#77 - Running Wild

Dedicated To
J.G. Ballard
1930 - 2009

Added 4/24/09

Howdy, movie buffs. Welcome back to the Electric Theatre. I’ve got a few bits of business to take care of before we dive into this week’s reviews, including a couple tributes to some folks who have recently passed on, unfortunately.

First off, Marilyn Chambers was found dead in her Santa Clarita trailer on April 12. For those of you who don’t know the name, Ms. Chambers was one of the biggest superstars of the porno revolution of the 1970s. Her first adult film was 1972’s Behind The Green Door, a genuinely strange mix of porn and arthouse sensibilities that became one of the biggest hits of the era. Other titles included The Resurrection Of Eve and Insatiable, one of the few porno flicks I’ve seen where the sex is actually kinda sexy. Horror fans, however, will remember her as the star of David Cronenberg’s Rabid, one of his best early films and a genuinely unsettling little movie. Marilyn Chambers acquits herself very well here and if her porno background hadn’t given Hollywood the heebie-jeebies, she probably could have crossed over to mainstream films at least as well as Traci Lords did a decade or so later. It’s a shame she never got more of an opportunity to prove herself.

Next up is this week’s dedicatee, the great J.G. Ballard. Ballard was one of the great dystopian science fiction writers of all time, although his work is so groundbreaking that rooting it in any kind of genre sells it short. His novels included the post-apocalyptic The Drowned World, the experimental The Atrocity Exhibition, High Rise (a book about a modern luxury apartment building that seems more relevant all the time), and the chilling novella Running Wild. His best known works, of course, were those adapted to film. Crash, very ably adapted to film by David Cronenberg, is a one-of-a-kind novel about car-crash sex fetishists. I’ve never come close to reading another book like it. His most accessible book is likely Empire Of The Sun, a semi-autobiographical account of Ballard’s childhood during World War II that’s about a zillion times better than Steven Spielberg’s film version. J.G. Ballard was one of my favorite authors. His voice will be sorely missed as we continue to steamroll through the 21st century.

Now for some good news (at least, I hope you’ll think it’s good news). I’ve started yet another blog for all the other random bits of nonsense that flitter through my cranium and don’t quite fit here or in The Bottom Shelf entitled The Doctor Is In. I don’t know what I’ll be talking about exactly…books, comics, things in the news, stories about the porn studio across the street from my house (aha…THAT got your attention!). Whatever it is, I’ll try my gosh-darndest to make it worth your precious life-seconds to pop by and give it a read. The first entry is up now, so please do check it out and I hope you like it enough to come back for seconds.

OK then, let’s have some reviews. While there are some interesting looking flicks playing theatrically right now, I’ve alternated between being too busy and too lazy to bother checking any of them out. Sorry about that. But I’ve no shortage of Tales From The Queue recommendations, so rather than hold up progress on that front, I thought I’d treat you to a TFTQ double feature, both of which are well worth your time.

Zero Day

It was the tenth anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School earlier this week, a fact that I was totally unaware of when I sat down to watch Zero Day a couple weeks ago. Inspired by that event, Ben Coccio’s low-budget 2003 film takes the form of a series of video diaries, a legacy left behind by two teenagers after they stage an assault on their high school. Andre and Cal (played by Andre Keuck and Cal Robertson) document the planning and months leading up to the assault on camcorders. Calling themselves the Army of Two, they stage a series of escalating “missions” leading up to the final, bloody day. They detail the how, where and when, but repeatedly insist that there is no “why”. In one scene, they burn all their books, games and CDs in an attempt to exonerate all the media that might otherwise be blamed for inspiring their actions. The “why” is left up to us to figure out and as is always the case, there is no easy answer.

Despite the fact that the events are fictional, Zero Day is not an easy film to watch. Coccio stays true to his concept throughout, even switching to surveillance camera footage once the siege begins. Keuck and Robertson are so natural that it’s easy to forget we’re watching a dramatic film and not a documentary. Wisely, no attempt is made to paint these two kids as victims or make them sympathetic. By the end of the movie, you’re furious with them, as you should be. You’re also upset with their families, their friends and everyone else who didn’t see this coming. Zero Day is a fascinating, disturbing film. If you’ve ever watched coverage of a school shooting and wondered how this could happen, you should check this out. (* * *)

The Day Of The Locust

Based on the legendary novel by Nathanael West, I’m truly shocked that I hadn’t seen John Schlesinger’s 1975 film adaptation before now. I was familiar with the book but only dimly aware that a movie had been made from it. For whatever reason, the film’s reputation is nowhere near as great as many of its contemporaries from the 70s. I have no idea why since this is one of the most audacious and haunting films from that decade.

William Atherton stars as Tod Hackett, newly arrived in Hollywood hoping to break into the movies as an art director. He lives next door to aspiring actress Faye Greener and her salesman father, Harry (played by Karen Black and Burgess Meredith, both excellent). Tod falls for Faye but she thinks he’s beneath her. Instead, she takes advantage of a lonely religious zealot named Homer Simpson, played to eye-popping perfection by Donald Sutherland. Tod is quickly swept up in a world of lonely, bitter souls and their perverse games, including cockfighting, stag films and all-night parties. Everyone is touched by mania and a voyeuristic lust for fame. A tour guide at the Hollywoodland sign revels in the gory details of the landmark’s status as a popular destination for suicides. Everyone, from the very young to the very old, fancies themselves a performer and is desperate for a whiff of fame. Even the faith healing revival Homer attends reeks of hucksterism and lust for glory.

I have to believe that David Lynch is a fan of The Day Of The Locust. You can trace a direct line from this to Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. Schlesinger’s film is equally hypnotic, taking its time with almost dreamlike imagery before ultimately erupting into a nightmare. The entire cast is phenomenal, including Bo Hopkins as a cowboy actor strung along by Faye, Billy Barty as Tod’s angry, alcoholic dwarf neighbor, Geraldine Page as the Aimee Semple McPherson-inspired Big Sister, and a young Jackie Earle Haley delivering what may be filmdom’s most obnoxious performance by a child actor. West’s book was adapted by screenwriter Waldo Salt, whose experiences as a blacklisted writer during the 50s almost certainly added extra venom to the script’s bite. The Day Of The Locust is one of the most scathing looks at the film industry ever produced. It’s a dark and frightening vision with real power. The film’s most indelible images stayed with me for days after. I’m glad I finally caught up to one of the best and most underrated movies of the 70s. (* * * ½)

Big thanks to Robert J. Sautter and Mychal Bowden for this week’s recommendations. Mychal sent in quite a few titles, so don’t be surprised to see his name pop up again. He clearly has excellent taste since one of them, Joseph Sargent’s 1974 movie The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, I had already seen and is therefore ineligible for TFTQ. However, I heartily recommend that movie as well. It’s brilliant in every way and I encourage you to see it before (or instead of) the Denzel Washington/John Travolta remake due this summer. And remember that if you have a supercool movie (or list of movies) that nobody else seems to know about, give a “Breaker! Breaker!” to your good buddy, Dr. Jahnke. I’ve got my ears on.

Your pal,