Bully: American Justice

In 1993 seven Florida teenagers killed their friend Bobby because he was a bully. This episode of American Justice tells the story of good-for-nothing kids who killed a good boy with lots of promise. Larry Clark’s 2001 film adaptation tells a different, sexier, less judgmental version. Let’s start out with the heavy-handed cautionary tale and work our way up to the more ambivalent rendition. While we’re at it, take a minute to admire Clark’s perfect casting.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Mashed Potatoes

Close Encounters of the Third Kind has plenty of iconic scenes but possibly the most memorable is when Richard Dreyfuss really loses it and makes a mountain out of his mashed potatoes. It marks the beginning of the end for him on this earth.

Here at BSMC, we want to encourage you to follow your dreams, whatever they may be. If you, like Richard Dreyfuss, are obsessing over a mountain you’ve never seen, we’ve made it easy for you to make your own. Here is The Better Homes and Gardens‘ recipe for mashed potatoes. We’ll leave the sculpting up to you.

4 servings, 35 minutes

3 medium (1 lb) baking potatoes, russet is a good option

2 T butter

2 – 4 T milk

Peel and quarter potatoes. Cook, covered, in a small amount of salted water for 20 to 25 minutes, until tender. Drain. Mash with a potato masher or beat with an electric mixer on low. Add butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Gradually beat in enough milk to make light and fluffy.

BIG SHOT: Law of Desire

Law of Desire is the first film director Pedro Almodóvar made under his production company El Deseo, allowing him to have full artistic control over the production. It shows. From the very beginning the film eschews any subtlety, decency, or political correctness. The result is a comedy verging on melodrama that lays the foundation for so much of his work to follow. Many of his subsequent films (most explicitly Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, High Heels, and Bad Education ) all seem to germinate from the plots, characters, and themes developed here.

Love triangles play a huge role in Almodóvar’s filmmaking. His leading women consistently cope with their unwavering dedication to their philandering husbands. His men waffle from man to man to woman to man. Law of Desire centers around a pair of siblings, Pablo (Eusebio Poncela) and Tina Quintero (Carmen Maura). Pablo, a gay film director popular in the club scene, is eternally in the crux of a love triangle as a result of his undying devotion to himself that is ultimately the root of his downfall. Although he would claim he is dedicated to the point of obsession to a young man named Juan (Miguel Molina) who doesn’t quite return his love, he more obsessed with finding someone to love him as much as he does himself. When he does find that person in Antonio (Antonio Banderas), another young man, a fan of his work, it’s not as satisfying as he once imagined it would be. Pablo’s sister Tina (who was once his brother but underwent a sex change long ago) is on the losing end of her own love triangle when her girlfriend runs off to Tokyo to chase a man and she is left caring for the tweenaged daughter. Her status as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is further solidified when Pablo casts her as the lead in his stage production of Cocteau’s Le Voix Humaine. She is destined, it seems, to be a scorned woman.

Although this is considered to be Almodóvar’s first explicitly gay film, the characters’ sexualities are treated with the utmost nonchalance. Most of the action centers around the queer club scene where flamboyance is the norm. The inhabitants of this film are no longer combating adversity, bravely coming out of the closet, or generally defining and defending their sexual behavior. They have found an accepting community. In fact, early on, when Tina endures some heckling from Pablo’s ‘fans’ regarding her latest tryst – with another woman – the hecklers are dismissed almost immediately, setting a precedent for the rest of the film. Leave her alone; what she does in bed is her business.

Instead, it seems everyone is self-obsessed. Pablo is in love with Juan, but when Juan goes out of town and his love letters are unsatisfactory, Pablo goes so far as to write one himself that he asks Pablo to sign and send back. It is this boundless narcissism that causes all the problems. Because when Juan complies and sends the letter back to Pablo, people keep finding it around his house. The love letter he wrote to himself is so pure and romantic, it inspires insane jealousy from everyone in his life. What seems, on paper to be the proof of Juan’s pure dedication is actually Pablo’s own to himself. When Antonio comes on the scene, young, naive, and determined to win out over the letter.

