Friday, December 17, 2010

PRIVATE LESSONS

(1981; d: Alan Myerson)

Whatever precious little intellectual curiosity I possess usually wakes up with me, often savoring that tall cup of coffee (along with the morning headlines) as much as I do, but begins to wane several hours before I lose consciousness. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule -- like whenever a good FRONTLINE or NOVA airs on PBS -- but usually I’m flatlining by nine or ten at night, ready to crawl into whichever squalid hole I’ve dug for myself, you know, entertainment-wise.
It’s often while submerged in this tawdry, facile mental abyss -- roughly, my take on meditation -- that I might watch something I haven’t seen in years that I have pleasant or quite possibly ludicrous memories of in an attempt to channel some former version of myself at whom I might be able to wink and nod and bump elbows with before I ultimately become disenfranchised and attempt to fully extricate myself from any knowledge thereof... There was a point to all this, I think.

Anyways, sometimes when I settle into couch potato mode, I find myself wondering what cognitive disorder I may have been suffering from at the point in my life when I found reruns of THREE’S COMPANY to be endlessly amusing. I mean, did I ever really watch GROWING PAINS on a regular basis? So, as dumb a kid as I was, I don’t always trust my memories and even disavow certain cultural anomalies from the 80’s specifically because I’d liked them so much.

One of the most vivid and peculiar childhood memories I have was of a movie I’d caught on cable at a very young age and was absolutely mesmerized by, even though I knew next to nothing about sex or love (and still can’t figure the latter). PRIVATE LESSONS had everything you could hope for to hold the attention of your average 6 year old boy.
Oh, to be a rich boy! I often ponder how wonderful it could’ve been… To wade through seas of silk, groping that vulgar, bulging stock portfolio while fending off the advances of the luscious new French maid your father just hired -- not a care in the world except for the inevitable blushing caused by all that delightful cooing from said eager froggy maid. It could’ve been great! Do you hear me, GOD?! It could have been great! (sobs/gulps/dodges inexplicable electrical storm in living room)

Beginning at a high school graduation party where “Hot Legs” (by Rod Stewart) shrilly blares on, we witness the affluent, lily-white local teens spasmodically shake and strut their Caucasian-thing in a vain, losing effort to prove their groove. Of course, if your rich and white, who cares if you can dance? This is of little consequence to teenaged voyeurs Philly (Eric Brown) and Sherman (Patrick Piccininni), who straddle the rooftop with binoculars in order to gain a bird’s eye view of the guest of honor, Sherman’s hot blond sister, Joyce, who hops in the pool fully-clothed with her hunky beau, then gets booted from the party for their subsequent hot and heavy make-out session.

The boys then track her down to a nearby bathroom as she changes out of her wet clothes, with Philly praising the heavens as their efforts finally seem to be paying off. However, his bliss is short-lived as prissy Miss Phipps (Meridith Baer), a rather fetching young teacher at their school, catches him ogling Joyce through the window and gives him a lecture about his interest in older girls (and tellingly neglects to admonish his being a peeping tom).
It’s soon apparent Philly is battling some ungodly hormones, a fact no doubt exacerbated when a lovely new French housekeeper named Miss Mallow (Sylvia Kristel, the international superstar of EMMANUELLE) is hired by his father. And therein lies the essence of the plot, threadbare and throbbing like a sore thumb, though don’t confuse this to be in any way a slight. Quite the contrary, I think narratives as simple as this surely represent the kind of purity of intent and vision that is rare with the preponderance of swill-infused, target market-reduced convolutions we otherwise call movies nowadays.
We next find the boys making acquaintance with the alluring Miss Mallow, who is considerably more appealing than any other maid in the neighborhood, a distinction not lost on Philly. As luck would have it, his father will be away on business for three weeks, leaving the precocious fifteen year old the charge of the snide, haughty chauffeur, Lester (Howard Hesseman, TV's "Johnny Fever", tooling for range...).

There is an instance in which the boys frolic in Sherman’s pool, with Philly verbally contemplating a nude Miss Mallow. I wasn’t going to mention this scene, as it’s rather extraneous and but a fleeting moment, yet for some reason I need to reconcile the point in which Sherman splashes his sister Joyce (Pamela Bryant), who walks off in a huff. There, that feels better.


