Man of Flowers (1983) dir. Paul Cox
written by Paul Cox, Bob Ellis
w/ Norman Kaye, Alyson Best, Chris Haywood, Sarah Walker, Werner Herzog
Think of Paul Cox as the Australian incarnation of Horton Foote. Or, as Jay Scott says in Midnight Matinees, “Jean Renoir with a giggle, Krafft-Ebbing with a sense of humor.” His quiet and unassuming protagonists run deep with passion. It’s a passion for life in his companion film A Woman’s Tale (1991), deemed inappropriate for an ailing widow. In Man of Flowers it’s a middle-aged man’s passion for beauty. Charles lives a cloistered life, concerned only with opera, fine art, colossal bouquets, and memories of his beautiful mother. He pays a model (Alyson Best) to strip for him, calling her his little flower, after which he marches to a nearby church and plays the brimstone out of its organ. Flashbacks, in a haunting home-movie style, reveal Charles’s repressed childhood. Look for famous director Werner Herzog as his domineering father. Charles’s relationship with the model develops platonically just as her relationship with her angry boyfriend dissolves and her first lesbian affair begins. It’s slow, psychological, and ‘themey’—all bravely so. Every shot (by cinematographer Yuri Sokol) is engaging. But whatever art-houses pretenses it has become poignant as Charles tries to break through aesthetic beauty to find real intimacy. It ends on a simple Magritte-like image. Brilliant yet not for everyone. Kaye also starred in Cox’s Lonely Hearts (1982) and was the subject of his documentary The Remarkable Mr. Kaye (2005).
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) dir. Miranda July
written by Miranda July
w/ Miranda July, John Hawkes, JoNell Kennedy, Miles Thompson, Brandon Ratcliff, Natasha Slayton, Najarra Townsend, Carlie Westerman, Brad William Henke, JoNell Kennedy, Tracy Wright, Ellen Geer, Jordan Potter
Oddball performance artist Miranda July plays oddball performance artist Christine Jesperson. She falls in love with troubled shoe salesperson Richard (John Hawkes) whose wife (JoNell Kennedy) is divorcing him. He sets his hand on fire in front of their two boys (Ratcliff, Thompson) and spends much of the film mending both his hand and their relationship. This plotline alternates with: a growing flirtation between Richard’s fellow shoe salesperson (Brad William Henke) and two underage girls (Slayton, Townsend); a neighbor kid (Carlie Westerman) and her trousseau; and a self-isolated modern art curator (Wright) considering Christine’s video art. The eccentricity-driven characters seem wholly organic in their relationships—the kids are especially fascinating—and the film’s sweetness is never without an undercurrent of absurd perversity. Cinematography by Chuy Chavez (Chuck & Buck) helps the film’s style to ‘pop’ without drawing attention to it. Same could be said of the minimal Casio score by Michael Andrews (Donnie Darko) and the film’s overall tone. And you’ll learn the scatological meaning behind this symbol: ))<>((
A Mighty Wind (2000) dir. Christopher Guest
written by Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy
w/ Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, Bob Balaban, Michael Hitchcock, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Don Lake, Deborah Theaker, Diane Baker, Paul Benedict, Larry Miller
The metal band from 1984’s Spinal Tap (Guest, McKean, Shearer) are reincarnated here as The Folksmen, one of three once-famous groups participating in a tribute concert in NYC. Another group—a duo—is Mitch and Mickey played by Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, their third time paired in a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Every time’s a charm for them but as the reunited folk-singing couple they’re at their most lovable: over the top yet restrained, comical yet heartfelt, all with perfect timing. Both have been doing impersonations since SCTV (1976-‘81), so no wonder they embody their characters with such freeform precision. Mitch and Mickey’s kiss is one of the sweetest in cinema history, had me crying like Deborah Theaker’s character in the front row. Of the more minor characters, the actors getting the most out of their onscreen time are Jane Lynch and John Michael Higgins as leaders of The New Main Street Singers, Jennifer Coolidge as a publicist, and Bob Balaban as the event coordinator.
Momma’s Man (2008) dir. Azazel Jacobs
written by Patrick Dewitt, Azazel Jacobs
w/ Matt Boren, Flo Jacobs, Ken Jacobs, Dana Varon, Richard Edson, Eleanor Hutchins, Piero Arcilesi, Richard Edson, Chris Galya, Dana Varon
Experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs’ career dates back to the late 1950s, with his most famous work being Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son (1969). He and wife Flo here play Mikey’s parents who seem a variation on who they are in real life: Azazel Jacobs’s parents. They live in their own indescribably packed loft in NYC, a handsome couple as solemn and intense as a conversation about abstract expressionism. Wholly self-possessed but not self-centered, they’re happy to host Mikey, visiting from California, though they are concerned about his psychological well-being as he lingers for days longer than planned. What about his wife and baby? His job? Matt Boren as artless schlub Mikey proves an oddly perfect stand-in for Azazel Jacobs, achieving an incongruence that works because of the strong performances. DVD includes Ken’s trippy short films “Capitalism: Child Labor” (2006) and Azazel’s debut short “Rain Building Music” (1991) also featuring his parents. Check out his other films GoodTimesKid (2005) (see Comedy/Drama (A-L)) and Terri (2011) (see below) and his TV series Doll and Em (2013).
Montreal Main (1974) dir. Frank Vitale
written by Frank Vitale and the Montreal Main Cast
w/ Frank Vitale, Allan Moyle a/k/a Allan Bozo Moyle, Johnny Sutherland, Peter Brawley, Stephen Lack, Dave Sutherland, Ann Sutherland, Pam Marchant, Jackie Holden
Frank Vitale played man with a movie camera—well, man with first-generation portable video equipment—in his debut short film Hitch-Hiking (1972). An important early example of personal documentary, it is home-movie-on-the-road vérité, shot from the hip, often in unfixed close-up: a mesmerizing scattershot of audio-video textures. Raw eavesdropping and surreptitious glimpses are its appeal. The naturalness it captures, plus its let’s-see-what-we-get approach, carried over to Vitale’s drama Montreal Main, an unsung queer classic. Referred to as autobiographical, otherwise categorized as “docufiction,” with a plot “conceived” not scripted, and featuring nonprofessional actors playing themselves, this film pivots on uncertainty: the ambiguity of sexual identity, the hedging of romantic relationships, the performance of self. Moving in a gay male circle in Montreal, introverted photographer Frank and enfant terrible Bozo are more than friends but not quite lovers despite trying. Bozo starts dating a woman named Jackie, a friend to the liberal heterosexual Sutherlands; their teenaged son is androgynous, longhaired Johnny with whom Frank seems to be falling in love. Or does he just want something perfectly unattainable? Bozo, feeling threatened and denying jealousy, gripes about Johnny as “a waste of my Frank’s energy,” while the Sutherlands’ liberal tolerance is put to the test. Even gay friends Peter, self-proclaimed queeniest of the bunch, is unsure, and machinegun-pattering Stephen slows enough to warn Frank against “vampirism.” Montreal Main is a film “with neither ancestors nor progeny,” claims Canadian film studies professor Peter Harcourt; it “enacts a philosophy of uncertainty” as Frank and Johnny—and Bozo too—fall through the cracks between gay and straight worlds (or existentialist and essentialist positions, as Harcourt theorizes). He also writes: “Fragmented in style, swish-panning its way from close-up to close-up…the grab-shot technique suggests a world in which attention is uncertain and perception unclear…paralleling the feelings of isolation that a clutch of gays might have felt at the time in a straight world.” On DVD from Sanya Entertainment. Theme song by transman jazz-folk musician Beverly Glenn-Copeland. Some will recognize Allan Moyle from Outrageous (1977) or Stephen Lack from Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981). Next up for the Vitale-Moyle-Lack team is Rubber Gun (1977) (see entry below).
Mudhoney a/k/a Rope of Flesh (1965)
dir. Russ Meyer
written by Raymond Friday Locke, W.E. Sprague
w/ John Furlong, Hal Hopper, Stuart Lancaster, Antoinette Cristiani, Lorna Maitland, Princess Livingston, Rena Horten, Frank Bolger, Sam Hanna, Nick Wolcuff, Lee Ballard
Mudhoney “leaves a taste of evil,” according to the film’s tagline. Set in Missouri during Prohibition, Russ Meyer’s hicksploitation classic achieves the usual camp and cleavage in turn with sincere drama. The camp is due to a gloriously bawdy, big-mouthed old broad played by Princess Livingston, a regular in Meyer’s movies (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Rena Horten and Lorna Maitland provide the cleavage as hillbilly bimbos. The drama involves a womanizing drunk (Stuart Lancaster) who beats his wife (Antoinette Cristiani) and the two men who try to help her: her uncle (Hal Hopper) and a hired hand (John Furlong). As well as the drama, the stylish b+w cinematography encourages a more serious engagement with Mudhoney than one might expect. Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films describes it as bleak: “Resembling a cross between Tobacco Road and The Ox-Bow Incident, it rails against American morality and religious hypocrisy.” Roger Ebert deemed it “Meyer’s neglected masterpiece.”
My Effortless Brilliance (2008) dir. Lynn Shelton
written by Lynn Shelton, Sean Nelson, Basil Harris, Calvin Reeder, Jeanette Maus
w/ Sean Nelson, Basil Harris, Calvin Reeder, Jeanette Maus
Eric (Sean Nelson) is the author of a novel called My Effortless Brilliance. As self-inflated as his title, he’s incensed when his journalist friend Dylan (Basil Harris) declares to him, with friendship-ending seriousness, “You’re an asshole.” Some time later, Eric shows up unannounced at Dylan’s cabin in the Cascades for a weekend of tension. A slow but steady pace of nothing happening in a fascinating way, its central relationship is a quirky parallel to the male friends in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006) but with funny, improv’d-sounding dialogue typical of mumblecore. Dylan’s hunting buddy (Calvin Reeder), who doesn’t like to read, is a great ‘wild card’ character. In a special feature interview with Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister) she speaks of this film as “scaled down,” “organically created,” and “a completely performance-centered production.” 79 minutes.
Combo-entry on the brave and radically queer life of Quentin Crisp: The film adaptation of Quentin Crisp’s autobiography The Naked Civil Servant (1975) as well as the documentary Resident Alien (1990) and the drama An Englishman in New York (2009), both about Crisp’s later life in NYC
The title of Quentin Crisp’s watershed autobiography The Naked Civil Servant refers to the only regular work he could get as such a flamboyant person: posing for art students. Crisp was out and about in London by the mid-1930s, wearing makeup at a time when even eye shadow on a woman was shocking. Visibility was his cause, exhibitionism his drug. These compelled Crisp to endure isolation, bashings, police harassment, and financial instability even more severe than the movie conveys. Crisp’s henna-dyed ego is at odds with his self-deprecating humor, just as a cool, survival mechanism kind of detachment is at odds with his proclaimed love of people. John Hurt’s performance conveys these contradictions masterfully, winning him a BAFTA award for Best Actor. Look for John Rhys-Davies (a/k/a Gimli in the Lord of the Rings movies and Sallah in the Indiana Jones movies) as adorable lug Barndoor. Originally airing on British and then American television, The Naked Civil Servant reached a more mixed audience than it would have as a theatrical release. It’s an enduring classic about an icon who continually defied both the straight world and, in time, the gay mainstream. We’re fortunate to get another chance to watch John Hurt so fully embody this role in the sequel An Englishman in New York (2009). As the title explains, this film represents Crisp’s life after Servant, when he emigrated to NYC, and focuses on his adapting to 1970s gay culture, his collaborations with performance artist Penny Arcade, and his mis-quip about AIDS that damaged his career. (The movie reveals that, once he’d achieved financial stability, he was secretly making large donations to AIDS research.) He still continued to live in a one-room apartment and, though his skin itched and his body fell apart, he always looked dapper when facing the public. Directed by Richard Laxton, the film is dynamic and complex, capturing the more brittle side of Crisp while also countering it (too obviously at times) with Crisp’s graciousness and humanity. First to represent this part of Crisp’s life was the documentary Resident Alien. At 73, after the 1975 film adaptation of his 1968 autobiography, Quentin Crisp left England to live out his life in NYC. Sting wrote a song about him called “An Englishman in New York” and Nossiter made this documentary with the full title Resident Alien: Quentin Crisp in America. Crisp’s spinsterish dandyism, which embodied his “out” persona throughout his life, was still an extreme in that puritanical age called the 1980s. Crisp tended to polarize his readers and audiences: admired as a gracious nonconformist with brutal insights into society or misinterpreted as a self-hating “gay Stepinfetchit.” Nossiter’s vibrantly colored documentary combines staged scenes, pithy montage, and stylized verité. Participants in the documentary include editor Tom Steele, performance artist Penny Arcade, queer artists McDermott & McGough, playwright Robert Patrick, writer Fran Lebowitz, Warhol star Holly Woodlawn, and Crisp’s longtime friend Felicity Mason. Some reviews of this documentary consider Crisp opaque, which is ironic because his philosophy is not simply to be yourself but to make your true self available to people. To be self-evident. “No one is boring who is willing to tell the truth about himself,” he’s said. The Docurama DVD also offers Nossiter’s short documentary Losing the Thread (2000).
