Thursday, January 9, 2020

TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN 1972

Toys Are Not For Children, an unashamedly debauched ‘70s grindhouse trash treasure with the subversive smarts of arthouse cinema, is a psychosexual fever dream about childhood trauma and arrested development. In keeping with the film’s kiddie-centric theme, and being something of a case of pop-cultural stunted growth myself, I offer an introduction to the film in the style of my favorite childhood cartoon show--The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle--a program that ended each cliffhanger episode with two pun-heavy either/or wordplay titles. 
Toys Are Not For Children 
(In the voice of narrator William Conrad) Be sure to join us for our next episode: 
 "Welcome to the Psycho-Doll House” or “Mourning Becomes Electra-Complex.”

Marcia Forbes as Jamie Godard
Harlan Cary Poe as Charlie Belmond
Evelyn Kingsley as Pearl Valdi
Luis Arroyo as Eddie 
Fran Warren as Edna Godard

During New Hollywood’s clumsy transitional years, when recently-relaxed censorship laws made it easier for explicit images of sex and sadism to proliferate on movie screens, low-budget exploitation films were faced with the dilemma of seeing the once-exclusive staples of their domain—prurience, sensationalism, nudity, violence, profanity, and sordid content—co-opted by the major studios. With 20th Century-Fox greenlighting megabuck miscalculations in weirdness like Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), and Warner Bros. bankrolling the X-rated, controversy-courting masterworks A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Devils (1971), how was a lowly, lowbrow independent expected to compete?

For many in the quick-play, easy-profit trade, the obvious solution was to raise the stakes by lowering the sleaze bar. To explore themes and topics even the majors might be squeamish about touching, and in so doing (perhaps inadvertently, but aways inevitably), usher in the crazy.
Enter filmmaker Stanley H. Brassloff, creator of two of 1968’s more obscure “roughies” (a gritty subgenre of sexploitation, usually featuring sexual violence) Two Girls for a Madman and Behind Locked Doors, and the director/producer/screenwriter (with Macs McAree) of the disarmingly whacko Toys Are Not For Children
As if suddenly realizing it has an awful lot of perversion to shoehorn into a rather breakneck 85-minute running time, Toys Are Not For Children gets swiftly down to business in a doozy of a pre-credits sequence that perfectly sets the tone for all the bizarro that follows. To the accompaniment of ominous chords of organ music and considerable heavy breathing on the soundtrack, an astonished mother walks in on her teenage daughter writhing naked on a child-sized bed in an infantile, toy-cluttered bedroom, lost in a fog of rapturous masturbation while caressing a stuffed toy soldier and moaning “Daddy…Daddy!”
And…we’re off to the dysfunction races.

Barbie's No-Fun House
Furniture scale and decor emphasize the doll-like world Jamie inhabits
“How long has this been going on? The stuff you’re doing… you’re just like your father! Well, he’s too busy with his women. All he ever did was send you these stinking toys and you take them to bed. It’s unnatural. Do you hear me? Unnatural!”


The individual demonstrating that any toy can be a sex toy when you’re toting around emotional baggage the size of a steamer trunk, is 19-year-old Jamie Godard of Long Island, NY. An emotionally immature young woman who, if you'll allow for the gross understatement, really misses her absentee father.
It seems beloved daddy Phillip Godard was abruptly and unceremoniously kicked out of the house, never to be seen again, when Jamie was but six-years-old. Left in the toxic care of Edna, her embittered, sexually-repressed mother, Jamie's coping mechanism is to cultivate a dissociatively idealized image of her father. A soft-focus, turbidly carnal image dramatically at odds with her mother's frequent, epithet-laden reminders to Jamie that her father is a whoremonger, a drunkard, and, like all men, an evil scumbag who wants only one thing from women. Well, two things, actually. Edna emphatically maintains that men only want housewives and whores...just not in the same woman.

Playing Around
Jamie finds her dream job working in (what else?) a toy store. There she meets and hastily marries her co-worker, Charlie as a means of escaping her mother. In this scene, Charlie expresses his love for the decidedly impassive Jamie under the watchful gaze of several toys. Most prophetically: a Betty Big Girl doll and one called Little Honeymoon (the space baby from Dick Tracy comics).

