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Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Wild World of Ken Russell

Of all the directors whose names have become synonymous with their style of filmmaking (Hitchcock, Bergman, Spielberg), perhaps none is as polarizing as wildman Ken Russell. You either love him or hate him. I happen to love him.

Certainly, he's not consistent. He followed up his master musical Tommy (1975) with the lame Lisztomania (also 1975). Years after his sleaze masterpiece Crimes of Passion (1984), he ripped himself off with the ridiculous Whore (1991), also released under the even more absurd title If You're Afraid to Say It...Just See It.

But when he's good, there's nobody who can compare to him. Nobody heaps on the hallucinatory visuals, wild set decoration and stylized acting like Russell. One of his favorite shots is to start in on a tight closeup of a strange-looking person (often singing) and then speed-zoom out to reveal an entire tableau of oddities. But he's also capable of producing extremely literate works. His biopics of classical composers (except Liszt) are amazing, and his adaptations of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1969) and the 20-years-later sequel The Rainbow are memorable.

Women in Love was controversial upon its release due to the infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, and Glenda Jackson won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as the cold-blooded Gudrun, who drives Gerald (Reed) to suicide. Not only does it contrast the stories of two couples, it adds an unrequited love between the two men. The dialogue is symbolic and over-the-top, but in Russell's world, it works. Reed and Jackson were part of Russell's informal troupe of regulars, and they would appear in many of his films.

Of the notoriously problematic Reed, Russell said that he would simply ask for "Mood One," "Mood Two" or "Mood Three" from him. Certainly both Reed and Jackson's work for Russell ranks among their best.

1970's The Music Lovers tells the story of Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) and his troubled marriage to Nina (Jackson). As Russell himself said, "It's the story of the marriage between a homosexual and a nymphomaniac." Christopher Gable, another Russell regular, plays the object of the composer's lust, and the most memorable scene involves Nina, who's gone out of her mind, giving her body to the eagerly groping inmates of the asylum she's been committed to. It's also a sublime marriage of filmmaking and classical music.

The Devils (1971) is his most notorious film, Russell's indictment of organized religion. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Sister Jeanne, the disfigured head of an order of severely repressed nuns. Reed is Grandier, the priest she secretly lusts after. Redgrave's performance is really creepy; she does a wonderful job of showing the conflicting sensations that pass through the physically and emotionally crippled nun's mind.

Butchered by censors for its "blasphemous" content, its most famous sequence featuring naked, hysterical nuns raping a life-size statue of Christ, is pretty shocking. It's packed with other shocking scenes of torture and barbarism at the hands of pious hypocrites. Strong stuff, for sure, but it deserves much more recognition than it's ever gotten. The U.S. Warner Home Video release is heavily edited, but there are more complete DVDs of varying quality available. I got a good import copy from Luminous Film and Video Wurks.

Probably his most successful film in terms of boxoffice was 1975's Tommy, featuring a fearless performance by Ann-Margret and a surprisingly competent one from The Who's frontman Roger Daltrey.

Russell and this work were a match made in Heaven. Packed with wild visuals to accompany the musical numbers, it's still great entertainment after 35 years. And composer Pete Townshend made the smart choice to speed up the music and give it more punch for the film. When I heard the original version after I saw the film, I was shocked at how slow and dull it sounded. I took my Dad to see Tommy on its original release (in Quintaphonic sound!) and I wasn't sure he really got it. But later he bought me the original recording as a birthday present, so who knows?

Who can forget the star-studded musical numbers? Eric Clapton's "Eyesight to the Blind" with the Church of Marilyn Monroe, Tina Turner tearing it up as the Acid Queen (love that distorted mouth-twitching closeup!), the late Keith Moon as Wicked Uncle Ernie and Elton John as the Pinball Wizard. Jack Nicholson shows up as the doctor Tommy's guilt-ridden parents take him to, and he's awful—but it fits into the crazy framework.

1980's Altered States did well at the boxoffice, but Russell's behavior on-set and battle with the film's screenwriter, Paddy Chayevsky, caused him to become a pariah in Hollywood. His last American film, Crimes of Passion (1984), showed that he could still do controversial with the best of them.

The story of an architect by day and prostitute by night (Kathleen Turner) being pursued by a kinky, insane, poppers-huffing street preacher (Anthony Perkins), it features some of the most explicit sexual content seen in a non-pornographic film, including a cop being sodomized by his own nightstick.

Turner is sexy and sleazy; she wouldn't show her wild side quite this way again until her sensational turn as John Waters' Serial Mom (1994). Perkins plays the preacher like Norman Bates had moved to the big city and fallen into a life of dissolution, which isn't a bad choice. Russell stages it all in an obvious, exaggerated, studio-bound milieu. Crimes of Passion was one of the first films to be offered on home video in two versions: there was the R-rated cut (in the blue box) and the steamy unrated cut (in the red-hot box).

Happily, a home video company that had branched out into theatrical releases (the now-defunct Vestron) offered Russell a multiple-picture deal in the latter part of the 1980s, all made on his home turf, resulting in a couple of somewhat diverting peculiarities (Gothic and Salome's Last Dance), another nice D.H. Lawrence adaptation (The Rainbow) and one bona fide cult classic (Lair of the White Worm).

Lair (1988) stars Sammi Davis, Catherine Oxenberg, Hugh Grant and the incomparable Amanda Donahoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh, the mysterious, sensuous, snake-worshipping aristocrat whose arrival in a small country village causes no end of trouble. This film also finds Russell in one of his most cheery moods. Though it contains numerous sexual and blasphemous scenes, both the director and his actors seem to be having a wonderful time. Much of the dialogue is extremely folksy (someone even asks, "Are we playing 'happy families'?") and the match-ups between the snobbish Lord D'Ampton (Grant at his most hilariously arch) and Lady Sylvia are a riot. A sample bit of dialogue:

Lord D'Ampton: Do you have any children?
Lady Sylvia: Only when there are no men around.

Lady Sylvia also has the ability to sprout gigantic fangs at will and can spit venom a good ten feet. Oh...and she is also "charmed" by music. And there's a really great song about the legend of the D'Ampton Worm, a bit of which can be heard in this trailer:



Recently, Russell has made television movies, online videos and even written a column for The Times. He's also an exhibited photographer and published author. In 2008, he returned to New York to direct an off-Broadway production of "Mindgame," a thriller with Keith Carradine.

At age 83, he shows no signs of losing his taste for the outrageous. His 2007 online video A Kitten for Hitler proves that. This quote from the master himself really says it all:

"This is not the age of manners. This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness. I don't believe there is any virtue in understatement."

Monday, November 22, 2010

127 Intense Hours

MINOR SPOILERS

I'm a huge fan of Danny Boyle's work. He's made films in almost every genre: drama, action, comedy, horror, sci-fi—everything except a pure musical, but music is so important in his films, it's almost redundant.

Music also plays an important part in his latest, 127 Hours, and it's a good thing too—it helps to alleviate the tension. What makes this film so tense right off the bat is that you already know what's going to happen...it's only a matter of time. Everyone knows it's based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a young outdoorsman who is trapped by a fallen boulder in a Utah canyon for five days until he makes the desperate decision to amputate his arm in order to free himself.

Boyle's challenge was to make a film whose protagonist is stuck in one place for most of its running time and still manage to make it involving. To that end, he brought along collaborators from his multiple award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, including screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, composer A.R.Rahman and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, to make it happen. The film even opens like Slumdog, with hyperkinetic, color-skewed shots of people rushing along crowded streets and cheering in stadiums, accompanied by appropriately adrenaline-charged music. This makes for a nice juxtaposition to the empty silence of the Utah wilderness Ralston finds himself helpless and alone in just 20 minutes of screen time later.

