Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tanze Satan Mit Mir

Over the years, between dozens of late-night dinner conclaves, press interviews for that defunct game show, and general exhortations to anyone who will listen, someone with only the most simplistic knowledge of me as a person likely knows that Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA is one of my desert island movies, and possibly the most influential film in my cinemaducation. When I first saw it, few articles were publicly available about it beyond a hardcore cadre of trusted genre film experts such as Tim Lucas and Chas Balun, so I felt that it was my duty to spread the gospel by writing about it in my college newspaper and duping multiple bootleg tapes. In 2010, thankfully, we have been graced with a beautiful (albeit out of print) DVD release, constant threats of a remake, and the internet has helped bring fans together so well and so large that I feel a little redundant writing anything about SUSPIRIA now.

Nonetheless, I'm inspired to talk about it one more time, because my steadiest reader and commenter Simon recently saw the film for the first time herself, and contributed a few pithy thoughts on it. Which in turn reminded me of an earlier instance years ago when, during a creative collaboration with steampunk author Rowan Bristol, a less enthusiastic opinion was offered up...

"I'm still puzzling the appeal of SUSPIRIA. It's an Italian horror film with a witchcraft focus, but the plot is fairly thin. What the creator tries to do is make up for the problems with lavish visuals. There's a lot of color, an amazing score, and just about every room is an exercise in trompe l'oeil. If you like starlets struggling through razorwire, or prettily falling through stained glass before being hung, go for it. Maybe Marc can explain why this one is fantastic."

Okay, I'll try. I always have difficulty trying to explain to non-believers why SUSPIRIA is such an important movie to me, but Rowan is a dear friend and deserves something for investing the time, and Simon is a new friend who will certainly appreciate some deeper thoughts.

First, I must explain that I can vividly remember the lurid ads for the movie when it was first released in 1977 -- "The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92" -- and even though I wasn't into horror movies at the age of 8 years old, I never forgot that brilliant tag. [Of course, it's a misnomer -- even in its uncut version, the movie only runs 98 minutes; perhaps a rushed copywriter meant to say "the full 92"] But even when I hit adolescence and became more curious about horror in general, I would not have any more contact with this movie until I was in college. It was not on videotape in America, and after its initial airings, hadn't played on cable TV for many years either, so effectively, it was off the radar for most Americans at that time.

October of 1988, I went to the first 24-hr NIGHT OF THE LIVING DREXEL horror movie marathon, presented by the theatre organization that I would later end up working with for over 10 years {but that's another story}. I knew nothing about the plot, just that famous ad copy, when it began. It was cleverly scheduled for 2AM, and even though they had a mono print, the sound was cranked loud. I pretty much was Jessica Harper's Suzy Banion, quite unprepared for the mad journey I was going to take for an hour and a half. By the time it was over, I had crossed the line from mere dilettante to full-on horror advocate, and Dario Argento became my hero for life.

So what was it about SUSPIRIA that made me turn a corner and become so devoted? Rowan is correct, the plot of ballet student Suzy discovering her boarding school is a front for a witches' coven is not the most fleshed out. But it is the presentation therein that carries me away. Precisely because of it's jarring candy color scheme, relentless music, and bizarre murder stagings, it is the closest film I have ever seen that unfolded with the logic of a dream.

Dreaming is the most misrepresented concept in film -- hack directors always think if you just idealize everything, or make it all scary, or throw in cheap surrealism, presto: it's a dream. Of course, it's even harder to just explain dreams in daily life ("Okay, so I was in the shoe store, but it wasn't really a shoe store because they served pizza...") My dimestore psych studies have helped me conclude that generally, dream logic taps into ideas which don't get fulfilled in daylight, be they good or dangerous, and that minor details that don't serve the theme of your dream are ignored -- hence why objects inexplicably move or change shape, or as said in WAKING LIFE, light switches don't work.

Thus for me, SUSPIRIA taps into many nascent fears that I often have. Being an outsider in unfamiliar, unfriendly territory. Being at the mercy of people who cannot be trusted. Having to tangle with circumstances beyond my experience or comprehension. The supernatural -- that noise the apartment makes with no logical source, for example. Dreams involve a heightened reality more often than a surreality, and I feel SUSPIRIA captures that -- hence the loud colors and music. It's not totally out of our world, just kicked up a few notches.

