Wednesday, December 4, 2013
I can't tell if I wanna fuck Pia Zadora. Sometimes her round cheeks and full lips are enticing; other times she looks like a cracking Vince Neil wax figure. It is the strangest damn thing. Zadora won a Golden Globe for her performance in Butterfly. Many in the Hollywood press accused her then-husband, Meshulam Riklis, of buying the award for her, a charge that murdered Zadora's career. Well, that rumor and Zadora's middling talent doomed her to obscurity. She followed up Butterfly with the likes of Fake-Out, The Lonely Lady, and Voyage of the Rock Aliens. It should go without saying that Zadora wasn't the best at picking roles.
It doesn't help that Zadora has to go toe to toe against Stacy Keach, a great American actor, in Butterfly. By no means is Zadora awful. She has a self-awareness and openness that separates her from the likes of Bo Derek or Tanya Roberts, two other blonde pieces of cordwood from the early 80s. Zadora tries her damndest to emote and keep up with Keach, and though she never matches his excellence, she manages to be enjoyably broad here. Butterfly is the best film Zadora ever made, largely because it embraces its overheated stew of sex and intrigue. Zandalee did this, too, and was all the better for it.
Keach is a lonely fellow stuck being the watchman for an abandoned silver mine near the Nevada-Arizona border. Zadora shows up, claiming to be his long lost daughter. She explains that she was shacking up with a rich bastard who happens to be the son of the mine owner Keach works for. After squeezing out a baby, the rich prick amscrayed, so she's there to reunite with her poppa and dig up some silver as child support.
It isn't long before Keach is eyeballing Zadora's silhouette as she changes, huffing and puffing and stammering as he sees the outline of her nips. The young woman eventually drops all pretense of modesty, and starts bathing in front of dear old dad. This leads to Keach massaging her shoulder before groping her breasts, which encourages Zadora to take his hand and place it in her crotch. You wanna see a dad fingerbang his daughter, then Butterfly is for you.
Butterfly is based on a novel by James M. Cain, the man who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, so you know things are going to get knotty. Zadora's wealthy suitor arrives one afternoon, claiming he wants to marry the girl. James Franciscus is a town creep that has it out for Keach, and George "Buck" Flower, as crusty as ever, shows up as Francicus' lackey. They bring along Keach's bitter wife, who is dying of consumption and scenery chewing. Orson Welles, looking like a werewolf inflated by a bike pump, is the local judge, who doesn't take a liking to family members that rub their parts together. Ed McMahon is Keach's boss. Me thinks he worked for a six pack of Budweiser in lieu of a paycheck.
Matt Cimber, who directed the amazing The Witch Who Came from the Sea, keeps the material alive as best he can. You can feel his enthusiasm for the project deflate by the last half-hour, though. We wind up watching a prolonged court case that has Keach and Zadora facing prison time for banging, a real comedown from the lurid sex and violence that was offered earlier. Cimber does capture the arid desert extremely well, supplying the audience with some of the best barren vista cinematography since Electra Glide in Blue. There's an appropriate amount of grit and dirt on everything, including Keach, who you can practically smell the first time you see him. Once again proving that he can spin gold out of rayon, Keach delivers a performance as haunted as the ones he gave in Doc and Fat City. A character that could have been rendered into a big, dumb yokel is instead portrayed as a beaten figure whose pain and sadness feel palpable. The movie really belongs to Keach, supplying soul to a picture that probably wasn't counting on getting anything deep.
Butterfly isn't as bad as its reputation would suggest. Were it not for the Golden Globes debacle, it wouldn't have been branded with the scarlet B for bad movie. It's just pulp, containing all the usual pulp ingredients, but fuck it -- I like it. Damn the tide that decry as Butterfly as a hunk of shit. There's more twisted fun and juicy pleasure here than most modern films can even dream of having. Give me twenty more movies like Butterfly before one more Iron Man film.
Come celebrate the holidays over at Shit Movie Fest! Their third annual 25 Days of Shitmas has started, and there's already some hefty loads posted. Yours truly will have an entry on the deplorable Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. Everyone over at SMF is very, very cool, so check them out, piss-ant.
Monday, December 2, 2013
I have sat with Upstream Color since July, watching it once a month. Aside from telling people that I saw it, I haven't attempted to extrapolate it. It was a movie that sat with me. I needed to keep it close. Opining too soon would diminish the emotional ties I had formed with the film. Babbling about it would, in my mind, taint the project. This is why I would be a terrible reviewer for a real website or magazine. When Upstream Color opened this past spring, the critics chimed in. I couldn't.
