The Sinful Dwarf (1973)

The Sinful Dwarf (1973) movie poster

director Vidal Raski
viewed:  05/26/2012

Part two of my oddball “dwarf” double feature was the Danish Exploitation film, The Sinful Dwarf (Dværgen), which I read about on the rather amusing film blog Atomic Caravan a couple of months ago.  The Sinful Dwarf, as you might expect, is more pure Exploitation than its double feature partner Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), and you would be right indeed.  In fact, The Sinful Dwarf seems to enjoy a certain level of cachet as the crowned prince of “Dwarfsploitation” films, though how that overlooks The Terror of Tiny Town (1938), you’ve got me.

The Sinful Dwarf in question, Olaf, is played by the rather inimitable Torben Bille, who seems to have perfected his demonic leer for this film.  Olaf lives with his mother in a ramshackle boarding house, in part of which they keep their heroin-addicted white slave prostitutes who they abuse brutally.  When a young, unaware couple of newlyweds takes a room in their place, Olaf peeps on their coital relationship before eventually adding the young lady to their harem.

There is ample sex and nudity and rape.  At one point, Olaf even abuses one of the girls with his walking stick.  Bille pretty much makes the film work with his sleazy schtick, though his mother, an aging former burlesque dancer, offers further levels of perversity and depth of corruption.  It’s a family affair.

Their heroin connection is a local toy store operator, who smuggles his illegal wares in his seemingly more innocent wares.  Olaf is fond of playing perversely with toys and is played up as a horribly evil man-child.

There is some criticism of the quality of the film, but really, for what it’s worth and what it tries to do, it’s pretty successful.  If those “hot button” descriptions of the story don’t set you off (this is an unapologetic exploitation film, mind you), then maybe you should consider your own threshold for perversity.

My “oddball ‘dwarf’ double feature,” as I’ve called it, really arose from a happenstance of my Netflix film queue, not from any particular obsession of mine.  But it has given me pause to consider “Dwarfsploitation” as it is called, wondering at what other films would fall under this rubric.  Arguably much employment of “little people” in the history of cinema (and all other arts in which they’ve been used), has utilized them in exploitative ways within other contexts.  Even contemporary media continue this trend with few exceptions.  But for something to be, in particular, “Dwarfsploitation” as a specified descriptor, how many films genuinely merit that term?

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) movie poster

director Werner Herzog
viewed: 05/26/2012

This film, one of director Werner Herzog’s first, is one of the more bizarre films that I have seen in recent memory.  The Wikipedia entry on the film sums the narrative up concisely: “A group of dwarfs confined in an institution on a remote island rebel against the guards and director (all dwarfs as well) in a display of mayhem. The dwarfs gleefully break windows and dishes, abandon a running truck to drive itself in circles, engineer food fights and cock fights, set fire to pots of flowers, kill a large pig, torment some blind dwarfs, and crucify a monkey.”

I decided to watch this one as an oddball “dwarf” double feature, a semi-random selection, with another film, The Sinful Dwarf (1973).  Even Dwarfs Started Small, oddly enough, isn’t an exploitation film, per se.  Though it is noted as being the first feature film since the notorious 1938 Western, The Terror of Tiny Town, to feature an “all-midget” cast.  Herzog’s intent and the film’s marketing perhaps are what keep it from being technically an exploitation film.  That said, it’s utterly possible to watch it in the vein of exploitation, even if that is somewhat missing the point.

Exploitation or not, it’s a cult film.  A cult film with fans such as Crispin Glover, who appears on the commentary track with Herzog discussing the film.  It’s akin, perhaps, to David Lynch as well, really a surreal imagining of a world of madness and chaos and anarchy.  The images bring to mind the photography of Diane Arbus’ images of the mentally disabled, though the characters of Herzog’s film are actors, albeit non-professional actors.  They also call to mind elements of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).

A mad, sinister chuckle-cum-cackle pervades the soundtrack almost incessantly, evoked from one of two of the actors, who Herzog goaded into constant laughter.