Casting is key, and James Franco was a fortuitous choice to play Ralston. He's believably athletic in the role of a thrillseeker, and he's not afraid to look awful or appear foolish. And as depicted in the film, Ralston is something of a dick. He doesn't bother to answer his mother's call when he's getting ready to head out on his trip, and he takes two young women he'd just met on the trail through a hair-raising shortcut in a chasm with seemingly no regard for their safety. Of course, it turns out fine, and the girls love the adventure—that's when his charm shines through.

Franco has shone in supporting roles roles (Milk, the Spiderman series) for years, but he's onscreen for virtually every second of 127 Hours, and he carries the picture beautifully. When Ralston becomes trapped in the canyon, his mind swims with images of regret—leaving his Gatorade sitting in his truck when his thirst becomes acute; realizing he hadn't told anyone where he was going—and Franco really makes us feel his desperation. He also gives us nice glimpses of the character's different personality aspects: methodically examining all the tools at his disposal (including a very dull knife); laughing at the ridiculousness of his plight; and even toying with the idea of masturbating after a particularly vivid reminiscence of his ex-girlfriend, who left him because he was...well, a dick. But he also makes a visual diary of his experience with his video camera, entreating anyone who finds his remains to deliver the tape to his parents.

The film is also packed with "Boyle-isms," and that's a good thing. He's got a way of injecting surreal visuals that are still comprehensible and organic to the story he's telling. 127 Hours has a talk show sequence, recalling a similar scene in Trainspotting, in which Ralston pretends to interview himself and points out all of the mistakes he's made. I'm sure you've seen the trailer—when Franco says, "Oops," it's part of that sequence.

And, like Trainspotting's "filthiest toilet in Scotland" sequence, we get a squirm-inducing "drinking-one's-own-urine" cam. On the other hand there's also a spectacular fantasy segment in which the dangerously dehydrated Ralston fantasizes about a sudden, violent rainstorm that not only gives him mouthfuls of life-giving water but also lifts the boulder up and carries it away from his crushed arm.

As for the big moment—I'm not going to sugar-coat it—it is excruciating and tough to watch, but it's not in the least bit exploitative. As a matter of fact, it's integral to the plot to show how difficult and agonizing the actual act was to perform. And it's necessary to make the scenes that follow more of a relief and imbue them with a real sense of triumph.

I realize I've neglected to mention the other actors, among them Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn and Treat Willliams. They are all fine in their roles, but it's hard to compete against a man and his boulder!

127 Hours is a hard-to-classify film. It's not a date film for sure, and it's definitely difficult to watch, but it also fits neatly into Boyle's oeuvre. He's never been afraid of pushing the envelope, and he doesn't really care if what he makes is a commercial success (although he was well-rewarded with Slumdog). He's determined to tell stories his own way, and for that I commend him.

I also predict the upcoming awards season will involve Franco, Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network and Robert Duvall in the wonderful Get Low.

As for the rumors that Boyle is going to direct the three-quel to his 28 Days Later, he has confirmed his interest in doing it, but it may not be for a while. Rats.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Freak Shows

There was a time when freak shows were commonplace on the regional carnival circuit. When I was a kid, I even saw a couple of them. They were appalling—not only because the conditions these people existed in were so deplorable—but by the very fact that they had to make a living by exhibiting their disfigurements. Advancements in medicine have made many such afflictions a thing of the past. Not only is it politically incorrect in this day and age to exploit them, there just aren't that many of them anymore.

It was at the St. Joseph County Fair in South Bend, Indiana, where I first saw "Popeye" (pictured here). I was fourteen years old. This guy could force his eyeballs out of their sockets and pull them back in again. I can still vividly recall seeing the ocular fluid splashing out into the spotlights when he pulled his eyes back into their sockets after popping them out. It gave me nightmares. There was also the Alligator Woman (who must have had chronic shingles or some other skin disease) and a contortionist, but the image of Popeye is the one that really burned into my memory.

Our family would also travel to Walkerton, Indiana, on the Fourth of July and attend one of those creepy traveling carnivals you'd imagine some young girl would go to at night and never be heard from again. The rides were scary—they felt like they could fall apart at any moment. The Mad Mouse in particular was the roller coaster from hell.

The carnival's sideshow was limited—I think they just had some pathetic pickled "Siamese twins" and the fat man. You'd pay a quarter, walk into a filthy trailer and there he'd be, lying on the bed, looking bored. He'd answer questions if you had any, but I was really uncomfortable. After all, I was standing in a stranger's bedroom and I just wanted to get out.

The next day we went to the town's truck stop for breakfast, and there he was, sitting on a stool (or two), having steak and eggs. I wanted my twenty-five cents back!

Many films have been made featuring "freaks." Legendary director Tod Browning often had his star, Lon Chaney, play physically-challenged characters. Chaney starred with Joan Crawford (in one of her earliest roles) in The Unknown (1927). He played an armless knife thrower who propels the daggers with his feet. Actually, he's only pretending to be armless, but when he falls in love with Crawford, he goes to the doctor to actually have his limbs removed because she's revolted by the idea of being touched by a man!

Now that's one messed-up relationship. It's certainly the inspiration for cult favorite Alejandro Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre (1989), which features a similarly armless woman in a circus and her incestuous relationship with her son.

Browning went on to make Freaks (1932), still the classic of the genre and a film that tries to turn a kind eye to these physically challenged people. The problem is—probably due to the film's vintage— he still tends to infantalize them and includes scenes that invite the audience to chortle warmly as if they're watching monkeys frolic in a zoo.

Still, the wedding party sequence in which the "freaks" welcome the gold-digging trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova)—who marries and plans to murder one of their own (Harry Earles)—is extraordinary. They chant, "One of us! One of us! Gobble, gobble!" to her increasing revulsion. And when they realize she's actually having an affair with the circus strongman (Henry Victor) and is slowly poisoning her new husband, they exact their revenge during a violent nighttime rainstorm, slithering through the mud toward their victim. And of course she gets her just desserts.

Audiences were horrified by Freaks, and Browning's studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, quickly sold it off to exploitation pioneer Dwain Esper, who heavily re-edited it to emphasize its more unsavory aspects, and gave it the offensive new title Nature's Mistakes. Fortunately, the original became something of a cult classic in the 1960s and '70s for stoned college audiences, and the restored version can now be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

Baclanova also appeared in another classic of the genre—The Man Who Laughs (1928), directed by German emigre Paul Leni and starring the great Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). He plays Gwynplaine, the son of a Lord who is punished by the King's men, having a permanent smile carved into his face as a result of his father's treachery.

He joins a traveling carnival to exhibit his "deformity," and falls in love with a blind girl (Mary Philbin from Phantom of the Opera) who is unable to see his face but is drawn to his gentle nature. It is a terrific film, and a shame that Leni (who also directed The Cat and the Canary) died prematurely of blood poisoning here in Los Angeles. The only unintentional laugh for contemporary audiences is that Gwynplaine's dog is named Homo.

Prolific producer David Friedman, who invented the splatter genre with director Herschel Gordon Lewis in 1963 (Blood Feast), remade Freaks in 1967 as She Freak. Some fans say it has real verisimilitude in depicting the '60s carny atmosphere, and that's certainly Friedman's ouevre, but I find it difficult to sit through.

Joan Crawford returned to the circus in 1968 with Berserk!, which has been covered here previously. One of the highlights of the film is a bizarre, cringe-inducing musical number sung by the sideshow performers while Crawford chortles warmly.

Famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The African Queen) made a bizarre career move by directing The Mutations (1974), starring Donald Pleasance, Tom Baker (Dr. Who), Julie Ege and Jill Haworth. I tried to watch it in the 90s (on a really miserable quality rental VHS cassette), but it just didn't do anything for me—except that it featured Popeye and the Alligator Woman whom I'd seen during my visit to the St. Joseph County Fair years before! Now that was a "freak"-out.

Although not set in a carnival environment, Universal's train wreck The Sentinel (1977), directed by Death Wish's Michael Winner, features real "freaks" in its (allegedly) terrifying climax. A young model (the gummy-smiled Cristina Raines) moves into a haunted apartment building and is forced to confront the very Gates of Hell, guarded by minions with physical deformities, some of whom were the real deal. This was supposed to be a horrifying conclusion to a really goofy film, but all I can remember is that one of the guys looks like he has testicles swinging from his chin. I don't know if he's really malformed or just a product of Universal's make-up department, but it's pretty hilarious, and the film caught flak for exploiting these unfortunate people.

Actually, the whole picture is of the "so bad it's almost good" variety. Sylvia Miles and Beverly D'Angelo play lovers who live in another apartment, and when Raines first meets them, D'Angelo masturbates vigorously while Miles is out of the room. Later, she plays cymbals topless, which—considering her endowment—made me fear for her safety. I think Beverly would probably like to delete this credit from her resume.

Gil Melle's score is bombastic and continuous. I swear, there's not a moment of silence in the entire film, and "legendary" actors are dragged out for bits—Ava Gardner, Arthur Kennedy, Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Eli Wallach. A young Christopher Walken even appears in the role of a detective. But it's a hilarious mess, peppered with "hip" '70s gore and nudity.

But Sylvia gets to deliver the memorable line, "Heah, dah-link. Hef a hat and a noisemakah...for zeh pah-ty!" And Miles was destined to appear in another Universal carnival horror, Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981), in which she gives a Happy Ending to the disfigured killer right before he puts her out of her misery.

I thought Alex Winter (The Lost Boys, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) and Daniel Stern's Freaked (1993) was pretty funny, and an unbilled Keanu Reeves, as the Wolf Boy, adds to the fun. But these are all latex creatures, not real freaks (unless you count Randy Quaid—but that just happened recently).

I guess you could consider the Jackass boys to be carnies, especially in the setups involving tiny Wee Man (Jason Acuna) and enormous Preston Lacey, but they have such an endearing camaraderie.

The Freak Show is still alive and well in America, but—shades of David Cronenberg—its performers now have intentionally manufactured physical differences, and the emphasis seems to be on sadomasochism: being suspended from hooks piercing the flesh, forcing liquids into their bodies and expelling them again...well, you get the idea.

Even bodybuilders use the term "getting freaky," which means taking lots of diuretics before a competition to ensure that all the veins and muscle tissues show through their skin.

And now, on with the show!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

David Cronenberg and the New Flesh

When I was 16, I saw David Cronenberg's Shivers (aka They Came from Within) at the State Theater in South Bend, Indiana. It was my first exposure to the filmmaker's work—and indeed it was his first full-length feature as well.

Although I was too young to fully appreciate it at the time, I was certainly creeped out by the parallels between sexuality and disease, and this film introduced a different kind of zombie—one that doesn't want to eat you but instead wants to screw you to death! In the shocking opening scene, an older guy beats a very young-looking girl unconscious, throws her on a table, strips her naked, slices open her abdomen and pours acid inside her guts before slitting his own throat. And that's just the first few minutes!

The seemingly crazed murderer was actually a physician in an exclusive gated luxury community who developed a parasitic creature he hoped would take over the functions of diseased organs in humans, but it instead acts as a powerful aphrodisiac and hallucinogen, transforming its hosts into ravening sexual animals who are also "turned on" by the invasion. The attack at the beginning of the film was actually the doctor's attempt to quell the outbreak, but the promiscuous young girl already had encounters with other men in the building, and the infection spreads rapidly.

Cronenberg exploits the subject to make his audience as uneasy as possible. The parasites are passed from one host to another via bodily orifices. Legendary scream queen Barbara Steele receives hers in the bathtub before passing one through an open-mouthed kiss with comely neighbor Janine (Susan Petrie). Janine's husband, Nicholas (Allan Kolman), is one of the guys who'd slept with the infected girl, and he's reproducing the parasites rapidly. In one queasy scene, he lifts up his shirt and strokes his abdomen, practically cooing to the parasites as they ripple beneath his flesh.

Joe Blasco's creatures and makeup effects are very well done, especially considering the film's conservative budget. When Cronenberg hired him to work on the film, Blasco said he prepared for a career in horror makeup by working on the "Lawrence Welk" show! The film is clammy and claustrophobic, features the trademark bleak Cronenbergian finale...and it really gets under your skin.

His fascination with mutated and transformed flesh continued with his next feature, Rabid (1977). Adult film star Marilyn Chambers takes a straight role as a young woman who develops a taste for human blood after receiving an experimental treatment at a mysterious clinic.

She's been in a serious motorcycle accident, and the clinic's head uses radiation-treated skin to graft to fire-damaged areas of her body. As a result, a barb-like appendage has grown under her arm, and she uses it to pierce the flesh of her victims and ingest their blood. She doesn't kill them, but her "sting" causes them to contract a virulent form of rabies. The contagion quickly spreads, but she's unaware that she's the cause of it.

Chambers is quite good in her role, and although it doesn't quite have the "ick" factor of Shivers, the film is better crafted and gives Cronenberg some opportunity to express his jet-black sense of humor. There's a memorable scene at a shopping mall where cops shoot down Santa Claus while combating rabid shoppers!

The Brood (1979) stars Oliver Reed as a psychologist who is treating a patient with anger-management issues (Samantha Eggar) with unorthodox methods, causing her to give birth to vicious little mutant kids who attack and kill those who raise her ire.

It's one of the most personal films he ever made. He'd recently undergone a painful divorce and then kidnapped his daughter because he feared his ex-wife had joined a lunatic cult. It's a story that's far more interesting than the film, which is a little too complicated in my opinion to be completely satisfying.

Scanners (1981) was a big hit for Cronenberg, opening the doors to Hollywood and allowing him to make Videodrome for Universal and The Dead Zone for Paramount, both released in 1983. Videodrome explores the idea of melding flesh and machinery, and though it's high on kink, it's too cold and complicated for me.

The Dead Zone
proved that he could make a "straight" film based on the work of another (Stephen King), and it's very good. Christopher Walken's central performance is great, and an air of real melancholy hangs over every frame. It's interesting in that instead of mutated flesh, it features a mutated mind, as Walken's character awakens from a two-year coma to find he's acquired the gift (or curse) of telepathy. And a serial killer's suicide near the beginning of the film should be mandatory viewing for today's "torture porn" auteurs. It's not particularly explicit, but it's just...horrible.

After Zone, the Hollywood door opened even wider, and Cronenberg remade The Fly for 20th Century Fox in 1986. Here he was given a big budget and free reign to explore his themes of mutated flesh—and it was a huge hit! Giant actors Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis are a perfect match, and the film is packed with his trademark grotesqueries. As Goldblum's Seth Brundle is mutating, he begins to lose his useless human body parts. In one memorable scene, he watches himself in the bathroom mirror as he pulls his teeth painlessly out of his mouth and then opens the medicine cabinet to reveal his redundant penis sitting on the shelf!

Dead Ringers (1988) stars Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, who share sexual partners without said partners realizing there's been a switch. When Beverly embarks on an affair with actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), he becomes obsessed and doesn't want to share her with Elliot.

They've both had a lifelong fascination with the female reproductive system (hence their career), and the fact that Claire has a uterus divided into three separate chambers makes her irresistible to Beverly. Of course, it doesn't take long for the psychological damage to occur, and soon Beverly is designing a set of "gynecological instruments for mutant women."

