The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004) movie poster

director Asia Argento
viewed: 01/28/2018

Maybe they should have read the title more literally.

“The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” comes from the Biblical book of Jeremiah. Deceit, indeed.

When Asia Argento adapted J.T. LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, she really believed it to be the more or less true life tale of a young, troubled boy who went on to literary fame and stardom. She also probably knew by then that the person who would appear as J.T. LeRoy was actually a young woman, not a young man. One way or another, she went into this thing in earnest.

As earnest as her intentions, I wonder how intentionally camp this whole thing was. Because camp it is. Campity-camp-camp-camp.

Argento stars as the mother of the author, speaking with an Italian accent-inflected version of West Virginia trailer park. She is not alone. The cast includes Jeremy Renner, Peter Fonda, Michael Pitt, Lydia Lunch, Winona Ryder, and Marilyn Manson.

It’s a tale of abuse, outsized abuse, to a young boy (played very well by Jimmy Bennett as the youngest, and twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse, a little older).  Were it all true, it would be lurid enough. Would it be quite as camp?

This movie is like a super-loaded drunk who just doesn’t know when to quit.

And strangely, somehow, even though it’s like nine parts hilarious and ridiculous, it also manages to have a soul.

Argento, of all the famous folks, is the person who was the most outrageously deceived and exploited by the J.T. LeRoy cavalcade. She had an intimate relationship with LeRoy’s avatar Savannah Knoop, and she produced this manic wonder of a film, only to find out before its release that she and the world had been duped.

I file this under another unique spot in my film-watching archives: Movies I’d like to watch with John Waters. It’s a cult film waiting to be embraced.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016) movie poster

director Jeff Feuerzeig
viewed: 01/28/2018

I can’t recall now how aware I was if J.T. LeRoy before his unmasking in 2005. I might have missed out on the whole thing we’re it not a local story and so highly emblazoned in San Francisco media. As the story played out, I didn’t really get it, figuring the literary hoax just some flash in a pan nearby.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but when so complexly interwoven, it gets stranger still.

Author: The J.T. LeRoy Story seeks to set the matter straight,…from the perspective of Laura Albert, the 40-something year old woman who was writing as a gender-fluid teen from the meanest of streets. Turns out that Albert, a victim of abuse herself, developed LeRoy as a character she used in therapy over the phone, calling in an at risk youth hotline. Her therapist turned LeRoy onto writing, then helped them get published. Albert approached writers like Denis Cooper and others as LeRoy (always by phone) and developed significant relationships with them, those suspecting they were helping a troubled, talented youth who had AIDS and was doing what he had to in order to survive.

Literary success and celebrity recognition transformed something arguably therapeutic into something much more of a fraud. Albert employed her 19 year old sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to dress in a wig and sunglasses and to “be” LeRoy in real life.

It was a gateway to fame and celebrity that sucked them all in and makes for one of the strangest scenarios you can imagine.

This version is Albert’s and portrays a damaged artist who sort of accidentally got caught up in a fraud, pulling in her family and duping the literary world, the film world, and the music world in Warholian scheme.

While it’s easy to see Albert’s side of things here, one of the most bizarre aspects of Author is the amazing amount of recorded dialogues that supplement and depict this story, spanning over a decade. Apparently Albert recorded virtually every conversation she ever had and most of the people had no idea they were being recorded. This sure adds to the movie but it’s so insanely dubious, further underscoring how much everyone who touched LeRoy’s world was being manipulated and used. And why most of them felt such acrimony for them afterwards.

I’ve fallen into a real rabbit hole here, and rabbit hole it is. An alternate documentary The Cult of J.T. LeRoy is apparently more incisive. Knoop went on and wrote a memoir of her experiences which is now being turned into a movie with Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern. Everyone at the heart of the thing is getting their own versioning of the story.

It just goes on.

Heathers (1988)

Heathers (1989) movie poster

director  Michael Lehmann
viewed: 01/27/2018

This viewing of Heathers was for my teenage daughter. This was to give some context of Winona Ryder for my little millennial, who was primarily familiar with her from Netflix’s Stranger Things. We’d watched Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorshands, but that was some time back. It seemed that watching Heathers would explain a lot more about Winona Ryder than anything I could come up with.