Negatives (1968) dir. Peter Medak
written by Peter Everett, Roger Lowry
w/ Glenda Jackson, Peter McEnery, Diane Cilento, Maurice Denham, Norman Rossington, Stephen Lewis
Peter Everett’s novel Negatives, winner of the 1965 Somerset Maugham Award, is about personalities finding their edges through violent fantasy—specifically Theo and Vivien who seem only to make love while costumed as famous murderer Dr. Crippen and his emasculating wife Belle. It is Reingard, an interloper in their lives, who says of relationships: “[T]hings overlap and one craves for an edge, for distinctness.” I address the film adaptation of Negatives on the “About Me” page of this website, included among examples of movies my mother and I rented during the earliest days of Midwestern video stores: “Since many of the proprietors were just cashing in on a trend, their uninformed selections were peculiarly diverse and often sensational. So gory Italian horror, sexploitation, and avant-garde titles like James Ivory’s Savages (1972) or Peter Medak’s Negatives mingled with blockbusters, family fare, and the occasional Hollywood classic.” Negatives not only fascinated me, and surely went somewhat over my head, it introduced me to legendary powerhouse Dame Glenda Jackson—in her first role after debuting in Marat/Sade (1967). Her approach to acting tends to involve hiding emotions and showing thoughts, which is true of Vivien, so poisonous yet with a soft belly. Peter McEnery (Moon-Spinners, Entertaining Mr. Sloane), however, plays Theo as long-poisoned with hackles up. Into his antique shop one day walks German photographer Reingard (Diane Cilento of Tom Jones, Wicker Man), an insinuating beauty who’s been watching the couple from a distance—somewhat like we the film audience have been watching them so far, even in close-ups. She tells Theo he’s no henpecked Crippen; instead, he reminds her of WWI fighter ace Baron von Richtofen. “We all have our different quirks,” Reingard insists. “We arrive at edges by using different means.” This acidly talky adaptation served as an ideal debut for Peter Medak who next made a more familiar title in cult cinema, The Ruling Class (1972), starring Peter O’Toole.
Neighbors (1981) dir. John G. Avildsen
written by Larry Gelbart
w/ John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Kathryn Walker, Cathy Moriarty, Lauren-Marie Taylor, Tim Kazurinsky
A dark, offbeat suburban nightmare from the Oscar-winning director of Rocky (1976). Belushi plays Earl Keese, a conventional breadwinner living on an isolated cul-de-sac with his discontented wife Enid (Kathryn Walker) and college-aged daughter (Lauren-Marie Taylor). A swinging blonde couple (Akroyd, Moriarty) move in next door, the only other house around, and everything they do and say unsettles the Keeses’ complacent life—pleasing Enid and practically killing Earl. Surreal touches include a one-acre swamp and a giant pylon that supports bird-killing power lines. Watch for SNL’s Tim Kazurinsky as the cantankerous tow truck driver, another character adding to the film’s weird and menacing air. Unfairly dismissed upon release, by viewers expecting a Blues Brother rehash, it’s been more or less forgotten by all but a few fans who saw it, like myself, on TV in the early days of HBO. Belushi, back on drugs, died of an overdose shortly after the film’s release. Finally on DVD as of 2011.
A New Leaf (1971) dir. Elaine May
written by Elaine May
w/ Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Jack Weston, George Rose, James Coco, Doris Roberts, Renée Taylor, William Redfield, Graham Jarvis, Conrad Bain, David Doyle, Mildred Clinton, William Hickey, John O’Leary
Somewhere between Gracie Allen and Miranda July there was a pure burst of talent named Elaine May. Originally famous in the 1950s for her improv comedy, teamed with Mike Nichols, she is remembered now (mostly and unfairly) for her box office flop Ishtar in 1987. She adapted A New Leaf from a Jack Ritchie story called “The Green Heart” and it pairs eccentrics much like Hal Ashby does in Harold and Maude, also released in 1971. The comedy in A New Life is more screwball, and for some I’m sure the eccentrics will be harder to warm to, but their transformations are quite heroic. We meet Henry Grahame right as he’s burned through the last of his inheritance, a delightfully mercenary role for Walter Matthau whose previous films were Cactus Flower and Hello Dolly (both 1969). Henry has zero interest in women—breasts horrify him—but finds he must marry in order to maintain his lifestyle. At an uptight little tea party he spots heiress and botanist Henrietta Lowell (May, perfectly cockeyed) who spills her tea and his. He complains privately to his manservant, “Never have I seen one woman in whom every social grace was so lacking. Did I say she’s primitive? I retract that. She’s feral!” Who else will have him, though? Forcing himself to propose, he declares to Henrietta: “The only difference between us is that I am a man and you are a woman and we don’t have to let that interfere if we are reasonably careful.” Advising Henry is his comparably effeminate manservant played by the longtime Broadway actor George Rose, an obscure gay icon who was murdered in 1988 by his adopted son. Elaine May’s next film as a director was the black comedy Heartbreak Kid (1972) and her next film as an actor was Neil Simon’s California Suite (1978). 102 minutes.
Nice Dreams a/k/a Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams (1981)
dir. Tommy Chong
written by Tommy Chong, Cheech Marin
w/ Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Stacey Keach, Evelyn Guerrero, Paul Reubens, Benita Barrie, Linnea Quigley, Tony Cox, Jimmy Fame, Sandra Bernhard, Tim Rossovich, Timothy Leary, Michael Winslow
The first naked man I ever saw in a movie was Cheech Marin in Nice Dreams, dangling from a glass elevator. Though R-rated, Cheech & Chong’s comedies are more lascivious and crude than misogynistic and mean-spirited—and the cast of California weirdos is diverse in a very 1970s way. More than a crowd-pleaser, they fostered a sense of camaraderie among audience members, or so my hometown theater memories suggest. I was eleven-years-old and I thought Nice Dreams was the coolest movie ever, so glad my mom got me into see whatever I wanted. It grossed 37 million dollars nationwide and, like Cheech & Chong’s original Up In Smoke (1978), it stands the tokes of time as a stoner comedy. Other than some slapstick sexcapades, the plot centers on our comic duo dealing stolen pot out of an ice cream truck, not knowing how close the cops are to a bust. The supporting cast makes every moment count. Stacy Keach (Fat City, Mike Hammer) returns as Sgt. Stedanko who smokes a strain of weed that turns him into an iguana. Look for Tony Cox (the elf in Bad Santa), Paul Reubens (a/k/a Peewee Herman) as a cokehead, sound effects wiz Michael Winslow (of the Police Academy movies), Sandra Bernhard (Without You I’m Nothing, Roseanne) as a female asylum patient, and acid guru Timothy Leary. Next up for Cheech & Chong are Things Are Tough All Over (1982) and Still Smokin (1983).
Ode to Billy Joe (1976) dir. Max Baer Jr.
written by Herman Raucher
w/ Glynnis O’Connor, Robby Benson, Joan Hotchkis, Sandy McPeak, James Best, Terence Goodman, Becky Bowen, Simpson Hemphill
This coming-of-age drama explains why Billy Joe McAllister (Robby Benson) jumps off the Tallahatchie Bridge, a topic much debated since Bobbie Gentry’s ambiguous ‘folk-noir’ single reached #1 in 1967. Not concerned with his motive, songwriter Gentry focuses on how Billy Joe’s friend Bobbie Lee and her family respond to the event—sitting around the dinner table and passing the biscuits as usual. In the movie, Bobbie Lee (Glynnis O’Connor), who talks like a romance magazine, indulges Billy Joe’s come-ons only to find out they are a cover-up for his homosexuality. The movie replaces the song’s dinner scene with a henhouse scene during which Bobbie Lee’s older brother (Terence Goodman) assumes Billy Joe killed himself because he got Bobbie Lee pregnant. He insists that she either get an abortion or leave town. Her silence is powerful. The movie begins and ends with her crossing the bridge. Who’d expect such a sensitive drama from director Max Baer Jr. a/k/a Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies? Netflix categorizes Ode to Billy Joe as “gay and lesbian,” and IMDb’s plot summary right away mentions Billy Joe’s closetedness, but my VHS cover from 1992 evades this altogether, calling it “a heartwarming family film about the tumult of teenage romance.” 105 minutes.
Outrageous! (1977) dir. Richard Benner
written by Richard Benner
w/ Craig Russell, Hollis McLaren, Richert Easley, Allan Moyle, Helen Shaver, David McIlwraith, Gerry Salsberg, Andrée Pelletier, Martha Gibson, Helen Hughes, Jonah Royston, Richard Moffatt, David Woito, Rusty Ryan, Trevor Bryan
Disco-era Canada gave us this queer cult classic based on—inspired by—semi-autobiographical stories in Margaret Gibson’s 1976 collection The Butterfly Ward. One story is epistolary, between schizophrenic Gibson in a mental ward and her friend Craig Russell, a burgeoning drag star and impersonator of Hollywood icons like Mae West and Bette Davis. Gibson writes: “Dear Bette…Or are you someone else today? …I know who you are but I will pretend I don’t just to confuse anyone else who might read this letter. Maybe I should tear it up into tiny bits and swallow it so no one but me will ever know who you are. All that matters is that you know who you are. That is something I could never master.” The film begins with Gibson’s character, named Liza and played by Hollis McLaren (Sunday in the Country, Atlantic City), leaving the institution and bunking in Toronto with Craig, named Robin but played by the actual Craig Russell. While Liza begins a new life, trying to stave off hallucinations, Robin begins his new career impersonating female celebrities. Liza’s storyline reveals an adversarial relationship between emerging patient and mental hospital. She wants to remain functional to spite the hospital: “They’re powerless as long as I can function. I’ll never go back to that locked ward.” Her paranoid friend in black eyeliner, Martin (Allan Moyle of Montreal Main and Rubber Gun, see entries above and below), is also a former patient but what bonds them on the outside also divides them. As for Robin, onstage he feels embraced by gay culture but offstage his genderqueerness is a turn-off for gay men. Robin’s plain-jane-ish pal Perry (Richert Easley) rounds out the cast delightfully. I just really love these folks, ragged edges and all; the Liza-Robin connection is so real it’s sticky. Outrageous! premiered at Manhattan’s Cinema II and, according to The Lavender Screen, “The ticket lines grew to equal those for Rocky as people of all backgrounds flocked to see the little-man-conquers-adversity tale.” The tale is, more accurately, about a gay-straight alliance conquering adversity; the two nonconformists may not change the systems that deem them abnormal but they do achieve personal stability and self-worth. Though the impossible-to-find sequel Too Outrageous! (1987) is for drag fans only, the original is for all of us who feel like outsiders. Note: Craig Russell’s career started late in high school, really; as president of Mae West’s fan club, his devotion and tenacity earned him a Hollywood stint as secretary to Ms. West herself.
