"Let me tell you what really happened... Every night before I go to bed, I have milk and cookies. One night I mixed some low-fat milk and some pasteurized, then I dipped my cookie in and the shit blew up."
The year was 1981 and the late, great Richard Pryor, that groundbreaking genius, that innovative, influential, trash talking/truth telling original King of Comedy was already a star. He’d released numerous inspired comedy albums, enjoyed big screen success, most notably with Gene Wilder in Silver Streak, and Stir Crazy, and his stand-up concert, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (released as a film in 1979) had sealed the proverbial deal -- this guy was not only brilliant, but one of the most important comedians of the 20th century.
But back to 1981, back when he strode onstage at the Hollywood Palladium in his red suit and black bowtie and, at the start of his routine, exhibited a funny but touching combination of both admitting his onstage angst, even seeming a bit nervous while being totally relaxed and conversational. He was fine, he was better, healthier but of course everyone was wondering about him. And then he ... went there. And not just there, as in, all of the bold areas Pryor examined before and here with brash humanity and riotous hilarity (racism, relationships, sex, politics and then some) but to the incident -- the “accident” that not only left 50 percent of his body covered in burns but nearly killed him.
And his addiction: “People are trying to help me. I say... 'You're just meddling in my motherfucking business! You just think because I'm having a good... Leave me the fuck alone!' And I'm smokin' my shit... 'cause my pipe would say, 'I understand. They don't know. It's your life. They don't have a right to fuck with you. Where were they when you needed them? Come in here with me. 'cause I love ya.' And then the pipe starts saying shit like... 'You let me get a little low yesterday. I don't like that. Don't let me get low again. Or I'm gonna hurt ya.'"
Oh, it hurt him. By covering his monumental act of self destruction, by delving into that day on June 9, 1980 when the comedian torched himself while firing up so much cocaine that drug dealers were telling him to cool it, Pryor performed a routine of such self confessional brilliance, that, to me, it remains unsurpassed to this day. Comedians then and now, delve into the real, for sure. Comedians shock us, yes. Sometimes with hilarious profundity, but frequently for simply the sake of shock, which is so boring these days we can only roll our eyes and think "Oh, I get it. You're trying to shock me."
But what's not boring? When Pryor admits he's a junkie, recalls conversations with his only friend in the world, the pipe, and then professes: “When that fire hit your ass, it will sober your ass up quick! I saw something, I went, ‘Well, that's a pretty blue. You know what? That looks like fire!’ Fire is inspirational. They should use it in the Olympics, because I ran the 100 in 4.3.”
Fire, drugs, demons, women, money, doctors, Jim Brown -- it's all inspirational the way he tells it. Even if he'd struggle with addiction his entire life, during Live he was shaking that shit off, at least for that moment, and damn it is powerful. But what makes Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (released as a movie and album in 1982) so exceptional and important isn’t simply Pryor’s discussion of his inner demons lit up for the world to see, but how he approaches such searing self examination. Discussing topics ranging from prisons to the mafia to messy relationships to feelings to an extraordinarily moving epiphany while in Africa (Pryor decided never to use the “N” word again -- another big moment here), Pryor has his audience laughing, but they're also holding their breath in for a second -- stopping for a moment to think.
As in, really think -- think about it when you drive home and when you wake up the next morning. And with his unflinching and at times, heartbreakingly honest vulnerability, Pryor not only makes one think about the emotional and moral shakiness of the human condition, but the shakiness within our own selves. How many comedians can make you laugh until you cry, and then genuinely, make you cry? And then, cause you to laugh again? Jesus, and laugh and cry at the same time? Richard Pryor could. There may be funnier Pryor shows, but Live on the Sunset Strip isn’t just funny, it’s profoundly moving, historic and like that fire, inspirational.
Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) will show with Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979) Friday, June 14, at the Aero Theater. Celebrating the release of Shout! Factory’s new “No Pryor Restraint: Life In Concert” CD/DVD box set, screenwriter/director Larry Karaszewski will present.
Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe. An ode, from my cover story at Playboy Magazine, published December 2012.
“I was full of a strange feeling, as if I were two people. One of them was Norma Jeane from the orphanage who belonged to nobody; the other was someone whose name I didn’t know. But I knew where she belonged. She belonged to the ocean and the sky and the whole world.”—Marilyn Monroe
“Daughter of God, weaver of wiles,” Marilyn Monroe, like Sappho’s Aphrodite, will never die. It has been 50 years since she gasped her final breath on that lonely mattress with no bed frame—her beautiful nude body just there, collapsed and unrestricted, that body all men (and women) yearned to cradle, ravage or revere. There she was, Marilyn: her hand clutching the telephone that kept her company when she holed up in her hacienda on Helena Drive; her pill bottles visible; her last phone call with friend Peter Lawford; her odd little housekeeper Eunice seeing lights still on under her door; her devoted though strange Dr. Greenson first on the scene, breaking windows; Marilyn’s agent rushing out of the Hollywood Bowl; the cops; the changed stories; the Kennedys; the mob; the FBI files—what on earth was going on? A death scene so like Marilyn, that creature of contradictions: bizarrely glamorous and completely degrading, blatantly obvious and unendingly mysterious. Suicide. Accident. Murder. Myth.