It is only when Antonio almost loses Pablo to Juan forever that these dalliances cross a line and erupt into violence uncontainable within the confines of their social circle. Outsiders come charging in, ostensibly to help clean up the murder and the mess, represented by two inept police officers (played by a father and son). These very straight men are ignorant and bigoted, highlighting just how insulated Pablo’s life was before it spiraled out of his control. While the older one, ready to retire, happy, lazy, corrupt, is accepting of the ‘freaks’ he is investigating, he also objectifies and fetishizes them; he has a particular soft spot for Tina who as a transsexual is more woman than other women to him. The younger officer, ambitious, inexperienced, and on the straight and narrow, is just disgusted by Tina, Pablo and the rest. Their overt sexuality, insane (amazing!) graphic polyester button downs and skin-tight neon spandex miniskirts put him on edge. Ultimately Pablo steps up to take responsibility and control. While it’s a relief that the heteronormative douchebags remain stuck in their ineptness, never to attain any triumph over their narrow-mindedness, nobody else changes very much either. The film’s tragic end is a result of the characters’ determination never to change.

While Law of Desire is interesting in its casual yet explicit portrayal of gay sex, notable for young Antonio Banderas’ pouty lips and crazy eyes, and is a key entry into Almodóvar’s canon (particularly because Pablo’s trajectory so resembles Almodóvar’s own), it is ultimately not that memorable. The histrionics that later develop into the exciting and funny Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in this case quickly become tedious and overdone. And Tina, the most alluring character in the film, is unfortunately often relegated to the sidelines as Antonio’s obsession with Pedro takes center stage, despite the repetitive nature of that plot line. Within this film the seeds of great ideas are planted, but it is only in later movies that they are able to reach their full potential.

Law of Desire: A Hint of Cocteau

Jean Cocteau is a specter looming in the background of the sexually uninhibited Law of Desire. Pablo Quintero, the film director is not only engaged in his own Cocteau-ian love triangle, he is also engaged in the challenge of directing one of Cocteau’s most intriguing works, The Human Voicea one-act play consisting of just one woman’s side of a phone conversation. Pablo’s version stars his sister in the performance of a lifetime, but Tina Quintero is only one entry in a long line of divas to take on the challenge of being the single performer in Cocteau’s character study.

Because nobody can leave Cocteau’s work alone (it’s just too good), in 1958 the play was adapted to opera and performed by the French Soprano Denise Duval. The 1967 television adaptation starred Ingrid Bergman. But in 1948 it was Roberto Rosselini’s adaption to the “Una Voce Humana” segment of his episodic film L’Amore that so brilliantly cast the inimitable Anna Magnani in the role. She is perfect.

 

Law of Desire: Lady Champagne

A beautiful transgendered actress, Tina, is a central character in Law of Desire, but it is her ex, Ada who is played by the famous transsexual Bibi Andersen. Also known as Bibiana Fernández, Bibi’s life story bears a few resemblances to the fictional Tina. Born in Morocco, she came up in the vaudeville scene. Before going on to act in many of Pedro Almodóvar’s films, she was a pop singer. In 1980 she released a self titled LP featuring the hit single “Call me Lady Champagne“. Also of note is her Spanish cover of Herman’s Hermit’s “I’m into Something Good” released separately as a single. No wonder she’s an icon.

Thanks Queer Music Heritage for the songs!

Big Shot: More

There is a certain kind of movie (often 1960s independent cinema) full of beautiful faces, hip clothes, sweet soundtracks, and breathtaking vistas that shrug off any commitment to plot in favor of evoking a mood. When this works, it is so satisfying. 3 Women, L’Avventura,  Picnic at Hanging Rock – thousand mile stares and flowy dresses invoke a longing to be part of that world while the nebulous dread that penetrates speaks to larger ideas forming just beyond the frame. But these films are so easily botched, and when they fail, they fail big. In these pages I’ve already complained about Zabriskie Point’s tedium and the insufferable histrionics of Sex and Lucia. Both failed (in part) because they were unable to fully abandon (melo)drama to propel forward, muddying their quest for dreamy ambiance.