Paper Moon (1973) dir. Peter Bogdanovich
written by Alvin Sargent
w/ Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Khan, John Hillerman, Burton Gilliam, PJ Johnson, James N. Harrell, Noble Willingham, Yvonne Harrison, Randy Quaid, Hugh Gillin, Lila Waters, Jody Wilbur, Liz Ross, Ed Reed, Dorothy Price, Dejah Moore, Rosemary Rumbley
The last in a string of classics for film demigod Bogdanovich, Paper Moon never went away. It earned its status in theaters as a top moneymaker, leading to an Oscar for Tatum O’Neal, then it aired on CBS in 1976 and cable thereafter to embed itself into the hearts of home viewers, as it did for me, and yet again it found new life on videocassette in 1980. It dramatizes choice parts of Joe David Brown’s Depression-era novel Addie Pray, relocating it from the Deep South to the lonely, weathered expanse of Kansas and Missouri—shot in b+w with a red filter and everything in focus. Moses Pray is a conman in a seersucker suit peddling Bibles to widows and, God working in mysterious ways, he manages to get stuck with a boyish, cigarette-smoking 9-year-old who just might be his daughter; they got the same jaw, as is noted. Ryan O’Neal, who’d just starred in Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and his daughter Tatum (who went on to star in Bad News Bears, Little Darlings) seem absolutely natural together onscreen, like they must have been part-celluloid in real life. Madeline Khan, nominated for a Supporting Oscar, is equally immortal as the jiggling Miss Trixie Delight. Her 15-year-old black maid Imogene—perfectly cast non-actor PJ Johnson—says Miss Trixie puts out like a gum machine. Khan’s best line, which she was reluctant to say, is “Let Miss Trixie sit up front with her big tits.” Our unlikely heroes also cross paths with John Hillerman, famous as Higgins on Magnum P.I., playing both bootlegger and sheriff. Look for Randy Quaid as a wrassling hillbilly. It’s a road movie, really, and together Moses and Addie “keep veering.” Edited by Verna Fields (Medium Cool, Jaws). 102 minutes with a faultless soundtrack. In 1974, by the way, Paper Moon was adapted into a short-lived TV sitcom with Jodie Foster as the boyish Addie Pray.
dir. John Waters
written by John Waters
see John Waters combo-entry under Hairspray
Period Piece (2006) dir. Giuseppe Andrews
written by Giuseppe Andrews
w/ Bill Tyree, Miles Dougal, Sparky Sparks, Bill Nowlin, John S. Coffey, Vietnam Ron, Tiffany C. Naylor, Walter Patterson, Greg Wells, Giuseppe Andrews
Andrews’ trash comedies (Trailer Town, Touch Me in the Morning) feature the shamelessly willing residents of a trailer park where he once lived. With the home movie grit of Uncle Goddamn, the shocking bad taste of early John Waters, and a colon full of its own highly original shit, Period Piece is quickly paced and remorseless in its exploitation. There are beaucoup penetration shots involving teddy bears. A dad smears his own phlegm on vaginas in his son’s porno mag. And, sicker yet, one constantly naked old man (Bill Tyree) rubs his ass-crack with pork rinds, dances with a dead pig, and snips off and eats his own armpit hair. Made for under a $1,000, Andrews’ anti-masterpiece is as blunt as an unflushed turd.
The Pink Angels (1976)
dir. Larry G. Brown
written by Margaret McPherson
w/ John Alderman, Tom Basham, Robert Biheller, Bruce Kimball, Henry Olek, Maurice Warfield, Dan Haggerty, George T. Marshall, Jackson Bostwick
Twenty years before Priscilla queened across the desert to a drag gig, a ‘faggot’ biker gang called The Pink Angels wheeled their way down the coast to a drag ball in L.A. Made by a gay porn director, written by a woman, and produced by nobodies, no wonder it’s more subversive than I expected. When the limey poet biker (Henry Olek) asks the well-mannered heavyset biker (Bruce Kimball) what he wants to drink, he answers, “Something stiff and stimulating for my throat.” Indeed! John Alderman plays the gang leader, star of straight porn as well as softcore movies like The Dirty Dolls (1973) and The Boob Tube (1975). Tom Basham is cute Michael, star of Larry Brown’s only other non-porn The Psychopath (1975). The gang is white except for their declared queen, a tall African-American (played seriously by Maurice Warfield) who’s very possessive of his Maidenform bra. Though these scruffy gay bikers wear the standard denim/leather garb on the road and deepen their voices, they’re easily prompted into girly mode. The biggest flamer (Robert Biheller) tells a jerk cop, “I’m one all-American red-blooded faggot and you can’t scare me!” All the while a conservative General is waging his own personal war on “long-hairs” and “sex criminals,” leading to a tragic ending that aligns Pink Angels with the classic road movie Easy Rider (1969). “They rode a lonely road, marked detour, through a straight world,” the Pink Angels trailer declares solemnly, “a world that wouldn’t allow them to survive.” Part of the drive-in movie collection Savage Cinema, distributed by Mill Creek Entertainment.
Pink Flamingos (1972) dir. John Waters
written by John Waters
w/ Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Edith Massey, Mary Vivian Pierce, Danny Mills, Channing Wilroy, Cookie Mueller, Nancy Crystal, Paul Swift, Susan Walsh, Linda Olgeirson, Pat Moran, Jack Walsh, Elizabeth Coffey
Counterculture’s rejection of sham manners and commercial beauty inspired many young people in the 1960s-70s to embrace bad taste and the grotesque. In addition to that, there was Pink Flamingos. The most notorious Midnight Movie of the 1970s, it lived again on VHS in the 1980s. It’s about Divine as the filthiest person alive and her rivals Connie and Raymond Marble (Stole, Lochary) who wage war by sending her a turd in the mail. Though taboo, Pink Flamingos reached even my small town’s video store where my mom kindly rented it for me. Unless a video store had a cult or ‘weird’ section, Pink Flamingos was usually shelved alongside X-rated titles in a separate little room with a door that squeaked upon entry. Anyway, little can be said that hasn’t already been said. Make sure to get the 25th Anniversary Edition and watch the deleted scenes. Waters’ plans for a sequel fell through; would’ve been titled Flamingos Forever. John Waters doesn’t actually like pink flamingo yard ornaments, by the way, and wishes people would stop sending them to him.
The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008)
dir. Joshua Safdie
written by Joshua Safdie, Eleonore Hendricks
w/ Eleonore Hendricks, Joshua Safdie, Andy Spade, Wayne Chin, Dawn Glickman, Astrid Larson
Yet another mumblecore portrait of a likeably unadmirable twentysomething who lives on the threshold of tragedy. Eleonore Hendricks (Nancy in Nancy, Please plus bit roles in Creative Nonfiction, Daddy Long Legs, Bad Biology) stars as Eleonore, a semi-professional klepto working the streets of NYC. She’s good. Until she gets caught anyway. Where the free spirit ends and the compulsive mercenary begins is difficult to tell. If theft doesn’t sink potential friendships, her cynical impertinence surely will. Shot in 16mm, the whole project started as a handbag commercial. It’s a winner, haunting in its way. 71 minutes. Joshua Safdie’s next film Daddy Long Legs (2009), directed with his brother Ben, is equally engaging.
Polyester (1981) dir. John Waters
written by John Waters
w/ Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey, David Samson, Mink Stole, Ken King, Mary Garlington, Stiv Bators, Cookie Mueller, Jean Hill, Jay Leno
John Waters transitioned from shocking underground to mainstream-friendly with his in-betweener Polyester, a satire of the trashier side of the bourgeoisie. Divine plays housewife Francine Fishpaw, trying to maintain a dignified home despite her husband owning a porno theater, her son indulging a psychotic foot fetish, and her trampy daughter partying with violent punkers (Stiv Bators et al). Francine’s pal is the world’s oldest debutante Cuddles Kovinsky (Edith Massey, her last film) while a deceptive new lover (Tab Hunter) will not save alcoholic Francine’s life as she hopes. So many quotable lines. Inspired by one of his heroes William Castle, known for cinema gimmicks, Waters offered moviegoers scratch-n-sniff cards that corresponded with certain moments in the movie (like Mr. Fishpaw farting in bed). Look for the Criterion DVD. It would take Waters seven years to release his next and most successful film, the PG-rated Hairspray (1988), Ricki Lake’s breakout film and Divine’s last film. For more on the post-underground era of John waters, see combo-entry under Hairspray at Comedy/Drama (A-L).
The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom (1993) dir. Michael Ritchie
written by Jane Anderson
w/ Holly Hunter, Frankie Ingrassia, Beau Bridges, Eddie Jones, Swoosie Kurtz, Elizabeth Ruscio, Gregg Henry, Jack Kehler, Frederick Koehler
This movie is based on a real-life case that made national headlines in 1991, including the cover of People magazine. To improve her daughter’s chances at making the cheerleading squad, Wanda Holloway hires a hit man to kill the competition. A wicked little tagline quoting Wanda says it perfectly: “The things you do for your kids.” ABC had already aired a version of the case, starring Leslie Ann Warren. This version for HBO is far cleverer at representing the media frenzy, including HBO’s own bid to the Holloways. Holly Hunter as Wanda has to be seen—and heard—to be appreciated. She nails every line. When Hunter went from this “trash” role to the mute in Jane Campion’s artsy The Piano (1993), embodying each character so distinctively, I became a loyal fan for life. Jane Anderson’s screenplay for TPTAOTATCMM does not, however, develop all characters as well as Wanda and her immediate family (Jones, Ingrassia, Koehler). Ever-reliable Beau Bridges makes the most of his thin role as Wanda’s brother-in-law; Kurtz as his wife, though, combines trailer park and mentally ill stereotypes for the sake of weirdness. But if you appreciate character acting, satire, and trash comedies, then Hunter as Wanda Holloway is a must-see.
Prairie Love (2011) dir. Dusty Bias
written by Dusty Bias, Ashley Martin, Holly Lynn Ellis
w/ Jeremy Clark, Holly Lynn Ellis, Garth Blomberg, Greta Grosch, Bryant Mock, Gene Curtiss, Ceecy Nucker, Aisha Vadell
Driving a station wagon at twenty miles an hour, hauling a dead deer on an old trailer with flat tires, our protagonist (Jeremy Clark) listens to a motivational tape about finding love: “Take what is yours and never look back.” He breaks into a house, siphons gas from an old truck, and finds a man with a mustache nearly frozen to death in the road (Garth Blomberg). No this is not a scene from something like Mad Max; it’s North Dakota in the dead of winter. He sets his sights on this man’s girlfriend (Lynn Ellis) who is about to be released from prison. Their ‘honeymoon’ night is awkward but they make a good team. Minimalist with a moody score and subtle performances, Prairie Love makes for a promising debut for Bias and a rewarding 81 minutes for the patient viewer .
The Puffy Chair (2005) dirs. Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
written by Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass
w/ Mark Duplass, Katie Aselton, Rhett Wilkins, Bari Dahan, Gerald Finnegan, Julie Fischer, Larry Duplass, Cindy Duplass
The Duplass brothers’ feature-length debut is a road movie. And a road-paved-with-good-intentions movie. In other words, it’s a breakup movie. Mark Duplass plays Josh, a less than ambitious young man who resists commitment as typically as his girlfriend Emily (Katie Aselton) requires it. Their trip to pick up an ebay-purchased recliner for his dad (Larry Duplass) proves most uncomfortable. Josh’s bearded brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), their traveling mate, spontaneously marries a woman (Julie Fischer) along the way. This irks Josh and Emily in different ways, bringing their own conflict to a boil. An early mumblecore film, it’s largely improvised and filmed with a nervous camera. And it became one of a growing number of independent movies distributed exclusively by Netflix. The comedy-horror film Baghead (2008) is next up for the duo.
