Monday, February 26, 2007

Black Moon

Back in the days before everything was verbalized and ‘wiki’ became the favourite prefix of the masses, Louis Theroux (cheeky scamp from the prairies of television land) hosted a show by the name of Weird Weekends. As suggested by its befitting title, the British series bayed to the common human craving to see on-screen something differing from the regular quotidian banality that suffocates us daily, to take that generic norm and invert it, allow us not simply to chuckle and mock the Other, but to take, by way of contrast, reassurance of our own lives. During these bizarre bookends to the week, Louis would visit coteries of the disenfranchised and ostracised (often, it must be noted, accorded these statuses for good reason – read: white supremacists), explore their idiosyncratic mores and perhaps provoke some humorous episodes along the way.

In 1975, another Louis, this one branded with the surname of Malle, delved into a pit of weirdness, fumbling the peculiar syllables in the word Strange, then hurtled the results full-throttle towards the screen. Only this Louis, rather than discovering a congress of outlandish ants under a rock marked Society, manufactured both ants and rocks, engraving the interplay between the two: Black Moon.

One of the French New Wave’s most enjoyable jazz connoisseurs, Louis Malle takes a dip into the surreal with this film. With a predilection for fairy tales under one arm, and a resolve to look beyond the present under the other, Malle creates an odd mix of apocalyptic conflict and phantasmagoric imagery. The story, if one can discern such a thing, concerns a feisty nubile named Lily who, forced off the beaten track by a horde of militants, comes across a house in the countryside inhabited by a deranged, bed-ridden matriarch, her adult son and daughter, and a gang of nude children. Also giving curvature to this filmic sculpture is a panoply of recurring animals – including an elusive unicorn that Lily frequently gives chase to – and the hidden murmurs of some mysterious war taking place in the background.

The most obvious point of reference is Lewis Carroll’s Alice dyad: Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Black Moon mirrors the scenario of the girl thrown into an eccentric world that seems to occupy its own rules of logic, where the absurd beats down any protest from the leagues of rationality. From its quasi-anthropomorphised animals who speak telepathically and batter out etudes on the piano, to the matriarch’s out-of-sync dialogue (backwards vocalisations?), the film is an ode to the handbook of nonsensicality. Svankmajer’s wonderfully perverse Alice (to come over a decade afterwards) can also be aligned with this film: its emphasis on stark, random sounds, zany animality and a house as allegorical prison providing a nice parallel – albeit with more claymation.

It’s not for no reason that I use the word nubile in the context of Lily, for she adheres to the sensual undertones that have come to mark the Alice character in recent times. Alice, with its cutaways to the sultry lips of the narrator, did not shy away from sexualising proceedings. Black Moon too embraces a more lascivious side that was not (allow one could argue the contrary) originally present in Carroll’s head. Her milky skin and flowing blonde locks, the way the camera is magnetically lured to her open shirt and smooth legs, all underscore the beauty of the film’s focal point. Yet there’s always something sinister and discomforting about the character (an archetype by now, for sure); is it not the curious amalgam of the fact that she is powerlessly plunged into this foreign environment, but nonetheless is able to exhibit a willingness to accept her impotence and continue on, the factor that constitutes her appeal? This ostensible appearance of innocence – tainted by amorous watercolours – that can forgo the usual neurotic necessity to fully understand all the happenings. Her degenerate surroundings standing as counterpoint to her unsullied self, framing her as an object of spectator desire.

The classy surrealism of Bunuel can also be glimpsed through Malle’s crazy world. While 1990’s Milou en mai offers a more subtle tribute to Bunuel, the paradigmatic Bunuelian reversal is found in Black Moon: finding herself in need of sustenance, the aforementioned wacky matriarch beckons her daughter, who proceeds to appease the yearning by breast-feeding her mother.

Unsurprisingly, Black Moon was a considerable failure upon its release. “Not enough Miles Davis!” bawled the mob still stuck on the elevator to the gallows. “Too many shots of Morrissey and Warhol’s favourite son Joe Dallesandro pretending to do farm-labour!” wailed cineastes from here to Vienna.

But how can one not love the playful madness displayed on screen? Lily skipping around, allowing the viewer to project their own sense of bewilderment into her? It is no less than a joy to witness the possibilities of a unicorn politic coming to fruition, or to see the late Sven (buddy of Bergman) Nykvist’s marvellous cinematography, or those glorious French landscapes oft-seen in films such as Godard’s Weekend and Les Carabiniers.

