For me, summer vacation doesn't mean taking a trip--it means finding a place to escape the big-studio kiddie movies that seem to infest every multiplex. Luckily we live in the Bay Area, home of art cinemas, rep houses (that rare breed), sub-run theaters, and museums, far away from the belch-fire booms of summer blockbusters, in an alternate universe where eccentric programmers spend their time thinking of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Jean Renoir, not Jerry Bruckheimer and Steven Spielberg.
Lewis, as any devotee of retro trash/drive-in movies knows, was and probably still is the master of shocking sleaze. Or sleazy shock. The Chicago-based former advertising man and filmmaker may not have invented exploitation, but his...uh, taste in screen entertainment, combined with an uncanny talent for tickling dollars out of moviegoers' pockets (some call this "marketing") in the '60s and '70s, made him an offbeat showbiz legend, a genuine fringe magnet. The Godfather of Gore's best-known films--Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, Blast-off Girls, The Gore-Gore Girls--continue to inspire cheapo/weirdo filmmakers and cult fanatics. Stacked against Kroger Babb, Doris Wishman, Al Adamson, Russ Meyer, Jack Hill, Roger Corman, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, George Romero, and Quentin Tarantino, Herschell Gordon Lewis is the leader of the pack.
Lewis' She-Devils on Wheels (1968) was an attempt to cash in on that era's biker-pic craze, with the gimmick that the eponymous motorcycle gang, a club called the Man-Eaters, was composed entirely of women who used men as sex objects. It has everything you look for in a drive-in movie: cheap production values, rotten acting, stupid writing, inept direction--the works. Think sub-Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! In fact, take practically any biker flick you have ever seen and turn it up a notch on the Dumb-O-Meter. This film defines the word "nadir." And yet, somehow, abstract concepts appear much more clearly when glimpsed from the rock-bottom of human experience. Filmed in "Blinding Color" in South Florida with a cast of actual female bikers, She-Devils wastes quite a bit of time with long-held shots of bikes going down two-lane roads, but when the action heats up sufficiently it's a model of compressed violence and paranoia.
Led by Queen (Betty Connell) astride her full-dress hog, the gals hold drag races on an abandoned airport runway, with the winners getting first pick of the "studs"--a group of nonbiker guys who seemingly exist to service the Man-Eaters--back at the clubhouse. (Enthuses one of the girls: "You treat men like slabs of meat!") Two of the club members in particular draw Queen's attention: the petite, scatterbrained club mascot, Honey-Pot (Nancy Lee Noble), who rides a pathetic little Honda scooter; and Karen (Christie Wagner, along with Noble the only professional actor in the bunch), who is under suspicion for the crime of becoming emotionally attached to stud Bill (David Harris). Both these plotlets resolve themselves in true biker-pic style, à la H.G. Lewis: Honey-Pot gets stripped, smeared with paint and motor oil, forced to pull train for the studs, and ends up battered to death, while Karen is compelled to drag her innamorato Bill to a pulp behind her bike. After which she finds another boyfriend.
Brutal as all this sounds, it should be pointed out that Lewis' brand of splatter--outrageous in the '60s--is pretty tame by today's standards. That's probably why it's so much fun. Victims generally get daubed with stage blood; special effects are as primitive as the dialogue; and no one, even in the clubhouse orgy scene, so much as loses her bra.
Angry feminists--not to mention fans of gigantic, dominant women--will no doubt thrill to scenes of the Man-Eaters hassling cops ("Dirty muther-fuzz!"), duking it out with a macho group of guys called the Joe Boys (the girls win, natch), and gaining climactic revenge on the leader of that club, Joe Boy himself (John Weymer), by stringing a wire across a road between two telephone poles, then taunting Joe Boy into chasing them on a bike. At the last moment, the gals hide behind some convenient bushes and Joe Boy, failing to detect the wire that even a paralyzed fruit bat could easily see, decapitates himself at high speed. The severed head looks fake. We, as a civilization, have made great progress in that department since 1968. The movie closes with Queen and the enormous Whitey (Pat Poston) throwing down verses from the theme song, Lewis and Larry Wellington's "Get off the Road" ("We don't owe nobody nothin' and we don't make no deals/ We're swingin' chicks on motors and man-eaters on wheels"). Josie and the Pussycats could never top that.