Raising Arizona (1987) dirs. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
written by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
w/ Nicholas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Trey Wilson, Frances McDormand, William Forsythe, Tex Cobb, Sam McMurray, Lynne Dumin Kitei, M. Emmet Walsh
Upon its release, the New Yorker likened this Coen brothers’ comedy to opening day at a miniature golf course. A Chicago Tribune review ridiculed it as an episode of Hee Haw directed by an amphetamine-crazed Orson Welles. Such humorous jabs might well be compliments at this point, since Raising Arizona’s dismissed quirks have developed into respected Coen trademarks. Cage and Hunter are downright iconic as a convenient store robber named Hi and his wife Ed, a cop who can’t get pregnant. Their baby-kidnapping scheme gets complicated by the arrival of two escaped convicts (scene-stealers Goodman, Wilson) and a bounty hunter (Tex Cobb). A 2018 Zimbio article on Frances McDormand, star of nine Coen films, described her character Dot—a family friend to Hi and Ed—as her “wackiest, weirdest, and funniest performance.” Dot “can’t get enough babies in her life and isn’t ashamed to scream it from the rooftops. She seems certifiable, actually. Dot is a small role, but shades of her can be seen in several other McDormand characters.” Filled with slapstick action yet never lacking in sincerity, Raising Arizona is the Coens’ bright desert-setting answer to their downbeat Texas-noir debut Blood Simple (1984).
Reform School Girls (1986)
dir. Tom DeSimone
written by Tom DeSimone, Jack Cummins, Daniel Arthur Wray
w/ Pat Ast, Wendy O. Williams, Sybil Danning, Linda Carol, Sherri Stoner, Charlotte McGinnis, Denise Gordy, Andrea Darnell, Winifred Freedman, Laurie Schwartz
Wendy O. of the metal-punk band The Plasmatics plays Charlie, the alpha-dyke inmate in a reform school run by a sadistic prison matron named Edna a/k/a Mr. Ed. Aside from her roles in Andy Warhol’s Heat (1972) and Donna Summer’s “Bad Girl” video, Edna is Pat Ast at her Pat Astiest. In response to the arrival of new girls Jenny and Lisa (Carol, Stoner), Edna says, “I though I smelled fish!” And when she discovers a kitten smuggled into the dormitory, she squashes it with her shoe in a moment of pure screwball evil. This scene, several key moments, and Edna herself are all lifted from the women-in-prison classic Caged (1950, with 6’2’’ Hope Emerson as prison matron). Sybil Danning, a ubiquitous babe in b-movies, plays the Nazi-like warden. Plot doesn’t really matter so much as shower scenes, catfights, and one-liners like “You’re just a piss-stain on the panties of life.” Wendy O. did her own stunts and the movie’s ending song “It’s My Life.” She dedicated her last years to animal welfare and then, despondent about her life, killed herself in 1998. We miss you, Wendy.
Rosalie Goes Shopping (1989) dir. Percy Adlon
written by Christopher Doherty, Percy Adlon, Eleonore Adlon
w/ Marianne Sägebrecht, Brad Davis, Judge Reinhold, Kohn Hawkes, Alex Winter
Bomb Magazine says Adlon “creates a world that is both mundanely familiar and yet enchanted. He is a humanist who presents tales in which outcast characters find happy endings by banding together.” That’s true here with Rosalie (Marianne Sägebrecht), a Bavarian scam-artist in Arkansas. She’s married to an adorable crop-dusting pilot (Brad Davis) and supports a big family of quirky kids by questionable means: creative accounting, forged checks, and soon enough computer-hacking. Just how long can she pull it off? In Adlon’s crisp, vibrant style, this fantasy about getting one over on the system—over and over—is the perfect culmination of his collaborations with Sägebrecht (Sugarbaby, Bagdad Café). Adlon first met Sägebrecht at her theater company in Munich where she was known as “Mother of the Subculture.” About his recognizable style, Adlon explained his lighting as mood colors, not real colors, so “what you see is colored by what my main characters imagine.” See entry below on Sugarbaby or Comedy/Drama (A-L) for Bagdad Café.
The Rubber Gun (1977)
dir. Allan Moyle
written by Stephen Lack, Allan Moyle
w/ Stephen Lack, Allan Moyle a/k/a Allan Bozo Moyle, Pierre Robert, Peter Brawley, Pam Holmes, Joe Mattia, Armand Monroe, Bill Booth, Curzon Olstrom, Lilly Glidden, Rainbow Robert
The primary actors from Frank Vitale’s incomparable Montreal Main (1974) return to again play variations of themselves in Rubber Gun, with Vitale as cinematographer. Linear and less improvised, its narrative more immediately accessible, Rubber Gun is still daring and just as ‘70s quirky-queer, with an audacious soundtrack by Lewis Furey. Real-life artist Stephen Lack gets the lead role here playing artist Steve, head of a small crew of drug-dealing nonconformists known as The Family. We are introduced to its members via interloper Bozo, a sociology student writing his thesis on The Family as a drug-using social group. Bozo observes and takes notes and develops a sexual(ly ambiguous) relationship with Steve. Meanwhile the police observe them all and take their own notes, planting bugs, plotting a sting, and manipulating Family member Pierre. With his androgyny and big ego, Pierre is almost fluid—a bisexual, a heroin addict, a prostitute, a husband to Pam, a father to Rainbow, and a mole. His tolerant wife Pam, whose personality rivals any of the male family members, is perceptive but not all-knowing. If Pierre advances the plot, the increasingly wary Steve backs away from it. All he’s ever wanted was to keep making art, to keep living as an artist, but he’s not made a living from his art in years. Lack’s delivery, though not the catty jet-jabber of Montreal Main, remains an idiosyncratic blend of tough guy antagonist, irreverent queen, Beat poet, and improv actor. My favorite scene just lets him and acerbic Peter stand court-side dishing about young fellows playing basketball. This is Lack’s film, really, earning him two Genie Award nominations—for Best Leading Actor and for Best Screenplay. Lack is best known, nonetheless, for his leading role in David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1980). Rubber Gun was screened at MoMA’s “New Directors/New Films” series but is now impossible to find, on VHS or DVD, and the only version currently on YouTube was recorded off TV. Fans of Queer Film and Quirky Cinema, however, should look for it and for Montreal Main and Outrageous! (1977) too. Note: Allan “Bozo” Moyle went on to direct more mainstream titles like Times Square (1980), The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992), and Pump Up the Volume (1997).
Season of the Witch a/k/a Jack’s Wife a/k/a Hungry Wives (1972) dir. George A. Romero
written by George A. Romero
w/ Jan White, Ray Laine, Ann Muffly, Joedda McClain, Bill Thunhurst, Esther Lapidus, Bob Trow, Dan Mallinger
Romero’s second movie after Night of the Living Dead (1968) is about unhappy housewife Joan Mitchell (Jan White) who’s so doubtful of her own ability to change her life that she dabbles in witchcraft as a way to make those changes happen. Romero says, in Paul R. Gagne’s book on his films, that she can’t act on her own behalf without conjuring up “a reason for it happening that is not coming from within her. …She needs to be able to say ‘the Devil made me do it!’” So the movie is not about witchcraft as belief or practice but, instead, Joan’s ironic shift from subjugated Jack’s wife to the altar-kneeling role of witch. The performances are harmoniously inconsistent, a side effect of low-budget filmmaking that I tend to love. Romero’s cinematography and editing are two factors holding the movie together while breathing vital energy into scenes that slowly unfold. Alas, his timely drama never stood a chance. Once finished, Jack’s Wife at 130 minutes was reduced to 89 minutes by distributors and titled Hungry Wives to be sold as a sex movie. No wonder it was hated. Those expecting sex got feminism and tense Cassavetes-like dialogue. Those expecting horror got suburban self-actualization. Adding insult to injury, Romero’s original cut was lost. It was re-released on VHS under the title Season of the Witch (capitalizing on the use of Donovan’s song during a turning point montage) and eventually made its way to Anchor Bay DVD with a new running time of 103 minutes. Adjust your expectations and check it out. In some ways—stylistically, thematically—Witch is the mother of Romero’s masterpiece Martin (1976).
Serial Mom (1994)
dir. John Waters
written by John Waters
see John Waters combo-entry under Hairspray
Series 7 a/k/a Series 7: The Contenders (2001)
dir. Daniel Minahan
written by Daniel Minahan
w/ Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Marylouise Burke, Richard Venture, Michael Kaycheck, Merritt Wever, Susan Shopmaker, Will Arnett
Series 7 is like a marathon run of Reality TV episodes in the form of an 86-minute movie, satirizing Reality conventions by raising the stakes as high as possible: Kill or be killed. In turn, the film features characters far more interesting, even quirky–darkly quirky. Our hero is very pregnant Dawn Lagarto, played by underrated Smith who began her career as an American girl trapped in Buffalo Bill’s basement. Other contenders, forced by law to participate, include a coldhearted nurse (Burke of Hung, Sideways), a gun-nut daddy’s girl (Wever of Nurse Jackie), and a terminally ill closet-case (Fitzgerald of Neal Cassady). Setting the episodes in Dawn’s Connecticut hometown assures that old wounds are opened as new wounds are inflicted. Series 7 implies a world in which TV viewers accept murder as a natural and legalized extension of the usual Reality fodder. In this way it borders on dystopian, dramatizing what happens to contenders like Dawn who try to take back their lives. Narrated by Arrested Development’s Will Arnett.
Shadey (1985) dir. Philip Saville
written by Snoo Wilson
w/ Antony Sher, Patrick McNee, Billie Whitelaw, Katherine Helmond, Leslie Ash, Bernard Hepton, Jesse Birdsall, Larry Lamb, Bernard Hepton
No movie representing the transgender experience is more important to me than Shadey. I saw it when it first came out on video, another oddball title with a sensationally misleading cover (pictured at left) to make the shelf in my small hometown. Misunderstood and forsaken, it’s yet to be released on DVD though viewers today, especially queer ones, might be better able to access its fantastic dramatization of the transformation process. Antony Sher (his career began ten years earlier in a gay performance group) plays Oliver Shadey, a transsexual mechanic who can think his visions onto film in a camera. In order to pay for his surgery, he trades his psychic ability to an industrialist (Patrick Macnee a/k/a John Steed on The Avengers) and a government scientist (the always killer Billie Whitelaw of Twisted Nerve and The Omen). Exploiting Shadey for profits and power, they contractually hijack his transformation into a woman—but Shadey’s willpower is greater than industry and science. What a wild and inspiring ending! Another reason I love this movie is because of the subplot involving Macnee’s daughter, played by TV actor Leslie Ash, and his crazy coal-eating wife played by Saint of the Quirky Katherine Helmond (Soap, Brazil) who is quirky here to a perverse degree.
Shaye St. John: The Triggers Collection
a/k/a Shaye & Kiki (2004) dir. Eric Fournier
written by Eric Fournier
w/ Shaye St. John
Shaye St. John is a Frankenstein’s monster for extreme cinema in the new millennium. Created from ill-fitting spare parts (little wooden hands, mannequin legs, masks, wigs, shapeless garments, skin tape), with a girly voice that’s been compared to chipmunk Alvin on amphetamines, St. John is barely human and what is human may well be the director himself in disguise. According to internet lore, which is all there is to go on, St. John is a former model who was severely disfigured and either dismembered or paralyzed in a car accident. Her sidekick is a doll with a burnt face named Kiki. Obsessively intricate and flawed to perfection, the “Triggers” series is also spliced together from various parts (twisted original footage, video filters, sound effects, cheesy graphics, hints of narrative) and so it feels like one whole if not coherent movie. The DVD includes music videos that are equally mesmerizing. Total running time 98 minutes. Fournier supposedly died in 2010, so we may never know the real story behind these unshakable blasts of cinematic madness.
