26th Seattle International Film Festival
Sex, Drugs, and Raging Bull
True, The Seattle International Film Festival is a bit of an endurance test. With five screens and over 250 films to choose from, attending this cinematic equivalent to the New York Marathon is a blur of flashing passes at ushers, negotiating crummy seats after late arrivals, and staying awake during that third film of the day. However, like any challenge, there are rewards to be had for the persistent. Watching its train of images passing by, one can find connections between seemingly unlikely movies. Perhaps they deal with similar subjects, or boast comparable styles. Or perhaps they tell the same stories, using dramatically different approaches.
Such was the case with back-to-back screenings of a re-issued Raging Bull and the current documentary Wadd. Both of these exceptional character studies carve away at pop-culture legends and reveal the deeply flawed personas found slithering beneath the glitz. Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, heralded by many critics as the best American film of the eighties, tells the unwashed tale of middleweight boxing champion Jake Lamotta. Meanwhile, Cass Paley’s Wadd puts porno star John C. Holmes under its microscope and finds an equally epic story anchored by many of the cornerstones that haunt Scorsese’s tortured fighter. Raging Bull is an artful masterpiece of precision editing and cinematography, while Wadd is a rough ‘n tumble collage of smut footage and interviews. Ultimately, however, both movies arrive at the same conclusion, using very different but equally effective techniques.
Raging Bull still projects a go-for-broke attitude, twenty years after its original release. But in retrospect, the movie’s maverick vibe isn’t confined to the brutal, disorienting boxing scenes -- undeniably the best fight footage ever filmed -- that won praise at the time of its release. And it’s not limited to Robert DeNiro’s brilliant character portrayal, in which the actor morphs from lean fighting machine to blubbery human walrus in the span of 129 minutes. Scorsese’s real step off the cliff was his willingness to let scenes linger and play out. When Lamotta initially courts wife-to-be Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he walks her through his shoddy apartment like a nervous real estate agent courting a homebuyer. "There’s the bird," he comments, before noticing that a certain, er, "stillness" haunts the parakeet cage inhabiting a far corner of the grungy abode. "Well, it was a bird," he continues, matter-of-factly. "It’s dead now." As Vickie saunters through this interior decorator’s nightmare, there’s a certain anxiety that reminds us all of those uneasy first dates, when long pauses in conversation seemed like an eternity.
More uncomfortable yet is the scene in which Vickie teases Jake with the promise of sexual foreplay before a big fight: he’s game for a roll in the hay, but reluctant to let such hanky-panky affect his performance in the ring. The scene goes on and on, as the boxer negotiates sex and career, and we’re alarmed at how unusual this type of painfully realistic onscreen intimacy has become. In the age of Armageddon, the current erotic standard has Ben Affleck lamely shuffling animal crackers across Liv Tyler’s torso in what has got to be the most ludicrous love scene ever filmed.
Meanwhile, a second viewing of Raging Bull tunes us into the often-overlooked humor in Paul Schrader’s salty script. After losing his first fight in 1941 to Jimmy Reeves, Lamotta takes out his frustrations on his first wife. "Don’t overcook it," he demands as his much-abused spouse fries a steak in their cramped kitchen. "You overcook it, then it defeats its own purpose." Meanwhile, his brother Joey (played by a never better Joe Pesci) negotiates a meeting between Jake and the mob. "If he’s in a good mood, I’ll talk to him," promises Joey to resident goodfella Salvy (a suave Scorsese favorite, Frank Vincent), while his brother smashes dishes and turns over tables upstairs, obviously displeased with his slab of London broil. "Aw, honey," he offers shallowly to his wife after leveling the house, "c’mon -- let’s be friends."
Audiences gave a roar of laughter after this perfectly timed sequence, and consequent giggles emerged any time the incredibly small-minded, macho, sexist siblings try to express themselves. It ain’t pretty, but observing these two dysfunctional louts brings on a larcenic-laced familiarity that grows on you. Watching Jake ‘n Joey is kind of like tuning into Siskel & Ebert: you’re always waiting, perversely, for the bickering to start.
