Thursday, June 30, 2016
I've always felt that there was a kinship between the film noir of the 40s and 50s and the exploitation movies of the 60s and 70s. This is not to say that noir gave birth to exploitation--there were already exploitation movies in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, usually of the "hygiene movie" or "vice film" variety--that were the direct precursors of the 70s skin flicks. Still, in a lot of ways the low budget B-movie noir has a similar ethos to the exploitation movies that followed it. Both usually centered on crime, both trafficked in open appeals to sex and violence, and both were innately subversive.
The other night I got to see one of the real gems of 70s exploitation when the indispensable Chicago Film Society showed a rare print of Stephanie Rothman's THE STUDENT NURSES in their summer series. Produced by Roger Corman, the film follows four student nurses as they attempt to navigate various personal and professional crises on their way to graduation day. The film is famous today because of its unmistakable feminist and radical storylines. Here's a cheap would-be "sexy nurse" movie in which one of the heroines gets a still-illegal-at-the-time onscreen abortion while another gets involved with Mexican urban guerrillas. This is not just another skin flick.
I have to admit that I straight-up loved this movie. It's a wonderfully weird hybrid of subversive art and cheapie exploitation. Rothman was required to meet certain quotas of nudity and violence, but she does this paying-the-bills grunt work in interesting ways. The violence (all viscerally well done) mostly revolves around the urban guerrillas and is portrayed from their point of view, a stark contrast to mainstream cinema of the time, which largely used urban guerrillas as clay pigeons in cop movies. Here, when one of our heroines decides to use her medical knowledge to help her revolutionary friends, the choice is presented as being as legitimate as any other choice.
The director's handling of nudity is equally interesting. First, she includes as many naked male bodies as female bodies, which negates the typical imbalance in virtually all cinema in which men retain power positions as clothed (and hence in control) while women are naked (and hence exposed and vulnerable). This also means that everyone in the film is sexualized, not just the women. Secondly, Rothman finds interesting ways to incorporate the nudity into the story, including a LSD drug trip that is both a turning point in the plot and an important piece of character development. Another subplot in the story involves the relationship between one of the nurses and a patient. Given the fetish fixations of the sexy nurse subgenre of exploitation and porn, one would predict that this relationship will end in the nurse taking off her clothes, which, indeed, she does, but Rothman plays the scene for pathos rather than titillation. We know the patient is dying, and the scene is less about sex (they don't have sex, actually) and more about human connection.
I also should say a word about the abortion subplot, which is the element that makes the film the most transgressive to this day. Most films dealing with "unwed" mothers--including the crisis pregnancy noirs I wrote about in my piece "Women In Trouble" for Noir City--resulted in the death of the young woman, a de facto way of punishing her for her transgression. (The unwed fathers in these cases, it almost goes without saying, rarely died.) Not only does the young woman here live, but chooses to have an illegal abortion (after first being unable to secure a legal procedure). The abortion is shown here (not graphically), at a time when even mentioning abortion was extremely rare onscreen. Thus, this goofy exploitation movie is one of the first films to deal with abortion from a feminist perspective in a way that doesn't punish the young woman.
I won't make the claim that THE STUDENT NURSES is great art. It's got its share of wooden performances and budgetary shortcuts, clunky lines and awkward staging. What I will say, however, is that it's far closer to great art than it is to a real bottom-barrel tits-and-ass exploitation movie like 1969's THE BABYSITTER. It's an inventive, fun, subversive time capsule from a director who was given the materials to make a film with themes that were important to her, exploring perspectives never would have been allowed in the mainstream, perspectives that still rarely make it to the screen today.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Very excited to announce I'm coming back to France this September as the guest of the departmental Media Landes. To all my friends, old and new, in France, I hope you'll drop by and say hi.
Here's where I'll be:
- September 15 at the bookstore Words and Things in Boulogne-Billancourt
- September 16 at Tramway Bookstore in Lyon
- On 17 and 18 September at the Polar Festival organized by the departmental Media Landes
- September 20 at the bookstore Hirigoyen Bayonne
- September 21 at the library Tonnet Pau
- September 22 at the bookstore Campus Dax
- September 23 at the library of characters Mont-de-Marsan
- 24 and 25 September at the Polar Festival cabins in Bordeaux
Monday, June 13, 2016
I'm not a big fan of horror movies--old or new--which is not to say that I don't like them. My interests have simply always leaned more toward crime and noir. I'm tempted to say that this preference has something to do with an inclination toward realism ("realism" being distinct, of course, from reality), but I don't know. Maybe a better explanation is that horror movies, especially of an older vintage, are baroque and mythological in a way that crime narratives (usually) are not. To use a musical analogy: if horror movies are dark operas, then noirs are cocktail lounge torch songs. I'm more of a torch song kind of guy.
