Movies watched, January 1, 2008 to January 26, 2008
Sins of the Fleshapoids, Mike Kuchar, 1965
The Secret of Wendel Samson, Mike Kuchar, 1966
The Craven Sluck, Mike Kuchar, 1967
Mike Kuchar and his twin brother, George, are often credited as pioneers of underground, low-fi cinema, having created dozens of campy, experimental films from age 12 and on (George seems to have continued making films into the present, whereas Mike’s credits end with 1971’s Tales of the Bronx). Sins of the Fleshapoids is a campy sci-fi film, set a million years into the future, where androids significantly outnumber people, and yet they are employed as slaves to the few humans left on the planet. Like The Tenth Victim (perhaps it was even influenced a little by it, as the two films were released in the same year—scroll down a little for a write-up on that one), the costumes and set design depict a swanky 60s version of the future, here with ancient Greco-Roman overtones, in which the last remaining people on Earth wear ridiculous leaf and flower costumes and sprawl out on leopard print sheets while decadently sucking down grapes from the vine—it’s like a freaky, psychedelic bacchanal.
At the opening of the film, unbeknownst to these hubristic humans, the android slaves have developed senses and emotions—and surprise, surprise, they don’t want to be slaves anymore. Xar (who wears a helmet with chin strap and a leotard) has fallen in love with Melenka, and together they stage an uprising against their cruel masters. One of my favorite lines of the film is uttered by Melenka, in perhaps one of the most bizarre sex scenes portrayed on film: “We are robots…and yet we are in love”—they then have sex by waving their fingers at each other and generating an electrical current (a particularly potent current, I guess, because the final scene depicts Melenka writhing around the floor until a tiny robot toddles out from between her legs).
Sins of the Fleshapoids features crayon drawings (in this case, of demonlike figures) in the opening credits, somewhat reminiscent of something you’d find in a bored, geeky high school student’s notebook (and maybe that’s not so far off the mark, as the Kuchars were in their early 20s when they made this one). The crayon typeface recurs throughout the film in the form of word bubbles popping out of the characters’ mouths. There’s no spoken dialogue otherwise—besides a voiceover that’s kind of hard to listen to—and I love that they resolved this technical dilemma in a manner that was both functional and stylistically interesting.
My favorite of the three films is The Craven Sluck (also the shortest of the three), in which Adele, a bored and unhappy housewife, stages an unsuccessful suicide attempt, then meets a man named Morton (played by George Kuchar) while out walking her dog. (In a brilliant cut that I can only imagine was unplanned, in one moment Adele and Morton are embracing, and the next we see the dog taking a shit on the beach.) Adele plans a secret rendezvous with Morton, but then he meets someone else who’s hotter than her and calls it off. She’s furious but doesn’t have time to tell him off because Earth is suddenly invaded by flying saucers and she’s instantly vaporized (this last part is so sudden and unexpected that it’s totally hilarious). The Craven Sluck employs creative opening credits using a voiceover narrator, which adds in humorous little witticisms like “Marilyn Marmoset, spelled like the South American tree monkey.”
In contrast, my least favorite of the three films is The Secret of Wendel Samson. I’m pretty sure that Wendel’s secret is that he’s gay, hence the large fake spider web they frequently show him stuck to (to illustrate how he’s caught in a “web” of lies, maybe?—either way it’s pretty silly). The soundtrack to this one features some strange robotic noises similar to that of Sins of the Fleshapoids, except this isn’t a sci fi movie, so they seem incongruously placed (although in a way it's oddly appropriate). The film has its comedic moments though, such as when Wendel is picked up by a random stranger off the street, who robotically offers him a cup of coffee—seconds later we see Wendell and the stranger lying in bed with their shirts off, with Wendell, cup in hand, ardently proclaiming “this coffee is great!”
These films remind me a bit of the early work of John Waters (who is said to have been influenced by the Kuchars), particularly in the trashy aesthetic, low budget production style, and recurring cast of actors (who, like Waters’ Dreamlanders, seem like they were probably all friends who hung out in the same circle). They’re ultimately different styles, with the Kuchars leaning towards the science fiction camp, but I like to think they share a kindred spirit, fundamentally of the same nature.
The Tenth Victim, Elio Petri, 1965
This odd, futuristic film reads like a satire of reality television, but clairvoyantly so, as it was released in the 60s. In this world, people can sign up for “The Big Hunt,” in which they are assigned a human target to hunt down and kill. Their prey is notified that they are now a “victim,” but not given the identity of their hunter. Whoever survives ten hunts is awarded a highly coveted prize (only fifteen people in the world have survived all ten). The rarely achieved tenth hunt receives corporate sponsorship, turned into a huge, vulgar spectacle with dancers and round the clock interviews, all televised for the viewers at home. The hunt is also dragged out for the sake of these TV viewers—in this case, the huntress, Caroline (Ursula Andress), could easily have shot her victim (played by Italian film star Marcello Mastroianni, whose previous credits include La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, The Organizer, and so on) on her first attempt, as she finds him carelessly out in the open. But instead, she toys with him, pretending to seduce him, perhaps a little careless herself.
The theory behind “The Big Hunt” seems to be that if people are assigned legalized victims, the crime rate will drop. Moreover, only people who have willingly registered may be killed, with no innocent bystanders allowed—if one kills the wrong person, they will receive a 30-year prison sentence, so participants must be absolutely certain they have correctly identified their hunter. One rather humorous scene occurs in front of a police station, in which a woman is shot to death while walking up the steps. The police officers don’t bat an eye, as it is an authorized killing—however, they do rush to give someone a parking ticket.
Other dystopian, 1984-esque plotlines are thrown in, such as the characters’ having to hide their aging parents because they are supposed to turn them over to the state once they reach a certain age. The film generally has a space-age 60s pop feel to it, with a modern jazz score—kind of bizarre, but entertainingly so.
Who Killed the Electric Car?, Chris Paine, 2006
The answer to the question posed by the title seems obvious before you even see the movie: oil companies (electric cars=no need for their product). Car companies and consumers are also to blame, according to this documentary, although I’d say the car companies are a little more in the wrong, as the electric car, or EV1, was barely promoted (I’d certainly never heard of it). In fact, it almost seems as though the car companies were doing everything within their power to keep people from purchasing these products at all. The film portrays the bizarre manner in which GM refused to allow willing customers to buy this merchandise (who ever heard of such a practice?), and then instead of renewing the leases, they confiscated the cars and crushed every last one of them, so that they disappeared without a trace, as if they’d never existed. Granted, people are also extremely resistant to change, as evidenced by the fact that some still don’t believe in global warming (somehow, scientific research is not valid to them). And thus, many people killed the electric car, whether heads of companies, government officials, or reluctant consumers. The film doesn’t so much mourn the loss of a car, but our refusal to initiate positive change.
The Jerk, Carl Reiner, 1979
I was inspired to re-watch The Jerk after reading Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up. The book isn’t the most compelling read—to me, the most interesting parts occurred when Martin discussed his comedic theories, but this comprised only a few pages—but it did trigger some fond memories of one of my favorite comedic films. All of the jokes have an innocence about them, perhaps stemming from the protagonist’s lack of worldliness. Navin Johnson strikes one as kind of a naïf: trusting, optimistic, and maybe a little stupid, but ultimately endearing.
The best scene by far occurs when a sniper randomly selects Navin’s name out of the phone book (“Navin R. Johnson—sounds like a typical bastard.”) and perches on a hilltop across from the gas station where Navin works, shooting at him but hitting cans of motor oil instead. Navin misinterprets these actions at first: “He hates these cans! Stay away from the cans!” Just hearing these lines in my head puts a smile on my face.
The first time I saw this movie was at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin; admission included free pizza in a cup, with Twinkies and Tab as the specials on the menu. Man, that was a great night.
A History of Violence, David Cronenberg, 2005
I find it interesting that the opening scene is somewhat of a red herring. We’re made to believe that the film is about the two characters we encounter here, but while they are indeed the impetus for the story, the catalyst, we never see them again after the first ten minutes or so. We don’t even know anything about them (and neither did the writer, it seems—the actors actually made up their own back stories for their characters). Yet they are nonetheless vital to the film.
The film sparks some intriguing questions about dual identity: can a person live two different lives, with two different personalities, and nonetheless be both of those people?
Sick, Kirby Dick, 1997
Performance artist and self-proclaimed “supermasochist” Bob Flanagan lived far longer than most people diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. As the film suggests, his penchant for bondage may have assisted him in coping with the pain of his disease—not only did S&M allow him to disassociate himself from his illness, but it strengthened him as well, arming him with the resilience to fight it for 43 years (well, okay, he didn’t exactly participate in S&M for all 43 of those years).
Much of the film is difficult to watch—the nail being driven through Bob’s penis still turns my stomach a little whenever I think of it, and I don’t even have one of those!