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Perdita Durango (1997)
Obnoxious, heavy-handed genre gumbo
PERDITA DURANGO came late in the 1990s glut of violent, darkly comic couples-on-the-run road movies which was initiated by David Lynch's WILD AT HEART. A few minor characters from WILD AT HEART appear in PERDITA DURANGO, but director Alex de la Iglesia seems to have modeled his film not on Lynch's lyrical surrealism, but on the ham-fisted satire of Oliver Stone's NATURAL BORN KILLERS (or, even worse, Gregg Araki's THE DOOM GENERATION). (I also saw the Barry Gifford novella this was based on as a let-down from Gifford's original source novel for WILD AT HEART; as the novella also relied on mindless shock value, PERDITA does seem to have captured its spirit well.)
Romeo (Javier Bardem) and Perdita (Rosie Perez) are the "charismatic" heroes of the film, smuggling human fetuses and kidnapping a teenage American couple for a voodoo sacrifice. Iglesia depicts the teens in broadly caricatured fashion, and the viewer apparently is supposed to find their abuse at the hands of the older couple "funny". I don't object to black comedy per se, but that subgenre usually deals with sudden death (as in the man accidentally getting his head blown off in the backseat in PULP FICTION), while here the filmmakers expect us to be "amused" at prolonged suffering. Aimee Graham, playing the female half of the teen couple, strives to make her character more human and sympathetic, but it's not something the filmmakers will let her get away with. The impression given is that we are to prefer the south-of-the-border couple's uninhibited, self-destructive lifestyle over the American couple's suburban blandness-- Romeo and Perdita are more "authentic", I guess. (Do many artists still have that old Holden Caulfield worldview?) The only bit that really amused me is that both the killers and the suburbanites are Herb Alpert fans-- if that's "satire", though, I don't see the point.
The whole Starkweather/Fugate-derived violent road movie genre has been squeezed dry for at least a decade now. There have been great movies with amoral/psychopathic protagonists before (textbook example: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), but PERDITA just isn't one of them.
Passage à l'acte (1993)
This little-seen (at least in the United States) experimental film is a truly astonishing experience. I saw it in a film class, the likely place most people will see it, and at first I wondered if I was dreaming or hallucinating. I looked around at the other students in the class to see if they had similarly bewildered reactions.
This short film appropriates a domestic scene from the classic film of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and plays around with it, like a hip-hop DJ manipulating a record on a turntable. A character begins to say something, and that brief second of footage repeats rapidly, so the character seems to twitch and stutter mechanically. The film continually halts and repeats infinitesimal instants.
Ignore whatever pretensions about "deconstruction" and the like the filmmakers have dressed "Passage" up in and, if you get the chance to watch it, just cherish how totally bizarre it is. I wish it was more readily available on video or DVD.
Anarchism in America (1983)
Generous look at anti-state sentiment in the USA
This documentary focuses on the state of anarchism in America during the early 1980s, with brief looks at the history of anarchist movements. The narration and several of the interviewees imply that anarchism is deeply rooted in American character and tradition, more so than other countries. Students of anarchism will enjoy the interviews with prominent anarchist writers like Murray Bookchin and Karl Hess. Given the hostile split in anarchism between "right" (free-market) and "left" (socialist) anarchists, each claiming that the other faction doesn't deserve to be called "anarchist," it is gratifying to see this documentary treating both philosophies as equally valid, and indeed not so far off from each other. Many anarchists of both "right" and "left" persuasions will be shocked to hear Hess (a former speechwriter for Barry Goldwater!) favorably compare Emma Goldman with Ayn Rand, or hear him claim that anarchism embodies what he had always thought the Republican Party stood for.
In addition to interviews and photographic history, we see footage of demonstrations, worker-owned businesses, and Thoreauvian independent farms. The punk-rock scene is represented by the Dead Kennedys, who give an interview and perform. We even see a Libertarian Party convention (with special guest Murray Bookchin), even though the official Party position has always maintained that government should be minimized, not eliminated.
Both newcomers and those with an already developed interest in the subject will enjoy this film, which unfortunately is hard to find nowadays. I was rather bemused at the ending, however, when a caption reveals that this rather sympathetic portrait of anti-government ideas was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, _a government agency_. I'm getting a headache...
Sympathy for the Devil (1968)
Political blather and the process of creation
Godard made this film during his ultra-loopy "Marxist polemics" period, although before he stopped being so individualistic as to credit himself, rather than a "collective," as the director. It is a rare English-language Godard film, made in the UK. SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL alternates documentary scenes of the Rolling Stones developing and rehearsing the title track (a chilling examination of the seductiveness of evil behavior, and one of the Stones's best songs) with what are basically political skits, plus quick bits showing characters spray-painting political slogans on various surfaces, always cutting away before the character finishes the message.
