Pierrot Lunaire (2014)

Stuck between the sincere emotional devastation of Boys Don’t Cry and the over-the-top camp of Desperate Living, the 2014 adaption of Pierrot Lunaire is the story of a trans man’s tragic romance with a cisgender woman like no other filmmaker except Bruce LaBruce could tell it. The legendarily filthy queercore filmmaker first adapted the opera for the stage in 2011, clips of which are incorporated into this short, energetic feature in harsh collage. Filtering the story through a Guy Maddin-style Silent Era throwback, the text of the opera is not translated into English, but conveyed instead in frequently humorous silent film intertitles. The sounds of the opera itself are also interrupted by the pounding rhythms of gay club music, a stark contrast to the Marianne Faithful-esque vocals of the backing track. Vaudevillian pantomiming complicates the genuine raw emotion of a trans man struggling to be accepted as he is in the ancient past of the late 1970s. The titular “butch dandy” will humorously complain about the “foul indignity” of having to squat to piss in one breath of purple prose, then beat his own bound breasts with genuine, devastating pathos in the next. It’s strange; it’s self-contradictory; it’s both flippant & heartfelt. It’s queer as fuck. For better or worse, Pierrot Lunaire is pure Bruce LaBruce.

If Pierrot Lunaire has one Achilles heel it’s that, even at a mere 50 minutes, its narrative concept is too slight to fully support a feature. This is the exact kind of Guy Maddin-type experimental territory that’s typically relegated to the short film medium. Pierrot’s quest to be seen & treated as a man by his unwitting girlfriend & her “fat capitalist pig” father has a kind of inevitable tragedy to it, both due to the narrative structure of most operas & due to the types of gender transition stories that are most often told onscreen. LaBuce may color within those lines narratively, recalling far too many Oscar-thirsty misery tales to leave much of a storytelling impression, but the aggressively queer, expressionist lens he filters it through feels entirely foreign to the genre. Poetic double exposures of the full moon & projections of how Pierrot sees his true self in the mirror clash with over-the-top line deliveries of zingers like “Marlene Dietrich is more man than you’ll ever be,” & “I’m going to get the bottom of this if it’s the last bottom I get to.” Forever the artful pornographer, LaBruce also fills the screen with modern kink iconography: leather-clad masc strippers, strap-on dildos, burlesque routines, S&M gear, etc. The only element of straight-world prestige filmmaking present is that the film’s costumes were designed by Zaldi (costumer for heavyweights like Lady Gaga and RuPaul). The rest of the film is wild, queer, D.I.Y. punk excess with very little concern with taking the shape of mainstream trans tragedy narratives, defiantly so.

The politics of onscreen trans representation has evolved drastically since LaBruce first staged Pierrot Lunaire in 2011. Casting choices in his most recent film The Misandrists even suggests LaBruce has evolved with it. That means this film’s half-flippant, half-tragic tonal clash isn’t going to sit or age well for all audiences, the same way that Hedwig & The Angry Inch has awkwardly mutated over the past decade. As an experiment in avant-garde, genderfucked theatre, however, Pierrot Lunaire is far bolder & more adventurous than even Hedwig was in its own heyday. It’s a film that only concerns itself with extremes. When adapting a tragic trans story into a musical, it has to be a gut-wrenching opera and a vaudevillian Silent Era pastiche. When taking on notes of vintage horror it has to treat gender dysphoria as a self-endangering form of body horror and include sillier indulgences like Franksentein-style sci-fi, zombies, and glory hole guillotines. LaBruce will settle for no less than being a pornographer and a serious artist, a prankster and an emotive auteur, a radical philosopher and a campy provocateur. Pierrot Lunaire might struggle to keep up with the ever-evolving standard of representation politics or justify a feature length runtime, but it satisfies all of those self-contradictory goals with ease – no small feat.

