While reading Arthur Hailey’s novel “Hotel” (a beach book version of “Grand Hotel”), one gets a similar sensation to that of working on a disappointing jigsaw puzzle: at certain moments in working through it it appears to have far more pieces than are useful, and the end results hardly seems worth the effort.
If many of the book’s flaws are smoothed over in Richard Quine’s film version, there remains a sufficiency of preposterous coincidence and cliche to both satisfy admirers of the book and irritate enthusiasts of good cinema. Relating a few fateful days in the possible closure of the fictitious but stately St. Gregory Hotel in New Orleans, the myriad of characters of the novel, many of whom were peripheral at best, have been sensibly reduced in number, but in the pruning process there are often connective elements shorn which eliminate any fluidity in the resulting jerky rhythms of the multiple intersections of plotting.
The novel’s primary narrative revolves about whether or not the hotel remains in the hands of its owner Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas), a man who believes in the old-fashioned values of the hospitality trade, including segregation; a policy opportune for the film to stretch for the brass ring of social consciousness while simultaneously devaluing the issue by changing the circumstances of the book from one of honest racial offense to one of calculated fabrication; presumably devaluing the seriousness of the subject for those all-important segregated Southern theater markets. Trent’s competitor and chief prospect for taking over the St. Gregory is Curtis O’Keefe (Kevin McCarthy), a hotel franchise magnate whose vision is a world of entirely mechanized hospitality money machines.
The rival hoteliers are clearly meant to represent a clash between tradition and what is depicted as soulless modern capitalism, yet in the narrow example of the aforementioned civil rights incident (oddly, the only situation presented amid the maelstrom of melodramatic chaos meant to test the ethical consciousness of either party) neither is portrayed as an attractive alternative: with Trent beholden to the past regardless of the inclusion of long-established societal offenses, whereas O’Keefe demonstrates a mercenary indifference in callously engineering racial disharmony as a means of profiteering.
Assuming the role of an intermediary between the two hoteliers (and a poor representative of what is to be taken as the conscience of the piece) is the St. Gregory’s General Manager Peter McDermott (Rod Taylor) whose professional demeanor in handling trivial matters seems inexplicably mixed with stealing drinks from the hotel lounge’s featured chanteuse (an insultingly wasted Carmen McRae) until he redoubles his managerial ineptitude by abandoning his post for an extended (and critical) period to engage in what in polite society would be called “a nooner” with Jeanne Rochefort (Catherine Spaak), O’Keefe’s mistress. It is during this lengthy episode away from the hotel where the film makes the barest effort to add flesh to the characters, though the failed ignition of fervor is fortunate since the pair is manufactured of the same cardboard as the rest of the cast.
Prominent among the pared down assortment of colorless guests are a Duchess and Duke (Merle Oberon and Michael Rennie) at odds over their involvement in a hit and run accident and a key thief (Karl Malden) who manages to clean out the belongings of what appears to be half of the remaining anonymous lodgers despite his complete lack of caution (if this film is representative of New Orleans law enforcement, it is interesting to learn that fingerprints have yet to be discovered as a crime busting tool). Malden, for his part, disgraces his performance legacy with an interpretation of a criminal as walking laughing gas: spending the entirety of his appearance with the fixed grin of congenital idiocy.
The film fails to be distinguished by any hint of a New Orleans flavor outside of that situated in the most convenient backlot. However, even more surprising, considering all of the fuss made over the hotel’s storied stateliness, the setting of the St.Gregory itself is never exploited to be shown to be worth all of the fuss. The first shot of the interior is promising cinematically as we are introduced to the grandeur of the lobby from within one of the elevator, with the camera gracefully floating about the hubbub of the busy lobby, encountering several characters (who will feature prominently in what will appear to be a hotel populated by a staff populated by cheats, thieves and blackmailers), until encountering McDermitt, who will weave his way through the lobby until entering the same elevator. It’s a rather bravura sequence promising a cinematically interesting mise-en-scene; an assurance rapidly squelched as the rest of the film finds sufficient character in the underwhelming settings of underlit corridors and claustrophobic guest rooms.
The problem with the movie version of ” Hotel” is that nothing seems to have any consequence. None of the myriad subplots bear a great deal of weight upon the characters, nor are the end results of the narrative strings met with little more than a casual shrug: even the fate of the hotel, presumably the fulcrum about which all of the discordant soap opera orbits, is dismissed (after a spectacularly deadly elevator which conveniently ties up a few narrative loose ends) with a happy call for a round of celebratory drinks at the hotel bar. Hailey’s hotel may be the only one in Hollywood history to merit an A.A. rating.
“The Night of the Generals” (1967)
The makers of any film based on Hans Hellmut Kirst’s 1962 novel The Night of the Generals face a formidable task in that the author indulges in an sizeable amount of strategically inserted future declarations of inculpatory evidence; time jumps which needlessly strain a concision of exposition already burdened with a fractured tandem narrative. Confounding a linear recounting of events, these interruptions, not only impart information which proves irrelevant to the resolution of the film’s central mystery but also induce the grinding fatigue of redundancy in that these expositional asides merely redress what has been or will be doggedly dramatized at an already excessive length.
Unwisely, while not profoundly tinkering with the novel’s initially awkward modus operendi, the filmmakers have injudiciously abbreviated the narrative threads bearing the weight of the historical event which which provides both versions of the material their title. Additionally, while preserving the most trivial of evidentiary insertions, the absence of the most important of the novelistic devices- a thematically encapsulating epilogue encompassing a philosophical polemic -extinguishes the very point of the film’s fidelity to Kirst’s dual narrative, rendering the entire story meaningless.
In his kaleidoscopic storyline, Kirst introduces an almost Tolstoyan density of characters assembled over two decades in several major locales, with the primary focus split between the June 20, 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler and the investigation of a series brutal wartime sex crimes in which prostitutes are savagely stabbed with particular attention given by the killer in mutilating the victim’s genitalia. Given the lurid nature of the crimes and the inherent decadent nature of one particular character, the novel never submits to easy prurience, and the film, to its credit, happily honors this reticence toward the gratuitous.
In German occupied Warsaw, a prostitute is brutally murdered, a crime brought to the attention of German Intelligence officer Major Grau (Omar Sharif) whose enthusiasm for the case is immediately piqued when he discovers, through eyewitness testimony, that the murderer was wearing the uniform of a German general. His suspicion is cast upon the three general officers situated in the immediate vicinity sans alibi for the time of the crime. Collectively these generals represent a triptych of authoritarian archetypes: General von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray) whose singular sense of class entitlement defines his unceasing pursuit of comfortable career advancement; his chief-of-staff Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasence), an intuitive humanist whose deeply rooted pragmatism is often mistaken for contentious trenchancy and thus is held in contempt by von Seidlitz-Gabler’s social climbing spouse Eleanore (Coral Browne); and the ruthless Eastern Front warrior Tanz (Peter O’Toole), the latter who will occupy the bulk of the film’s, if not Grau’s, attention as the character is not only portrayed by the production’s biggest box-office asset, but is also, by far, the most dangerously idiosyncratic figure in the story.
The film jumps two years forward after Grau’s initial investigation of the three generals results in a suspiciously convenient timely promotion and reassignment to Paris. Reassembled in an occupied City of Light, Grau reasserts his zeal toward justice in making the acquaintance of French police Inspector Morand (Phillipe Noiret), with whom he finds a kindred spirit in the pursuit of justice, as well as a surprising shared sympathy toward the resistance against the often excessively brutal war machine. (Though why their paths had never crossed in the prior two years remains a mystery.) This sympathetic alliance and friendship between these two normally antagonistic agents of occupation and resistance is easily the film’s most interesting relationship, a fact emphasized in comparison by the antiseptic and needlessly protracted romantic interludes between false German war hero Corporal Hartmann (Tom Courtenay) and the rebellious daughter of von Seidlitz-Gabler, Ulrike (Joanna Pettet).
