Tongues Untied (1989)

The most impressive, inspiring films are always the ones that achieve a transcendent artistic effect with subprofessional resources or distribution. By that metric, Tongues Untied is one of the most impressive films I’ve seen in a long while. Its means are severely limited by its VHS aesthetic & camcorder-level resources, which makes it initially register more as D.I.Y. video art than legitimized Cinema. Still, it pushes through that financial gatekeeping barrier to achieve a fantastic poetic effect that’s frequently surreal, furious, grief-stricken, hilarious, and erotic, sometimes all at once. The film’s distribution was controversial to the point of near-extinction, sparking a highly-publicized national debate about whether or not it should be allowed to be broadcast on the PBS network because of its explicit sexuality (no doubt largely due to that sexuality’s homosexual orientation). Still, it lives on decades later as one of the most vital, fearless documents of American gay life in its era, legendary on the same level as more frequently canonized works like Paris is Burning & The Queen. Tongues Untied is D.I.Y. filmmaking at its most potent and least timid, throwing stylistic & political punches far above its budgetary weight class and landing each one square on America’s crooked jaw.

At its core, this is an essay film about black gay life in the United States during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. Building off the thesis that “Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act,” a small sample of interviewees (including director Marlon Riggs himself) intimately share their life experiences as a kind of collective Oral History. They start by explaining how they’re outsiders in every community they inhabit, demonized & othered either through racism or through homophobia in every direction they turn. These confessionals gradually give way to an overt call to action as the film continues. They demand that more queer black men untie their tongues and become vocal about their own sexuality, so that their shared identity can become more normalized and less of a shamefully hidden peculiarity. The direct-to-the-camera messaging, photoshoot backdrops, and VHS patina of these interviews often recall a 90s anti-drug PSA or a local doc from a PBS affiliate, but the raw pain & sensuality of their stories smash through any potential aesthetic roadblocks. This is a doubly marginalized group who have to muster all of their collective strength just to be able to proclaim “We are worth wanting each other,” a revolutionary act after centuries of being told from all sides that they are worthless.

Even if it were just limited to these oral history interviews & editorials, the film would still be an essential document of black homosexual identity in late-80s America. Marlon Riggs pushes his work far beyond that humble act of self-anthropology, though, and instead aims to achieve pure cinematic poetry. Collaborating closely with the poet Essex Hemphill (who appears onscreen just as often as Riggs), he abstracts the interviews & essays at the core of the film by warping them into a layered, rhythmic vocal performance – as if all onscreen subjects were sharing the same artistic voice. The effect can be surreal or literary, making direct allusions to Ralph Ellison & Langston Hughes to tie the film into a black poetic tradition, and using a Gertrude Stein-style punishing repetition of phrases like “Brother to brother, brother to brother” to completely obliterate the audience’s senses. It can also be hilarious in a sketch comedy way, allowing for out-of-nowhere tangents into the sassy art of snapping or the playful sleaze of 1-900 dial-up phone sex. Most importantly, it unlocks the film’s full potential so that it’s not just a vocal diary of black gay men’s lived experiences but rather a soul-deep expression of all the pain, anger, lust, and joy they feel all at once within a society that would prefer they didn’t feel anything, or exist at all.

Tongues Untied uses the vocal rhythms and subliminal associations of poetry to crack its videotaped oral histories wide open, unlocking something much greater and more resonant than its means should allow. It is a transcendent work of art just as much as it is an anthropological time capsule, which makes it uniquely valuable to both cinephiles & political academics. There are plenty of examples of video art that pushed past the boundaries of fringe D.I.Y. experimentation to genuinely achieve cultural significance. However, I doubt there are many that could legitimately claim to be one of the greatest films of all time the way this scrappy, urgent VHS poetry relic could.

-Brandon Ledet

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1982)

William Asher is known for directing iconic television series such as I Love Lucy and Bewitched, so the fact that he directed the 1982 horror flick Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (aka Night Warning) is beyond strange.  His directing talent, along with the film’s unique story, take this early 80s slasher movie to another level.

When watching the film’s opening, I immediately thought of the  intense opening scene of our August Movie of the Month, The Psychic. In the opening of The Psychic, the main character has a vision of her mother jumping off a cliff. Instead of just watching the character jump and getting a distant view of the aftermath, viewers get to see this poor woman’s face get chipped off as she hits the cliff’s edges on the entire way down. Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker takes a similar approach by having very aggressive opening that is totally unexpected. A husband and wife go on a trip, leaving their baby boy in care of his Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell). While on the road, they realize the car’s brakes aren’t working. This happens a lot in horror movies, but usually there’s a quick crash and it’s over. Well, not this time. The car is screeching all over the highway, and when it eventually crashes into the back of a log truck, the husband gets beheaded by a log. The car then goes off a cliff and becomes as flat as a pancake. If that isn’t bad enough, the car catches fire and explodes.  All that happens within the first few minutes, so if that doesn’t signify that this is going to be an insane movie, I don’t know what would.

