Posts Tagged With: Underground Cinema

The Witch Who Came From The Sea… Curtis Harrington’s Beguiling NIGHT TIDE Rewiewed.

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Virgil Finlay illustrates J G Ballard’s The Crystal World, 1966

BD. Indicator. Region Free. PG.

When asked to identify the greatest auteur in the field of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone would sidestep any potential offence to such friends as his fellow Sergios Corbucci and Sollima by identifying… Homer. The Blind Bard also dreamed up (or borrowed from earlier, nonextant epic tradition) a shedload of iconic monsters including, alongside the likes of Polyphemus, Scylla and Charybdis, one whose potential to convey the fascinating / forbidding duality of women (or of men’s desire for them) via the medium of Film has gone sadly (and rather mysteriously) underdeveloped… The Siren… The murderous Mermaid.

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The Siren, J W Waterhouse. 1900.

Sexy sirens have appeared in innumerable RomComs, ranging from Ken Annakin’s Miranda and Irving Pichel’s Mr Peabody And The Mermaid (both from the annus mirabilis of 1948) to Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero (1983) and of course Ron Howard’s Splash (1984). As recently as 2016, in Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, such a creature is detailed with killing a playboy businessman but ends up falling in love with him. There have been conversely few cinematic weird tales featuring bona-fide weremaids… off the top of my head I could only come up with Amando De Ossorio’s determinedly shclocky The Loreley’s Grasp (1973), which boasted Helga Liné (below) as its eponymous fishy femme fatale.

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Well here’s another, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961) revived and restored in magnificent 4K by the good graces of Nicolas Winding Refn. I’ve touched, elsewhere in this blog, on my mixed feelings about great marginal cinema (as variously defined) being in thrall to the patronage of today’s hipster taste makers, who inevitably cop for themselves, in the process, some of the kudos for which their predecessors worked so hard.

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Under whatever auspices, we can only be grateful for the reemergence of Night Tide. Harrington (pictured below in a rather tasty shirt) was an extraordinary film maker, one who made the journey from low budget experimental Cinema to low budget commercial Cinema (and back), bringing his philosophical, sexual and occult preoccupations along with him.

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Born 17/09/26 in LA, the precocious Harrington made his first film at 14, a zero budgeted adaptation of Poe’s Fall Of The House Of Usher, in which he essayed two thirds of the roles. He subsequently attended UCLA and worked his way up through menial studio jobs which funded further experimental shorts through the ’40s and ’50s. Harrington shot Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment (1949) and acted in Anger’s Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome (1954) and served as a production assistant on big budget pictures like the Mark Robson brace The Harder They Fall (1956) and Peyton Place (1957), also Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer (1958). After the impressive artifact under consideration here, Harrington pressed on with such Freudsteinian fare as Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet (1965), Queen of Blood (1966… pictured below and one of the many films cited as a precursor to Alien), the self-consciously postmodern Games (1967) and two decidedly camp thriller vehicles for Shelley Winters,  Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971).

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Games

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Subsequent efforts ranged from the disturbing The Killing Kind (1973) to the possession hokum of 1977’s Ruby (briefly the most profitable indie film of all time, until knocked off its perch by John Carpenter’s Halloween the following year). Even Harrington’s “hired gun” TV movies, e.g. 1975’s The Dead Don’t Die (below) frequently contain truly startling imagery.

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Harrington also directed episodes of such TV staples as The Twilight Zone, Dynasty, The Colbys and Wonder Woman.  His two Charlie’s Angels episodes came in Season 2, after Charlie’s contemporary configuration of Kate Jackson (who’d appeared in Harrington’s The Killer Bees, 1974), Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd  decreed that they would only work with female or gay directors. Harrington is often cited as one of the heralds of “The New Queer Cinema”, if indeed such a thing existed.

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Adapted from Harrington’s own short story, The Secrets Of The Sea, Night Tide follows AWOL sailor Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper), bumming around Venice Beach, LA. A couple of years later he might well have encountered Jim Morrison, mooching around Venice and mistaking himself for A Poet. As it happens, he goes into a beatnik bar, finds Mora (Linda Lawson) and is instantly smitten. Well, why wouldn’t he be?

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Locals warn him that Mora’s last two boyfriends drowned under mysterious circumstances. Well, she earns a living by putting on mermaid drag for an end-of-the-pier show but nobody can seriously believe that she’s a shape shifter who kills off her bed mates in phase with the cycle of the Moon… can they? But who’s the mystery woman played by (Marjorie) Cameron and what’s the nature of the hold she seems to exert over Mora? Or are her problems rooted in a rather more banal source, her questionable relationship with father figure Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), who took on Mora when he discovered her as an abandoned child on Mykonos (which will have its own resonance for anyone who’s ever seen Island Of Death)? The only way for Johnny to find out is to pursue his infatuation to whatever conclusion awaits…

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If all that sounds a bit Cat People (1942), Harrington did nothing to dispel the shades of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur with his 1973 TV Movie The Cat Creature. Night Tide is an atmospheric enigma, eminently fit to be mentioned in such august company. For all its obvious bugetary limitations, Harrington charmed everybody in his cast and crew into making great contributions. Hopper, at this point still seriously playing roles rather than the ongoing role of Dennis Hopper, is genuinely endearing. OST composer David Raksin rises to the occasion alongside DPs Vilis Lapenieks and the uncredited Floyd (father of David) Crosby. The lure of  Night Tide is irresistible. At the risk of repeating myself, Harrington was an extraordinary film maker, whose autobiography is well worth seeking out.

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Aside from the expected trailer and image gallery, disc 1 on this set includes two illuminating audio commentaries, one from Harrington and Hopper (1998), the second courtesy of writer and film programmer Tony Rayns (2020). Harrington and Raynes are in agreement that the film’s conclusion is clear cut, but I’m with Hopper, who didn’t quite get it (and I wouldn’t attribute that entirely to his epic drug consumption in the meantime). Ah well, there’s my excuse to watch and enjoy Night Tide all over again. You also get no less than three career-spanning interviews with the director, two of them being episodes from David Del Valle’s Sinister Image public access TV series. All good…

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… and there are plenty more bonus goodies on Disc 2, comprising a generous sampling of Harrington’s indie shorts. The 1942 Fall of the House of Usher is technically crude but give the guy a break, he was 14! Fragment of Seeking (1946) mixes surrealist and expressionist tropes in an exploration of sexual unease. Picnic (1948) treads similar thematic ground while On the Edge (1949) and The Assignation (shot in the other Venice during 1953) are fraught with intimations of mortality. In The Wormwood Star (another colour effort from 1956) the aforementioned Cameron seems to achieve an elevated state of consciousness via working on her paintings and ritual. Harrison even manages to work his magickal concerns into The Four Elements, a 13 minute industrial film from 1966 ostensibly extolling the virtues of American capitalism and its capacity to deliver eternal economic expansion from finite resources (not among Greta Thunberg’s favourite flicks, this one, I would imagine). Bringing things full circle, Harrington (increasingly frustrated by the lack of opportunities to mount the kind of Artistic statements that he wanted) sold a signed edition of Aleister Crowley to finance his 37 minute rendering of Usher, completed in 2002 (five years before his death in Hollywood). As in the version from 60 years earlier, the director plays both Roderick and Madeleine Usher. Auteurists and their obsessions, eh?

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(Not) Mucho Denero… DE NIRO AND DE PALMA, THE EARLY FILMS Reviewed

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

For some time now, I’ve been promising / threatening “a major piece” on Brian De Palma (“major” in terms of the amount of time I’ve devoted to drafting and redrafting it, if nothing else) but every time I think I’ve got a handle on this subject, some new subtlety or bit of connectedness in something I watch or re-watch makes me despair of ever managing anything like a definitive take (or even my definitive take) on the complexities of his oeuvre. A review copy of Arrow’s Carrie BD previously obliged me to write something about that one in these pages and for the same reason, the necessity now arises to post something about that label’s “De Niro And De Palma, The Early Films” set, comprising the restored anti-establishment triptych The Wedding Party (1963/9), Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom! (1970).

Tim Lucas’s oft-quoted (frequently on this blog) axiom that “you can’t really say you’ve seen one Jesus Franco film till you’ve seen them all” is doubly applicable to the work of De Palma, whose schematic grasp of what he was going to do with his career is evident from his earliest days behind a camera, during which he lay down markers as bold and intentional as any classical historian embarking upon their magnum opus… indeed, the works of Thucydides, Sallust or Livy are probably more apt points of comparison for De Palma than the filmographies of such contemporaries as Spielberg or Lucas. That might seem like a bold and / or eccentric claim but stick with me and I’ll try to justify it as we go…

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The Wedding Party (co-directed with Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe) is a black and white comedy of manners in which young science fiction writer Charlie (Charles Pfluger), on the eve of his wedding to Josephine (Jill Clayburgh), gets cold feet about assimilating into her upper crust family. His misgivings are fuelled by his picaresque friends / ushers Alistair (Bill Finley) and Cecil (De Niro, billed as “Denero” though he didn’t make mucho on this movie… fifty bucks, legend has it). Charlie’s increasingly desperate attempts to escape are underlined by De Palma’s bag of silent movie tricks (always showing his directorial hand… always reminding you that you are watching a movie) but ultimately, the groom makes it down the aisle for an unexpectedly (in retrospect) conservative ending. The central characters are vaguely dissatisfied with what society has to offer them (TWP now reads like some kind of precursor to the likes of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, 1967) but no clear alternatives seem to be presenting themselves… yet.

On this outing neither Finley (who subsequently amassed a respectable CV, notably in De Palma and Tobe Hooper pictures) nor De Niro (no introduction required) particularly outshine Pfluger, who disappeared without a trace after The Wedding Party. The film itself, shot in 1963, remained on the shelf until interest in RDN started to take off, not least on account of Greetings, which predates by a year the more celebrated Easy Rider (1969) as the first alt.Hollywood film.

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Taking its title from the opening line of a draft induction letter, this one begins with a shot of a TV on which President Johnson is addressing supporters, explicitly linking victory in Vietnam to social progress at home (turns out, in hindsight, that neither was possible). One strongly suspects that De Palma is all-too hip to the parallels with (here it comes) Thucydides, whose History Of The Peloponnesian War (written circa 431 BC) struggles with the paradox of Athens’ Golden Age of Democracy being sustained by bully boy tactics abroad (“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must…”) Of course domestic life in America’s nascent Golden Age (proclaimed by LBJ in a winking paraphrase of Harold MacMillan), as lived by another trio of proto-slackers (De Niro as “Jon Rubin”, Gerrit Graham as “Lloyd Clay” and another one shot actor, Jonathan Warden as “Paul Shaw”) consists less of civic virtue than pursuing their ongoing obsessions with getting laid (Paul) or at least copping a look at unsuspecting women (Jon), figuring out who killed Kennedy (Lloyd) and dodging that draft (all of them!) while serving De Palma’s own insatiable obsession with the act of filming, itself.

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The cinematic techniques calling attention to themselves here are, appropriately, more Bertolt Brecht than Buster Keaton, with jump cuts (Godard, of course, looms large) and scant regard for the proverbial fourth wall. De Palma repeatedly identifies looking / filming as an aggressive act of intrusion to the point where Rubin, the only character who does end up in Vietnam, closes the picture by re-staging one of his voyeuristic phony screen tests with a captured Vietcong girl… the proverbial “masculine gaze” writ geopolitically large.

Indeed, when one of Paul’s computer dates shows disturbing signs of autonomous sexual spontaneity he calls in Lloyd, who inks bullet entry and exits points on her naked body to illustrate a point from his relentless mission to debunk the findings of the Warren Commission, a scene which anticipates Ballard (whose The Atrocity Exhibition was published in 1970) as much as it echoes Blow Up (referenced implicitly and explicitly throughout Greetings and far from the last word on Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece in the filmography of BDP), in the process earning Greetings American cinema’s first ‘X’ Certificate (beating out Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy by a fortnight). The boys’ haphazardly related amatory exploits recall those of Encolpius, Ascyltos and Giton in the pages of Petronius, usefully reminding us of the original derivation of the term “satire”.

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The radicalisation of Robert 1) Reading case studies on voyeurism in Greetings (1968)

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The radicalisation of Robert 2) Reading The Urban Guerilla in Hi, Mom! (1970)

By the end of Greetings Paul’s endless sexual quest seems to have consigned and confined him to a porno loop that Jon picks up from some guy in a dirty mac and Lloyd’s paranoia is vindicated when he’s shot down on account of whatever insight into the JFK conspiracy he might have gleaned. Jon, ironically the last man standing, returns home from ‘Nam to pursue his voyeuristic activities in Hi, Mom! (which co-writer / co-producer Chuck Hirsch insists should have been released as “Son Of Greetings”). When his pitch for a “Peep TV show” (which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the gallery of grotesqueries that is today’s “Reality TV”) gets turned down by a smut producer, Jon trades in his camera for a TV set and randomly tunes into a community arts channel covering an agitprop theatre troupe (including the blacked up Gerrit Graham) who are staging Be Black Baby, a “happening” designed to acquaint complacent whites with the realities of negro life in ’60s America. Rubin signs up to play “a Pig” and psyches himself up by having an argument with a mop in an astonishing dry run for De Niro’s celebrated “You talkin’ to me?” routine in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It’s a toss up as to which is the more fun, watching this or the various bull sessions on draft dodging in Greetings, wherein De Niro (of all people) method acts a method actor… I wonder what method acting tricks he fell back on to pull off that performance?

The white middle class punters are duly roughed up, robbed and sexually assaulted but leave thankful for having been granted a “real experience”. “The more you rape their senses…” as Ruggero Deodato would have it “… the more they like it”. Presumably nowdays these guys would be sufficiently confident in their right-on personnas to refer to fellow whites as “gammon” (admittedly an equal opportunities bit of nastiness that’s obnoxious to Caucasians, Jews and Muslims alike).

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The continuing radicalisation of Robert: Hi, Mom! (1970)…

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… and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976)

When the Be Black Baby players progress to armed insurrection with fatal consequences (chiefly for themselves), Rubin appears to settle for the straight life, becoming an insurance salesman and setting up home with Judy (Jennifer Salt), only to conclude the picture by dynamiting their apartment block into rubble. It’s here that De Palma explicitly sets out the mission statement (joining the mainstream and using his privileged position within it to propagate his own subversive messages) to which he has adhered so impressively throughout his magnificent career. Hm, maybe I’ll write something about that one of these days…

Supplementary materials include a new Greetings commentary by Glenn Kenny (the author of Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor), Howard S. Berger’s authoritative and engaging take on De Palma’s early films and interviews with Chuck Hirsch. The Hi, Mom! trailer and PDF of the Greetings press book were present and correct on the two (out of three) discs I received but the advertised interviews with actors Gerrit Graham and Peter Maloney were conspicuous by their absence so I can’t tell you anything about those, nor the limited collector’s edition booklet featuring new writing on the films by Brad Stevens, Chris Dumas and Christina Newland, alongside an archive interview with De Palma and Hirsch. Then again, any attempt to see and comprehend everything is always doomed to failure in the De Palmian universe and even after an incomplete viewing, I have no problem declaring this one of the essential releases of 2018.

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Greetings: Howard Thompson’s perspicacious NY Times review included the line: “Of… Robert De Niro and Jonathan Warden, the latter at least gives some evidence of talent”.

Despite Mrs F’s urgings, I have steadfastly resisted the temptation to sneak another classical allusion into this piece about Italian-American film luminaries, namely that hoary old gag about Euripedes…

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