Monumental M.M. myths don’t die. When Marilyn’s inner light—that luminosity she could turn on with one brilliant pout of her lips, with one glance of moist, widened eyes, with one flash of that glimmering, sometimes puckish smile—departed her body, she didn’t lose her power. She lost her life, and that was tragic and indeed too soon. But that vulnerable woman, that strong woman—a woman both in charge of her life and deeply unsure of herself, full of hope and dope and dreams and fear of the future—that woman maintained her power.
Marilyn wasn’t a candle in the wind. The well-meaning Sir Elton didn’t write her swan song. Her poetic soulmate, that troubadour of Americana Bob Dylan, granted her that honor. As Marilyn said herself, “I knew where she belonged,” and so did Dylan, the other famous Bobby one wishes she’d made love to or had lived long enough to meet. (Oh, what a couple Bobby Zimmerman and Norma Jeane would have made!) Without intending it for M.M., Dylan placed her in the “ocean and the sky and the whole wide world,” making “She Belongs to Me” belong to Bobby and herself and to all of us. Marilyn, from the moment she stepped in front of a camera, was an artist and she didn’t look back. “She can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black.” Yes. The complexity of a woman. The lyrical duality of a poet. And she, deep down, must have known this, even if she didn’t believe she had everything she needed. And she remains ever present, ever modern, ever the hypnotist collector. “You are a walking antique.”
Much has been written about Marilyn’s vulnerability, much of it irritating. There’s the sad-eyed pat on the head, the poor little-girl-lost attitude that reduces her to the child-woman so many feminists bristle over, to which I ask, what is wrong with the child-woman? What is wrong with holding on to that lost kid, waiting for your daddy to come home? Then there are those who are quite sincere though simple-minded— Marilyn just needed a hug. She needed love and understanding. Of course she did. And of course it’s never that easy—not with a contradictory creature like Marilyn. And then there’s the more honest, robust look at “vulnerability,” chiefly seen in Norman Mailer’s take on Marilyn.
Mailer was a man who understood the mystery of women, a man who both made love to many women and fucked many women, many beautiful women, a man who admitted he wanted to steal Marilyn from Arthur Miller (“I wanted to meet her so I could steal her. And you know, a criminal will never forgive you for preventing them from committing the crime that is really in their heart.”) and a man who understood that vulnerability can sometimes be complicit and manipulative, thereby making Marilyn neither total innocent nor doe-eyed dummy. As he wrote, so beautifully, she was, “a female spurt of wit and sensitive energy who could hang like a sloth for days in a muddy-mooded coma; a child-girl, yet an actress to loose a riot by dropping her glove at a premiere; a fountain of charm and a dreary bore. She was certainly more than the silver witch of us all.”
Mailer understood her as both a human and celestial being—the “very Stradivarius of sex.” That may sound like horny hyperbole to some, but to me it places her on the level she deserves—a woman as a poet, an artist in her own being, her own sex, her own talent. And no one has ever captured that specific magic that is Marilyn. No one. Mailer’s words are a gorgeous counterpoint to what that other famous Marilyn biographer, Gloria Steinem, said of Marilyn on the American Masters special “Still Life” a few years back: “She was a joke. She was vulnerable. She was so eager for approval. She was all the things that I feared most being as a teenage girl.”
I don’t believe you, Gloria Steinem. Further, in the same special, Steinem (who I do believe admired Marilyn) comments on Marilyn’s final shoot with photographer George Barris—those gorgeous, timeless, casual shots on the beach, where she’s wrapped in a green towel and smiling or walking along the water in a sweater, staring at the camera with such soulful ambiguity that we can only stare back and wonder what she’s thinking; where she looks so modern, so ready for the 1960s in all her classic Pucci and slimmed-down frame and progressive ideas about sexuality. She’s clearly enjoying the beach, enjoying life. But she’s contemplative too. And this makes these photos poignant, not tragic. She looks so happy and womanly and alive: Who could believe she would die three weeks later? But Steinem, who sees Barris as a “kind man,” felt Marilyn was not her true self in those pictures. “The photographs are rather mannered and female impersonating and pathetic and sad.”
Pathetic? If there’s one thing Marilyn Monroe was never pathetic in front of, no matter the quality of the shot or the quality of the movie, it was a camera. She was a master. She had the God-given talent and charisma to turn on that inner light, and she had the intelligence to dim that light as well, to create darker erotic images (like Milton Greene’s Black Sitting), sad images, vulnerable images. And that is not pathetic. That’s strong. That’s brave. That’s art. Marilyn’s art.
And this instinct of her artistry came to her early. As chronicled by photographer André de Dienes, who shot some of her better-known youthful images, Marilyn yearned to express herself. She suggested ideas (as that other great M.M. photographer, Eve Arnold, can attest to as well). In 1953 the rising star called De Dienes at two in the morning, sleepless, sad and distressed. And in this state, she wanted to take pictures. When he arrived she wore no makeup, her eyes tired, her hair disheveled, and she was on the verge of despair. He was hesitant to shoot, but she insisted he snap her just as she was, in the dark streets of Beverly Hills (all her idea).