Aunt Cheryl becomes the guardian of her nephew, Billy (Jimmy McNichol), after the horrible accident kills her sister and brother-in-law. The film jumps to teenage Billy living with aunt. Cheryl has a peculiar obsession with her nephew that goes beyond being an overprotective aunt. One of the first interactions she has with Billy in the film involves him shirtless and asleep in his bed; she wakes him up by acting like a sexy cat. It quickly becomes apparent that she is sexually attracted to Billy, and it creates this unsettling aura almost immediately. Aside from the incest, Cheryl is an ordinary small-town homemaker. She pickles tomatoes, wears a hair handkerchief, and makes sure that Billy always has a tall glass of milk waiting for him. Her kind demeanor changes once Billy becomes interested in going to college on a basketball scholarship, and she does everything in her power to make sure that Billy never leaves her.

Cheryl’s murderous tendencies and violent past begin to surface once the fear of Billy leaving her becomes a reality. She initially attempts to bang the local TV repairman, Phil Brody, so she can have a man around when Billy leaves. He rejects her advances at first, but then he eventually asks her for a blow job, causing her to lose her shit and stab him to death. Billy and the neighbors find her covered in blood with Brody dead on her kitchen floor, and she claims that he was trying to rape her. I really do hate it when films indulge the “psycho woman that cries rape” scenario because it adds validation to the disgusting myth that women cry rape for attention.

Unfortunately, the ignorance doesn’t stop there. A homophobic lieutenant, Joe Carlson, doesn’t believe Cheryl’s accusations because he found out that Brody was homosexual. He believes that Billy was having sexual relations with Brody and killed him in a lovers’ quarrel. The reason he thinks Billy is gay is because he grew up without a father and was raised by a woman. Yes, this guy is the worst. I swear, every sentence that comes out of Carlson’s mouth contains at least one derogatory term for homosexual, and it’s so hard to not punch his face through the TV screen. He focuses so much on trying to get Billy to admit he’s gay that he ignores signs that point to Cheryl being a cold-blooded killer. One good thing about his character is that he isn’t portrayed in a positive light. His homophobia really contributes to his role as one of the film’s main antagonist, which is pretty interesting, as this film was released in 1982.

The Brody murder is only the beginning to Cheryl’s descent into madness, which brings out the Oscar-worthy acting of Susan Tyrrell. She starts to poison Billy’s milk in order to keep him from leaving her, but once he starts to find out secrets from her past, she quickly turns into a full-fledged monster, killing anyone that tries to come between her and Billy. She cuts all her hair off and goes into this sort of Neolithic state, and it’s one of the greatest moments in horror film history. Once Cheryl takes this turn, the pace of the film picks up speed and the murder weapons become more bizarre (hatchets, meat tenderizers, etc.)

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is part soap opera and part slasher horror. The combination of the two makes for an amazing horror movie experience. It’s one of those amazing, unique horror films that got lost in the flood of 80s slasher movies, but it does a great job of holding its own.

-Britnee Lombas

Carol (2015)

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fourstar

Todd Haynes is a genius filmmaker. Sometimes his genius is readily recognizable in its grand scale spectacle, like with the glam rock opera Velvet Goldmine. Other times, it’s  a more subtle kind of genius, like in Far From Heaven, a period drama about forbidden romance. Haynes’ latest, Carol, is firmly in the latter category. Carol has been topping a lot of Best of 2015 lists (including Britnee’s) & generating early awards-season buzz for its two stars (Cate Blanchett & Rooney Mara), but as is the case with the human-captivity drama Room, the buzz surrounding Carol might be working somewhat to the film’s detriment. At heart, Carol is a handsome, but muted drama about homosexual desire in a harsh environment where it can’t be expressed openly. The subtle glances & body language that make the film work as an epic romance are very delicate, sometimes barely perceptible. In fact, if you had no idea what the film’s about going in, it’s possible it’d take you a good 20min or so to piece it together. That kind of quiet grace is in no way detrimental to the film’s quality as a work of art. It’s just that the critical hype surrounding the picture puts an unnecessary ammount of pressure of what should be experienced as a collection of small, deeply intimate moments shared between two star-crossed lovers.

