classic film for halloween: rosemary’s behbeh

ruth gordon as minnie castevet

ruth gordon as minnie castevet

I’ll be up front: 90% of my love for Rosemary’s Baby revolves around Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet. She is glorious in this movie. She’s a fantastic mix of batty old auntie/scary witchypoo, with her ham-fisted makeup application, gregarious manner, and off-handed impositions – absolutely believable, which somehow makes her even more sinister and yet, you can’t help but LOVE her. I wish Minnie was my neighbour; I’d just avoid taking anything from her, and make sure she didn’t take anything with her when she went.

Another 5% of love is due to the amazing interiors of the famous – and infamous – Dakota apartment building in Manhattan, which features gorgeous and labyrinthine architecture of the 1880s. Such a perfect setting for a story that ends up swallowing the innocent hopefulness of the newlywed Rosemary into its dark woodwork and imposing structure.

The last 5% is devoted to the aesthetics. I adore the 60s fashions and sensibilities, with Mia’s little babydoll maternity dresses and cheery yellow bedroom, yarn flower and white daisy throw pillows, and that horrid olive/rust upholstery. And there are some great casting choices – who knew that sweet old Clara Edwards of Mayberry was a Satanist? Or that Charles Grodin could be such an asshole? Even William Castle makes a cameo outside of a phone booth, and Tony Curtis has a voice-over. There’s a lot of playfulness in this movie, which is pleasantly unexpected. Or maybe I’m unusually gleeful about this genre, and it probably did come across as a lot more sinister in 1968, when the fear that very ordinary people held very dark Satanic secrets was a real thing.

Now, the confusion between witch and Satanist is a bit of a stumble. Very much not the same thing, as witches are pagan and Satanists evolved from Christian tradition. But it was the 60s, Satanism was the big bad back then, and witchcraft was interchangeable in the eyes of the general public. It’s easy to let it go.

minnie castevet gives zero fucks

minnie castevet gives zero fucks

But Ruth Gordon. Ruth Gordon, sloppily serving cake to her guests using her own fork, donning some perfectly horrible hats, and orchestrating the coupling to bring forth Satan’s spawn in a very no nonsense manner – “As long as she ate the mousse she can’t see nor hear she’s like dead now sing.” – is everything in this movie. Indulge in a bit of mindless Minnie fun on a dark and stormy night, preferably while eating chocolate mousse. Just make sure to have your gloves with you when you leave.

dorian gray is gay (and edward larson betrayed us all)

dorian gray as portrayed by hurd hatfield in the 1945 movie

dorian gray as portrayed by hurd hatfield in the 1945 movie

I’m re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I do every so often. In a scant few pages are packed philosophy and idolatry, a cautionary tale, a revelation of adoration, an abundance of clever wordplay, all wrapped up in gorgeous prose.

The book also was infamously used as evidence against Oscar Wilde during his trials. Using books as legal stichomancy is disreputable; but if certain passages were selected to condemn him, others can be pulled to defend him, and perhaps all artists.

In the story, Basil Hallward tells Lord Henry Wotton that he doesn’t want to show his painting of Dorian Gray at an exhibition because he’s put too much of himself into it. Basil says he has unintentionally revealed his artistic and personal worshipful admiration of Dorian, things he especially doesn’t want Dorian to know. If others were to see it, “…the world might guess it; and I will not bare my soul to their shallow, prying eyes. My heart shall never be put under their microscope.”

Basil goes on to say that artists should put nothing of their own lives into their work, and that art should not be treated as a form of autobiography. But of course we all do to some extent. Wilde did, too.

In order to create something beautiful and meaningful, revelations will occur. Some things can be cleverly concealed with a bit of creative manipulation, but artists will uncover parts of themselves, it’s inevitable. And, it’s intentional. Artists want to generate stories as experienced through their personal lenses. They create the path, and we navigate using our own perception. Neither has complete control of the exchange, and that’s what makes art beautiful, and imperative to human experience.

Those who hold nothing back willingly subject themselves to scrutiny, but the audience has the responsibility to scrutinize with the expectation of no absolutes, and refrain from censorship and misapplications. Without the synergetic relationship between art and audience, there can be no meaningful exchange.