As for the murders and other creepy setpieces, they're extremely effective because of their cruelty and use of the body. There is a great quote from Mr. Tarantino where he describes that when watching movies, how he feels nothing if Arnold Schwarzenegger blows away half the Russian army, but if a character gets a paper cut, he winces, because that's real and personal. Better still, Mel Brooks' explanation of tragedy and comedy: "Tragedy is if I prick my finger, comedy is if you fall into an open sewer and die." Now granted, the chances of any of us falling through stained glass or barbed wire are very slim, but when we see such articles at rest, I know at least once I have shuddered at the idea of those items coming in contact with me. I am very skittish about my skin; I have never gotten a piercing or a tattoo, and I keep injections and shots to a minimum. So these murder scenes work because while I could evade or outsmart Michael Myers, you can't reason with barbed wire or maggots. Again, upsold reality.

Even what would be considered a technical flaw adds to the experience. SUSPIRIA, like most European films intended for world release, was shot without sync sound, with the actors looping their dialogue later on. This is extremely blatant during Udo Kier's one scene, as he speaks velvety English when any genre fan knows that Udo struggles more with English than he does crosses or stakes. While this kind of dubbing is generally a source of amusement, in most of Argento's films, the canned, sterile quality of this dialogue to me kind of adds to the experience, as if the characters have been boxed in from frame one. And especially so in SUSPIRIA, because if the color and the noise are heightened, then so would be the silence and the lack of room noise. No matter how much characters are trying to whisper, someone is listening.

SUSPIRIA is Alice in Wonderland gone 180, a truly grim fairy tale. (Argento himself has said much inspiration came from Disney's SNOW WHITE) A story of an innocent in Germany (Black Forest?) among demons and familiars who must counter their deceptions and attacks if she is to find her way home.

Oh, and to explain that title? Thomas DeQuincey, a contemporary of Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER, wrote a drug-influenced essay called "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow," in which he described his vision of the Three Mothers, the source of all trouble and evil in the world: Mater Lachrymarum -- the mother of tears, Mater Tenebrarum -- the mother of darkness, and Mater Suspiriorum -- the mother of sighs. SUSPIRIA was intended as the first part of a trilogy that would depict each of the Three Mothers. A second installment, INFERNO, was released in 1980, depicting Mater Tenebrarum, and almost two decades later, in 2007, the final installment, MOTHER OF TEARS was made.

If I may be indulged a moment to explore just how ridiculous my fandom for this movie has been over my life...as I was finishing college, the two movies that I was watching repeatedly were SUSPIRIA and DIE HARD. If you got me stoned enough, I would adamantly claim they were telling the same story: they were both released by 20th Century Fox, involved wary unprepared protagonists with intense distrust of Germans, and ended with beautiful buildings going up in flames. And by 1990, as they had both inspired one sequel apiece, I was entertaining the terrifying fantasy of uniting the two franchises into one super-threequel: John McClane, enjoying spring break in Rome, once again gets caught up in fighting terrorists, this time a secret society that has been prepping the ascent of Mater Lachrymarum and her plot to unleash chaos upon the world just before Anno Domini, the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 (the accepted conception date of Jesus of Nazareth, in order to maintain the running gag of "this shit always happens on Christmas"). I would have called it CRY HARD.

"Yippie ki-yay, Mater Fuckerarum!"

So, there it is. I doubt this will convert anyone who is not already a fan, but at least you can better comprehend my affection for the film. If you would like to learn more about Dario Argento in general, or SUSPIRIA in particular, author, critic, and TV personality Maitland McDonagh, who also publishes the Miss FlickChick blog, wrote what is still the gold standard book on the subject: BROKEN MIRRORS, BROKEN MINDS, which has just recently been republished in a new updated edition this year.