The titular Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a wealthy 1950s housewife undergoing a messy divorce with a husband who refuses to accept her homosexuality as a natural aspect of her personality. The much younger Therese (Rooney Mara) is a shop girl going through a similar romantic struggle with a young beau she knows she should be smitten with, but simply isn’t. At these romantic crossroads, our two heroines fall for one another at first glance. Unable to express exactly what they’re thinking in the public eye, they speak merely through a socially-acceptable customer-saleswoman dynamic until they feel free to push the boundaries of where they’ll allow their desire to take them. It isn’t until the two discover freedom through travel on the open road that their yearning reaches its tipping point, leading to all sorts of emotional & legal fallout thanks to the uncaring world that sees their passion as a question of poor morality & mental illness. The power dynamic of their relationship (with the learned, elegant Carol tending to mother the girlish, just-discovering-herself Therese in an uncomfortable way) also strains what feels like a wrong place/wrong time, but ultimately meant to be romance.

Haynes handles the delicate nature of Therese & Carol’s passion with a surgeon’s precision, expressing their unspoken desire through intensely focused looks at details like the nape of a neck, the curve of a lip, the fetishistic exploration of a pair of gloves. He matches the obscured way they express their desire by filming the couple through windows like a voyeur so that they’re one step removed, especially in the stretches where the film functions as a travelogue. He also directly nods to the very medium he’s working in, making a big to-do about Therese’s interest in photography & having a moviegoer explain directly that you have to pay close attention to what characters say vs. what they actually mean. Blanchett & Mara obviously deserve much of the credit for making the film work in its small, under the radar way. It’s incredible that they can communicate so much desire through body language & low, guarded voices while still selling humor in lines like “Just when you think it can’t get worse, you run out of cigarettes.” As a trio, Blanchett, Mara, and Haynes construct a deeply romantic, emotionally trying, and at times damn sexy narrative seemingly without ever lifting a finger.

Carol deserves each & every one of its accolades. If I had seen it before the year had ended it may have very well made our Top Films of 2015 list (distribution schedules are a cruel, confounding beast). It certainly would’ve been included with my 2015 Christmastime Counterprogramming list if nothing else. I don’t think that the film needs to be championed in that way to get its full due, though. It’s almost better that it can exist under the radar, hidden from the awards season glamour, much how like its characters’ homosexual subculture is a secret world in plain sight. Carol is an elegant, understated gift that needs to be handled with care. I’m hoping its longevity as a work lasts much longer than the end-of-the-year roundups & trophy distributions. Thankfully, Haynes’ career is fascinating enough as a whole that it most likely won’t be an issue. I look forward to revisiting this one in the years to come.

Side Note: Whoever negotiated Carrie Brownstein’s credit in the opening scroll deserves a raise. I don’t know if her part was cut down in the editing room or what, but she barely even makes an appearance. So, you know, don’t get too excited about spending time with her when you see that opening credit. There’s not much of her part to go around.

-Brandon Ledet

4 mosche di veluto grigio (aka Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971)

see no evil

onestar

No matter how you slice it–no pun intended–4 mosche di veluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) is a weird, sloppy mess, even for a Dario Argento film. The final part of Argento’s so-called animal trilogy, Flies was released just ten months after The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and the movie follows a horribly unlikable protagonist who is being stalked and harassed by a killer in a mask. Oh, also, the protagonist is a killer. Well, not really. I should explain, and I will try. Be warned: this review is chock full of spoilers, but it will save you the trouble of sitting through this stinker.

As the film opens, a drummer in a standard early seventies rock band, Roberto (Michael Brandon), realizes that he is being followed by a cloaked man. After practice, he follows the man to an abandoned opera house, where an altercation ensues and Robert stabs the man with his own knife. Roberto is then photographed standing over the man’s body with the knife. The following day, he receives the stabbed man’s identification in the mail. Then he and his bandmates have a party! Roberto goes to change a record, and finds a photograph taken during the previous night’s incident between two albums. He remains completely unaffected, either by the fact that he killed someone or that he’s getting the I Know What You Did Last NIGHT treatment. He finally tells his wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer), what happened after he is nearly strangled in their living room in the middle of the night; she is understandably disturbed, but he mansplains her down. Do you like the main character yet?