In one of the most compelling images, Marilyn is leaning against a tree near a garbage can, eyes closed, in a black coat, lit only by De Dienes’s car headlights. If you didn’t know it was Marilyn, you could mistake it for a Cindy Sherman film still (and Marilyn set it up just as Sherman would). But since she was in real pain, it’s much more raw than Sherman’s work and in line with the dark beauty of a Francesca Woodman. She said to De Dienes, “You usually write captions for your photos. You can put ‘the end of everything’ under these.” The images are heartbreaking— stunningly beautiful and depleted and scary and fascinating. Not only for M.M.’s pain, but also for her modern approach to exposing it.
“I can’t figure you out. You’re silk on one side and sandpaper on the other,” Richard Widmark says to her mentally ill babysitter in Don’t Bother to Knock, released a year before the “end of everything” photos and a movie that feels lost among her Technicolor dreamscapes. How many times had Marilyn heard similar versions of that male confusion? “What are you?” Her movie answer? A breathy “I’ll be any way you want me to be.”
Does she mean it? I hope not. Marilyn is brilliant here: so young and sexually damaged and complex, simmering with erotic heat that flows naturally out of her. There’s a prophetic sadness permeating her performance as this delusional young woman freshly released from an insane asylum. Knowing what we know about Marilyn’s childhood— the mentally ill mother, foster homes, sexual assaults, the longing for a father— she certainly understood the pathology and despondency of her character. She was a woman who wanted to be normal. Normal and special. But mental illness— in real life Marilyn’s greatest fear, that demon—just wouldn’t allow it. The breach between reality and fiction bedeviled her as a walking work of art—no matter how effortlessly sensual she looked in a negligee.
Silk and sandpaper. Love and sex. And again sex. As women, may we just have sex without judgment? Marilyn may have been used early in her career (and all through it), and she certainly harbored anger and sickness over some of those rougher moments, but women like that survive it. And she did. It didn’t destroy her creativity and it didn’t destroy her sex. She may have discussed her background and heartache as a little girl, but she didn’t let go of her carnality, healthy or unhealthy or a mixture of the two. I love what she said in her last interview, before the feminist movement, which often viewed her as a movie star trapped by the male gaze (a tired criticism that forgets how much women revere Marilyn): “We are all born sexual creatures, thank God,” she said, “but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift. Art, real art, comes from it, everything.”
Real art. Marilyn’s innate acting ability and sexuality radiated in early pictures, like her unaffected, jeans-wearing charm in Clash By Night—a movie in which she utters Clifford Odets’s dialogue with such naturalism you wish the movie were about the girl in those jeans. She held her own with the inimitable George Sanders in All About Eve and gave us more than a mere plum honey in The Asphalt Jungle. In front of the movie camera she was pure talent, pure instinct, pure sex and sympathy and strength, from her fantastically overripe voluptuousness in Niagara to her sweet playfulness in The Seven Year Itch to her impeccable comic timing in Some Like It Hot—imbuing what could have been dumb blonde Sugar Cane into a soulful chanteuse who breaks our hearts and turns us on (that translucent dress!) with “I’m Through With Love.” She is not only dreamlike but bursting through the celluloid with such humanity and temperature that you feel as if you could almost touch her.
In The Misfits, her bravura performance, the faded cowboys circle around a near faded woman but one still so lovely that classic movie star Clark Gable, sitting on Marilyn’s bed, just next to her exquisite bare back, is humbled by the sight of her. Yes, even Rhett Butler is honored to be touching that skin.
The Misfits was a notoriously tough shoot, but I don’t care how many accounts I’ve read about her lousing up lines, showing up late or not showing up at all. She was worth it. Even Billy Wilder, who was deeply frustrated while working with her, cited her “elegant vulgarity” and her understanding of the camera: “She had a feeling for and a fear of the camera. She also loved the camera. Whatever she did, wherever she stood, there was always that thing that comes through. She was not even aware of it.”
She must have been aware of it, at least sometimes. Watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Once you get to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, with that famous pink dress and those black-clad sadomasochistic ladies hanging from chandeliers (what a fantastically kinky touch!) and Marilyn’s “No, no, no, no, no,” she is such a movie star and yet has such a sense of humor about herself and is just so damn glamorous that she brings you to your knees. And she had to have known that. She wasn’t stupid.
And most self-respecting Marilyn biographers know she wasn’t the dumb blonde. But as much as Marilyn has been written about, with all the usual facts emerging—her pain and her undeniable magic, her epic rise and fall—she still seems, through all these years, misunderstood. Good. For as ubiquitous as she is, she’s still mysterious. She’s still beguiling.
Her films are more layered, enchanting and intricate now. I recently took in Marilyn’s powerful performance in Bus Stop and Lars von Trier’s genius Melancholia back-to-back and thought to myself, My God, would Mr. Von Trier have gotten Marilyn! In Bus Stop she’s the ultimate hillbilly beauty—broken down and abused and filled with all that excitable “Hollywood and Vine” hope that will never pan out. But she’s an angel. Like one of Von Trier’s tortured martyrs, she’s a unique woman because she’s so confused and frustrated, because she’s willing to demean herself. Painted up in that gorgeous chalky white makeup that only M.M. could pull off so naturally, gyrating in that dive, donning costumes probably unwashed for weeks, standing onstage in sexily torn fishnets and bruised legs and sweetly warbling through “That Old Black Magic” (even though M.M. was a talented singer and dancer), she is a deity—a vision that man-child Don Murray sees right away. And he’s right.