And meanwhile, avoid bland food as much as possible, especially that prepared by familiars...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Feeling irie about Ariel

Today is the birthday of blogger, scholar, archivist, lady of letters, and, as poet and screenwriter Ernie Cline once observed, the sexiest thing in the world - a woman who is smarter than you are - Ariel Schudson. Fellas, when you were at Comic-Con ogling the moonlighting import models in spandex who could barely feign interest in your nerdular nerdence, and ignoring poor Virgil's autograph booth, Ariel has been a respected guest panelist there four years in a row, presenting critical evaluations of the various permutations of Hellboy and Iron Man. She'll also school you on Sam Fuller, body tattoos, and professional wrestling...without having to change out of her Totoro slippers. While her family background may not quite make her Hollywood royalty, her ingrained love of the seven arts and devotion to their health and preservation certainly rank her among the landed gentry. And a knave like me is damned lucky to be able to call her a close friend.

Happy Birthday baby. In kino veritas.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Biting the Hand that Draws You

Once the popularity of the theatrical cartoon short was established in the sound film era, in short order came the popularity among animators for breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging the divide between "real" and "cartoon" existence. And the earliest, and probably best adopters of this trope were Max and Dave Fleischer: Even the most casual cartoon watcher can likely identify their work, be it Betty Boop rising "Out of the Inkwell" or Bimbo and Koko talking directly to the brothers or other elastic gags. This was a sentiment that they brought to their solidly popular series of Popeye cartoons; periodically, the genial sailor might find himself getting help from an outside animator, or inadvertently in the auditorium with the audience themselves. In tandem with the tendencies to show Olive Oyl capable of wrapping her arms around her body like spaghetti and other surrealistic touches, as well as the often-improvised dialogue, the Popeye universe may have been predictable in that Bluto would get battered, but quite unpredictable in what else would be going on while that happened.

However, by 1943, the elasticity was beginning to stiffen. The Fleischers were effectively evicted from their own studio by Paramount due to debts incurred from their two feature-length films, while seeing their own relationship deteriorate into lifelong estrangement. Their replacements at the rechristened Famous Studios, Isadore Sparber and Seymour Knietel, did their best to keep the brothers' animation style in place, but were facing increased pressures, such as moving the studio from Florida back to New York, and cancelling the expensive Superman cartoons, leaving Popeye as their one franchise. The Popeye series faced continued "requests" to appeal to the war effort (many of the toons from this period feature mean stereotypes and have been pulled from TV), cutting back on animated detail to save ink and paper (these toons are lacking the imaginative look from the earlier Fleischer era), an eventual switch from black-and-white to color, and making Olive Oyl a more glamourous character with new hairdo and shoes. The demands were not enough to sour them on the studio - Sparber and Kneitel stayed with Paramount until their untimely deaths in 1958 and 1964 respectively - but much like other mandates from above that have ruffled animators' ambitions, they likely inspired one of their best cartoons.

CARTOONS AIN'T HUMAN was the last Popeye cartoon made in black-and-white, and takes an amusing and somewhat progressive "meta" approach to the series. Popeye wants to make his own cartoon to impress his lady and his nephews. While he doesn't lack ambition, performing multiple instruments and all the characters (the latter a testament to the underrated versatility of voice artist Jack Mercer)...

...Popeye is not very skilled at doing the actual drawing.

I can well imagine the non-union pen-and-ink men sending a subtle message to the Paramount brass: if you know so much about these damned cartoons, you try drawing them! The verdict as they see it is that if their seafaring superhero can't make a competent cartoon, the average studio flack probably can't either.

Moreover, what Popeye creates is a revealing look at his uncensored id, commenting on his current lot in life. Among the insights he allows us to see are...

"Comes ta think of it, I donts get why I is attrackted to dis broad in da firsk place."

"An' boy duz she takes me gallantry fer granted!"

"Yeah, I sees ya talkin' durin' me pitcher. SHUTS THE FUSK UP!"

No question, after this outing, the Popeye series was never going to be quite the same. As such it's a fitting farewell to all those groundbreaking elements that made him strong, way past what would have been considered the finish.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

No Hard Feelings?

From the day my father brought home the soundtrack album, to as recently as a few weeks ago, my love and support for THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, and the exemplary Los Angeles shadow cast Sins o' the Flesh that keeps it alive and Vegas fan-kicking every week, has not abated. When I still blogged with training wheels last year, I came out publicly as an unrepentant Rockhead. In full disclosure, I should add that despite the fact I have not worn so much as a shred of mesh and lace in the last ten years, I am a member in good standing of Sins o' the Flesh, a privilege that I hold quite dear.