With Black Moon, Malle delivers a superb impression of dreamlike reality, experimenting with every symbolic trope that might have the good fortune to dawn in the fibre of his mind, while marrying the preposterousness of Alice in Wonderland with the finest helping of New Wave angst. This is indeed Louis Malle’s weird weekend.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"I Am The Law": Postscript to Sly Sly Stallonify

In his exegesis on the phenomenon that is the Sly Sly Stallonify, a term as difficult to bang out on a keyboard as it is to comprehend, Fletcher of the Bad Movie Knights (a troupe of splendorous rogues, whose acute analyses of the most delicate nuances to be found in the realm of the bad movie gives me much occasion to chuckle my organs raw, armed as they are to the molars with piercing witticisms and a talent for the strategic use of pronouns) gives us these wise words of definition: “[The Sly Sly Stallonify is] when an actor performs on a level so powerfully wretched that everyone surrounding him (even painfully mediocre and down-right bad actors) seems to have been touched by the Thespian Gods”.

When I was first introduced to the marvels of the Bad Movie Knights (via electronic correspondence with Michael Dudikoff-enthusiast Ryan) I was instantly struck with the mighty row of heads that welcomes all into their domain – not only a Shatner and Van Damme (the obvious icons), but a Busey too, and flashing his behemoth choppers as only he can. A good first impression was made.

Some delving into the vegetation of an extensive review section and I was most astonished by the systemic examination of cinematic tropes that had long-exited my memory. I could feel my frontal lobe glow and snuggle in a puddle of minor chords as I was reminded of the show-tune mastery evident in Hudson Hawk (alongside it’s 1991 compatriot Last Boy Scout, the most under-rated Willis flick the other side of North), and I was standing ablaze at the mention of the Double Deuce club in Roadhouse, the true source of all my many utopian ideals. Granted, the inclusion of Videodrome and Bring It On, both certified classics in their respective genres, raised my eyebrows twelve inches or so. But the greatest thinkers in history were inevitably iconoclasts, so we’ll let a few indiscretions walk on by, as the song so eloquently put it.

Then I discovered the glossary section. Such a smorgasbord of the most profound and startling terminological delineations I could rarely have begun to dream of, but there it was, being shone out the front of a LCD and blinding me with mirth. I genuinely had to get up and go for a walk around the block after encountering Biehn Screened. Were even half the population blessed with this level of incisiveness, the world would be a paradise, complete with rolling pastures of Dalton and walls laced with the insight of The Ironside Agenda. Dreams normally require but a fraction of this sort of profundity, but in this instance each of the wonderfully crafted technical labels is a sine qua non in its own right to something grand and beautiful.

To return to the Sly Sly Stallonify: this particular neologism had smitten me with its depth and range – especially surprising considering the brevity in which it is dealt on the website. I tried to hold off the dismissals of esotericism as passers-by, confused by some of the larger words in the text, yelled pseudo-maxims such as: “Why, what about Lundgren? Rocky Four it was, ya know, Rocky Takes on Bolshevism, Stallone is the Cold War!”

This nonsense forced me to relocate to a place where I could study the subtleties of the concept in quiet meditation. First, let us return to the basic premise.

The initial proposition is that Stallone, by way of gurning his way through thirty-odd years of cinema, digs such deep abysses in terms of acting quality that this has the consequence of elevating his co-stars to the sort of heights that’d send Jimmy Stewart into convulsions. Fletcher goes on to ruminate as to the dearth of Oscar-winning actors cast next to and around Stallone, “because by comparison they look like geniuses” (my emphasis). Stallone’s presence is a kind of parabola, a direct and conspicuous contrast to the figures that accompany him onscreen.

Scrapping away the layers and uncovering another pale shade of Stallone, one would be tempted to explain this in terms of a Hegelian Dialectic. Stallone would clearly be the thesis, his co-star/s the antithesis, and the synthesis would be the formation of the levels that, I think, seem to typify the Sly Sly Stallonify. But if this is to be accepted, is not ascribing to Stallone the status of primary condition, like a primordial soup of slurred one-liners, truncating the true proactive functioning of his role in the event?

To unearth a conclusion to this predicament, it is necessary to wrench discussions out to the arena of observable phenomena.

I can’t help but have my thoughts drift off to a place that posits an idea that Fletcher here is preoccupied with a Stallone lost in bygone years, when the man made films that received sequels, many sequels. Films like Rambo and Rocky, films now long-sucked into the quicksand of temporality. Can I envisage scenes from the ironically-titled Daylight slipping in and out of Fletcher's consciousness as he laid down the foundations for this epic philosophical notion?

I’m afraid no can be my only answer. I may be incorrect, and if so would welcome any riposte that one with the knowledge may desire to mount. Yet, the Sly Sly Stallonify is bogged down in a cinema that faded from the horizon before even Lundgren got his directorial career catalysed. Quotes from Tango and Cash reside behind every sentence and Over The Top’s brawling thumbs smack an end onto every declaration in sight. That’s not to state a criticism, but the Sly Sly Stallonify is such an eighties-Stallone conception.

Glancing furiously at the titles imprinted on the nineties-Stallone, especially those permeating the middle years, I can’t help but observe a dramatic evolution in effect, something driving old notions into new notions, and new notions giving birth to baby notions, and these younger notions growing up into notions with juvenile records. Bulbous notions these are, and to hell with anyone who thinks they can tame them.

But anyway, 1993 to 1996 presents itself as the crux of Stallone’s filmography, from Cliffhanger to Daylight. Consider Gabe Walker (Stallone) in the former (that is, if you can take your eyes off Michael Rooker being a good guy for once). Gabe’s main foe is not, as is advertised, John Lithgow, for to think so is sure-fire intellectual suicide. No, his real nemesis is Craig Fairbrass (hereafter known as Dan from Eastenders). Climbing all those mountains, amongst all that white and with the recollections of her from Golden Girls cleaning his gun with the dishes, Stallone had it hard in that film; in many ways Dan from Eastenders was just another, albeit immense, rock for this Sisyphus to lug up the vertical.

Dan from Eastenders, spewing wafts of menace from his crinkly chops, was relentless in his endeavour to meet Stallone down at the body identification confluence, bouncing from knoll to knoll with a panorama of his prey’s swollen eyes perpetually painted on his mental canvas. Even after his body died, Dan from Eastenders still tried to destroy the name on the DVD cover. But who noticed this? No one it seems. They all thought he was dead, but no, t’was a lie I tell you.

What does all this mean? What sort of absurd idea is being ushered in here?

Well, if you feel so inclined, you can call this the next stage of the Sly Sly Stallonify. You can call it that, except it’s a bit of a mouthful. I prefer to use the term, Stallonification. This can be read as the point at which the mighty chasm, previously only afflicting Stallone and, in fact, having beneficial results for his co-stars, begins to become shallow, the flanks of the parabola begin to even out, and thus all are engulfed by a miasma of shitty acting. So prevalent and all-encompassing this force is that even those actors who would have, in the years antedating 1990, surpassed Stallone with ease, are now brought into equilibrium with his stench of mediocrity.

Another example: in Judge Dredd, Stallone is supposedly the law, he even says so himself. As Anthrax sang back in the day: “Law, it’s what he stands for, crime’s his only enemy and he’s going to war”. But is crime really his only enemy? Isn’t the truth that judgement is refracted onto all others from this nexus of widescreen grimaces? Stallonification can in this way be considered a war on all the filmic arts, where Stallone’s presence is like a rambunctious gravity tugging everyone down till they’re residing somewhere near to his navel.

But Judge Dredd’s affliction was not simply limited to the thespian artefacts contracted to spend time in its den. The film was also overloaded with subtext pertaining to a critique along Foucauldian lines of power, discipline, judiciary and coercive law. But where was all that in the final film? Wedged under Stallone’s burgeoning girth I can only assume.

In Demolition Man we are face-to-face with the hideous results of Stallonification once again. To have Bob Gunton beaten down as if he never appeared in Broken Arrow, not only offends me, but makes a mockery of the whole concept of mid-90s action cinema. And that isn’t easy – I’m still waiting for someone to perform that exhaustive study that will trace the connections between Dogme ’95 and Hollywood’s contemporaneous action spectacles; Eraser/Festen, most natural dyad I’ve ever seen. Demolition Man also has Sandra Bullock, but before she got all fast while she was sleeping; and who is she in this motion picture? A vacuous reference to Brave New World? Indeed.

Stallonification is oppressive. Stallonification is pernicious. Stallonification is malevolent. Stallonification is brutal. Stallonification is uncompromising.

The bright side to this is that, thus far at least, Stallonification has not extended beyond the bounds of the movie frame, it remains safely incarcerated in the formal properties of a few talkies from the nineties cinema of Sylvester Stallone. However, and that is the point of precariousness, have we already progressed to a new mutation? What have these past seven years brought about with regards to new variations on this formula?

Peering through the mists of the early-to-mid noughties, I would dare say that worries can be left hung up, perhaps beside your favourite trilby, or adjacent to an umbrella. But with plentiful journalistic interest getting shoved onto Stallone’s saggy jowls in recent months (what with Rocky VI emerging), I would be unsettled and brimming with dread as to the unknown repercussions of another, new stage in the viral mechanisms of Stallone’s career - a stage that could be growing in our midst right now.

As John Spartan in Demolition Man so poetically phrased it: “You’re gonna regret this the rest of your life…both seconds of it”. But which second are we in Stallone, tell us which one, you bastard!