassure -- and to delude. As Marvin Gaye declares, the artist is “only interested in waking up the minds of men” — the implicit audience including women, even girls. 

Monday, February 1, 2021

And So He Goes -- short story

  And so he goes



“I told you. The glasses go on that side. This row is for the cups. The small bowls go up the middle.”

“What’s the difference? They wash anyway.”

“That makes it easier to take them out.”

“If you say so.”


At 4:30 he said he was popping out to the deli for bagels. Poppy, for breakfast.

When he hadn’t returned by 10, when the National came on, she knew he was gone. She slept — unbroken — till 8.


“Look, she’s your mother. I wouldn’t expect you to go see mine every goddam day. Besides, she never liked me.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll pass on your regards. I may not be back in time to make you lunch, though, so fend.”

“I’ll go for dim sum.”  


At 4:30 he said he was popping out to the deli for bagels. Poppy, for breakfast.

When he hadn’t returned by 10, when the National came on, she knew he was gone. She slept — unbroken — till 8.


“You’ve set it for 74. That’s fine for you. For your office. But mine is sweltering. I can’t breathe. Why don’t we set it at 71 and you can wear a fleece.”

“But I’m so cold. Look, I’m shivering. It’s our big windows. Great view, but it lets out the heat.”

“So let’s compromise. 72, right?”


At 4:30 he said he was popping out to the deli for bagels. Poppy, for breakfast.

When he hadn’t returned by 10, when the National came on, she knew he was gone. She slept — unbroken — till 8.


“You put my Keith Haring socks in the dryer again. They’re shrinking.”

“Sorry. I forgot. Anyway, if you’d cut your toenails they’d last longer.”

“I’m not talking holes. It’s the shrinking. You never pull out my socks for the dryer.”

“I forgot. Maybe you might do your laundry sometime.”


At 4:30 he said he was popping out to the deli for bagels. Poppy, for breakfast.

When he hadn’t returned by 10, when the National came on, she knew he was gone. She slept — unbroken — till 8.


“I already sent them a donation. I did it online. Two hundred bucks. That’s enough for us.”

“Well, I didn’t know that. Anyway, they took the trouble to phone. I felt I had to give them something.”

“So long as they don’t expect that much next year.”


At 4:30 he said he was popping out to the deli for bagels. Poppy, for breakfast.

When he hadn’t returned by 10, when the National came on, she knew he was gone. She slept — unbroken — till 8.



“So if you don’t like my garlic sausage, my pickled herring, don’t the hell eat it.”

“I don’t. But the smell. I wish you’d just eat it when I’m not here.”

“So we’ll have separate meals. Fine.”

“That’s not the point. Besides, there are effects. I have to live with it. And you know that it gives you gas. The smell. I have to live with it.”


At 4:30 he said he was popping out to the deli for bagels. Poppy, for breakfast.

When he hadn’t returned by 10, when the National came on, she knew he was gone. She slept — unbroken — till 8. 


“Excuse me. It slipped out.”

“Jesus! That was loud! I almost dropped the plate.”

“I can’t help it.”

“Other people control their sneezes. I don’t know why you can’t. Look: I’m still shaking.”

“It’s the human condition.”

“Well, your condition anyway.”


At 4:30 he said he was popping out to the deli for bagels. Poppy, for breakfast.

When he hadn’t returned by 10, when the National came on, she knew he was gone. She slept — unbroken — till 8. 


“The lamb shoulder was on sale. Half off. Not previously frozen. Couldn’t resist.”

“But it’s so tough. And there’s so little meat on it. You want lamb, get a chop. A loin. I could make an osso bucco. Even meatballs. This is just bone and gristle. I’ll do what I can but remember — next time — the sale price isn’t everything.”


At 4:30 he said he was popping out to the deli for bagels. Poppy, for breakfast.

When he hadn’t returned by 10, when the National came on, she knew he was gone. She slept — unbroken — till 8. 


“It starts at 7. Let’s leave by 6:30.”

“But it’s 10, maybe 15, minutes from here.”

“You can’t trust the traffic. The bridge may be up. Better early than late.”

“But we don’t have to be there at the beginning anyway. There’ll be enough food.”

“I just don’t like being late. It’s disrespectful.”

“So you’d rather wait in the car for 10 minutes.”

“I respect other people. They said start at 7; we should make sure we’re there at 7.”


At 4:30 he said he was popping out to the deli for bagels. Poppy, for breakfast.

When he hadn’t returned by 10, when the National came on, she knew he was gone. “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream,” she mused, before drifting off. She slept — unbroken — till 8.





 

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

  The film’s opening theme immediately declares its subject: (Cue song:) “Tradition!” The fiddler on the roof is the emblem of man trying to pull off a tune, a bit of harmony and joy, in the precarious balancing act that is life — the teeter between tradition and proper changing with the times. But the antithesis is not just between the old and the new. It’s between principle and humanity, between religious dictate and mentschlichkeit. 

Of course Tevye’s drama is his increasing compromise with Jewish tradition as his three daughters choose increasingly anti-traditional marriages. Tzeitel spurns his arranged marriage to the much older widowed butcher, preferring the penniless tailor Mottel she loves. Hodel breaks Tevye’s heart by falling for the radical activist Perchik and then following him to Siberia. They will never meet again. 

In each case Tevye contrives to talk himself out of his initially principled position. “On the other hand…” he muses, before finally accepting his daughters’ choice when he sees the love in their eyes. 

Not so acceptable his third daughter’s choice, when Chava marries the Russian Christian Fyedka. Marrying outside the faith lies beyond Tevye’s range of acceptance. Mercifully, he musters a distant blessing as they separately depart for America. 

