Big Shot: Bully

Before Harmony Korine recruited Disney’s brightest stars to shed their tops in Spring Breakers, he teamed up with Larry Clark to throw moms into a tailspin with their debaucherous youth exposé Kids. Six years later, Clark’s Bully is an attempt to tackle similar territory. Based on true events, the film follows a group of aimless youth as they screw and fight, try to earn money where they can, and generally lay about until a careless murder brings it all comes to an end.

Bully jumps right in. Teen Beat heartthrob Brad Renfro tells someone on the other side of his cordless phone “I want you to suck my big dick” when his mom calls him down for dinner. No further introduction is necessary to set the scene. These kids dominate their lower middle class suburban America through disaffection and sex appeal. Renfro as Marty and his best friend Bobby (Nick Stahl) work at the sandwich counter at the local grocery store by day, and turn tricks at night. Alli and Lisa (Bijou Phillips and Rachel Miner round out this millennial brat pack) cruise town looking to get some D. Parents’ influence is limited to poking a head into the  bedroom in the morning to make sure their kids came home the night before, and by insisting on family dinner, but really nobody gives much of a damn. This is a picture of American Youth, doing drugs, fucking, and fighting without much conscience or supervision.

Instead of drifting in and out of parties and orgies like Kids does, painting a picture of a larger story, as Bully progresses it narrows its focus, honing in on Marty and Bobby’s tumultuous friendship and how that affects Marty’s girlfriend Lisa. The adorable, charismatic, and don’t-give-a-fuck Renfro is mostly unbelievable as Marty, Bobby’s shy doormat. He moons and swoons, let’s Bobby punch him, and even cries at one point, but it seems like an act. As a result, Nick Stahl’s nuanced and conflicted Bobby is more trustworthy. He is played unexpectedly sympathetic; he is believable. Despite increasingly violent, cruel, and erratic behavior toward Marty and Lisa, Stahl plays Bobby as a character conflicted and confused by his own darkness. Unlike the rest of the gang, he is not a type that is recognizable from our own lives. And this specificity recenters the film, transforming it  from a portrayal of universal disaffected adolescence to a single story of unique events.

The best parts of the film are also the scariest. Though Bobby comes off as vaguely threatening from the start, he becomes a real threat when he surprises Marty and Lisa in the bedroom, forcing his way into their sex life. It’s gross and mean. And when Lisa, trying to distract him from picking on her, convinces Alli to give Bobby a chance, what starts as sweet flirtation crosses the line into rape and depravity. Bobby is unable to control himself, and is seemingly completely unaware that what his is doing is wrong and hurts others. Even more scary is that throughout, he remains likable and charming. He is a monster but he’s hurting. This dynamic can’t and doesn’t last very long. When Lisa and Marty are finally fed up, the film refocuses, moving to Lisa and Marty as they hatch a plan to eliminate Bobby.

Although this murder plot is ostensibly the point of the film, it is also Bully’s undoing. All of a sudden a handful of new characters show up, including pimply-faced Michael Pitt as drugged up Donnie and Heather (Kelli Garner) whose raver blue, empty head would feel right at home in Spring Breakers. Although the performances are compelling, suddenly there is too much going on. Big personalities offset undeveloped relationships and the camera can’t seem to get enough of each face/crotch/decolletage. Miner and Renfro as the supposed bandleaders are unsteady, thus weakening the explosive moment of violence that should be shocking. It’s disjointed and unsatisfying.

But this unraveling is certainly, in part, deliberate. Miner and Renfro as Lisa and Marty are unsteady bandleaders of an unfocused, confused group of idiots. They don’t know what they are doing, and once it’s done, they can’t react ‘appropriately’. In the final scenes, they seem like they might burst out laughing at any moment. It may be bad acting, but it achieves Clark’s desired effect: incompetence.

