Thursday, September 24, 2009

Private Parts (1997, Betty Thomas)

I haven't read Howard Stern's Private Parts. The film version is a mediocre movie and the content strongly suggests that the book is better. The problem is that there are really two movies here, one about Stern's rise to fame and the other about his subsequent battle with censorship. What makes the latter feel so separate isn't the film's fault, even though the forces of censorship are embodied by a single villain, NBC exec Kenny Rushton. Having an important antagonist introduced halfway through is disjointed. To ease the transition, Thomas cast an unknown actor. What she didn't foresee is that actor becoming Paul Giamatti. Watching in 2009, he all but steals the show in Stern's own movie. Movies will always be bigger than radio. This was the largest role Giamatti ever had at the time and while taking another ten years for your breakout role doesn't make you an overnight sensation, this featured part in a hit movie ensured he'd be playing less "FBI Technician" type parts. So if nothing else despite my criticisms, Private Parts gave Giamatti his big break. Playing a Southerner, even. He probably has the third most dialogue after Stern and Mary McCormack as Stern's then-wife Alison. Number one in ugly after Stern and Baba Booey, whose handful of handheld camera man-on-the-street interstitials are basically straight from Stern's TV shows and feel like intrusions from some docu-verite third version of the movie. Most are easy to discredit in the post-Borat age and more reminiscent than anything of 1990s MTV bumpers shot cheaply on the streets of Brooklyn, except this was with a 35mm camera pretending to be a camcorder. Using the gimmick in a movie was new in 1997. The very first shot is of an actress pretending to be an old school teacher of Stern's, disturbed beyond words by his memory. The timing of when Thomas cuts from this fake interviewee's awkward silence to the opening credits and anthemic rock soundtrack is completely modern, obnoxious and stylistically taken for granted amongst the genre of snarky "funny" documentaries I loathe. Fortunately Baba Booey's bits only show up in Stern's Private Parts a few times. As if to acknowledge the fakery, Giamatti shows up during the credits amongst talking heads of real people as his character, recounting Stern's career and the destruction of his own. Never has anyone gone to such artistic lengths to ensure David Merrick's axiom that it's not enough to succeed; others must fail....and in the movie of your life, everyone else must know.

If you can't trust autobiographies with the facts of the author's own life, how to approach a film based on an autobio which actually stars the author? How egomaniacal can you get? At least Audie Murphy had the excuse of being psychotic. Aside from one brief reference to the suspension of disbelief required to see him play his college age self, there's no humorous humility whatsoever even in the Baba Booey bits - no comments about McCormack looking better than Allison in real life. Stuttering John pops up during the credits to claim bullshit that he wasn't in the movie, but so what? Robin Quivers is the only other person to play a younger version of herself, proving she and Howard were made for each other as far as ego. Hollywood movies are usually designed without a shred of self-reflexivity, let alone self-effacement. Stern's brilliance on the radio is cutting through pretensions, and Private Parts is full of them. Especially in the battle against Giamatti and without ever elucidating why the battle is important. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, screenwriters of Ed Wood and The People Vs Larry Flynt and the lesser Man On The Moon were figuring out how to show the cultural importance of their biographical subjects at the same time this film was co-adapted by Len Blum of Meatballs, Stripes and Heavy Metal. His efforts are comparable in the sense you can practically hear 13 year olds giggling through each scene at the somewhat mild outrageousness like Howard looking at a woman and imagining her breasts inflating with CGI, which is basically a Heavy Metal gag. Worse than being uninterested in what makes him unique, Howard Stern's movie about himself is actually kind of tame compared to Len Blum's classy animal comedy work for Harold Ramis or even an episode of Stern's old TV shows. Troma Films' Lloyd Kaufman recounted in his autobio being stunned at the premiere of Private Parts that the audience would laugh so uproariously at the same lowbrow gags and nudity he was putting in his sex comedies 15 years earlier, which were now in a respectable Hollywood production. That's the compromise on display which ultimately swindles Stern fans: by embracing Paramount Pictures and toning down his act, Stern gets to star in the movie of his life. By embracing Stern, Paramount gets some faux-edgy street cred without releasing anything that'd seriously cause trouble. Much like their release of South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut two years later, which is actually a far braver film with similar themes of man's right to profanity.