The psychological fallout of being raised by two monumentally ill-matched individuals with the relationship skills of an Edward Albee Second Act, is that Jamie hasn’t grown up so much as grown weird. Inhibited, sexually fearful, and emotionally shut off on any subject that isn’t related to either toys or her dad; Jamie lives in a cocooned world of developmental suspended animation. One that feeds the delusion that her Daddy isn't just the only man ever to love her, he's the only man who WILL ever love her.
Like The Wizard of Oz, The Bluebird, and countless bedtime stories about little girls embarking on journeys in search of something elusive and prized, Toys Are Not For Children is a fucked-up Fractured Fairy Tale chronicling Jamie's perverted Pilgrim's Progress to contrive the world's most misguided father and daughter reunion.
Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue
The blue, in this case, being Charlie's balls. Jamie prefers honeymoon cuddling with her stuffed toy


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
One of the nice surprises about exploitation flicks is that while they remain refreshingly honest and upfront about their commitment to giving audiences only the most salacious, exaggerated take on a subject at any given time, behind the surface, a great many of them turn out to be remarkably subversive. 
The kind of movie Toys Are Not For Children sold itself as can be gleaned from the two act-of-desperation alternative titles it was rereleased under after initially bombing at the boxoffice: there’s the grossly misleading How to Make Love to a Virgin and the simply nonsensical Virgin Dolls. But Toys Are Not For Children is actually an outlandish incest taboo/titillation tease propping up a provocatively rendered commentary on the limited and contradictory nature of society’s assigned roles for women. 
Jamie finds a friend, surrogate mother, & role model in Pearl Valdi, a New York prostitute and single mother who visits the store one day to buy a birthday gift for her 9-year-old daughter. Jamie suggests a toy oven:
Jamie: “She can cook for her friends!”
Pearl: “Heh, she’ll be doing that for the rest of her life!”
Jamie: “Oh, when you’re 9 its fun to play house!”
Pearl: “As long as you only PLAY house...it’s OK.”


With its three female major characters, at times, Toys Are Not For Children feels like Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977) filtered through the twisted mind of John Waters. Jamie, Pearl, and Edna each represent a restrictive feminine archetype. Jamie is woman as the eternal child. The infantilized daddy’s girl expected to be the virginal, compliant, and dependent love-receptacle whose sexualized innocence she’s neither allowed to acknowledge nor own. Who gets to define what it means to be a "good" girl or woman? Too often it's tied to archaic, patriarchal notions of purity and the silencing of a woman's voice in deciding who has access to her body.  
Pretty In Pink
Even in the midst of the Women's Movement, the '70s trafficked heavily
in the fetishization of sexualized youth and the infantilizing of women 

If Jamie is a worst-case casualty of our culture’s mania for girls who mature sexually but never grow up, then Jamie’s mother Edna is the Donna Reed / Leave It To Beaver domestic fantasy yanked to the dark side. Literally a housewife in that she’s never seen outside the confines of her claustrophobic home (the film’s dollhouse motif, again), Jamie’s vindictive mother—like the proverbial madwoman in the attic—is characterized as crazy and irrational, but she’s the only one who actually sees what’s going on. 
Between the sleaze and shocking revelations, Toys Are Not For Children manages to squeeze in a surprising number of barbed observations about the narrow scope through which women are viewed by society. Through the subtly competitive relationships Jamie has with her mother (vying for the attentions of her father), and Pearl (capitulating to Eddie, Pearl's pimp and bedmate), it's dramatized how women, for want of male-gaze validation (aka love), often adopt inauthentic, ill-fitting personas and fail to be mutually supportive allies to other women...even in instances of shared trauma. 
In its depiction of Jamie's traumatizing home life, the film points to the cultural contrasts in the ways marriage is framed for women (all Happy Homemaker fulfillment, no drudgery) and men (standard Playboy Joke Page stuff about loss of freedom and a lifetime saddled to the ol' ball-and-chain). 
I Don't Wanna Grow Up, I'm A Toys R Us Kid
Ironically, the first time Charlie meets Jamie, he's the one acting like a child. Driving a toy car through the aisles, upon catching sight of his future wife, the camera frames him so he's surrounded by gendered toys of domesticity: a toy over, vacuum cleaner, blender, dishwasher set, and hairdryer

Rounding out this triad of female archetypes is whore: the umbrella label assigned any woman who falls outside the Purity Myth. As it happens, Pearl (who instantly won me over in her introduction scene by giving serious Jacqueline Susann energy with her big hair and Pucci dress) actually IS a whore, but an unapologetic one with a maternalistic streak. Caring to Edna’s cold, colorful to Edna’s drab, and lively to Edna's cynical dispiritedness, Pearl becomes an unexpected, unwilling role model for Jamie. 
I'm Coming Out
Jamie gets herself a Klute haircut, a new wardrobe, and a new career.  
As with Altman's film, the three women in Toys Are Not For Children exemplify three distinct aspects of female identity that are simply the standard-issue complexities and contradictions of being a dimensional human, yet society promotes them as being at odds with one another.
"That Jamie is a real doll!"
Charlie fails to conceal his annoyance at his boss Max (N.J. Osrag)
for insisting that married life must be pure bliss