She-Man (1968) dir. Bob Clark
written by Bob Clark, Jeff Gillen
w/ Leslie Marlowe, Dorian Wayne, Wendy Roberts, Jeff Gillen, Crystal Hans
Beloved in the realm of cinema with personality, Bob Clark made one cult classic after another throughout the 1970s and early 80s. This is his first full-length movie. It’s about a man named Albert Rose (Leslie Marlowe) who’s blackmailed into becoming Rose Albert and serving as maid to his transgendered blackmailer Dominita (Dorian Wayne) for one year. It turns out that Dominita’s whole estate is maintained by forced labor living full-time as the opposite sex. One might expect the humor to be at the expense of these characters but that’s not Clark’s style. Even the movie’s framing device, a cue card reading psychologist, encourages the audience to have an open mind. The cross-dressing is deemed normal; it’s Dominita’s hunger for and abuse of power that’s pathologized. 70 minutes, b+w. On a Gender-Bender double-feature DVD with the equally bizarre but far less coherent Sins of Rachel (1972).
Sins of Rachel (1972) dir. Richard Fontaine
written by Ann Noble
w/ Ann Noble, Bruce Campbell, Jerome Scott, Brett Mariott, Fred D. Scott
Not to be confused with the The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961), this is a trashy, super-cheap melodrama filmed in Texturetone and edited with garden shears. It opens with a hot guy on a motorcycle riding into town and ends, happily it seems, with two hot guys on a motorcycle riding off into the sunset. The plot in between, centering on Rachel (Ann Noble), is a disjointed blur—like a soap opera exploded. Big-hipped and overly made-up, Rachel is a horny middle-aged mother who’ll seduce any man including her gay son (Bruce Campbell—not the Evil Dead star). Fontaine directed some of the first beefcake flicks, called posing-pouch films, with titles like In the Days of Greek Gods (1958) and Muscles from Outer Space (1962). His film from 1970, I Am Curious Gay, is at this point not to be found. But we have Sins of Rachel, written by its oddball star. And I’m glad. It deserves a certain kind of patience, however, that Trash Cinema or Queer Cinema fans may more easily muster.
The Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) dir. Tamara Jenkins
written by Tamara Jenkins
w/ Natasha Lyonne, Alan Arkin, David Kromholtz, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Corrigan, Mena Suvari, Eli Marienthal, Carl Reiner, Rita Moreno, Marley McClean, Mary Portser, Jessica Walters, Charlotte Stewart, Bryna Weiss
The quirky Abromowitzes in this comedy-drama are based on Tamara Jenkins’ own family. Natasha Lyonne (a kid on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, a teen in But I’m a Cheerleader, and an inmate on Orange Is the New Black) gives one of her best performances as protagonist Vivian, a 1970s adolescent who resents being well-endowed and loses her virginity just to get it over with. She loves her well-meaning but unlucky dad (Alan Arkin) and her brothers (Kromholtz, Marienthal), as well as their promiscuous cousin (Marisa Tomei), and they do what they’ve got to do to keep a roof over their heads in Beverly Hills—or the outskirts thereof. Definitely re-watchable. The Guardian describes Lyonne as “a tomboyish combination of corkscrew hair and flawless deadpan.”
Smithereens (1982) dir. Susan Seidelman
written by Ron Nyswaner & Peter Askin
w/ Susan Berman, Richard Hell, Brad Rijn, Amos Poe, Cookie Mueller, Chris Noth, Nada Despotovich, Robynne White, Kitty Summerall, Cookie Mueller, Geretta Geretta, Roma Maffia
Unlike Seidelman’s quintessential ‘80s comedy Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), this is not a neon-pop slice of life in NYC. No one is likeable in Smithereens, especially manipulative and explosive Wren (Susan Berman). Willfulness, perhaps, is her one admirable trait. Her attempts at visibility begin with flyers showing her face and asking “Who Is This?”—a DIY punk version of Gladys Glover’s billboard in It Should Happen To You! (1954). Nothing ever works for Wren, though. Evicted from her apartment, she crashes with various acquaintances like a guy with a van (Brad Rijn) and a guy in a band (music legend Richard Hell from Blank Generation). Hell, a real-life member of the NYC underground, says in a special feature interview that he admires the film but feels betrayed by how dismally it represents the scene. It wasn’t that bad, apparently—for guys anyway. The excellent soundtrack includes ESG and The Feelies. It was the first indie feature to play at Cannes. Whether or not you care about Wren, it’s a gritty downward spiral with a disturbing end that stays with you.
Sonny Boy (1987) dir. Robert Martin Carroll
written by Graeme Whifler
w/ Paul L. Smith, David Carradine, Michael Griffin, Brad Dourif, Sydney Lassick, Conrad Janis, Alexandra Powers
300 pounds and 6 feet tall, Paul L. Smith played memorable villains like the heartless prison guard in Midnight Express (1978) and Bluto in Popeye (1980). Here he plays ferocious bully Slue who pretty much owns the remote desert town of Harmony. His strapping wife Pearl finds a baby in a car stolen by Slue’s lackey (Brad Dourif) but Slue is not the dad sort. Sonny Boy is kept first in a locked crate and later in an empty silo on Slue’s ranch. For his sixth birthday, Sonny Boy receives “the gift of silence” when Slue cuts out his tongue; as narrator, Sonny Boy tells us how Pearl puts his “voice” in the freezer for safekeeping and then she eats birthday cake as if nothing’s happened. There’s a lot of twisted little details like this in Sonny Boy: a plastic pyramid loaded with stolen goods, a lynch mob led by a girl with braces, and adult Sonny Boy (Michael Griffin) hugging a Jesus statue. I have to honor cult icon David Carradine (Kung Fu) above all. Pearl is certainly his oddest role, though he plays her without a drop of condescension or camp. What’s more, not one character in the movie ever acknowledges Pearl’s gender ambiguity, leaving it refreshingly vague whether Pearl is a masculine female or a “man living as a woman” (to use the terms of the era). Years ago I bought a so-so DVD bootleg of Sonny Boy through Cinema de Bizarre, the only way to see this gritty quirkfest. Cinema de Bizarre has now gone out of business but, as of 2016, Sonny Boy is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.
Sordid Lives (2000) dir. Del Shores
written by Del Shores
w/ Beth Grant, Leslie Jordan, Bonnie Bedelia, Ann Walker, Kirk Geiger, Delta Burke, Beau Bridges, Rosemary Alexander, Sarah Hunley, Newell Alexander, Olivia Newton-John, Earl H. Bullock, Mary Margaret Lewis, Gloria LeRoy
Revered matriarch Peggy (Gloria LeRoy) trips over her lover’s prosthetic legs in a hotel room and dies. This off-screen scandal frames a tangle of white trash storylines set in Texas, all great fun, and one storyline set in L.A. What raises the ‘trashy’ Texas scenes to an art form is the dialogue—tightly loaded with backstory and hilarious details—and its zing-a-ding delivery by a winning cast. Ann Walker and Bonnie Bedelia play Peggy’s daughters, one a buxom flirt and the other a tight-ass. Leslie Jordan is now iconic as Brother Boy, Peggy’s institutionalized son who dresses like Tammy Wynette. The pitch-perfect* Beth Grant plays Peggy’s sister, a voice of reason even as she’s trying to quit smoking (*no one can say “lugnuts” or “tallywacker” like good ol’ Beth Grant). Only the message-burdened parts with Peggy’s grandson Ty (Kirk Geiger), a gay actor discovering gay pride in Hollywood, ring hollow to me. Brother Boy is a stereotype, certainly, but Jordan (My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, American Horror Story) brings such sincerity to the character, especially when facing off with his hilariously insincere therapist (Rosemary Alexander). Real depth can be seen in his eyes, through all that mascara and eye shadow, and his retort “Can you see my pussy now?” is the movie’s most heroic line. Other notable actors are TV icon Delta Burke in a role she nails, ever-pleasant Jeff Bridges, Sarah Hunley as the lushiest lush this side of Lushville, and Olivia Newton-John singing the fun title track. Sordid Lives achieved a cult following on DVD significant enough to prompt a prequel TV series in 2008.
Sorry to Bother You (2018) dir. Boots Riley
written by Boots Riley
w/ LaKeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, David Cross, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Patton Oswalt, Lily James, Forest Whitaker
“Sorry to bother you” is part of the telemarketer’s script. “Stick to the script” is the telemarketer’s motto. This is the first lesson for Regal View newbie Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield). Second lesson is to use a “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross), a skill that rockets Cash into “power caller” position and a nagging awareness of the dystopian nature of Regal View—particularly in relation to counterpart Worry Free, a company that spins modern slavery into guaranteed employment and housing for life. The director, longtime Oakland-based poet, songwriter, and rapper Boots Riley, accomplishes what may be the anticapitalist masterpiece of the new century, as radical as it is accessible, as grounded in realism as it is unrestrained by the status quo. In an interview with Amy Goodman he described his cinematic vision as literary; indeed the film is full of ideas like a novel and rich with poetic detail and rhythm. Though there is an autobiographical element to Cash’s character, Cash’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a socially conscious artist, “is probably the closest to me,” says Riley, in how her character “deals with the question of what art can actually do.” (I love her t-shirt that reads “The Future Is Female Ejaculation.”) The vibrant flair of Doug Emmett’s cinematography is matched by a brilliant score—a collaboration between Oakland faves The Coup (Riley’s band) and the Tune-Yards.
Stevie (1978) dir. Robert Enders
written by Hugh Whitemore
w/ Glenda Jackson, Mona Washbourne
Few viewers now will have the patience for this adaptation of Hugh Whitemore’s monologue-driven play about the spinster poet Stevie Smith. For me, however, it is hallowed ground. Embedded in the middle-class yet an outsider at the same time, Stevie Smith wrote witty verse mocking bourgeois values like religion and snobbery. A famous example of the latter is her shortest poem: “This Englishwoman is so refined. She has no bosom and no behind.” The legendary Glenda Jackson (Women in Love, Negatives) captures Smith’s dowdy yet cool exterior as well as her more heated interior voice that careens from witty anecdotes to morbid philosophizing. The other main character is Smith’s “lion aunt” with whom she’s lived for most of her life, a defiantly pleasant and increasingly dotty old dame whose death, we realize, may well mean downfall for the increasingly vulnerable Smith. The New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review each named Jackson as Best Actress and Washbourne as Best Supporting Actress. Very hard to find.
Suburbia (1983) dir. Penelope Spheeris
written by Penelope Spheeris
w/ Bill Coyne, Chris Pedersen, Derek O’Brien, Jennifer Clay, Flea, Timothy Eric O’Brien, Wade Walston, Maggie Ehrig, Christina Beck, Andrew Pece, Donald V. Allen, Lee Frederick, Jeff Prettyman
Between her punk rockumentary The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) and the crime-spree thriller Boys Next Door (1984), Spheeris directed this low-budget Roger Corman production about L.A. runaways starring actual street punks. Among the 14 teens living in a roach-infested house, in an abandoned suburb where dogs run wild, are new guy Evan (Bill Coyne), nice guy and alpha-male Jack (Chris Pederson), incest victim Sheila (Jennifer Clay), and rat-petting Razzle (Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers). All the characters are extreme yet likeable and if the acting had been professional then this movie would not have meant what it meant to those of us who were teens when it first hit video stores. Club scenes feature TSOL, DI, and The Vandals. The dark lo-fi score is by Alex Gibson. And on DVD I could really see the wild dog attacking the toddler in the opening scene. In other words: Avoid VHS copies. Spheeris’s film inspired The Pet Shop Boys’ 1986 song “Suburbia” and has some major factors in common with La Haine (1995).