Of course, my daughter told me that though she had never “seen” Heathers, that she was very familiar with it. After watching the 1988 movie, I was treated to  a variety of Heathers the Musical animatic YouTube videos.

Apparently the levels of meta-Heathers at which we’ve arrived is a little mind-boggling to those of us who didn’t come of age in this current century. There is a re-boot coming. There is also apparently a TV show coming?

Before you roll your eyes too hard at this inescapable modernity crisis, keep in mind that we all still have Heathers, the original and Winona Ryder, too. And that was always a wonderful thing in the first place, here 30 years out.

I also noted to my daughter that I once attended a lecture by Timothy Leary, who was Winona’s godfather, with half the goal to see if I could get her phone number.

I was also friends with the band The Wynona Riders. I wish I still had that t-shirt.

My daughter liked the movie a lot. Still really digs the animatic videos too.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 01/20/2018

I think you either like Wes Anderson movies or you don’t. No judgment either way. I fall into the former boat, and interestingly The Royal Tenenbaums was one of the first movies I logged on my movie site in 2002, when I started tracking all the movies I watch.

Thousands of movies later, I come back to it, to watch it with my teenage children, the first who was born the year it came out, the second who was yet to be a sparkle in her father’s eye, so to speak.

For all that, I think I feel much the same as I did sixteen years ago when I first saw this. I’ve come to have seen all of Anderson’s movies since and have much more of a spectrum upon which to measure it.

That said: Gene Hackman. All day. Every day. Especially in scenes with Pagoda
(Kumar Pallana, RIP). Other Anderson alums like Angelica Huston and Bill Murray, always appreciated as well.

The kids both liked it.

Night of Terror (1933)

Night of Terror (1933) movie poster

director Benjamin Stoloff
viewed: 12/26/2017

Night of Terror opens with a fairly awesome crystal ball credit sequence. What follows is pure pre-code kookiness with several over-lapping plots including one with a roving maniac.

“Your eyes are like dewdrops…”

I don’t understand all the nuances of camp and kitsch but this movie is full blown something.

Here’s Bela Lugosi slumming it only two years after his breakout Dracula.

I’d say it’s ridiculous fun but the ending just kicks it up an entire full notch. And you’ll just have to watch it to know why I cannot say more.

Fat City (1972)

Fat City (1972) movie poster

director John Huston
viewed: 12/10/2017

Fat City is a man’s man’s man’s world but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl. And that woman is Susan Tyrell.

Susan Tyrell, is there any movie she doesn’t completely dominate? Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges are the pugilists, the centers of the story here. And there is a great performance by Nicholas Colasanto (who would go on to be best known as Coach on TV’s Cheers). But Susan Tyrell.

“Thing you got to understand about her, she’s a juicehead.”

She doesn’t just dominate the scenes she’s in, she dominates the film. And it’s a hell of a good film to dominate. In fact, Fat City is a great fucking movie about the futility of human existence, the blood, sweat, and tears that add up to fuck all, and even going down mano y mano, you’re going down.

“The job I’d really like ain’t been invented.”

How many great fucking movies did John Huston make? In many decades and eras of American cinema. Here, he’s working with Leonard Gardner, adapting his own novel about Stockton, CA in the late 1950’s, a brutal, humanist haunt of clapboard reality, cheap bars, cheap work, human struggle. And it’s amazing.

“The pride of Stockton,” this is how Keach gets announced at a bout on the low echelons of the boxing scene. There is something here, too, shooting in then contemporary early 1970’s Stockton, storefronts and skid rows soon after demolished.

But Susan Tyrell, all day long, every day. She takes a character in the novel who is not so much a character but a thin figure of a drunk and makes indelible work of it. Amazing stuff.

Post Script: The LA Weekly may have suddenly gone to shit with its new ownership, but this 2000 article about Susan Tyrell is amazing: My So-Called Rotten Life by Paul Callum.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

Bell, Book and Candle (1958) movie poster

director  Richard Quine
viewed: 11/25/2017

A cool, comic analog to Alfred Hitchcock’s VertigoBell, Book and Candle is a another darkened romance starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak from the very same year. It’s also a story of obsession and possession, of love’s darker recesses.

In some ways, the shoe is on the other foot, with Novak the enchantress and Stewart the possessed. In other lights, perhaps it’s just as bleak for Novak, though it ends with a more traditional “happy” ending if you don’t read between the lines.

As a comedy, maybe it’s not quite hilarious, though it’s urbane. And maybe its darker soul keeps it from being quite the lark it aspires to.

The cast is sublime, featuring the adorable Elsa Lancaster, Hermione Gingold, Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs. And Pyewacket the cat, “as himself”, though possibly played by up to 12 different felines. And lets not forget The Zodiac Club, a beatnik-witching haven.

Bell, Book and Candle is said to have inspired TV’s Bewitched, which makes sense. It is, after all, the story of a lovely young witch who pines for something more than her magical life. The built-in metaphor of the female having to sublimate all of her inherent skills and character, wit, and abilities in order to succeed in human society is both a critique of patriarchy as well as ceding to patriarchy (for the happy ending).

It’s probably not quite as magical a film as it strives to be, but it’s totally enjoyable, charming, and packed with texts and subtexts, as well as cool character. I did find myself thinking that Billy Wilder could have probably elevated this further, but it’s perfectly fun on its own.

My 13 year old daughter was nonplussed, however.

Ghost World (2001)

Ghost World (2001) movie poster

director Terry Zwigoff
viewed: 10/20/2017

This viewing of Ghost World was me sharing it with my teenage kids. They both enjoyed it.

“The girl that looks like Scarlett Johansson” is indeed Scarlett Johansson.

This viewing also reminded me how cool the soundtrack was.

I now need to dig up the comic to share with my daughter.

Also, it’s nice how unresolved the film is at the end. Not knowing what one is and ruining all your relationships while you’re figuring it out. That things don’t always work out and resolution is often unachievable.

Terror-Creatures from the Grave (1965)

Terror-Creatures from the Grave (1965) movie poster

director  Domenico Massimo Pupillo
viewed: 06/16/2017

Terror-Creatures from the Grave is the most Ed Wood-ian non-Ed Wood, Jr. horror title I can think of. It’s original Italian 5 tombe per un medium (or Five Graves for a Medium), while more accurate, I guess wasn’t an American marketing person’s idea of a seat-filler.

This was the final film in my mini-Barbara Steele marathon, but not necessarily the best to end on. A Barbara Steele film isn’t JUST measured by the amount of Barbara Steele in it, but it is indeed an impactful scale for assessment nonetheless.

Here, the disembodied hands of plague victims long-dead come to life in one of the film’s more vivid moments. Outside of this, the anniversary of the death of Steele’s character’s husband brings about a mysterious call to a notary/attorney from beyond the grave to pay witness to the deaths of all present at the husband’s demise.

Though I’m far from having completed the Barbara Steele 1960’s Italian horror cycle, I’ll stop here at present and catch my breath a bit.

The Ghost (1963)

The Ghost (1963) movie poster

director Riccardo Freda
viewed: 06/14/2017

I’ve already noted the Giallo bent of some of these 1960’s Italian Barbara Steele horror vehicles, flitting between the inexplicable and the evil’s more man-made. I’ve also noted the Hitchcockian qualities therein, especially on the more human-wrought horrors. Director Riccardo Freda apparently like to pay his homage quite clearly. The characters of The Ghost, like his earlier Steele picture The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) are homonyms of the “master of suspense.”

Interestingly, per WikipediaThe Ghost channels a different suspense master, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955). I guess that is a semi-spoiler if you’re waiting to find out whether or not the doings are spiritual or more of this earthly plane.

The story has a somewhat convoluted scenario with an ailing Dr. Hichcock, swinging between suicide and a will to live, while rescued and followed by attempted murder by his wife (Steele) and his physician.

Maybe the least interesting of my Barbara Steele mini-marathon, though fitting so well within this continuum, wives and husbands and murder and ghosts, and that damn solarium, I don’t know what else to say.