-Brandon Ledet

Pig Film (2018)

Although I have no problem conceding that the legendary auteur was immensely, distinctly talented as a visual artist, I personally struggle to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky works like Solaris or Stalker as genre film entertainment. Josh Gibson’s microbudget sci-fi indie Pig Film (which saw its U.S. premiere at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival) has cracked that code for me, re-configuring the basic elements of a Tarkovsky genre film into something I wholeheartedly enjoy. An hour-long, black & white sci-fi musical (!) that reinvigorates the Tarkovsky aesthetic by infusing it with the grimy textures of indie genre-film classics like Eraserhead & Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Pig Film indulges in the exact amount of art film pretension I can stomach before I start rolling my eyes. A lean, self-contained industrial nightmare that only disrupts its pensive oceans of silence for moments of ethereal, operatic beauty, Pig Film is Tarkovsky perfected – or, if you’re already a Tarkovsky convert – Tarkovsky streamlined, like a punk rock Stalker.

A mysterious, unnamed woman tends to an industrial pig farm as its only worker and, seemingly, the only person left alive. She sees to the entire life cycle of a farmed pig (from insemination to slaughter & rendering) all by her lonesome, a one-woman factory staff. Her only company is a stockpile of outdated industrial infomercials from the 1950s: real-life propaganda artifacts recorded on celluloid, projector slides, and vinyl records. Her only “spoken” dialogue is privately-sung operatic repetition of word-for-word snippets of text from those industrial artifacts, accompanied by an eerie synth soundtrack. She sings about the importance of pumping pigs full of antibiotics while vacantly executing the daily drudgery of preparing the animals for a likely non-existent post-Apocalyptic market, as if she’s learning the fundamental tenants of language & reality from these industrial ads. Her basic humanity comes into question as the film slips into an unmistakable sci-fi horror tone– until eventually settling for a quiet, alienating drama in a perfect closed-loop.

It’s difficult to report with any certainty whether Pig Film is saying anything concrete about the meat industry or the labor class or pollution or societal collapse or any number of issues that inevitably rise given its setting. These topics mostly inform the proceedings the way anxieties & memories of daily occurrences inform the narratives of our nightmares. The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.

I’ve already praised November & Annihilation this year for mutating the Tarkovsky aesthetic I find so frustrating as entertainment media into something I can wholeheartedly embrace. Pig Film might not ever match the distribution reach of those two (already underseen) films, but I’d just as readily recommend it with the same enthusiasm. For a director I struggle to appreciate on his own terms, Tarkovsky’s influence is becoming something I look forward to seeing updated & reinterpreted in other works. Beyond that influence, I’d recommend Pig Film to just about anyone who’d be in the market for a dreamlike, largely silent, post-Apocalyptic sci-fi opera set on a pig farm and filmed through a nauseating black & white; but that’s a much more difficult elevator pitch than “Tarkovsky, but concise,” or “Stalker, but punk.”

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

There have been countless adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s Turn of the Century novel Le Fantome de l’Opera on stage and screen, but it’s hard to argue that any have been as influential as the 1920s silent film starring Lon Chaney. Along with Chaney’s turn in the silent horror adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1925 Phantom of the Opera was a massive hit for Universal Pictures, launching a decades-long moneymaker in the studio’s Famous Monster’s brand. Before Lugosi & Karloff would come to define the Universal Monsters look, Chaney was the (hideously disfigured) face of the production company’s horror division. The ripple effect of the silent Phantom of the Opera’s success achieved a far-ranging influence (from Lugosi & Karloff to, disastrously, Dario Argento), not even matched by the name-recognition commanding stage musical from Andrew Lloyd Weber. Not to shatter any illusions to the contrary, but shameless remakes & reissues of lucrative intellectual properties are far from new to Hollywood, so the Lon Chaney Phantom’s success meant it would be a well Universal returned to often – first in a 1933 reissue of the original film with a (since lost) soundtrack that mutated into a talkie, then as this 1943 Technicolor remake. Graduating to sound & color wasn’t the only cinematic adjustments Fantame de l’Opera had to make in those first couple of decades either. As much as the 1940s remake is obviously indebted to the Lon Chaney original, its aesthetic is so current to its time that it rarely shows its silent horror roots – or even resembles horror at all.