As for those who try to use art against the artist, against others, and for dogmatic gain, they reveal an ugly image not of the artist, but of themselves. An idiot extracts what they please to uphold their own beliefs; a philosopher takes the opportunity to question beliefs. Why pander to ignorance, even to save judgement? At times, there may be little solace in knowing your own heart and head, but there is great dignity. In the end, that is what Wilde exemplified, and it has made him a champion as well as an artist.

film: sebastiane

guido reni

guido reni

Viewers seem to have a love/hate relationship with Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane – loved for being “ground-breaking” and “masterful,” hated for being “low budget soft core porn.” And while it definitely wasn’t made on the budget of a blockbuster, part of the questionable quality may simply come from the 1976 aesthetics of independent film. The other part, I’m thinking, comes from the low expectations and classifications of films that offer a lot of flesh.

I’m not as familiar with Jarman’s films as I should be, having come across him because of my interest in Tilda Swinton’s work. But I wanted to see Sebastiane solely because of the subject.

I know the story of Saint Sebastiane – I’ll stick with that spelling – through the many works of art recreating his martyrdom. There have been sculptures and stories… My fellow writer and wurbling buddy Anna Reith wrote a beautiful story about Sebastiane called Chiaroscuro. Sebastiane was painted by El Greco, Rubens, de La Tour, Carracci, Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, Dali… you name it, they all loved him as a subject. One artist, Andrea Mantegna, painted Sebastiane three times.

andrea mantegna

andrea mantegna

Mantegna’s love for Sebastiane is said to have come about because of the saint’s purported ability to offer protection from the plague, which Mantegna managed to survive and so was duly grateful. But it’s the method of Sebastiane’s suffering that is the big fascination. Body riddled with arrows, he remained beatific and beautiful, even sensual.

He was one of the unlucky Christians persecuted by the Romans, but what made Sebastiane special was that he survived his trial by arrows. He was a sneaky undercover Christian, converting followers when he was supposed to be cleaning house. As a captain of the Praetorian Guard, this was a major betrayal. Diocletian was pissed off, and had him tied to a post and executed by a slew of arrows – or at least that was the plan. Sebastiane recovered and resumed his conversions, and apparently he was feeling rather invincible because he got cheeky with Diocletian by taunting him from a street corner. The emperor wasn’t having it. He said enough was enough, clubbed Sebastiane to death and tossed him into a privy. The story goes that he later appeared to some ladies, not to offer heavenly inspiration, but to ask if they might fish him out of the sewage and bury him properly. But despite that rather inelegant ending, he became the twice martyred saint of soldiers and protector from the plague, which came in handy during the medieval period. He is always portrayed as beautiful, always young, and always has a glow of serenity about him.

niccolo renieri aka nicholas regnier

niccolo renieri aka nicholas regnier

So it’s easy to see where the fascination comes from, and why the iconic portrayals are hugely influential. Then this little movie comes along and has its way with Sebastiane – it was bound to rouse admiration and ire. I admit I wasn’t quite prepared for Jarman’s portrayal. Right out of the gate we get a lurid Dance Of The Phalli, culminating in a cream off. And while watching this opening scene, one does have to wonder how this applies to Saint Sebastiane, and gamely theorize that perhaps in some avant guarde way the phalluses are arrows and the, uh, stuff that shoots out of them represents strikes to the body. But the opening seems quite disconnected from the rest of the movie. It gets better from there, or shall I say less anachronistic and more focused and historically faithful, if drawn with a free hand. It may have been made on a tight budget, but care was taken. I liked the authenticity of the props, the setting, the Latin dialogue, and the nudity is not gratuitous. Not in my opinion, not for the setting, as Roman soldiers were known to train starkers (or at least the Greeks did and that’s close enough), and frolic in the sea and rub their bodies down in the baths after their workouts. The camera lingers on their wet bodies, rippling muscles and perky arses, lovingly stroking all that divine golden flesh on our behalf, thank you very much. Perhaps this is disturbing to some in such close proximity to the story of a saint?