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I can’t say exactly what expectations I brought to Toys Are Not For Children, I only know they were low. Making the mistake of assuming the film’s obscurity was indicative of its quality, I settled in hoping for nothing more than a newly unearthed, so-bad-it’s-good godsend. Is it low-budget? To be sure. Feature uneven acting? Without a doubt. Camp? Most certainly. But, much like when I saw Dinah East (1970)--that other little known exploitationer I discovered decades after its initial release--I came away from Toys Are Not For Children simply floored to discover a sharp, perceptive, almost recklessly strange film. Feminist and fabulous, I'm convinced it's one of the best of the genre.
Sex-phobic Jamie has a particularly bad reaction to happening upon an amorous couple in the woods

Though not all of its ideas are thought through, and its take on sexual psychosis is dodgy, I'm nevertheless impressed by the film being audacious enough to structure its narrative in the form of Greek tragedy. Toys Are Not For Children cleverly tells the body of the story in disjointed, time-hopping flashbacks. The dual benefit and overall effect created is of having the viewer share Jamie’s fractured psyche while at the same time creating a narrative tension that feels like the piecing together of a puzzle. 
The look of the film is colorful and toy box bright, giving forth with an eye-orgy of kooky '70s decor, fashions, and hairstyles. The performances run the gamut of being a step above Andy Warhol level to the unexpectedly affecting and natural performance by Evelyn Kingsley as Pearl. 
Depending on how you look at it, Jamie's development or degradation is given visual emphasis in these mirror shots that have the artwork in Jamie's room reflect the changes in her life. Top right: a tiny picture of a little girl hangs in a room cluttered with toys. Below: a large painting of a nude woman staring unashamedly at the artist (viewer).

As the 1970s progressed, exploitation films grew so increasingly standardized and mainstream, genuinely offbeat, difficult-to-categorize releases like this all but disappeared. A fact that makes me regret that I missed out on the opportunity to see Toys Are Not For Children on the big screen in a theater back when it came out. Certainly, amid the glut of male-centric action films and buddy movies I saw at the time, a female-driven exercise in eccentricity like this would have been most welcome. But that's past. I'm just glad SOMEONE thought to exhume this forgotten gem and give us connoisseurs of the kooky an experience not easy to forget.
Twisted Toy Story

BONUS MATERIAL
I was surprised to discover the actress playing Jamie's perpetually
pissed-off mother was a former big band singer and jazz vocalist
who, in 1947, introduced the popular standard "A Sunday Kind of Love." 


Films Dealing With Themes Similar to Toys Are Not For Children
Toys In The Attic (1963): Family dysfunction, incest, and Yvette Mimieux as a childlike woman.

Secret Ceremony (1968): Family dysfunction, sexual abuse, Elizabeth Taylor as a maternal whore, and Mia Farrow as a childlike woman.
Secret Ceremony
Toys Are Not For Children


Several times in the film I found my eyes drawn to the distinctive art print Pearl has on the wall of her apartment. It's a poster for a 1967 exhibit at New York's Pace Gallery for surrealist Ernest Trova. The image is from his Falling Man series. 


It's Time To Speak of Unspoken Things


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

CONSUMPTION AS IDENTITY: Movies, Fandom, & Critical Thinking

“Criticism is the only thing that stands between the audience and advertising.” 
Pauline Kael 

I love watching movies. A claim that until recently also meant I love going to the movies. But as I've grown older, I’m afraid the whole communal experience thing has begun to lose some of its appeal for me. Which is really too bad, timing-wise, since moviegoing has never been more user-friendly and tailored for customer satisfaction. Take, for example, those new-fangled, high-backed, individual armrest w/cupholder, semi-reclining stadium seats designed to accommodate the plush expanses of the American Big Gulp/Super-Size derrière.
Or the more-democratic return of reserved-seating, which, in my day, was exclusively a roadshow luxury afforded the elite (i.e., folks with social calendars and reliable babysitters). Concession stands, once just a place to buy popcorn, over-carbonated beverages, and DOTS™ candies to strew in the aisles for other patrons to step on; now offer a veritable food truck variety menu. And in many theaters, a real, live person comes out just before the film starts to remind patrons to turn off their phones--just like in the days of the silents when title cards reminded ladies to please remove their hats.
But over the years I’ve accepted the fact (my partner would say "embraced" is more like it) that I’ve become far too crabby and curmudgeonly for these tantalizing innovations in movie exhibition to exert much influence over my resistance to seeing films with an audience. In whatever graveyard one might find buried the ornate movie palaces of old...those with uniformed ushers and $1 souvenir programs; sneak previews that were actually a surprise; or double-features and open admission policies...there is where you’re likely to find what once made seeing movies in theaters so much fun for me: a youthful disinterest in monitoring the behavior of others.
On the other hand, what hasn’t changed a bit over the years is how much I love to talk about movies. When I was young, Saturdays meant my three sisters and I would spend entire afternoons at the local movie theater immersing ourselves in colorful worlds and lives far different from our own. Our method of prolonging the experience and making the movies last until the following Saturday—when, more than likely, we'd see the same exact double-bill again—would be to engage one another in discussion about the movies we’d just seen. In exhaustive, expansive detail.
Having to sit together in silence for long stretches of time in a dark theater left us fairly bursting with gab at the end of the day. Thus, no afternoon at the movies ever felt complete without the accompanying animated conversations we had on the bus ride home. We’d talk about the plot, which performances we liked, recount favorite scenes, recite passages of dialogue, and share with one another our varied, seldom intersecting, opinions on what we thought of the movie overall.
Due to there being so many of us, each having our own unique take on the same movie, I came to understand then what has remained true for me ever since: when someone shares their thoughts about a movie...their personal response to it, their critiques, their likes and dislikes...movies are so subjective, what is being relayed always reveals more about the individual speaking than it does about the film itself.
Unless talking about a film's aspect ratio or running time, little about movie discourse is ever objective. Claims of a film being either "good" or "bad"--even when those claims are from esteemed sources---are not statements of fact. Talking movies is an exercise in subjective observation, personal tastes, and individual aesthetics. But listening to an individual share their thoughts on a film not only affords an opportunity to learn something about the particular person; it also allows for the chance to experience a film from a fresh perspective. An experience that can call our attention to things we might not otherwise have noticed.