Don't think for a minute that the above synopsis could ruin your viewing. Far from it, buddy. There are dozens of little Herschell Gordon Lewis grace notes scattered like so many blood clots throughout the film. And of course, She-Devils on Wheels is only the film portion of the "Thrillville Honeymoon Show" at the Parkway on Thursday, June 21 (two shows, 7:30 and 10:00). In addition to the movie, the Parkway's celebration of the recent wedding of Will "The Thrill" Viharo and Monica the Tiki Goddess includes a live performance by the Devil-ettes, a San Francisco neo-à-go-go dance troupe who'll do the shing-a-ling all night long. Dig it. Congrats, Mr. and Mrs. Thrill.
Speaking of dancing girls, Jean Renoir's French Cancan is coming to the Fine Arts Cinema, and would eventually make an interesting triple bill with the two Moulin Rouge films--Baz Luhrmann's new one and John Huston's 1952 costumer of the same name.
I've got no major quarrel with Luhrmann's musical. Although it's randy and overbuilt, the singing and dancing (what we can see of it amid the seven million jump cuts) is fine, Luhrmann's '70s-and-'80s-jukebox approach to the material is bold and flavorful, and Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor both tackle their parts with great vigor. The film may even spur a twentysomething in a mall somewhere to discover Nat King Cole or David Bowie. But it's got nothing to do with Belle Époque Paris or bohemian Montmartre or even life in a dancehall--beyond being the coatrack on which Luhrmann hangs his lavish costumes, sets, special effects, and Elton John's greatest hits.
Renoir's 1955 version, of course, really is about all those French things. The director of Grand Illusion, Rules of the Game, Boudu Saved from Drowning, A Day in the Country, La Marseillaise, and The Golden Coach had the Moulin Rouge in his bones. Never mind that film critic André Bazin said, "Among the recent Renoirs, French Cancan is the best liked by the dilettantes, the least esteemed by the purists" (Bazin went on to declare, "I cannot imagine a more perfect homage to Auguste Renoir," the film director's illustrious painter father). Take critic Andrew Sarris' rave--"The most joyous hymn to the glory of art in the history of cinema"--with a grain of salt. Instead, sit back and admire a collection of moments and characters to compete with Luhrmann's blizzard of details.
French Cancan is full of fire, and incredibly sexy for 1954. Renoir's panoramic showbiz saga, an ode to the Impressionists and the spirit of Toulouse-Lautrec, tells of the impresario Monsieur Danglard (Jean Gabin), his up-and-down attempts to revive the scandalous cancan dance in a new nightclub he dubs the Moulin Rouge, and his multitude of lovers, friends, competitors, and hangers-on: People such as Mme. Guibolle, the dance teacher who can still point her leg straight up to the ceiling. Pathetic old Prunelle, once Queen of the Cancan, now a beggar on the Place Pigalle. Casimir (played by Philippe Clay), a rubber-faced clown (and harbinger of the French taste for Jerry Lewis) who sings and mugs his way through songs like "Catherine the Great." Roberto the whistling Pierrot. Baron Walter the horny financial backer (Jean-Roger Caussimon). Paulo the jealous, jilted baker (Franco Pastorino). His girlfriend Nini (radiant Françoise Arnoul), a laundress-turned-showgirl. A lovestruck prince (Gianni Esposito). The two Montmartre interlocutors/ pickpockets, one of whom always has a flower in his mouth. And La Belle Abbesse (Mexican movie goddess María Felix), the statuesque music hall vedette who opens the film as Danglard's main squeeze and is then replaced by another, and another.
Even though it was made almost fifty years ago, Renoir's film is much more sophisticated in the ways of the world than Luhrmann's. Rich noblemen coexist peacefully with poor bakers and out-of-luck showmen. And a showgirl does what she has to do. Virginal Nini makes love with Paulo just before her big meeting with M. Danglard, because she wanted Paulo to be the first, and she had heard from her friends about the wicked ways of theater people and knew that eventually Danglard would have her--and he does. The Technicolor is gorgeous. Patachou, Cora Vaucaire, and the great Edith Piaf all perform songs in cameo. Danglard's "the show must go on" speech to his cast before the opening-night curtain is pure Gallic schmaltz. Best of all, the showgirls actually dance the cancan, in medium-long shot, to the music of Offenbach, no less, in the rousing grand finale. French Cancan plays a full calendared week, Thursday, June 21 through Wednesday, June 27, with another certifiable masterpiece, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Enjoy.
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