Sex Games, Werewolves and Nixon: Two By Milton Moses Ginsberg

08/17/2011 4:00 AM |

Two By Milton Moses Ginsberg

August 22 and 23 at BAM

Cult director Milton Moses Ginsberg’s first and best-known film, 1969’s Coming Apart stars Rip Torn as Joe Glazer, a caddish psychiatrist on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “I like to photograph things as they happen,” he explains to one of the stream of women who enter his posh Manhattan office cum sex lair over the course of the film. “I’m into… reality.” True to his mandate, the not-so-good doctor sets up a hidden camera, his “kinetic art object,” to record his interactions with clients, lovers, and client/lovers from a single fixed vantage point: a couch positioned in front of a giant mirror. But whether or not he captures reality—or what exactly reality consists of—is a question the film leaves tantalizingly open. Reflected images abound as the giant piece of glass serves as an all-purpose metaphor for alienation, fractured identity, or anything else you like. Eventually, Glazer starts to lose it and, as in Persona, when he starts to break down, so does the film—in this case it’s the Doc’s own audio/visual equipment that goes on the fritz.

Drawing on the aesthetic rigor of the era’s structuralist films, the free love ethos of the late 60s and its dark flipside of sexual aggression, and the impulse to self-document definitively chronicled two years earlier in Jim McBride’s classic fake documentary David Holzman’s Diary, Ginsberg’s film stands as the conjunction of a specific set of time-bound influences and as a result probably hasn’t aged as well as some other of the more radical films of the era. Lacking the sense of perpetual self-critique that fueled McBride’s film as well as the precision and satirical thrust of the video art segment from Brian DePalma’s soon-to-be-released Hi Mom!, Coming Apart still has its share of unmissable moments: Rip Torn discussing a friend’s sexual antics involving a toy duck and a dresser drawer, an orgy in which a sad transvestite dances around in a grotesque clown mask and, above all, an astonishing scene in which a lover absolutely rips Glazer apart for leaving her unsatisfied and then trying to kick her out, even if the exchange tends to paint the unhappy woman too close to the stereotype of the hysterical, man-hating bitch (“I hate men” she says).

Ginsberg’s follow-up, the 1973 satirical horror film Werewolf of Washington, is probably no less a product of its times than its successor; indeed it aggressively evokes not only the paranoia of the Nixon era, but exhaustively chronicles the political specifics of the age. But through its shrewd reworking of George Waggner’s 1941 The Wolf Man, to whose template it adheres more or less faithfully, Ginsberg shows that classic material is always ripe for fresh applications, in this case to paint a portrait of our government (then as now) as a rotten, corrupt thing.

Brilliantly condensing the opening of Waggner’s film in which Lon Chaney, Jr. meets a comely young lady, purchases a wolf-headed cane, runs across a gypsy camp and is bitten by a lycanthrope, Ginsberg carves a shimmering chiaroscuro of flamboyant colors out of the Hungarian (actually Long Island) darkness, playing on our knowledge of the legend in order to present the events in heavily elided form. Seeking self-exile after a too cozy relationship with both the United States president and his daughter, reporter Jack Whittier (Dean Stockwell) finds himself undergoing the same trajectory of woman, cane, gypsies and werewolf attack. The difference from the Universal classic, however, is clearly signaled: after being bitten, Whittier immediately suspects a commie plot.

If Waggner’s film charted a tension between belief in werewolves and a skepticism based on science, Ginsberg’s central ploy is to replace the second item in the equation with the need to scapegoat political subversives and minorities. There is no longer any question of rational, scientific explanations for the series of murders that newly lycanthropized Whittier begins committing once he returns to Washington and accepts a job as White House assistant press secretary. (The film’s view of science is limited to a sole representative—a sinister little person who performs Frankenstein-like experiments in the bowels of a government building and seems to wield an immense amount of power over the president. Not surprisingly he’s named Dr. Kiss[inger].)

Instead, for an administration under siege, dealing with the “south east Asian situation” abroad and the threat of “current subversive trends” like hippies demonstrating, at home, all the while trying to manipulate the press into supporting an upcoming judicial nomination, the blame must be shifted elsewhere. Whittier describes his hero, the president, as a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ, but mostly the POTUS comes off as ineffectual, his liberal tendencies counteracted by the more militant voices in his administration. After an early killing, an influential cabinet member declares it to be the work of the “Panthers” and immediately picks up an innocent black bystander for the crime. When the killings continue, talk of Communist brainwashing begins to flow across the inner circles of Washington.

But, as in the Waggner, the wolf is very much real. Just what that creature is supposed to represent is another question. Clearly, the figure is meant to invoke some essential rottenness at the heart of the governmental/journalist enterprise. And yet, the contagion was picked up, not at home, but behind the iron curtain, transmitted by a foreign creature. Similarly, there is no particular rhyme or reason to Whittier’s killings. Although a good number of them are attacks on powerful, middle-aged woman, he seems just as likely to kill anyone with whom he comes into contact. Interpretative coherence, though, is clearly not what the film is after; it relies instead on a totality of vision, one intensely attuned to a specific set of political circumstances, but suggestive of a general putrefaction. The film can be overwhelming in its relentless stockpiling of detail, in DP Bob Baldwin’s lovely, textured camerawork and in its all-purpose sourness of vision. Significantly, Ginsberg did not direct another film for 26 years.