"It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good."   - Tina Fey 

Going to the Movies: Communal Act / Private Experience

My sisters and I were pretty good about not letting our differences of opinion get in the way, but that's not to say all was smooth sailing. Anyone with siblings will tell you that disagreeing on things—make that, everything—is a fact of life. The only reason our weekend post-movie confabs didn't habitually end in reenactments of that ladies' room scene in Valley of the Dolls is through the honing of certain skills. Each of us had to learn the fundamentals of tact, debate, listening, and not being judgmental when it came to other people's tastes. And let's not forget the all-important, knowing when to keep one’s yap shut.
Take, for instance, the time I managed to look both supportive and straight-faced while my eldest sister, after taking us to see The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) for what must have been the 6th consecutive time, explained at length why George Harrison (his being “the quiet one” and all), never got as much attention as the others, and was, therefore, the only member of the Fab Four deserving of her lifelong devotion. 
Curious George: George Harrison in A Hard Day's Night (1964)

And if a similar familial diplomacy was responsible for the peaceable resolution to a starchy standoff between me and another sister over the relative merits of Debbie Reynolds’ eager-to-please performance in 1964s The Unsinkable Molly Brown (she was pro, I was con); I credit my preteen Spidey-senses for knowing I'd be saving myself a lot of grief by waxing enthusiastically about the beauty and talent of up-and-comer Faye Dunaway in The Happening (1967) rather than gushing the sentiment I really wanted to express: that for the entire film I couldn't take my eyes off of co-star George Maharis.
Gorgeous George: George Maharis in The Happening (1967)
Our tradition of after-movie chat sessions continued well into our teens. Rather a remarkable feat, given the closeness of our ages and the way puberty plays the dirty hormonal trick of ratcheting up adolescent hypersensitivity at the very same time it kicks teenage know-it-all-ism (typified by the frequent, unchecked volunteering of inflexible opinions) into overdrive.
But as our individual personalities began to emerge and our tastes grew more disparate and self-defining, the biggest change I noticed was that while my sisters continued to enjoy movies in much the same way they always had; I'd graduated on to something that fell geekily between enthusiastic interest and all-consuming passion. Gradually, as I began to self-identify more and more as a movie buff and film enthusiast, my contributions to our post-movie discussions took on a decided air...much of it hot.
Alas, I was almost always "that guy" in the movie line.

The Funicello Fracas
To give you an idea of the kind of hurdles that had to be surmounted before my sisters and I were ultimately able to hammer out an honest, mutually respectful way of sharing our differing tastes in movies and pop culture, I offer up this case history: When I was but a wee lad, I harbored a latent crush on Annette Funicello in reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club on TV.
I was equally closeted in my infatuation with Frank Converse on Coronet Blue and Richard Chamberlain on Dr. Kildaire at the time, but I guess my sisters picked up on something they saw in my eyes each time Annette adorably dropped her chin and spelled out "...K-E-Y" during the Mouseketeer sign-off. Whatever it is they saw, it launched them on a merciless campaign of teasing me about it that lasted for several days. The more they teased, the louder and more fervent came my false denials, until one day I broke down in tears and barricaded myself in my room.
The Mouse-Eared Troublemaker
Teasing wasn't anything new between us, but any of us being responsible for making the other cry was a definite no-no. So my sisters' way of apologizing and remedying the situation was to take crayon to construction paper and hastily fashion signs emblazoned with slogans declaring “Kenny Doesn’t Like Annette!” and “Kenny says NO to Annette!" and then march back and forth in front of my bedroom door as though participating in the world's smallest, least consequential protest demonstration.
In what would be her final film for AIP, the studio behind all those Beach Party movies, Annette Funicello co-starred with pop star Fabian in Thunder Alley (1967). A racing car drama in which the former Mouseketeer fends off a date rapist and gets to play her first drunk scene

I’d like to say this was the last time my sisters ever teased me, but that would be a lie. But it WAS the first and last time any of us ever teased or tried to make feel small because of their personal tastes.
In fact, some years later, it occasioned we all went to a double-feature, the bottom half of which was a low-budget race car drama titled Thunder Alley (1967), starring a considerably more mature Annette. And although it was clear that I was the only one enjoying it (being that my secret love was no secret anymore), when I sheepishly asked if we could PLEASE stay to see it a second time, my siblings readily consented, with nary a smirk, jibe, or rolled eye between them. I like to think I later paid them back when, during their Clint Eastwood phase, I actually managed to stay awake through two screenings of Paint Your Wagon.
As we grew older and Saturdays changed to going to the movies with friends instead of family (in my case, friends for whom "That was good!" or "What a piece of shit!"  represented all that needed to be said about any given movie), I took to filling the film critique void with trips to the library. The late '60s and '70s were the absolute heyday of film journalism, so it was there where I'd lose myself in books and magazines devoted to cinema essays and film analyses by my favorites: Pauline Kael, Peter Bogdanovich, Stanley Kauffmann, Andrew Sarris, and John Simon. That I didn't always agree with their opinions was never the point. It was my love of movies that kept me at the table. 
Most eye-opening for me was how these writers balanced respect for the emotional persuasiveness of film while still applying critical thinking to what they deemed to be a movie's flaws and merits. The objective was not to tear movies down or spoil anyone's fun, merely a belief that films had both the potential and responsibility to be better: better entertainment, better art. These writers taught me how to look at film and evaluate cinema in ways that extended beyond the purely sensate. Suddenly, how a movie made me think came to be as important to me as how a movie made me feel.

"The unexamined film is not worth seeing."  - A film buff's take on the Socrates quote

After years of being regarded as a purely escapist entertainment medium,
the serious and thoughtful critical evaluation of film seemed to be everywhere.

If those years spent watching movies on weekends and reading about movies during the weekdays represent the Appreciation & Evaluation stage of my love affair with film, then high school brought me to my Identification & Proprietary phase. As a Black, gay adolescent forging an identity for myself while attending an all-boys Catholic school while living in a predominantly white neighborhood; movies provided me with escape, motivation, and emotional catharsis. Relating on deeply personal levels to the movies I consumed, I found in the films of (significantly, but not exclusively) Robert Altman, Ken Russell, and Roman Polanski…inspiration and a dream of—if not entirely the person I was at the time—then most certainly the person I wanted to become.
Being neither a jock nor a joiner, I was largely invisible during my freshman year, but due to always having my nose buried in a book about movies, by sophomore year I was known around campus as The Movie Guy. A label that stuck and an image I enthusiastically cultivated for the entirety of my years at St. Mary's.
This pseudo-notoriety led to my participation in such geeky extracurricular pursuits as writing movie reviews for the school paper and posting fan-art movie posters in the library. It also led to my getting to meet the other movie buffs (a.k.a., the other gay kids) at school. And while it was great to find individuals with whom I could again talk movies...this time with guys who (to say the least) shared a similar enthusiasm; I gotta also say that I was less than thrilled that it also occasioned my first face-to-face encounter with blinkered fandom and the vociferously proprietary side of celebrity worship.
The fundamentally solitary, insular nature of being a film fan (It's not a team sport. It's essentially a person's internal relationship with the flickering images on a screen) doesn't easily lend itself to open-forum discourse under the best of circumstances. Much less socially-awkward adolescents in the first hormonal flushes of pop-culture infatuation and film-based cultural identity attachment.

Since this was more than a decade before Siskel & Ebert at the Movies demonstrated that even erudite middle-aged men were not above resorting to ad hominem attacks when in disagreement, I blamed it on our youth when nearly every movie discussion our group had splintered off into white-knighting protectiveness (only sycophantic praise allowed, critique not tolerated); proprietary elitism (no one loves their favorite as much as they); and emotional defensiveness (subjective criticisms of a favorite film or celebrity was perceived as a personal attack). Where were my sisters with their picket signs when I needed them?
Them's Fightin' Words
A Generation-Z internet spat over Beyonce or Taylor Swift is child's play compared to the maelstrom of social media vitriol Baby Boomers are capable of unleashing when a favored classic film or screen personality falls under critical scrutiny.