The true story of Bobby Kent’s murder involves a bunch of stoner dropouts from Florida who ended up being terrible problem-solvers. What happens in Bully is an attempt to universalize that story and turn it into a cautionary tale: The youth these days are anesthetized sex maniacs who see too much violence on TV, and they make it look good. Although Bully takes place in familiar suburban sprawl with grocery stores, crap diners, poorly manicured lawns all in a row, and parents spouting BS, Bobby Kent is a distinctive case. The true story tells us he was so abusive to his friends, they felt they had no other choice but to kill him. But as he exists in the film, his bullying isn’t so out of control and murder doesn’t seem like the only option. The decision to kill him and the act itself is hazy on purpose, because …disaffected youth! But it’s not enough. Clark did this better with Kids and now, working off of actual events, there are too many unique details for the larger story to land. The result is a film that vacillates back and forth between a good story and a universal one, but never truly commits to either.

Bully: A $2.2 Million Exercise in Perversion or Art?

Bully was controversial upon it’s release. Ex-child stars strut around basically nude, having sex, doing drugs, and nonchalantly committing violent crimes. But that was no surprise as it was the combined efforts of Kids director Larry Clark and David McKenna who penned American History X. But the edgy content wasn’t the only fuss. In fact, it seems that Clark’s camera was too perverted for McKenna who was hoping for scathing insight into youth culture, and felt that Clark’s interpretation of his script reduced it to mere pornography. Before Bully hit the theaters, McKenna took his name off the project, opting instead to be credited as Zachary Long.

Larry Clark didn’t seem to mind. From the beginning, he was unhappy with McKenna’s writing. He called it “an after-school special” and requested multiple rewrites. It didn’t matter. McKenna aired his grievances, so did Clark, calling him a “Hollywood hack” who was too scared to keep his name attached to something so controversial.

For those of us that love this sort of hissy fit, the best part of the story is the scathing letter from McKenna to Clark. Not only does he criticize the direction but also tears apart many of the performances. Like all good angry letters, it’s the work of a man who is pushed to his limit. Imagine the laugh Clark must have had upon receipt - he really couldn’t care less under what name his screenwriter was credited. Clark always considered himself the true auteur of the picture anyways.

The letter in full:

Larry Clark, Don Murphy, Fernando Sulichin:

The purpose of this letter is to inform the above parties that I, in conjunction with my attorney, am removing my name from the film Bully. I will instead be utilizing the pseudonym Zachary Long for my writing credit. The Writer’s Guild has been informed of my intent to use this pseudonym.

My reasons follow. When Don Murphy gave me this book [novel by Jim Schutze] to adapt, I looked at it as a gift from the gods. Here was a story and a character study unlike anything I had ever read before. Bully was an insight into youth that hadn’t been documented since Larry Clark’s first film, Kids. And, unlike many, I did not feel Kids or Bully was irresponsible. Honest, poignant and terrifying maybe, but not irresponsible.

As far as the translation of Bully from book to script. I felt we had achieved greatness. After meeting with Larry in New York and conjointly making some great changes, the result, I felt, was some of the best work I had ever been associated with.

The film I watched on December 1st left me completely dumbfounded. What I witnessed was revolting, offensive and childish. I could not believe what had been done to what was once an extremely compelling and emotional story. Though I realize that at this point I have no control over what ultimately happens with this film, I can only hope that others associated with it will understand and agree with my stance.

After all, this is not a movie. It much more closely resembles a porno. It has all the qualities to verify that claim: Unbelievably gratuitous sex, no story, zero motivation, no character development, and horrible acting. I knew early on the discontent I was going to have once Bijou Phillips said “his dick was beautiful and he ate my pussy for an hour.” I knew right then what the directors vision was and I immediately regretted ever giving him the script. It was clear that he had forgone drama and character development in order to gratuitously create a one dimensional pornographic whore. In the book and in the script, Ali is a character with depth and complexity. The compelling aspect of Ali is how beautiful and presentable she is on the outside, and how stupid, insecure and diabolical she is on the inside. none of this is explored in this movie. She merely exists for perverse crotch shots and grotesque sexual escapades. Virtually all scenes involving Ali are nothing short of repulsive. And to what end?