Sugar Baby a/k/a Zuckerbaby (1985) dir. Percy Adlon
written by Percy Adlon
w/ Marianne Sägebrecht, Eisi Gulp, Toni Berger, Manuela Denz, Will Spindler, Paul Wurges
This is the fourth theatrical release from celebrated filmmaking couple Percy Adlon (writer-director) and Eleonore Adlon (writer-producer). It’s also their first of three international hits starring Marianne Sägebrecht—followups being Bagdad Café (1987, see Comedy/Drama (A-L)) and Rosalie Goes Shopping (1989, see entry above). In Sugarbaby, she plays a woman also named Marianne; not a belle of Munich bohemia like Sägebrecht, the film’s Marianne is a dumpy mortician’s assistant stuck in routine, almost catatonic on the Munich subway. Then she falls in love with a handsome young conductor (Eisi Gulp). Let the stalking, the snacking, and the self-realization begin! Adlon’s signature use of color-filtered lighting (credit to cinematographer Johanna Heer) is not only expressionistic, it is theatrical—stagey, enclosed—with swashes of pink and green and blue (I think of certain Bava and Argento films). Richard Skorman’s classic film guide from 1989, Off-Hollywood Movies, highly recommends Sugarbaby: “Director Adlon is careful not to exploit Marianne in her moments of disappointment. By the end of the movie, every ounce on her Rubenesque body has evolved into a testament to the joy of life. Sägebrecht gives an immensely appealing performance as both couch potato and cherry blossom.” NOTE: A deplorable, style-less US remake for TV called Baby Cakes (1989) stars Ricki Lake.
Sugar Cookies a/k/a Love Me My Way (1973)
dir. Theodore Gershuny
written by Theodore Gershuny, Lloyd Kaufman
w/ Mary Woronov, George Shannon, Lynn Lowry, Monique Van Vooren, Ondine, Reid Cruickshanks, Maureen Byrnes, Jennifer Welles, Dabiel Sador, Lloyd Kaufman
A porn director murders his star Alta and stages it like a suicide. A look-alike surfaces named Julie—played by the same actor, Lynn Lowry, who followed with memorable roles in Romero’s The Crazies and Cronenberg’s Shivers. The revenge plot is twisted with mind games, betrayal, and style. If Sugar Cookies had been distributed originally as the “dark, foreboding, lesbian semi-remake of Vertigo and Sweet Smell of Success” it is, says producer Lloyd Kaufman in the intro, then perhaps it could have found the right audience. “Instead it went down in history as being the only X-rated movie ever to lose money.” Gracing the screen are three Warhol superstars, reason enough to watch. Alta’s avenging lover Camila Stone is played with a sexy cold ferocity by Mary Woronov of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966) and Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul (1982). The vivacious Monique Van Vooreen plays platinum blonde Helen. She’s the She-Devil in Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953) and Baroness Frankenstein in Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973). And obscure gay icon Ondine, of Warhol’s The Loves of Ondine (1968), is Roderick. Co-produced by Oliver Stone. 82 minutes. Special features include interviews with Woronov and Lowry. Kaufman, the director Gershuny, and his real-life wife Woronov all worked together on the 1972 production Silent Night, Bloody Night.
Sweetie (1989) dir. Jane Campion
written by Gerard Lee, Jane Campion
w/ Geneviève Lemon, Karen Colston, Tom Lycos, Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry, Michael Lake, Andre Pataczek, Jean Hadgraft, Paul Livingston, Louise Fox, Ann Merchant, Robin Frank, Bronwyn Morgan, Sean Fennell
Australian director Jane Campion’s striking short films—Peel, Passionless Moments, A Girl’s Own Story, released on VHS in 1992 as Films by Jane Campion, now available as extras on Criterion’s Sweetie DVD—were honored at Cannes with Un Certain Regard screenings and the Short Film Palme d’Or. These shorts laid an auteur’s path to a string of undeniably innovative gems—Two Friends, Sweetie, An Angel at My Table (see Comedy/Drama (A-L)), and The Piano—that not only broke ground for women directors but also raised the bar for independent cinema. For the first half hour of Sweetie, we get to know Kay (Karen Colston), cool and rather opaque, as she gets to know Louis, her charmingly transparent new boyfriend (Tom Lycos). It’s not going so well when Sweetie breaks in, literally breaking a window to crash their ambivalent privacy. Sweetie is Kay’s sister though Kay insists, “She was just born. I didn’t have anything to do with her.” Sweetie is a big gust of lack of impusle control, her personality struggling between aggressive sociopath and exhibitionistic daydreamer, and Geneviève Lemon is unforgettable. Campion’s poetic treatment of the everyday is apparent in every shot, stylized but not pretentious, while the dialogue turns compellingly on the unforthcoming.
dir. Tom Kalin
see combo-entry with Compulsion (1959)
The Talent Given Us (2004)
dir. Andrew Wagner
Andrew Wagner told Roger Ebert that The Talent Given Us is a fiction film using the materials of documentary: “My parents, sisters and friends play my parents, sisters and friends.” It could be called fictionalized verité, or verité performances in a slightly fictionalized narrative. Since Wagner wrote the original script based on his parents, he explained to indieWIRE, “I just had this powerful intuition that my mother and father would bring with them a level of idiosyncrasy and surprise that was worth believing in. Casting them was not about personal catharsis for me. It was a storytelling decision.” On a special feature, Wagner is asked how long the family members rehearsed for a scene. He answers without hesitating: “40 years.” IndieWIRE named it one of the best films of 2004 without distribution. Its genre hybridity might be better appreciated if clearer up front; being categorized strictly as comedy explains why so many viewers expected to find it funny ha ha instead of funny peculiar.
Terri (2011) dir. Azazel Jacobs
written by Patrick Dewitt, Azazel Jacobs
w/ Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Bridger Zadina, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia, Tim Heidecker, Justin Prentice, Mary Anne McGarry, Tara Karsian
The director of GoodTimesKid (2005) and Momma’s Man (2008) offers a vivid portrait of an obese 15-year-old boy coming of age. Living with an uncle who may have Alzheimer’s (Creed Bratton), Terri is a caregiver as tender as he is resigned. At school he’s harassed, his “tits” a constant source of amusement to peers—even more so than the fact that he wears pajamas all the time. John C. Reilly (Good Girl, Cyrus) is brilliant as assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald, a flawed role model whose shtick can be painfully earnest. Terri is also befriended, in unpredictable ways, by a scrawny delinquent (Bridger Zadina) and a popular girl turned pariah (Olivia Crocicchia). Though these very authentic relationships are the thrust of the film, it’s the emphasis on Terri’s wooded walks to and from school—alone, beyond sadness and cruelty—that makes me feel close to him. Jacob Wysocki is perfectly cast as Terri. He went on to star in Fat Kid Rules the World (2012).
3 Women (1977) dir. Robert Altman
written by Robert Altman
w/ Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier, Ruth Nelson, John Cromwell
What began as Altman’s dream developed into a dreamlike character study with shades of Bergman’s Persona (1966). It’s about new roommates Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek). Millie talks all the time despite being ignored. She keeps a meticulous apartment though no one stops by. Yes she’s a major reality check waiting to happen. But quiet, wide-eyed Pinky adores her, calling her “The most perfect person I ever met.” As time passes, the two characters change in mysterious ways, leading them into the realm of psychodrama. The third woman, by the way, is played by Janice Rule. She skirts the margins of the film until the horrific climax. There’s enough ambiguity to make you wonder for a long time but not so much that you have no sense of what happens. Duvall won Best Actress at Cannes while Spacek won a NY Film Critics Circle Award for Supporting Actress. It’s my favorite Altman film. According to the tagline, it’s “A motion picture that will make you reexamine everyone you’ve ever wanted to be.”
Thundercrack! (1975) dir. Curt McDowell
written by George Kuchar, Curt McDowell, Mark Ellinger
w/ George Kuchar, Marion Eaton, Ken Scudder, Melinda McDowell, Mookie Blodgett, Ken Scudder, Bernie Boyle, Mark Ellinger, Laurie Hendricks
McDowell, an underground filmmaker from the Bay Area, is remembered most for this b+w oddity that combines high camp melodrama, comic horror, and graphic porn (gay, straight, and otherwise). Much like Rocky Horror (also 1975), it lifts its premise partly from the James Whale classic The Old Dark House (1932) in which a stormy night forces travelers to take refuge in an old dark house. In this case it’s a moldering Midwestern mansion called Prairie Blossom, the occupants of which are Gert, played with bravado by Marion Eaton (Sip the Wine, Sparkle’s Tavern), and her deformed son (Mark Ellinger) whom she keeps locked in a secret room. The five unexpected visitors are as sexed-up as Gert is sexually uptight, compelling some finely overwrought monologues. The 192-page script, written with a ballpoint during Kuchar’s stay at a YMCA, adds up to a whopping 160 minutes of perversity! Can you handle it? Just a few years ago Thundercrack! was available only on bootleg video; now it is available from Synapse Films on DVD in a 40th Anniversary Edition, as well on Blu-ray.
Tiny Furniture (2010) dir. Lena Dunham
written by Lena Dunham
w/ Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Alex Karpovsky, David Call, Merritt Weaver, Amy Seimetx
Prior to her controversial and often brilliant HBO show Girls (2012-2017), Lena Dunham made the mumblecore-ish, perhaps even post-mumblecore Tiny Furniture featuring friends and relatives. Dunham wrote her award-winning script but it is, to a degree, based on actual dialogue. It feels organic, wildly succinct in its characterizations, so real it is almost satire; this is why many indie fans initially assumed it to be improvised and therefore part of the peaking mumblecore genre. Durnham plays protagonist Aura, as much a product of TriBeCa as she is a misfit in it, especially upon return from college. Staying with her mom (Laurie Simmons, Dunham’s real-life mom) and younger sister (Grace Dunham), who’ve adapted to life without her, she flounders in typical mumblecore fashion. Why did I come to love Dunham’s character? For one thing she hates foreign movies despite her degree in film studies. Other more significant contradictions pile up, much as they do when transitioning between college and career, all leading to an abrupt and appropriately unresolved ending.
Touch Me in the Morning (1999) dir. Giuseppe Andrews
written by Giuseppe Andrews
w/ Giuseppe Andrews, Bill Nowlin, Ruth Estes, Walt Dongo, Walter Patterson, Dennis Taylor, Sparky Sparks, Taffy, El Dookie
20-year-old Giuseppe Andrews, a super-cute TV actor since 1989, had spent his early childhood in trailer parks and lived in a trailer park when he made this, his first movie. The stars are his lowbrow, mostly elderly neighbors. Ruth Estes is his murderous mom with a sock puppet and Bill Nowlin plays his Daddy Bill, a sex-obsessed exhibitionistic. Playfully plotless, totally scatalogical, and oddly racist, it’s got balls-out bravado. Quite literally as there’s lots of old dude nudity. Shot on video in b+w. That it’s named after the Diana Ross ballad is just perfect. Look for the 90-minute DVD from Troma. It’s special features include 3 Andrews shorts, which he calls After School Specials. So crack open a brand new jar of peanut butter and enjoy the madness.
Trash a/k/a Andy Warhol’s Trash (1970) dir. Paul Morrissey
written by Paul Morrissey
w/ Holly Woodlawn, Joe Dallesandro, Jane Forth, Michael Sklar, Geri Miller, Andrea Feldman, Johnny Putnam, Bruce Pecheur, Diane Podlewski
Beyond his name, hands-off producer Andy Warhol contributed little to nothing to Paul Morrissey’s films. Without that name, though, the Warhol Superstar wouldn’t exist. Holly Woodlawn, according to her autobiography A Low Life in High Heels, wanted to be the first of his stars known for acting skill over oddity. Fate can be tricky as her performance in Trash prompted legendary director George Cukor to petition for her nomination for a Best Actress Oscar. She plays a character named Holly who is barely getting by at all times, reselling items she finds dumpster-diving to raise cash. Mooching off her is impotent Joe (Joe Dallesandro), forever scamming to buy heroin a/k/a “junk.” Holly masturbates with a beer bottle, blows a passed-out college boy, and fakes a pregnancy. Another movie my dear ol’ momma endured when I was a teenager, it still remains my fave of the Warhol-Morrissey lot. Woodlawn would become most famous, perhaps, as the transsexual lauded in Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side.” She died of cancer in 2015, a legend at 69-years-old.