It isn't because the film is too difficult to understand. The themes and ideas are right in front of the audience, and any confusion about a certain aspect could be easily figured out by reading interviews with director Shane Carruth. Upstream Color also isn't is pedantic. Any bright audience member can pick up what the movie is putting down. No, what separates Upstream Color from the pack is that it is a purely emotional experience. We, the audience, can see what Carruth was aiming for and what he feels, but the movie hits us personally. The emotions I felt can sit side by side with Carruth's intentions. Yes, yes, all movies are capable of this -- I'm well aware of stupid I sound. Still, there's a humanism in Upstream Color that I find to be so very rare in modern movies.
A summation doesn't quite do the picture justice, and a bit of me feels that I'm discounting the specialness by trying. Here goes anyway. Blue orchids are plucked from a forest and sold at a market. A man, known only as the Thief, buys the flowers, plucks out the roundworm larvae, distills the orchid residue from them, sells it as a narcotic to the locals. Kris (the mesmerizing Amy Seimetz) is tasered by the Thief and forced to ingest one of the roundworms. The drug induces hypnosis, which the Thief uses to convince Kris to turn her home equity into cash. While he collects her money, he distracts Kris by forcing her, one page at a time, to write out Walden in a notebook and build a paper chain out of the pages. When he has everything, he takes the chain with him. Kris awakens to find the worm has grown bigger, and is inching through her body.
Another man, this one called the Sampler, spends his time on a farm, setting large speakers on the ground, broadcasting a throbbing noise that lures worms out. Kris is also lured by this noise. The Sampler transfers her worm to a pig. A tag is attached to the pig's ear, bearing Kris' name. Kris is sent home and awakens from her hypnosis. Her money is gone. Her job fires her for being absent. The wounds on her body puzzle her. A year later, she meets Jeff (Carruth), an investor who bears similar markings on his body. They fall in love. Then they realize something pushed them together.
To read a synopsis of Upstream Color makes it sound like pretentious wanking. One begins to conjure up staid images of boring white people in rooms designed with a minimalist's touch. There's worry that the dialogue will consist of philosophical horseshit that only a twenty year old new to Kant and Sartre would be impressed with. The world doesn't need anymore lessons in philosophy from trust fund bohemians in New York.
That's why Upstream Color is goddamn wonderful. It has a simple feeling it wants to share with the audience: compassion. The world of the film, like our own existence, operates in cycles. We like to imagine our lives as a dramatic as those in plays or Hollywood films -- narratives with simple beginnings, middles, and ends that have never been experienced before. But that's not life. Our times have been lived before; not in the kooky, Shirley Maclaine way, where the woman you saw in the grocery store was Tutankhamun centuries ago. What I mean is the emotional highs and lows we encounter have been charted by those who have come before. For a great many of us, a feeling of repetition hovers above our day to day lives. The universe may operate on chaos, but humanity has a very limited palette, emotionally, verbally, physically. We are always redoing what was done earlier, even though it may feel fresh to us.
Kris and Jeff recognize the cycle they are in and set about trying to leave it behind for something more peaceful. If the Thief and the flower market employees are part of a cycle, then the Sampler is God, observing without directly interfering -- it all plays out with minimal assistance from him. Kris and Jeff will never cover untouched emotional ground. They will be able to operate in a pattern that is comfortable to them -- reclamation from the process the Thief and the Sampler encased them in.
I have fallen in love with Seimetz over the course of this year. She is one of the best current working actors, and her presence always guarantees an admirable performance, even if the movie is routine. While she has shined in films like A Horrible Way to Die, 9 Full Moons, and The Off Hours, Upstream Color is her best role to date. So much depends on Seimetz being able to convey loneliness and regret and yearning, and one false note could derail the entire film. The movie rests entirely on her shoulders, and Seimetz delivers. As far as I'm concerned, this is a performance deserving to be remembered as one of the truly great.
More than anything, Upstream Color is a celebration of humanity's unceasing ability to realign the "fates" and stake out an existence of their own making. People rise and people fall, and the only way to not completely collapse in the face of chaos is finding another survivor. There is a reason the first shot of the film is of a paper chain.