Yes, she’s an earthly woman, a woman who sleeps in all day and probably bleeds on the sheets and spills liquor on her clothes and continually embarrasses herself, and a woman so lost or sacrificial that she just gives up her dreams and leaves with that insane cowboy. But that makes her even more interesting and almost guiltily desirable. As I’ve written about Von Trier’s women, they live in hard, oppressive worlds filled with people who harbor little concern for their goodness or who at least attempt to understand their ugliness. I can imagine Marilyn, like Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, basking under that doomsday planet, naked and pale and accepting—absorbing and eroticizing that pain—and, as Marilyn did in film, giving us the pleasure of looking at her beautiful body.
Because through it all, no matter what was happening in her life, Marilyn gave us that gift: pleasure. Pleasure in happiness and pleasure in pain and the pleasure of looking at her. And great artist that she was, looking at her provoked whatever you desired to interpret from her. Her beauty was transcendent. For that, we should do as Dylan instructs: “Bow down to her on Sunday, salute her when her birthday comes.”
Hapy Birthday to the late, great Howard Hawks. Let's celebrate with one of his best, Bringing Up Baby. Here's my brief ode to Hepburn, Grant, bones, dogs, leopards and... "You're a fixation."
We should all miss the screwball comedy. An inspired, trenchant, romantic, witty, glamorous, sexy (so sexy) genre that went the way of telegrams, automats and men wearing fedoras without looking ridiculous, these pictures, when shifted into high gear, were funnier, racier, edgier and sometimes, exceptionally daring, more than say, anything Kate Hudson has ever tried to lose a guy in ten days over. (Apologies for dragging her into this.) And top baby is Howard Hawks' 1938 Bringing Up Baby, in which the luminous lunatics aren't relegated to amusing supporting straitjackets; they're running the asylum.
That's Katharine Hepburn as Susan, an adventure-seeking, possibly insane heiress who immediately decides she's found her man after setting eyes on David, the bespectacled, uptight, also possibly insane paleontologist playd by Cary Grant. Why is she so smitten? Well, yes, he's Cary Grant, but Grant works this nervous nerd routine so beautifully that you actually wonder. And then, Hepburn! She's so maniacally, gorgeously single-minded in her approach (as you probably well remember, she manages to trap him in Connecticut with a pet leopard, a yapping dog and Grant's missing intercostal clavicle, which results in many amusing double entendre of "where's the bone?"), that she's more Marx Brother than Desperate Daniela. And who doesn't root for Harpo?
Scripted by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde (with some winning moments of ad lib by Grant and Hepburn) and directed by Hawks with such an energetic pace (Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich, "You get more pace if you pace the actors quickly within the frame rather than cross cutting fast"), there's so much joyful, inspiring anarchy here that the movie never grows old. It still feels remarkably modern.
Much like Hawks' frequently comic (and yes, dark) Scarface (my favorite Hawks' picture and I think, one of the greatest American films ever made) in which Paul Muni is the front and center murderous, oddly lovable loon, Baby offers a rejection of how one should conduct oneself in supposed "regular" society, both in living lives with "dignity" (Oh, Grant and that colorless potential marriage) and how one persuasively woos a suitor (is stalking OK? It is with Kate Hepburn), that the picture remains downright radical. Both Scarface and Baby look at the American Dream, what it's supposed to represent in career and marriage, and decide they are going to create those dreams themselves, no matter how crazy. And with some powerful, deadly pets along for the ride. In Scarface it's Tony's tommy gun, in Baby it's Susan's leopard.
And in Baby, all side actors are tested to their limits with this dizzy duo (that's Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, May Robson, Fritz Feld and more) and go along (exasperated), attempt to stop but mainly, endure their tumult. And then there's the lines -- here's a famous one, perhaps the most famous: When Grant opens the door to Hepburn's perplexed Aunt Elizabeth (Robson) who demands to know why he's clad in Hepburn's frilly bathrobe, Grant jumps and memorably exclaims, "Because I just went GAY all of sudden!" To this day, that line always, always kills.
But my favorite is one that truly slid by the squares-ville production code: When Hepburn play-acting "Swinging Door Susie," a hardened ex-con who hollers out "Hey Flatfoot!" (can we lose "pig" and bring this copper slur back?), states, "I'll unbutton my puss and shoot the works." Oh, my. Wonderful. "Open up, I'll make you feel hot," she says. Indeed she does. God bless you for keeping that in there, Howard Hawks.
“La De Da.” A song I never tire of and a revelation the first time I heard the unheralded stunner. Link Wray’s “La De Da” from his sorely underheard 1971 album "Link Wray" was recorded in Wray’s chicken shack on his farm in Accokeek, Maryland and produced by the ingenious Steve Verroca (who also wrote "La De Da"). Boy does it scorch your heart. Soulful, raggedly beautiful vocals and true grit rock by one the great pioneers, the song sounds a lot like the Stone's "Exile" before "Exile" but the genuine article. This is authentic fire and brimstone, sincere swamp ("Black River Swamp"); music full of feeling by a man who had felt and experienced a whole hell of a lot. When compared to Elvis and his impoverished background, "Rumble" Wray said: "He grew up white-man poor. I was growing up Shawnee poor."