The first half of the film weighs heavily on McCormack as Alison Stern, whom Howard Stern was more hilariously honest about his relationship with on his radio show. That's the whole point of how Howard Stern improvises and lives in the moment when on air (including television); he says what he's afraid to say in real life. Len Blum and co-writer Michael Kalesniko only understand that halfway, they seem to think the greatest thing about Howard's career is perseverance to opposition creatively and in the form of self-appointed guardians of the public mind. That's been an incredibly important part of his career to this day but as a document of the man's life his success if reflected more as popularity than originality. There's a single throwaway line from his wife about how he should talk more like he does in real life when on the air, and even though the results seem overnight they aren't even acknowledged as such. I'm almost positive the book must be great, since Stern also excels on his shows at tearing people apart. It'd be nice to get the juicy dirt on some real names beside the poor movie whipping boy of Paul Giamatti's character.

The two parts in Private Parts I remembered from the TV ads running ad nauseum in 1997 were Stern throwing a frisbee into the head of a mentally handicapped person whom his wife is helping, and AC/DC performing a concert in Stern's honor at the end of the movie. Trailers show the movie the studio wanted, and their pushing two such pandering scenes in the advertising says everything about the homogenization of a unique talent like Stern in the event-comedy formula of the 90s.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Not Of This Earth (1957, Roger Corman)

Charles B. Griffith might have been the best screenwriter Roger Corman ever snagged. Before turning Ib Melchior's grim dystopian short story "The Racer" into the camp satire of Death Race 2000, he created two brilliant loose variations on the tale of Sweeney Todd: the unacknowledged A Bucket Of Blood, in which a janitor who turns people into sculptures to impress beatniks, and The Little Shop Of Horrors in which a nerd feeds people to a plant in order to impress a girl. Not Of This Earth, his predecessor to both, features Paul Birch playing a sort of erudite Tor Johnson who is really an alien in disguise. Living in an LA mansion he must obtain human blood to send back to his dying planet and to sustain himself. Unlike Griffith's dry black comedies this is more of a genial straightforward suspense story taking only an occasional grim chuckle at Birch's quasi-vampirism and the methods used to trick people inside his house. While less Faustian than the bumbling antihero protagonists of Bucket and Little Shop, the survival of he and his home planet create some degree of sympathy even as he menaces the human protagonists during the final reel. Heck, he's even memorialized in the final scene, which is where the film's title comes from. Griffith has a wonderfully weird of life and what it takes to get by. I'm guessing co-writer Mark Hanna filled in the cop and doctor exposition while Griffith came up with scenes like Dick Miller, future Bucket Of Blood star and Corman regular, playing a beatnik door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman who meets his demise in Birch's basement.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 used to feature a lot of Corman's bad movies like It Conquered The World and occasionally they'd feature the plucky bright spot Beverly Garland, whom at least one writer developed a crush on. I understand why. While conservative genre laws of the day dictated that the woman must end up rescued from the arms of the monster, Garland is charming and intelligent as a nurse commissioned by Birch to give him blood transfusions and, of course, not snoop around and find any of his alien apparatus or bloodless bodies. Acerbic and subtle, she makes a great counterpart to both Birch and the dopey small time ex-con he's hired as a houseboy, played by Little Shop's Seymour Krelboin himself, Jonathan Haze. He and Birch have their own comic setpiece at one point where they corral winos into a car, which aside from exemplifying Griffith's twisted sense of humor also illustrates how he allows a seemingly marginal character to emerge naturally as a leading character. Garland has better chemistry with Haze than Morgan Jones, the square jaw cop she's going to marry. He and Haze have a history of run-ins, AND he's friends with the doctor Garland works for. Everyone already knowing everyone is clever time saving device when none too obvious. The reason Garland, Birch and Haze ultimately take center stage from the cliched authority figures is Griffith. The cop fiance and doctor are pretty boring as well. Garland passed away only last year but she was surrounded by stiffs long before that. The only tedious scene in the whole film is waiting for them to rescue her at the end.

