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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Maddin's Keyhole: Another Amazing Journey

Jason Patric and Isabella Rossellini
Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin's 2011 Keyhole, which I just caught on DVD last night, is another jewel in the obsessive filmmaker's crown. Strange enough to satisfy Maddin diehards, it's also straightforward — er, sort of — enough to give neophytes gentle passage into his world.

Certainly it's the chattiest of Maddin's works, and has the most exposed flesh. I see it as a haunted house's passion play, performed by ghosts over and over every night for an audience of nobody. Some people may argue that point, but I'm sticking to it, damn it.

Keyhole is Maddin's first completely digital film, which means it's lacking some of that lovely silver nitrate glow his other features have, but it's still firmly planted in his favored German-expressionism-meets-the-sound-era netherworld. Shadows are everywhere, chandeliers swing of their own volition and lights shining through elaborate transoms constantly wander around every room. And what rooms — Maddin's obsession with objects continues here, as the camera roams lovingly over all manner of things — stuffed animals, radios, toasters and trinkets. There's even a stuffed wolverine with a scout knife clenched in its teeth.

Ostensibly, this is the story of Ulysses (Jason Patric), a gangster who returns after a long absence to his own haunted house to hide out from the cops. He ends up confronting the ghosts of his past —his wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), who keeps her father (Louis Negin) chained to her bed; her lover, Chang; an assortment of children who are dead but still wandering around, including one son who is constantly masturbating and one living son, Manners (David Wontner), who is kept gagged and tied to a chair for most of the film — and whom Ulysses doesn't recognize as his own.

Ulysses orders his gang to begin redecorating — yes, redecorating. And he starts to make his way through the labyrinth with Denny (Brooke Paisson), a blind and half-drowned girl he'd brought with him to serve as his psychic guide. Ghosts wander about this forlorn place, occasionally emitting blood-curdling screams, and although Ulysses warns the gang that ghosts don't like to be touched, one of them ("Kids in the Hall" alumnus Kevin McDonald) can't resist trying to sexually assault the spirit of a scrubwoman and is electrocuted to death for his trouble. Happily, once he's dead and has become a ghost himself, he can go on to fulfill his sexual quest.

Ulysses' gang
Then there's Dr. Lemke (Udo Kier), a physician who has just left his just-deceased son at the hospital at Ulysses' behest so that he can examine Denny, whom he declares is "in bad shape — blind and full of water." Next thing you know, everyone gets into the bathtub. Denny joins Manners, who's already there, still bound and gagged, and Hyacinth manages to squeeze in too, despite her husband's contention that it's pretty crowded in there. And did I mention that her father, who serves as the narrator of the piece, walks around naked throughout the entire film?

Maddin based Keyhole on Homer's "The Odyssey," which he says he'd just recently discovered, but this is most assuredly semi-autobiographical. Like the magnificent Brand Upon the Brain! (which I had the good fortune to see at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood with live musical accompaniment, live sound effects and live narration from the awesome Barbara Steele), this is a story about an uber-dysfunctional family. Between the chained-up dad, dead offspring and sons Ulysses doesn't even recognize anymore, this clan could cause Freud's head to explode.

However, Maddin is always a madman with a purpose, and Keyhole unfolds with a twisted urgency and lots of jet-black humor. For example, when Ulysses and Denny are making their way through a dark hallway, there's an erect penis sticking through — you got it, a keyhole. Denny says "Unicorn coming up," and Ulysses merely comments, "That penis is getting dusty." Strangely, I was reminded of the hallway of living limbs in Jean Cocteau's masterpiece La Belle et La Béte. Was that Maddin's intention? And Keyhole also reminded me of 1975's Thundercrack!, another black and white old-dark-house black comedy (except with actual hardcore pornographic scenes).

Ulysses' living son Manners (David Wontner)
This is the most Hollywood-ish cast that Maddin's ever had, and it's a good thing. Of course, Rossellini became a Maddin regular with his 2003 The Saddest Music in the World, and it's a match made in Weird Movie Heaven. Instead of staying with David Lynch (whose work some people may unfairly compare to Maddin's), she ditched the "ooh, look how weird I can be" bore to hitch her star to a real talent — and it's paying off in spades artistically.

Rossellini is an incredibly warm actress with a face that the camera adores, and even when she's playing a really strange character (paging Dorothy Vallens), the humanity comes through. Her Hyacinth is also a nurturing figure, despite the fact that she's sleeping with the help, she wants to kill her husband and she keeps her nude father in chains. Ah, but who doesn't have their character flaws?

The always-welcome Kier has what amounts to just a cameo, but his story about his son's death is suitably upsetting. Patric, the original Lost Boy himself, is an absolute revelation here. Blessed with those angular good looks, he channels a 1930s-style gangster character superbly and brings it into Maddin's bizarre ouevre without a misstep.

Guy Maddin
In an interview with the AV Club, Maddin says that Patric might still consider him "a crazy fucker," but he really got it during production. Being the son of the late Jason Miller, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and star of The Exorcist, he knew something about familial discord and was able to bring that insight to his performance as Ulysses.

Patric really nails it, and his delivery of Maddin's darkly comic dialogue is perfect. A highlight arrives after his gang straps him into his son's homemade electric chair (which is bicycle powered) and tries to execute him. He merely laughs, stands up, regards his horrified would-be killers and says, "I feel charged!"

And later he confesses, "I'm only a ghost. But a ghost isn't nothing."

Keyhole is full of Maddin's trademark visual delights — hundreds (thousands?) of cuts, brief flashes of color, the ever-prowling camera. And Jason Staczek, who also wrote the music for Brain!, has composed an appropriate score that contributes to the film's unease with its almost continuous, low-fidelity hum.

I love Maddin's world. I'm sure it has a great deal to do with the fact that I'm a collector of films in the super 8mm format, with their variable contrast and sound quality — that makes his multi-guage filmmaking very reassuring to me. But his is also a bleakly beautiful milieu, full of mystery, that at first seems impenetrable but gradually opens itself up to the willing viewer —petal by petal, like a deadly nightshade in bloom.

Maddin says in the AV Club interview: "I know a lot of people who follow me probably figured I’d be the last person in the world to switch to digital, and that I also sort of ride a penny-farthing with a bowler hat, but I don’t. I want to be a normal guy. I’m just an artist trying to make stuff that matters to me." Hear, hear.

By the way, the wolverine's name is Crispy.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Billy Jack on the Big Screen

The wonderful New Beverly Cinema here in Hollywood has been having in an IB Technicolor festival and the Sunday before last they offered the irresistible double feature of Billy Jack (1971) and Death Wish (1974), so Weird Movie Village took it on the road for an afternoon of viewing nostalgia.

I first saw Billy Jack at the Rialto Theater in Walkerton, Indiana, during its second theatrical release when it was picked up by Warner Bros. Husband-and-wife team Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor financed it (under the auspices of the National Student Film Company), also serving key creative roles and even trying to distribute it themselves before Warner parlayed it into a rather big hit in 1973. With its message of tolerance and emphasis on minority rights, it was a natural for wannabe hippie kids like me at the bitter end of the Woodstock generation. When you add the folky hit theme song, Coven's "One Tin Soldier," you've got the makings of a cult classic.

Alas, that hasn't really come to pass. Billy Jack's muddled messages and uneven pacing — not to mention tons of filler — just haven't aged well.

Even I am guilty of not preserving the film's memory, even though it played such a big part in my early teen years. I barely remembering watching it on CBS Late Movie airings or on early home video, even though I'm sure I did. Yet watching it flicker back to life on the Beverly's screen, I found myself feeling like I was being reunited with an old friend that I'd long ago betrayed. Well, until the heretofore-described problems set in.

As advertised, the color of the print was good, but it had been run through hundreds of projectors over the years and was pretty scratched, but that's why we love watching 35mm at the Beverly. Plenty o' scratches, missing frames and hissing, popping soundtracks take us back to the true essence of movie watching that today's digitally-projected, Dolby-filtered googolplexes have taken away from us.

A synopsis of the film sounds promising. Laughlin's hero is a half-Caucasian, half-Cherokee former Green Beret turned anti-war activist who lives in the hills high above a conservative Arizona town and serves as the guardian of the nearby Freedom School, a place for misfit and outcast kids, run by Jean Roberts (Taylor), whom he also loves. So far, so good.

But every time the kids from the school go into town to shop and do improv, they raise the ire of the resident rednecks, including Bernard Posner (David Roya), the spoiled son of the corrupt town boss (Bert Freed) who's so evil he rounds up wild horses to shoot them and sell their meat for dog food. After a soda jerk refuses to serve some of the students because of their race, Bernard intermediates by dumping flour on them and pronouncing, "Now they're all white." Billy Jack comes in, sees what's happened to the innocent kids, and his slow-to-burn fuse is lit. Soon, he's whomping on a bunch of Bernard's thugs in the park until they get the best of him and the deputy sheriff (Ken Tobey) has to break it up. But the battle has begun, and it's just not going to end well.

But here's the problem. A great deal of the film's 116-minute running time is taken up with the activities of the school, which includes textiles, singing bad folk songs and improv. WKRP in Cincinnati's Howard Hesseman plays the drama teacher who leads the exercises, which all seem to focus around getting stoned and rebelling against "the man."

There's a new arrival at the school, Barbara (Julie Webb), through whose eyes we witness the previously described activities and the enigma that is Billy Jack. Barbara is the deputy sheriff's daughter who'd been dragged back to town from Haight-Ashbury by her father's henchmen. Announcing that she's pregnant, has contracted hepatitis and had sex with so many men she doesn't know if the baby is going to be "white, Mexican or black," she drives Dad over the edge and he beats her severely. At the hospital where she's being treated for her injuries, the town's closet liberal doctor (Victor Izay) realizes that she's going to need to be sent to the Freedom School, far away from Daddio's fists of fury.

Again, this sounds like it should be high-tension drama, but there's an obnoxiously, allegedly adorable kid, Carol (Teresa Kelly), who sings about forty treacly songs, including one about her brother who'd just been killed in Vietnam, putting the brakes on the plot. And more encounters between the students and the locals result in a massive outbreak of role-playing for everyone.


Finally, there's some more action. Bernard kills Martin (Stan Rice), a student with a severe underbite that Barbara has developed a crush on, and then he rapes Jean (a disturbing scene for a multitude of reasons). Billy Jack shows up in the hotel room where Bernard is having sex with an underage girl and kills him, then holes up in an adobe fortress and refuses to surrender until the cops promise to leave the Freedom School untouched for at least ten years. The agreement is reached, and he's led off in handcuffs as seemingly everyone in town stands by the side of the road raising their fists in unity and "One Tin Soldier" chirps away on the soundtrack.

There's still some fun to be had with the film. The students all seem to be just one acid hit away from becoming the Manson Family (even sweet little Carol), and you can practically smell the body odor and patchouli wafting off of them. When Billy Jack goes "ber-SERK!", as he says, he uses slow-motion karate to get the best of his enemies. But the scenes between Jean and Billy when she tries to persuade him to stop his violent ways as they declare their love for each other are hilariously mawkish.

The film is quite modestly produced. Like the similarly-budgeted Legend of Boggy Creek (1972),  it does the best it can with limited resources. Laughlin and Taylor's script rambles and Laughlin's direction (under a pseudonym) wanders. I think the central performances have held up pretty well, even though Taylor is still pretty wooden and always looks like she's been on a three-day drinking-and-crying jag.

The incidental music sounds like it's left over from that Brady Bunch two-parter when they go to Hawaii and run into Vincent Price. And how times have changed. This mostly innocent-minded PG-rated film has a rape, drug references, descriptions of unsavory acts, several exposed breasts and two fleeting glimpses of female frontal nudity (including that of an alleged 13-year-old). Maybe that's why it was such a hit with the under-18 crowd in 1973.

Billy Jack has been released in a special edition on Blu-Ray, but I don't know why anyone would want to see it that way. I'm sure watching the disc wouldn't engender the same sense of nostalgia I experienced when it unspooled at the Beverly. That's the way it should be seen — in a revival house with a much-abused print and two-dollar popcorn.

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