To return to my original point, though, I do appreciate horror films. The very baroque nature that ultimately pushes me away from them also interests me, particularity the more Expressionist works of the 20s and 30s.
One of my favorite of these films (maybe even my favorite, period) is Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT. The movie is famous for a few reasons. For one thing, it pairs the two great movie ghouls of the classic era, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which was the 1934 version of Jason vs. Freddy. Secondly, THE BLACK CAT is the only A-film ever directed by Ulmer, the great hero of Poverty Row artists. Lastly, it is a masterpiece of its kind. If it's not scary by 2016 standards--or, for that matter, by 1960 standards--it has elements that are still pretty weird and creepy. Let's briefly look at these things one by one.
1. Boris vs. Bela- The popularity of the Universal horror monsters is fascinating for the many ways it presaged geek culture today. Karloff was so famous he is billed here simply by his last name. When we think of Golden Age Hollywood we tend to marginalize the horror stars in favor of matinee idols like Gable or Cooper, but it's worth remembering that Boris and Bela were gigantic stars, icons of a geek culture that didn't officially exist yet. It's also worth noting that the culture they helped to spawn and popularize has had a longer life than the mainstream Americanism and cowboy ethos represented by All-Americans like Gable and Cooper.
Of the two, Karloff is by far the more fascinating screen presence. There's something innately goofy about Lugosi, an instinct toward ham that is entertaining without being particularly compelling. In this story he is positioned as the creepy sorta-good guy, which seems fitting. Karloff, on the other hand, is an incredible screen presence. Part of it is that, frankly, he was just a freaky looking dude. With a lanky muscular frame, jutting forehead and mouth, deep-set eyes and low rumble of a voice, he's just interesting to look at. The other part, however, is that he was a fine actor, restrained to a remarkable degree (especially when set against Lugosi).This is how you underplay your way to greatness.
2. Edgar G. Ulmer is best remembered as the Poverty Row artist who made the noir masterpiece DETOUR, as well as notable films like STRANGE ILLUSION, RUTHLESS, and THE NAKED DAWN. Here, for once in his career, he was working with a real budget and an established cast and all the power of a major studio behind him. (He was driven out of the big studios after this movie because he "stole" the wife of a studio boss's nephew.) Everything here is incredible from the gorgeously evocative art design of Charles D. Hall and crisp camera work of John Mescall to the sharply escalating editing of Ray Curtiss. All of it is brilliantly orchestrated by Ulmer into one of the best movies Universal made during the Golden Era. I love much of his Poverty Row work, but it is unmistakably sad to watch this film and wonder what kind of movies Ulmer would have made in the majors. Poverty Row's great gain was the majors' great loss.
3. Of course, all this horror movie hokum is pretty dated now but there's an important point to be made about old movies and the way we watch them. Old movies are, in a sense, time capsules before they are anything else. In other words, they are valuable because they are dated rather than in spite of it. You might as well say that cave drawings are dated. Old horror movies like THE BLACK CAT aren't scary, but they are instructive about what kinds of things used to scare people--which in turns helps to to make connections to the present. If this movie is no longer scary the way it was for people in 1934, it's still creepy in ways that are interesting. Karloff has an underground lair in the film where he keeps the carefully preserved bodies of dead women suspended in clear glass cases, a gallery of sex and death that is still jarring to behold. Later in the film he presides over a Satanic ritual that, although it lacks the kind of graphic nature that would mark such a scene today, is still surprising to see. The climax of the film is also shocking: Lugosi straps Karloff to a torture rack, strips him to the waist and proceeds to skin him alive in front of the screaming heroine. Again, these scenes are shot in such a way to avoid nudity and blood and gore, but the intent of the scenes is intact. This is some evil sick shit, proof that even in the more reserved and conservative era that gave birth to it, human beings were fascinated by the dark forces of human nature and the unseen.