Trees Lounge (1996) dir. Steve Buscemi
written by Steve Buscemi
w/ Steve Buscemi, Carol Kane, Mark Boone Junior, Chloë Sevigny, Bronson Dudley, Anthony LaPaglia, Debi Mazar, Michael Buscemi, Daniel Baldwin, Mimi Rogers, Eszter Balint
Trees Lounge is a bar where unemployed mechanic Tommy, played by Steve Buscemi, spends much of his time. Carol Kane (Hester Street, Mafu Cage) is the bartender and Mark Boone Junior (Lonesome Jim) his irritable pal. Tommy’s only lucky break is getting to drive an ice cream truck, which leads to a risky relationship with a 17-year-old (Chloë Sevigny) whose dad (Daniel Baldwin) has anger management issues. Buscemi’s directorial debut is not only as good as any Buscemi fan would expect, it’s even better: ambiguous, bleak, droll, authentic, harsh, and tender. The ensemble cast, rivaling Woody Allen and Robert Altman, includes Seymour Cassel, Samuel L. Jackson, Larry Gilliard Jr., Brooke Smith, and several Sopranos (1999–2007) players: Michael Imperioli, John Ventimiglia, Elizabeth Bracco, Suzanne Shepherd. Buscemi’s next film is Lonesome Jim (2006).
The Trotsky (2009) dir. Jacob Tierney
written by Jacob Tierney
w/ Jay Baruchel, Liane Balaban, Emily Hampshire, Michael Murphy, Saul Rubinek, Colm Feore, Geneviève Bujold, Jesse Camacho, Justin Bradley, Jesse Rath
A smart 17-year-old in Montreal named Leon (Jay Baruchel) thinks he’s the reincarnation of Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Attempts to unionize his dad’s (Saul Rubinek) employees fail but his war against the fascist principal at his new high school garners extensive news coverage—leading to a hostage situation. A cheeky fantasy with a literate hero, The Trotsky seems ideal for smart teens who like school but hate their own school. What charmed me most about the first half is how seriously Leon takes himself in contrast to his apathetic peers. Jay Baruchel is awesome. What I found less compelling about the second half is how seriously the movie takes itself as Leon’s peers rally to support him. It’s also long at 120 minutes. Watch it for the quirky characters and exciting performances. From the director of the gay-themed Twist (2003), the thriller Good Neighbors (2010), and the comedy Preggoland (2014)—someone to keep an eye on.
Trust (1990) dir. Hal Hartley
written by Hal Hartley
w/ Adrienne Shelley, Martin Donovan, Merritt Nelson, Edie Falco, John MacKay, Karen Sillas, Gary Sauer, Matt Malloy, Tom Thon, Jeff Howard
In the 1990s, my friends who were student-filmmakers spoke of Hal Hartley’s deadpan dramedies like they’d seen the future. Hartley gave us some outstanding films while the future lasted, this one being his second. Unfortunately Trust’s VHS cover pitched it as a romantic comedy for teens, as off-putting to the people who’d like the movie as the movie itself probably was to those who liked the cover. The plot summary even lies about the age of Martin Donovan’s character Matthew, an unhappy electronics repairperson, saying he’s 17 when he’s closer to 27. He meets and moves in with 16-year-old Maria, a pregnant dropout considering abortion. Her just-widowed mother (Merritt Nelson) thinks he’s too old for her and tries to fix him up with divorced daughter Peg (Edie Falco) instead. Matthew tells Mom, “A family is like a gun. You point it in the wrong direction, you’re going to kill somebody.” The whole cast is spot-on, the cinematography and editing are crisp, the soundtrack discreetly stirring, and the final shot empowering. Hartley has said of Maria: “She’s a full-blown personality at the beginning, and she gets hacked down to zero and has to start all over again. She learns to read again. She takes nothing for granted…eliminates everything between her and the actual experience of living and breathing, of becoming an aware human being.” Her self-discovery reflects feminist gaze theory in effective ways—from being looked at to actively looking. 107 minutes.
The UFO Incident a/k/a Interrupted Journey (1975)
dir. Ricahrd A. Colla
written by Hesper Anderson, Jake Justiz, S. Lee Pogostin
w/ James Earl Jones, Estelle Parsons, Barnard Hughes, Dick O’Neill, Beeson Carrol
Though the modern wave of UFO sightings dates back to 1947, the first known abduction occurred on a September night in 1961. Despite nightmares and health issues, Betty and Barney Hill kept the event to themselves for two years, eventually seeking out the help of a psychiatrist. This made-for-TV movie about their account succeeds as it does because it narrows its focus to their sessions with Dr. Benjamin Simon (Barnard Hughes of Da, Lost Boys, Blossom). The abduction scenes, with a set-like quality and glassy-eyed aliens, are fully embedded into the Barneys’ therapy, dreamwork, and hypnosis, therefore not offered as a kind of evidence to believe or not believe as might be the case with documentary reenactments. This also allows the Hills’ personalities to take center stage and the fully embodied performances by James Earl Jones (Claudine, Star Wars) and Estelle Parsons (Bonnie & Clyde, Watermelon Man (see below)) are a must-see for character actor fans. Coinciding with the abduction is the issue of being an interracial couple in the 1960s, dealt with insightfully. For now hard to find, try YouTube. Betty Hill has appeared in the documentaries UFOS: It Has Begun (1976) and UFOs Are Here (1977).
Variety (1983) dir. Bette Gordon
written by Kathy Acker
w/ Sandy McLeod, Will Patton, Richard Davidson, Luis Guzmán, Nan Goldin, Cookie Mueller, Mark Boone Junior
It’s a commonly held notion that women are inherently turned on by erotic narrative more than pornographic imagery. Women have never had a safe place in which to access porn, however, and even now that it’s accessible online, it’s still porn made by men for men. This is one reason why Bette Gordon’s film Variety remains so interesting. As film critic Diane Carson writes, “The central young woman, who sells tickets at a Times Square porn theater, reverses the usual gender roles. The woman becomes the bearer of the gaze, the pursuer, and the interrogator of her own and others’ sexual fantasies.” Not only does she (Sandy McLeod) seek out porn, she seems to want to shock her boyfriend (Will Patton)—and perhaps alienate him—by recounting explicit details. And whether at the fish market or a ball game, she observes men in a new way, as if trying to figure them out. An underappreciated cult classic, it may be too slow and ambiguous for many viewers. Look for photographer Nan Goldin and John Waters star Cookie Mueller. Guzmán and Boone went on to have busy careers as supporting actors. Gordon now teaches film at Columbia University.
Watermelon Man (1970) dir. Melvin Van Peebles
written by Herman Raucher
w/ Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons, Howard Caine, D’Urville Martin, Kay Kimberley, Mantan Moreland
John Howard Griffin’s nonfiction book Black Like Me (1961) and its movie adaptation chronicle his experiment as a white person posing as black in the segregated South. Van Peebles’ film is a spoof of Black Like Me starring Godfrey Cambridge, one of the era’s top black comedians. He plays a white, middle-class, entitled, and very obnoxious bigot named Jeff Gerber. One night Jeff wakes up to see, in the bathroom mirror, that his skin has darkened. “I’m a nigger!” he screams, bathing for hours in milk. His wife Althea (Estelle Parsons a/k/a Bev on Roseanne) handles this change better than he does—at first, anyway. Though his boss sees it as an opportunity to sell insurance to an untapped black market, life out in the world is far less accepting. Jabby dialogue, smart editing, and freeze frames add rhythm to this barreling farce—not to mention Van Peebles’ own score. He fought the original script’s ending that returned Jeff to white. What we get is more ambiguous (angry and dignified), making for a much truer character arc. Cambridge is phenomenal, by the way. Next up, Van Peebles directed and starred in his biggest hit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971).
The Watermelon Woman (1996) dir. Cheryl Dunye
written by Cheryl Dunye
w/ Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valarie Walker, Lisa Marie Bronson, Cheryl Clarke, Irene Dunye, Emmy Collins, Toshi Reagon, Camille Paglia
New Queer Cinema emerged in the 1990s with movies like The Living End (1992) and Go Fish (1994), neither to which I warmed. Watermelon Woman is more mockumentary than relationship saga, though, with Dunye as a video store employee documenting her search for an old mammy-type character actor known only as Watermelon Woman. The first feature-length release by a black lesbian director, and one of several NEA-funded projects to be attacked by the religious right, this enduring gem ends with Cheryl Dunye’s assertion that “Sometimes you have to make your own history.” For another example of this see the McDermott & McGough documentary The 28th Instance of June 1914, 10:50 a.m. (1993).
Wedding in White (1972) dir. William Fruet
written by William Fruet
w/ Carol Kane, Donald Pleasance, Doris Petrie, Paul Bradley, Doug McGrath, Leo Phillips, Christine Thomas
Working-class patriarchy doesn’t get much uglier than this, a harrowing debut for 19-year-old Carol Kane. She plays Jeannie Dougall, a sad and scrawny girl too afraid to flirt or steal like her friend (Christine Thomas). It’s WWII and a soldier (Doug McGrath) rapes Jeannie, leaving her pregnant and at the mercy of her hardhearted drunk of a dad (Donald Pleasance). Her mother (Doris Petrie) has no say in the matter as dad marries her off to a man three times her age (Leo Phillips). It’s devastating. Reminds me of Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Wedding in White won the Canadian Film Award for Best Feature and Carol Kane’s next role was opposite type in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973).
The Wedding Trough
a/k/a Vase de Noces a/k/a One Man & His Pig (1975)
dir. Thierry Zéno
written by Dominique Garny
w/ Dominique Garny
Made to be banned! The most depraved arthouse movie ever, casually known as The Pig Fucking Movie, has fiercely divided its few viewers—not a love/hate divide so much as a reverence/contempt divide. I’m on the reverence side. Dominique Garny plays a young man living alone on a dilapidated farm (perhaps, with its bell, it’s a former school or monastery). We never know his history; he could be the last person on earth or, as critic David Sterritt interprets, a holy fool. Or is he simply a product of extreme isolation? Zéno’s bleak b+w cinematography dwells on the harshness of barnyard life: roosters screwing hens, turkeys assaulting each other. His lonely, repetitive days prompt him to fall in love with a sow and their sex scene is one of the gentlest acts in the whole movie. Man and sow seem content and soon she gives birth to three piglets. The man’s impulse to be maternally nurturing is thwarted, much like his attempts to be paternally controlling, and perhaps this is why he lynches the piglets—as a sort of revenge. The sow dies next (suicide?) and then the man begins eating his own feces until the strange and sudden ending. Reviewer responses are fascinating. One calls the film “a sick piece of garbage that no human being should ever be subjected to ever knowing about, let alone viewing.” While another bragged, “In my opinion, it is the most disturbing film I have ever seen, therefore the most disturbing movie ever created.” Reverent reviewers tend to indulge in interpretation, never “enjoying” the film but finding meaning in it. There is no dialogue, only animal sounds, a dissonant score, and haunting chants. An extreme cinema classic. 80 minutes. I ordered my copy online but be warned that most DVDs are imports requiring an all-region player. Belgian filmmakers Zéno and Garny also made Of the Dead (1979), a serious documentary anticipating Faces of Death (1980).
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) dir. Todd Solondz
written by Todd Solondz
w/ Heather Matarazzo, Matthew Faber, Daria Kalinina, Brendon Sexton Jr., Eric Mabius
Hold side by side a photo of Solondz in his debut film Fear, Anxiety & Depression (1989) and a photo of the 11-year-old Dawn Weiner in Dollhouse, and you’ll see his doppelganger. No one could’ve played a girl version of Todd Solondz like Heather Matarazzo. As if life isn’t bad enough as an outcast, a bully (Brendon Sexton Jr.) threatens to rape Dawn and she sort of falls in love with him. Dawn’s home life is no better, turned upside down when her sister (Daria Kalinina) is kidnapped. It all adds up to a watershed indie hit despite—because of—it’s unflinchingly morbid, accurately warped view of life. According to VideoHound’s Independent Film Guide: “Solondz keeps the focus on Dawn’s perceptions of events, where it belongs. It is this innocence of the vast future beyond junior high school that distinguishes Dollhouse from other coming-of-age stories about children.” Solondz’s Palindromes (2004), a sort of sequel, opens with Dawn’s funeral. Matarazzo went on to play DJ’s film buff girlfriend on Roseanne (1997) and made some bucks in the awful Princess Diaries movies (2001, 2004). She came out as a lesbian in the docu Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema (2006).
