Monday, March 31, 2008

An all-pervading aura of religiosity

On the street yesterday, I found a pint bottle of Phillips vodka, about a fourth full, and a Mickey's Big Mouth at least two-thirds full. Something weird was going on over the weekend, because abandoned bottles are everywhere, but not ones with alcohol left in them. My honey also found a two-inch magnetic letter on the sidewalk ("Hey U. What are U doing here? What should we do with U?") and, earlier in the day, had seen a photo of someone's dick on the sidewalk in front of the theater around the corner. When we went back, alas, it was gone. We assume from the blusteriness, and I had a mental picture of it crossing the path of some nearby church-goer.

After we ran our errands (library, comic book store), we got to thinking about dinner. My honey mentioned samosas, so we walked over to the Asian market. I haven't gotten down there in a while, which has obviously been a mistake. We stocked up some things (mmm, Bombay sandwich spread! The Ginseng Up soda I used to drink years ago, before my original supplier closed down!)

I also spent some time perusing their incense selection. There was Frank Incense, and flavors like honey and lemongrass. But what enthralled me was a whole series with Spanish names, mostly for Catholic saints. I ended up buying a Limpia Casa (pure house, blessing incense) and the classic Virgen de Guadalupe. The idea of incense being hand-rolled in Mumbai, packaged to appeal to Mexican and Mexican-American customers, for sale in my Obscure Midwestern City, made me happy.

The wrapping says of the Guadalupe incense: "A compelling incense that creates an all-pervading aura of religiosity. Inhale deeply to purify the mind and spirit."

I'm not sure it's that easy, but it's worth a shot.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Fungus Among Us

Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People
a.k.a. Matango: the Fungus of Terror
Japan (1963)

The film opens with a shadowy narrator in a psych ward, but at least he's in one with a fantastic view of downtown Tokyo, full of colorful neon signs. He's talking about his friends, who are dead, but alive, and how he may be crazy, but his story is true. A jaunty credit sequence later, and we're introduced to a mismatched group aboard a luxury yacht.

Before you can say Gilligan's Island, there's the millionaire who funded the trip, a professor, a Skipper (who they call "Skipper" even in the Japanese language track, not just the subtitles), a crewman who will eventually wear a floppy white hat, and two women: one a singer who lounged around the deck in a gorgeous vintage bikini, the other a shy girl-next-door type. (Plus a writer friend). When they were hit by an unexpected storm at sea, I stopped to look up the relevant dates. Matango, which was made by original Gojira director Ishiro Honda, came out in August 1963. The American sitcom didn't air until September 1964. Oddly, the movie contains a brief conversation in which the writer talks about how there are no original stories anymore. Take that as you will.

Shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, they explore the interior, and find the wreck of another ship, apparently on an international scientific expedition studying the effects of pollution and radiation on sea life. The crew is gone, but there are no bodies, and the Captain's log describes the dangerous effects of the local mushrooms, a new species they've dubbed matango.

By this point, it's become clear that the film is not the camp-filled kitsch-fest its subtitles would suggest. For most of its running time, it's actually a sober exploration of the struggle for survival (including the effects of hunger, loss of hope, and male competition over the few women) and the toll it takes on ordinary people. The cult film fan is rewarded, however, with the later scenes that expose the vast mushroom fields. These verge on psychedelic, with electronically amplified voices laughing weirdly on the soundtrack as giant clumps of fungus suddenly start moving around.

The mushrooms take on a lot more symbolic significance than I would have guessed I was getting myself into. The people are tired, weak, starving to death. At the same time, however, they're surrounded by an over-abundance of mushrooms, and they can eat their fill any time they choose to. The mushrooms taste delicious, relieve the pain of hunger, and temporarily make the eaters glow with sudden health. But the catch is: they create an insatiable appetite for more mushrooms. No one can eat just one. There's no such thing as moderation. And the more a character eats, the more they lose their humanity. First they lose their consciences, and their connection to other humans (the first to succumb to the thrall of the fungus declares that he can now kill them all without remorse). And ultimately, they will mutate into giant mushroom creatures.

Raising the existential question: is it better to suffer and starve to death, or to survive, and even thrive (in a manner of speaking) at the cost of one's one humanity? Suddenly we're more in "Lotos-Eaters"/”Goblin Market”/Brave New World territory than we are on Gilligan's Island.