Oh, pish-tosh. Everyone’s had a go at Sebastiane, why shouldn’t Jarman have his say, too? He’s just as qualified to give us his rendition, and he portrays the saint faithfully and well. The most striking images are given to us at the end, as Sebastiane suffers his martyrdom with as much radiant tranquility as in any other artistic rendering. Are the naked bodies, the kisses and wrestling, necessary? In Jarmal’s portrayal, yes, they are, because he gets to decide how he will depict the story. I don’t think his depiction is at all far off, given Sebastiane’s consistently portrayed artful eroticism.

nicholas regnier apparently he had a thing for him, too

nicholas regnier
apparently he had a thing for him, too

This is why I liked this movie, because this is what I’ve been yammering on and on about: sensuality and sex do not undermine storytelling, can in fact faithfully aid in it. Whether it’s the story of a saint or sinner, whether it’s identified as lit-rah-chah or a cheap and cheerful quickie, sex is an ever present and influential facet of all our characters. In philosophy, in religion, sex is frequently a front and center aspect of the concepts, the earthly pleasures that often throw a wrench in the progress toward enlightenment. That’s because it’s a powerful thing. Discussions and depictions of sensuality are incredibly enthralling, even saintly sensuality. Especially saintly sensuality. Symbolically, the sensual nature of rapture through pleasure or suffering looks the same, and maybe that’s frightening, too. Taboos are all about fear, and the refusal to acknowledge how close we are to losing ourselves every second of every day. We don’t want to look, and that’s exactly why we should.

I’m grateful to Jarman for his Sebastiane, for remaining true to the beauty of the saint’s yielding to the fervency of his flesh, and finding that, instead of compromising his devotion, it strengthens and restores his conviction.

death and love and all that rot

Rupert Everett as Francesco Dellamorte

Rupert Everett as Francesco Dellamorte

A million years ago (or last year) I said I was going to talk about one of my favourite films, Dellamorte Dellamore, aka Cemetery Man. This is an appropriate time of the year to, ah, dig into it, so let’s go.

I’ve talked before about zombies as a metaphor for the outcast, the misfit, the forgotten. I really hate that the zombie has been beaten to death – again and again – and turned into a target, something entertainingly expendable because of their state of being. Ain’t it fun to watch them take a bullet and splatter? And we don’t have to feel guilty about it. Uh huh. Francesco Dellamorte shows us just how that came to be.

Francesco is the caretaker of a cemetery, which keeps him very busy. In addition to routine maintenance, he’s been dealing with the unfortunate occurrence of the dead rising from their graves, and he has the vexing task of taking them down and putting them back where they belong. It’s getting very old.

It’s not like he has a lot to keep him otherwise occupied, mind. His less than all there assistant, Gnaghi, isn’t much of a conversationalist, but at least he has a pulse. It’s a lonely, boring, and thankless existence. And then he falls in love.

This is an intensely existentialist film, told in a quirky-humorous and kinky-passionate dellamorte dellamore cemeterymanner. Both Francesco and Gnaghi are going through their own relationship issues, Gnaghi more successfully, as he accepts his sweetie for what she is – well, what he was able to salvage of her, anyway – while Francesco is having more difficulty with his amour.

Things are intense for Francesco, and growing more so. Aside from his nightly roundup of the Returners, he’s dealing with unresolved issues of his own. Just when he reaches the apex of his desperation and fully realized impotency, he pops his cap and commits the ultimate crime. And no one cares. In fact, the more reckless and insane he gets with his out-and-out protest against everything, the more he goes unnoticed. He realizes can do anything – any fucking thing – and it just doesn’t matter.

He and Gnaghi are driven to the edge. Literally. The fucking edge of existence itself. And…. And.

Dellamorte DellamoreAnd this is the thing about Dellamorte Dellamore. I have never seen a riper example of what it is to confront the self, and the destruction that ensues. Or deconstruction. And possibly, reconstruction.

I always like a little humour and a dash of sexy along with my existential angst, and this delivers bucketloads. Rupert Everett as Francesco Dellamorte is as hot as I’ve ever seen him, and I admit, that could be due to my penchant for naked men in the midst of a philosophical crisis. Nah, he really is that hot.

Anyway, that’s what I came away with. I don’t know whether that’s what the writer, Tiziano Sclavi or the director, Michele Soavi intended. As a matter of fact, I’ve just found those names in the process of writing this, and I’ve been able to find next to nothing about the film. But that doesn’t matter. I highly, highly recommend this one. It can be taken on any level – it doesn’t have to snare you within the tangled roots of existence to be enjoyed. It really is damn funny. And clever. And kinda gross. And…. And I’ve said enough. You watch it, now, and decide.

I did notice that there was supposed to be a sequel in the works around last year, but I haven’t heard more about it. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes.

film recommendation: midnight in paris

I like Woody Allen films. Say what you will, the man can express himself exquisitely.