The utilitarianism of NOTE's setup - especially when used with outright comedy - allows character and dialogue to take center stage in the service of a story that lasts only a scant hour and ten. This only works if your screenwriter is really good and Griffith has become one of my favorites for this particular trilogy of late 50's Corman cheapies, made with increasingly funny bad taste and creativity with A Bucket Of Blood and culminating in The Little Shop Of Horrors. Corman required stories revolving around a central location where the killer lures his victims, in this case a Los Angeles mansion, so as to knock through production in a few days. His reparatory casting combines perfectly with Griffith's witty dialogue and efficient storytelling. There are a few special effects on the margins, like a flying brain on a string. They're unnecessary. The biggest special effect is really a cost saving device wherein Birch communicates telepathically to save on sound recording. This flick was so efficiently fun that Corman even let his favorite hack Jim Wynorski direct a twenty years later starring recovering porn starlet Traci Lords in Garland's role. Wynorski wrote a new script as well. At least the Piranha remake (no, not that one, this one) had the decency to rip off John Sayles reverentially, and yes I'm saying Griffith was a better writer than Sayles. For Roger Corman, anyway.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The St. Valentines Day Massacre (1967, Roger Corman)

My dad recounts this film's notoriety upon release, and now the film has been completely forgotten. The brutality of the ending was apparently hyped the same way the bloody squib-laden ending of Bonnie & Clyde was that same year. One was a classy picture pretending to be gritty. This is Roger Corman's gritty crime epic, an imitation of a classy old time picture with far better direction than Arthur Penn, who is a real middlebrow hack. Faye Dunaway and the fact they were really the good guys (read:hippies) stole the gory glory. At the New Bev screening there was a kid of 7 or 8 seated beside me who accepted his mom's hands over his eyes a few times during some of the more violent coming attractions and when the feature presentation culminated in those men being gunned down en mass massacre the kid assured his mom he could take it. You can probably guess the ending of this story; kids today have higher bloodlust threshold. He was digging the old fashioned hard boiled ambience. The most enticing selling line in the trailer is the blood red text crawl warning those of us with faint stomaches to leave the building, did Corman get to design it? The enticingly illicit selling lines are pure AIP and the title alone commits wholly to showmanship of the shocking truth the same way another famous massacre (more famous by now, I guess) in Texas.

For Roger Corman this big time studio deal with 20th Century Fox was his potential ticket into studio sized budgets and the public's apparent indifference to a slickly made old fashioned gangster movie with a great cast in 1967 marked the end of his 1960s silver age. Jason Robards is incredible as Capone, bringing the nuance of modern acting style to the explosive gangster archetype and more or less inventing the way gangsters like Pacino's Scarface have acted ever since. He even does the routine with the baseball bat with David Mamet stole carte blance for The Untouchables.

The movie needs at least one strong central figure like Robards with such a kaleidoscopic cast, packed to the brim with tough guy character actors from 20th Century Fox television and Corman's old b-movies: Clint Ritchie, Alex Rocco, Silvera, Bruce Dern, Dick Miller, and a silently uncredited Jack Nicholson. George Segal has a big part, but it's hard to call anyone aside from Robards a "star" of this film based on screen time. Every single one of them based on real persons, which screenwriter Howard Browne gives equal importance to during the complex double dealings of the plot thanks to the most amazing and occasionally funniest use of voiceover I've ever heard. Especially in a fictionalized historical potboiler. Paul Frees, narrator of George of the Jungle and voice actor in many other classic cartoons, does an uncredited bravura marathon of deadpan Dragnet inspired information on literally almost every new speaking character who appears, no matter how small. As if to constantly reassert the authenticity of the painstaking research behind the scenes, we are told in a police blotter monotone everyone's full name, aliases, crime records and odd personal details of no importance along with how they fit into the scheme. Often Frees gets so excited he cuts off his subjects mid-sentence. The lack of credit and occasionally dry sardonic one-liners added to his script suggest the possibility of a typical Corman stroke of last minute genius in creating the world's most narration heavy drama ever, so that people would know what was going on in a story with a cast the size of an army. Either way the fake authenticity is alternately authoritative and campy it becomes the film's trademark.

Corman lends his two best qualities - making the most of a budget and good casting - and the results when applied to a big budget exceed expectations. Far from being overwhelmed, his earlier experiences making small sets and stage look big and getting maximum camera coverage of his actors when on set turn The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre into a rapidly edited nailbiter even when nothing is actually happening. Freed up in time and budget (he reportedly completed final cut under budget and ahead of schedule) Corman's camera also composes wide, symmetrical framing of giant sets with quasi-Kubrickian precision. Some establishing shots look exactly like Edward Hopper and some aerial matte paintings move like living paintings populated by tiny animated dots. The production design of the world his actors inhabit is lavishly detailed with studio costumes, props and cars. There doesn't appear to be a single real location in the entire runtime, only Corman making full use of studio privilege and experimenting. Many sequences stand out for their elaborate ostentatiousness, like an endless drive-by restaurant shooting for which Corman is at his most playful and leisurely instead of having to rush through or ration such setpieces.

