Feb 20, 2011

Dog Day (1984)

On what would be tough guy actor Lee Marvin's eighty-seventh birthday, I thought it fitting to finally give a spin to this 99-cent DVD of Dog Day, the odd duck of his career. Long available in North America on cheap video labels, this French thriller is so bizarre that its haphazard presentation seems to add to its oddness and obscurity.

Few films in Marvin's career really investigate his larger-than-life mythic status in cinema (Point Blank is an exception), however this scruffy, bizarre melodrama explores the iconography of the American movie gangster while in an unconventional setting. Truly, it feels like this all-American archetype stumbled onto the set of either a Luc Moullet or Pasolini film.

Lee Marvin plays Jimmy Cobb, a crook known for wearing boutonnieres in his lapel and shooting people in the knee, who, after a botched robbery and on the run from the law, hides out on a farm occupied by a truly dysfunctional family. This brood consists of a patriarch is a pig who barks at his servants, and treats his wife (Miou Miou) as no greater than one (witness the ritualism of his after-dinner pokey), a man who dresses as a scarecrow in the cornfield so he can spy on topless hippies camping nearby, a near psychotic nymphomaniac woman, and the teenaged stepson who finds some of Cobb's hidden loot and takes off to the brothel (where incidentally, the cops are also staying)! Plus, there's a white-suited panama-hatted pencil-thin moustachioed gangster who also has an interest in Cobb's hidden money. The wife offers to spirit Cobb to safety if he'll kill her husband. However, as we know in these types of movies, nothing goes to plan, and this melodrama becomes even more bizarre and surprising as it goes along.

This screenplay (credited to five writers!) is more an allegory of class structure than a traditional mobster-on-the-run plot, as those of the lowest social order regard the ruling class (namely the law) as pigs, and throughout this narrative, the police are always depicted as hypocritical and buffoonish. Also importantly, the myth of the American gangster is explored through the character of the stepson, who is enamoured with American culture and its spectacle of fame and fortune that he both idolizes and manipulates Cobb. (Posters of such iconography as Once Upon a Time in the West and James Dean in Giant hang on his walls.)

Marvin looks admittedly haggard throughout this film (perhaps he was of failing health during its production), but the actor still, refreshingly, plays the role with his usual stoicism, offering a counterpoint to the surrealist cartoon that unfolds around him. (And perhaps his tired appearance compliments Cobb's world-weary behaviour.) Co-star Tina Louise has basically a glorified cameo as Cobb's partner, however it is great seeing the two play off each other in their one scene together. (Interestingly, compare this sequence to a later one where Cobb also speaks to Miou Miou in her car.)

Literally and figuratively, this is a film of contrasts, no less emphasized in the central relationship of Cobb and the wife. She rightfully reveals that in addition to their common behaviour of "hating something enough to do anything", and that this American man and Dutch woman in a French farm house are both strangers in a strange land.

Like the films of Luc Moullet, it is a scruffy valentine to American iconography, and those of Pasolini, it is a scatological look at social structure gone awry. One genuinely feels the dirt and grime so abundant in this decrepit environment. The latter is indirectly aided by the dark video transfer (at least on the DVD I viewed), and the full frame presentation, where actors (often those currently speaking) are squeezed to the edge of the picture, add to the claustrophobia.

I'll have to hunt down my copy of Lee Marvin's biography written by his widow to learn of any back story on this film's making. Despite its general availability (however haphazard), this is truly a unique movie. There is simply nothing else like it in his career. Dog Day is strong stuff, and isn't for everyone, but is a fascinating excursion for those willing to explore what exists beneath the muck.

Feb 19, 2011

The Snow Bunnies (1972)

It isn't every day that people go see a skin flick... to hear the dialogue.