And Wray was creating this primo stuff in the 1960s. On the liner notes for "Wray's Three Track Shack," John Collins stated it beautifully: "In the late 1960s there was a studied attempt by such musicians as The Band, Neil Young, Guy Clark and David Ackles, all in their own way, to evoke a rock n roll version of Americana, of white clapboard chapels, dungareed farmers, dusty drifters and outlaws... It turned out that Link and his brothers had been playing the real thing all along, hidden away on the farm. The eponymous 1971 album grew out of the landscape, the struggles and the religious certainties of Link's own past. He didn't have to adopt the pose of a stubble-chinned homesteader. He was one."
Indeed he was. If you can get your hands on it, grab "Wray's Three Track Shack," a compilation containing three Wray albums: "Link Wray," "Beans and Fatback" and "Mordicai Jones." Do it. I'm glad (and maybe even "so proud," as the Wray song goes) I got the chance to see brilliant legend Link perform live, before he passed away because, as I wrote last year, Link Wray is God. Now join me in spray-painting that on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum where Link Wray has, ludicrously, not been inducted. Listen and believe.
It’s tough being a teenage girl. Especially when enduring and hopefully, when you can, enjoying, that breakthrough age of 15. A lot happens when you’re 15. Though some girls float through adolescence with a winsome (or conceited) confidence — soaking in and gaining assurance from their protected status as daddy’s little princesses; or benefiting from strong, supportive mothers, those not blessed with such luxuries — and having two parents like that is a luxury; it shouldn’t be, but it is — find themselves stomping and scraping and screaming through youth with a special kind of Napoleon complex that only female teens and Joe Pesci possess.
Teenage girls, from intelligent young lasses rolling their eyes through AP English to those rampaging their way through baby burlesque episodes of Maury Povich, are constantly enduring life’s “Get your shine-box” indignities — even if they can’t properly articulate what those indignities are. They just know they don’t like them. As in, they don’t like how you’re eye-balling them. They don’t like your passive-aggressive insulting missives. They don’t like your aggressive-aggressive insulting missives. And they especially don’t like your fucking tone. “You don’t know me! You don’t know me!” they proclaim, pugnaciously echoing the query: “Am I here to amuse you?”
Such is the case with 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) — a rough, yet sensitive kitchen sink drama that finds our young heroine stuck in the British projects, clomping through its ugliness with a touching mixture of righteous indignation and moist-eyed vulnerability.
She’s 15, so playing tough girl is still a form of playing. She and her little sister exchange pleasantries like “fuck face” and “cunt bucket” (which made me laugh out loud from its easy honesty), and yet she’s not playing: Mia’s surroundings are making her grow up, harder and faster and with an enormous chip on her shoulder. She has little power in the world save for her youth and vigor and spunk and, as is often the case with teenage girls, her blossoming sexuality — a beautiful thing and yet something that will cause confusion and pain. When a group of guys roughhouse Mia, grabbing and holding her with the intent of possible violation, she kicks and screams and valiantly runs away. It’s a wonderful scene watching Mia refuse to be victimized, but then the shot of her fleeing so quickly and breathing so hard reveals her fear — and that’s both sad and supremely touching. She’s still a kid. And again, it’s damn hard for a teenage girl.
A lone wolf, Mia is clearly intelligent, but probably doesn’t know just how smart she is. When watching a small group of scantily clad teen girls engaging in an overtly sexual dance routine, she looks at their attempts to emulate the Beyoncé, Britney, Christina, Pussycat Doll ideal with bemused disgust. To Mia, this isn’t dancing and she informs the belly-pierced clan flat-out: they suck. It’s a telling moment that Mia, who loves to dance, would not only hold some standards regarding their rehearsal, but be both threatened and maybe even repulsed by the girl’s sexual movements. This kind of overt sexuality is going to serve an important, thrilling, but frequently annoying role in her life, and especially with her dreams of dancing (as a later scene in a strip club will show). You get the sense that this is all washing over her as she observes the girls, and so after they charge back at her with that patent and tired insult between girls (she’s ugly), Mia pulls out the Pesci and head-butts one of them.
In another movie, this moment might inspire an “Oh, hell yes!” with the audience. But Arnold isn’t that simplistic. It’s a funny and scary moment, but also a little tragic — especially when we see where some of this aggression and abuse has come from — her angry-sad-eyed but ultimately sympathetic mother.
That’s blonde, weathered sexpot Joanne (Kierston Wareing), a young mother who drinks too much, screams at her little girls too much, and leaves them to their own devices far too much. They imbibe, they smoke, they swear – she seems oblivious to it all. Home is one long bitchfest, with mom and little sis, Tyler (a super natural, realistic sister Rebecca Griffiths), so Mia finds escape in a lonely apartment building, drinking and hip hop dancing to rap music.