The birth of big studio budget gangster pulp, The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre triumphs like a highly entertaining true crime novel (index included) come to life. The best aspects have been imitated without credit for years and far less imagination. HBO or Martin Scorsese might have amplified the violence to retain the attention of that kid sitting next to me, but no Sopranos machismo is half as interesting as Corman bringing the movie to a dead halt so a gangster and his moll can have the fight of the century while the camera suddenly turns shakily handheld. Changing styles for just one scene! Pretty much every gangster movie owes this one a debt, with interest. Nice place you got here. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Palindromes (2004, Todd Solondz)

Todd Solondz is a man of deftly disguised humanity. Sympathetic characters for whom we do not merely relate but empathize are virtually extinct. The alternatives offered by "alternative" channels or faux independent subsidiaries of media conglomerates (like the distributors of this picture) are typically vapid soulless stand-ins for the author's egomania. When sketching a myriad of characters with the intent of satire, cheap and distancing stereotypes replace reality. Were Todd Solondz interested in belly laughs he might be Mike Judge, or if an urbanite, Harmony Korine. Comfortable and superior revulsion from movie weirdos like nerds and Mexicans has undergone a hipstercratic air, epitomized by the success of Napoleon Dynamite. Todd Solondz all but demands some degree of identification with his odd tragicomic characters on the fringe of society, and implicates us in their mistakes through understanding. With the worst behaved of his characters, including one or two in Palindromes, they can be awful to the point of uneasy pity when also this tragic and pathetic. Between Korine's verite and Judge's cartoon features Solondz seems to have genuinely taken influence from David Lynch with some skill, and a major exception: his dramas sometime become relativist black holes the space in which provokes moral quandary. That provocation is not easy to raise entertainingly. He shares with great satirists a natural ear for banalities taken for granted every day and the fallout when problems too big to be rationalized away force their way into daily routine. Instead of the hipster ironist method of dispassionately faking profundity for glibness.

The harrowing story of thirteen year old Aviva, played by a variety of actresses older and younger, is that of a runaway girl pregnant on purpose and despite the conceit of multiple actresses is truer to life than the conceits and occasionally actually funny. The film's centerpiece is Aviva's stay at an orphanage of, as Solondz originally titled Welcome to the Dollhouse, faggots and retards. These unwanted children saved mostly from abortion by the benign devout Christian "Mama Sunshine" have Solondz's greatest admiration in their innocence. Aviva is portrayed during this lengthy fugue by Sharon Wilkins, a fat black woman. At no time are any of these regular easy targets, the kind who populate phony comedies and dramas made by white suburbanites about "outsiders," exploited for their dignity just as poorly as they would be in a future Larry The Cable Guy installment. By comparison, the yuppie household Aviva runs away from is brimming with repressed privilege taken for granted by comparison to the rainbow collection of children's house in the woods which takes her in. Aviva's mother, played by Angela Pietropinto, has an amazing scene giving the quintessentially reasonable upper middle class argument for abortion to her baby obsessed daughter. Her previous lack of involvement with Aviva fostered the disastrous casual suburban sex with a dead eyed neighbor boy, and every step of the scandal is leaden with the snobbery.

The family may be Jewish, like Solondz's memorably dysfunctional family in Storytelling if only for some dueling religious contrast with the strong Christian environment of the orphanage. There's equal opportunity for moralizing in the end, although the fact remains that Aviva's biological will is stronger than an open-minded household can handle. Mama Sunshine's closest friends are secretly ordering a hit on the abortionist who happens to have operated on Aviva, with the employment of an adult who sexually took advantage of her after running away from home. The bliss of ignorance Mama Sunshine creates for the children protects her as well. Aviva's endorsement of the crime and misplaced affection for this John whom she hooked complicates audience sympathies as she continues to reach out helplessly to him and the he reeks of guilt for what he's done. I'm inclined to guess Solondz made Palindromes as an anti-abortion statement about the universal desire for motherhood, no matter how many actresses pay that yearning. Their variety is in the end a gimmick and far from the central philosophical grappling. Whatever his thoughts, Solondz has continued to demonstrate an understanding of views opposite his own and the perfect alchemy of cringing with contemplation.