The basic plot of a standard Phantom of the Opera adaptation remains intact in this Technicolor remake, with Claude Rains taking over from Chaney as the titular Phantom. Here, the distantly admiring, disfigured creep who haunts the Paris Opera house and promotes the career of his favorite singer under threat of violence to those who might block her way to success starts the film as a violinist in the orchestra before being burned with acid & retreating to the shadows. Most of his subsequent kills in the periphery are lightly handled: off-screen stranglings, attempted poisonings, a recreation of the falling chandelier stunt from the previous version, etc. Even the reveal of the Phantom’s purplish acid burn scars feels delicately handled in comparison to Long Chaney’s genuinely horrific makeup in the original film. Some of the stark silent era horror influences of the original echo in this remake, especially evident in shots where the Phantom appears only as a menacing shadow on the wall. For the most part, however, this remake plays much more like a dramatic “women’s picture” of its era, focusing more on the opera singer’s choice between pursuing operatic career opportunities or a “normal” life as a housewife. It’s like The Red Shoes by way of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas in that way, with the Phantom’s role being relegated to a side character in the female lead’s A-plot. This is more of a comedic drama about a woman at a professional crossroads than it is a shock-a-minute monster movie about a crazed, disfigured violinist.

In a 2010s update to this version of the Phantom tale, it’s likely the opera singer herself who would have been driven mad to the point of monstrous transformation, but actor Susanna Foster is never afforded her own proper freak-out in the style of a Red Shoes or a Black Swan or a Perfect Blue (so many colors!). That’s not to say that Claude Rains’s secret, murderous admirer of her work is entirely detached from the themes of her professional/romantic dilemma either. His menacing, pushy presence just out of eyesight in the opera singer’s professional life is in some ways a pitch-perfect representation of how all the men around her apply too plentiful & too intense romantic pressure she doesn’t ask for or need in the early days of her professional career. The Phantom is only one of three men in the singer’s life, joining the ranks of a police officer & a fellow musical performer, both of whom wish to court her into marriage. Just as the Phantom pressures the singer into making bold leaps in her still-early career at the opera house by threatening & murdering higher-ups on her behalf, the two suitors pressure her to choose romance over fame & art, giving up the stage for “a normal life.” The general mood of the film is light & flavored with comedy, especially as the suitors trip over each other in dual proclamations of love, but there’s also an underlying tragedy throughout in this poor woman being pressured to make choices between art & romance instead of being allowed to live as she pleases. It’s a very Sirkian conflict, one that’s handled with appropriate visual beauty & emotional melodrama.

Like with Sirk or The Red Shoes to follow, the Technicolor Phantom remake is at the very least worth seeing for its staging, especially for the intense use of rich, bold color in its costuming & lighting. Even if the trading in of silent era horrors for love triangle humor & one woman’s professional indecision is not what you’re looking for in a Phantom of the Opera adaptation, the film is still worthwhile for the visual pleasures & emotional payoffs therein. Even though it chooses to conclude on a comedic note, its adaption of the Phantom’s lingering, unwanted threats & pressures to its central narrative of a woman stuck between competing men’s designs on her life’s plan is also a new angle on the material that justifies the impulse for a remake in the first place, no matter how light on horror. There would be plenty of pointless Phantom of the Opera remakes to come in the decades following this big studio Technicolor melodrama as filmmakers grappled with the original film’s influence on horror at large. It’s doubtful there are many that are this purposeful in their modernity-minded updates to the source material, however. 1943’s Phantom of the Opera seamlessly incorporates the basic elements & structure of the original silent work into a genuine participation in the “women’s pictures” of its own day, to great artistic & thematic payoff. A brief glance at the disparity in terror between Lon Chaney & Claude Rains’s makeup as the unmasked Phantom is alone enough to indicate the differences in those film’s basic intent, but what the Rains version loses in horror it more than makes up for in another, unexpected genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 40: A Night at the Opera (1935)

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 A Night at the Opera (1935) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I am not one of those purists who believes the talkies were perfect and sound ruined everything. To believe that, I would have to be willing to do without Marilyn Monroe signing ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and Groucho Marx saying, ‘This bill is outrageous! I wouldn’t pay it if I were you!'”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he did reference it in his Great Movies series review of Duck Soup. He wrote, “A Night at the Opera (1935) [the Marx Brothers’] first MGM film, contains some of their best work, yes, but in watching it I fast-forward over the sappy interludes involving Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones. In Duck Soup there are no sequences I can skip; the movie is funny from beginning to end.”