The household dynamic changes significantly when Mom gets a new boyfriend. That’s the handsome, charming Connor (an extraordinary, complicated Michael Fassbender, showing why he's one of the most interesting actors working), who cares more about the girls than Mom does. He takes them fishing, he carries them to bed, and he encourages Mia’s dancing, even introducing her to the sounds of James Brown and most especially Bobby Womack’s gorgeously heart-rending version of “California Dreamin’” (he has good taste), and letting her borrow a video camera to record one of her routines. He also finds himself attracted to her, but you’re not certain at first. Mia is clearly smitten with Connor, and as she watches him make love to her mother through a half-open door, she’s curious and probably jealous. This guy may be the only positive paternal influence she’s had, but it’s mixed up in heated sexual desire. She wants him. And, in a shocking, but bravely erotic scene, he wants her — and they do something about it.
Truly, their seduction moves from questionably erotic to downright hot, nearing the precipice of exploitation. Mia’s under 16 (the age of legal consent in England) and Connor’s closing in on 30 — or older. We should be outraged. We’re not. This isn’t to say the moment plays like Pia Zadora in Butterfly (not that I’m slamming Butterfly), but Arnold is so honest with her story and characters, and the actors so adept at revealing subtle, conflicted nuances, that it unfolds like it had to happen. It would be more insulting to Mia had Arnold made her spitfire little heroine the cardboard cutout victim — sagging in the aftermath of statutory rape. Instead, she allows this girl to have a serious crush, to feel lust, to yearn for one bright spot in her otherwise dreary life.
What Connor does is wrong, and he knows it, or he at least knows for certain it will be too complicated/impossible, and this tumble is not worth the trouble. He leaves their family the very next morning. Some may view him as a creep but I think he's more complex and not merely because he's likable and, excuse my language, fuckable Michael Fassbender, but because he could be a good match if only... You actually feel badly for Mia when he leaves. And as she chases after his car, you have to stop yourself to think: Wait a second, what he did was wrong. Why am I feeling like Mia?
That’s how powerful and persuasive Arnold is as a director (watch Red Road and 2011's inventive, underrated Wuthering Heights). And Jarvis, a non-actress who was discovered on a subway platform arguing with her boyfriend (which is something like the Ken Loach version of Lana Turner’s apocryphal discovery at Schwab's soda fountain), is a revelation, bringing perhaps her own personal anger and poignancy to Mia, never settling on a one-note characterization of angry tough chick or hapless victim or spunky sexy girl. She’s none of these things and then, all of these things, and more — she’s a real, live teenage girl — full-out outward fury and bursts of happiness, particularly when dancing, and of course, curious with her sexuality.
And yet, as loud as she can holler at it, inside, she’s circumspect about her real feelings and especially her place in the world. Walking so aggressively through her shabby, garbage-strewn environment, moving past ugly, depressing architecture and into dank, cheerless rooms where little girls smoke cigarettes and watch bad television on tiny cheap TV’s, she’s so intent on moving — moving away from all of this — and with Arnold’s camera continually following her, we are right there with her.
I said earlier that it’s tough for a teenage girl — but in this moment you see how tough it is for all of these girls/women — these generations of teenage girls, past, present and future. For a second, you actually wish they were dancing with a little more wild abandon, whipping their hair around and laughing hysterically — having some fucking fun. And not for our benefit, but for theirs. After all, they’re not here to amuse you.
Hedy. Just looking at the woman, it's easy to repeat her name after exhaling a delicious deep breath -- Hhheeeddeeey. Her name respires like the title of one of her most famous, and infamous films, Ecstasy. Though some consider the picture a novelty, a ye olden cinematic curio of Hollywood losing its nut over a Czech import, or simply a great place to watch Hedy Lamarr cavort around completely naked, Ecstasy (released in Prague in 1933) is a much richer, liberating, dreamily beautiful experience than all that.
An intense, enchanting, and, at the time, extremely taboo, study of a young woman's sexuality, the picture actually gets things right, either via magnificent, naturalistic, erotic imagery, or moments of blunt explanation. Without demonizing its subject , without overly squishy emotionality, without outright exploitation and yet, without embarrassing, soft-core erotica sensibilities (that kind of movie didn't really exist yet) and without words (mostly), Gustav Machaty's silent-to-talkies transition Ecstasy gets to the heart of some simultaneously simple and convoluted facts of life: Women desire sex. They enjoy sex. And if they find that attraction, they'll have sex, even if they're a little scared, and even if they're afraid of the resulting guilt. Given that we currently live in an often morally confused society, and specifically, confused about women (the Virgin/Whore dynamic has compounded with Hester Prynne/Fuck me/Stone Me complications), Ecstasy, though willing to explore the sadness, jealousy and tragedy sex can create, is a lot more honest about its confusion. But no stones for Hedy -- Ecstasy is actually fond of its sexed up lass.
Lamarr (then Hedy Kiesler -- her real name was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) stars as Eva, a young bride who marries an older man (Emil Jerman) only to discover on her wedding night that he's uninterested in love-making. With extreme D.H. Lawrence ennui and yearnings (the movie later ventures into Thomas Hardy territory), Eva can't endure this sexless union. Watching and sighing over the presence of blissful, satiated couples, she's filled with depression over her unexplored needs. Fittingly, and, some may think, perversely, she leaves the old man and runs home to her horse-breeder father, who embraces his sad little girl while huffing that he'll never understand women. Well, some understand. Or at least, attempt to try. And so comes the famous sequence.
