She’s Allergic to Cats (2017)

Because its Adult Swim platform reached so many television sets and the show’s aesthetic somehow informed a wave of early 2010s advertising, the frenetic surrealism of Tim & Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! might just turn out to be one of the most influential touchstones of modern media. The awkwardly non-professional acting, aggressively hacky jokes, absurdist shock value grotesqueries, .gif-like repetition, and deliberately low-fi visual palettes of mid-2000s artists like Tim & Eric and PFFR are starting to creep up in feature length cinema in a palpable way. Often, this psychedelically aggressive amateurism can be nihilistic in its dedication to irony & emotional distance, as with the recent shock value gross-outs Kuso & The Greasy Strangler. Those instances can be their own kind of ugly delight, but what’s even more exciting is when films like The Brigsby Bear imbue this modern form of low-fi psychedelia with something Tim & Eric never had: genuine pathos. The dirt cheap passion project indie She’s Allergic to Cats operates on both sides of that divide. It embraces the grotesque, ironic absurdism of “bad”-on-purpose Tim & Eric descendants to craft a VHS quality aesthetic that amounts to something like John Waters by way of Geneva Jacuzzi. More importantly, though, it allows the earnest pathos of desperate, pitch black cries for help to disrupt & subvert that all-in-good-fun absurdism with genuine (and genuinely broken) heart to strike a tone that’s as funny as it is frightening & sad.

She’s Allergic to Cats opens with the admission “I live in Hollywood. I moved here to make movies, but instead I groom dogs.” In a land where everyone dreams of being in show business, we focus on the Tailwaggers-employed pet groomer who dreams the smallest. Michael is, by most estimations, a loser. He grooms dogs by day to afford to live in a rat-infested apartment where he works on his VHS “video art” projects & watches Bad Movies in isolation by night. His greatest ambition in life is to direct an all-cat remake of De Palma’s Carrie, but he’s laughably bad at pitching the idea to anyone he can get to listen. She’s Allergic to Cats chronicles a series of minor conflicts in Michael’s hopelessly minor life: negotiating with his Tommy Wiseau-like landlord over rat extermination possibilities, struggling to balance his pet-grooming career with his passion for VHS art, attempting to orchestrate a hot date with Mickey Rourke’s daughter’s personal assistant (the titular “she”) despite his life & home being an unpresentable mess, etc. These trivial conflicts are frequently interrupted by the movie’s most substantive modes of expression: the VHS-quality stress dreams that invade Michael’s everyday thoughts. Spinning cat carriers on fire, naked human flesh, squinched rat faces, and rodent-chewed bananas mix with onscreen text cries for help like “My life is shit. My life is a mess. My mess is a mess,” and so on. Laurie Anderson-style voice modulation & Miranda July-style art project tinkering break down Michael’s comically drab life into a sex & career-anxious nightmare.

Buried somewhere under Michael’s sky high pile of dirty dishes & analog video equipment is a lonely, decaying heart. She’s Allergic to Cats does a great job of subverting the Tim & Eric-esque absurdist irony it touts on the surface by cutting open & exposing that heart at Michael’s most anxious, vulnerable moments to strike a tone halfway between campy comedy & surrealist horror. With a warped VHS look reminiscent of a mid-90s camcorder & a taste for gross-out lines of humor like .gif-style repetitions of expressed canine anal glands, She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls “I need help” across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 33: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Signin’ in the Rain (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Gene Kelly splashes through Singin’ in the Rain.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Singin’ in the Rain has been voted one of the greatest films of all time in international critics’ polls, and is routinely called the greatest of all the Hollywood musicals. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There are other contenders–Top Hat, Swing Time, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Oklahoma, West Side Story–but Singin’ in the Rain comes first because it is not only from Hollywood, it is about Hollywood. It is set at the moment in the late 1920s when the movies first started to talk, and many of its best gags involve technical details.” -from his 1998 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“There is no movie musical more fun than Singin’ in the Rain, and few that remain as fresh over the years. Its originality is all the more startling if you reflect that only one of its songs was written new for the film, that the producers plundered MGM’s storage vaults for sets and props, and that the movie was originally ranked below An American in Paris, which won a best picture Oscar. The verdict of the years knows better than Oscar: Singin’ in the Rain is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I’ve become so used to seeing Gene Kelly function as a talisman of big budget musicals of cinema past in throwbacks like Xanadu & The Young Girls of Rochefort that it was exciting for me to finally see him star in an example of The Real Deal, a musical he co-directed himself in his prime. It was strange, then, to see that picture participate in the exact Old Hollywood nostalgia I’d already come to associate him with. Recalling recent films like The Artist & Hail, Caesar!, Singin’ in the Rain is a movie about the storied past of movies as an artform. A comedy about a fictional movie studio’s struggles to transition from the Silent Era to talkies, Singin’ in the Rain takes great pleasure in staging Technicolor recreations of old forms of entertainment like black & white silent romance pictures & traditional vaudeville acts. Hollywood’s favorite subject in general has always been itself, echoing an even more ancient tradition of art about art, and Gene Kelly’s career seems to be an essential part of that introspective self-indulgence.

