Tuesday, July 9, 2013

LIE #94: Heatwave Quintet—“Blind Beast” & Friends!

Thermonuclear heatwave meltdown in effect, but no summertime-popcorn-Propaganda-Machine-brainwashing here at LERNER INTERNATIONAL, no siree!

These five films are thought-provoking and controversial, yet brush against the Genre Zone quite successfully—after Blind Beast, we look at the recently released Upstream Color, the long-awaited follow-up to cult favorite Primer; then Larry Cohen’s 1977 exploitation biopic The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, best watched if you put yourself in a late-1970s mindset. We conclude with reviews of lost early-1980s UFOlogy masterpiece Wavelength and its abducted aliens; finishing with Kuroneko, another Japanese film, with bloodthirsty yokai seeking revenge.

Blind Beast (1969; Yasuzo Masumura) WOW, what a film!

“Why can’t touching be an art form?!?"
An insane blind sculptor kidnaps a young model that he’s become obsessed with—in order to recreate the “perfect “ female form in Yasuzo Masumura’s unique erotic horror masterpiece Blind Beast. The madman cries out, “A new art form, by and for the blind!”—and he means it!

The sculptor’s studio is a converted warehouse full of oversized, fabricated body parts: he’s created walls of eyes, ears, arms, breasts, legs, and so on. The blind man is aided (and spoiled) by his overprotective mother, and the two of them have a very codependent relationship, bordering on the incestuous—which his devotion to the kidnapped model disrupts to the core.

At first the model resists the sculptor’s attention, but after driving a wedge between mother and son, upsetting their creepsville dynamics, the model gets a case of Stockholm Syndrome, aided by some borderline brainwashing—and Blind Beast leaps into kink overdrive, a “descent into a non-human abyss.” 

Grueling, bleak and brilliant, this film is just as obsessive as its characters. I don’t know the film’s production history, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio was expecting a much tamer “naughty nudie-cutie.” We watch the actors playing the sculptor and the model live out their characters’ kinky obsessions, giving 110%, practically blistering the screen with warped, unbridled passion. Intense stuff, very recommended.

Aided by a simple cinematographic style that uses the frame well, the film gets very philosophical, intense and perverse as it explores madness, eroticism and art—while in a semi-surreal hothouse environment that is nowhere near academic. I get the feeling that this movie must be a sacred text to S/M devotees, and it would not surprise me if the film has a very loyal following in the BDSM community. There are no whips or chains or corsets, but Blind Beast becomes all about dominance and submission, and how the leadership in such relations can bounce back and forth between participants.

I first learned of Blind Beast from Steve Erickson’s awesome 2007 novel Zeroville, one of my favorite and often-read books. The movie is one of the films that stand out particularly to “cine-autistic” protagonist Vikar, and I was fascinated. Meanwhile, director Masumura also helmed 1958’s Giants & Toys, a superb satire on corporate capitalism focusing on rival candy companies, and although it is a comedy, both films examine aspects of national character that Japan once preferred to keep hidden.

Upstream Color (2013; written, edited, produced and directed by Shane Carruth) Winner of the 2013 WTF Award, hands down!

Carruth is very post-modern-lit in that he only gives us just enough information to make educated guesses. I think the film is a metaphor for alien abductees—or victims of sexual assault?—I don’t mind the film’s cold formalism, but the film is distanced enough from its audience already. I can appreciate making an audience work hard, but there’s a point crossed where the work goes from idiosyncratic to inscrutable.

Comparisons to a Jodoworsky/Tarkovsky mash-up come to mind with this synopsis: Ingesting the blue-gunk of a specific type of maggot enhances the uni-mind, but the Thief uses this psionic power to coerce people into signing over their property and money, with the victims completely blanking out the experience, returning to ruined lives—much like UFO abductees.

After she’s been swindled/infected by the Thief, the woman’s life is saved by The Sampler through a surgical procedure involving a pig. The Sampler is doing lots audio and biological experiments on swine, while at the same time travelling through space and time to experience the lives of others (and the reference to that movie about East Germany is intentional: often The Sampler comes across as an even more affectless Stasi agent, or possibly a dour Time Lord—perhaps a metaphorical interpretation of an “ultraterrestrial” (who says the aliens have to be from outer space, or have almond eyes?).

After his pigs give birth, The Sampler drowns the piglets in the river. Their corpses infect the orchids on the riverbank, which then turn blue—and infect the aforementioned hallucinogenic maggots.

The woman later meets the man (played by director-everything Carruth), and it seems he’s had similar time-loss/life-ruining events. Soon, they are sharing memories…

And that’s as far as I’m going. There’s an Aspbergers-esque humorless attention to detail to Upstream Color that is utterly fascinating: you never think that Carruth doesn’t have a plan—it may be a goofy plan, or an intense one, but like with his previous film, 2004’s Primer, he knows what it is. This is a dense film and surprisingly emotional, however, and will take a lot out of you. Recommended, with reservations.

However, I do applaud Carruth’s continued use of the science fiction genre in new and eye-opening ways, not only playing with the genre, but expanding it by showing new ways to use it.
Hopefully, Carruth’s next film won’t take another nine years…

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977; written, produced and directed by Larry Cohen) Originally released by AIP: Always a sign of quality!
Using lots of stock footage, this is an entertaining biopic; shallow and quick, but hardly anything special—not especially now, with all the evil about Hoover that we’ve come to know.

But it is a good primer on the ogre-ish long-time FBI director—although too even-handed for my tastes, like a TV movie trying to generate empathy for Hoover. I would’ve preferred a more exploitative, and mean-spirited flick, something more like René Cardona Jr. instead of W.-era Oliver Stone. With the exception of a few scenes, Larry Cohen’s usual exciting visual sensationalism and lunatic scripting is tampered down in this flick.

But star Broderick Crawford really gets to shine in several moments, and sometimes it feels like he’s channeling an evil Jackie Gleason. One amazing scene has a drunken Hoover torturing the head waiter of his club with wiretapped information and Kipling poetry. Of course, Crawford has an ugly mug like Hoover, but is a giant in comparison: Hoover was a tiny man, about Danny DeVito size. (Personally, I prefer Ernest Borgnine’s cameo as a prissy and malevolent Hoover in the excellent but “lost” mini-series, Blood Feud, about Hoffa (expertly played by Robert Blake) vs. Bobby Kennedy. Meanwhile, I have no interest in seeing Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, with an emoting DeCraprio in the lead. It looks like apologist-whitewashing of history.)

In any case, Crawford’s giving a fascinating performance, and it’s so much fun watch the way the crowd reacts in some location scenes. There’s never any synced dialog, so we don’t hear the citizens greeting Broderick Crawford and ogling the star, and you know director-producer Cohen didn’t get any permits, just showed up and started rolling. (Actually, they did “sort of” have permission in many locations: go HERE for Larry Cohen’s memories of making the film.)

The last 30 minutes of The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover really pick up as Hoover, a twisted and oblivious closet-case, listens to orgiastic wiretap tapes and boozes it up, crying and shuddering.

This picture has an “all-star” cast, and is lots of fun for the game of “that guy,” but is also a bit of a head-spinner as characters come and go in rapid succession. But Rip Torn is good (as always) as the narrator/audience surrogate/observer of Hoover, but he isn’t allowed to really tear it up, much like Cohen would allow future-regular Michael Moriarty in later films.
Recommended, with reservations.

Wavelength (1983; written & directed by Mike Gray) Originally distributed by New World, but currently in legal limbo, this is a lost sci-fi/UFOlogy masterpiece that deserves to be rediscovered. (I learned about it via a fantastic essay at The Secret Sun, and watched it HERE.)

Don’t let this film’s low, low budget turn you off—Wavelength is overflowing with thought-provoking ideas as a self-destructive musician (Robert Carradine) and a borderline psychic (Cherie Currie from The Runaways!) join forces, with help from Keenan Wynn’s desert rat, to save some peaceful alien “children” from evil CIA/USAF/NASA secret agents.

The movie wisely keeps the aliens very enigmatic, and never “cute.” There is no exposition about who or what they really are—all we know is that they’re telepathic, absorb energy instead of eating, and their touch is deadly.

Almost more of a criticism of the casually brutal military mindset that performs autopsies on living creatures and has a kill-then-cover-up attitude, Wavelength gets points for showing the military-intelligence community not as an infallible shadowy secret organization but as part of a larger bureaucracy only interested in maintaining its control.

Wavelength uses existing locations to good effect, and builds tension very successfully with its intelligent and thoughtful script. It’s very much a proto-X-Files, and delivers many unexpected twists and turns. This is a film worth hunting down to see.
With music by Tangerine Dream; and director Gray was also one of the screenwriters of The China Syndrome; he had recently passed away.

Kuroneko (Black Cat) (1968; Kaneto Shindo) Not so much lost, as forgotten about—through no fault of its own; its premier at Cannes was cancelled due to the 1968 Paris riots—this film has been given a glorious re-release on disc by Criterion

A fitting companion to director Shindo’s previous Onibaba, Kuroneko is a beautiful and moody ghost story that’s so much more than about the supernatural; in fact, it’s a grim and scathing criticism of the macho samurai ethos that is essentially cruel and selfish.

After a mother and wife are raped and murdered, the spirit world allows them to stalk the earth as shape-shifting ghost-cat-women, ripping out the throat of any samurai warriors that cross their path. The region’s samurai overlord orders a newly-commissioned warrior to destroy the “cat goblin demons,” but the young man is the son and husband of the murdered women!

The story is a good balance of the occult and the erotic, as man and yokai forge an unholy bond—but the exquisite B&W cinematography by Kiyomi Kuroda is what really brings this film to life.
Very highly recommended.  

COMING SOON! The Films of June! (A little late…)

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