Having wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of 11 when I saw Rosemary's Baby, after graduation, there was no question that I was going to film school. A move that marked the end of the informal phase of my cinema education and ushered in a period in my life that I now look back on and call the Status & Ego epoch.
In many ways, film school was everything I hoped it would be. Not the least of it being my “How long has this been going on?” reaction to the idea of earning academic credit for that which I’d been gleefully doing all those years for nothing. The transition from film-consumer to film-maker was fun and challenging, but...being the talker that I am...I got the biggest charge out of the Film Study classes.
Classes with names like Classic Film Theory & Aesthetics, where movies were thoughtfully and critically discussed without the assumption that scrutiny automatically signaled a fault-finding expedition, brought back memories of the fun I had talking movies with my sisters as a kid. For the first time in my life, in an atmosphere where I was free to eat, drink, sleep, and breathe movies to my heart’s content, I felt completely in my element. So much so that I scarcely noticed that I was surrounded by, and had myself, morphed into, this:
I don't mean to generalize (yes, I do), but when someone says something like this,
the least of what's intended to be conveyed is that they're going to the movies. 

There are worse things than being a film snob, but few as boring to be around. I don't know how my relatives could stand to be around me. Quicker and more painlessly than I'd like to admit, I'd allowed myself to become the '70s version of what I call the Criterion Collection hipster: the self-styled cineaste overheard at film festivals saying things like, “You mean you’ve never seen ‘The Bicycle Thief’…not even once?”
Hungry for the instant (meaningless) status and ego lift and kinship of belonging to a community of film lovers, I deluded myself into believing that seeing movies in arthouses was superior to a cineplex, and that watching films with subtitles and dropping the names of foreign film directors gave me some kind of cultural cachet.

"The fact that the [Marvel Universe] films themselves don't interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament."   - Martin Scorsese 

Maybe film schools should offer a course teaching movie fans that no matter how esteemed, awarded, profitable, critically acclaimed, or beloved a film, franchise, or cult favorite; it's perfectly OK and absolutely natural for someone else to dislike it. Those individuals are not wrong, they're not jealous, they aren't haters, and they don't misunderstand it... they simply hold a different opinion.

Movies had always had such an expansive effect on my life, yet once I embarked on a course of formal cinema study—taking both film and myself far too seriously—my world only narrowed.

But, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, "Everybody has to go through stages like that." It took the distancing of time and an intervention from a highly unlikely source (see: Xanadu post) before I was able to find my way back to that kid who fell in love with movies on Saturday afternoons because of the dreams they inspired, not the identity-association and ego-status I sought to acquire via its consumption (i.e., you are what you watch).
And I’m afraid I’ve never lost my passion for talking about movies, and happily, for the last 24 years or so I’ve been able to indulge my mania for post-screening armchair movie quarterbacking with my partner. A fellow of unyielding good taste (he’ll appreciate my adding) who shares the belief that fandom, comfort movies, and franchise loyalty are all an important part of what makes movies so much fun, but upholds the principle that film has always been at its best when it is also inspiring new thoughts and ideas, not merely confirming the ones we already hold.
Show Me The Magic

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, August 17, 2019

BLOODY MAMA 1970

"All right now everybody, reach for the nightgown of the Lord!"

It’s weird to think back to a time when I chiefly only knew these great ladies of the screen from the following movie roles: Bette Davis (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Dead Ringer, The Nanny), Joan Crawford (Strait-Jacket, Berserk!), Olivia De Havilland (Lady in a Cage, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), and Tallulah Bankhead (Die, Die My Darling), Barbara Stanwyck (The Night Walker), and Shelley Winters (The Mad Room, What’s The Matter With Helen?, Who Slew Auntie Roo?).
Certainly, this assortment reflects the tastes of a kid enamored of the cheap fright sensationalism of B-movies available on late-night TV or weekends at the movies (it wasn’t until I was in college that I came to appreciate just how distinguished these actresses’ pre-scream-queen careers were), but they also reflect a time in Hollywood when leading ladies were close to becoming an endangered species. Particularly actresses of a certain age. In the late 60’s-early’70s, if you saw an older actress on the screen at all, it was very likely as the mayhem target in a horror flick, or as the terrorizing psycho in a hag-horror exploitation film. 
Pistol Packin' Mama
Shelley Winters as Ma Parker in a 1966 episode of the Batman TV series
Shelley Winters as Ma Barker in Roger Corman's Bloody Mama - 1970

Hollywood’s youthquake explosion had little use for mature and untoned flesh, so it was characteristic of films of the time to depict the middle-aged in oversimplified, often negative terms. Older men were usually morally corrupt, impotent—figuratively and literally—figures of emasculated conformity standing in the way of the virile, rebellious antihero (think any police chief in a '70s detective movie). Women—at least those upon whom Hollywood’s male gaze no longer bestowed its singular gauge of feminine worth and validation: desirability—were portrayed as grotesques and figures to be shunned. 
Shelley Winters as Kate "Ma" Barker
Don Stroud as Herman Barker
Robert De Niro as Lloyd Barker
Clint Kimbrough as Arthur Barker
Robert Walden as Fred Barker
Diane Varsi as Mona Gibson
Bruce Dern as Kevin Dirkman

When Shelley Winters was cast as Depression-era crime matriarch Ma Barker in Roger Corman’s Bonnie & Clyde-inspired Bloody Mama, the sizable role was seen as more of a departure for the two-time Oscar winner back in 1970 than it appears to be today. A character actress known for her scene-stealing supporting roles, Winters was always a bit of a ripe performer, but it wasn’t until the late-‘60s that she began to bid adieu to the relatively subtle phase of her early career, and her film roles gradually began to take on the outsized dimensions of her then-frequent talk show appearances.

