Mommie Dearest, Viridiana, Winter Soldier, Little Britain, Devarim
Mommie Dearest Paramount
Tell-all written by Joan Crawford’s eldest daughter as revenge for being excluded from her will/infamous wallow through the psychological train wrecks of the rich and famous/successfully repackaged cult phenomenon.
For all the shoulder pads, Hollywood chintz, and, yes, wire hangers director Frank Perry pours on, Mommie Dearest is an uneasy camp classic. Its Joan is a control freak, obsessively imposing her will in matters hygienic, interpersonal, and especially professional. The shout-along quotes track the strength of her grip: “Tina — bring me the axe!”, the flailing climax of Joan’s rose garden meltdown, is in response to MGM’s dropping her; “Don’t fuck with me, fellas; this ain’t my first time at the rodeo,” is a cock-swinging boardroom pronouncement delivered with smirking, red-smeared lips; “no wire hangers” is a densely layered sadomasochistic power dynamic accelerating towards obliterating release.
Dunaway, like Crawford a singularly demanding performer and personality, took the role as she was nearing 40, with her peak decade recently but unmistakably behind her. Her performance, so overwhelming that all other concerns (even the real Joan Crawford) are afterthoughts quivering in her wake, is primal and empathic; the actress who won an Oscar as Network‘s alpha femme rages against her slipping authority. Nobody, least of all ringmaster Perry, let on that everything would be played for schlock value. (Dunaway’s efforts to distance herself from the movie, which she’s called “an exploitation film,” have the opposite effect, as camp aficionados drink up the same cocktail of anger, vulnerability, and extravagant obliviousness so savored in her performance.)
John Waters’s commentary is a listless string of half-bitchy one-liners. He’s also one of the five sit-downs making up all three bonus-disc docs: producer Frank Yablons and supporting actresses Diana Scarwid and Rutanya Alda tiptoe around the absent diva, and an in-costume drag discusses the movie’s gay appeal in the third, most interesting doc (briefly engaging with Dunaway’s performativity, and the making of “Joan Crawford”). Amusingly, the only clips of Crawford come via the (Paramount, naturally) DVD of Nicholas Ray’s camp Western Johnny Guitar.
An emotional mushroom cloud; no less fascinating for being completely out of the filmmakers’ hands.
Buñuel’s subversive classic was the result of one of the strangest dares in cinema history. After a 30-year self-imposed exile from his native land, the infamous surrealist and atheist director surprisingly returned to Spain in 1961 to film his latest satire under the watchful eyes of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Somehow getting past censorship boards (most changes actually made the content even more scandalous), Viridiana was completely banned in Spain and denounced by the Catholic Church, but went on to deservedly win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
What so angered Franco and the Vatican about the film? A lascivious, perverse uncle (Fernando Rey) proposes to, drugs, and nearly rapes his niece, the beautiful title character (Silvia Pinal), right before she
takes her vows as a nun. Viridiana eventually takes over the old man’s estate, transforming it into a refuge for beggars and cripples, but her good intentions backfire as these ragamuffins stage an, unforgettable apocalyptic bacchanal (and parody of da Vinci’s The Last Supper). Did I mention Buñuel also snuck in political critique and, at film’s end, a suggested menage a trois involving the fallen nun and her cousin? Oh yeah.
A 1964 profile of Buñuel for French television series Cineastes de Notre Temps, an interview with Pinal, and a discussion with Cineaste editor Richard Porton.
A must-have. No one was better at making affronts to chastity and religious propriety as witty and irreverent as Buñuel, and Viridiana may be his greatest success among his many travels and periods.
Michael Joshua Rowin
Winter Soldier New Yorker
In the Winter of 1971 several hundred recent veterans of the ongoing war in Vietnam gathered at a Howard Johnson’s in Detroit Michigan and spilled their guts. The testimony they gave to the gathered media over three days was an American atrocity exhibition. Following the well-publicized My Lai incident in which Lt. Calley was tried for murdering Vietnamese civilians, it left those in attendance in dismay. President Nixon, in the face of this much more politically formidable war protester began a campaign to discredit them and started a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia.
