May 23-29, 2002
International Cult Film Series (Thu.-Sun., May 23–26, free, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 215-895-6542, www.ihousephilly.org) By now, you’ve missed the opening-night movie in I-House’s cult film fest, Wednesday’s screening of Peeping Tom, which is good because now I don’t have to find the words to describe what a vile, loathsome little slice it is. Onward and upward: Let’s just pretend the series starts Thursday, with the 8 p.m. screening of Fernando Arrabal’s Viva La Muerte! Originally brought over by Strut! director Max Raab, Arrabal’s 1971 movie is a dark Buñuelian comedy that jumps into and out of the psyche of a young boy whose mother betrayed his father to the fascists. In psycho-realist sequences tinted everything from sky blue to bile green, Arrabal plays out the boy’s most macabre and lustful fantasies, one of which involves his mother covering herself with and eating mud, and him licking it off her face. As untrammeled as Arrabal wants his imagination to be here, there’s something slightly quaint about the movie as well, in the way that primal scream therapy is quaint. (It’s no surprise that John and Yoko were big fans of the film.) Muerte! is so literal-minded about the child’s fantasies that it plays at times like the opening chapters of a Freud textbook, though at others, Arrabal pokes his nose into corners of the mind not explored since Un Chien Andalou.
After Friday's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (8 p.m.), which needs no introduction, and the harmless Hong Kong comedy of La Brassiere (Sat., 8 p.m.), the series closes out with Dusan Makavejev's Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (Sun., 7 p.m.), a cult film in obscurity if not in subject matter. Makavejev, one of the earliest of modern Eastern European directors, starts with the simple subject matter of a budding romance between a telephone operator and a sanitation engineer, set against the turbulent backdrop of Yugoslavian politics, circa 1971, and then complicates matters, inserting lectures by a bushy-bearded sexologist, a disquisition on the evolving rat population, and the autopsy report on the young woman, after her dead body has been found at the bottom of a well. In particularly cutting juxtaposition, Makavejev goes from the clinical examination of her autopsied body to a scene of her coyly covering her breasts as she runs to the front door for milk. Godard's influence is obvious, and Eva Ras gives Jean Seberg and Anna Karina a run for their money as the libidinous Hungarian call-connector. Love Affair doesn't have the kinky kick of Godard's most pop-suffused work, but Makavejev is more playful, jumping in and out of frames and shifting film stocks in a way that practically prefigures Baz Luhrmann. Who'da thunk it?
Modern Japanese Horror (Sun.-Thu., May 2630, midnight, Sundance Channel) While the American movie industry continues to try to revive the lifeless corpse of slasher movies and creature features, Japanese directors like those represented by Sundance's five-day showcase are quietly (and not-so-quietly) reinventing the genre, with some combination of bloody histrionics, quasi-mystical spiritualism and rhythms that tend either to the epileptic or comatose ends of the scale. The series kicks off Saturday night with Takashi Miike's Audition, whose comparatively restrained visual style (at least by the standards set by The Happiness of the Katakuris) only makes its gruesome plot that much more disturbing. (Test your gullet by catching the 10 o'clock screening of Trouble Every Day, then running home to catch the late show.)
If there's one can't-miss film in the series, though, it's Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure, airing Sunday night. Kurosawa (no relation) has become nearly as prolific as Miike (nine movies in the last six years), and Cure is widely regarded as his masterpiece. It's not hard to see why. This 1997 film is an utterly mesmerizing take on the serial killer policier, only in this case, there's no killer to be found -- only a series of seemingly unrelated people who've all decided to kill the people closest to them in the same bizarre manner. (The subject matter's so similar to the more recent Suicide Club, which screened in this year's PFWC, that you can most charitably accuse the newer film of a substantial influence, but Kurosawa's approach is so much more coherent and effective that the relationship between the two looks like evolution in reverse.) Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?, Eureka) plays the detective assigned to the case, whose inquiries eventually settle on a shabby-looking figure (Masato Hagiwara) who had contact with each of the eventual killers. But investigating him means exposing himself to higher and higher doses of the mysterious man's elliptical but seductive rhetoric, and the detective's world begins to warp around the edges. Though it flirts with incoherence, the mood of pervasive corrosion is so commanding that you're willing to overlook, perhaps even buy into, every "now how did he get there?" moment. With a final shot that's as subtle as it is foreboding, Cure will likely keep you up long after its 1:55 a.m. conclusion, so brew the coffee and enjoy.
Also in the series are J™ji Iida's Another Heaven (Monday), Higuchinsky's Spiral (Tuesday) and Ghost Actress (Wednesday), from director Hideo Nakata, whose Ring was recently remade by Mouse Hunt/The Mexican director Gore Verbinski.
Funny Girl (Thu., May 23 and Sat., May 25, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., May 26, 5 p.m.; Wed., May 29, 7 p.m., Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., 215-569-9700, www.princemusictheater.org) The Prince ramps up to their musical film series (more next week) with these screenings of William Wyler's 1968 musical biopic. And oh yeah, it also stars Barbra Streisand. Now, before you start running for the exits, hang on. This was a long time ago, long before Streisand became the intolerable ego-monster she is today. Something like the Mariah Carey of her day, Streisand exhibits a vocal range that's nothing short of awesome -- and we're not just talking in octaves, but personae as well. She'll be belting out a high note one moment, slipping into Borscht Belt asides the next. Whether or not Streisand's soft-focus vanity had taken hold yet, the filmmakers were smart to play up the homeliness of Fanny Brice, the Ziegfeld girl-turned-star who Streisand incarnates in caricature form. Leaving out the debate about Streisand's actual beauty -- although do catch the campy vintage featurette on the DVD, which touts Babs with such questionable encomia as "by conventional standards, her beauty is unconventional" and "her profile has been compared to Nefertiti" (perhaps the nicest imaginable way of pointing out her substantial schnoz) -- the gambit takes the edge off Streisand's already-considerable stardom. A self-described "bagel on a plate full of onion rolls," Fanny's pushed to the sidelines both by her Jewishness and her "skinny legs," so much so that a career in comedy seems unavoidable. As the dashing but irresponsible gambler who becomes her husband, Omar Sharif has a fairly thankless role (and the lack of pipes to go with it), but Wyler directed Streisand to an Oscar-winning performance, as he'd done with four actresses previously. The musical numbers are exuberantly staged by Herbert Ross (who'd worked with Streisand on Broadway), though the picture's self-importance makes for an unnecessarily bloated two-and-a-half-plus-hours running time. Still, it's worth the time, if only for the chance to hear "People" without people guffawing in the aisles.