It is also in Paris where the presence of Hartmann inexplicably moves to a permanent position at the forefront of the action, necessitating a further reshuffling of priorities where the most of the genuinely important (and interesting) characters are blithely forgotten for huge chunks of the film; a decision which will not only further undercut the ultimate intended thematic endgame of the novel (and thus the movie), but also place a destructive emphasis on one suspect character alone (if by this point the murder investigation is still intended as a mystery to be solved), virtually eliminating any suspense the story might generate. So waylaid to a secondary status are the the primary figures in both the mystery procedural and the assassination plot, that by the time Grau meets his unexpected fate, he has become a footnote in the story; a shuffling of priorities which strains the credibility of the film’s concluding contemporary section in which it is asserted that the investigation continues in so small part to a loyalty to a comrade’s obsessive search for justice.
However, where the film fatally falters, and rather badly, is in its inability to give proper balance to the multitude of characters in a story that is both partly based on the coattails of an important historic event, and the murder plot which is sneakily interwoven into the factual the more historically accurate details in order to give nourishing example to the final chapter, in which the author indulges in the aforementioned extended philosophic musing on the moral imperatives of responsible generalship. This last integration of evidence compiled in the investigation of the relevant serial murder killings carries no weight of contributory evidentiary revelation, When this philosophic epilogue clarifies the entire point of the novel and is lost in the cinematic translation, it is essential that the adaptors contrive an alternative motivating fulcrum equivalent in explaining the strained duality of the narrative; a problem which proves unsolvable for screenwriters Joseph Kessel and Paul Dehn who, at least, compensate with a script brimming with engaging and intelligent dialogue. (The encounters between Grau and Morand are especially incisively written in both exploring character and advancing the plot.)
Aside from the bland portrayals of Courtenay and Pettet, the film is graced with a number of fine performances, especially those of Omar Sharif, Donald Pleasence and the inevitably undervalued Charles Gray. Efficiently directed by Anatole Litvak, Sam Spiegel’s production is a curious anomaly which is continually interesting, but never satisfying.
“Frankenstein Created Woman” (1967)
Considering the usual limitations placed upon the status of women in the Gothic horror movies produced by Hammer Films- generally subsumed to decorative but insubstantial roles calling for little more than subservient heaving women in peril or subservient bodacious honeys present only for a titillating display of cleavage and curves -it should come as no surprise that when that meager pedigree receives a bump in antagonistic prominence, such an elevation would continue to be sublimated by the will of all of the men in the room.
Terence Fisher’s “Frankenstein Created Woman” continues the apparently ceaseless experimentation of everyone’s favorite mad scientist who never seems to acknowledge the irony that his attempts to revive the dead usually end up with a greater quantity of deceased. Seeming to recognize the repetition of their Frankenstein films, screenwriter John Elder (the nom de plume for Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) alters Baron Frankenstein’s modus operandi by abandoning the familiar mix and match cadaver quilting and moving into the realm of metaphysical outrages by enabling resurrection by way of soul transference. Perfecting a method of capturing the fleeing soul from the dead (there appears to be a one hour expiration on a successful capture, discovered through means too truncated and inconclusive to satisfy even this film’s conspicuously lowered standard of shameless concession to incredulity), the Baron only needs to await the arrival of a conveniently fresh corpse (here in the form of a wrongly accused killer Hans[Robert Morris]) and a second (the disfigured Christina [Susan Denberg] with whom Hans was engaged in a secret dalliance during the time of the murder) in which to complete his immaterial exchange program. But to what end? Forever absent of an expressed scientific goal, the distinguishing characteristic of Hammer’s Frankenstein films seems to be the good doctor’s only real motive for continually bringing violent chaos to his surroundings is the compulsive scratchable itch of hubris. He can bring about disorder, so he will.