For better or worse—depending on your fondness for high-decibel melodrama with a side of stuffed ham—her performances in American International’s Wild in the Streets (1968) and her brief but memorable turn in The Mad Room (1969) became the Shelley Winters standard. These twin B-movies ushered in a decade that saw Winters delivering increasingly shrill and broad-strokes performances in a string of low-budget thrillers and TV movies while somehow still managing to wow in the occasional major release (she’s awfully good in Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village – 1976, and of course, her waterlogged, Oscar-nominated turn in 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure).
Mama Dearest
Mere months after playing mom to the fabulous Barker boys of Arkansas,

Shelley Winters played stage mother to Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo Marx
in the flop 1970 Broadway musical Minnie's Boys. 

Bloody Mama, the highly-fictionalized account of the criminal exploits of the real-life Barker Gang who terrorized the American Midwest from 1931 to 1935, plays on the since-refuted legend that Kate “Ma” Barker was the hard-as-nails ringleader of a gang of outlaws consisting of her four imbecilic sons. Screenwriter Robert Thom (director and writer of the 1969 Jennifer Jones error-in-judgement Angel, Angel Down We Go) embellishes the story with the fictional characters of Mona Gibson (Diane Varsi) a blasé, pragmatic hooker; non-familial gang member Kevin Dirkman (Bruce Dern), a stand-in for the real-life Alvin Karpis; and Sam Pendlebury (Pat Hinkle) a kidnapped Memphis cotton magnate substituting for Hamm’s Beer president and 1933 Barker gang kidnap victim William Hamm.

Directed by “King of the Bs” Roger Corman, the R-rated Bloody Mama is clearly inspired by Arthur Penn’s almost elegiac, mythologizing Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but Corman dispenses with the arthouse soft-focus treatment and goes straight for the in-your-face bluntness of Drive-In exploitation. The result is bracing sensationalism rooted in a look at Depression-era Americana that isn’t interested in romanticizing the white-trash south, ennobling its disenfranchised poor, or feeding into the folk-hero myths of Public Enemy outlaws of the 1930s.
Kate Barker says goodbye to the Ozarks and her ineffectual husband George (Alex Nicol).
In another example of foreshadowed casting, Winters here looks just like Lena Gogan,
 the mountain matriarch she will play seven years hence in Disney's Pete's Dragon (1977)

Before Bloody Mama is even 15 minutes in, there have been 2 rapes (one resulting in a broken arm), male frontal nudity, implied incest, newsreel footage of Klansmen marching in Washington in protest anti-lynching laws (whaddaya know, MAGA ain’t new!), a man stomped to death, and hillbilly housewife Kate Barker taking off with her sons in a car stolen from the local sheriff and kissing her husband goodbye with the words, “You never did mount me proper. I guess your heart wasn’t in it.” And the hits keep on coming.

As envisioned by Corman and company, Ma Barker is a Bible-thumping, hymn-singing sociopath with a prudish streak when it comes to profanity (everyone else’s, anyway) and women’s emancipation (“Women was showing their bodies in public, smoking, doing God knows what else!”); yet thinks nothing of murder, kidnapping, and robbery so long as it secures her and her boys their stake in what she deems to be her proper chunk of the American Dream.
Mother Knows Best
Shunned as outlaws and outsiders, in a world seen as "them" vs. "us"
 Ma Barker makes her own rules when it comes to family 

A staunch believer in family-first loyalty and unquestioning obedience, Ma’s amorality, which extends to sleeping with her sons when the spirit moves her, brings about a kind of trickle-down depravity as her deplorable male offspring lay claim to a virtual smorgasbord of psychological disorders. Eldest boy Herman is psychotic given to blind, murderous rages; addlepated Lloyd is a drug addict; Fred is a sexual masochist who recruits his prison cellmate into the gang; and Arthur—seemingly the only member of the gang who can read and do math, and thus the brains of the outfit—shares his brothers' degeneracy (and women, on occasion) but is emotionally withdrawn to the point of shutdown.