The Stones scenes in themselves make the film worth seeing (for fans of the song, at least). The process of creating and refining an instantly classic song makes for truly fascinating viewing for those interested in making music and seeing how a song evolves. The viewer initially sees Mick Jagger demonstrating the song on acoustic guitar for the other band members. Gradually (in between political interruptions!), the band fleshes out the song's arrangement, adding keyboards, electric guitar, and multiple layers of percussion, developing this work into the rumbling tempest Stones fans know and love. At one point famous Stones hangers-on Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull appear to help with the "whoo-whoo" backing vocals. Near the end, Godard himself materializes to pass out cigarettes to the band members, an oddly post-coital gesture.
The film's other scenes? Amusingly absurd at times, the skits usually involve the characters reading various texts for the viewer. Black militants read from Eldridge Cleaver and the like, while the owner of a porno shop reads from what sounds like Nazi texts, while customers present their selections to him, give a Nazi salute, take their purchase and leave. (The equation of pornography with National Socialism here must have warmed Andrea Dworkin's heart.) The black militant scenes feel rather disturbing, as the viewer sees white women in white gowns led at gunpoint into a junkyard, underscored by Cleaver's thoughts on white women. Later the viewer sees the bloodied corpses of a couple of the women, and the film ends with a dead white woman draped over a crane adorned with red and black flags. Godard seems to be endorsing the vengeful Leftist by-any-means-necessary morality, the kind of thing the Stones's song warns against.
The completed version of "Sympathy of the Devil" plays under the film's ending; allegedly Godard was incensed by the producers' inserting the finished song here. Godard probably wanted the rehearsal scenes to symbolize the development of "the revolution" ("you'll get yours, bourgeoisie!"), and, since "the revolution" hadn't come yet, using the _complete_ song would ruin the parallel. That must also be why the vandals never get to complete their spray-painted slogans. I would be quite interested to see ONE PLUS ONE, Godard's director's cut of this film.
D'ya like Maoist Semiotics?
Godard and Gorin's collaboration LETTER TO JANE, a follow-up to their relatively more conventional TOUT VA BIEN (1972), is pretty much impossible to see these days, except in film school. Unsurprisingly, there's not much demand for it.
The viewer sees a series of still pictures, accompanied by narration by Godard and Gorin in heavily-accented English. The photo that keeps returning to view is one of Jane Fonda listening to Viet Cong members during her infamous visit to Hanoi. Fonda was the star of TOUT VA BIEN, and Godard and Gorin predictably criticize her for not being "radical" _enough_ in her activism-- the opposite of what the many haters of "Hanoi Jane" say. G & G analyze that and other photos of Fonda and other people, using trendy French theories of semiotics.
Ironically, the two philosophers criticize Fonda's thoughtful facade as reinforcing evil Cartesian thinking-centered philosophy-- all the while speaking of subjects they themselves _thought_ about a lot, and presenting this analysis as important. Being Maoists, of course, they want to validate revolutionary _action_.
If you're interested in conceptual art, like I, you will probably appreciate LETTER TO JANE, even if you disagree with the politics. Others will never see it, anyway. A novel format-- philosophizing-over-still-pictures is certainly unique in film history. However, as with TIMECODE, I wouldn't want every film to be like this-- especially with such dubious politics.
The narration itself is also quite amusing, for those who find bad English funny.
Reform School Girl (1994)
Above average cable remake
This film, directed by New World Pictures alumnus Jonathan Kaplan and starring cult favorite Aimee Graham, is part of the "Rebel Highway" series of remakes of 1950s juvenile-delinquent films.
For what was basically a chance for the filmmakers to have fun, _Reform School Girl_ is quite watchable. There are the allusions to McCarthyism characteristic of the "Rebel Highway" series (and a well-done general 50s ambiance), and the usual array of interesting types we meet in women-in-prison films. This one is nowhere near as graphic as a typical entry in that genre, but there is one lesbian love scene that is strikingly filmed and acted, suprisingly graphic for such young-looking actresses, and really kind of a tonal shift from the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the film never really resolves the lesbian relationship.
The only time I really cringed was the scene where Donna (Aimee Graham) started dancing and singing with the mop, and the camera began moving around and getting in the faces of the onlookers. This was a totally ridiculous scene (but I guess it's hard to pad these things out to 80 minutes).
Graham is stellar in the title role, a girl who has had to deal with abuse and, while in reform school, awakens to more positive sexual experiences. I really wish Hollywood would take more notice of her.
Skims the surface
This documentary on the famed experimental writer, directed by Klaus (DECODER) Maeck, is of value mostly to fans, although it may kindle some interest in the uninitiated. Nowhere near as in-depth as Howard Brookner's BURROUGHS: THE MOVIE, the film focuses on interviews with Burroughs and scenes of him giving public readings, with a concentration on THE WESTERN LANDS. For me, the most memorable bit was Burroughs talking about evolution and space travel. Could have been longer and have more extensive info (I assume Maeck was on a budget), but fans will not really complain.