Disturbing as well are elements of animal abuse or at least actual animal violence or suggested violence.  Herzog interposes images of chickens pecking at a dead chicken, essentially cannibalizing, as well as images of chickens harassing a one-legged chicken.  Chickens are also thrown through a window at one point, subdued rather violently and with a couple of them dying.  A sow is killed (supposedly by the curious inmates), and while this was done according to more humane slaughter practice, it is shown in its death throes with its piglets suckling madly at the dying beast.  And yes, a monkey is crucified, though tied with string, not nailed to a cross.  These elements of veritable physical violence supplement the psychic violence and mad disturbance of the rest of the film’s suggested and real traumas.  Not unlike the notorious Cannibal Holocaust (1980), the real images of animal deaths enhance the rest of the film’s violence, giving it greater impact by suggestion and association.

The impact of the film is disturbing and fascinating.  It’s a nightmare.  It’s metaphorical.  Like Arbus’ imagery, there is a voyeuristic, exploitational aspect, but also it crystalizes a deep-seeded sensibility of dissociation and otherness.  Playing out to the strains of increasing rebellion and anarchy, it also dredges a Lord of the Flies-like fear of the worst aspects of human nature unbridled by civilization, whatever evils civilization represents in its repression and restraints.  It’s compelling and effective as a bizarre horror show.

It’s interesting for me as I’ve been watching a lot of Herzog’s more recent works, both documentary films and narrative features, while interesting, a far cry from his more radical early films.  I’d never seen this one before and was very struck by it.  I do think it’s telling that the majority of parallels and references that I find for it are more pure Exploitation than not.

Men in Black 3 (2012)

Men in Black 3 (2012) movie poster

director Barry Sonnenfeld
viewed: 05/26/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I was wanting to take the kids to the movies.  We’ve had a busy spring so far with Little League and soccer and haven’t had a lot of free weekend days to go to the cinema.  But beyond The Avengers (2012), there really hasn’t been much calling to us to get us out to the theater.  And when it came down to it, our choice was between an over-inflated action film based on a board game, Battleship (2012), or a cartoonish romp on the 1970’s and a 1970’s soap opera, Dark Shadows (2012) (Felix asked, “What is the story about?” regarding the latter, utterly not getting it from the trailers).

For all the films that I take them to, it’s interesting what does and doesn’t look appealing to them.  They were pretty not bothered about Men in Black 3 either.  They’d never seen the earlier films.  In fact, I’m not sure that I ever saw the second one.  What won out for us in this battle of indecision was proximity.  Men in Black was playing at our neighborhood Empire Theater in West Portal in a version that shunned 3-D.

Really, I wasn’t all that bothered either.  I did like Rick Baker’s alien designs, from what I’d seen of them.

What struck me was not just the aged, craggy face of Tommy Lee Jones, but of the affects of aging on the still young and handsome Will Smith.  It’s been 15 years since the first film.  I’ve probably aged more than those two.  But still, it struck me.

After the original Men in Black (1997), I really thought director Barry Sonnenfeld and Will Smith were primed to bring on some great work.  I eagerly anticipated their bomb Wild, Wild West (1999), and then promptly lost interest in both of them.  Perhaps that  is a little capricious of me, but that’s how it went.

Men in Black 3 is pretty tired.  The best thing it’s got going beyond the alien designs is Josh Brolin doing an amazing Tommy Lee Jones imitation as his younger self.  Beyond that, the comedy and adventure is pretty tepid and the sentimentality regarding Jones and Smith’s characters and their pasts annoyed me.

The kids, on the other hand, kind of enjoyed it.   So whatever.

Sally of the Sawdust (1925)

Sally of the Sawdust (1925) movie poster

director D.W. Griffith
viewed: 05/25/2012

A couple of years back, I watched D.W. Griffith’s 1925 film Sally of the Sawdust by myself and enjoyed it immensely.  It was one of those films that I wanted to share with others, thought of many who would like it.  It was something I wanted to see again, a movie I wanted to watch with the kids.  So that’s what we did.

Considered one of Griffith’s minor films, much less considered, say that  The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919) and others, it features his less heralded leading lady, Carole Dempster (as opposed to Lillian Gish).  It’s not an epic, and while it certainly features aspects of melodrama, it’s a comedic tale of class and character and features a classic sort of car chase cross-cutting ending far more amusing than dramatic.

The story of Sally, who is orphaned young and left in the care of Professor Eustace McGargle (a young and very funny W.C. Fields), who raises her among the circus, friend of elephants and acrobats, a feisty tomboy who loves her “Pop”, not knowing her real parents.  Her real mother had been disowned by her dour father, the Judge, who hated “show people”.  Clara kept saying that he was a “terrible judge” for hating circus people prejudicially.  Too true.