All of his films are very personal in content. We now know vast amounts about the inner workings of Woody Allen’s head, whether or not we want to. I happen to love it. His humour, his insecurities, his cleverness, and the things that inspire him—it’s all so exposed and by default, charming.

Midnight in Paris is the perfect representation of all his most endearing qualities.

I constantly get Owen Wilson mixed up with Matthew McConaughey. I know absolutely nothing about either of them, but my impressions have never been flattering. In this movie, Owen Wilson washed the slate clean, and I will never again confuse the two.

gil pender (owen wilson) watches josephine baker dance at bricktop’s club, the music box

gil pender (owen wilson) watches josephine baker dance at bricktop’s club, the music box

I think at times, Owen Wilson was even more Woody Allen than Woody Allen. All of his foibles, quirks, intonations, Wilson had down pat. And he brings his own interpretations in—the one in particular I noticed was that of a big, dopey, cuddly sheepdog. In the best possible way.

I would give just about anything to experience what his character Gil Pender does – every midnight he gets into a Peugeot and goes back into Paris of the 20s, rubbing elbows with the incredible artists and writers of that time. He’s a scriptwriter in Hollywood who is working on his first novel, and having a bit of a tough time of it. Who better to be inspired by than F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein?

All of the artist and personality portrayals in this movie are so spot on, it’s a little scary. I felt transported back in time as well, and did my own little worshipful gasps and smiles at the encounters with Man Ray, Cole Porter, and Pablo Picasso. Throw in a cute and sexy little cameo by Josephine Baker and an incredible look alike Alice B. Toklas answering the door, and it’s like entering into a parallel dream world.

corey stoll as ernest hemingway

corey stoll as ernest hemingway

My favourite, though, is Corey Stoll as Hemingway. His intense stare as he regales Gil with tales of war – “And he was young and brave, and the hill was soggy from days of rain. And it sloped down toward a road and there were many German soldiers on the road….” – was about as perfect and mesmerizing as it gets.

There were some problems with the film. Gil’s villainous fiancĂ©e and her snobby parents, and the fiancĂ©e’s pedantic professor former crush, were black as the blackest coal, not a redeeming quality within. Makes you wonder how Gil even found himself in such a terribly wrong relationship with a woman he clearly had nothing in common with. He needed a good slap for getting into such a predicament. But all in all, this is a fun and beautifully filmed treat for anyone who would love to take a step back in time through perhaps the most artistically blessed city in the world. Oh, and the music is perfect, too. Of course.

I’m a bit like Gil’s crush Adriana, an art groupie extraordinaire whose perfect Golden Age is la Belle Époque. But as Gil points out, those people had no antibiotics, so I think it’s more suited to a nightly visit than an extended stay. I confess I’ve made many, many visits to this film, and will make many more.

film recommendation: otto: or up with dead people

Let’s do something fun.

Jey Crisfar

I haven’t done a film recommendation in awhile, so I’m going to talk about one of my very favorites, Otto: or Up With Dead People.

You may notice that I have a particular interest in zombie flicks. I talked before about the zombie metaphor, which I find fascinating; that’s what drew me to Otto, but there are many more aspects to this strange little story. The unique mix of humor and melancholy, of live action and animation, and the way director Bruce LaBruce plays with storytelling by the use of color and sound, of silent film and art film form, makes Otto multidimensional in a way that sounds like a messy amalgam of competing methods when described, but in fact works as a whole to tell Otto’s tale.

Otto is a young man zombified by love – loss of love. If he’s acting a part, he’s taken to it full on, with his dead expression, his stumbling walk, his sustenance on road kill, raw chicken and live cats. He doesn’t seem to sleep, and his encounters with others are limited by indifference to every form of interaction, from kindnesses and sexual encounters to displays of repulsion. The thing is, it’s obvious that Otto feels deeply, even in his suspended state. Otto may appear dead to the world, but he elicits great compassion from those who are drawn into his plight.

Whether his condition is real or a very outward reaction to his inner turmoil is something to play with when contemplating this film. Frankly, I don’t try to pick apart Otto’s state of being; the real story is made up of the reasons for finding himself in that undead state, and the ways he influences, and is influenced by, the reactions of the people surrounding him. Some shun him, laugh at him and avoid him; but avant garde “documentary” film maker Medea Yarn is fascinated with him, and takes him in as a pet project, recruiting another zombie actor to care for him while she works her own odd brand of cinematic magic.