This fall, the ambitious folk behind Sins o' the Flesh are marking the film's 35th Anniversary with a large-scale convention, taking place in Downtown L.A. September 23rd-25th, securing such so-hot-it-hurts venues as the downtown Standard Hotel and Club 740 to host convention events. And tonight at 7:30 PST, a webcast will go online announcing the first of what will be many high-profile convention guests. Lest one think this is the nerds-in-lingerie equivalent of "THE SIMPSONS" infamous Bi-Mon Sci-Fi Con, it ain't. Personal friendships aside, the Sins crew are busting all protruding body parts to make this a world-class event. You can see an example of their hard work in this initial video promo, NQSFW:

Recently, I was offered the opportunity to create a small promotional piece for the convention. Taking into account the recent flame wars between the devotees of certain cult movie musicals, as well as my own ongoing battle with a specific film's fanbase, I decided to take a cue from this infamous instance of Super Bowl detente and craft a short message of peace and brotherhood for all midnight movie lovers:

Yes, the fellow in the bad suit and worse wig should look familiar.

So if you feel like bringing your Jack, knife, and spoon to L.A., here's where to get more information:

Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/pages/Sins-O-the-Flesh-Convention/51414056952
Twitter – http://twitter.com/sinscon
MySpace – http://www.myspace.com/sinscon
LiveJournal – http://community.livejournal.com/sinscon2010/
email notifications - http://sinscon.com/subscribe/

Thursday, May 6, 2010

These Jokes Are Not Medically Accurate

I'm not particularly interested in writing a review of Tom Six's headline-grabbing horror film THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE), and for personal reasons I am embargoed from doing so anyway. However, my friend, the musician, engineer, and dead ringer for that Encyclopaedia Brittanica kid Andy Hentz, and myself verbalized some amusing thoughts during our private screening:

1. Dieter Laser looks like a bastard child of Christopher Walken and Tommy Wiseau;

2. Two Girls, One Colon?

3. "Does this washcloth smell like chloroform to you?"

4. "Here we are / Ass to face / A couple of silver spoons..."

5. Someone needs to turn the Human Centipede into a new dance craze, kind of a hybrid between the Bunny Hop and the Lambeth Walk.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Merry Christmas, sorry I fucked you over."

At the request of Chris Poggiali, who knows even more about classic exploitation films than I do, and will prove it at his always-captivating Temple of Schlock, and because it times nicely to this weekend's release of IRON MAN 2, I am reposting (with some revisions) an old essay previously only seen on a couple messageboards and a moribund online diary that may or may not be mine anymore. Yes, it is another one of those convoluted posts involving chance and movies and a "game within the game" that seem to be my stock in trade. Which is appropo because it involves someone deconstructing his own trademarks.

It starts in 2005 with Kylie Ireland and her online blog at that time. Normally, she uses it only to promote other business ventures, but sometimes she'll post stuff about her off-the-clock activities...the boring stuff that I personally find interesting, heck the stuff we all really read celebrity blogs for. On one such occasion, she writes a short post about seeing Shane Black's KISS KISS BANG BANG and really enjoying it. I make a post, (at least, I think it was me and not the imposters who rose up in the wake of "BEAT THE GEEKS" to launch fake LJ's detailing my sexual escapades with Mikey Whipwreck and Steve Guttenberg) indicating my intentions to see it, and she replies that she wants to hear my thoughts on it when I do. It's the only time she's ever replied to any of "my" comments, so that ups my curiosity factor.

So on a Saturday evening in December of that year, I decide to trek all the way to the slightly run-down Academy theatre in Pasadena because they are the only theatre in the immediate area still showing THE CONSTANT GARDENER, a movie I feel I should see before compiling the annual Top 13 list for my Christmas cards. However, traffic had other plans for me and I arrived too late for the intended showtime, and the next show would let out too late for me to get to the midnight movie I promised to attend. Looking at the other five movie options, I notice there is a show of KISS KISS BANG BANG available at 8:30. I decide to check it out. I'm quite glad I did.
Short review: loved it. You've heard about the plot, I'm sure. Wannabe actor paired with gay detective to research for a movie role, both stumble into a murder plot. Self-referential "broken fourth wall" narration by Robert Downey Jr., pointing out cliches and conventions, and sarcastic dialogue. Basically, writer-director Shane Black and producer Joel Silver parodying the buddy-crime blueprint they established in the LETHAL WEAPON series and other similar films.
But you know me, if there's some sort of hidden agenda in a movie, or even if there ain't, I'll find it. And there's something really serious and sobering underneath all these shenanigans which I have not seen any reviewers pick up on.