The biggest hurdle Singin’ in the Rain had to clear in its path to greatness is that its first act is so immaculate that it’s difficult not to feel a little let down once the dust settles. Gene Kelly stars as a Gene Kelly-type star from the 1920s. We meet him on the red carpet at the premiere of his latest silent picture, where he addresses the pandemonious crowd cheering for his presence with an oral history of his life on the big screen. As he gloats about his past as a trained thespian of great prestige, we’re visually treated to his real past in bars, pool halls, vaudeville stages, and dangerous stunt work in a humorous montage. After the screening of what’s sure to be another smash hit (in an old-fashioned theater very similar to The Orpheum, where we watched this picture), Kelly’s handsome hero escapes the roar of his fans by crawling on top of a speeding streetcar and leaping into the passenger seat of a complete stranger’s car in a real life application of his on-screen swashbuckling skills. This passing stranger, played by (the recently deceased) Debbie Reynolds, is an aspiring actress herself, but pokes fun at Kelly’s leading man with verbal jabs like, “Movies are entertaining enough for the masses,” and “Once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” Their flirtatious sparring as they trade cruel embarrassments at each other’s expense is one of the film’s great pleasures, so much so that it’s somewhat of a letdown once they wholly join forces to save a movie studio from the unavoidable disaster of adapting to talkies.

The industry-specific nostalgia about The Rise of the Talkies has its charm, even if it struggles to stack up next to Kelly & Reynolds’s first act attraction/animosity. Singin’ in the Rain is a much cleaner version of 1920s Hollywood than you’ll find in a harsh, gossipy exposé like Hollywood Babylon, but it does have its critiques. Spineless studio executives, closeted queer performers, and actresses whose shrill voices were never meant to interrupt the reverie of Silent Era pantomime color the changing world around Kelly & Reynolds. As much obvious affection as the picture has for the past, it also no qualms with poking fun at the medium’s early limitations, as well as drawing direct comparisons to 1950s studio musicals’ own reliance on blatant pantomime & vaudeville style entertainment. In the end, a return to simple vaudeville pleasures like singing, dancing, and rigidly structured one-liners is what saves the fictional not-ready-for-talkies movie studio from going under. It’s also the exact formula Singin’ in the Rain relies on for its basic entertainment value. The movie is both a critique of and a nostalgic participation in an artform that never really died, but more or less mutated instead.

Within that sense of vaudeville tradition, the song & dance numbers of Singin’ in the Rain more or less float independent from the plot in a vacuum. I can’t honestly say the songs themselves were my favorite aspect of the film. They’re mostly fine. What’s stunning is the spectacle of the production design that supports them: intensely artificial dream spaces packed with high fashion, glitter, an army of extras, and intensely colored lights. A few straightforward numbers were entertaining for their own sake. Watching Gene Kelly joyously splash about in puddles during the titular song (despite an intense fever he was suffering from during the shoot) has an infectious self-amusement to it. The Jim Carrey-esque best friend character played by Donald O’Connor (who was as undeniably queer as any best friend character I’ve ever seen onscreen) perform a “Make Em Laugh” number that’s initially funny in its basic indulgences in pratfalls, but then crosses into chillingly creepy as the pratfalls become an endless purgatorial loop of eternal punishment and the routine involves a headless female doll as a dance partner (*shudder*). It’s the larger than life Busby Berkeley throwbacks that overwhelm in their sheer enormity, though, allowing for surreal, glamorous imagery to elevate the film from movie industry comedy to fine art. Disembodied gams float in a florescent green void of Technicolor glitter. The high fashion runway walks of The Women are extended into an ultimate reality dreamscape of superb set design. Singin’ in the Rain is just as gorgeous as it is silly & self-indulgent.