Eventually, however, the laughs are stifled by The Bronx Bull’s descent into hell. The heart of the film emerges as Lamotta’s madonna-whore complex boils over. "Why do you always curse around me?" Jake grumbles, chastising Joey for letting out a cuss word in the presence of Vickie. Like other Scorsese antiheroes Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Tommy (Goodfellas), this possessive schmuck can’t tolerate such pollutants existing in the same air that his long-suffering women breathe. Eventually, Jake’s possessiveness results in a violent crescendo of betrayal, alienation, and -- eventually -- incarceration. Watching the enraged Jake pounding his fists and head into the concrete of a Florida jail still sends chills down a viewer’s spine, as does his final transformation into a weathered nightclub comedian (where he looks suspiciously like William Shatner crooning for pricenet.com). This bull still packs a punch, even into the new millenium.
As rough as Jake Lamotta’s world was, it’s Disneyland compared to the sleazy, predatorial life of John C. Holmes as documented in Wadd. In the alternative world of adult cinema, Holmes was Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Clint Eastwood all wrapped into one during his smut-king reign over the seventies and early eighties, before cocaine and AIDS saw the well-endowed "Elvis Presley of Porn" meet an early demise at age forty-three. Holmes was a naïve Ohio kid who migrated to L.A. as an average Joe blessed with a thirteen-and-a-half-inch appendage. Paul Thomas Anderson, the wunderkind director who based his recent film Boogie Nights on Holmes’ X-rated escapades, accurately summarized Holmes as "a gangly geek with a big dick."
There’s considerable humor generated from Holmes’ one-note talent. "If not for his endowment," laughed an adult-film business associate, "he’d have a hard time getting hired as a truck driver." Bill Amerson, Holmes’ manager, called his larger-than-life organ "a great marketing tool."
Meanwhile, Wadd gives viewers a firsthand look at the rebel porn underground. Porn historian Al Goldstein, a bearded, bearlike presence with considerable comedic charm, outlines the popularity of early seventies sex films like Deep Throat and the almost outlaw subculture that accompanies such productions. These films showed actual insertion -- a daring extreme in an industry previously known for softcore sixties films referred to as "nudie cuties."
"The cops were the bad guys," continued early Holmes loop director Bob Vosse, who resembles an embalmed cross between The Cryptkeeper and Keith Richards. "To shoot these movies, we were always one step ahead. We’d all meet at a restaurant, and go from car to car. The police were always eager to charge us for something, such as ‘conspiracy to commit oral copulation’."
Holmes’ real claim to fame was his "Johnny Wadd" persona: a cop with the street smarts of Shaft, the ruthlessness of Dirty Harry, and the sex life of Fritz the Cat. Bob Chinn, who directed Holmes’ in a string of Wadd films, chuckles as he reflects on his star’s audition. "I asked him what his credentials were," recollected Chinn, "and he, er, showed me his credentials." The director/star combo was a far cry from Scorsese and DeNiro, writing their first script on the back of an envelope. Chinn comments on the quick production-to-distribution time that was associated with such films. "We dredged up $750 dollars to shoot a movie called Flesh of the Lotus," he recalled. "It took one day to shoot the film, which was then produced in less than a week. It was on the market within a week’s time!"
The "crime noir" vibe of Holmes’ Johnny Wadd films, beginning with 1975’s Tell Them Johnny Wadd Was Here, was completely overshadowed by the main character’s bedroom antics. Goofy Kung Fu sequences and laughable chase scenes were a far cry from John Woo. "Wadd shot a gun," says adult film authority William Margold, "but not very well."
Ironically, Holmes would soon become a snitch for the FBI. "He really got into the role of informant," claims Tom Blake of the LAPD. "He would tell us where the productions were being shot." Wadd’s narration comments on the irony of Holmes’ willingness to get X-rated stars busted, just as he was popularizing the adult industry.
Like P.T. Barnum, Holmes would inflate his legend via fabricated stories about turning tricks in Europe as a high-priced gigolo, and of sleeping with 14,000 women. Meanwhile, he claimed to have a degree in physical therapy from UCLA. However, Amerson lets the truth be known by admitting, "the closest he got to a B.S. was stealing something from a car in a college parking lot."
Soon enough, Holmes was living the high life with cash and cocaine, like Tony Montana in Scarface. But freebasing made him impotent, and soon he was bottom feeding to support his habit. When he double-crossed an underworld kingpin by leading rival dealers to his stash, Holmes became involved in a bloody multiple murder and was eventually incarcerated for a short time. Like Lamotta, Holmes would lose it all, wasting away from AIDS in a Los Angeles hospital bed. A grueling fate, for sure, but even Holmes’ most faithful fans will surely wince as he pimps his second wife and puts female porn starlets at risk by continuing to perform in films, even after knowing that he was HIV positive. Like Raging Bull, Wadd concludes with a mesmerizing dive into darkness.