Though the film’s popularity and voice seem dominated by its address to the traditions of Judaism, the Russian culture also looms significant. The romances and shtetl life play against the shadows of Russian oppression. Tzeitel’s wedding is broken up by a fiery pogrom. Ultimately the Russian army evicts the entire Jewish community from their village. If the homey Jews have their Tradition of social and religious culture to maintain, the Russians have theirs — albeit based upon antisemitic violence. 

Indeed, as Tevye has his private debates over what’s expected of him, so have the Russian constable and Fyedka. The constable wants to spare his friend the pogrom, but the best he can do — given his Tradition and official responsibilities — is to warn Tevye about what’s coming and then early to send his marauders on to another family.  Fyedka is at first sight moved to stop his pals’ harassing Chava. Their marriage is an equal violation of both their respective Traditions. 

The two dance scenes address this collision between cultures. When Tevye dances drunkenly with Lazar Wolf in the tavern, the intrusive attention by some young Russian men is ominous. The tension eases when Tevye dances with one of them and the bipartisan revelry ensues. In contrast, the Cossacks break up the wedding dance. Beneath the tension and violence, however, the two cultures have a commonality imaged in the men’s kazatsky dances in both scenes. The matching lines of dancing, crouching men point to the humanity that the opposing cultures share and violate.  

As the Russian traditions move some focus away from the Jewish, the script also edges away from religion. Tevye’s conversations with God are just another soliloquy, like his debates with himself, where he’s expressing himself without expectation of result or effect. Tevye’s Bibilical allusions are a mishmash of offkey references — he confuses Abraham with Moses — and homey misattributions: “As the good book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.”

Similarly, the aged rabbi — proffered as the community’s source of faith and wisdom — is a bumbling comic figure whose utterances have no religious heft whatsoever: “Sit down.”  As for the Messiah, “We'll have to wait for him someplace else. Meanwhile, let's start packing.” His wisdom is rather practical than Biblical, as in his blessing for the Tsar: “May God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us!”     

So Tevye has it ultimately wrong: “Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as... as a fiddler on the roof!” It’s the enslavement to traditions, at the cost of humanitarian concerns, like love and compassion, that unbalances the life. The film demonstrates the need — for the Russians as well as the Jews — to overcome dangerous traditions. Of course, escaping the patriarchal tradition is especially important for the women here, who must fight their father and his ways to fulfil themselves. In this text tradition provides the danger not the security. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Promising Young Woman

  Here’s a director to watch. Writer/director Emerald Fennell’s feature film debut is a richly detailed exercise in woman’s empowerment. (By the way, she’s excellent as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown, though too far from rotweiler to be simply accurate.)

        The title points two ways. Cassie was a promising med student, top of the class, when she dropped out. Implicitly, she is living out a promise to avenge the videotaped gang-rape that drove her friend to suicide. That is, Cassie has shifted her dedication from addressing physical disease to the moral affliction of sexist violence. She’s trying to cure the body social politic. Her name evokes the Greek seer Cassandra whose visions were not believed.  

Aptly, Cassie comes to her climactic date, a pre-wedding stag party in the woods, in the guise of a call-girl’s nurse uniform. She even intends a surgery — carving the lost friend’s name into the rapist groom’s chest. The doctor’s stellar career could justify such revenge. The film ends on her complete attack upon male privilege.

Fennell carefully calibrates her scenes. When Cassie strides away from her first turnaround “date” we think we see blood on her clothes. But that would befit a male avenger. Cassie’s not killing the guys that she plays falldown drunk to trick into trying to take advantage of her. It’s catsup from her breakfast burger.  She only wants to expose them. 

Cassie addresses both genders’ role in our pervasive sexism. The men she tempts into thinking they can exploit her helplessness. “I’m a nice guy!” one bleats, frightened of her surprising strength that has shown him to be worse. 

We don’t know if the experience does chasten and enlighten the men, but here’s a sad clue. Pickup Paul recognizes her as the psychopath other guys have been warning about. Even having been exposed, the victimizers blame the victim.

So too the women, whom Cassie exposes for their more respectable assumptions. The Med School dean has crashed the patriarchal ceiling — by assuming the  males’ bias. As the man is innocent until proven guilty, the complaining woman must be either lying or asking for it. Cassie pierces the dean’s shell by hiding away the dean’s daughter and making the rape threat directly personal. With the superior Madison Cassie sets a similar trap. Having gotten her drunk Cassie pays a handsome man to take her friend to a hotel room where she will awaken wondering if she has been taken advantage of. Cassie gives both women the experience of helplessness they wouldn’t believe in Cassie’s friend. 

Cassie’s romantic encounter with Ryan promises an escape from her self-restrictive mission (however noble). Unconventionally, he drinks the coffee she spat into.Their dance in the pharmacy seems to turn the film into madcap RomCom. Most touching are the scenes where the lovers lie on a bed, clothed, chatting warmly. This idyll is disrupted when Cassie sees Ryan in the videotape of her friend’s rape. This sinks him to the level of smug sexist abuser, like the lawyer, like the macho privilege fully revealed at the stag.    

Cassie’s parents suggest a domestic version of the society’s strained artifice. They sit side  by side at the breakfast table, bracing each other without communicating, apparently arrayed against her. Their living room seems a display of expense without taste, frozen in the ‘50s with its plastic-covered upholstery and pseudo-art. The mother seems more disturbed than Cassie. This may be explained when her father says he too misses the lost friend and is so relieved “to have [Cassie] back,” thanks to the brief effect of Ryan. 

One shot sets Cassie against a wall blank except for what looks like a cake icing pattern on the wall. Like the antithetical drunken party scenes this backdrop suggests the false comfort and civility of our predatory dating scene. The moment typifies director Fennell’s full command of her medium.
 

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 clich├ęs 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.