Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pain in Spain: Movies for the Week Ending September 17, 2006

After watching two films by Spanish director Agustí Villaronga this weekend (with a third on hand), I’m not entirely sure I would want to have dinner with the man. I’m sure that, like David Cronenberg, the man himself is probably a charming gentleman with a mundane life. But you’d never know it from the films. These suckers are hurtful.

In a Glass Cage, from 1987, is cruder than El Mar (2000), but it makes up for it with sheer perversity. The story of the mutually parasitic relationship between an ex-Nazi doctor with an appetite for sadomasochistic sex with young boys and a boy with a mysterious past seems exploitative enough, until you fill in the details. The good doctor is in an iron lung--his glass cage, as it were--after a vaguely suicidal plunge from a high building, while the boy wants to be just like his friend and reads to the doctor from his papers chronicling his exploits at the concentration camp. Sometimes he even masturbates to them. I’ve never contemplated the sexual possibilities of an iron lung before, but this movie does. This is the movie that Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil wants and fails to be. Not for the easily squigged, and definitely not for anyone with an aversion to seeing children come to harm.

That same caveat applies to El Mar, too. We see children murder children in the early goings. Like In a Glass Cage, this film is haunted by Spain’s fascist past. Set before and after the Spanish Civil War, this concerns a trio of friends who witness a firing squad run by the father of one of their classmates. They take it upon themselves to exact revenge by killing him, an act that marks them for life. One kills himself. The other two wind up in a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients after the war, where they are inexorably drawn to each other. Less perverse than In a Glass Cage this is. Less hurtful it is not. There are deep scars on display in this movie, and characters so deeply shattered that all the kings horses and all the kings men will never put them together again. For all that, though, there are moments of lyricism here, too, such as the path a body takes from death in the ominous Room 13 to the morgue. This film is what you might get if you were to cross The Devil’s Backbone with Bad Education, if that means anything to you...

By a strange quirk of shipping, I got the fourth Female Convict Scorpion movie before I got the third. The first three films in this series were directed by a guy named Shunya Ito, whose aesthetic sensibility created what you might get if you crossed Caged Heat with Noh theater. The first three films are ambitious, manufacturing legitimate art from the despised women in prison sub-genre. The fourth film, Female Prisoner #701: Grudge Song (1973), directed by exploitation genre veteran Yasuhara Hasebe, not only has no aspirations beyond exploitation thrills, it doesn't have even the slightest understanding of what made the first three films tick. In the Ito movie, our heroine--the wrongly imprisoned Matsu, or "Scorpion"--is transformed into an avenging angel. Actress Meiko Kaji cuts an imposing figure as the black-clad Matsu, speaking barely a word in each movie. Hasebe "gets" this, and contrives a number of set-pieces in which Kaji gets to glare menacingly at the camera, as she does in the other three movies. But context is everything. In the previous movies, Matsu bears the weight of a whole slate of wrongs done to her and to women in general. She's a vaguely messianic figure, whose vengeance is fully justified. Hasebe hasn't grasped this. His idea of Matsu is as a kind of distaff Man With No Name, and he blunders badly by making Matsu complicit in crimes that have no legitimate rationale as justified vengeance. Because of these crimes, Matsu is transformed from an exterminating angel into a something evil, and a banal kind of evil to boot.

It doesn't help that Hasebe's idea of style is to ape Kinji Fukasaku's yakuza movies. Only once does he try to match Shinya Ito's theatrical sensibility, in a sequence that is so nonsensical and so badly edited that even an alert viewer will be scratching his head at what he or she just saw. This is the sort of thing that can't be laid at the feet of the writers, or the cinematographers, or even the editors. This is the director's fault. And all of the lacerating glances Meiko Kaji throws at the camera can't help it.

All of which made the third film, Female Prisoner #701: Beast Stable (also 1973), all the more remarkable. Nothing makes a movie seem more like a masterpiece than watching a pale imitation of the same film in close proximity. Even more striking is the difference between this film and its two predecessors. Ito had a fraction of the budget he had for the first two films, but retained a ferocity of imagination that enabled him to substitute startling location shots for the theatrical tableaux of the previous installments. The result is no more realistic than the first two films--it is, in fact, just as abstract--but it is markedly less theatrical. The story here finds Matsu trying to survive while on the run as a hunted fugitive. The movie opens with a bang, with Matsu severing the arm of the cop who has handcuffed her in a subway and running through the city with the arm dangling from hers. Once safely away from capture, she is plunged into the world of Japan’s poor women: sweatshop workers, prostitutes, abused wives. The movie makes a point of demonstrating that even without the walls of a prison, these women are all prisoners of one kind of male exploitation or other. As in the first two movies, Matsu becomes an avatar of female rage. Unlike the others, she actually forms friendship and seems to suffer emotional hurts from her actions. My favorite shot in the movie is also one of the most mundane, in which Matsu stands on a bridge over the railroad tracks sharing a drink with Yuki, the prostitute who has befriended her. There is a deep sadness in this shot that seems a tidy summary of the intended mood of the entire film. Like the previous installments, this film is some kind of masterpiece.

The general consensus on Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006) is that it’s a mess. That may well be true, and if you want to point a finger, point it at James Ellroy’s source novel, which is just as ridiculous as the movie. Be that as it may, I had a great time at this film, not because the movie is good--for me, the jury is out on that point--but because it represents an interesting collision of elements that should please any long-time follower of De Palma’s career. For example, I was pleased to see William Finley, the Phantom of the Paradise himself, playing yet another deformed lunatic here. I was tickled to see the movie use The Man Who Laughs as a plot point. I loved De Palma’s nod to Michael Powell in casting himself as an off-screen film director. And in a film that is only peripherally about the real Black Dahlia case, I love how the movie introduced the Dahlia as a seeming throwaway in a much longer master shot following a completely different plot point. There’s even a return of the jump at the end a la Carrie and Dressed to Kill. The screenplay, the director, and the actors all seem to be working on different films. The screenplay faithfully apes the novel, the actors look like they are playing dress-up (for the record: pretty as she is, Scarlett Johansson cannot act; the exception to all of this is Hillary Swank, who is changeable to a fault in this movie: she seems to know exactly what the various forces behind the production are up to and gives each of them what they want), and De Palma, realizing that he has no means of making a coherent whole out of the whole thing, is indulging in a summary of his career highlights. For all that, I found it compulsively watchable just the same.