Monthly Archives: August 2019

A Twist In Tinsel Town’s Space Time Continuum: Observations On ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD.

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Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (US, 2019). Directed by Quentin Tarantino.

I know people who take real umbrage at “revisionist” accounts of the Tate / Labianca slayings. It’s difficult to imagine how things could get any more revisionist than in Quentin Tarantino’s much-hyped latest offering, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, which interweaves the stories of fading TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his stuntman sidekick / personal support system Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) with the build up to the Manson Family’s visit to 10050 Cielo Drive on 09/08/69. After her initial misgivings, the film arrives with the blessing of Debra Tate, the late Sharon’s sister and you can kind of see why. It’s been billed as “the film that people who hate Tarantino will enjoy” and indeed, I liked it a lot more than I thought I was going to. This is clever stuff but neither as ostentatiously nor obnoxiously pleased with its cleverness as some of its predecessors have been…

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Predictably, the Quentster spurns no opportunity to rub women’s feet in your face. Is it true that his next film will be shot in 3-D, with scratch’n’sniff cards handed out at the box office? Maybe if he reads this it will be. If so, I expect a screen credit, OK Quentin?

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OUAT…IH’s 161 minute running time doesn’t weigh too heavily on it, or the viewer. Some of the TV Western stuff wears out its welcome a bit, though when Dalton starts fluffing his lines and we’re dragged abruptly back into the world of Hollywood, 1969, you can see what Tarantino is doing. There’s a l-o-n-g and sappingly suspenseful sequence where Booth is poking around at the spahn Movie Ranch, under the disapproving glares of The Family, which makes you kinda wish the director would try his hand at a full-on Horror Film.

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The way he intercuts fact and fiction, drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of Film (and Pop Culture in general) to disrupt narrative conventions, owes more to European Arthouse Cinema than the exploitation mavens he is so fond of referencing (though the flashbacks-within-flashbacks structure of Pulp Fiction demonstrated that Hollywood had finally caught up with Lucio Fulci, according to no less disinterested an authority than Fulci himself). There are loving tributes here to Sergio Corbucci and Tarantino’s talismanic Antonio Margheriti (he probably figures he’s bigged up Enzo Castellari quite enough for the time being).

The audacious historical rewrite which closes the picture is only the final of several pointed reminders that QT is an auteur and in the realm of his movies, he can do whatever he likes with culture and history, right? I can go along with this to a certain extent but the idea that there could exist, in any possible alternative universe, a stuntman (one who, moreover, seems to subsist on pot noodles) capable of licking Bruce Lee? Nah, you’re not having it. As for the idea that anybody could continue to ply their thespian trade in Tinsel Town while under ongoing suspicion of having murdered their wife on a boat? Actually, now you mention it…

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P.S. Ten great tracks from 1969 that didn’t make it onto OUAT…IH’s certifiably groovy soundtrack… just off the top of my noble bonce. You’re welcome.

01) We’re Going Wrong – Rotary Connection
02) Soul Sister Brown Sugar – Sam & Dave
03) Touch Me – The Doors
04) Savoy Truffle – Ella Fitzgerald
05) Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
06) Cymbaline – Pink Floyd
07) I Want To Take You Higher – Sly And The Family Stone
08) In A Silent Way – Miles Davis
09) Thank You – Led Zeppelin
10) Peaches En Regalia – Frank Zappa

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“Rod Munch, Eh Boys?” Marilyn Chambers Is Insatiable In David Cronenberg’s RABID…

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Never the Rose without the prick…

… but not for sperm… nor even a squirt of Ivory Snow. In her one “legit” feature credit, the hard core hussy (whose opportunistic “more bang for your buck” casting as  protagonist Rose pays off in a far stronger performance than anybody would probably have expected… her Porno pedigree, furthermore, adds retrospective resonance to any notion of Rabid as an AIDS jeremiad) is out for blood after a life-saving radical skin graft leaves her with a biomechanoidal syringe in her armpit… what were the odds on that? (*) Well, she is in a David Cronenberg film… and anybody who’s watched more than a couple of episodes of Dr Pimple Popper could have warned her about going under the knife at an institution rejoicing in the name of… The Keloid Clinic(!)

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Behind The Green Door

Those on the receiving end of lil’ Armpit Elmer’s attentions develop a rabies-like condition that converts them into drooling zombies and compels them to chow down on the nearest (even if that also happens to be their dearest) human being. Soon Montreal is under martial law, as the search for this epidemic’s “Typhoid Mary” / Patient Zero intensifies. “I’m still me…” she protests to appalled boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore) when he finds her draining the life juices from best friend Mindy (Susan Roman): “I’m still Rose!” Well, she kind of is and kind of isn’t, in an ongoing tradition of Cronenberg antiheroes and heroines that probably reaches its zenith with Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle in The Fly (1986).

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Cronenberg is a director of rare intelligence who hasn’t always managed to parlay the musings of his superfine mind into coherent and compelling films… and I’m happy to concede that a film doesn’t necessarily have to be coherent to be compelling. Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) adhere closely and usefully to the Romero formula of interweaving personal and societal apocalypse. Thereafter he spread his narrative wings, with mixed results. I’m as mesmerised as anybody by the magnificent metastasising mess of a movie that is Videodrome (1983) but was somewhat less than enthralled when Cronenberg attempted to push his preoccupations into the bleak hinterlands and interzones of Ballard and Burroughs. As for his attempt to write his own “Ballard type” novel Consumed… well,  it’s a sizeable literary misfire to which I won’t be returning any time soon. I will though definitely be watching 101’s restoration of Rabid again. Cronenberg’s sophomore feature looks (with minimal distracting grain) and sounds mighty fresh here and there are further rich pickings to be found among the extras on the second disc of this limited edition set (some of them collated from previous releases).

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Can’t comment on the limited edition booklet containing essays by Alex Morris and Greg Dunning because we hacks never get that stuff.  I did appreciate Xavier Mendik and Phillip Escott’s documentary about Cinepix And The Birth of the Canadian Horror Film (its actual title is much longer), in which most of the surviving significant players explain their part in the Tax Shelter Era, covering the likes of Cannibal Girls (1973) and Death Weekend (1976… goodness me, they had beautiful storyboards on that one!) along with the Cronenberg titles that provoked such outrage in the Canadian chambers of Parliament. Along the way, we non-Canucks  learn just how closely Cronenberg’s vision of martial law in Montreal mirrors a genuine and major political crisis that had recently played out. There are interviews with (obviously) Cronenberg (predictably thought provoking stuff), Susan (“Mindy”) Roman (an engaging lady, now mainly making her living as a voice over artist) and amusing ones with co-producers Ivan Reitman and Don Carmody. You get the obligatory trailer, of course and an hour long TV doc in which many of Cronenberg’s leading players have their say on the man and his vision. One of the more interesting asides concerns Cronenberg appearing on the first morning of shooting Rabid and announcing his intention to tear up the script and start making Dead Ringers instead!

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Struggling to get my review of this edition into print within touching distance of its release date, I haven’t yet had the chance to take in ant of its commentary tracks, of which there are no less than four(!), courtesy of Cronenberg himself, William Beard (author of The Artist As Monster: The Cinema Of David Cronenberg), Jill C. Nelson (author of Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women Of Classic Erotic Cinema, 1968-1985) and Chambers’ Personal Appearances Manager Ken Leicht and finally, the co-directors of the 2019 Rabid remake, Jen & Sylvia Soska. I’m not, generally speaking, a big fan of remakes and have heard mixed word on this one, but who knows, perhaps when I’ve heard their comments on the original I’ll be more inclined to give the Soska sisters’ revamp a look? If so, you’ll be the first to know…

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Behind the green fridge door…

(*) Antonio Margheriti and Dardano Sacchetti certainly found Rabid’s central plot premise appealing enough, as a cursory glance at Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) will testify.

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Venus Under The Viewing Lens… DIETRICH & VON STERNBERG AT PARAMOUNT (1930-1935).

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BD. Powerhouse / Indicator. Region B. 12.

Femme Fatales. Wannabe Femme Fatales. We’ve all encountered them at some point or other. Some of us still bear the scars. For which reason, such creatures are best confined to the Silver Screen. None more magnificently than Marlene Dietrich. That miraculous, unrepeatable face… those eighth and ninth wonders of the world, her legs… the “mocking smile” that “says it all”… the er, interesting vocalese (ah well, nobody’s perfect!)

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Powerhouse / Indicator’s splendid limited edition (6,000 copies) box set covers the six films in which Josef Von Sternberg sanctified his muse after Universum’s Der Blaue Engel  (1930) had brought both of them to the covetous attention of Hollywood.

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In Morocco (1930) MD is Mademoiselle Amy Jolly… the original Jolly good time, had by all? Whatever, she’s on the run from some hassle or heartache, wowing the locals and colonial types in Mogador with her top-hat-and-tuxedo cabaret drag routine. The French Foreign Legion march into town, a platoonful of kindred spirits each attempting to escape something or other in their own pasts. Légionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) immediately hits it off with Amy but is he prepared to reform his womanising ways? There’s an additional complication in the respectably bourgeois shape of Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) who’s offering Amy a comfortable married life. Despite all the moths fluttering around her flame, Amy’s not a bad girl like Lola Lola, but there’s only so much of her to go around. Who will finally win her? Without wishing to give too much away, I’ll just say that even though she ultimately follows the dictates of her heart, Von Sternberg’s beautifully mounted denouement puts Amy in pretty much the same position as Lola had placed Emil Jannings’ character at the conclusion of The Blue Angel…

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Von Sternberg’s big anti-war statement Dishonored (1931) kicks off with Marie Kolverer (MD) plying her trade as a streetwalker in post WWI Vienna (if the gratuitous shot of her adjusting her stockings in the rain doesn’t get your attention, its difficult to imagine what might) until she’s offered the chance to serve her country as “Agent X27”. Marie takes to the espionage lark like a duck to water, deploying a bewildering array of fab outfits and alternative identities, alongside her irresistible physical charms, to flush out the agents of foreign powers and send them to their deaths… all from her sense of honour and patriotism rather than to feed any personal vanity. She meets her match with – and sacrifices her all for-  roguish Russian agent Colonel Kranau (Victor McLagen). Marie goes to the firing squad in stubborn pursuit of her heart’s desire but again, one wonders if this is a fitting outro for a femme fatale

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Back in the far flung corners of Empire, things are looking more promising in Shanghai Express (1932). “It took more than one man” to make Dietrich’s character Shanghai Lily, as she famously purrs, but the one who really counts is Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook). She snubs him for dastardly Henry Chang (former Fu Manchu, current Charlie Chan Warner Oland) but only to dissuade the latter from inflicting a fiendishly gruesome fate on Captain Don. When the latter cottons on to what’s happening,  things resolve themselves in an unalloyed happy ending… bah!

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As well as his genius for lighting (like Mario Bava, this is a director who often took over his films’ cinematography from the credited technician… though I’m not sure that Bava ever physically removed a DP from any of his sets), JVS here demonstrates his knack for packing the screen with layers of busy action, tantamount to a kind of quasi-3D.

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Marlene’s Helen Faraday is another good girl gone bad, but for the noblest of reasons, in 1932’s Blonde Venus. When her physicist husband Ned (Herbert Marshall) comes down with cancer as a result of his pioneering experiments with radium, Helen packs him off to Europe with monies ostensibly earned from her nightclub act (her emergence from a monkey suit topped only by opening scenes which anticipate Hedy Lamarr’s celebrated bathing scenes from Ecstasy, the following year) but actually stumped up by her admirer, smoothie politico Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). Ned returns with his cancer cured (just like that) to learn exactly how Helen earned the dough, withdrawing his affection and their son Johnny (Dickie Moore). Helen goes on the lam and into destitution with Johnny, before a further series of improbable plot twists see the story concluded on an awkward note of  tentative reconciliation.

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JVS complained that his original vision of Blonde Venus had been watered down on the insistence of producers but worse was to come. By 1934 the Hays Production Code (inaugurated in 1930) was implemented in full force and effect. No chance, then, of his Catherine The Great biopic The Scarlet Empress including any (but the most oblique) reference to CTG’s alleged dalliance with a stallion (if only Joe D’Amato had been around to direct this one…)

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We do witness MD’s transformation (and a neat, actorly job it is, too) from naive German Princess Sophie Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst to the ruthless, man-eating “Messalina of the North”, contextualised by Von Sternberg and co-scripter Manuel Komroff (allegedly adapting Catherine’s own diaries) by her need to survive and eventually supplant her batshit crazy husband, the Grand Duke Peter (briefly Czar Peter III). Gore Vidal tried for something similar with his original screenplay for Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1979), before producer Bob Guccione wrung very drop of subtelty out of that project. Sam Jaffe’s magnificent, scenery-chewing portrayal of Peter nearly steals the show, but the real star here is Hans Dreier’s grotesque, gothic set design, around which Von Sternberg’s camera sinuously prowls. The film’s closing montage features a triumphant Catherine stroking her horse, presumably to elicit a laugh or two from those in the know.

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So far, Dietrich’s characters in these films have been a source of fascination and probably peril for men but all have been depicted with redeeming features or accompanying insights into what made them the way they are, as though JVS was struggling to justify to himself his own fixation on the actress. By the time we get to 1935 and the contract filler The Devil Is A Woman (co-written by John Dos Passos, no less), he’s had it with Paramount, with Dietrich and her relentless faithlessness. In the way she uses and abuses such dogged devotees as Lionel Atwill and Cesar Romero, her Concha Perez manages to outbitch even Lola Lola (Philipp Blom’s characterisation of the latter holds equally true for her: “Unashamedly sexy… a typical creature of interwar hardship who does not give a damn about titles and bourgeois rituals and is only interested in making a buck, having a little fun and living to see tomorrow” *) And don’t they just love it…

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JVS’s son Nicholas touches discretely on his father’s relationship with Dietrich in his useful filmed introductions to each of the films, together with insights into Von Sternberg the insatiable traveller, Art collector and Naive Artist in his own right. The beautiful 4k restorations and audio clean ups are further complimented by other extras in the kind of abundance we’ve come to expect from Indicator / Powerhouse. Documentary features and featurettes delve deeper into the romantic ups and downs of Dietrich and her Pygmalion. Audio commentators on the main features include such luminaries as Tony Rayns, David Thompson, Adrian Martin and the dynamic duo of Ellinger / Deighan. There’s a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Morocco (“The Legionnaire and the Lady”) from 1936, with Dietrich and Clark Gable as Tom Brown… Harry (Daughters Of Darkness) Kümel’s 1969 feature-length TV doc on von Sternberg, incorporating rare interview footage… Jasper Sharp’s examination of the life and career of Shanghai Express co-star Anna May Wong… The Fashion Side of Hollywood (1935), a Paramount promotional short featuring MD’s preferred  costume designer Travis Banton (@rachael_nisbet. I was thinking about you while watching this one) … the inevitable Dietrich, a Queer Icon (2019)… and that’s barely the half of it.

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Most intriguingly, there’s The Twilight of an Angel, Dominique Leeb’s acclaimed French television documentary from 2012, which concerns itself with Dietrich’s reclusive later life, during which she shielded her fading physicality from public view, allegedly spending her last 15 years in bed, a prisoner of her own iconic screen image.

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The girl can’t help it…

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(*) Fracture: Life And Culture In The West, 1918-1938

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“A World Unto Itself”: Al Pacino Is CRUISING For A Bruising In An Exemplary New Arrow Release…

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

In 1979, radiographer Paul Bateson was arraigned for one of several killings that had recently disfigured New York’s underground gay scene. Bateson’s previous claim to fame / notoriety was performing the cringe-inducing cerebral angiography in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). The director visited him on Riker’s Island and by his (disputed) account, was both alarmed and fascinated when Bateson told him that he’d been offered a reduced sentence if he copped for other murders, to make NYPD’s clear up ratio look better. This, plus a Gerald Walker novel based on the killings, became the inspiration for Friedkin’s Cruising (1980)…

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Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is an ambitious young cop looking for a short cut to his detective’s badge. Because he shares many physical characteristics with several gay men who’ve already fallen foul of a serial killer, Capt. Edelson (Paul Sorvino) asks if he’s willing to pose as psycho bait. Burns readily assents but is warned that the milieu he’ll be moving into is “a world unto itself… heavy metal… S/M”. Reborn as “John Forbes”, Burns goes deep undercover in the meat packing district (ooh er, Missus!), frequenting such legendary establishments as The Ramrod and The Mine Shaft (Friedkin filmed in the actual venues, populated – with the understandable exception of the principal actors – by regular patrons) to bone up on his hankie etiquette and get closer (increasingly dangerously so) to the killer and / or killers. Unable to talk about his secret posting, Burns / Forbes realises that his relationship with girlfriend Nancy (the always adorable Karen Allen) is suffering and Nancy soon notices how he’s changing. Is he developing a taste for the gay life? Or something much darker?

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Even before shooting began, Cruising divided opinion in and beyond the gay community. The aforementioned heavy leather S/M crowd got right behind it but there was a strain of more mainstream homosexual opinion which held that a decade after the Stonewall riots, the director of such sensationalist fare as The Exorcist might be about to unpick the tentative social progress that had been and was being made. As Friedkin himself concedes, water sports, fist-fucking and serial killing might well not constitute the community’s “best foot forward” in this regard. Attempts were made to disrupt the films shooting (much of the dialogue exchanges had to be subsequently re-looped) and there were civil disturbances at early screenings. Cruising was and remains controversial stuff, with each revival / re-release serving as a weather vane for where we are now, attitude wise…

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Having said that, I must confess that this is the first time I’ve watched Cruising since its theatrical release in the UK. I remember that in 1980 I was fairly impressed by its gritty edginess (though of course its orgiastic tableaux now look pretty tame compared to, e.g. the opening / closing scenes of Gaspar Noé’s 2002 effort Irreversible) and found myself irresistibly drawn into its mystery, only to be frustrated by the film’s increasingly wayward narrative en route to a “WTF?” denouement, leaving the theatre with the impression that Friedkin had… er, blown an intriguing premise. In addition, of course, there was the lurking suspicion that Cruising was, yes indeedy, homophobic.

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39 years later, viewed through the prism of the cinematic obsessions I’ve accreted in the past four decades, my initial impression was how much influence Cruising (itself a vaguely gialloesque proposition) has exerted over another, perhaps even more notorious offering, Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982), way over and above that of the other obvious precedent, Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill (1980). Of course Cruising wasn’t exactly fresh in my mind by the time I finally got to see Fulci’s much-banned giallo.

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Pacino’s attempts at dancing with amyl-fuelled gay abandon still look pretty risible (then again I think everybody – with the probable exception of Fred Astaire – looks pretty silly when they’re dancing)… and what exactly the fuck is it with the scenes in which a humungous black guy straight out of Tom Of Finland steps into interrogations, slaps suspects around then shimmies out the door?

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Friedkin makes fantastic use of Joe Spinell’s unforgettable physiognomy at various points and I’ve always cherished the entry that turns up in one suspect’s diary (“I feel my thoughts being born in my head. I can feel them taking shape. If only I could stop thinking. I can’t help but feel I’m on the verge of a discovery of some sort. Yesterday in the park, I saw an enormous dark shape. It seemed to hang suspended and dripping from the trees like a tar jelly. At its centre was a bright red glow”) because I love it when killers in these things have some kind of cracked mystical motivation. Still, not a patch on David Keith’s insane cosmological speculations in Donald Cammell’s White Of The Eye (1987, below).

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That demented diarist is only one of several candidates that Al’s got his eye on and I have to concede that I’m still as baffled as I was in 1980 regarding who exactly is killing whom… and why. Different suspects speak with the same creepy voice (and recite the same macabre nursery rhyme) as the hallucinated father of one of them. Is this a really lame attempt to forge some kind of link in the viewer’s mind between Cruising and Friedkin’s megahit The Exorcist (the director deploys subliminal footage to unsettling effect in both)? It doesn’t exactly help that a lot of the victims and possible killers look exactly like each other. Isn’t that what prejudiced people always say about minorities? Am I homophobic? Nah, just confused. I’ve spoken to gay friends and fellow pundits about Cruising and the general consensus seems to be that the film is problematic but probably not homophobic. But when Friedkin opines in one of the commentary tracks that “some of the cops were also degenerate”, you have to wonder.

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The impossibility of pinning down a single killer in Cruising leaves it open to the interpretation that even if you could put somebody away, there are always going to be more killings because “that’s what homsexuality is all about… deviance and premature death, innit?” Other possible interpretations emerge during the course of the supplementary materials on this disc. Apart from a trailer and two useful featurettes concentrating on the film’s genesis, production and controversial impact, you get a couple of commentary tracks. The archive one by Friedkin is a curiously unenlightening affair, for long stretches of which he merely describes what’s happening on screen. I really surprised myself by my positive response to the second, more recent track, in which BF’s comments are mediated by Mark Kermode…

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“Surprised myself” chiefly because I’ve never quite understood the esteem in which Kermode is rated as a critic. One of the biggest problems I have with him is his ongoing insistence that The Exorcist is, rather than some superior, turbo-charged variation on William Castle‘s formula of conveyor belt shocks, the best / most profound movie ever made. I mean… really, Mark? Come on…

DvW9_OMWwAAUoLa.jpg-large.jpegHere, however he relentlessly nags at Friedkin to explain himself and the unfolding explanation is one where the narrative dead ends down which this film cruises are more attributable to intent than ineptitude on the director’s part. By his contention, WF was loath to hand viewers an easy wrap-up (“like a hamburger in a paper bag”) for a complex situation. As he was articulating this position, it occurred to me that I’d been maintaining a double standard by kvetching about this aspect of Cruising while Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) remains a fixture on my all time Top 10 (quite possibly Top 5) films list. Friedkin even offers a plausible (albeit still a tad far fetched) explanation of the black guy in the cowboy hat and jockstrap.

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The main feature has never looked or sounded better than here, in a 4K restoration / 5.1 sound reworking. I still entertain nagging doubts about it but after consuming this edition I appreciate Cruising a lot more and understand it maybe a little better. Isn’t that precisely what these collector’s editions are supposed to do for us?

It was particularly helpful, while marshalling my thoughts (such as they are) on this film, to chat with @jonnylarkin from those Screaming Queenz. Here’s their SQ podcast on Cruising. Enjoy.

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