The same holds true for Lisa Connely. first of all, Rachel Miner, as sweet as she is, should not have been in this movie. She was clearly miscast. The character of Lisa demands a fat, ugly loser who’s ridiculed by Bobby so bad that she’s driven to kill him. Here, she’s portrayed as someone who’s actually beautiful and proud of her body. I can find no reason for so haphazardly destroying the character development and motivation that script provides other than for the director to showcase the half dozen or so wonderfully gratuitous shorts of her vagina. Additionally, we never see the growing hatred of Bobby that her character demands. The only scene that might be able to justify her motivation to kill, the Doberman attack scene, is nowhere to be found. Therefore, once again, what’s left is no character motivation and no believability, and only several gratuitous sex scenes that leave the audience repulsed and wondering why this movie was ever made.

The direction of the other actors also greatly disappoints. Renfro is all over the place. In the beginning he’s playing coy, nervous and shy (i.e. the deli, the Camaro, the Copa), ten minutes later he’s singing Eminem, talking shit, and being abusive to Lisa (Note: This went down in 1992, when Eminem was still in high school). Renfro laughs through his speech about the first time he tried pot with Bobby and then offers some bullshit cry that is nothing more than a feeble attempt for sympathy.

Derek Dzvirko also hails from the Bully school of acting. The method? Pretend you’re a zombie and say your lines as fast as you can.

Michael Pitt at least has some energy to his character, but where’s the other dimension of Donny Semenee? Where’s the sweet, caring kid who’s manipulated into this by Ali? The same holds true for the Hitman. Leo Fitspatrick, who has in other films demonstrated that the is a talented actor, screams this way through every scene. Where’s the humor behind the stupid camp counselor leading the kids into battle? Where’s the umm’s and uhh’s? the only notable performance comes from Nick Stahl. The kid’s a great actor, but, then, again, his likeability makes him miscast. He garners sympathy form the audience, when the reality should be that the audience detests him to such a degree that they understand what ld these kids to murder him. It’s a travesty. Nearly every aspect of this story that drove me to wan t to get this movie made has been destroyed.

What is this movie truly about now? In all honesty, I think it’s a $2.2 million exercise in perversion. Every scene Ali and Lisa are in, the camera is focused on their vaginas. The sexual distractions are amateurish, unnecessary and offensive. Crotch shots over pedicures, giving blow jobs in the cars (another long lasting crotch shot), pinching nipples, putting clothes pins on nipples, Lisa fucking Marty five times, Ali fucking Bobby twice, Ali fucking Donny, Ali making out with Donny, Heather rubbing Donny, Donny making out with Heather, Heather making out with Ali, where’s the fucking story?!

The bottom line is that by all appearances, the intelligence of this film has been desecrated in lieu of perverse and childish intentions. What makes a movie great are the little things. It is no surprise that with these little things Bully fails miserably. Here, Iíll explore just a few that I felt contribute to the demise of this film. After the first attempt of the murder fails, Donny says to the girls “you guys need professional help.” Where is Aliís epiphany of seeking out “professional help?” All you see in the next scene is the Hitman with a bunch of children saying nothing of importance to each other. Itís like theyíre trying to say something but can’t think of anything. so a few face shots are inserted to kill time until the mother comes outside with the phone. Then we see Cousin Derek outside cutting grass. Not only can he hear his cell phone over the deafening machine, he automatically knows that it’s Lisa. Later, when the kids arrive to seek out the help of the Hitman, a camera shot, clearly stolen from Scorsese in The Color of Money, is used and abused. Here we have one of the most important scenes with the Hitman and instead of the scene moving the story forward, the audience is left completely dizzy and again wondering why. Here I’ve mentioned four justifiable complaints within a period of five minutes.

It is with much sadness and regret that I remove my name from this film. It was a story very close to my heart, one that I fought long and hard for. It is not easy to let two years of hard work and perseverance go down the drain, but there is no doubt that in order to preserve my name, I must.

Thanks to Chris Hanley and Harmony Korine for providing access to both sides of this story.

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!