The ending is visceral. I was left amazed and hopeful, and crying my eyes out over the finalities and the rebirth that may be on the horizon for Otto as he continues his journey. I wanted to cuddle up this undead corpse of a boy and tell him everything is okay, because zombie or not, Otto is a remarkable being.

…Oh, and uh, it’s pretty fucking sexy, in a zombirific kind of way.

classic film: the haunting

Yesterday, as it was pouring rain outside, I watched the classic 1963 ghost story, The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. This film scared the fricking hell out of me the first time I saw it. Now I’ve watched it so many times that I see other aspects of the film, beyond the scary bits.

It’s a psychological thriller that doesn’t rely on blatant ghosties to give you the chills. I recently saw The Woman in Black  starring Daniel Radcliffe, and while I loved the wonderful atmospheric aspects of the film, the frequency and in-your-face traipsing about of the ghosts had me slouched down in overkill two thirds of the way through. The Haunting isn’t like that. We don’t see ghosts. We hear sounds – strange, muffled voices and cries of laughter, and we see how the characters react to their own fears. In my opinion, it’s vastly scarier than what passes for frights in modern films.

You wouldn’t think woodwork could be frightening: let me tell you – it is. Woodwork that seems to stare at you, is seemingly the source of those muffled voices and cries, knockings, scratching, scuffling noises, echoes of heavy pounding against the stone walls….

Julie Harris plays the emotionally fragile and troubled Eleanor Lance, Claire Bloom is the self assured and mod Theo (fashions by Mary Quant!); Richard Johnson is John Markway, professor of psychic phenomena and Russ Tamblyn rounds it out as the cocky, carefree college grad who will inherit Hill House, the house that was “born bad” according to Markway, who has brought Theo and Eleanor to the house in hope of stimulating the ghostly forces. Each has been involved with the paranormal – Theo has ESP, and Eleanor’s childhood home was showered by a hail of stones for several days. Something she denies ever happened.

Eleanor is the one the forces in the house choose to center upon, of course. Her self doubts, fragility of character and sheltered background make her an easy target for the strong and active forces. The question is, how much is truly caused by external forces, and how much is a product of Eleanor’s own psychological deterioration?

The movie is based on the novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”  by Shirley Jackson. I saw the film before I read the book and there are some slight variations, but all in all the atmosphere and pacing are the same. The house used in the movie is a glorious gothicky Victorian nightmare, huge and rambling and at times as unnavigable as a funhouse. This is a great film for a rainy day.

film: swimming pool

Ludivine Sagnier

Swimming Pool is the quintessential writer’s movie. It so perfectly depicts the workings of a writerly mind: how ideas are formed, how when you’re in the thick of things a story can usurp other aspects of daily life. This is another François Ozon movie, starring two of his favorite actors – Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier. Rampling is the writer, Sagnier is the muse.

It’s hard to talk about this one without getting spoilery so I’m putting the rest of this under a cut, though I promise to keep to mild spoilers and not give away the whole game.

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that’s not a monster, that’s a metaphor

Zombies have overreached the saturation point in pop culture, and that’s too bad. More and more, we focus on the monster and ignore the meaning. They really are the definitive example of the outsider. But they’re much more than that. They are the things that plague us, stalk us. Things we try to keep buried, but refuse to stay underground.

Zombies are of course a metaphor – a stand in for those who feel isolated, dead inside, shunned, feared, lost. A representation of horrors and fears of our own making, and those thrust upon us by forces difficult to fight.

Night of the Living Dead is the 1968 classic zombie horror film. The ending is shocking – and it’s not because of the zombies. It’s a reflection of the times, things much more real and visceral and horrifying than movie monsters.

Dellamorte Dellamore (or Cemetery Man) is another film in which zombies represent the things we can’t get rid of, the things that come back again and again to haunt us…. It’s enough make a man crazy, and he just might reach a point at which the monsters are everything and everywhere. (I love this film. I will talk about it much more at another time.)

Some while ago, I wrote a zombie short, Undone. It’s a different aspect of the metaphor of the zombie – how we hold on to love, the things we refuse to see, the things we cannot see, and just how far we’ll go to protect what’s ours.

It’s a story I hope to share with you one day.