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April 22, 2013

Rob Zombie and The Lords of Salem

The Lords of Salem, riding a goat

There's no real risk of spoilers being revealed in this response to Rob Zombie's new movie, The Lords of Salem, because I don't think I understood enough of what happened to give away anything like a plot. Sure, I can report on the unrelated sequence of nightmarish hallucinatory freaky images that flash across the screen in a chaotic, psychosexual, hilarious blur for the last 45 minutes, but as far as what actually happens in this movie? Your guess is as good as mine.

This much I do know: Rob Zombie's wife, Sheri, whose film career pretty much consists of her husband's filmography, is one game actress. She stars in Lords of Salem as Heidi, a DJ at a Salem, MA radio station who unwittingly enters a bizarre world of Satan worshippers and (of course) witches after she plays a mysterious record that shows up at the station one day. Over the course of the movie, as the witches insinuate themselves into Sheri's psyche, she encounters strange demonic beasts, descends into madness, rides a goat (see above; as a kind of meta-joke, her t-shirt says "Why the Goat?"), does heroin, is naked all over the place, and possibly delivers some kind of hell-squid baby, though everything had gotten so nonsensically trippy by that point that I'm honestly not sure.

Rob Zombie seemed to construct this movie by writing a coherent (though boring) set-up, then coming up with several dozen really disturbing visual concepts, then beautifully filming each one, and splicing them all together until he hit 100 minutes. The end. The movie really looks fantastic--he takes Stanley Kubrick's style of chilly wide shots and lots of slow tracking, and combines it with Dario Argento's hyper-stylized, surreal gore, all with a $2.5 million budget.

He understands the comic potential of horror, and the creepy potential of the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties". There are several references to silent movies in clips playing on background TVs, and in a giant still from of Melies' A Trip to the Moon on the wall behind our heroine's bed. But then there's also a demon toddler with slimy skin and flippers for hands who in one scene waddles up to this very bed, inexplicably looking at a sleeping Sheri Zombie. Nothing happens. Cut! The scene ends. I have no idea.

It's a cinematic version of a talented filmmaker's surrealist nightmare, and probably a helpful lesson on why you shouldn't take a lot of serious psychotropic drugs. It's an incoherent mess, but I find diabolical camp irresistible.

April 8, 2013

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers poster

(Warning: spoilers)

I saw Spring Breakers weeks ago and have been struggling to come up with something to say about this movie and what it all means: the partying, the beach, the kids, the boobs, the drugs, the guns, the booze, the murder. I can't quite get my head around it, but here's what I've got.

The four girls at the center of the movie are so desperate to go to the beach for spring break that they rob a chicken restaurant using squirt guns and intimidation techniques we've all seen a thousand times in every heist movie ever (yelling, swearing, threatening to bust everyone's skulls, etc.) They are completely successful, and go to St. Petersburg to party.

The interesting thing is that everything the girls do is something they (and we) have learned through endless examples in TV and movies. They dance on the beach to techno, douse themselves in beer, scream "Woooo Spring Break!", shake themselves all over the place, loll around in their bathing suits stroking each other's hair, and occasionally make out with each other. They wear neon string bikinis because any other kind of bathing suit would never be considered for even one second. They sing "...Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears and talk about how Florida is the greatest paradise they have ever known. Any person who has experienced MTV or a movie about off-the-hook teen parties in the last 20 years knows exactly how to be a girl going wild on spring break, because we've all seen it hundreds of times.

And we all know exactly how to commit armed robbery and be a badass gangster because we've seen it hundreds of times, too. The girls move from robbery with squirt guns to partying on the beach to doing drugs in a cheap motel room to getting into serious crime with real guns and real gangsters, but it all feels like a logical progression along a continuum of familiar, predictable pop cultural references. They're always performing.

There's a flattening of "bad girl" behavior at work here: taking your top off at a beach party is more or less on the same level as stealing in order to have a good time, and neither is really all that different from hitting up a local drug dealer and taking his cash. We've seen it on TV and in movies. By the time the girls hook up with James Franco, put on their My Little Pony face masks, and start doing some real damage with assault rifles, it bizarrely feels like just more of the same. As Manohla Dargis writes, it's "more of a horror film than a comedy."