Eva enjoys a nude swim while her horse stands in wait. Intrigued by the advances of another horse in the distance , the steed dashes off, taking Eva's clothes with him. Eva pursues this enormous figuration of coitus, until a young, handsome worker also helps and then, (happily) happens upon the naked nymph.
What beauty unfolds. The mesmeric scene is filmed like foreplay, as the water, sky, sweaty laborers, and fondling horses are continually referenced while Eva runs through the woods -- a once happy swimmer, now a frustrated, frightened, and soon-to-be thrilled woman. Looking at this obviously -- as a representation of her desires -- she, of course, collides into the most fetching man she's ever seen, aptly named Adam (the fantastic Aribert Mog, who sadly died before ever reaching the age of 40). But even after the smiling, flirtatious Adam shows he can place a bee in a flower (how could one resist?), the film wisely holds out -- at first.
Come nighttime, Eva's bedroom pacing is too much -- she must make her way to Adam's shed. And again, what beauty. The consummated act is shot lovingly and boldly, holding onto Lamarr's fervent face. Lamarr claims the director pricked her with a pin to induce her rapturous reactions. It worked.
Explained as such it may sound coarse, but Ecstasy paces its sexual awakening so perfectly and with such palpable chemistry between its two leads that its spell is almost overwhelmingly bewitching. Mingling mammals, insects, nature, weather and bodies with the mysterious ions charging a swooning man and woman, the nudity, voyeurism and sensuality feel natural, beneficial and so combustible that the sad ending makes perfect sense.
Naturally the movie was banned. No one was going to convince Joseph Breen that a movie containing nudity and an on-screen orgasm wasn't porn. He called the film "highly, even dangerously indecent." No matter the picture is not classic exploitation, nor does it appear to have been made for mere shock value, but tell that to the judge. It was also one of the earliest films to be banned in the United States by the National Legion of Decency.
Though hailed a masterpiece when it opened in Prague, the film was long censored and much sought after in the states, particularly when its lead became Miss Hedy Lamarr, MGM movie star. Though the gorgeous Lamarr never proved to be a magnificent actress (I don't think she was given enough challenging parts), she was endlessly fascinating and intelligent. And in real life too: her early exploits before fleeing Austria, her invention of the "Secret Communication System," her later shoplifting. She was quite a creature -- especially opposite Charles Boyer in 1938's Algiers, and as the exotic Tondelayo in 1942's White Cargo, and of course, as a young, non-starlet, natural in Ecstasy.
I love watching Hedy Lamarr -- even in her lesser pictures (and she made some dull ones), which taps into another reason why Ecstasy remains so intriguing. Like the movie itself (and Machaty) you want to look at her, but not just, as stated earlier, because she'll eventually find herself in the raw -- but because you'll find yourself in her. Raw. Her curiosity and desire is primal and innate -- a simultaneous capitulation and freedom -- and yet, wistful, as if Eva is conjuring these events from a special memory.
Ecstasy is for female desire, but it's also for male desire, and it well understands impotence, jealousy and guilt, not through words, but through cinema, making it all the more mythical. Here, the aftermath of the act is human -- strong, but also delicate, perilous and hurtful. And it always hurts someone. No wonder Machaty was prodding his butterfly with pins.
"Crash is an autobiographical novel in the sense that it is about my inner life, my imaginative life. It is true to that interior life, not the life I have actually lived."
A survived car accident can be one of the most exciting, disturbing and hallucinatory events in a person's life, and not simply because of life endangerment and pain. Time is sped up, then suspended; physical and mental sensations are heightened, blurring reality. Life feels strangely, in the moment but dazzlingly surreal. And yet, a car accident is such a common occurrence that when we drive by one we frequently do so with a titillated, detached interest.
Inside cars, those speeding microcosmic shelters, we see distinct personalities -- aggressive, meek, and distracted -- the potential of which Godard envisioned in his extraordinary car wreck loop Week End. To enter these personal realms, we act in mildly subversive ways -- honking at a trucker, making an enraged cutoff, flirting on the freeway. Arranging this entry erotically so as to combine man with machine with sex is less familiar. But perversions often rear up in mundane environments, especially ones surrounded by seat belts, door locks and steel.
David Cronenberg, the auteur known for turning supposedly "safe" environments (apartment complexes, your psychiatrist, hospitals, the gynecologist, the small town family) into terrifying, sometimes terrifyingly funny, erotic and reality-shaking locales, penetrated the world of the automobile and stretches its "normalcy" tenfold. Adapted from J.G. Ballard's brilliant novel, Crash is a rare picture with unconventional plotting. Cronenberg constructs the exposition, action and conclusion (as well as its subtext) through sex scenes, scenes that open and flower or, depending on your viewpoint, grow increasingly perverse throughout the film's rather short running time.