When Lloyd tells a soon-to-be victim, “I’m not people, see? None of us Barkers is people, he knows whereof he speaks.
Feeling a little down, Ma chooses her youngest son's lover to be her bedtime company

Newsreel footage and historical photos punctuating the crimes of the Barker gang make their social-climbing ascendance as Public Enemies look like an anarchic vision of the American success ethic. Meanwhile, Ma’s perverse insistence on keeping God and scripture at the forefront of their barbarism turns into a solid indictment of the role religious hypocrisy has always played in this country’s tradition of blindered self-mythologizing. 

Ma Barker and her motley gang are outlaws and outsiders, but if you’re looking for sympathetic misfits turned hardened criminals by a harsh world, you’ll have to look elsewhere. These Barkers are strictly dog-eat-dog.



WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
I’m a huge fan of Shelley Winters. Like Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway, she’s an actress I find to be equally entertaining whether she’s bad or good. Happily, she’s good a great deal of the time. When I came to Bloody Mama (a movie I dearly wanted to see back in 1970, but saw for the first time this year) everything about it—the title, the subject, Corman, the American International thing, Winters’ late-career embracing of her tendency to go straight over the top—had me anticipating a deliriously campy evening of trash cinema. I was happily disappointed.
Pat Hingle as Sam Adams Pendlebury
On one level Bloody Mama is everything you’d expect from a Roger Corman film: a fast-paced, slightly loony meld of comedy, melodrama, and mayhem…the typical Corman pseudo-ineptitude served up with amble doses of sensationalized action, violence and sleaze. Bloody Mama never comes close to giving Bonnie and Clyde anything to worry about (it doesn’t really even live up to its own tabloid title), but by its own modest merits it succeeds in being a fresh, wholly satisfying and enjoyable no-holds-barred update of the classic era gangster flick. Solid storytelling on a budget, It’s arguably Corman’s best film.
Scatman Crothers as Moses
What I wasn’t expecting was for a movie called Bloody Mama to be so unironically good! The drama is compelling, the laughs (surprise of surprises) are of the intentional sort, the performances have dimension, and the film’s threadbare look works to its benefit. Shelley Winters' Ma Barker is pitch perfect. And that includes the times she's pitching right over the fence. Is it a good performance? I'd say so. Good in the way an overstimulated movie like this needs. By turns funny, moving, and ultimately monstrous, I personally think she's better here than she is in The Poseidon Adventure
Diane Varsi, who appeared with Shelley Winters in Wild in the Streets (1968)
won an Oscar nomination for her film debut in Peyton Place (1957)

PERFORMANCES
An observation attributed to director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae) is “Directing is 80% casting.” In the case of Bloody Mama, I’d say it’s more like 99 and 44/100%. Without argument, Bloody Mama's outrageously distinguished cast is both its chief asset and primary recommendation. With the exceptions of Don Stroud and Diane Varsi, Method acting devotee Shelley Winters heads a cast made up almost entirely of members of The Actors Studio...veteran (Pat Hingle, who's a standout)...and novice alike. The performances are so compelling and detailed, the character-study side of Bloody Mama actually made the car chases and gunplay feel like a distraction.
In this, his second film, future superstar and multi Oscar-winner Robert De Niro is impossible not to watch. Though a generous ensemble player, your eyes stay trained on him no matter who's at the center of a scene. It's no surprise that he's good, it's just amazing to see so much of his talent in evidence so early on.
Bloody Mama marks the film debut of actor Robert Walden (of TV's Lou Grant).
Clint Kimbrough (right) made his film debut playing another quiet, bookish character in Hot Spell (1957)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
“I’m loud and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house because somebody’s got to, but I’m not a monster. I’m not!”   Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Traditionally, it doesn't take much for a woman to be seen as a monster in films. Hell, in psycho-biddy films, she just has to be old. In Ma Barker you have a character who is indeed loud, vulgar, and wears the figurative pants...but comparatively speaking, those are her good points. Bloody Ma Barker is a monster, the genuine article. And unlike the romanticized subjects of so many of those Dust Bowl bandit films that came in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde, she's not anybody's idea of a heroine, anti or otherwise.
Kevin watches in horror as Ma Barker earns her bloody nickname 
Bloody Mama isn't a film suited to everybody's taste, but thanks to Roger Corman's stay-out-of-the-way direction, a smarter-than-it-needed-to-be screenplay, and as embodied by Shelley Winters' large as life and twice as natural performance; I'm persuaded to dub this fabricated incarnation of the '30s crime matriarch something of a fabulous monster for those willing to take a step through this 1970 looking glass.

Bloody Mama was released in Los Angeles in April of 1970. Earlier that year in January, public outcry met the unveiling of a billboard for the film on Sunset Blvd. featuring the slogan
"The Family That Slays Together Stays Together"
As it so happened, the Manson Family was set to go to trial that June, and the billboard was considered to be in bad taste.
It was removed.

Copyright © Ken Anderson