More’s failure stems from a different place. It begins with familiar appeal – Mimsy Farmer’s big doe eyes evoke more alert Edie Sedgwick and Klaus Grünberg’s handsome German posture as Stefan, sulking around in hippie garb or taking in epic vistas in the nude. But as soon as Grünberg opens his mouth, record scratch, the magic is over. The man can’t act. He’s so stiff and unnatural it seems like a joke about acting but isn’t. Early in the film Stefan hangs around at a sort of boring hippie house party in Paris when Mimsy Farmer as Estelle walks in. An otherwise superfluous voiceover track informs us that the blank stare on both of their faces means it’s love at first sight. And despite the actors’ absolute lack of chemistry, their passion is the driving force behind all of the events that follow.

Although known primarily for its Ibiza location, Stefan doesn’t arrive on the island right away. The film dallies in Paris for too long waiting for him to raise the cash to follow Estelle to paradise. And when he does arrive, more time is wasted setting up storylines only to be abandoned when we finally get to the naked sunbathing. For a film about a couple of lovers in a downward spiral of drug abuse on a secluded island, quite a few other characters populate the film. And good thing, because although they seem out of place, they serve as a welcome distraction to Stefan and Estelle’s wooden ‘I love yous’ and insufferable histrionics. The actors playing the mysterious Dr. Wolf and the American weirdo, on the other hand, are a pleasure to watch as they ham it up imbuing their scenes with a sinister edge. In Dr. Wolf’s first shows up knife throwing with his expat buddies. They throw knives at a bullseye, drink, and tease each other casually; it may be the only not rigid moment in the film because the people onscreen actually seem at ease in front of the camera.

Director Barbet Schroeder was clearly aiming to capture the mood of a specific moment in time. The Pink Floyd soundtrack, Estelle’s laissez faire attitude toward punctuality, dress code, self respect, and drug use, and the small expatriate community always in the background point to Schroeder’s interest in capturing the disillusionment of 1969. Stefan is first introduced as an innocent leaving behind a boring life in Germany to find some adventure. We see him change as he smokes his first joint, takes his first trip, and does his first hit of heroin. But the experiences are all communicated from an outside view. It’s the opposite of Enter the Void. The audience doesn’t get to enjoy his trip with him, we just get to watch him have it, which as it turns out, is mind-numbingly boring. Both he and Estelle just sit there. The wild beach parties of Ibiza, as seen through the distanced perspective of an audience member, are reduced to boring people sitting around sort of talking but not really making much sense. Even when Stefan suddenly perks up, it’s only to hit Estelle in the face, to which she barely reacts. I prefer the catatonic to domestic abuse.

Intellectually, to disconnect the audience like this is wise. Schroeder is showing drug use without glamour. But in doing so, he alienates us from the central love story. And by the time the plot veers off into the strange and contrived realm of drug trafficking and ex-Nazis, we can’t muster the attention needed to piece together what is happening. So when the final tragedy occurs in this cautionary tale, there is no sadness. The audience has stopped caring.

More lured me in with a promise of hazy, sun soaked nudity and gauzy dresses, Instead it delivered a disjointed story two boring people who didn’t really seem to care about each other ruining lives that never mattered. When I began, I was optimistic that I would find an aesthetically pleasing picture of disaffected youth and restless counterculture. By the film’s end, this was transformed into apathy. It’s not the first time I’ve been hoodwinked like this. Chances are, if a film’s primary appeal is superficial, there won’t be much substance to back it up. No doubt, I will continue to be fooled.

More: Pink Floyd Are At It Again

It’s not surprising that Pink Floyd’s soundtracks to both Zabriskie Point and More are probably more worthwhile than the films they score. They were hired and succeed in providing heavy ambiance that is supposed to communicate that sought after je ne sais quoi of the time, speaking specifically to a growing Hippie counterculture. In More the music is used sparingly, only occurring as diegetic sound – coming through the radio or from a record player so that the characters hear and react to the music as well – causing the few moments of enthusiasm in an otherwise nearly catatonic film.

The band (minus Syd Barrett for the first time) set themselves up on the Ibiza’s sister island of Formentera to record what would become Music from the Motion Picture More. The cover art features a familiar sight – it’s the very same windmill rumored to have sheltered Bob Dylan during his hermetic stint in the same part of the world.