And here there be MASSIVE spoilers...

What makes this movie less of a romp and more of a gallows comedy is the direct and indirect referencing to the bright promises that film and literature offer in their consumers which too often are not delivered, their detrimental effect on vulnerable souls, and on a greater scale, the promises men break to women.

The third lead, Michelle Monaghan, is a wannabe actress in her mid-'30's who is revealed as a smalltown childhood crush of Downey's. She has grown up with a constantly ill mother and a father who is molesting her younger sister, and to escape she eagerly consumes cheap detective novels and sleeps around with all the boys in her school...except of course, Downey. She leaves her town to become an actress, inspired by a film crew shooting an adaptation of one of her favorite mystery books, and by her general love for these stories where the bad guys get theirs. But by the time the present story begins, she is aware her window of opportunity to become even a working performer is almost over.
The murder plot involves a movie star turned medical philanthropist who is established as having been estranged from his overseas-living daughter but suddenly reconciled; it is a birthday party for her where the three leads first meet. The daughter is later found dead by Downey and Kilmer, whilst at the same time Monaghan's younger sister has apparently surfaced in L.A. and committed suicide. Following the "two plots are really one" maxim of detective fiction, the link in the cases is that Monaghan once told her sister a lie: that this movie star, who came to their town to star in the book adaptation mentioned before, was her birth father, hoping it could relieve the shame of the child abuse. It is revealed that before her death, the sister hired Kilmer to trail the other woman who turns up dead. The supposition thus becomes that the sister was murdered for some detail she had on the dead daughter.

Downey, then and now, feels an uneasy mix of annoyance and guilt over Monaghan, because while he treasures the friendship they had and understands the struggle she faced, he eagerly lusted after her, and still does. At the party, while not recognizing her as his friend, he attempts to stop a sleazy man from feeling her up while she's passed out, and gets beaten up easily. When he gets a chance to luck out with her, he sabotages himself and sleeps with her friend instead. And most tellingly, while under the influence of painkillers after a hospital visit, he meets up with her at another party where they are supposed to be clue-hunting, and after receiving dirty looks and snickers from the too-cool dressed-for-the-shot party guests, launches an uninhibited rant about how Hollywood women are all damaged goods from some other place, hoping sex and fame will compensate for everything that went wrong before: "It's like someone took America by the East Coast and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on." He wants to stick the knife in her soul that moment, as well as all the other vacant women present having a joke at his expense, and he succeeds on both counts.
And that was the "AHA!" moment for me. It's a gross and easy blanket stereotype, one that even the most well-meaning people make about actresses in general and adult film actresses in particular. I view Hollywood in the manner that Kubrick viewed the universe: a place that can be terrifying not because it is hostile but because it is indifferent. If you are a strong person, you can withstand it. And if you are vulnerable, it can and will consume you. When Monaghan thus asks the guests, "How many people here hate Harry now," and all raise their hands, half are likely pissed off at his low opinion of them, and the other half are pissed because in their case, he told an ugly truth.

The mystery's resolution makes things darker. It is revealed that the movie star had his daughter killed in the medical clinic that bears his name while using a passable lookalike to publicly impersonate her. (She stood in his way of collecting on the estate of his dead wife) The lookalike is subsequently killed over the course of the mystery. As all of this plotting was taking place, the sister, still believing Monaghan's white lie about her lineage, secretly witnessed the movie star fooling around with the actress playing his daughter, and believing it to be another instance of incest, took her own life in despair, hiring Kilmer in the hope he'd catch them in the act. Monaghan not only is deprived of the luxury of blaming her sister's death on another party, but now must face that in trying to help her sister, she has inadvertently sent her to her fate. This points up a good directorial impulse of Black's. Before this final revelation, he sets us up for a joke in Downey's hospital room by revealing Kilmer to be alive when we thought him dead, with Downey as narrator muttering in agreement about people hating this convention of action movies. But it is Kilmer who reveals the sad truth about the sister; not laughing now are you? You wanted the "poignant" ending of losing one of the good guys, here's one to open your tear ducts!