The story: James Spader is the TV-commercial producer, James Ballard, who is introduced to the auto-erotic world of peculiar scientist Vaughan (Elias Koteas) by Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) a woman he meets via a near-fatal car accident, and with whom he first experiences the automobile's turn on potential. James, his wife Catherine (the strikingly icy Deborah Kara Unger) and Remington then join Vaughan and his subculture of dazed crash survivors. Most stunning is Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a walking Helmut Newton fetish doll of scars, leg braces and support suits (she is a glorious vision). They swap partners not only to satisfy their craving for dangerous, pulse-quickening sex, but also for an exploration of what J.G. Ballard calls "psyhic fulfillment."
From its opening shot -- Catherine laying her breast on the cold wing of an airplane -- Crash immediately expresses its alignment of technology and the human body, a physical relationship that occurs daily, though we don't often notice it. Vaughan leads James and Catherine to a sexual awakening with their mechanical connections, infusing their human relationship with the charge its lost through deadened senses and alienation. There are negative ramifications to these people's sometimes gruesome acts, but there is also a broadened knowledge of the world around them and the creation of a strange beauty through their meticulously visual orchestrations.
Like contact between two cars (even tailgating), the movie's sex is rarely face-to-face, revealing the couple's disconnections, but also the idea that they're stretching toward something. As the picture unfolds, James' desire builds into a kind of perversion (though Cronenberg doesn't judge) yet, also becomes more personal: After Catherine's rough coupling with Vaughan in a car wash (the scene's commingling of cleaning fluids, sperm, car seats and human skin is the movie's best visualization of Ballard's language), James kisses her bruises with a tenderness previously unexpressed. At this moment, when we see that the couple is truly in love, we grapple with both the benefit of their experience and its implications, and questions that we cannot immediately answer bubble to the surface.
Obvious queries came to me: Is Crash a cautionary tale about people so numbed by the modern world that they must seek excitement in dangerous measures? Is it a healthy union of man, machine and sex? Is it simply a turn-on? I think the answers fall somewhere in the more morally abstract territory of, there is no yes or no. Though the novel's relentless descriptions of bodily fluids and organs coalescing with twisted steel ("his semen emptying across the luminescent dials that registered forever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine") are rendered less graphic by Cronenberg, Ballard's vision of the "liberation of human and machine libido" remains potently intact. And by picture end, the movie feels auto-erotic romantic.
In both novel and film form, Crash takes a non-moral and non-celebratory approach (though the tableauxs are fantastic) to its subject matter, creating an alternative perception of the physical world that is as beautiful as its is horrific. And that amalgamation is, unlike many movies and, true to Cronenberg, disturbingly, unnervingly sexy. And very human. Enough to make you check yourself. Or at least check yourself in the rear-view mirror.
She was some kind of a woman and... some kind of semanticist. Josef von Sternberg may have crafted his own goddess in the form of leggy, sunken-cheek-boned and languid Marlene Dietrich, but Marlene took his tutelage and made herself...Marlene. With classic, otherworldly, baroque beauty (blonde beauty -- which functions almost as its own cinematic genre) the Sternberg Dietrich duo created their iconic masterstrokes The Blue Angel, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, The Devil is a Woman, The Scarlet Empress and Blonde Venus. Though I love them all (all of them), Blonde Venus always stood out as the ultimate blonde-semble with Dietrich playing the full spectrum of dar superblondine.
Here's the flaxen facts: She's an ex-German café singer who marries a good-hearted Englishman. She's a happy hausfrau and adoring mother. And then she's a cabaret star and harlot (but of course!) who dances in a gorilla suit and becomes incredibly famous. You know, the whole blonde journey. The picture features two iconic blonde numbers with Miss Marlene in her famed white tux, tails and top hat and, quite unforgettably in a gorilla suit. In one of the movie's most gorgeously surreal moments, Marlene removes her gorilla head to reveal her blonde-haloed face, grabs a handy golden Afro wig, places it on her head and sings "Hot Voodoo." Describing this moment requires two words you don't often see together, but should: blonde genius
After again watching Maximillian Schell's fascinating, unforgettable documentary, Marlene in which the term "kitsch" is uttered unlike no other being on earth (and cross yourself when you speak of Orson Welles), I have been in the midst of a kind of Marlene mania, which usually consists of me re-watching everything Dietrich (from Desire to Destry, Rancho to Evil), breaking out her numerous albums (I love how she announces "Burt Back-RACK!"), and reading the uber Blonde's own personal dictionary entitled Marlene Dietrich's ABC. This is a keeper. I came across the "wit and wisdom of one of the world's most wonderful women" (say that like Marlene) while working at a book store so many years back and it's become a bible. Originally published in 1961, the reference book (and it really is a reference book) contains random, but important words or terms met with Marlene's own special, specific definition.
Yesterday I was a guest on Allison Hope Weiner's show "Media Mayhem" discussing, live, among other topics, cinema, movie writing, tabloids, Bette Davis, Lindsay Lohan, Marilyn Monroe, Spring Breakers, William Friedkin and Roger Ebert, who sadly, I had just learned passed away minutes before appearing on camera. Thank you Allison, for allowing such a vast array of subjects. It's rare I get to discuss Bette Davis's performance in The Star on air and with such an enthusiastic Davis fan.
P.S. Happy Birthday Bette Davis.