Riding home from the airport in his chauffeur driven limousine, Philly can’t help but notice how much the world has changed since his father departed, how strange and wondrous this liberation is, a theme bore home as he’s hypnotized by a stirring blue jean commercial on the limo’s TV set.
During their first real chat together, Miss Mallow catches Philly off-guard in a revealing exchange. “You mean your previous housekeepers have been elderly women mostly?” “Mm-hmm” “That must not have been too interesting for you.” “What do you mean?” “It must not have been too interesting for a young man of… fifteen, is it?” “Going on 16. I’m not sure I got your point. What do you mean?” “It must not have been too interesting to sit across from your elderly housekeepers and look up their dresses like you’re looking up mine right now.”
When Lester takes her shopping, we’re treated to a most illuminating montage as our young hero plunders her lingerie drawer set to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Fantasy”. One can‘t help but sing along… “As you stay, for the play, fantasy has in store for you, a glowing light will see you through, it’s your day, shining day, all your dreams come true… as you glide, in your stride, with the wind as you fly away, give a smile from your lips and say, are you free (?), yes I’m free, now I’m on my way… come and see, victory, in a land called fantasy, loving life for you and me, to be whole, to your soul ~ is ecstasy…”
 
Riding into town with Lester behind the wheel, a most insidious subplot is revealed. It seems Lester is actually a rather dastardly fellow, threatening Miss Mallow into having sex with the boy in some kind of ridiculous blackmail plot against Philly’s father. To attempt to wrap your head around this preposterous conspiracy will do you absolutely no good. PRIVATE LESSONS just might have achieved perfection if not for this silly, heavy-handed contrivance.
Soon Philly’s obsessing over Miss Mallow, attempting to spy a glimpse of her at every turn, setting up a whimsical stalker montage resulting in wacky hijinks aplenty, including tumbling over a bush while riding his bike and falling into the pool when she’s startled awake by the sprinkler system, topless and sunning herself. Though some might find this behavior rather unsettling, with Philly taking the kind of perfunctory liberties that might otherwise constitute a weighty sex offender file nowadays, all you need remind yourself is that he’s a typical boy and puberty is a relentlessly cruel, insufferable bitch. Miss Mallow, of course, doesn’t mind at all, gently chiding his efforts… “Hard day on the old bike, huh?”
When she catches him peeking into her window later that evening, she invites him in, a moment that all but shouts from the dark sky above, “Hallelujah!”. Okay, he’s in… breathe deeply, relax. “If you wanted to watch me undress so badly, why didn’t you tell me?” Thunderstruck and stammering like Porky Pig, Philly reluctantly agrees to watch her striptease, setting up perhaps the most memorable scene of the film, one that emphatically reaffirms my faith in the magic of the cinema.
Miss Kristel, seeming more matronly and less demure than she had a decade previous when she’d brought the world to it’s knees with the French softcore X-rated blockbuster, EMMANUELLE, is still nearly every bit as enticing. And Eric Brown, appearing as fresh-faced and wide-eyed as a newborn chick facing the glowering embers of spring for the very first time, is terrific nonetheless, proving himself a consummate master of pantomime in the face of certain defloration.

In the company of the fully bare, exquisitely fleshed Miss Mallow, Philly’s anxieties get the best of him as he all but bolts from her bedroom when she asks him to stay. Saving face, he rushes to Sherman’s house to boast of the encounter. “…she takes off all her clothes - everything, and I mean everything.” “So then what?” “So then I came here to tell you.” Sherman, ever the voice of reason, shrieks incredulously, “Are you kidding?!” Philly, knowing full well he dropped the ball, can only muster, “…and I suppose you screw your housekeeper every goddamn night!” Shaking his head, smiling coolly, Sherman counters with as watertight a riposte as has ever been uttered from one indignant virgin to another… “Not every night.”
The next morning, Miss Mallow asks Philly if he’s embarrassed about last night, inviting him back to her room again later that evening. “We could talk…”, a point flagrantly embellished as she smiles seductively while repeatedly zipping and unzipping the fly on a pair of his jeans she’s ironing.
When the boys go to the local country club, Sherman dispenses free sex advice during a particularly sloppy game of tennis. Oh, and Ed Begley Jr. is their butt-swatting tennis instructor. The less said, the better…

“How come you didn’t touch ‘em?” “I didn’t know how.” “You just grab ‘em like this and squeeeeze.”