In the end, back in the psych ward, the last survivor subverted my expectation by musing that he should have eaten the mushrooms. That way, he could have stayed with the girl he loved, and to lose his humanity for her would have been the more human thing to do. Then he looks out the window and declares that life in Tokyo is the same as it was on the island. Everywhere, people are giving up their humanity. The social commentary may be a little too overt at this point, but still, it's an admirably harsh and downbeat judgment to end a B-movie about mushroom people with.

Until next time, please, don't eat the mushrooms!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

See your face all over town, pick me up and throw me down...

You're my punk rock dream come true,
I would die to stay with you...
-- Bratmobile, "P.R.D.C.T."

This was in my head yesterday while watching the 2002 film Devdas, starring SRK, Aishwarya Rai, and Madhuri Dixit. As you all know, I recently read the novel it and the numerous other versions were based on. What got me started on the whole thing was not so much the iconic status of the book and character, but my obsession with the "Chalak Chalak" song. I swear, that Gujarati movie about Maa Meldi I watched had a knock-off of this tune running under the DVD menu. When I saw a fleeting Devdas clip on an Eros Entertainment ad, I jumped up and down saying, "OMG! It's that song!" They're actually slightly different, but the "shiishe se shiisha Takaraa'e" part is pretty much note-for-note with what I had stuck in my head.

People have asked me how one of my trains of thought leads to another, often phrased as "Where do you find these things?" so I hope you appreciated that peak into my brain. Anyway, after seeking out Devdas: emotional ruin as foregone conclusion. Lavish, opulent, extravagant ruin. The movie was much more melodramatic than the book, which I didn't really mind, since it mainly became more overtly emotional: fair enough, considering the subject matter. Only toward the end did the melodrama irk me: I didn't like the addition of outright villains, mainly because they were unnecessary to the plot, and they made it feel more "Hollywood." And since the book ended with a quirk-of-fate anti-climax...well, of course I prefered that. Pretty much always.

After I got back online after watching the movie, I found out that my post about the Devdas book had gotten a comment, from the people at a movie review site that I love (the Post-Punk Cinema Club). It said in part: "Ughh, the PPCC largely can't stand Devdas for just the reasons you've listed as being integral to the book: that is, Devdas' narcissistic self-hate and general unlikeability, and the fact that two powerful women should be so undone by him. Aarghhh."

Of course, this is all true. And I'm a feminist, so why wouldn't it be annoying to watch women self-destruct over a stupid man? I myself have condemned movies because I don't like the message I perceive them sending (Hello, I am Legend! Join The Breakfast Club over there in purgatory!) I have disliked movies because I didn't want to spend time with the characters in a film any more than I would in real life. But while intellectually I can totally see their point, Devdas didn't bother me at all on this level.

Since I'm my own critical lab speciment, I've decided to peel back my brain a little further. First off, I'm not sure how much I've been jaded by my long-term study of the Romantics. Ah, I remember reading Wuthering Heights for the first time, thinking that Heathcliff and Cathy's story was supposed to be "romantic." Instead, it's a whole lot of squalid unpleasantness, in which everyone is horrible to everyone, especially the lovers, who are just awful people and break each other's hearts for spite. But I still appreciated the drama, the intensity they created out of their lives, and I loved the scene where he begs her ghost to haunt him.

That was just the beginning of reading poems about extreme emotional states, and 18th/19th century novels dissecting individual emotional and social mores (generally classified as amatory fiction, and if I were still toying with the possibility of a Ph.D. -- but who has the freakin' time? -- I'd write a paper on the similarity of themes in Bollywood movies and the 18th century British novel, especially by my unsung friends like the Elizas Haywood and Fenwick, among others).

There's another whole layer under that, though, a chicken-and-egg question. Maybe I had this affinity for the Romantics in the first place because of my own life. That really struck me when reading the comment about Devdas' "narcissistic self-hate," because that's a good phrase for what my first love, in real life, was like. He was chock-full of narcissistic self-hate. Devdas is actually a lot nicer to both Paro and Chandrakmukhi than this guy was to me, and I had a lot less reason to remain unflaggingly devoted to him. But devoted I remained, for years, until I was pretty much completely undone.