Like all great comedians, the Marx Brothers were social anarchists. Blatantly disinterested in the pomp & civility of the modern world, the legendary comedic team would only create stuffy, rules-obsessed backdrops for their intensely illogical, confrontationally flippant vaudeville routines to break them down into total chaos. It would be presumable, then, that the self-serious world of the opera would offer one of the most perfect targets for their antics imaginable. The wealth & propriety that surrounds the opera is an inspired choice for a stuffy backdrop for the Marx Brothers’ slobs vs. snobs brand of social anarchy. Unfortunately, A Night of the Opera arrived at a later, transitional period in the Marx Brothers’ cinematic path, just before they became burdened with studio bloat in A Day at the Races, so it never really had a chance to use its conceit to its full anarchic advantage the way they would have in an earlier, freer work like Duck Soup. Luckily Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx are some of the funniest people to have ever walked the planet (especially Harpo), so the movie is wildly funny anyway. A Night at the Opera is only vaguely disappointing because it’s very funny, as opposed to being the funniest movie of all time, something that very easily could have been achieved with its exact plot & cast under less studio control.

The first film marking the Marx Brothers’ transition from Paramount Pictures to MGM, A Night at the Opera is somewhat burdened by the limited imagination of its producers. In particular, MGM exec Irving Thalberg made a point to oversee & reshape the comedy troupe’s schtick to make it more palatable to a broader audience. He wanted to enhance the Marx Brothers brand’s appeal by strengthening their movies with more story structure and more sympathy for the three goofball leads. Thalberg aimed to achieve this sympathy by reserving their social terrorism only for “deserving” villains, as opposed to everyone in sight. It’s an impulse that fundamentally misunderstands what people love about the Marx Brothers in the first place, overloading their usual light touch of illogical transgressions with increasingly sprawling plots & runtimes. Every moment dedicated to giving the brothers a reason to drive their victims mad with slapstick & wordplay is wasted time that could just as easily have been replaced with more comedic gags. A Night at the Opera is a story about two opera singers who love each other, but struggle to connect because of the distance created by their disparate levels of success. Instead of tearing down the civility of the opera world, the Marx Brothers’ main function in the film is to bring the two lovers together, across the boundaries of class. That’s their function in the plot, anyway, which despite what Irving Thalberg believed, does not matter in a film like this. Not for a second.

That’s enough obligatory nitpicking from me. This movie is hilarious. Harpo Marx remains the funniest man who ever lived, transforming the art of slapstick humor into a deeply deranged subversion that’s since been unmatched (even appearing briefly in drag for an early gag here). Groucho & Chico are as impressive as ever in the circular logic of their conman wordplay, scamming the rest of the world and each other into a luxurious position just above the poverty line. One elaborate gag even recalls the total chaotic meltdown of a Duck Soup by piling every character possible into a single, cramped state room on an already crowded ship, a bit that comes so naturally to their comedic style that Harpo effectively sleepwalks through it. As always, the Marx Brothers’ quality in comedic craft remains unchanged; it’s just the vessel it’s packaged in that feels questionable. I really enjoy A Night at the Opera as a stately showcase of vaudevillian comedy, even if its focus on plot, romance, and musical interludes greatly distracted from what the Marx Brothers could have achieved in an operatic setting without MGM supervision guiding their work. I mean, even A Day at the Races was an easily lovable MGM-era Marx Brother comedy, and that film was saddled with a bloated, plot-driven runtime & a deeply disappointing blackface gag. Left to their own devices, the Marx Brothers could have made A Night at the Opera an anarchic masterpiece. Under Irving Thalberg’s supervision they made it a very funny, naturally endearing comedy instead, something to still be grateful for.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

-Brandon Ledet

Opera (1987)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Widely considered to be the last great Dario Argento film, Opera (promoted in the US under the unwieldy Agatha Christie-esque title Terror at the Opera) is a sharp movie with a fast pace and some great new ideas from the aging director. Argento was invited to La Scala after Phenomena and asked to produce and mount a stage opera; he was happy to do so, but the project never went anywhere due to artistic differences. Instead, he channeled that idea into his 1987 film, which concerns a production of Verdi’s Macbeth staged by a transparent avatar of himself, with heavy influences from the plot structure and recurring images of The Phantom of the Opera.