Later, Philly finds his mark luxuriating by candlelight in his father’s bathtub… “Would you like to join me?” Channeling Peter Brady’s puberty, Philly crackles, “Would I like to what?” Somehow, he manages his way into the tub with her, shrieking like a frightened schoolgirl when her hand dives under the surface. Chasing him into the next room, she apologizes for being so forward. “Will you forgive me?” “Okay.” “Prove it.” “How?” “By sleeping with me tonight.” Inexplicably, he declines. “Why Not?” “Well, I tried it once before in summer camp and know for a fact that you can’t get a good night’s sleep when someone is in the same bunk as you. Well, thank you. It’s been a lovely evening.”
"Did you touch ‘em?” “What?” “Her knockers! Did you touch them?” “Well, sort of…” “Did you or didn’t you?” “Well, uh, not with my hands, with my elbows.” “Doesn’t that get broads hot, touching their knockers, even with your elbows?” When Sherman blurts he thinks Miss Mallow is a whore for bathing with him, Philly rushes to defend her honor. “Lot’s of people take baths together!” “Like who?” “The Japanese… you said so yourself. (with great uncertainty) Maybe she’s part Japanese?”
After plenty more in the way of comic mishap -- including a deal-breaking marriage proposal -- Philly finally seems to gather his bearings. Of course, none of this would’ve been possible without Sherman’s sound advice and indispensable tirades. “You what?! You asked her to marry you? What are you, SICK?!”
At this point I realized this was no longer just about Philly‘s excitable hormones. This thing is much bigger now -- it’s one for the angels, for all the hapless, ungainly ne’er do-wells like Sherman the world over -- a soul-rending conquest for the screechy, virginal rich boy in all of us.
Dutifully accompanied by a litany of soft rock’s most grievous offenders from the era (including the likes of Randy Van Warmer’s “Just When I Need You the Most”, Air Supply’s “Lost in Love” and Rod Stewart’s “You’re In My Heart”), Philly’s mythic passage into burgeoning adulthood had proven at least one thing to me. Sometimes, if you’re fortunate and willing enough to remain young at heart, the lost magic of yore might be glimpsed again, if only for a moment, until the harsh rays of the morning sun and clamoring call of the alarm clock remind you once again just how crummy this growing up thing actually turned out to be.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Of Filth and Fluff

So I’m driving home from work listening to “Kick It Out” by Heart (yeah, so?) and get this nagging feeling that my dying blog has still got a pulse and may actually be worth resuscitating… the feeling fades when I get home and hop in the shower. I’ll just keep working on these scripts, I tell myself, something that might actually help me pay the bills someday. Then I settle down on the couch and take a look at the swelling clutter in my living room and wonder exactly what’s happened to my brain over the last few weeks. While I’ll steer clear of details, sometimes I give in to strange feckless impulses and on a whim say, “yeah, to hell with it all…”