So is Spring Breakers a criticism of our hyper-sexualized, hyper-violent pop culture? I think it is. It's also really dark and really hilarious. The culture that teaches teenage girls to think people will like them more if they take their tops off and tongue-kiss each other for the boys is the same culture that thinks organized crime and murder are cool. We live in a world where teenage debauchery and gangs are a little naughty, but so exciting! And when the girls start killing bad guys, does that make them good? Maybe?

This is a controversial viewpoint, but that's how it goes with Harmony Korine. I like the cultural criticism in the movie, but even better is the dream-like impressionistic way a lot of scenes unfold. There are many sequences with recurring loops of dialogue and non-linear, abstract camera shots of sky, ocean, body shots, and making out in a hot tub that all sort of blend into each other in a nightmarish haze. It's indistinct and gorgeous, which is more than I would typically say about a scene shot in a Florida motel pool.

April 4, 2013

Ebert's Leave of Presence turns into Leave of Absence

Roger Ebert

Just two days after announcing his "leave of presence" from the Chicago Sun-Times so that he could focus on the 10,000 other movie-related things he's doing, Roger Ebert has died.

In his latest/last essay, he explains "What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away." Was that just his own, kind way of saying goodbye? Or was his sudden downturn truly unexpected? We knew cancer had returned, but he was living his life as though he had plenty of time left and lots of projects still going. I'm stunned.

Growing up watching "Siskel & Ebert" on TV was what got me excited about movies, and Roger Ebert will always be a personal hero. His writing style and thoughtful approach to movies make him one of my favorite critics, even if I don't always agree with him. He was first and foremost a newspaper man, and he was incredibly generous and prolific--the guy was writing upwards of 300 reviews a year and thousands of excellent tweets even while sick and weak.

I can't wait for that Steve James/Martin Scorsese documentary about his life--it'll be a great story.

Esquire did a long feature on Ebert in 2010 about his life, and especially his struggles with cancer that left him without a voice since 2006. If anything, this limitation seemed to unleash an even greater commitment to writing and sharing his thoughts about movies, culture, politics, and Life Itself, and he faced all his physical problems with admirable strength, humor, and genuine happiness. It's a fantastic read.

Catholic Church shifts gay

Cardinal Dolan loves gay people

(I've fallen behind lately, so now I'm catching up on stuff from the past few weeks.)

We've all been hearing how our nation's recent pro-gay shift is one of the fastest cultural swings anyone can remember. Just a few years ago, most Americans were against same-sex marriage and most of the red states were busily amending their constitutions to ban it forever. Now the majority is pro-marriage equality, it's legal in more states, the Supreme Court is hearing important cases, Bill Clinton apologized for DOMA, and a few Republicans might even be starting a cute but probably doomed flirtation with equal rights (when it benefits them and their immediate families, of course.)

But the biggest surprise for me has been seeing some evidence that the Catholic Church might be reconsidering. This is an institution was still doing Mass in Latin in the mid-60's. But did you see the Times' article from a few weeks ago about Pope Francis and his behind-the-scenes attempt to get the church to support same-sex civil unions in 2010? Apparently while debates were going on in Argentina, where he was Cardinal, most bishops were flat-out against gay marriage. The Cardinal was publicly against it, too. But in private, the future Pope was trying to change the church's opinion--if the church still wouldn't perform same-sex marriages, what's the harm in supporting the government doing civil unions?

Anyway, he was voted down, gay marriage went through, and now it's legal. The Catholic Church lost, but Francis showed that he considers human rights and political realities in his doctrinal thinking. It will be interesting to see what he says now that he's Pope.

A few days ago, New York's Cardinal Dolan also spoke about marriage equality on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. It sounds like he was going for an approachable, humanist tone, but he came off with a standard "hate the sin, love the sinner" message that's more about being nice to gay people than making sure everyone has equal rights.

"We've got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people," he said. "And I admit, we haven't been too good at that. We try our darnedest to make sure we're not an anti-anybody."

[That "try our darnedest" stuff is exactly what he really sounds like--I happened to hear him speak at a marriage prep class, and he's full-on small town Midwest gee whiz. I can't tell how much of an affectation it is.]

He went on to say that gay people are entitled to happiness and "friendship", but they're disobeying God if they want to get married.

These aren't radical shifts, but with Cardinal Dolan happily proclaiming on national TV that he loves gay people and joyfully hoisting his disco stick (above) the new Pope's history of advocating for equal rights, it's going to be interesting time ahead.

About April 2013

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