This would be as good a point as any to wax brainy on the male leads. Downey is Dionysian: failed child magician, petty thief, thwarted actor, and crazy in love. He would thus try to soothe his dream girl with distractions. Their high school mascot was "Whitey the Knight," and he will basically spend this movie trying to serve as such to her. Kilmer is Apollonian: no sexual interest in women, skilled in investigation and criminal behavior. Once involved in the case, he would thus help the girl through justice. Two halves of a typical male psyche, both trying to right a wrong. Though they solve the crime and kill the bad guys, it doesn't solve what ails their mutual friend, leaving them both feeling a sense of failure. With the backdrop of their presence in the film industry, and the "film itself," they also recognize that all the victims living and dead believed in the promise of a happy ending that either cost them their lives, or left them most definitely not happy.

Black mixes humor with sadness at the very end: Downey's narrator promises that there won't be "17 endings like RETURN OF THE KING," just before Kilmer visits the now-bedridden father of Monaghan, and decks him a couple times in the face. In most films, this would be the last joke, but the joke is on all of us, because Kilmer plays it for angry impotence. This father deserves way worse for what he has inflicted on his daughters, and a few slaps won't change any of the bad things that went down. But a message needs to be sent that he's done wrong, and it carries extra weight coming from Kilmer's gay detective, as if to say just because I don't fuck women doesn't mean I'm not angry at seeing them mistreated.

Underneath the wisecracking hip surface, Black and Silver are ultimately working out their latent self-loathing over the abuse of women: their regret over not being able to prevent it, their anger that others can take advantage of it for their own needs, and their revulsion that they too could perpetrate it if they succumbed to their own darker natures. Granted, they are hardly beating their breast over, say, creating mythical eye-candy girls in the action movies that made them rich, and when viewing scenes such as Downey dangling over a freeway, held aloft only by clutching the arm of the dead daughter, one may think they're just indulging in misogyny for quick laughs. But as I read it, the jokes are a rueful coping mechanism, in the manner that we laugh at THE ARISTOCRATS, hoping that ridiculing what terrifies us will temper its ability to hurt us if and when we do encounter it. By Downey reminding you that you are watching a movie, he not only wants to point out that real life don't work like this, it shouldn't. Fathers should not abuse their daughters, women should not be thrown on the scrap heap after 35. Even Kilmer's final joke about "the gaffer is somebody's nephew" carries the hint of "somebody cares deeply about that person you don't give a shit about."

So, this brings me back to Kylie, whom is definitely over 30, generally happy, and works in adult film because she enjoys it and not because of some mythical childhood trauma. I still don't know if you got to read this essay the first time out, or if you will even read it now, but I'm very curious if any of these thoughts came to your mind while watching this...if this subtext I've spotted is something you spotted too...if it is the reason why you were outwardly interested in my opinion on the film.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Dios castiga sin palo y sin rebenque.

This post is affectionately dedicated to my Argentinian correspondent Mercedes, who specifically requested that I write a review of this film. Sorry you had to wait so long to get it. El alma que hablar puede con los ojos, también puede besar con la mirada. Salud, dinero y amor...y el tiempo para gozarlas. A mal tiempo, buena cara.

I have been fascinated for a long time by the career trajectory of Juan Jose Campanella. Campanella first caught my attention with the release of his first feature film in 1991, a drama about a bipolar child called THE BOY WHO CRIED BITCH, which I never got to see but damn that's a title that grabs your attention. (The film, which featured early appearances by Moira Kelly, Adrien Brody, and Jason Biggs, remains unavailable due to writer/producer Catherine Levin's misguided desire to package it with a poorly-reviewed 2007 sequel directed by her son Matthew) His 1997 followup, LOVE WALKED IN, piqued my curiosity for its unique cast - Denis Leary, Terence Stamp, and Atiana Sanchez-Gijon - but it also went unseen by me and is currently only available in used VHS tapes. When neither film found success, Campanella, like Tom DiCillo, Jim McKay, and many other less high-profile indie directors of the '90's, found a very comfortable niche working in TV, directing episodes of many of my favorite shows: "STRANGERS WITH CANDY," "LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT," "UPRIGHT CITIZENS' BRIGADE," "30 ROCK," and "HOUSE M.D." On those credits alone, his name would be a welcome sight to me on a credit roll.