I mull over what to watch tonight while I numb myself into oblivion and pretend life is fabulous and “it’s all about perspective, baby” and whatever else I tell myself while contemplating a wild night on the couch avoiding my phone and email and whatever else is demanding a sane, sober proclamation of “yes, I’m here and I care”. And I click on the TV set… oh, what the heck has happened to bad culture? It used to be abominable, but in ways that made you smile. Now it’s simply hateful. I mean, the thought of rich housewives scandalizing their families on national TV sounds endearing enough, but when you actually plug into reality TV nowadays, their mere humiliation isn’t enough. I want blood. I want to see a Jersey housewife shoot her best friend over a fashion-related faux pas, then hold her snotty teen daughter hostage while snipers assemble outside. I want not to hate my television set.
So I scramble to my refrigerator and notice I have several beers inside and wonder what goes well with cheap, oversized cans of stale pisswater and decide, you know, something, anything that’ll help me forget how dreary weeknights can get. I thank the heavens I live alone and thank them again that I bought too much beer last weekend and wonder if I should take any precautions for my inevitable hangover in the morning and nod and think I’ll do it before I go to sleep. And then I wonder again what to watch. You know what would be cool right now? HARDBODIES. Yeah, that would kinda rock... Though I’ve many dozens of shitty sex flicks on dvd, (of course) I’ve yet to procure a copy of this mentally deficient, once formidable case of blue balls. Hmmm… so what else? I immediately think EMMANUELLE, but then quickly second guess that one. I don’t actually want to run the risk of getting turned on or seeing anything truly “beautiful”, I want something rather brainless and maybe a bit offensive that might cause me to laugh and point at my TV set through a beer haze.
“Oh, the one with what’s his face!?” I remember YOUNG LADY CHATTERLY 2 and figure I’ll risk getting turned on by Sybil Danning as long as I get to watch Adam West feign indifference and fumble around with a butterfly net while people screw everywhere in plain sight. Then I realize my copy is on video and consider transferring it to dvd-r, but can’t do it tonight because then I can’t rewind when Harlee McBride throws herself at Adam West and he doesn’t seem to notice because he’s too caught up in lecturing about a rare species of butterfly that apparently exists exclusively on her property and he can’t catch because he keeps tripping over couples screwing on her lawn. Damned you, Comcast! I mean, what’s the point of cable anymore?!
Then I remember PRIVATE LESSONS with Sylvia Kristel and ponder watching her seduce a 12 year old boy with an Adam Rich haircut set to Rod Stewart’s “Heart and Soul” and my mind is made up. So in it goes and I smile and slam a 22 ounce beer before the opening credits finish rolling and my phone rings and it’s my girlfriend. Staring at it blankly, I consider the obvious, but answer it anyways because… ‘cause my bullshit conscience dictates so. As it turns out, she’s had a bad day at work and needs to vent and I tell her to hold on a sec as I snap open another double deuce, which she hears and quips “oh, you’re drinking tonight?” I consider telling her it’s an iced tea, but foolishly blurt out “yeah… now, what were you saying?”. So 40 minutes and a heck of a lot of grief later, I realize I’ve watched half the movie muted and I can’t possibly go back and watch it again without experiencing flashbacks of that conversation about her “such a lousy day”.
So, with the clock winding down I begin tearing through boxes of dvds and notice ASSAULT OF THE KILLER BIMBOS and shudder some, but then run past THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN and thank my lucky stars, do the funky chicken and run back out to my living room to settle things. I’m giddy now as I pop it in and remember the scene where our hero can’t unlock the fat girl’s bra and then the boys all get crabs from that wolfish hooker and think how extraordinarily fortunate I am as I crack open another beer… ah, bliss.

If only it were meant to be… Twenty minutes in I’m all smiles and warm and my head feels fuzzy when the picture freezes, then starts back up again. No… NOOOOOO! It plays for another 15 seconds before settling into a Peruvian death-lock from which there is no escape. Incredulous at the unfairness of it all, I eject the disc and inspect it momentarily for scratches, only to find it in pristine condition, which all but forces me to curse the heavens and my dumb luck and whatever else is likely responsible for this gross injustice. So what else is there to do? Looking at the clock, I take a deep breath, finish the rest of my beer and surrender myself hopelessly to indignity as I head off to my room to watch some porn. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

BURIAL GROUND: THE NIGHTS OF TERROR

(1981; d- Andrea Bianchi)
There are bad dreams, intimating the unsettling, digging well into the shadowed recesses of guilt, denial and secret fears long suppressed. And then there are nightmares… the blackest regions of the subconscious mind, the only place where we race not only for our lives, but for our sanity - and generally the only place where our instincts to survive are given to regular practice. We do not choose our nightmares, they choose us -- and take us to the only places capable of really, truly horrifying us.
I dream of the dead… of hollowed eyes and hungry, grasping hands, willful only that I succumb to death’s ultimate mystery. They’ve occupied my nightmares for many years and in various guises, though one recurring element seems determined to haunt me until the very end. I find myself, alone, near a cabin in the remotest woods at dusk, following something like a path, cognitive only of the encroaching dead -- and my own private hell. When I’d first seen BURIAL GROUND, I was quite young and susceptible and one component in particular took up somnolent refuge in my mind‘s eye -- the half-mummified, maggot and worm infested walking corpses. They’ve since become the permanent residents of that dark, lonely place in the woods.
Filmed near Rome on a shoestring by Andrea Bianchi (STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER, WHAT THE PEEPER SAW), BURIAL GROUND was a shoddy, depraved attempt to both outdo in voracity and cash in on the success of Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1979). Though it shamelessly attempts to replicate one of the most infamous gore scenes from ZOMBIE, it has become a much beloved cult hit on it’s own rather uncanny set of terms. It is at once cheap and lurid and unintentionally hilarious, yet it’s also a cryptic, ghastly shocker that strikes more and more like a nightmare with each viewing. Laying an atmosphere full of crudely surreal psychological rudiments - from it’s wobbly, drunken hand-held photography to the grim, warbling cacophony of it’s interminably strange electronic score (counterbalanced by sleazy Euro-jazz early on) - a very peculiar table is set.
Beginning at the secluded country estate of a professor who has somehow resurrected the dead (“I’m the only one who knows the secret…”), we witness his descent into a crypt where he is the first to meet and succumb to their inscrutable hunger. “No, stand back! I‘m your friend!” This first scene should serve as fair warning to anyone adverse to gut-munching disembowelments (of which there are several). So with little in the way of explanations, we’re just to understand (before the credits even roll) that the dead walk and they won’t halt to eat you, even if you otherwise claim to be an old chum.
When the professor’s weekend guests arrive, they’re joyous for their lush accommodations and immediately seeking quarters for which to bed down. Though many European horror films maintain a healthier than necessary libido, BURIAL GROUND just seethes with preternatural longings of the flesh. Three couples arrive, with one (um…) child, and we’re to bear witness to every blessed one of them grope and paw one another into frenzied delirium. In the absence of their austere, forbidding host, this is now a place for lovers.
Or so it would seem, if you’d already forgotten the professor’s rather grisly demise. As little to nothing is afforded to character development, the lustful commingle-lers might otherwise be arbitrarily designated a, b, c, d, e and f… I’ll attempt to provide names when necessary. And then there’s the young boy, Michael (Peter Bark, the adult “person of short stature” who portrays the rather unusual lad)… His odd fascination, disgust and jealousy with the lascivious attention provided his mother, Evelyn (Mariangela Giordano), by her wholly unappealing boyfriend, George (Roberto Caporali), instructs much of the narrative’s focal point early on, a bewildering plot device that becomes much, much stranger as the story progresses.
Seconds after their afternoon arrival, they’re ushered in by a couple of servants and presto -- it’s night and they’re all in their respective bedrooms, readying themselves for lovemaking. As these things often go, there is a healthy dose of playful banter preceding the act… James (Simone Mattioli), the squinty playboy with the X-rated mustache, exudes rare Machiavellian √©lan as he tells his mistress, Leslie (Antonella Antinori), “You look just like a little whore. But I like that in a girl.” To say these scenes feel sleazy might be a bit of an understatement. I mean, I like having my heartstrings tugged as much as the next guy, but, you know, wash your hands before you start fondling them in that manner.
Just as things approach their, um... culmination, the creaky door to Evelyn’s room flings open, a slowly creeping shadow revealing itself to be Michael, who is indignant as his nude mother springs off her jilted lover. Michael’s lingering captivation with his mother’s breathtaking form will give pause to most, begging the question, “What is this crap? What the hell did we get ourselves into?!”