When I look back on myself at that time, or, God forbid, read my poems, I can't even believe myself. Didn't I have any shame, any pride, any self-respect? Well, no, I didn't. Where were those qualities going to come from? I assume there are other paths, but for me, those were things that needed to be acquired, their value learned, and that happened through bitter experience. I think I'm always going to be interested in stories about thwarted love, unrequited love, really stupid, embarrassing, pointless love, the kind that makes you roll your eyes at girls' dumbness in real life, because to some extent, that's my story. I spent years being ashamed of that part of my life, but now that I'm older, I realize there's just no point in pretending I wasn't that pathetic, because I was.

Chandrakmukhi is attracted to the sadness in Devdas' eyes when he's acting like a jerk. Once upon a time, I was drawn to the same thing. So what was happening to me? Was I seeing a reflection of my own existential pain, which, since I had no one to talk to about it, made me feel that he and I could understand each other? Which was kind of true, and so not entirely delusional. Did seeing pain and sadness in him mean I could believe he had thoughts and feelings at all? That's more than I could say for sure about most of the obnoxious redneck teenagers I knew at the time. Who else was I going to fall for, the Beavis and Buttheads? That's the way I'd have viewed most of my peers at the time.

Just to complicate things further -- even before getting bowled over by love, I'd always related to anti-heroes more than heroes (and certainly more than most heroines), which may have also predisposed me. (That's a subject that might require a whole book on Escape from New York). Maybe I grew up with my own share of narcissistic self-hate, which made me seek out someone to treat me badly and be my punk rock dream come true.

So yes, Devdas is narcissistic and weak and largely unlikeable, but I see strong, intelligent women ("formidable," a later boyfriend used to describe me and my friends) fall for worse all the time. I'm not saying it's right for men to act like Devdas, or good for women to fall in love with them. And certainly not that everyone is interesting in watching movies about them. But it certainly happens, and the movie, in all its melodrama, does a fair job of showing what it feels like.

The best case scenario is that you learn from your Devdas, and get your fill of the kind of drama that seems like the truest love when you're young and stupid and see no other way to express your emotional intensity. That way, when you meet your Vanraj (from the same director's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam), you're able to recognize and appreciate him. Of course, by "you," I mean "me." I'm going to go and kiss my Vanraj right now, and next time I see you, it should be for the regularly scheduled frivolity. After all, I have a Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People DVD sitting on my coffee table.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

But there's no singing in the book

Yup, I am now reading Bollywood books: Sarachandra Chattopadhyay's Devdas. Nobody can say they didn't see that coming!

I haven't seen any of the numerous film versions based on this book, but it was quite interesting, since Devdas (the main dude's name) is apparently the Young Werther of Indian literature. And while it seems to bother some viewers of the films, I found it refreshing that, like Werther or the Byronic hero types, Devdas isn't really likeable. He's a big jerk. The translator's introduction talked about him as a metaphor for self-destruction, which on one hand makes him an odd "romantic" hero, but on the other, it seems totally appropriate.

Maybe it's a whole karma thing...but it reminded me of a few of the movies I've seen, like Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, in which the characters' problems are largely the result of mistakes they made in the past. Or like the whole family estrangement theme in Main Hoon Na. All the decisions they made seemed reasonable at the time, and yet, being right doesn't mean they aren't miserable. In Devdas' case, it's not Romeo and Juliet, but the downfall of a guy who screwed up his own life, without even noticing it at the time, until it was too late.

I'm curious how the female heroine will translate into more romantic versions of the story, since in the book she's delightfully bold, totally willing to flout convention and face up to life-changing public shame, if that's what happens. Actually, both important women are more tragic heroes than Devdas is. He's more of an anti-hero. The women's shared tragic flaw is that they have these strong qualities, but they're wasting their love on someone who's unworthy of them.

But then, in the pool of guys they know, at least he stands out as different and, thus interesting. Always a problem...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Those brains aren't even on ice

The Brainiac (Mexico, 1962 -- no relation to any incarnation of the Superman mythos)

Baron Vitelius, a suave heretic, falls afoul of the Mexican Inquisition, and chuckles throughout the post-torture proceedings, especially when they talk about the women he’s seduced. Burned at the stake, he mystically attaches himself to a passing comet and promises revenge on the descendants of the Inquisitors 300 years in the future. Luckily, when that day comes, each of them has only one descendant, and they’re all conveniently living in Mexico City under the same surnames. If only all geneological research were that easy!

When the Baron (“del Terror,” in the movie’s alternate title) hones in on his victims, his hypnotic powers are signaled when someone off-camera turns a flashlight on and off on his face. Then, using an early morphing technique, he turns into a goblin-like creature with hooked hands and a head that inhales and exhales when he breathes. Literally, the whole head expands and contracts, which is both humorous and oddly disturbing.

Most importantly, he also has a two-pronged tongue that he uses to suck the brains out of his victims. The real revelation was that the creature doesn’t ingest the brains on the spot. Instead, he somehow retrieves them, and stores them in a fancy goblet at his palatial home. When he needs a boost, he scoops a little bit out into a sherbet cup and eats the brains daintily, with a spoon.

In a few cases, between the flashlight face and the brain sucking, he uses another magical ability: disappearing and reappearing at will. The Baron enters a nightclub, walks right into the middle of the room, and vanishes. Then he pops up right next to a woman at the bar, only a few feet away. He could have just walked over to her, so at this point he’s just showing off.

Despite all this merriment, The Brainiac doesn’t reach the levels of surreal invention on display in director Chano Urueta’s El Espejo de la Bruja (The Witch’s Mirror). There’s way more repetition and flashback than a movie only 77 minutes long can sustain. We don’t need his entire sentence in front of the Inquisition read out in full…twice! We got the point that these people were the descendants the first time, without the slow use of the morphing flashbacks. The film really starts to drag, so I can't unambiguously recommend it.

It will, however, make hearing the Flashdance "Maniac" more bearable the next time it's pumped in overhead at the Subway: "He's a Brainiac, BRAAAAAAAINIAC on the floor/And he's sucking brains like he's never sucked before!"

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mithun rocks the shoulder pads

I bought the 1996 movie Jung solely because it stars Mithun ("I am a Disco Dancer!") Chakraborty and Ajay Devgan (star of Bhoot and Omkara) as brothers. I've watched about half of it, and I can testify to the truth-in-advertising of distributor Eros Entertainment's new ads: "We've made you laugh. We've made you cry. We've made you stop - and wonder why."

Mithun has grown up into the authority-figure role of stern police officer. As brother Ajay, an astonishly young and callow Ajay is somehow both a defense attorney devoted to helping the poor, and a frivolous free spirit. They get caught up in the machinations of a nasty crime boss, who's framed an innocent couple for a crime they didn't commit (or did they? I'm entirely prepared for some kind of bizarre last-minute twist).

The clothes, the hair, the film stock, all suggest a movie about ten years older than this one, which says something about the budget they were working with. The rock-em sock-em sound effects in the fight scenes are so over-the-top that they made me giggle, as did the crotch cam aimed at Ajay's motorscooter stunts. And the sexual politics are downright unsavory. Even the "romantic" subplot kicks off with Ajay and his love interest (the bad guy's daughter) slapping each other. She gets shoved into a mud puddle, and retaliates by falsely accusing him of rape. After he blackmails her, she admitts that she chased him and not the other way around. Then she chases him around a little more until voila! They're in love!

Nonetheless, Mithun looks great in some Miami Vice-looking shoulder pads, and it's truly hilarious to see Ajay, usually deadpan and/or critically acclaimed, in a role that's equal parts ridiculous fight scenes and undignified romantic frolicking.

Follow-up: well, I finished the movie, and the last third takes an unexpected turn into Mission: Impossible territory when Ajay disguises himself as an old man with a beard, and then dresses in drag, TWICE, once for an extended fight scene. Even his squeaky-voiced love interest with the ruffly miniskirts eventually puts on a fake beard and a turban to help one of his schemes. But the high point is when Ajay and Mithun, finally working on the same side, infiltrate the gangsters by performing in a nightclub floorshow (the concept of which is sort of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera meets the Wild, Wild West).

This is one of those movies: I can't say that it's good, by any means. But I did find it entertaining. Viewer beware?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

When your stalker's cuter than your boyfriend...

It could be a conflict for a girl!