Much of the film is centered on Hans and Christina in setting up the convolutions of coincidence which make the Baron’s experiment possible. These sequences also prominently feature an obnoxious trio of drunken fops whose abusiveness of Christine sets the events in motion which lead to their murder of Christine’s father, Han’s subsequent arrest and execution for that murder (the trial scene is one of the most outrageously conceived examples of witch hunting ever put onscreen), Christina’s mournful suicide and resurrection armed with the implanted soul of the wronged Hans. The entirety of this material places the film firmly hip deep in one of the favorite thematic whipping posts at Hammer Films: the corrupt and decadent gentry, who are portrayed as merciless practitioners of sadism and sexual depravity against the lower class villagers (including the always available buxom maiden). From “The Hound of the Baskervilles” to “Plague of the Zombies”, the English countryside, according to the creative minds at Bray Studios, is filled to overflowing with upper crust libertines. Certainly the unwholesome threesome (played by Peter Blythe, Derek Fowlds and Barry Warren, all of whom seem to have been instructed to enact their roles as broadly as possible) comprising the true villains of the piece makes for a peculiar situation, in that Baron Frankenstein becomes increasingly secondary to the plot, and by the end of the film, a figure of complete irrelevance (even the laboratory scenes benefit more from the daffy charm of Thorley Walter as the Baron’s scatterbrained compatriot Dr. Hertz, than from Peter Cushing’s uncharacteristically unengaging presence).
When the film predictably emerges as a by-the-numbers tale of revenge, it offers little reward for the audience except to patiently follow the possessed Christina as she goes through the creaky motions of violent (but visually subdued) retribution; with the only novelty to a very tired formula offered is that this film’s monster on the rampage is of a more genteel exterior. So courtly and mannered has Terence Fisher’s direction become in this film, that we aren’t given the excitement of the chase, nor does the director properly set up his scenes of retaliation so that the audience might be afforded a sufficient cathartic enjoyment when the three reprehensible bullies get their just rewards. Contributing to the film’s version of narrative lazy eye is Elder’s screenplay which seems to lose track of its own plot halfway through the film and gives Denberg’s resurrected Christina nothing to do except to act bewildered between the tepid bouts of murderous seduction.
“Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” (1966)
Released as a double feature with “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula”, William Beaudine’s “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” is the kind of matinee movie in which it might have proved prudent to hand out a Rosetta Stone to each attending tot, as the mixture of impenetrable accents (are they supposed to sound Mexican or Austrian or is half of the cast simply afflicted with mouths full of novocaine?) render much of Carl Hittleman’s dialogue incomprehensible. On the other hand, the chatter that does rise above the fog of obscurity makes you wish for a sudden flare-up of hysterical deafness. However, no amount of desensitizing can disguise the fact that the performers would have had to graduate from decades of Actor’s Studio training to rise to the level of appalling.
Maria (Narda Onyx) and Rudolph (Steven Geray) Frankenstein are conducting experiments in a Southwest matte painting above a backlot village. Maria, concerned that her continued series of failed experiments (she replaces healthy brains with artificial ones so that she might create “someone to do our bidding who can’t be put to death”) have emptied the local village of usable children (unless her plans include sending the mindlessly obedient tykes to ravage the neighborhood demanding Burpee Seed orders, it’s unclear as to why she doesn’t understand that her dream of world domination doesn’t make a bit of sense), until after consulting her grandfather’s notes (which even the stupidest scientist might have done before running through the local population), she discovers an error in her medical procedure and realizes “a man, a giant” would be a more suitable candidate for her experimentation.
Enter Jesse James (John Lupton), the notorious outlaw, who by virtue of having the most recognized name in the title card, is granted the dubious stature as the film’s “hero”. His companion, an amiable muscular hill with legs named Hank (Cal Bolder) is shot in the shoulder during an aborted stagecoach robbery, suffering a wound which never seems to bleed. After camping out a night, avoiding an Indian attack, riding endlessly through sagebrush and dusty trails (not to mention taking time out to enjoy a few chaste kisses with a Mexican girl named Juanita), Jesse finally gets his “badly wounded” sidekick to the doorstep of the crazed granddaughter (not daughter, which is a pretty good sign of the film’s attention to detail) of Frankenstein, who is more than happy to accommodate the healing of Hank’s mortal superficial wound by removing his brain and reanimating him with the use of a rainbow colored helmet which looks as if it were inspired by a Beetle Bailey comic strip as seen through a Timothy Leary LSD haze and an FTD Florist ad.
