Monday, 16 August 2010

Ah, how marvellous and reasonable it would be! A Woman for Everyone (Rogério Sganzerla 1969)

After catching Bruno Safadi and Noa Bressane’s appetite whetting doc about the short lived mondo-avant garde production house Belair at ERA New Horizons last month, I have been struggling to get my hands on any of the alt Cinema-Novo pieces the film looks into. An aptly degraded torrent of A Mulher de Todos (A Woman for Everyone) seemed like a good place to start. Rogério Sganzerla’s 1969 film is not a Belair production, but can be seen as one of the formative works that led Sganzerla and fellow director Julio Bressane to join forces and create the company. Indeed, its very success appears to have helped fund the experimental, and politically daring venture (more on Belair films here).

A broad, often downright dirty exemplar of comic book eroticism, AMDT comes across like a red-light Pierrot le fou. The film is impudent, very funny and radical in a way that never distracts from its populist ethos. It follows the adventures (the term seems right here) of ‘Angela: flesh and bone’, the liberated blonde of easy virtue who begins the film by dedicating her charms to the ignorant (see picture). She heads to ‘Pleasure Island’, a place that invites “all the neurotics, Macumbeiros [devotees of the Umbanda religion], McCartyists, [the] ragged, [the] available, [the] impossible, boxers, [the] crippled, wizards, [the] voracious, troglodytes, hacks, nurses, U.N.D party members [?], hitmen, secretaries, maids, taxidermists, Pietists, castaways, rats, big breasted women, big ass women, Aztecs, [the] weak, fat legged women, the boring, hobblers, sluts, informants, the ultra retarded repressed crippled from Sao Paulo.” As you can imagine, it’s quite an island.

Rather than say anything more, I’d like to offer some choice quotes from a contemporaneous text by the filmmaker, found in the book Brazilian Cinema by Randal Johnson and Robert Stam:

Fortunately, or unfortunately, A Mulher de Todos is more intelligent than the critics, a sin not easily forgiven. Nevertheless nothing is easier than making films more intelligent than their critics.


I will never deliver clear ideas, eloquent speeches or classically beautiful images when confronted with garbage – I will only reveal, through free sound and funereal rhythm , our own position as ill-behaved colonised people. Within the garbage can, one must be radical. Whence my love for Brazilian cinema as it is, poorly made, pretentious, and without redeeming esthetic illusions.


I continue to make an underdeveloped cinema, both by condition and vocation, a barbarous indigenous cinema, anticultralist, striving for that toward which the Brazilian people have been aspiring since the days of the chanchada – to make Brazilian cinema the worst in the world. Ah, how marvellous and reasonable it would be!

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

All girls are nice (notes on a scene from Some Came Running).

To say that Some Came Running is a film about appetites is hardly the most contentious of statements. Drink, desire, destruction: these all play their part in the rat pack family melodrama so loved by the Cahiers boys, but the scene I want to talk about features a hunger of a more literal kind.

Minnelli was always a master of the unforced detail, a prop or tic both telling and trivial. Robert B. Ray bases his conceptual film theory book The ABCs of Classic Hollywood around Minnelli’s notion that ".. a picture that stays with you is made up of a hundred or more hidden things. They're things that the audience is not conscious of, but that accumulate." Some Came Running is no exception – think of the way Sinatra polishes Miss French’s reading glasses before she reads his story, or of Dean Martin wrapping ice cubes in a napkin to place on his dead-drunk lover’s neck.

The scene takes place about a third of the way or so into the film. Sinatra’s Dave bumps into Shirley MacLaine’s Ginny (although he mostly drinks “any kind of blended whiskey”) for the second time that night. She had followed him on the night bus from Chicago to Parkman, Indiana, hung around and got herself a wave and shampoo. Now she sits eating alone at a booth eating a hamburger, her fella (who had in turn followed her) is left waiting in a hotel room she has no intention of visiting.

Dave’s on the back of a nice card win. He’s had a couple, and he’s looking to have a couple more. “You know the only time you talk to nice to me is when you're loaded” she says. “Lets get loaded” he responds. MacLaine eats, a little gracelessly, but with gusto. Holding the burger in both hands, then one, inspecting it, biting at the lettuce that spills out from the side, she’s tackles the beast with sincerity. Talking with your mouth full is a tough look to pull off, but that doesn’t seem to bother her.