When McGargle tries to bring Sally back to her “people”, he finds the judge no better for his years, only richer.  But Sally’s grandmother takes a shine to her and her wacky dancing.  And the “boy next door” also falls for her.

Dempster plays Sally as quite a character.  She’s very physical, embodied in extremity in her dance performances, which are anomalous and quirky as heck.  Her oddball charm is quite something.  She and W.C. Fields are a lot of fun together.

I’ll admit, the film has more charm perhaps than greatness, but I find it very enjoyable.  Clara and Felix both enjoyed it too.  It’s one of very few silent films that we’ve watched together that was not a classic slapstick style comedy.  It’s still a personal favorite of mine, but I’m now feeling more and more like seeing more of Griffith’s films.

Permanent Vacation (1980)

Permanent Vacation (1980) movie poster
director Jim Jarmusch
viewed: 05/23/2012

I’ve been a fan of Jim Jarmusch since the 1980’s but I’d never seen his first feature film, Permanent Vacation before.  But after watching the documentary Blank City (2010), a film about the New York film scene in the 1970’s and 1980’s, my interest was piqued.  It had been released as part of the Criterion Collection’s version of Stranger Than Paradise (1984), his breakthrough film.

Permanent Vacation feels like what it is, a student film, made with actors that a student would know, made within aspects and limitations of budget.  And while Jarmusch’s films are all low-key and low-budget, a lot of his strengths were in a more primordial stage at the point of this film.  Still, it’s not uninteresting to watch it among his other works, and it has certain characteristics that offer genuine interest.

Shot in New York City, the film captures aspects of the time and place of its making.  I’ve noted that this time and place reveals a very different New York to that of contemporary city, a glance into a milieu that spawned so much music, culture, and vibrancy, it’s really interesting to see how gritty and grim it could be.  A much more dangerous place, a much less corporatized place.

Jarmusch uses some particularly derelict neighborhoods to depict the world of his film.  It’s a little vague, but apparently is meant to be a post-atomic war or at least post-another major war.  The main character, Allie Parker (played by Chris Parker), is a hipster dude, hep on Charlie Parker, literature, cinema,  but who is seeking to escape this desolated city.  He wanders the mostly run-down blocks, only occasionally seeing the city’s more stable and healthy elements, often in background.

One shot in particular finds Parker awaking on top of a building, south of the Chrysler building and the Empire State Building.  I recognize that vantage to an extent from my own travels there in a time beyond his.  Jarmusch’s meditation on the city and the restless angst of youth wind up bearing witness to a world now also deeply changed.

Frankly, it’s not the greatest film in the world.  John Lurie does show up as a saxophone-playing street musician, who seems to bleat out a free jazz version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.  What Jarmusch pulled together by his next film and haphazardly with occasional utter brilliance over his career was something more sublime and profound than he stumbled on in his student work.  For a Jarmusch fan, it’s certainly worth the effort.  Beyond that, not so much.

Steamboy (2004)

Steamboy (2004) movie poster

director Katsuhiro Otomo
viewed: 05/19/2012

Only the second feature animated film from writer/director/manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo, after his groundbreaking anime Akira (1988), Steamboy would have a lot to potentially live up to.  If you compared them. Two decades apart and potentially much more, Steamboy is a Japanese animated science fiction feature film, but perhaps that is about as far as a comparison should go.  Akira was a definitive breakthrough film for Japanese anime around the world.  It also carried a level of cultural zeitgeist, was a thing very much of its time, definitive, defining, representative.

Steamboy is a sampling of “steampunk,” a subgenre of science fiction fascinated with the technologies of the 19th century, focused on a fantasy that technology developed around steam power, and so everything is set in a world that is partially historical and entirely fictional, fantastical.  And the world of Steamboy is set in the Victorian England of 1863.  While steampunk has gained popularity over the latter 30 years, it is not a science fiction focused on the technologies or problems of the present or future, but is in many ways more a speculative fantasy world.

When Steamboy came out, the kids were too young for it, so I’ve held it back for several years, waiting for the right time to watch it with them.  I hadn’t been overly compelled to watch it on my own in the meantime, but I have kept it in mind all this time.  I wound up watching it with Felix, who enjoyed it tolerably.

The story revolves around three generations of the Steam family, based in Northern England, all of whom have committed themselves to the exploration of steam power.  Ray is the youth, who receives a mysterious metal orb from his grandfather, and is told to protect it from all comers.  The ball is the breakthrough in harnessing a greater amount of steam power and various factions are after it, including Ray’s father and grandfather who are now at odds with one another.  Everyone wants to weaponize the technology and profit from it, particularly the Americans.  Frankly, the story is a bit convoluted on that front.

The ultimate exhibit of steam technology winds up being the massive “steam castle,” a mountainous construct that can fly and sort of walk as well as launch planes and robot weapons. It struck me funny that what we have here is another “moving castle” movie, which came out the same year as Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).  Steam versus magic.  Both films focus on the wars against humanity, the use of power to destroy or besiege.  Both film’s wind up with a bizarre contraption that can move on its own by some core crazy power.

Steamboy is no Akira.  Nor is it Howl’s Moving Castle.  It’s no great cultural touchstone, nor great fantastic magical story.

It is beautifully animated.  Mixing traditional cel animation with a number of digital shots, the film is richly rendered and many of the contraptions are cool and interesting.  But the film never has anything really meaningful going on in it either.   The characters are stock, not developed in any unique way.  There is no deeper resonance regarding the world, technology, humanity, anything.  It’s entertaining enough.  But it’s long and it doesn’t have that spark that raises it to a level of significance.  As I said, Felix liked it okay, but wasn’t all that bothered about it.  It’s not bad, though, either.

The Naked Witch (1961)

The Naked Witch (1961) movie poster

directors Claude Alexander, Larry Buchanan
viewed: 05/18/2012

The second On Demand exploitation flick that I’ve watched from the Something Weird channel on Comcast cable On Demand (after She Freak (1967)) was the 59-minute 1961 “nudie cutie”, The Naked Witch.  While the title was titillating enough, I was drawn by the film’s brevity, rather than my familiarity with it ahead of time.  It comes, in part, from co-writer/co-director Larry Buchanan, a self-noted schlockmeister who would go on to bring the term, Mars Needs Women (1967) to the cultural consciousness.

The film starts out with a rather long, moderately serious documentary-style introduction to the history of witchcraft, narrating over images primarily taken from Hieronymous Bosch imagery.  The film doesn’t actually have much in the way of synched sound.  Once the main narrative starts, it also uses voice-over by the lead to describe the bulk of the story.  It’s actually occasionally startling when someone actually says something.

The main character is a student who finds himself in the German enclave of Luckenbach, TX (who knew it was more than a song?), where the people live as though they were still in Germany in the 18th century.  He’s interested in the history of witchcraft and uncovers a story of a woman who was accused of witchcraft by a local man (back generations ago) and he goes and digs up her corpse (like you do.)  This triggers the woman, who wasn’t necessarily a witch in her life, just an adulteress, to come back to life (nakedly) and seek doom upon the three descendants of the man who accused her.

As for “exploitation”, the film falls under the “nudie cutie” genre.  The witch is naked, though blurred out, as she romps and dances and swims around.  And stabs people with her rather phallic spike.

Low-budget, as it is, hilariously campy as it is at times, there are shots and moments that have verve.  That is, shots and moments amid a poorly constructed, hysterically badly acted, and vaguely dull piece of film-making.  It does indeed have a naked witch and it does indeed only run 59 minutes, and outside of a few other little weird elements of charm, that’s probably all that needs to be said.

The Innkeepers (2011)

The Innkeepers (2011) movie poster

director Ti West
viewed: 05/16/2012

Writer/director Ti West, who has started a name for himself with The House of the Devil (2009) and to a lesser extent with Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009), delves yet again into the horror genre with his haunted hotel film, The Innkeepers.  According to the story behind the film, West was inspired by “true ghost stories” that were told while he and his crew stayed at Torrington, CT’s Yankee Pedlar Inn, so much so, he wrote a whole film around the hotel.

It’s supposed to be the final weekend for a storied hotel, said to be haunted by the abandoned bride who had owned the hotel (or something).  Two geeky clerks are running the empty place, Luke and Claire (the pretty and charming Sara Paxton), serving only a couple of customers and trying to evoke the spirits within with healthy curiosity and some recording devices.