Irons is magnificent as the twins, providing each with just enough difference in character to tell them apart. The word in Hollywood is that his later Oscar win for Reversal of Fortune was in fact a reward for this film, which was considered too "extreme" for nomination at the time. And Cronenberg's gallows humor comes through in several scenes. Here, he manages to wrangle an outrageous plot, but keep it entertaining, comprehensible and...well, moving.

Next, Cronenberg tackled William S. Burrough's "unfilmable" Naked Lunch (1991). Many have complained that the film is comprised of a series of seemingly unrelated scenes of bizarreness, but I've read the book and that's what happens there, too! Peter Weller is the Burroughs surrogate and Judy Davis is his wife. He works as an exterminator, and she's been shooting up his insect spray ("It's a Kafkaesque high," she says. "Makes you feel like a bug.").

Exposure to the spray causes him to hallucinate that he's an agent for Interzone Incorporated and has been assigned to assassinate her, initiating a descent into one of Cronenberg's most outrageous visual forays yet. There are talking typewriters with particularly sensitive anuses, giant bugs, bizarre aliens and Roy Scheider in one of the strangest roles of his career. Lessons learned from his two previous films, he manages to wrangle the surrealism and absurdity of the novel into a bizarrely entertaining and funny film.

After M. Butterfly (which I frankly had no interest in seeing), Cronenberg embarked upon his most ambitious epic of weirdness yet—Crash (1996). Boasting a great name cast, including James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas and Rosanna Arquette, it's based on the J.G. Ballard novel and, as the tagline proclaims, it's about "sex and car crashes." It's also his most successful work, in my opinion. It's so sleek and shiny, the sex is intense, and his obsession with flesh melding with metal is eloquently communicated.

It's also really, really funny. There's just no way this film can't be viewed as a black comedy. With every outrage, Cronenberg seems to be winking at the audience and saying, "You didn't think I'd do this, did you?" And again, he gives the central figure the name of the original work's author.

After James Ballard (Spader) survives a horrendous car crash, he enters into a sordid sort of sex club with similarly afflicted individuals, including the woman (Holly Hunter) he'd collided with.

Some time later, he's in bed with his equally kinky wife (a terrific Deborah Kara Unger). She encourages him to talk about the genitalia of Vaughan (Koteas), another member of the "club." Her verbiage is oddly clinical ("Imagine his anus," she says. "Describe it to me."). Of course, Cronenberg follows this up with a vigorous sexual encounter between Vaughan and James in Vaughan's convertible, which later becomes a penis surrogate itself when Vaughan uses it to ram James' car.

And when Arquette's character exposes a vagina-shaped wound in her thigh, which James can penetrate—and he does—it's just too much. There's also a scene in which Hunter is simultaneously massaging the crotches of Spader and Arquette while they're watching car crash footage on television...whew. It's certainly not a film for all tastes.

eXistenZ (1999) sounds disturbingly like one of those "lasting erection" pills, but it's actually a film about a video game whose creator and marketer get trapped in. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law, it's not without its charms, but it's kind of "Cronenberg lite." It's really a lark, but it's well-done and entertaining, and there's a lot of hilarious mutation.

Lately Cronenberg has essentially become an arthouse director, and while I've admired some of these films—Eastern Promises, A History of Violence and Spider, I keep leaving the theater disappointed that they weren't weirder. They certainly have audacious moments: Violence has a surprisingly explicit oral sex scene, and everyone still talks about Viggo Mortensen's naked, brutal battle in Promises, but I just wish they were even more "out there."

I'm optimistic that Cronenberg isn't done yet, and I'm confident that he's got another sticky, messy, wonderful opus to give to us. Unlike George Romero, who seems intent on delivering a bunch of not-very-interesting zombie films toward the end of his career, Cronenberg can give us something special.

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