Otto Preminger, Skidoo, 1968, color film in 35 mm, 98 minutes.
THE SQUAREST HEAD MOVIE EVER MADE, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968) is a lunatic combination of gray hairs and longhairs—an unhinged misfire about youth culture starring actors who were teenagers during the FDR administration. Its hippest cast member is unquestionably Carol Channing, then forty-seven, who wildly frugs, sports oddly structured geometric clothes in brash primary colors, and sings the title song wearing an outfit best described as Revolutionary War chorine and a wig that presages the hairdo of The Muppet Show’s Janice.
Preminger, the director of classics such as Laura (1944), Carmen Jones (1954), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and Exodus (1960), approached the film, the biggest flop of his nearly fifty-year career, with absolute sincerity. The director admired the script by Doran William Cannon, essentially a depiction of the clash between the Man—here represented by the Mafia—and hippies. The screenwriter, according to the Turner Classic Movies website, thought the film “delivered an important message of peace and love at a time when America was engaged in the war with Vietnam.”
In his early sixties, when Skidoo began production, Preminger had recently experimented with LSD and was eager to let the kids know that he dug their psychedelics. Turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is Jackie Gleason, starring as a retired mobster named Tough Tony, who’s summoned by God to carry out one last hit, a germophobic syndicate boss played by Groucho Marx. (The comedian also reportedly tried acid to prepare for Skidoo, which would be his last film.) Tony must pose as a prisoner at Alcatraz, where his target, “Blue Chips” Packard (Mickey Rooney), sits in luxe solitary confinement. But before the kill, Tony—obsessed that his wife (Channing) has been two-timing him, leading him to doubt that he’s really the father of his Vassar-bound daughter, who has just taken up with a bunch of freaks and peaceniks—is introduced to LSD by the Professor (Austin Pendleton), his draft card–burning cell mate.
“I see mathematics!” the sweat-soaked, chortling Tony announces during his altered state as bodies shrink and searing magentas and electric blues fill the screen. Soon the entire penitentiary is hallucinating after the Professor spikes the prison mess, culminating in Skidoo’s looniest scene: Two guards envision bare-assed football players, an image that morphs into solarized trash bins dancing to “Living in a Garbage Can,” sung by Harry Nilsson (who plays one of the sentries and who later sings the closing credits in their entirety, including the copyright information).
Released in December 1968, the film was a commercial and critical disaster; in his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Skidoo [. . .] is something only for Preminger-watchers, or for people whose minds need pressing by a heavy, flat object.” The director himself admitted, with great understatement during an interview with Peter Bogdanovich collected in Who the Devil Made It, “I don’t think it was altogether successful in projecting what I wanted to project.”
But just what was Preminger trying to project? Tweaking the tone of Cannon’s script, Preminger tries to send up hippie-speak, having the chief flower child say things like “So we can all groove and do our own thing.” Yet the parody is about as biting as a Laugh-In skit. And though Preminger did succeed in casting one sort of outré star—the model Donyale Luna, who plays God’s girlfriend and was briefly a Factory habitué—most of his actors look as though they’d much rather be working the stage at Caesars Palace and pitch their performances so that everyone in the borscht belt can hear them. There’s no redeeming Skidoo. I suggest you see it immediately.
Skidoo is available on DVD beginning July 19 from Olive Films.
Ridley Scott, Alien, 1979, still from a color film in 35 mm, 117 minutes. Dan O’Bannon, The Return of the Living Dead, 1985, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.
DAN O’BANNON may not be a household name, but when he died two years ago at the age of sixty-three he left his fingerprints on two of the most famous science fiction and horror films of the last thirty-five years: Star Wars (1977), for which he did computer effects, and Alien (1979), for which he wrote the script. He was something of a jack-of-all-trades: For Dark Star (1974)—his as well as director John Carpenter’s feature film debut—O’Bannon served as co-writer, editor, production designer, special effects supervisor, and star.
“Shock Value,” an upcoming BAM retrospective, displays the full range of O’Bannon’s talents. Gathering almost all of them in one bizarre package, Dark Star is a true oddity, a 2001 satire with hints of Keatonian slapstick and the absurdist philosophical musings of early Woody Allen. During a nearly twenty minute sequence, O’Bannon’s Sergeant Pinback (he plays the goofy, accident-prone astronaut with relish) chases a beach ball–shaped and -textured alien through a labyrinthine space shuttle, nearly getting crushed by an elevator in the process. In the climax, a nuclear bomb equipped with artificial intelligence is prevented from exploding when befuddled by a Cartesian brainteaser.
The cosmic darkness of Alien, on the other hand, is never tempered with camp or intellectual humor. Though known more for its grungy, futuristic set design and H.R. Giger’s primordial, sexually suggestive title creature, Alien works largely due to O’Bannon’s ability to elevate B-movie scenarios into mythological nightmares with archetypal economy.
That ability remains untapped in Blue Thunder (1983), a bland, helicopter-centered action film starring Roy Scheider that indulges rather than interrogates the surveillance technology of its titular super-vehicle. More exemplary of the O’Bannon touch is his directorial debut, The Return of the Living Dead (1985), which he also wrote. On the surface a trashier version of George Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead (1968)—at one point a nymphomaniacal punk (scream queen Linnea Quigley) performs a striptease, for no discernable reason, atop an open-air crypt—Return nonetheless possesses some of the funniest, bleakest imagery to appear in any zombie film. After scenes that include the excruciating onset of rigor mortis in a couple of unfortunate zombie victims and the tactical ambushing of local police by an army of talking, intelligent zombies, the film ends with the military containing the zombie epidemic by nuking Louisville, all moral qualms swept nonchalantly to the side.
“Shock Value: Dan O’Bannon” runs at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn July 11–13 & 18–19.
Eve Annenberg, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, 2010, stills from a color film, 89 minutes.
EXUBERANCE, AWKWARDNESS, RECKLESSNESS, SPONTANEITY, AND YEARNING—qualities valued in productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy about teenage amour fou—are abundantly present in Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish. Defiantly artless and effortlessly sophisticated, the movie is an astonishment almost from beginning to end. It also has one of the funniest lines of the year (not to give it away, it concerns what every girl should put in her purse before she’s entombed).
A shape-shifting fiction that incorporates (sort of) a documentary of its own making, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish stars its director as Ava, a graduate student moonlighting as a nurse in a two-bed emergency room that looks like it was jammed into the corner of someone’s apartment. Ava has a complicated backstory: Nearly two decades earlier, she fell in love with a Hasidic bookstore clerk, married him, and had a daughter whom she left behind when she fled her husband’s religious community. She has returned to Brooklyn hoping to win back the now teenage girl before she is forced into an arranged marriage. In the meantime, she takes on a paid assignment from one of her professors, a little something he probably was supposed to finish himself in graduate school. Although she doesn’t speak the language, Ava agrees to modernize an existing Yiddish translation of Romeo and Juliet, a seemingly absurd enterprise since Hasidic schoolchildren aren’t allowed to read Shakespeare, and anyone else who reads Yiddish, as one of the Hasidic dropouts Ava hires to help her explains, is over ninety.
The comment applies reflexively to Annenberg’s film as well. The audience for Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish are not members of the eastern European Jewish orthodoxy but its dropouts—and by extension the dropouts from every enclosed religious, ethnic, or political community that still sees the world through a feudal lens. Annenberg can’t escape the shadow of West Side Story—as when she sets the balcony scene on a Brooklyn fire escape—but her film has more in common with countless amateur productions of the play performed by high school kids who understand the tragedy of the feuding Montagues and Capulets because they live out similar gang wars on their own mean streets.
Which makes the film sound grimmer than it is. The pleasure of Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish is located in the lyrical scenes where Ava’s helpers—self-exiled from their religious community and surviving on the street through credit card scams—soar in their imaginations as they envision themselves as Shakespeare’s characters. Annenberg segues back and forth between Lazer, Mendy, and Bubbles lounging on Ava’s couch and the same three playacting Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio as they, for example, return on the D train from a day at Coney Island, joshing with one another in iambic pentameter—or Yiddish approximations of the same. (All Yiddish dialogue is subtitled.) Almost all the actors in the large cast are nonprofessionals, and, strangely, they are far more inspired and believable playing Shakespeare’s characters than they are as modern analogues to themselves. Since romantic love has no place in Hasidic culture, Romeo is more comfortable with his male pals than with Juliet (who, of course, is played by the same actress who plays Ava’s daughter). Indeed, the fact that Lazer can’t quite fathom what makes Romeo so crazy about Juliet until he acts out their wedding-night love scene—discreetly shot through gauze and introduced by a close-up of a Chagall painting—is exactly Annenberg’s point, and the point of all performance in life and art.
Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish opens July 8 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.
Nicolás Pereda, Summer of Goliath, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 76 minutes. Goliath (Oscar Saavedra Miranda).
AMONG THE LESSER-KNOWN FIGURES of Mexican cinema to have emerged over the past decade, Nicolás Pereda bears watching. Like other regional filmmakers, he focuses on local situations, using the same actors playing characters often with the same names, in stories with only slight variations. Four of his five features comprise, in effect, a small-scale human comedy about people of social invisibility and lackluster lives. (His only other feature-length work is a documentary rehearsal of a stage reading by Jesusa Rodriguez, a famous Mexican performer and director.)
The films have simple, almost inconsequential narrative premises, the barest of dialogue, and a kitchen sink–like banality (the last quite literally, in one instance). Where Are Their Stories? (2007), Pereda’s debut feature, opens with young Gabino (Gabino Rodríguez) sitting on his ailing grandmother’s bed. When he learns that his two uncles plan to sell her farm, he leaves for the city to see his mother (Teresa Sánchez) and to seek legal help. Juntos (2009) begins and ends with what seems like the same Gabino searching for his missing dog—perhaps a metaphor for his uneasy, but unexplored, relationship with his girlfriend. In Perpetuum Mobile (2010), Gabino lives with his mother (Sánchez) and works as a furniture mover with his friend Paco. At the end, when Gabino and his mother find his grandmother dead in her apartment, they simply wrap her in a blanket and bury her in the woodsa telling illustration of how little these lives matter in any larger social context.
In all three films, Pereda introduces diversionary scenes with mixed results. In Stories, the childless couple for whom Teresa works as a live-in maid asks her to conceive a child by the husband. Though she agrees, her visible distress following the act telegraphs the veiled pressure she felt to do so. In Perpetuum Mobile, Gabino and Paco remove the belongings of a woman bent on leaving her husband of thirty years, as he follows her around their apartment and convinces her to change her mind. Though such anecdotes seem intended as mordant commentary on the fickleness and insensitivity of the middle class, they have an uncanny, if restrained, resemblance to an episode in a Woody Allen film. Strangely, the protagonists Pereda apparently cares about are no more articulate about their lives, which is not to say that his actors are expressionless. Indeed, the performers are perhaps the strongest element of his work, capable of subtle shifts of emotion that justify many of the long-held shots. Yet, despite the presence of cultural miscellany (shelves of books and CDs) lining their apartment walls, they have little or nothing to say during these five- to seven-minute-long takes. The most animated conversation in Juntos is between Gabino and Paco, complaining about a malfunctioning refrigerator.
Pereda’s more ambitious but willfully puzzling Summer of Goliath (2010) tells a number of stories, none of them fully developed. Set in a rural environment, in which woods, fields, and rivers bear oppressively on the action, the film consists of stories that are juxtaposed with each other, scene by scene, in the fashion of a patchwork quilt. Once again, Teresa Sánchez and Gabino Rodríguez are mother and son, their problems compounded by the husband-father’s abandonment; once again, Gabino lacks a proper job, this time as he plays soldier with a pal. Pereda’s inclusion of interviews with minor characters whose situations are unconnected to the main one lends a documentary air to the entire work, blurring the line between fabrication and what seem to be actual events. The film’s title refers to a young man accused of killing his girlfriend. Though we hear no more about this after the interview that begins the film, it hangs over the movie as a specter of hopelessness and irresolution.
Pereda’s style—extended takes, often handheld and mobile; minimal dialogue; loosely constructed, unresolved narratives; and quasi-documentary touches—is so suited to the confines and aimless lives of his characters that it hardly seems a formalist choice. His approach is patient and observing, his long takes apt measures of the unhurried, directionless nature of his characters’ behavior. It’s not clear whether this style reflects a consistent authorial point of view or is the logical tactic for gazing at people whose personalities and lives would crumble under the analytic dynamics of montage. “Where Are Their Stories?” could be the collective title of Pereda’s films to date. It remains to be seen whether he will continue to address this question as he has or expand his aesthetic to consider its deeper implications.
Todd Haynes, Poison, 1991, stills from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 85 minutes. Left: Man in Alley and Woman in Alley (Joe Dietl and Melissa Brown). Right: Young Jack Bolton (Andrew Harpending).
IN HONOR OF THE TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY of Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991), Zeitgeist Films has released a new DVD edition, using as its source the original 35-mm internegative. The digitized film looks and sounds just fine on my home screen, although there’s no substitute for seeing it in a theater, with an entire audience suddenly still as the strands of the triple narrative twist together in the assault and transcendence of the final minutes. Poison is an outrageous work born of outrage—over the AIDS crisis and the demonization of the dying and the dead by a homophobic society. Haynes has often remarked that he would not have been able to make Poison today. While that may be true—certainly the fury that drives it is veiled in his subsequent films—what’s more important is that Poison is just as powerful and necessary a work as it was in 1991. To exploit its most notorious image, the film is a gob of spittle in the face of what today passes for adversarial art and politics. As I watched it, I wondered when someone would make a movie about the current political, economic, and cultural assault on women’s autonomy or about the accelerating destruction of the environment that is as passionate, cogent, visceral, and aesthetically sophisticated as Poison.
Titled respectively “Hero,” Horror,” and “Homo,” the three narratives comprising Poison are each couched in a different style. “Hero” uses the conventions of 1980s tabloid TV to tell the story of seven-year-old Richie, who kills his father to save his mom and then, according to her account of the event, flies out the bedroom window and disappears into the blue heavens. The family’s suburban neighbors agree that there was always something not quite right about Richie. “Horror,” which is shot in black-and-white and edited like a ’50s monster B-movie, is the most pointed of the three sections in its AIDS metaphor. A scientist bottles the sex drive, drinks the potion by accident, and is transformed into an oozing, crud-covered wreck that fearmongering newspapers label the Leper Sex Killer after he infects the women who come on to him. “Homo” is a prison love story based on the ’40s writings of Jean Genet, particularly The Miracle of the Rose, Our Lady of the Flowers, and The Thief’s Journal. A mixture of brutish melodrama and lyrical S&M fantasies, “Homo” is the only section devoted to men desiring men and thus became the story with which Poison is identified.
In his Director’s Statement (printed in the DVD liner notes along with J. Hoberman’s 1991 Village Voice review and some fascinating production information), Haynes explains that on learning in 1986 of Genet’s death, he wondered what the writer, in his last years, might have thought about the AIDS crisis. He conceived of Poison as taking the side of the “deviant”—just as Genet did in his life and work. “A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness,” wrote Genet. Haynes uses the quote as an epigram. But even before we read it, we have understood that Poison is both a dream and a call to action.
Todd Haynes, Poison, 1991, excerpt from “Homo” segment.
“Homo” reflects Genet’s only film, Un Chant d’amour (A Song of Love, 1950), with its fetid stone dungeons and pastoral fantasies of freedom. Unlike the convicts in Genet’s film, who lived in solitary confinement, Poison’s prisoners mingle freely in dark winding corridors and stairways. There, Broom (Scott Renderer) encounters Bolton (James Lyons, who also coedited the film with Haynes), the episode’s tall, dark, lush-lipped object of desire. Broom remembers Bolton as the victim of a reform school hazing. Half-hidden behind wildflowers growing between rocks that form a grotto-like enclosure, the young Broom watched as a gang of teenagers, dressed in gardening clothes as if they were refugees from Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, pry open Bolton’s mouth and use it as the target for a long-range spitting competition. As the humiliated Bolton sinks to his knees, he casts his eyes heavenward to see a storm of rose petals falling from a cloud-feathered sky. Poison’s signature set piece was appropriately shot on a soundstage, the mix of artifice and visceral reality reflecting the construction of the voyeur’s fantasy. Broom has nursed this erotic image of submission and transcendence for decades. His rape of the adult Bolton, after a long, yearning mutual seduction, is more straightforward and physically brutal.
Despite the acting, which is notably wooden throughout, the jittery camera work (by Maryse Alberti and Barry Ellsworth), the evocative score by James Bennett, and the ingeniously fluid editing combine to make the experience of the film at once poignant and harrowing. The three sections are woven together through rhyming images and sounds and shared words and verbal metaphors. Awash in every kind of bodily fluid, Poison is also an extremely tactile film. Close-ups of hands abound—grasping, gripping, caressing, exploring. The tactility is echoed in the filmmaking—handmade out of economic necessity.
While Broom is the Genet figure, Richie is the alter ego of the filmmaker as a young boy. The titular “Hero” is barely present on the screen, but his point of view defines both the title sequence and the enigmatic conclusion of the entire film. Throughout the former, we see Richie’s hand as it investigates the personal objects in his parents’ darkened bedroom, caressing his mother’s toilette articles, jewelry, lingerie, digging into forbidden dresser drawers until he finds the deadly object for which he is searching—later clearly revealed as his father’s gun. At the end of the film, as Richie’s mother describes how her son saved her and then flew out the window, we see, through what could only be Richie’s eyes as he hovers just above the house, his mother’s face as she leans over the ledge searching for him in the infinite blue sky into which he ascends. The final image of Poison is the cloudless, unbroken blue ether; the final words, spoken by his mother in a voice trembling with pride and wonder, are “My little boy.”
Indeed, what had Haynes wrought? Poison won best feature at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and opened some two months later at the Angelika Film Center in New York where it broke house box-office records. Its success owed a little something to the free publicity it received when it was attacked by Reverend Donald Wildmon, then chairman of the ultra-right wing American Family Association, and denounced on the floor of the US Senate by Jesse Helms as an example of the kind of “homosexual pornography” that the National Endowment for the Arts was using taxpayer money to fund. Clips from Poison showed up on network news shows. Haynes went one-on-one in televised debates with Dick Armey, former House majority leader and current “godfather” of the Tea Party movement, and with the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed. It was a heady moment: Poison’s director; its producer, Christine Vachon; its distributor, Zeitgeist Films, which released both the 1999 DVD and this restored twentieth-anniversary edition; and its publicist, Jeff Hill, who understood how to turn free negative attention into box-office gold, not only won their indie film cred with Poison, but they also carried—for a brief moment—the American independent film movement into outlaw, queer territories and twisty definitions of “positive” role models.
In a work between Poison and his next feature, Safe (1995), Haynes elaborated the character of Richie into a portrait of the queer artist at an impressionable age. Dottie Gets Spanked (1994) is a thirty-minute, made-for-television narrative about a young boy obsessed with a female sitcom star and with spankings—given and received. If Poison’s literary source is Genet, Dottie explicitly references Freud’s essay “A Child Is Being Beaten.” (Foucault’s Discipline and Punish figures in both movies.) Dottie, which is currently available through Zeitgeist on DVD and on Amazon Digital’s pay-for-view, would have been a great extra on the new Poison DVD. Which is not to make less of the DVD’s inclusion of Ira Sachs’s restrained but nevertheless heartbreaking short film Last Address (2009), a series of moving-picture images of the exteriors of buildings where artists who died of AIDS lived in the final years, months, or weeks of their lives. Among those artists is Lyons, whose HIV-positive status, in part, personalized Poison’s rage. Lyons continued to edit all of Haynes’s films through Far from Heaven (2002). He died in 2007, at age forty-six. Although Poison’s credits include many now illustrious names, Lyons’s creative contribution cannot be overestimated.
The twentieth-anniversary edition of Poison is now available from Zeitgeist Films.
FOR ALL ITS SURFACE CALM AND CHARM, Azazel Jacobs’s Terri, a tale of woebegone adolescents, is a small but deadly missile aimed at more than a few of the stereotypes endemic to the coming-of-age genre. From the first shot of its forlorn, overweight protagonist (beautifully played by Jacob Wysocki) lying listlessly in a bathtub, to its final scene when Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald, the all-too-human assistant principal of his high school (a terrific John C. Reilly), bond over burgers and the errant ways of humanity, the film upends expectations—both for the path it pursues and for the ones it smartly avoids. Skirting the supercilious and the sentimental, as well as neatly pigeonholed images of “losers,” Jacobs strikes a tone both gentle and unnerving, rubbing our noses in enough unpleasant aspects of his characters to make us cringe with unwelcome familiarity rather than sympathize with smug detachment. Terri comes closer than the average film of its kind to capturing the borderline pathology that plagues adolescence, but it also has its share of dysfunctional adults. Ideal role models are nowhere in sight, and in the (unexplained) absence of his mother and father, Terri himself virtually parents the pre-dementia uncle with whom he lives. That he longs for affection and affirmation is clear when he feels betrayed that Mr. Fitzgerald treats him as he does other problem kids.
Chronically late and still in his pajamas, Terri drags himself to school. The effort is nicely symbolized by the divide between the hilly, wooded area he walks through every day and the school grounds below and beyond it. While the wood seems a haven of comfort before his descent to the daily taunts and humiliations of his homeroom peers, it is also where Terri lays out the mice he has caught in the attic for predatory birds, shrieking in delight when a hawk tears into rodent flesh. But neither Jacobs’s settings nor his characters fall into schematic contrasts. Terri’s genuine sensitivity coexists with a moderately sadistic pleasure typical of teenagers. Though the usual rituals and bullying abound, Terri is no pushover. He defends Heather, a pretty coed (Olivia Crocicchia) who is reprimanded for allowing a boy to touch her inappropriately in class, and pals around with the unbearably pathetic Chad (Bridger Zadina). No small part of the film’s queasy effect is the uncanny aptness of its casting.
Jacobs’s approach and themes coalesce most effectively in a scene near the end in which Terri, Heather, and Chad play out an adolescent long day’s journey into night that is as touching as it is repellent, its very duration reaching a level of discomfort that is the most truthful thing about it. Buzzed on alcohol, Chad pees on his pants; Heather ridicules his penis while offering herself to Terri; and he bares the fleshy breasts his classmates mock. Neither hip nor poignantly transcendent, the scene defies us to look away from its excruciating bluntness, offering neither an erotic nor a comic payoff. No dramatic aftermath or reductive message displaces the feeling that we’ve seen the underside of many a pathetic foray into adulthood. While Terri is unlikely to attract the audience that revels in more Dionysian treatments of adolescent angst, it has an integrity that warrants respect and attention.
Terri opens Friday, July 1, in New York and Los Angeles.