I was actually thinking how refreshing it was to see a horror film that wasn’t shot to look as though it was all done on fixed-place security cameras a la Paranormal Activity (2007) and so on.  Here’s hoping that “found footage” films will soon stop being made.  Not likely, I know, but I can dream, can’t I?

Kelly McGillis shows up (again in a quasi-horror film; I last noted her in Stake Land (2010)).  She plays a retired television actress turned new age mystic, who engages with Paxton in some sounding out of the spirit world.  Lena Dunham, now of HBO’s Girls as well as her Tiny Furniture (2010), also shows up in a real throwaway scene as an annoying cafe worker.  The film isn’t all that tight in that sense.

But Paxton is the charmer here.  She’s cute and wistful and goofy, giving a believable and unique vibe to the primary figure of the story.  Of course, things eventually go south.  It wouldn’t be a horror film if they didn’t, right?

West is more interested in building suspense than in going for cheap scares, but it’s still not an overly sophisticated thing.  It has its charms, I’ll give it that.  I’ll keep my eye on West though he hasn’t overtly impressed as yet.

Detour (1945)

Detour (1945) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 05/13/2012 at the Roxie Theater, SF, CA

The final installment of my film noir triple feature at the Roxie, Detour, is actually one of my favorite films.  Certainly, it’s one of my favorite noir films, so lean and ruthless, so deceptively simple, so razor-sharp tight.  Ann Savage is amazing as the femme fatale par excellence, swerving between rage and kittenish vulnerability, manipulative to a fault, vicious yet pathetic.  I’m more struck by her performance every time I see it, and I’d never seen it on the big screen before.

Of the three films that I saw as part of the “I Wake up Dreaming” noir festival, only The Pretender (1947) was shown on film.  So that was a little disappointing.  But still, it was cool to see it big and bold, with a crowd.

Une si jolie petite plage (1949)

Une si jolie petite plage (1949) movie poster

director Yves Allégret
viewed: 05/13/2012 at the Roxie Theater, SF, CA

Feature #2 of my triple header of “I Wake Up Dreaming” film noir series at the Roxie was the French film, Une si jolie petite plage.  Though the French coined the term, proper categorization stands that film noir is an American thing by definition.  That said, most of the American directors of noir were ex-pat Europeans, bringing aesthetics and artistry from all over Europe to Hollywood via genre cinema.  The Roxie’s promotion for the film posed it as “the missing link between the French thrillers of the thirties and the nouvelle vague,” so it’s not quite true noir but European noir still carries a lot with it.  They also touted it as “brilliantly forlorn and totally French,” and that it is as well.

The French seaside never looked drearier.  It’s the off-season, raining endlessly, with only one shabby hotel open for customers.  A young man checks in, coming from Paris, apparently depressed, and averse to the music of a popular singer who has just been murdered.  It could have been a Georges Simenon novel.  It is a kind of story that is almost classically French, or maybe it’s more in the tone and the way the narrative plays out, the existential dolor.  The hotel is pervaded by this fatalistic ennui, a sense of inescapable doom, a melancholy without the faintest hint of possibility for redemption.  The characters keep referring to the desolate shoreline as “such a pretty little beach,” repeating the title time and again, emphasizing sincerity as well as some irony, too.

It’s beautifully filmed and excellently produced.  A low-key downer, for sure, but impeccable in many ways.

To say that it connects “the French thrillers of the 30’s to the nouvelle vague” as the Roxie’s promo materials suggest, I’d have to question if there is not more of this all along the way.  It seems there is more of a fairly unbroken line between The Lower Depths (1936), Pépé le Moko (1937), La bête humaine (1938), Le jour se lève (1939), Quai des Orfèvres (1947), Touchez pas au grisbi (1954),  Rififi (1955), Bob le flambeur (1955) leading up to Breathless (1960).  Maybe there is something more specific that is being connected, maybe I haven’t seen the films to which they are referring.  But I do see some consistency through the crime cinema of France on through to Jean-Pierre Melville and perhaps beyond.

Une si jolie petite plage without a doubt, though, is a very fine film.  Interesting and evocative even in its potentially cliche of French esprit du cinema.  Trying impossibly to light Gauloises in the incessant rain, seeking solace in a woman who has had many lovers and perhaps clients, while in the end, it all comes to rien.