In fact we have seen the burger already, at the far left of a wide angle shot, as Sinatra and Martin exit from their interrupted card game. Whilst the boys discuss their next move, MacLaine sits unnoticed as the waitress brings over her coffee and food. She lifts the top bun, knocks in some ketchup (the mustard goes untouched) and replaces before going in for the first bite. At this point Dave’s spots her out of the corner of his eye and goes over.

Later on in the film, Sinatra’s more intellectual muse, Miss French, will talk to a class about the great writers and their appetites: Poe and drink, de Quincy and drugs, Zola and sex, Dr. Johnson and cake. Great writers “have a greater appetite for life... They were big men: big in weakness, bigger in strength.” This is men we’re talking about here of course, no mention of Colette’s promiscuity, Jean Rhys’ alcoholism. Women get bloated. Ginny worked as a hostess back in Chicago “I drink too much and the first thing you know you get bloated.” “Life fluctuates” answers Sinatra, not altogether helpfully. Dean Martin’s Bama refers to Ginny and her like as “pigs” throughout. This scene is the first time Bama and Ginny meet. He greats her with the kind of contempt Alan Delon would later ape. “Ain’t men terrible” says Rosalie, Bama’s girl. “Ain’t they though..” says Dave. (Earlier on Dave’s brother categorises his soon-to-be comprised secretary as “strictly a nice girl.” “All girls are nice” is Dave’s retort).

Fatness is weakness in SCR, making Ginny’s burger munching all the more deviant. Agnes, Dave’s sister-in-law, admonishes her husband for not keeping his figure. Sinatra’s snake hips signify a kind of virility, MacLaine’s generous physique (she’s a long, long way from fat, of course) a kind of wantonness. Staring into her meal as much as into Sinatra’s blue eyes, she tells of her dream to be a model “..but you gotta have a figure like a boy.”

A famous quote from Baudillard’s America: “Sadder than destitution, sadder than a beggar is the man who eats alone in public. Nothing more contradicts the laws of man or beast, for animals always do each other the honour of sharing or disputing each other’s food .He who eats alone is dead (but not he who drinks alone. Why is this?)” Ginny eats, Dave drinks. He orders two glasses with his bottle of whiskey, but she never takes a sip. When Bama joins it’s he that is handed the shot (twice ... a continuity error no doubt, but an apt one.)

Just preceding this, Miss French had offered Dave her theory that “writers create to make up for some lack in their personal lives.” But Dave doesn’t write anymore, his lack is sated in more available entertainments. What does Ginny lack? She craves Dave’s attention, but even when he’s playing nice it’s clear his interests lie elsewhere. Maybe she is just stupid, believing a borderline acceptance will blossom into blossom into a full blown romance. She finds something in that burger that she can’t find elsewhere. As the group pay the check and leave, she grabs a napkin and takes-away. Still chomping down as Sinatra plans his move, her pleasure is only temporarily halted as her unwanted ex comes out of the dark to attack Dave. Throughout the ensuing brawl and aftermath, she holds on tight to her - surely by know rather tepid - dinner. The last we see of the treasure is as it is carted away (with owner) as a police witness. It has been on screen for just over six minutes (in 1976Beatrice Straight would win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a performance in Network lasting 5 minutes 40).

Ginny likes to eat, this much is clear. Much as we assume she likes to do other things too (things Miss French would rather not think about). Miss French and her father have taste (he may not know much about art, but he knows enough to buy a Canaletto). Ginny and Dave have appetites.

In a scene from Jorgen Leth’s (a man with his own particular appetites) documentary 66 Scenes from America, Andy Warhol eats a hamburger.