The film opens with an unseen prima donna diva (this role was to have been played by Vanessa Redgrave, but Argento, hilariously, simply fired Redgrave when she tried to throw her weight around for a higher salary; the role was reworked to be played entirely unseen) being injured after throwing a tantrum and storming out of the the theatre. Her understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), feels unready for the role, but she is encouraged by the director, Marco (Ian Charleson), and her friend and agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi). Marco is himself a newcomer to this realm, having made his name as a director of shocking horror films. After her first performance, she discovers that she has a fan in Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini), who is at the opera house to investigate the murder of an usher who was killed during the performance. The usher’s killer begins to stalk Betty, tying her up and taping needles beneath her eyes in order to force her to watch as he murders others: first stage manager Stefano (William McNamara), with whom Betty has a tryst; later, he stabs and slashes costumer Giulia (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni).

This image, of eyes forced open and surrounded by pins, became the movie poster’s centerpiece, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s haunting, primal, and memorable, much more so than the film as a whole. It’s also hyper-real, like much of the film itself, which is a note in its favor. This is one of Argento’s darker movies, and the violence is visceral in a way that his earlier films, with their limited special effects and beautifully vibrant but utterly unrealistic blood palette, were not. Instead, reality is elevated to emulate the same ultra-aesthetic and slightly histrionic approach that permeates the operatic world, and although this is a much more successful approach to experimental film-making than is present in Argento’s other works, it doesn’t quite work for me. I know that this one is Brandon‘s favorite, but it never gels into a cohesive whole in the way that some of the director’s other films do, despite their more disparate plot structures or occasional tonal dissonance. This movie is certainly good, but it never quite manages to be great; not having seen any of Argento’s movies that followed this one (other than Mother of Tears, which is a very different animal), I’m not ready to say that this is the first evidence of his genius starting to crumble. If anything, this journey has taught me that Argento’s earlier, reputedly greater body of work is a mixed bag. For every Tenebrae, there is a Four Flies on Grey Velvet; for every Suspiria, a The Five Days (maybe the real lesson here is to never use a number in your title).

Despite its opulent and sumptuous visuals and its decision to forego many of Argento’s favorite tricks, Opera is a relative step down from the pedestal that he had largely lived atop in the ten years following Suspiria. Again, the killer is acting out repressed fantasies after something, in this case Betty, reminds him of an earlier, sexually violent experience. The reveal of the killer’s identity and, more importantly, his motivation, works for me not at all, and I feel like Opera is all but daring the audience to feel insulted by its audacious defiance of logic. It’s not illogical, per se, but it feels disingenuous. The killer’s age, upon reveal, is at odds with what we learn about his backstory through Betty’s flashbacks, and it feels more like a “what a twist!” moment than any of Argento’s other sudden, third act plot complications. Misleading clues–not red herrings, but clues that are utterly meaningless in the end–are scattered throughout, the most prominent being the gold bracelet with an engraved date. What’s the importance of the date? What year is engraved on the bracelet? Whose bracelet is it? How did Betty’s mother even die? Did the killer do it? None of these questions are answered.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Opera. It’s an imperfect film, but that hardly differentiates it from Argento’s other works, even some of his unequivocal classics. Its hyper-realistic energy and frenetic camera work are wonderful, and there are some absolutely beautiful giant spectacles that are a lot of fun. Betty, despite Marsillach’s weak work and tepid screen presence (Argento has been quoted as saying he should have gotten an actress who could sing instead of hiring a singer and trying to force her to act) is much more of a triumphant final girl than his other heroines, excepting Jennifer Corvino. She’s quick on her feet and demonstrates surprising cunning for a character whose primary attribute is meekness. Still, other than the haunting image on the front of the box, there’s not much that gives Opera much staying power. It’s a paradoxically luminous but forgettable gem.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond