Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Erotic Thriller: Bodies in Motion - First Brief Notes


 CRUISING (1980)

There may have been others before. PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971) comes naturally to mind. But it was in the early to mid-Eighties of the 20th Century that (sub)urban males got to explore the late-night urban fantasyland, a seedy neon-lit world of night-clubs, strip-clubs, whorehouses, femme fatales, sex, crime and violence. More precisely, in 1980, fresh out from a series of successes in such films as THE GODFATHER (1972), GODFATHER II (1974), SERPICO (1973) and A DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1976) Al Pacino played an undercover cop hunting for a killer that was staking the homosexual underworld as his killing ground in William Friedkin’s CRUISING. The film was based in real life police officer Randy Jurgensen (who plays detective Lefransky in the film) who, in the early sixties, had gone undercover into the homosexual community in order to (successfully) capture a similar killer. Friedkin’s hypnotic update of the story into the Eighties presented a fascinating world of leather and neon, dress and sex codes, and tremendous sexual ambiguity that converted the night into an alluring new frontier to be explored by a generation of bored middle-class men, bound to routine by the shackles of their well-paid rat racing, mortgages, marriage and children. 

Soon several of those men were looking for an excuse to cruise the empty streets of the neon-night-world in films such as BEDROOM EYES (1984), AFTER HOURS (1985) or INTO THE NIGHT (1985), there to find a roller-coaster ride of danger, adventure, and, sometimes, even horror; but also sex with sultry vampire-like women or modern-day femme-fatales, who combined in their sensuality both the erotic and the terrifying. In those initiation trips, white middle-class men were confronted with the staleness of the American Dream. Conformity and boredom were the price to pay for financial security, upward class mobility and freedom from venereal disease. The candy-colored suburban dream was lacking in the excitement that only the marginally dangerous, the dark underside of the dream, could provide. And provide it did, in spades. 

 Linda Fiorentino in AFTER HOURS (1985)

Suddenly, barbecue-loving wannabe-Kens were leaving their imagined-to-be Barbie wives in search of the dark, risky pleasures promised by nipple-pierced punk nymphets of the likes of Linda Fiorentino’s character in Scorsese’s magnificent AFTER HOURS. However, it soon became clear that, sometimes, the darkness would follow you in. And it did in the shape of FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)’s über-psycho-bitch Glenn Close. Delighted with the illicit pleasures of extra-conjugal bliss, this recently freed man cannot imagine that this new amazing world he has just discovered can harbor among its denizens someone who might aspire to the shackles of suburban conformity. The collision of two separate worlds, much as in George Costanza’s famous dictum, dictate the annihilation of this new “independent man” and threatens to collapse the very distinct life-lines of safe family environment by day, and exciting thrill-seeking by night. Those two spheres had to remain separate in order to avoid all risks of contamination. To avoid that night-side inhabitants (like FATAL ATTRACTION’s Close) should cross the dark mirror to the sunny side. When that happens, amidst the violence and familial and personal mayhem of Adrian Lyne’s opus, the middle-class trespasser in the land of dreams goes back to his shell. 

Worlds colide in Adrian Lyne’s FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)

The newly-free man of the Eighties retrenches in suburbia and becomes the c.u.n.t. (caring uninteresting nineties type) that Nicholas Royle so appropriately christened. The thrill of the adventure is substituted by the fear of getting caught. Risk taking is not an option anymore. He has to go back to his old comfortable ways. More than that, he even fights back – the same Michael Douglas that pisses out of the pan in FATAL ATTRACTION, is then played as a patsy in Paul Verhoeven’s BASIC INSTINCT (1992) and finally turned into a cry-baby that is ‘raped’ by hot-boss Demi Moore in Barry Levinson’s DISCLOSURE (1994). 

With men thus dully chastised, it was then time for women to explore the dark new world with which they had had a first brush by their husbands’ tribulations. After all, it was to be expected that the same dangerous thrills that so enthralled their men would also have a mysterious allure for them. Women would then embark in the same initiation voyage, through the dark labyrinth of sensual danger to the ultimate goal of personal enlightenment and sexual fulfillment. Perhaps not surprisingly, that trip would closely mimic that of their male counterparts. It is thus absolutely natural that said journey should also begin on the same professional realm, with a police woman going undercover to the seedy world of strip-clubs to hunt down a killer that’s been preying on strippers.

    

Monday, February 20, 2017

Thinking of Shannon


A couple days ago I found myself thinking of Shannon Tweed. The actress will turn 60 next month (March 10, to be more precise), which puts her in her late thirties when she was the undisputed queen of the Erotic Thriller in the mid-1990s. As such she was a frequent presence in my old VCR, and I can well remember how great it felt, when I was in college, to run one of her films once in a while to clear my head from all the crap one had to stuff there in order to graduate. Well, maybe that is not entirely true. After all, she always played the woman (one can not think of her as a girl) one imagined one day one would get. With her stunning body and next-door-girl good looks, Shannon Tweed had something of an earthly quality, some indefinable and appealing mix that made one relate to her. She seemed real, unlike main competitors Shannon Whirry and Delia Sheppard who could never quite discard their self-conscious aura of sex fantasy come to life. Moreover, whether playing the competent professional, be it sex-therapist or talk show host, or the well-to-do unoccupied rich wife, Tweed always managed to seem troubled, preoccupied, as if partaking with us the woes of real life. Although not a great thespian - no Glenn Close or Meryl Streep there, thank goodness - she was able to brand a definite home-video period as her own.


I guess what prompted this unexpected trip to the past was my recent reading of a few works on the genre, that left me somehow unsatisfied and wanting more; wanting something that would directly address the allure of the genre for the viewer. Instead I suffered through the pompous academic prose of Linda Williams' The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (2005), Nina K. Martin's curious hit-and-miss approach in Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller (2007), and the totally clueless essay "They Kill for Love: Defining the Erotic Thriller as a Film Genre" by Douglas Keesey, published in volume 56 of CineAction back in 2001. What they all had in common was best summarized by Aneta Karagiannidou in her not less clueless thesis Getting Away With It: The Erotic Thriller and Its Fantasies (2006): "Like Slavoj Žižek, 'I never feel guilty about enjoying films that are generally dismissed as trash'(...) Erotic thrillers are definite candidates for the trash category, so that writing a PhD thesis on such a contested genre was a great challenge. I realized early on that unless I were very careful about the way I handled my topic [my thesis] would be dismissed as lacking academic seriousness (...)".


Well, we all know what academic seriousness does to truth when we're dealing with the (post)modern social 'science' and humanities departments. However, with more or less seriousness, all these authors handled the Erotic Thriller with long pincers, as if afraid it could contaminate them, or, worse, as if they feared they would enjoy such trash. But the most frustrating of all, was that they all tackled the subject as if they were making some kind of ritual sacrifice to the irate gods of tastefulness. Why someone would choose to study a field of the arts for which they have no affinity is something I'll never understand, unless they're invested in some kind of cultural-political-ideological crusade - which I guess most of them are - intent on procrusteanly squeeze even the smallest drop of confirmation for their stick-legged intellectual elephants. But for me, personally, what was really, really, galling, was that I found almost no connection between the readings they were making and the films I had watched. Was my memory tricking me? So, I decided to go back to some of those films and jot down some viewing notes and, if I have the time, the will, and the discipline, I'll share those  notes with you, dear (and possibly non-existent) reader, under the heading The Erotic Thriller: Bodies in Motion.


And so it was I started thinking of Shannon Tweed, the epitome of the Erotic Thriller heroine. When I finished college and opened my own practice, I was sure I would someday meet my own Shannon Tweed. I was in my late teens and early twenties when she was reigning over the erotic thriller, and now that I'm entering my late forties, I feel that she is still the same alluring blonde professional in her early thirties and that she's still plagued by unfaithful husbands, killer voyeurs or sex-psychos, and in need of some help dealing with them. I still think of her every time my door opens, but I know the woman I was hoping to catch is now the woman I never got. Somehow, time, and life, have passed me by, leaving her still an earthly, tantalizingly close dream... but a dream nonetheless.   

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Unfathomable Workings of the Censorious Mind


The first time I heard of Cirio H. Santiago's STRYKER (1983) was through a whitewashed trailer on an old (although then new) VHS tape of THE HITCHIKER (1986). Sucker that I am for all things post-apocalyptical I immediately fell in love with that weird MAD MAX (1979) and MAD MAX II: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981) derivative cash-in. Among the usual murder and mayhem on desolate landscapes that is usual in such pop-cultural artifacts, there was a fascinating scene of a full-bosomed chained beauty having her shirt ripped open by a pair of unmistakable villains. I swear I can still hear the paper-like screech of the garment being torn, background hiss from the mono tape included.


As soon as I could I tracked down a copy of the movie in my local rental shop and nested in the sofa to cozily enjoylife after the end of the world as we know it, Phillipino style. However... something was missing from the movie. Not the murder, nor the mayhem... No, all the violent shenanigans seemed to be there, but there was no sign of the eagerly expected shirt-ripping scene. Weirdest of all, the capture of the girl - Delha, played by Andrea Savio (although credited as Andria) - was there; as were some glimpses of her body hanging from the chains, with shirt clearly torn, being interrogated by Kardis's henchmen. But not the reason why it was so. Needless to say, it was true in all other copies I watched since then, be them VHS tapes from other labels, or .avi files found online. So much so that I began to doubt if I had ever really seen the blouse being ripped open, if I had really heard that forever remembered dry tearing sound.


For, as enticing as it is to glimpse such a scene in a trailer, the lack of context is galling. In the trailer she is just a well-endowed woman in chains. Sure, it's great eye candy and hot as hell, but the imagination hungers for more. When the time comes in the film proper, she is no longer an anonymous pair of breasts. She is Delha, a survivor, a warrior, a capable soldier, and the love interest of the film's titular hero.   





The contextual efect is much stronger, almost Christ-like (as her hanging from the chains with spread arms is unmistakenly intent to evoke), after we had seen her escape before by eviscerating one of the disposable henchmen that such villains as Kardis seem to have in unlimited numbers at their... welll... disposal. She's no longer just a sexy woman playing at soldiers, and to be so defeated, exposed, touched, begets an altogether different response from us, the viewers. For the censor, for whatever reason, to have cut the scenes of such unspeakable sexual violence, while retaining the run-of-the-mill punching, knifing, shooting and blasting, mainly among men, speaks volumes from where come so simplistic readings as those that take man-to-man combat as a substitute for hidden homoerotic desires.  
  
Now, thanks to Kino Lorber's recent Bluray edition of this cult favorite, I feel vindicated after almost thirty years of unbearable doubt (I exaggerate, of course, but I want you to feel my anger). Together with the missing footage of the blouse ripping, I found restored almost a full minute of cut footage that cast aside any doubt that Delha was (gang) raped after refusing to provide the information her torturers wanted her to... but that I'll leave for another post. For now, let us celebrate this historical moment, in all its bruised and battered glory.







And even in the silent, frozen beauty of the screencaps, I swear I can still hear that shirt tearing sound.