Despite his much vaulted devotion to processed food, Warhol is visibly not much of an eater. There is an elegance to his consumption, but little pleasure. It's respect, not love. In contrast to Ginny he puts his ketchup on the side (who on earth puts ketchup on the side?) and dips. Halfway through he removes one bun and folds the meat into the remaining bread. Before it is finished he wraps the remains up in its own paper and disposes. “I’m Andy Warhol and I just finished eating a hamburger.” Finished? Leth suggests Warhol’s lack of gastro-enthusiasm was down to an absence of beverage. "I forgot to give him a glass of water. That is essential when you are eating a hamburger. Really? Ginny doesn’t touch her coffee. From the evidence of Warhol’s own Eatand Mario Banana, it would seem that the filmmaker’s culinary fetishes were as voyeuristic as any other.

Now here’s a man enjoying his burger...

Review: Stuck (2007) dir. Stuart Gordon

Based on a shocking, and acutely unfunny true story of a homeless man impaled in the windscreen of a young drug/drunk driving Texan woman, Stuck is about as dark as satirical horror gets. We first meet the victim, Tom (Stephan Rea) scrabbling together his merge possessions as he gets kicked out of his rock-bottom rooming house. Tom, we learn, is a former project manager, credit-crunched onto the street. The employment agency greets him with Orwellian warmth. On the other hand, Brandi (Mena Suvari), his soon-to-be unwitting chauffeur, seems to be on the up. No matter how hard times get, daycare nurses who sponge faeces with a smile are always valued. In line for promotion, she celebrates by hitting a nightclub with her colleague Tanya. They meet Brandi’s boyfriend Rashid, who slips happy pills into their waiting mouths.

Like a macabre anticipation of the US’s spiraling recession, Tom’s character personifies downturn. When Brandi’s car finally smashes into this sad, mumbling, trolley pushing figure, we might even be thankful for an act of unconscious mercy killing. Except he isn’t dead. She drives on, shaken, but seemingly more concerned with the blood on her car seat than the man’s well being. Tom, wedged and bloody, stuck in the windscreen like an oversized Garfield toy, comes back to life. “Help me” he pleads with reason. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Brandi responds, “But it wasn’t my fault, you should’ve watched where you were going.” (She has a point, the signal did clearly tell him not to walk.)

Back at home, Brandi is calmed by Rashid with yet another pill. Sedated and horny, the pair fuck, Brandi’s fuzzy consciousness crudely punctuated by flashbacks of Tom’s auto penetration (one can imagine this film would have been high priority on J G Ballad’s terminated LoveFilm list) and her cries of horror mistaken for orgasm. In the garage, Tom, parked, undead, half man half bonnet, gurgles cries for help.

Approaching the ten year anniversary of her petal ejaculation in American Beauty, Mena Suvari excels in a role someway from the picket-fence slut that made her name. A testament to Suvari’s performance, Brandi isn’t quite the repugnant figure her actions suggest. Not so much evil as morally sidetracked. Suvari and director Stuart Gordon neatly toy with class guilt (pitting the selfless shit-wiper against the self-pitying fallen superior) and have fun with her confused, corn-rowed, ‘wigga’ identity (The hip hop soundtrack is by the appropriately named Japanese artist DJ Honda, signaling an embrace of ethnic hybridity that would shame even James Toback.)

The target of Stuck’s bloody ire is not so much venal self interest as an apparent total abdication of individual responsibility. In a society where everyone is liable but no one is accountable, the art of shirking has become a national sport. Whilst this state of affairs is arguably more Clintonian than anything else, Gordon clearly sees the (then) incumbent as the buck stopper. Brandi tells Rashid about her hit, stick and run, but the boyfriend sees no cause for alarm. “Anybody can do anything to anyone and get away with it. I mean anything. I mean, fuck, look who’s in the White House right now.” Governed by a cabal of drunk drivers (Cheney, like Bush, had previous) Rashid’s argument stands up. (It’s interesting to note that Gordon had been planning an update to his Re-Animator franchise with Dr Herbert West brought in to resurrect a Cheney-esque vice president.) Any liberal back-slapping however, is troubled by the arrival of Brandi’s Latino neighbours, Tom’s false saviors, who neglect to inform authority out of fear of deportation. Stuck, in all its sinewy splendor, works well as contemptuous non-too-subtle study of late Bush-era societal breakdown. Indeed it is tempting to see Tom, the smashed loser, as a timely figurehead for a despondent America: battered and blood-stained, financially washed up, a mess. But there’s life in the old beast yet…