The film itself is amazingly stark. Quite simply, it is a series of young men, most sporting politically rebellious shaggy hair, speaking directly about their experiences. Their testimony falls with a thud in the densely packed room, with the grainy black and white stock is occasionally contrasted with color photos of their clean cut former selves posing in their khakis against Kodachrome blue skies. What’s striking is the deepness of the men’s disillusionment as they joylessly pass the microphone down the line. For many the nightmare begins on the first day of boot camp — or “advanced genocidal training” as one ex-marine refers to it. The near-complete — and wildly successful — process of dehumanization the men describe is one among many gasp-worthy revelations. The depth of the young men’s trauma lurks beneath their mostly banal demeanors. A former soldier, even when recanting his former life with completeness, still refers to the Vietnamese as “gooks” — a chilling verbal tic that’s a sort of phantom limb of perverted patriotism.
Shorts include the collective of filmmakers gathered to recount their experiences, two shorts excerpted from the testimony and a doc about Scott Camille, who went to Detroit to speak on behalf of his experience then soon had a change of heart and mind. Subsequently he became a leader for the anti-war movement, was pursued by the feds, got shot and aided the anti-US forces in Central America. Also included is over 1,000 pages of “Winter Soldier” testimony on CD-Rom.
Someone should send this film to George W. “I never gave much thought to Vietnam” Bush.
Little Britain BBC
Second helping of the BBC series, featuring Matt Lucas (egg-bald, might charitably be described as “pear-shaped” depending on how squishy the pear in question is, always up for a little self-abasing nudity) and lisping straight man David Williams in absurdist sketches as extreme versions of British (stereo)types. Enormously quotable; as prideful Welsh boy Daffyd Thomas, Lucas’s oft-repeated claim to being “the only gay in the village” became quite popular among people who, had they been born on the other side of the Atlantic, would have been busy ruining “I’m Rick James, bitch” for everyone.
Since the comedy is character-based, it depends upon Williams and Lucas contriving fresh circumstances for an essentially repetitive format. In Series Two this means raising the octave on existing characters (Williams, as Prime Minister’s Aide Sebastian, is even more brazen in his mincing pursuit of the nation’s leader, played by Buffy’s Anthony Stewart Head, etc.), and introducing a new batch of creations. These tend toward the scatological (the strain of having to be constantly inventive taking its toll); we’ve got projectile vomiting, full-frontal fat suit, and adult breast-feeding. But the series loosens up as it goes: sprinkled-in one-off characters keep everyone happily off-balance, and the appeal of the bread-and-butter characters hasn’t dimmed.
Throwaway witty commentary on all six episodes; deleted scenes, making-of doc, and a special episode done for Comic Relief, featuring Williams and Lucas cracking up celebrities.
Catchphrase comedy at its finest. Try and resist.
Israeli Amos Gitai has made over 40 films, working in France, the U.S. and his native country. Early in his career, Gitai worked primarily as a documentarian but went on to establish himself as one of Israel’s best known feature filmmakers. 1995’s Devarim marked his return home after a decade-long, self-imposed exile in Paris; set in Tel Aviv, it’s the first of a trilogy of films based in Israel’s biggest cities.
One gets the feeling Gitai was watching a lot of Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch while in Paris: long slow shots of despondent thirtysomethings muddling their way through relationships, mundane crises and loft apartments (Hartley’s influence); eccentric tertiary characters saying off-beat things, serving as ambassadors to a shadier urban world… (Jarmusch’s influence); very attractive women falling in love with much less attractive men (Hartley and Jarmusch, respectively). The problem, however, is that Devarim is neither as elegantly shot as a Hartley film, nor as mordantly funny as a Jarmusch movie. The three male protagonists are paralyzed by a dull slow-burning self-obsession; even brief, raw encounters with sex and death aren’t enough to temper their collective lassitude — nor are they enough to mitigate the viewer’s boredom.
Perhaps this film needs to be seen on the big screen. The long, slow takes, purportedly capturing the otherworldly light of Tel Aviv, are simply long and slow on a TV screen.