A much-needed antidote of English humor was on hand with Nigel Cole’s Saving Grace, which spins the offbeat yarn of sheltered Grace Trevethan (Brenda Blethyn), a Cornwall widow who uses her greenhouse in unorthodox ways to pay off the bills and mortgage that a reckless husband has left behind. Offering the same good-natured guffaws that made Four Weddings and a Funeral such a frothy delight, this post-Cheech ‘n Chong pot comedy stumbles during its third act, which is as goofy as Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Jeff Spiccoli after an all-night bong binge.
Two-time Academy Award nominee Brenda Blethyn is superb as a woman in the throes of change, after her financially irresponsible husband dies in a skydiving accident and leaves her to mop up the debt. The film introduces its bewildered heroine as she attends her beau’s funeral. Surrounding the congregation is Saving Grace’s other star: the coastal town of Cornwall, with its grey rock landscapes and emerald hills tucked alongside the white-capped ocean. Dilapidated buildings mesh with a loud ‘n proud fishing trade, accented by clusters of crab traps and fishnets. The townsfolk might be hard up for dollars, but they’re also full of spit and vinegar, including Grace’s dope-smoking gardener, Matthew (Craig Ferguson, who could pass for one of the Gallagher brothers from the English band Oasis).
While Grace’s mourning turns to rage as she learns that her husband was concealing a mountain of debt, and a mistress, Matthew is growing pot plants covertly at the local cemetery. He’s not the only one in Cornwall to inhale. Seems many of the residents in this scrubby, impoverished district are self-medicating with the leafy sedative, including funeral guests who hide their reefers while unknowing cops pursue salmon poachers instead. Meanwhile, local merchants refuse to let Grace pay for groceries: they may turn the other way when it comes to drug enforcement, but they’re a loyal and supportive bunch all the same.
Blethyn injects the character of Grace with a naïve charm: even as she’s sinking into this financial quicksand, she’s generating laughs during brainstorms with a financial consultant. "Have you got anything tucked away?" he asks, hopefully. "We have a Swiss bank account," she retorts. "There’s nothing in it, but we’ve got one." Meanwhile, it’s heartbreaking to watch this good-hearted woman confront her misfortune as she takes up smoking to take the edge off. "Bastard," she grumbles to a photo of her late husband, before angrily flicking ashes onto the portrait.
Eventually, Matthew’s checks are bouncing, but he’s not beyond working for favors. When he asks Grace if she can house his pot stash inside her lavish greenhouse, she reluctantly gives him a thumbs-up. "How much are these plants worth?" she asks. "The good stuff’s worth more than gold," replies a grinning Matthew.
Soon, the two are sneaking cannabis into the greenhouse, even as collectors haul her furniture out the front door of her home. The duo wagers that it can grow enough weed to bail Grace out. Eventually, the suspicious lights, emanating from her modified pot parlor and illuminating the skies like the Close Encounters mothership, have the locals whispering. However, no one in this rebellious, authority-hating town seems to mind. As a neighborhood bartender observes, "It seems as though Grace is carrying on the local tradition of total contempt for the law."
Saving Grace generates considerable suspense, as the proper lady-cum-pot cultivator dodges threats from bankers while continuing her daring debt-reduction scheme. Meanwhile, Blethyn shows Grace’s pain as she continues to absorb new revelations about her husband’s shady past. Confronting his mistress, Grace asks the seductress why he’d take on an outside lover. "I think that he thought you just weren’t interested," offers the adulterer. "He thought wrong," Grace responds with a betrayed scowl.
Later, there’s a hilarious scene where this one-time conservative comes out of her shell and samples her wares. "Will you give me one?" she asks Matthew. "I want to know what it feels like." The bewildered gardener does a spit take, mistaking his curious employer’s comment as a come-on. Later, he introduces her to the pleasures of reefer madness: think Kid Rock lighting up with Emma Thompson, and you’ve got some idea of the resulting chemistry.
There are terrific supporting roles in this Fine Line production, including that of Valerie Edmond as Matthew’s girlfriend, who’s harboring a secret and angry at her partner’s descent into this criminal venture. Equally fine is Ken Campbell as a local policeman who knows more than he lets on.