But thankfully, Campanella was not content to just settle for American TV paychecks. At the same time he was cranking out product in English, he went back to Argentina, got together with three longtime friends - actors Eduardo Blanco and Ricardo Darin (the latter seen by U.S. audiences in NINE QUEENS and XXY) and writer Fernando Castets - and together they made a loose trilogy of films exploring the notions of friendship, aging, and adapting to change. The middle installment, SON OF THE BRIDE, which also featured Academy Award nominee Norma Aleandro, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001 (losing to Danis Tanovic's NO MAN'S LAND), and received a U.S. release shortly after. Making these frequent returns to his home country to work with fellow countrymen must certainly have helped stir his creativity, provide an outlet to explore his own style in between working within the disciplines of the established TV series that paid the bills.

As such, it feels clear to me that this travel between two styles of directing was the perfect preparation for his work on the film that won him his second Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film, and his first win in that category: THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES. It is pointless to debate the "worthiness" of its victory over Michael Haneke's THE WHITE RIBBON or Jacques Audiard's A PROPHET: as my friend and fellow critic Witney Seibold observed, can they not all be brilliant movies? For indeed, SECRET is brilliant. It is a clinic for anyone who wants to study acting, screenwriting, or editorial pacing. The movie blends material that is of personal heft to Campanella - the ugly history of Argentinian politics, class divides, difficult friendships - with the skills honed over years of directing short and punchy weekly TV.

In 1974, a criminal court investigator (Darin) is given a harrowing case of a young bride violently murdered, and a widower (Pablo Rago) so shattered by the loss that all extraneous aspects of his life shut down. The investigator is also taken with his judge's assistant (Soledad Villamil), who alternately overrules and supports him, and is hobbled by his loyalty to his intuitive but irresponsible co-worker (Guillermo Francella), who has great insights but terrible self-control. When the film opens, it is 25 years later: the investigator is now retired, the woman is now a respected judge herself, and the surprising turns that this one murder case took, both in the execution of justice and its direct effect on their relationship, has never left either of them in that interval. He tells her of his intentions to write a novel about the case, and in the same manner of Jeremy Irons' haunted literature professor in Stephen Gyllenhaal's 1992 film WATERLAND, this story will be a tale of long-kept secrets, scandal, and murder...the story of his life.

What is most striking about this film is the near-effortless dexterity with which Campanella shifts between past and present, procedure and impulse, even drama and comedy. Francella's perpetually drunken court clerk provides the kind of sympathetic comedy that likely had origins in the various farcial escapades of 47-year-old high-school-freshman Jerri Blank on "STRANGERS WITH CANDY." And the constant simmer between Darin and Villamil suggest the ongoing "will they or won't they" dynamic of Benson and Stabler from "SVU" were Dick Wolf to remove the shackles of that franchise's framework. Indeed, it's as if the reliable hooks of "LAW & ORDER" - lurid crime, curious suspect, multiple twists - were fleshed out with a Proustian underscore of remembering the opportunities you didn't take, the signals you failed to read, the distractions of a train you could not miss. I was reminded at times of Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, the way it presented how the past never stays completely past. And because he's neither under a broadcast deadline or a low budget, Campanella is able to engage in just a little bit of directorial flourish to kick up your blood rate when you've gotten too sedate, with a seemingly seamless sequence beginning over a soccer stadium shooting straight to the field, and then through the old dirty corridors of the structure, while the characters that are in chase are trying to keep up, but because they're bureaucrats and not Bruce Willis, are clearly over their heads.

Finally, there is the fully fleshed humanity of the characters, all of whom are never completely good or completely venal. In his previous English language films, Campanella was often critized for making characters too good or nice to be completely believable in the dark plots they were involved with, but perhaps those were his three-dimensional humanitarian instincts, waiting to meet up with the appropriate setting of this film. These are not stereotypes marching through the mechanics of a mystery plot, these are people we are invested in at all times, so much so that in moments where the movie slows down to focus on their personal drama, we're not busy trying to outguess them and solve the crime, we're caught up in their personal dilemmas, all the way to a most unexpected finish.