In 1993's Darr, perky Kiran's fiancee, a beefy naval Commando, can fight off a boatful of armed terrorists single-handed, but he can't seem to protect her from scrawny stalker Shah Rukh Khan. The musical numbers are forgettable -- the worst possible sin in a Bollywood movie. But as the unhinged Rahul, emoting to giant photos of his beloved, the young SRK already has more screen presence than his ostensible rival, Sunny Deol, who looks like he'd be more comfortable remaking Steven Seagal pictures.

And I've got to mention: when Kiran's off on her honeymoon, the completely deluded Rahul tracks her down, and he cries, "I'm coming, Kiran." It's a delightful mirror universe precursor to his iconic romantic moment ("I'm coming, Simran!") in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, made two years later.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

When movie characters say, "I know the cold."

Feel free to laugh, laugh into their fictional faces! Because, my friends, they do not. The vampire action in 30 Days of Night was pretty awesome, so it's worth seeing, but I think they squandered their opportunities with the setting.

My first clue was the idea that there's a "last plane out," and no planes fly during the month of darkness. Um, planes can fly at night, so is that plausible? (Online survey says: no. The real-life town it's based on has a regular flight in every day all year, sun be damned).

Then there's much talk early on about the importance of being somewhere with a generator. Which is fine, and I'm sure lots of people would have them. But then the main characters spend a few weeks of sub-zero temperatures holed up in the attic of an unheated house, and clearly the use of the generator would give them away, so it's not running. It's not even the fact that they suffer no physiological ill effects, but that it doesn't seem to cause them even any discomfort. I had more bundling while watching the movie, sitting on the couch in a heated house, than I saw up in that attic.

And of course, there's no visible breath when anyone talks. Not that there usually ever is in Hollywood movies, but once you talk about how much you know the cold...

That could be a scary scene, actually. When the heroine is trapped outside, trying to hide without her breath giving her away. Or they look outside, and their breath steams up the window, and a vampire spots the smudge.

Hmmm, maybe I should have waited to watch this until after the weather warms up...

Friday, March 7, 2008

"Open your eyes and fear the magic"

Okay, so the trailer for Xanadu (1980) actually said "hear the magic," but I swear it sounded like it said "fear."

Xanadu featured in one of my favorite Onion stories of all time (along with the article on '50s suburbia headlined "Ant-like Conformity Now Affordable"): "Aging Gen-Xer Doesn't Find Bad Movies Funny Anymore." (You can read it at

I first saw Xanadu in the theatre when it originally came out. On a date, no less. I thought it was the worst movie I had ever seen. In fact, I wanted the people who made it to burn for their cinematic sins. Now that the intervening years have passed, I was curious if I'd still find it bad, bad, irredeemably bad, or if it would cross over into so-bad-it's-good. My verdict is: still pretty bad, but somehow charming in its clueless ineptitude.

The story is about a Muse who comes to earth in order to inspire a struggling, dejected painter and a retired clarinet player a roller disco nightclub. Hey, what about their painting and their music? Never mind. Times have changed, people.

Among the highlights: Olivia Newton-John performs embarrassing hand gestures, bathed in the cheesiest neon-aura effects you'll ever see. (That's the kind of thing where the charm comes in. Awwww...that was cutting-edge computer technology! Isn't it adorable?) The Warriors' tough guy Michael Beck gets to model the Annie Hall fashion styles that the ladies used to wear. There is interminable roller skating and tap dancing, and at least one ballad (also neon-bathed) that I had to fast forward through.

When the club opens, the film turns into a crazy montage of musical styles, featuring different groups of dancers and skaters, who wear different matching costumes. The first we see is a bunch of guys in mime face. Of course, one of the infamous hallmarks of The Warriors is that all the gangs dress in matching, stylized costumery, and there was in fact a mime gang, called the High-Hats. So that got us going, and then when we got the Zoot Suiters, and a group of girls in tiger-print Spandex (the Tigresses?), we decided that they should have made Warriors 2: Xanadu. That would have been a much better movie.

This does prove, however, that Flashdance can't be held responsible for all that leg-warmer silliness, since they are on prominent display here, three years earlier.

So, yes, my attitude toward Xanadu has in fact mellowed. I couldn't help but think, though, that people will watch this DVD and think it actually says something about the young people of the time: our styles, our attitudes, our musical taste. No! Absolutely not! This kind of thing was inflicted upon me, and at the time, I despised everything I felt it represented. I will not be held for responsible for it.