Roberto’s maid (Maria Fabbri) places a phone call that reveals she knows who the blackmailer is and wants a piece of the action. She waits to rendezvous with them in a park, but gets locked in and killed after dark. It is then revealed that the man Roberto “killed” is still alive, and he and the blackmailer/killer conspired to make Roberto appear to be a murderer, for no initially apparent reason, although there is an eventual explanation. Is it ever explained how he and the killer know each other, or why he would be amenable to such a thing? Nope! After the maid is found dead, Nina tells Roberto she’s leaving town, like a sensible person would after multiple break-ins and a murder, but Roberto is mildly interested in seeing what happens next. I say “mildly interested,” because, compared to the level of intensity and interest displayed by Sam Dalmas in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Carlo Giordani in the aforementioned Cat, he seems to be completely apathetic to the danger to his own life, and only invested in saving his life insofar as hiring a preening, effeminate private eye, who takes the case mostly because he finds Roberto cute.

The private eye, Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is one of the film’s saving graces, and a film that followed him solving the crime would have been a much more interesting endeavor than what does end up on screen. Before he is killed in a subway restroom, Arrosio tracks down information about a former mental patient who was considered by the staff to have been a “maniac” but was “completely cured.” At this point in the film, the killer, or the killer’s sex, becomes pretty obvious; the killer’s whispering voice does little to disguise the fact that she is a woman, and the way that the head psychiatrist at the asylum insistently refers to “the patient” in order to avoid using gendered pronouns is stilted and obvious. I guessed this twist so early in the film that I initially assumed it was the maid, before she ended up dead before the end of Act I. You might guess that the killer is Dalia (Francine Racette), Nina’s cousin, especially after she seems to hear the killer’s madness mantra–a man’s voice saying things like “I wanted a boy, not a weakling!” and “I never want to see you cry!” It’s also worth noting that fewer than sixty seconds pass between Nina’s goodbye and Roberto’s seduction of Dalia. What a class act!

Alas, Dalia is herself killed. The police want to run a ridiculous forensic test: using a laser projected through Dalia’s eye to render an image of the last thing she saw before she died. You may remember such a test from Fringe, or even failed Will Smith vehicle Wild, Wild West. It’s completely absurd, and the science is even more dubious than Cat’s XYY gene nonsense, but it’s also the clue that breaks the case and the explanation of the title: Dalia saw four flies in a line. That night, Roberto waits in the dark with a loaded gun and almost shoots Nina when she comes home. As Roberto begs her to leave, he realizes that her giant ugly necklace has a fly in the medallion, and that Dalia’s last vision was of the necklace rocking back and forth. Nina then gives a rant-filled monologue about how her stepfather wanted a son and tried to raise her as one, but put her in an asylum when his beatings failed to turn her into a boy (shocker); by the time she was released, he was already dead, so she sought out someone like him upon whom she could heap all her vengeance, and Roberto fit the bill. She is scared away, jumps in Roberto’s car, and speeds into the back of a large truck, dying instantaneously. End credits.

This is a bad movie. The most compelling imagery in the film occurs in Roberto’s recurring nightmare about being beheaded in a public square, apparently based upon a story he overhears at a party. So much of the plot is frontloaded with absurdity that by the time an explanation is given, you can hardly bring yourself to care. The tone of the film is inconsistent not only with Argento’s other works but within itself as well. There are times when it seems Argento was going for mild comedy, such as the recurring joke about one of Roberto’s neighbors consistently receiving a different neighbor’s misdelivered pornography, or the pranks and jokes of the two recurring homeless men with whom Roberto is friends (for some reason). Intentionally comedic or not, it doesn’t work. That Nina is the killer is apparent from pretty early on, and her motivation is telegraphed with far too many voiceovers and rotating shots of a padded room. Although the mask Nina wears is delightfully creepy, I wish Argento would have saved it for use in a better film. There are some editing choices that seem to be trying to be avantgarde (notably, people disappear from where they were standing in a park, again “for some reason”), but ultimately have no in-story justification. The only thing really novel about Flies is that a female victim, the maid, dies offscreen for once.

Considered by some to be a hard-to-find gem, I cannot in good conscience suggest that you spend your time trying to track down this movie or view it. The 2009 DVD released by MYA Communications restores the two minutes of Nina’s speech that were cut from previous U.S. releases, but I can’t recommend it, either. Although viewers have the option of viewing the film in English or Italian, there are no subtitles on the disc at all, save for the parts of Nina’s speech which were never dubbed into English due to being cut (the restored footage is in the original Italian). Unlike some of Argento’s other films, in which insert shots of printed text were shot in additional languages for easier international release, all onscreen text is in Italian as well, and there aren’t even translations of these in subtitle form either; as a result, the taunting notes that the killer leaves for Roberto are completely meaningless if you, like me, are unfamiliar with Argento’s native tongue.

Overall, I can only suggest skipping this film. If you are a completist like I am, you’ll probably find yourself watching this as part of the Argento oeuvre at some point. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond