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Transamerica; Menace II Society

Posted on 2006.12.15 at 14:36
If you haven't already, you must come by and see our flat.

Transamerica * * *
Woman in all but the essentials teams up with her unsuspecting, recently-released-from-prison long-estranged rent-boy son and the unlikely pair set out from New York City to California. Woman intends to have her penis lopped off, while her son wants to become a porn actor. All of the usual road-trip movie conventions are here: the mysterious hitch-hiker, the love interest, the stolen car, the Woman's unsymathetic family at the end of the road. But there are plenty of unusual twists. For instance, when the two get into financial trouble, the son rents himself to an old man in a service-station toilet. The love interest never pans out, and in a risque twist, son attempts to sleep with Woman (not yet knowing her to be his father). Otherwise, everyone gets what they want. Woman gets her sex change, rent-boy gets his porn career, and the film ends with the two on understandably shaky terms (what with Woman having concealed the fact that she fathered rent-boy and him having offered his lithe nubile body to her). Refreshing that there is no rehabilitation or miraculous love-triumphs-over-all-odds message. (Compare and contrast with Life as a House, in which the rent-boy character reforms and fucks his female neighbour once he receives the requisite dose of fatherly bonding).

Menace II Society * * *
Although not quite as good as that other ghetto niggah film, Boyz N the Hood, this is still lots of fun. My favourite character is the one called O-Dog, described as "America's nightmare. Young, black, and didn't give a fuck." He shoots a Korean storekeeper and his wife (for no real reason), takes the security tape and shows it to all his friends. He shoots a drug addict who offers to suck his dick in exchange for junk. Really, he'll shoot anyone. The protagonist is caught between the O-Dog worldview and some kind of elusive sanity, personified by his woman, Ronnie. But, of course, women aren't really there to be listened to, and so everyone is killed in a senseless drive-by.

V for Vendetta

Posted on 2006.10.09 at 19:21
"The trick to flying safely, Zoe always said, was never to buy a discount ticket and to tell yourself you had nothing to live for anyway, so that when the plane crashed it was no big deal. Then, when it didn't crash, when you had succeeded in keeping it aloft with your own worthlessness, all you had to do was stagger off, locate your luggage, and, by the time a cab arrived, come up with a persuasive reason to go on living." - from Lorrie Moore's hilarious short story "You're Ugly Too".

"The supermarket is still open; it won't close till midnight. It is brilliantly bright. Its brightness offers sanctuary from loneliness and the dark. You could spend hours of your life here, in a state of suspended insecurity, meditating on the multiplicity of things to eat. Oh dear, there is so much! So many brands in shiny boxes, all of them promising you good appetite. Every article on the shelves cries out to you, take me, take me; and the mere competition of their appeals is enough to make you imagine yourself wanted, even loved. But beware - when you get back to your empty room, you'll find that the false flattering elf of the advertisement has eluded you; what remains is only cardboard, cellophane and food. And you have lost the heart to be hungry." - from Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man.

V for Vendetta * *
I'm a bit upset that this movie wasn't better - wasn't even good really. It's earnest, well meaning, and yet so clumsy, poppy and disturbingly pro-mob rule. It's politics are all laudable enough: it's pro-gay, anti-media, pro-literature, anti-religion, anti-war. The story is like George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four rewritten by Michael Moore. It has some bizarre pop-Zen-Buddhist-derived lesson about transcending the body, torture, and so forth. As V says, "Behind this mask is an idea. And ideas are bulletproof." Which is ironic when you consider V's reasons for wanting to blow up parliament: to destroy what it stands for (the idea of fascism) as much as the building itself. So are ideas really bulletproof or not? What does that sentence even mean? That's just one of the more subtle incongruencies V for Vendetta has to offer. Mostly it's just pure entertainment which isn't really worth analysing (I smile to think that people can take this film seriously at all). It has all the standard hallmarks of dystopian fiction (and non-fiction a la Michael Moore's films, for that matter): An unfree press, a ruthless theocratic dictator, a state of vaguely hinted-at international chaos, sexual repression, and the absense of all things artistic and literary. But it would be a mistake to assume that the film is about any of these political issues. It barely scratches the surface with familiar cliches and comic-book icons - liberal hot-buttons like the pedophile priest, for instance, which don't really offer much insight into anything. The most one can say about V for Vendetta is that it is interesting as a product of its times, as a liberal pamphlet designed to convert impressionable audiences. Also, I suppose, it could lead to some interesting debates among viewers, perhaps delving deeper than the film itself does. 

What I'm reading:

"[My father] said we must judge not, lest we ourselves be judged. I had just enough tact to let that pass, but I was quite aware that our whole system was one of judging, and that we had no intention whatever of being judged ourselves." - Father and Son by Edmund Gosse.

"Religious egotism is the most potent form of egotism that exists. It can swell and grow and take over the earth. It begins with the simple egotism of believing that the Creator of Earth and Sky is perpetually engrossed in your moods, prayers, sins and virtues, and that He has gone to the trouble of inventing special punishments for you if you deviate from His law by thought, word or deed. The egotism flowers into the conviction that God was so worried about your sinfulness that He came to earth in human form and died a painful and humiliating public death as a sacrifice for your transgressions. Anyone who is capable of believing these things has placed themselves, and their relationship with the Almighty, at the very centre of the universe." - Against Religion by A. N. Wilson.

"I think gays are made to feel guilty not just about being homosexual but about being sexual. It's the fact we insist on our sexuality that's already the disgusting point for most people. They have abnegated their sexuality in the interests of career, marriage, dinner, or gardening. So many adults have entombed their sexuality in these enormous, corpulent bodies - especially in America - that they just don't have sex." - Edmund White (in an interview).

What's Eating Gilbert Grape * * * *
Like Whale Rider and Eat Drink Man Woman, What's Eating Gilbert Grape is one of few genuinely good heartwarming family dramas. It's probably most famous nowadays for featuring the teenage Leonardo de Caprio as a lovable retard and a youthful, silky-long haired Johnny Depp as the Gilbert of the title. Gilbert's dull rural life centres around having sex with an unhappily married woman, working in a grocery store, and trying to keep his unruly little brother in line, while his sisters minister to their "beached whale" of a mother who has not left the house since her husband died. This is a tolerance-encouraging film - true, it avoids thorny issues such as rural racism and homophobia, sticking instead to obesity and mental imbalance (which most people are eager to be compassionate about, especially when those afflicted by such ills are so lovable) - but I'm inclined to be lenient because the film is so encouraging of broadmindedness as just that: a state of mind rather than being pro or anti any particular issue. And indeed the film does also depict infidelity and general (hetero)sexual activity in a light-hearted, rather than stern or moralising light. 

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe * * * *
This short film by Les Blank, who documented the making of Werner Herzog's bold and magnificent film Fitzcarraldo, is a recording of Werner Herzog literally eating his shoe as the result of a bet he made with documentarian Errol Morris. Herzog had told Morris that if he managed to complete a feature film, he (Herzog) would eat his shoe. Blank's short shows the stewing of the shoe, and Herzog eating it before an audience at the premier of Morris's film. This is punctuated by moments of an hilarious interview with Herzog, in which he talks about the "poverty of images in our society", how he really ought to do more cooking, and how the film-maker's profession is so noble that he is justified in doing anything at all, including stealing, in order to get his film made. Absolutely fantastic.

What I've been reading

Posted on 2006.05.25 at 13:43
"It's like winning the lottery, only more illegal." - Gina on her windfall

FEEDING FRENZY: Collected journalism by Will Self
This book is really fantastic. Will Self ruthlessly, misanthropically writes on a wide variety of subjects for various magazines. He reviews TV shows Friends, Big Brother and Castaway, architecture, politicians. The book also includes his numerous London restaurant reviews, which are lots of fun, especially since he in fact doesn't write so much about the food as about numerous random and idiosyncratic observations, going off on a tangent and thuswise forming his opinion (usually not positive).

COCK AND BULL by Will Self
These are two short novels in one. I'm halfway through the first, in which a young married woman starts to grow a penis (with which, according to the blurb, she will eventually rape her docile alcoholic husband). Self's style is totally irresistible, his characters gleefully mocked rather than developed, which is just how I would do it.

DE PROFUNDIS by Oscar Wilde
I'm re-reading this, Wilde's lengthy letter from prison to his immature pleasure-seeking ex-lover Lord Alfred Douglas (whose father was pretty much responsible for Wilde being trialled). It's very perceptive, very quotable. It turns into a meditation on the nature of friendship (and love) - what we owe to others - which is really the only interesting subject. Wilde found religion while in prison, which I suppose is excusable, though it does mean that he lapses from time to time into superfluous Christ-praisings. Other than that, though, DE PROFUNDIS is very engaging, never self-pitying, always very courageous and endlessly quotable.
I especially like this: "A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a member of parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it."

I got this out of the library because I'd read a review of P-P Hartnett's work in Will Self's FEEDING FRENZY, and he sounded like quite the man - Hell, he's written a novel titled I WANT TO FUCK YOU. Sadly, I couldn't find I WANT TO FUCK YOU or any of P-P Hartnett's other equally sordid and extreme novels anywhere in Wellington, so I had to make do with this collection of stories he selected by various young gay men (aged 17-25) from around the world.
Two - "No Shame in My Game" and "Big Exit" - concern prostitutes, and the first is really quite fun and sexy. It's interesting how fascinated we all are with rent-boys, how glamourised prostitution, even in all its dirtiness has become to us. It's the whole power thing, I guess. Straight male culture is the same in this regard.
"Pornography" is one of the best stories in the collection, and concerns a young guy who's thinking of writing a porn novel to make money and turns to the net for inspiration. There's a surprise twist which exposes the very unglamourous nature of exploitation.
There's a pretty horrifying story called "Double Life" about a family-man who has an extra-marital affair with his pastor, who ends up giving him AIDS. A metaphor, perhaps: religion as virus?
"Crabs" is a laugh and a half. In it, the narrator imagines that his crabs have created a civilisation in his pubic hair. He has lots of fun with the crabs: "My crabs are singing hymns to me. I think about going to the doctor's and wonder whether to say that my problem has returned or that I have become a religion." Finally, he "commits genocide".
Overall, this is a really fab book.

"One is punished for the good as well as for the evil that one does. I have no doubt that it is quite right one should be. It helps one, or should help one, to realise both, and not to be too conceited about either." - Oscar Wilde, DE PROFUNDIS

This is one of those films which is so bloody everyone knows it simply has to be "an unflinching look at Australian history", an indictment of the fascist phallocentricity and obscene racism it parades before its viewers, a deep soulful quest full of "complexity, moral ambivalence, history and action". I'm quoting from Branavan Gnanalingam's review in this week's Salient. He seems to worship THE PROPOSITION and its writer "indie music legend Nick Cave" (wow, written by a rock star, how cool is that?!).
THE PROPOSITION is good, but it's not the breakthrough Gnanalingam makes it out to be. Like FIGHT CLUB and PULP FICTION, it's the sort of movie that disillusioned hetero Aussie males will enjoy bringing up in every conversation about movies. It's a Have-Your-Cake-And-Eat-It-Too movie. It's perfect: it gives us the pornographic thrill of violence, racism and rape with none of the guilt. Afterall, it's an indictment of all that! Watching this movie means you're tough and manly because you can withstand it, but it also means you're sensitive and poetic because the film has some deeper meaning about how violence isn't the way.
In other words, it's a hodge-podge mixture of nastiness and some decent character development (the police chief and his wife). The trouble is I'm not left with any real insight into the nature of violence (why it happens and what it does to us) as I am when I watch A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, say. In fact, I think it would be instructive to compare Guy Pearce's character with Viggo Mortensen's in Cronenberg's movie. Cronenberg's insight (which is also J. M. Coetzee's) is that violence is the same no matter where it happens or to whom. This understanding seems to be missing in THE PROPOSITION which, while implicitly critical of just about all the violence depicted, gives Guy Pearce a sort of license to kill. As Tom Stall, Viggo comes accross as creepily altered by his violent acts - literally changed into his former violent self, Joey, and there is no redemption. Nothing comparable happens to Guy, who kills his older brother and fellow gang member (who saved his life) to put an end to it all, saying something trite like "no more" - some lame Strong Silent Type one-liner which we're all supposed to lap up. He's a bit like Mad Max, that other Aussie bad boy icon. This is, at bottom, a remarkably conservative film which, for all its "moral ambivalence" ends by asserting that the solution to violence is more violence.

"Even when he spoke, in his basic, unimaginative way, I felt almost sick with desire and compassion for him. Indeed, the fact that he had not mastered speech, that he laboured towards saying the simplest things, that his vocal expressions were prompted only by the strength of his feelings, unlike the camp, exploitative, ironical control of my own speech, made me want him more." - William on the joys of having a stupid boyfriend in Alan Hollinghurst's THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY

A new Cronenberg film is to me what a new Fruits Basket is to Bex. A really salivatory experience. No matter what your expectations, he will not disappoint. This ranks with Crash and Dead Ringers as one of the best films of Cronenberg's "mature" period. The title is fairly appropriate: it is a film about violence - a subject much more interesting than most people tend to believe. In the same way, Crash was a film about sex. Although many films contain sex and violence there are few which are actually about these things.
Cronenberg's film takes the central theme of the graphic novel, but the story is significantly different. The violence is more abrupt (perhaps simply because abruptness is something more easily portrayed in cinema than in a graphic novel) - seeming to boil up rapidly from an unknown source. Consider the scene in which Tom/Joey's son takes revenge on the high-school bully. What makes this scene shocking is the revelation that this is something we might all be capable of. In one of the film's best moments, Tom/Joey confronts his son, telling him that the bully was hospitalised, and that
"In this family we don't solve our problems by punching people!"
To which his son counters, "No, in this family we kill them!"
And Tom/Joey slaps him. Cronenberg is not without a sense of humour.
Nick thinks this film is full of Spielberg references (specifically E.T. and Close Encounters). Actually, Cronenberg is in Lynch territory: exploring the dark underbelly of small town America. Of course, Cronenberg out-performs Lynch in just about every respect, and unlike Lynch he actually has something compelling to say.

Not to be confused with Fox and Friends (the Fox News morning show), this film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (director of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul - reviewed below) is about a poor, not very attractive gay carnival worker called Fox (played by Fassbinder himself). Fox has just been fired and everything looks bad, but he's endearingly optimistic about life, and seems to think he'll win the lottery. Which he does. Suddenly, he has lots of well-to-do friends. Being profoundly naive and stupid, Fox doesn't realise that this gay bourgeois crowd love him for his money, not his sparkling personality or dazzling good looks. The film follows Fox's relationship with Eugin, who clearly hates and despises Fox, and over six months manages to rob him of his winnings. A really savage indictment of classism and a horrific tale of merciless exploitation. Very disturbing. Re-examine all your friendships. This film is every bit as good as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, though it is much more depressing.

Apparently this film is famous because it contains Ewan McGregor's (flaccid) penis, which is really nothing to write home about in my opinion. It's an intriguing movie in some respects, and it is pretty well filmed. There's no one called Adam in it, which is immensely frustrating. I suppose it could be some Biblical reference, but there's nothing in the film to lend support to this theory.
Ewan is a promiscuous and not very likeable man who works on a barge (sometime during the war years or shortly before, in Britain). What is his deal with women? In one hilarious scene he throws custard and other condiments on his girlfriend, then fucks - or rather, rapes - her from behind, before storming out. This is a film about a real bastard. There's no real reason that he's a bastard: he just is. It's not great.

Just plain shit.

ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Posted on 2006.04.05 at 11:03
"Why do people who are good at families have to be smug and assume it is the only way to live, as if everybody else is inadequate? Why can't they be blamed for being bad at promiscuity?" - from Hanif Kureishi's extremely good book, INTIMACY.

I'm hard-pressed to think of a documentary that I dislike. I can think of many that I love: Capturing the Freidmans, Manufacturing Consent, Gay Republicans, Darwin's Nightmare, OutFoxed, Startup.com, The Thin Blue Line, The Corporation, Control Room, Checkpoint, Microcosmos, The Celluloid Closet. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room also goes on this list. It's a truly brilliant film not simply because it exposes corrupt corporate culture in America (I mean, we all knew about that already). What makes this doco stand out is that, above all else, it understands greed in a totally non-condescending way. Of course, it's fascinating enough just to learn how Enron managed to become one of the corporate giants in America despite the commercial failure of just about everything it went into. Apparently they invented something called "Mark to Market" accounting, which enabled them to decide the worth of Enron based on hypothetical future profits - money which did not in fact exist. Thus the perception of great prosperity was created where in fact the company was failing, and its share prices soared. And they kept this up for years. They had other moneymaking strategies too, which involved the creation of other companies to trade with Enron - I really didn't understand much of this. Then they basically raped California: Having bought the main power company in California, which had recently been de-regulated, Enron deliberately caused massive power-cuts accross the state, artificially driving up the price of their electricity.
The most horrific/fascinating thing in the film are the taped conversations between Enron traders:
"We are making so much fucking money! I almost can't believe it. Can you believe it?"
"I almost think we're making too much!"
Or something to that effect. The sort of nervous excitement that comes with the knowledge that you are getting rich because millions of other people are being royally screwed, and that you are getting away with it. This film, like few others, understands just how incredibly fun it is to be so absolutely corrupt.