But so it was with The Snow Bunnies, a surreal poverty-row sex romp, co-written by the one, the only Edward D. Wood Jr., made available for cult movie fans at a rare public screening, presented by ESR's good friend, Mr. Dion Conflict. Many who love the naive innocence of the writer-director's work of the 1950's usually deplore his subsequent efforts for the next two decades, in which he largely paid the bills by penning pornography, often contributing scenarios for director A.C. Stephen (AKA- Stephen Apostoloff). The few Stephen-Wood romps I have seen are enjoyable for their strange combinations of sloppy eroticism and meretricious writing. (As of this writing, I STILL haven't seen Orgy of the Dead.) One needn't watch this for long to realize that it came from the pen of everyone's favourite spacey visionary, but for those who still need a clue, later on one of our female leads suggests that her limp boyfriend should wear ladies underwear.

This epic begins in Warhol-level grubbiness, with an endless close-up of soapy bosom as buxom starlet Marsha Jordan lathers herself in the shower. But all it takes is one phone call, and we realize we're in the hands of a master. Marsha is a vacationing nurse whose shower is interrupted by a phone call from someone at the hospital who has the nerve to call on her time off ("You BASTARD!"). To avoid any more intrusions by those capitalist pigs who want her to spend her holiday time at work, she decides to get away from it all to a "Canadian Winter Wonderland", and recruits a few friends to come along, all of whom have the same white telephone and fake flower arrangement on their night stands.

So for the next hour, this randy bunch has casual encounters at a ski resort: the buck-toothed Joni Mitchell clone gets it on with a Bobby Vinton look-alike (check out that belt buckle!), the strawberry blonde has some fun with some dopey blonde ski bum in a sauna, and then of course the sun dazed brunette has a roll in the hay with a guy who could pass as John Ashley's younger brother. But if this isn't busy enough, there is also the ubiquitous Rene Bond as a waitress who prostitutes herself on the side, and most puzzling, some voyeur is capturing the girls’ fun in snapshots. The latter subplot is NEVER RESOLVED, however maybe the mysterious disappearance of Ms. Jordan for an hour of screen time has something to do with it. (And speaking of ubiquitous, that same horrible leather couch appears in most of these sequences- alas, the one telephone we see is red.) For me, the cinematic highlight had to be scene of the lovebirds by the stream, where the sound of the cameraman's feet crunching on the snow is heard on the soundtrack! This could be a deliberate inclusion on the filmmakers' part to add to the voyeuristic subplot, or merely a technical gaffe, but moments like this make this picture so alive.

The lucky patrons of the Snow Bunnies screening were further given to explore the film's unusual structure, as some scenes are later repeated, one assumes due to a reel jumble in the projection booth, however causing the viewers' head to explode with ideas, evoking comparisons to Resnais' upheaval of time and space, and Wood's own Brechtian leanings in his signature film Plan 9 From Outer Space. But fear not, amidst the mechanical eroticism, and bountiful second-unit ski footage filled with blurry pans and stuttering zooms, there are some true Woodisms heard in between. One wishes this film was on DVD alone for the benefit of pausing to write down some of the gems uttered by this wooden bunch of hopefuls who often glance to the camera for direction (further calling attention to the film's artifice). It was hard for yours truly to scribble many of them down, since the movie leaped from one head-spinning moment to another, but here is one jewel: "Work is the curse of the modern system."

Once again the over-achieving Mr. Wood attempts to transcend the tawdry requirements of a sex film with socialist mumblings and a strange moral of how pleasure can lead to unhappiness, but what also remains in memory is the film's randy celebration of hedonism, captured as best as could be in varying shot-to-shot colour temperatures (reminding one of Wong Kar Wai) from the diverse short ends they scratched together for this epic, and scored with familiar up-tempo lounge stock music. One is quickly reminded why we must track down every lost 70s film we can: even a poverty-row quickie like Snow Bunnies feels more organic and vivacious than most clinical product made today. I haven't been to such a liberating screening since, well, Satan's Blade. Viva Conflict! Viva Cinema!