The following morning, we find the group gathered briefly at breakfast, then pairing off to explore the grounds - and each other - with Mark (Gianluigi Chirizzi) and Janet (the lovely, vibrant Karin Well) opting for an impromptu modeling session in the gardens. “You’re turning into a great little model.” “Then I deserve a raise in pay.” “You’re getting a raise from me, alright, but it has nothing to do with money.”
Inside the house, the light bulbs begin flickering, then inexplicably explode one by one, repeatedly startling the maid and butler - another in a long line of chuckle-worthy moments. Outside, Mark and Janet’s fiery, torrid embrace is broken by a particularly nasty looking corpse, scaring Mark back into his corduroys.
Meanwhile, George and Evelyn are perusing some ancient relics in a storage building nearby when young Michael makes a rather strange observation... “Mama… this cloth. It smells of death.” “It’s nothing but an old rag, Michael. You get the silliest ideas in that nutty head of yours.” Seconds later, the dead shamble into the room, breaking for George and his appallingly ill-fitting red shirt like bulls to a matador. The extremely gruesome nature of the ensuing carnage is liable to have you either scrambling for the remote or cheering for more.
Off in the gardens somewhere, James and his meticulous porn-stache chew on Leslie’s lower lip until they are set upon by several over-ripe ghouls. Leslie- “Oh! What are they?!” James- “Monsters… Monsters!”
While also given to chase, Janet and Mark’s plight is exacerbated when she unwittingly hops into a massive, gaping bear trap. Though one can’t be too sure it was intended so, her dubbed-over cries of agony sound conspicuously orgasmic, further embellished by Mark’s feeble, prolonged attempts to free her ankle as the ravening dead close in.
After several futile bids to open the trap, Mark grabs a pitchfork to fend them off, then essentially hands it over to the first ghoul he confronts. As heroes go, Mark, like the rest of the men in BURIAL GROUND, proves woefully inadequate.
With the help of James and Leslie, Janet’s leg is freed and the group make their way back to the house. Now comes the obvious question. Why don’t they just hop in their cars and hightail it the hell out of there? Well, duh… because the dead have stationed several guards near the cars, that’s why.
As darkness falls, the living dead prove themselves particularly cunning adversaries, especially when one of them hides behind a potted plant as the maid peeks out from a window upstairs. With pinpoint accuracy, the eyeless ghoul tosses a crude dart into her hand, lodging it into the wooden window frame as another raises a scythe over her head to complete the awful deed.
The situation grows ever more dire when the dead begin collecting tools for which to break down the heavy doors of the sprawling villa. When that initially fails, one of them takes to scaling the walls… As Leslie heads off to find bandages for Janet’s badly bruised ankle, she’s ambushed by the cat-like fiend, setting up a far lesser imitation of Lucio Fulci’s infamous eye-gore scene from ZOMBIE.
After several of them break in, wreaking all manner of havoc, the weary guests begin to come apart at the seams. Perhaps feeling the need to amp up the strange, BURIAL GROUND takes a wild left turn as Michael and his mother comfort one another on a couch. “Mama, I can’t stand it anymore. Please let me stay close to you, Mama.” “Yes, dear… please forgive me for ever taking you to this horrible place.” “Of course, Mama.” After kissing her on both cheeks, then several times on the mouth, confusion settles in. What is he doing to his mother?
Whoa… wait a second. Where is that hand going?
Are they moaning? And why is she stroking his hair, clearly encouraging him?
“Oh, Mama. I love you so much.” “I used to feel near you. I used to touch you. When I was a baby, you always used to hold me to your breast.” Too late, she begins to realize what’s happening…
And his fiendish little hand digs deeper yet, earning him a vicious slap.
“What’s wrong? I’m your son!”  Uh… just pinch yourself, check your bearings and keep repeating, “It’s only a movie, It’s only a movie”.
If you’re confused or the least bit traumatized reading this, imagine my reaction when I first saw this at the age of twelve… with my mother, brother and step-family (two brothers, a sister and their father). The next time it was my turn to pick at the video store, my step-father had taken a good, long look at my choice. I think he wanted to be sure I hadn’t wound up with another one of those “eye-talian jobs”, as he so thoughtfully put it.
BURIAL GROUND had bombarded and corrupted my adolescent psyche with thoughts undreamed of, with fears unworldly… and desires unfathomable. Um, just kidding.  I hope you can take some comfort in the knowledge that I only like my mom "as a friend". (shudders)
Though I wish I could promise that director Andrea Bianchi had halted this inexplicable Freudian entanglement right then and there, I cannot. Poor pretty Evelyn, whose only crime was lookin’ good, is not out of the woods yet. And neither are the rest of them, for the dead in BURIAL GROUND march to their own drummer -- weaving a nightmare so dreadful, so apocalyptic, it becomes almost biblically cryptic in it’s hopelessness.