Deep Red; Altered States

Posted on 2006.04.04 at 00:27
"How good it is to be admired
and how much more to be desired"

- from THE GOLDEN GATE by Vikram Seth

It doesn't make much sense to talk about gratuitous violence in the context of a movie which is really entirely gratuitous in every way, shape and form. A pianist in Rome witnesses a brutal, gratuitous murder. He teams up (gratuitously) with a liberated young woman journalist, and the pair attempt to solve the crime. Other gratuitous murders occur, and there are some really impressive montages with extremely cool seventies suspense music. With the help of some paranormal specialists the pair manage to catch the killer - which is amazing considering how little detective-work they seem to do. But then, the plot isn't really important (nor is the acting, for that matter) - it exists simply to provide a loose framework which the film-makers flesh out with some really ingenious nastiness. The murders themselves are absolutely hilarious - a really spectacular, sensual, indulgent experience. Lovely to watch and certainly shocking but at the same time really exciting (all, I suppose, meant to approximate the sort of exhiliration experienced by the killer him/herself). A feast for the eyes and ears. Then there is an absolutely disgusting scene in which - and I'm not joking - a gay man who might be the murderer (the old Fag Villain card) is dragged along by a dump truck, still alive, his head banging against the curb, and when the dump truck finally stops his head is squashed like a melon under the wheel of a car coming in the other direction (we see this in close-up) - all to a cool seventies soundtrack. This is some really sick shit. Nonetheless it does hold a certain fascination - like Nazi propaganda movies.

A very funny film about a mad hippy scientist (William Hurt) trying to understand "religious experience" and get in touch with his "primordial self" by experimenting with drugs and isolation therapy. His long-winded psychobabble is priceless - there's an energy and originality here which you simply don't find in movies any more. His horrific isolation- and drug-induced hallucinations are absolutely spectacular - even Kubrick-esque. I suppose the point of the film is simply to poke fun at the serious, single-minded search for "absolute truth" which was such a fundamental part of hippy culture and experimental religion in the seventies, but which is nonetheless a persistent feature in modern society. A very original film, it succeeds very well, in my view. Certainly not great, but like Network (also the product of writer Paddy Chayefsky's mind) it's well worth seeing.

Some favourites of mine.

Posted on 2006.03.31 at 00:03
1. The definition of "slut". Incredibly funny. It's short and edifying. I love it. I think you all should read it: http://www.earlygirl.com/slut.shtml (An excerpt: "'Slut' is for fucking on the first date, giving head instead of your number, not caring if he calls, caring if he calls but fucking another guy to pass the time. You do that stuff, well, clearly you're a slut.") I also love "Dear Movies" which is on the same site.

2. Roger Ebert's Movie Reviews. Perhaps the most astute and consistently good movie reviewer around. His negative reviews (especially those with zero stars) are an incredibly entertaining way to pass a rainy afternoon: www.rogerebert.com

3. Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag. Susan Sontag's most famous essay and the first ever serious piece of writing about "campness". Enjoyable and thought provoking: http://pages.zoom.co.uk/leveridge/sontag.html

4. Todd Haynes' Black Couch. An assortment of interviews with Todd Haynes and reviews of his films (Far From Heaven, Safe, Poison, etc). Perhaps the world's best film-maker: www.toddhaynes.net

Taking Revenge on William Carlos Williams

Posted on 2006.03.30 at 22:32
munching on William Carlos Williams'
penis, his scrotom in my hand
after having hacked his genitals from his dead corpse.

They taste good to me
They taste good
to me. They taste
good to me

You can see it by the way the blood
and other fluids
trickles down my chin and stains my T-shirt.

A solace of Willy's willy and balls
seeming to fill my belly.
They taste good to me

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