Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Films of John Waters: Mondo Trasho (1969)

There's a tension at work in MONDO TRASHO: Waters the narrative filmmaker at odds with Waters the underground filmmaker. An example of defying formal expectations and conventions occurs with some seemingly insignificant scenes that seem to go on forever (Mary Vivian Pearce waiting for a bus, as Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" plays on the soundtrack in its entirety). Clearly we are in a very different world here than even something like PINK FLAMINGOS or FEMALE TROUBLE, with their emphasis on moving the story forward in each scene. But MONDO TRASHO is not concerned with plot. It's rather a series of vignettes strung together around the loose thread of the blonde bombshell (Pearce) and her extraordinarily dramatic day around Baltimore City.

Following the aforementioned bus sequence which opens the film, the Bombshell goes to the park, where she encounters a foot fetishist who proceeds to sexually assault her (while the Bombshell has a fantasy hallucination in which she imagines that she's Cinderella!) From there, she is struck by hitand-run driver Divine, distracted by the sight of an imagined nude hitchhiker (Mark Isherwood). Divine then takes the Bombshell to a mental hospital, where they witness a weird topless tap number performed by one of the inmates (Mink Stole), who is then raped by the other lunatics. Next, they find themselves in the laboratory of the deranged Dr. Coat Hanger (David Lochary), who grafts chicken feet on to the Bombshell's legs. Finally, Divine and the Bombshell end up in a pig sty, where Divine dies a garish death before a vision of the Virgin Mary appears to them.

This plot description is probably making the film sound more coherent than it actually is, however. MONDO TRASHO plays out something like a bad dream or hallucination, and indeed the plot structure in some ways seems to be influenced by THE WIZARD OF OZ, with its main character leaving her humdrum world and going on a strange journey with other characters she meets along the way (not as unlikely as it may sound, given Waters' love for that film). From what can be gleaned from accounts of Waters' first three short films (HAG IN A BLACK LEATHER JACKET, ROMAN CANDLES and EAT YOUR MAKEUP), MONDO TRASHO would seem to be an extension of the basic approach he took with those earlier films - loose narrative threads stringing together a series of episodes, infused with a less conventional approach to the storytelling than he would later pursue.

There's also the shock value. MONDO TRASHO's credits are superimposed over shots of a man, dressed in executioner's garb, cutting the heads off of chickens on a chopping block, whereupon their bodies proceed to flutter around for several seconds. All of this is shot in graphic closeup, with Waters assaulting the viewer with this disturbing imagery right out of the gate. But Waters seems less interested in the political implications of the material than earlier underground filmmakers. The shock value of MONDO TRASHO seems more geared toward pushing the envelope for what audiences will sit through rather than through making any kind of political statement. It is more akin to a carnival sideshow, in which the primary attraction is to indulge one's appetite for the shocking and taboo for its own sake.

Not that this is necessarily a criticism of the film, mind. Only that Waters was much more successful at this kind of thing in future endeavors, especially once he was able to incorporate his trademark dialogue to balance the shock with wit. As Waters has said, there's good bad taste, and bad bad taste, and in a recent interview made the point that for shock value to be truly effective it has to have wit. Watching MONDO TRASHO, one misses clever, hysterical dialogue and the casual, off-hand asides that make his films beginning with MULTIPLE MANIACS so memorable.

All that said, MONDO TRASHO is not as concerned with the gross-out factor as PINK FLAMINGOS, FEMALE TROUBLE or DESPERATE LIVING. Instead, Waters seems to be making a film that is intentionally jarring in its formal and aesthetic component, letting some scenes run far past any length that would seem necessary, and assaulting the viewer with one hallucinatory episode after the other. In every film after this one, he would move closer and closer toward conventional technique (with nods to classic Hollywood) and more formal polish. Indeed, Waters' mature work depends to a large degree on how successfully he is able to re-create the look and feel of the classical models which he is satirizing (Sirkian melodramas in POLYESTER, '50s rock musicals in CRY-BABY, and so on).

In this sense, MONDO TRASHO represents what I think is the end the first period of Waters' filmography. Without having the early shorts available for review, this can remain only conjecture, but I think it's a fair assessment based on the accounts of those early shorts as provided by Waters in his 1981 book Shock Value. If MONDO TRASHO is any indication, this first period reflects Waters working under a strong influence of the underground film aesthetic, almost as concerned with subverting form as much as with subverting sensibility.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955)

THE BIG COMBO represents both director Joseph H. Lewis and cinematographer John Alton working at the height of their respective powers.

Cornel Wilde stars as Lt. Diamond, a self-righteous young officer hell-bent on taking down mob kingpin Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) who is so powerful he never has to get his hands dirty, thus his record is squeaky-clean and is considered untouchable. Diamond is obsessed with Mr. Brown's girlfriend, driven by an apparent savior complex to "rescue" her from the sadistic kingpin. Yet Diamond's obsession extends to Mr. Brown himself - his need to knock him off his throne is motivated less by a desire for law and order, and more by a desire to get what he can't have.

Conte's Mr. Brown is a chillingly sadistic character - and also appealing in a very unsettling way. He humiliates and berates aging gangster Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), and keeps his girlfriend an emotional prisoner. Brown is always one step ahead of the police and, when McClure attempts to take his own revenge against his sadistic boss, Brown is again one step ahead, reminding McClure who's boss by turning his own hired killers against him. The scene where Brown taunts Diamond by pointing out that he's everything that Diamond wants to be, but can't, sums up his appeal and power.

Brown is finally betrayed, allowing Lt. Diamond to turn the tables on him and reducing him to a scared, panicked wreck like a deer in headlights. But it feels inauthentic because Mr. Brown is simply a much more interesting character than the bland Diamond. Still, Lewis' direction plunges us right in to this cynical, topsy-turvy world and never lets up, aided by Alton's stylish cinematography that conjures up an appropriately shadowy atmosphere, resulting in some iconic imagery.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Visual Storytelling

Of the many reasons I'm so fascinated by silent film, one of the most important aspects of the medium is what it can still teach film makers about structuring a story with images. The idea of "telling stories with images" is one of the most oft-repeated ideas we hear about film's capability, but still, the image remains the foundation on which the grammar of film was constructed.

Henri Langlois, archivist at the Cinematheque Francaise, famously ran silent films without musical accompaniment, arguing that the images constituted their own visual rhythm. While historically dubious, Langlois' approach of totally silent presentation does at least invite the viewer to be more conscious of the structure of the images in telling a story. I once sat through a screening of Josef von Sternberg's UNDERWORLD at NYU without musical accompaniment, and while I found the experience less than ideal, it did force me to consider the visual information in the film that much more closely since I didn't have the music to cue responses.

One of the most important lessons I ever learned about filmmaking occurred during my time in film school. At the time, the program I attended emphasized shooting on film as opposed to video, which was a great learning experience on a number of levels as I'd find out. As a kid, I had taught myself the basics of moviemaking through repeated experimentation using the family video camera, mostly imitating and copying techniques that I had seen in my favorite films. Because the video camera recorded in color and sound, I took those elements for granted. But when I got to film school, I found that I'd be shooting on 16mm using a Bolex. Working with a group, we were given a number of assignments that required us to use different techniques.

For the two projects I directed, the first presented a great challenge for me for two reasons. For one, the lack of sound meant that whatever I needed to convey had to be done so purely through the image. For another, the project required me to create two separate films using the exact same shots - only arranged in a different sequence - to achieve a different effect. Think the Kuleshov experiment.

This gets at the larger challenge I faced with the assignment. Given that I am inclined toward narrative filmmaking, my approach was to try and tell two very similar stories, albeit ones that reverse the beginning and ending shots of each other, thus making one a "comedy", and the other a "tragedy" (I use both terms very loosely, though). I considered my work on this project a personal failure, because the non-linearity of the narrative didn't feel authentic, and the story was not clearly conveyed enough by the shots, which I had to keep intentionally ambiguous so that they could be re-arranged for different purposes.

With my second project, however, I was given the assignment to shoot a film consisting of takes shot from a variety of angles (closeup, medium, wide, etc.) In other words, classical style. For this project, I decided to draw on my knowledge of silent film, and comedy in particular. Shooting at 16 fps, I created a slapstick comedy that drew on the techniques of silent comedy filmmakers. I was not setting out to merely re-create a silent comedy but to use the pure visual storytelling of the silent, black and white image to tell a quick, comic story entirely through images. The narrative was much more clear given the linearity of its presentation, and the shooting of takes from a number of different angles forced me to maximize the information I would convey through each one, and to pay close attention to the sequence in which they were arranged to convey each point. The result was THE WRONG HOUSE, a simple comedy that I considered my best work up to that point.

What I took away from the project, above all else, was an appreciation for what it really means to tell a story with images. I also came away with a much higher appreciation for the elements of sound and color. Though there are good arguments to be made for shooting on video (as that is quickly becoming the industry standard, and because of the low cost makes experimentation much more feasible), I realize I would not have come to appreciate these elements in quite the same way had it not been for forcing myself to strip them away in the first place.