What a shame, then, when Saving Grace ultimately becomes victim to its own lightness, drifting away in a cloud of cornball gags, as stoned storekeepers and wacky drug dealers get involved in the mix. Still, this feel-good farce delivers moments that echo the spirit of similar U.K. triumphs like Waking Ned Devine. And Blethyn, as usual, is an Oscar-caliber presence.
the shadow of John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2
comes Teddy Chu’s Hong Kong actioner Purple
Storm. Using a "terrorist-threatens-germ-warfare" plot remarkably similar to the current
Tom Cruise megahit, this film boasts a bloody shipyard gun battle before the
credits even roll. When a crack
team of post-Khmer Rouge Cambodians plot to unleash Ricon-X (which causes red
blood cells to burst and skin to turn purple within two hours of contact) onto
an unsuspecting Hong Kong, anti terrorists devise a counter-plan.
Todd (Daniel Wu) becomes a secret weapon to the Chinese authorities,
after being left for dead by his conniving Cambodian comrades and waking up with
amnesia. A cunning Chinese
psychologist convinces him that he’s a secret agent sent to bring down the
group of baddies. Can Todd blend in
with his terrorist cronies -- Face-Off
style -- before they detonate a canister of germ warfare dubbed Purple
Todd’s mission is complicated by a series of mental flashbacks that transport him back to his days as an evildoer. Subconscious loyalties to the group he’s been sent to infiltrate pop up to the surface at inconvenient times, and Todd must soon decide who he really is: committed killer or snow-white good guy.
Unfortunately, neither the drama nor the action is up to par with the best moments of Woo, Ringo Lam, and other Hong Kong action veterans. Purple Storm bathes itself in a dingy, colorless light and the violent set-pieces lack the precision editing that made such earlier films as Hard-Boiled and Full Contact such kinetic classics of movement and energy. It’s a serviceable genre film, but without the elegant kick of its predecessors.
In contrast, Takashi Miike’s Audition is a nasty shocker that will lull you into passivity -- before shoving a Molotov cocktail down your throat and watching it blow all your expectations into bloody smithereens. This Japanese cringe-fest hosts jolts on par with Repulsion, Undelusion Dog, and The Exorcist, telling its initially benign tale of lonely widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), who feels mortality closing in when his adolescent son remarks, "You look tired." With junior bringing home girlfriends and his secretary announcing her engagement at the TV. production studio that this fortysomething runs, Aoyama brainstorms a plan that will hopefully produce the perfect mate.
With the help of a fellow entertainment executive, the love-starved Aoyama stages an audition for a phony romantic movie. When the applications start pouring in, he can sift through resumes, call in the thirty most promising brides-to-be for interviews, and settle on the best of the bunch to court towards romance. It’s an admittedly deceptive and chauvinistic plot, but Ishibashi plays such a good-hearted bloke, you can’t help but root for him to succeed in this twisted dating game.
Before long, he has whittled down the candidates to one: a frail, one-time ballerina named Asami (Eihi Shiina). Immediately smitten with this bird-like waif, Aoyama is soon taking the delicate girl out for dinner, even though his fellow executives sense that something is amiss. Meanwhile, job references don’t check out, while creepy, surreal scenes pop up of Asami crouched on her wooden bedroom floor, leaning over a sinister cloth sack full of… something.
Miike directs Audition’ s first two-thirds with slow, deliberate strokes. We relax and take in the laid-back images of Aoyama settling in at home for an evening of relaxation with son and pooch. Eventually, the film sneaks in a series of gory flashbacks that reveal more about Asami than we’d like to know, before lowering its final blow with some nearly unbearable horror that had audiences at Seattle’s Egyptian Theater flooding towards the exits. Audition’s calm-before-the-storm effect brings to mind Deliverance, Alien, and Psycho in terms of inducing adrenaline with completely unexpected jolts. Meanwhile, it flips us back and forth in time so that the reality of what we’re seeing is always in question. Audition also one-ups that tired, "it’s only a dream" device: I won’t reveal the film’s ingenious variation on this cliché, other than to say that it’s completely refreshing.
Haunted by this rather unsavory circus of porn personalities, pot peddlers, short-fused palookas, and psycho-babes, this year’s Seattle International Film Festival brings up the question: is it all just exploitation draped with the cloak of art, or a real collection of the latter, in all of its provocative forms? Judge for yourself, by attending next year’s event, when a similarly daring barrage of movies are sure to attack your senses in Seattle.