Wendy & Lucy (2008) dir. Kelly Reichardt
written by Jon Raymond and Kelly Reichardt
w/ Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton, Will Oldham, Will Patton, Larry Fressenden
Wendy (Michelle Williams), traveling through Oregon on her way to a new job, is arrested for shoplifting and subsequently loses her dog Lucy. As soon as Wendy is released, she spends her time searching the unfamiliar town. She meets some cranks around a campfire (Will Oldham et al) and befriends an old man security guard (Walter Dalton, a great performance). The plot’s narrow focus, based on the John Raymond short story “Train Choir,” and Williams’ emotional restraint make for an intense experience, as quiet as a raw nerve—especially if you’re a pet owner (in other words you may cry your eyes out). Reichardt’s last film Old Joy (2006) is also quiet and concentrated but not so accessible. Kelly Reichardt has been described as a director of silences and her films as marked by silence and suggestion, profound quietness, quiet menace, sublime beauty, etc. “Building quiet is actually a lot harder than building a wall of sound,” Reichardt told Village Voice. Next up in her formidable series of powerfully quiet films are a longshot-dominated western, Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Night Moves (2013) about ecoterrorism, and the cinematic triptych Certain Women (2015).
What Alice Found (2003) dir. A. Dean Bell
written by A. Dean Bell
w/ Emily Grace, Judith Ivey, Bill Raymond
A runaway (Emily Grace) catches a ride with a motorhome couple (Bill Raymond and two-time Tony winner Judith Ivey) who aren’t as innocent as they seem. An indie film with very little budget and a whole lot of credibility, What Alice Found is tense and thrilling yet it’s not a thriller, it’s a coming-of-age story yet antiheroic and morally ambiguous. Embraced by many critics upon release, it won a Sundance Special Jury Prize, a Deauville Grand Prize (juried by Roman Polanski), and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick. Variety deemed Ivey worthy of an Oscar-nomination while admitting that the film’s “grubby” digital format “is off-putting for the first 10-15 minutes” but comes to feel “like a good fit with the dreary world of trailer homes, truck stops, and undifferentiated highway signs.” Focus on the fully embodied performances, rooted in a script that’s both realistic and unpredictable.
Willie Dynamite (1974)
dir. Gilbert Moses
written by Ron Cutler, Joe Keyes Jr.
w/ Roscoe Orman, Diana Sands, Thalmus Rasulala, Joyce Walker, Norma Donaldson, Royce Wallace, Roger Robinson, Albert Hall, George Murdock, Mary Wilcox
Willie D (Roscoe Orman whom multiple generations know as Sesame Street’s Gordon) is the #2 pimp in NYC. He sports hot pink decadence, with fur coats spottable from three blocks away and a watch full of cocaine. He equates pimping with managing a production line. Bell (Roger Robinson), the #1 pimp who seems distinctly queer, seeks to demote Willie while street-sharpened social worker Cora (Diana Sands) wages war on him. She warns Willie that she’s “a Ralph Nader for hookers” and encourages his hookers to unionize: “You don’t need Willie. Didn’t you know? We’re liberated now!” It’s really her movie and Sands plays her for real, worthy to stand alongside her roles in Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun (1961), Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970), and Maya Angelou’s Georgia, Georgia (1972). We lost a major talent when she died of cancer prior to this film’s release. She’s pictured above with Orman and the director.
Willy/Milly a/k/a Something Special a/k/a I Was a Teenage Boy (1986)
dir. Paul Schneider
written by Walter Carbone, Carla Reuben
w/ Pamela Segall Adlon, Eric Gurry, Patty Duke, John Glover, Mary Tanner, Seth Green, JD Cullum, Corey Parker
Mainstream gendersploitation comedies like Just One of the Guys (1985), Switch (1991), Just One of the Girls (1993), and The Hot Chick (2002) are neither shocking nor enlightening. This is also true of the long forgotten Willy/Milly and yet there’s more, a quirky earnestness absent in the others. With the help of some silly suburban voodoo, Milly (Pamela Segall Adlon) wakes up with a penis. Her mom and dad (Duke, Glover) take her to doctors who report that Milly has the sex organs of both sexes. Milly’s first impulse is to stay as she is, to be both male and female. Her dad is a traditionalist, though; there are no grey areas in his house. Turns out he always wanted a son anyway while mom finds it more difficult to let go of her daughter. Resembling Sal Mineo, Milly as Willy quickly makes friends at his new school. He and his nerd clique, including a redhead in a wheelchair named Alfie (Eric Gurry), are harassed by violent bullies on a daily basis. Adlon, daughter-in-law of filmmakers Percy and Eleanore Adlon, is perfectly cast and a joy to watch onscreen. She went on to be the voice of Bobby on King of the Hill (1997-2010) and to play C.K. Louis’s semi-girlfriend on his series Louis (2010-2015). Look for Seth Green as the nerdy neighbor kid. Willy/Milly is best on VHS; the currently available DVD has a different theme song and may not be compatible with US players.
Without You I’m Nothing (1990)
dir. John Boskovich
written by Sandra Bernhard, John Boskovich
w/ Sandra Bernhard, John Doe, Steve Antin, Lu Leonard, Ken Foree, Cynthia Bailey
Performance art in the 1980s often addressed identity-related issues like gender, race, sexuality, relationship status, and consumerism. Sandra Bernhard deals with all of these in her one-woman tour de force Without You I’m Nothing, alternating monologues and campy renditions of “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Little Red Corvette,” and the like. Originally an off-Broadway hit, its runaway success led to a double-album that I still know by heart. Since Bernhard’s audience is devoted to her so audibly, I had to adjust my expectations when I first saw the movie adaptation: a mockumentary in which Bernhard plays to a thin, apathetic crowd at L.A.’s Parisian Room. I’m now thankful to have two versions of mostly the same material, each achieving its own distinct impact. Film maverick Nicholas Roeg served as the film’s executive producer. Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) plays the emcee. And X’s John Doe accompanies her on a duet of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” My favorite line is: “Jane Fonda apologized but not Barbarella.” Sandra sums herself up with this quote: “My father’s a proctologist. My mother’s an abstract artist. That’s how I view the world.”
A Woman’s Tale (1991) dir. Paul Cox
written by Paul Cox, Barry Dickins
w/ Sheila Florance, Gosia Dobrowolska, Norman Kaye, Chris Haywood, Ernie Gray, Myrtle Woods, Francois Bernard, Manuel Bachet, Monica Maughan, Max Gilles, Dawn Klingberg, Marina Finlay, Victoria Eagger
Tragically unavailable on DVD and rare on VHS, A Woman’s Tale deserves immortality as a film made with a woman’s dying breath. That woman is inimitable Sheila Florance. A revered 25-year veteran of Australian theatre, Florance in the early 1980s became a household name for her ongoing role as Lizzie in the riveting women’s prison “soap” Prisoner: Cell Block H (recently remade as Wentworth). Films, all supporting roles, include The Devil’s Playground (1976) and Mad Max (1979) and three by brilliant Paul Cox—Illuminations (1976), Cactus (1986), Golden Braid (1990)—who wrote a starring role for her in A Woman’s Tale upon hearing she was dying of cancer. Florance plays Martha who is dying of cancer, a gracious, defiantly independent woman living alone yet maintaining connections to the world more than most people with life ahead of them. She keeps an eye on Billy (Norman Kaye), a senile gentleman next door, chats with neighborhood prostitutes, allows her nurse Anna (Gosia Dobrowolska) to use her apartment for a lovers’ rendezvous…. And she never gives up her cigarettes. What impresses most is Martha’s every word—her storytelling, her perspective—which is not and is very much the same as Sheila Florance’s. In some ways, the spirit of life she affirms in dying reminds me of Maude in Harold and Maude (1971). One of my favorite moments involves Martha peeing behind a bush after calling out “Pain!” three times; she’s not in pain yet claims that public urination is not illegal if one calls out “Pain!” three times. Florance won the 1991 Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actress, dying a few days later. Roger Ebert’s review of A Woman’s Tale dubbed Paul Cox “one of the heroes of modern cinema”: “In a world of fiercely marketed product and manufactured cinematic artifacts, his films embrace all the wonder and complexity of everyday human life.” See above entry on Cox’s equally unforgettable Man of Flowers (1983).
Women in Revolt (1971) dir. Paul Morrissey
written by Paul Morrissey
w/ Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Michael Sklar, Martin Kove, Penny Arcade, Johnny Kemper, Maurice Braddell, Brigid Polk-Berlin, Jonathan Kramer
Between Trash (1970) and Heat (1972) came this lesser known Warhol-produced gem. It’s called a satire of the women’s movement but it’s not really; if anything, it’s a satire of a gay man’s perception of the women’s movement. I still don’t think satire is the right word, though. Jackie Curtis is “Queen of the PIGs,” which stands for Politically Involved Girls, and she’s radically defiant in her gender identity—much more than Candy Darling, who sings a lovely torch song, or even Holly Woodlawn the flat-chested nympho. “Candy’s after pussy,” Jackie explains. “Holly’s after cock. See what I’m after is something more…intangible.” This is Jackie’s film just as Trash is Woodlawn’s, and deservedly so. Jackie Curtis jumps at every scene with a ferocity that suits the theme. One often cited moment is when she sprays deodorizer on her boyfriend’s armpits and asscrack, putting him in panties and making him clean the apartment. Music by John Cale. See Documentary (M-Z) for the Jackie Curtis documentary Superstar in a Housedress (2004).
Working Girls (1986) dir. Lizzie Borden
written by Lizzie Borden, Sandra Kay
w/ Louise Smith, Ellen McElduff, Amanda Goodwin, Amanda Goodwin, Marusia Zach, Janne Peters
With short hair and an English degree, wearing a vivid blue sweater-dress, Molly (Louise Smith) is pulling a double-shift at a Manhattan brothel. This movie is like an upscale version of the docu Chicken Ranch (1983) (see Documentary (A-L)). Footage of the “girls” cracking jokes about clients, or complaining about their house madam Lucy (Ellen McElduff), feels especially vérité. Lucy insists, “You must dress as if you’ve just had lunch with your mother and you’re on your way to meet your boyfriend.” An entertaining and intelligent film released by Miramax, film critics tended to praise it while feminist critics had reservations. Ruby Rich questions its “upbeat view of prostitution, one much more palatable to men.” And Andrea Weiss writes how Working Girls was getting shelved in the porn section of video stores: “What began as a feminist approach to sexual representation was readily appropriated in its marketing as white-collar pornography.” It may be true but I never tire of watching.
Wrong (2012) dir. Quentin Dupieux
written by Quentin Dupieux
w/ Jack Plotnick, Eric Judor, Alexis Dziena, Steve Little, William Fichtner, Regan Burns, Arden Myrin, Maile Flanagan, Todd Giebenhain, Barry Alan Levine, Price Carson, Gary Valentine
Skinny, squinting Dolph (Jack Plotnick, voice of Xandir P. Wifflebottom on Drawn Together) still goes to his desk job even though he’s been fired and the whole office acts like they’re not waterlogged from a sprinkler system dousing them eternally. One morning—at 7:60—Dolph wakes up to find his dog gone. Enter an author of dog books called Master Chang (pitch-perfect William Fichtner of Go and Drowning Mona) who’s had a hand in the dog’s disappearance. It’s more realistic than Dupieux’s Rubber (2010), about a rogue tire that kills people, but succeeds similarly on its own terms with its own internal logic. Dupieux told SlashFilm.org that mainstream movies make too much sense but real life doesn’t: “When you dream your unconscious makes connections with things that are not supposed to be connected. I really do think it’s the same in real life.” Plotnick’s performance embodies this perfectly, taking Dolph’s absurd odyssey in stride as it compels him toward a happy ending. Dupieux, known in France as electronica wizard Mr. Oizo, provides his own score.