It doesn’t seem as if Singin’ in the Rain was especially fun to make. Gene Kelly was reportedly cruel to Debbie Reynolds on-set for her perceived shortcomings as a dancer and the movie was only a modest financial success upon its initial release. You can feel a strain to convey joy despite the technical demand of the production seeping in from the corners of the frame, which might explain why its early adversarial flirtations are its most rewarding exchanges. Still, the film’s love & criticism of Hollywood as an industry & a tradition are powerful opioids even for a modern viewer. In an early scene where Kelly is strolling across a studio lot in conversation with his gay bestie, the pair pass several genre-variant film shoots in a ridiculous display later echoed in one of my all-time favorite films, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. That kind of gleeful enthusiasm for movie magic far outweighs any energy lost after the pleasure burst of the glorious first act and the movie overall feels timeless despite its obsession with the present & the past of its own medium. That seems to be a recurring theme within Gene Kelly’s overall career, not to mention an obsession of Hollywood at large.

Roger’s Rating  (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

-Brandon Ledet

Madhouse (1974)

three star

campstamp

One of the most depressing questions I encounter in everyday conversation is “Who is Vincent Price?” It comes up more often than you’d expect. I got it when I dressed as Price’s version of The Red Death last Mardi Gras. I got it when I was working at a movie theater with a bunch of skateboarding goofballs over the past year. It’s far from cool of me to have Kids These Days moments like this when I’m still just shy of 30, but what is the deal with kids these days anyways?  What are they teaching these whippersnappers in school? Surely there’s room in the curriculum for a little Vincent Price 101. Also, I remember the days when Vincent Price movies cost half a nickel and get off my lawn.

Madhouse would be far from my first choice for titles to show the young & curious who Vincent Price was, but it is an interesting addition to the horror giant’s resume because it’s explicitly about his own celebrity. Basically playing a fictionalized version of himself, Price appears here as the aging star of a horror series centered on the wicked Dr. Death. Relying on old clips mostly pulled from Price’s collaborations with Roger Corman in the B-movie legend‘s infamous Poe Cycle (which shared a producer in Madhouse‘s Sam Arkoff, naturally) the meta horror of this film is a little weak in that it constantly reminds you of the superior work Price made in his heyday. There’s a lot of interesting details in the film’s set-up, including Hollywood satire & the idea of a masked killer framing the “real” Dr. Death by recreating kills from his various films, but that novelty eventually wears off (in favor of a Brannigan-esque trip to London) and large stretches of the movie ultimately feel punishingly dull. Anyone with a vested interest in Vincent Price’s career (or meta horror in general) might get a kick out of Madhouse, but that appeal is unlikely to be universal.

That’s not to say that the film is stylistically lacking. Madhouse seems to intentionally ape the style over substance mentality of the giallo genre, even daring to lift images directly from the works of folks like Dario Argento & Mario Bava. A gloved hand enters from off screen wielding a shiny knife intended to slash a young woman down. The faceless mannequins of Blood & Black Lace appear for an odd jump scare. A trench coat, fedora, and mask combo shroud the identity of the killer to make for a sort of murder mystery where the murder is obviously more important that the mystery. Like the giallo it mimics, Madhouse exists as a sort of proto-slasher that would predict many horror trends of the late 70s & 80s to follow. It’s just unfortunate that the space between the kills feels so dull, especially once the Hollywood satire & meta horror fade to the background.

As much as I feel deeply dispirited when one of These Damn Millenials™ doesn’t know who Vincent Price is by name, here’s where I have to admit that I don’t know much of anything about the actor outside his onscreen roles. For instance, I always assumed that he was exclusively homosexual, based mostly on his campy, fey way of performing. Although a public ally to the gay community, Price apparently was married to several women & fathered multiple children. As a fan not previously in the know about this aspect of his personal life, my favorite parts of Madhouse were the ones showing Price’s fictional surrogate interacting with women, who are driven absolutely mad with lust for him. At the beginning of the film he’s depicted as an aging, wealthy actor engaged to marry a young porn star. Late in the proceedings he develops a weird sort of domesticity with an insane woman who raises hordes of spiders as her “babies”. In between these connections there’s several young groupies fighting for the chance to be near him. What’s odd about this is aspect is the way the film criticizes the film industry’s misogyny problem while also participating in it (as most slashers do by nature). In one breath Madhouse will criticize the way young women are left by the wayside at the wrong end of slut-shaming or mere aging. In the next the film will follow that sentiment up with wonderfully bitchy exchanges like “You scared the pants off me.” “Who hasn’t?” It’s an uncomfortably compromised balance, but it does reveal aspects of Price’s personality/sexuality that I was previously unaware of, a detail I appreciated greatly.

I enjoyed Madhouse well enough as a silly little meta horror with taglines like “Lights, Camera, Murder” & as a reflection of who Vincent Price was as an oddball celebrity, but I don’t think the film would hold the same level of interest for those not already predisposed to enjoy the actor’s work/aesthetic. For folks seeking a better introduction I’d recommend checking out pretty much any one of the Roger Corman classics this film tries to pass off as Dr. Death flicks (except for maybe the incomprehensibly inept The Raven; yikes!). The man had a massively impressive career with dozens of titles that help define the best classic horror has to offer as a genre. Unfortunately, Madhouse is more of a distant echo of those works than an active participant, interesting context or not.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

EPSON MFP image

fivestar

campstamp

“The ultimate Russ Meyer film has already been made: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Something special happened with that film . . . I’d never be able to approach it again.” – Russ Meyer

A lot of people would argue that the ultimate Russ Meyer film was made years earlier in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but I tend to side with Meyer himself on this issue. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was his masterpiece, a grand manifesto of of the sex-crazed vitriol the director had been cultivating for more than a decade, a vicious satire attacking the “oft times nightmare world of show business”, a relentless display of the maniacal violence Meyer had used as highlights in his past work drawn out to a full length feature. Critics hated the film. A lot of Russ’ longtime fans hated it even more, citing screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert) as a deathblow to the high camp value of Meyer’s oblivious earnestness the same way Tommy Wiseau’s self-awareness has ruined everything he’s touched since The Room. I disagree with that sentiment, though. Ebert did not ruin the Meyer aesthetic. He just complicated it with an over-the-top sense of ironic humor that added an extra layer of absurdity to what was already pretty knowingly ridiculous to begin with.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly what Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is or what it’s about, so I’ll just tell you how Ebert described the film’s genre: “It’s a camp sexploitation action horror musical that ends in a quadruple murder & a triple wedding.” Does that about clear it up? At times it feels like the only thing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls isn’t is a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, which is what Meyer was initially hired to direct. At least the film warns you of that outright in a prologue that distances itself from the melodrama original. What quickly follows is one of Meyer’s trademark industrial/sex montages, this time combatively pointed at Los Angeles & set to an inane slam-poetry style monologue about hippie culture. The difference is that the montage never ends this time, adopting Mondo Topless‘ frantic energy for a full-length narrative feature. As Meyer put it, he wanted the film to establish “a punishing rhythm, pummeling the audience.” Boy, did he succeed.

Buried somewhere under Meyer’s trademark mania is a story about an all-female rock band called The Carrie Nations getting corrupted by wicked Hollywood types as they try to Make It Big. The small town girls are destroyed by Los Angeles’ unwholesome cocktail of sex, drugs, murder, suicide, abortion, and pansexuality. What’s far more interesting than the band member’s individual downfalls, however, are two absurd party sequences that bookend the film. Hosted by Z-Man, king of the Hollywood weirdos, these ragers are sickeningly phony & psychedelic, a hateful portrait of Los Angeles’ excess at its most damnable. Even Z-man himself can’t seem to handle these soirées. In the opening party, where a cast of hundreds dance to The Carrie Nations and The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Z-Man exclaims, “This is my happening & it freaks me out!” At the film’s concluding party, a much more intimate affair where two same-sex couples pair off for psychedelic drug-fueled lovemaking, Z-Man reveals himself to be an androgynous, sex-crazed supervillain named Superwoman and attempts to murder everyone within reach while proclaiming things like “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance.” I feel deranged just describing that unraveling, let alone watching it. This film is admittedly incomprehensible, but damn, what a ride.

With a $1 million budget & an inflated runtime that dwarfed any of the films the director had made prior to its release, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was Meyer going for broke, rightfully fearful that he may never have the opportunity again. The film was produced by Fox studios, but with a hands-off approach that left Meyer free reign to make what pretty much amounted to a big budget indie film under a major studio banner. Much like Myra Breckinridge, Fox’s other X-rated sex comedy, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was panned by critics. The difference is that it made money, tons of money. Ten times its original budget, in fact. Meyer somehow made a crowd favorite while sticking to his authorial vision, something he had mostly ditched for modest success in his then-recent, high-profile indie Vixen!. He even populated the film with past players from his oeuvre, including Vixen!‘s Erica Gavin, Fanny Hill‘s Veronica Erickson, and the wonderfully strange Princess Livingston, who brought  lot of proto-John Waters cool to early Meyer productions like Mudhoney & Wild Gals of the Naked West.

Despite rampant nudity & occasional sultry lines like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime,” Meyer had found success while striving for a nasty, hateful vision instead of outright sexiness, something that had made his past work so interesting. Ebert pounded out the entire script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in just six weeks, but by doing so he had managed to tap into something truly special in its loopiness & in its hateful take on Los Angeles as a scene, even poking fun at then-recent tragedies like the Sharon Tate/Charles Manson murders. And because Meyer made sure none of the actors knew that the film was intended to be a comedy, a lot of the campy charm from his past work rolled over to this change in direction in a humorously sinister way.

After revisiting Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the dozenth time or so, it’s hard to imagine what the rest of the director’s catalog has to offer me, as I’ve never ventured further into the back end of his career before. As Meyer put it, the ultimate Russ Meyer film had already been made. Where was there left for the director to go but down, down, down? I guess I’ll find out soon in future titles like Up! & Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens, with peak Meyer perfection now surely in the rearview.

-Brandon Ledet

Casting By (2013)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

One of the most disingenuous things about the way we talk about cinema is the idea of the auteur. Directors have so much input on so many aspects of each production that it’s tempting (or at least convenient) to discuss a film’s merits based on the work of a single person, when it really takes hundreds of contributors to complete a picture. Films are one of the most collaborative forms of art our there, requiring the blood, sweat, and tears of a wide range of people to achieve success. There are many roles in film production that don’t get their proper due, but according to the documentary Casting By the most egregiously overlooked position of all is that of the casting director.

Casting By follows the history of the casting director credit in the film industry by focusing on the career of Marion Dougherty, a legend within the field. Among countless other household names, Dougherty can be credited for at least partially helping to launch the careers of Warren Beatty, James Dean, Robert Duvall, John Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Peter Falk, James Caan, John Travolta, Gene Wilder, Glenn Close, and the list rolls on infinitely. Due to the endless list of celebrities who owe at the very least a kind word or two about Dougherty for helping get their foot in the door, Casting By is packed to the gills with great little Hollywood anecdotes about an industry that’s known for refusing to change its ways (including an especially raw one from Richard Donner that had me on the verge of tears) & a woman who doesn’t take no for an answer. Dougherty not only has an immense talent for spotting potential stars in the raw, but she also stubbornly refuses to accept the roles women & people of color are relegated to in Hollywood’s margins. Casting By is not a particularly flashy documentary in any formal way, but it is one that serves the noble purpose of preserving an often overlooked legacy on film.

One of Casting By‘s strongest stances is a call for an Academy Award category to honor the work of the casting director & it makes a pretty strong case. There’s even a quote from Marty Scorsese, who has worked closely with Marion Dougherty many times in the past, early in the film that claims that casting is more than 90% of making a movie. It’s hard to argue with that point, especially when the film delves into the early days of studio contracts when on-retainer actors would play parts whether they were right for them or not, just because they were there. Dougherty came up through the time of New Hollywood, helping to define what it was exactly that a casting director does. She would help steer directors & studios into finding the right actor for the job, instead of the more traditional typecasting of actors based on physical appearance alone.

It’s a shame that there still isn’t a casting director Oscar to this day & Dougherty hasn’t at the very least been awarded an honorary Acadamy Award herself. Although Marion Dougherty has struggled for decades to earn the respect that casting directors deserve & to break up the boys club of film production in general, she has received few accolades for her work. It’s only right that Casting By serves as a document of her legacy, laying out in plain, simple words just how important she has been to the shape & climate of American film & just how vital the role of casting director that she pioneered is to the motion picture landscape.

-Brandon Ledet