Reportedly, Juan Jose Campanella, in addition to continuing his TV work, is developing his first English-language feature film in over a decade. I would wish him luck, but I don't think he'll need it. With THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES, he is now in the big league, the name-above-the-title league, and I'll watch him direct anything. So aren't you glad that you can still enjoy him putting Hugh Laurie through another mystery of science on a weekly basis?

After you have seen SECRET, I suggest checking out this deep incisive interview with Campanella by Michael Guillen, which contains huge spoilers, and this deconstruction of the stadium sequence. You'll be as caught up as I am right now.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Picture Book, When You Were Just a Baby, Those Days When You Were Happy, A Long Time Ago...

On August 14th, 2004, I met Leticia Blake. She was a writer, model, photographer, activist, public health volunteer, code writer, a familiar presence in the L.A. avant-garde scene. She also did porn, under the name Eva Lux.

We clicked in person almost immediately that night, spending hours in conversation, first at a Heidi Calvert art event at Bluespace, then later that evening at a friend's apartment until almost sunrise. A few weeks later, relations with that friend went downhill, and she moved in with me for a spell. She was a good houseguest - we watched lots of movies, went to dinner, had long talks about deep subjects.

She also had an active heroin addiction at the time, which she was working hard to quit. After a few weeks with me, she moved down to Costa Mesa to get clean. And she did it. It was hard, there were lapses and run-ins with the law, but she went through the steps and the discipline and the halfway houses and the mandatory tests and it was working.

A year later, Leticia came into L.A. one weekend in September on a 48 hour pass. She was hanging out at a mutual friend's home, with some people who liked the smoke. Having been well-behaved for months and keeping the big demons at bay, she took a couple hits from the joint.

And then she remembered that coming Monday there was going to be a drug test.

Failing it would have been a violation of her probation, and she would have been facing a mandatory 25 year to life sentence...for the non-violent crime of heroin addiction. I will never be 100% certain whether what followed was merely an "let's go all-in" gut reaction or a glumly rational final solution, but the outcome renders those details moot: Leticia overdosed on heroin, went into a coma, and died on September 20, 2005.

Today would have been her 37th birthday.

Besides a lot of wonderful and bittersweet memories, Leticia left me her Canon PowerShot S230 digital camera. While I had taken photography as part of my college courses years ago, I grew disenchanted with the practice of taking pictures. Maybe I didn't think my photos were good, maybe I began to believe that the act of taking pictures means you're stepping out of a moment and not truly living in it, maybe I just got self-conscious over the fact that I hate to be photographed because I'm 40 lbs overweight with a double chin so to not be a hypocrite I'd leave my friends alone...there are plenty of possible reasons I stopped keeping images.

But this year, something stirred in me, and I picked up Leticia's camera, bought an uploading device, and little by little, started trying to get in the habit of taking a few snaps of things I liked. If I can succumb to a mushy screenwriter's poetry, I treated this as my way of keeping her with me as a surrogate eye - what I'm snapping, she's seeing.

So here are some of the things she saw for me in the last few months...

Lab-fresh uncut 35mm prints of BRIGHTON ROCK and THE THIRD MAN;

DJ Sallycat: mixing artisan, go-go dancer, sometime ROCKY HORROR Trixie, and proprietress of the Hang The DJ blog;

The unusually heavy L.A. rains this past couple months brought waterfowl to my building's pool. Luckily, having studied my Steve Martin, I knew what to say when the ducks showed up.

One day in my parking lot, I was downright dumbfounded - how many fucking grey cars in a row can there be in one complex?

Julia Marchese, hands-on Girl Friday of the New Beverly Cinema, and star of Marion Kerr's GOLDEN EARRINGS, at her birthday/off to England party;

Taylor Locke and Chris Price of Taylor Locke & The Roughs, rocking out at their second show ever, at Cinespace on Hollywood Blvd.

There will be more photos to come.

So thank you, Leticia, both for giving me so much to remember...and the means and motivation to find more to remember...