The film is packed with incident, including a completely unnecessary subplot involving the pursuit of Jesse and Hank by a lawman and the conniving brother of a robbery associate, but it’s all presented at a snail’s pace of indifference by a director no longer interested in disguising his contempt for the shopworn material to which his name is attached. The mixture of western and horror tropes never works (there’s no reason for the awkward blend, except to sucker matinee fans of both genres to buy tickets), though it does afford the viewer the rare impression of seeing two bad movies at the same time.
“Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” (1966)
There isn’t a great deal of merit in William Beaudine’s “Billy the Kid vs, Dracula”, but the film makes an excellent case for the furtherance of black and white in shooting horror films; the garish, overly bright television lighting emphasizing the cheaply manufactured production values, while making it obvious that there isn’t a hint of mood visually attempted. In fact, the only semblance of atmosphere in the entire film is the score by Raoul Kraushaar, with otherworldly elements introduced with fanfares of frenzied harp runs and theremin stings.
Riding a stagecoach, Dracula (who is never identified as such, though his inappropriate western garb consisting of a lined cape and top hat gives him away in the first scene) is introduced to Mary Ann Bentley (Marjorie Bennett) who shows him a photo of her lovely daughter Betty (Melinda Plowman), with whom the vampire is immediately smitten. The next morning, the occupants of the stagecoach are massacred after Dracula slays an Indian maiden (or Hollywood’s version of a squaw, who wears enough cosmetics to go undercover as a Goldwyn Girl) during a rest stop. He then assumes the identity of Betty’s uncle- whom she has never met but was also on the stagecoach -in an attempt to accost the girl and make her his mate. Fortunately, Betty has a protector in fiancee William Bonney (Chuck Courtney), whose ability with a six-shooter is meaningless against the undead, but who will continue to act rashly despite the fact that his dismissal of knowing advice places Betty in desperate jeopardy.
The acting is appalling with Courtney delivering the most colorless portrayal of William Bonney in film. Nor does it add credibility to his role that Courtney is, at least, a decade past anyone calling him “Kid”. The film is postulate with inconsistencies: if Dracula/Underhill must sleep during the day, why is he seen through most of the film in the bright daylight? This may be the only Dracula film where the vampire is in danger of developing skin cancer. The climax of the film is equally puzzling, with the Count effortlessly absorbing a dozen bullets yet is knocked insensible when struck in the head by a tossed gun. It is one of those vampire films, more prevalent than not, in which the undead menace displays a sense of survival so incautious, it’s impossible to believe they were supposed to have eluded destruction for centuries.
John Carradine returns to the role of Dracula by depending entirely on bulging his eyes in a stare that is intended to induce chills but will surely only result in chuckles. A distinguished performer, his underplaying of the vampire is such that it fails to conjure bats, only ham.
Though William Wyler’s “How to Steal a Million” makes the pretense of being about a million dollar art heist, what it’s really about is Audrey Hepburn looking chic in Givenchy and Peter O’Toole mouthing the derivative bon mots of which Harry Kurnitz’ screenplay is entirely comprised, all the while attempting to simultaneously look suave and giving the impression his prodigious talent isn’t slumming. Though Hepburn seems comfortably in her element here (her swan-like neck has seldom seemed as elegantly posed), O’Toole looks more than a bit awkward attempting to assume a Cary Grant posture and his performance feels forced as if conveying to the audience that he’s aware the material is harmlessly trivial: the type of pseudo-sophisticated movie junk food that in more genteel days used to be called a “romp”.
Finding that her art forger father Charles Bonnet (a delightfully immoral Hugh Griffith straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon, and the best thing in the film) is in danger of exposure due to a insurance authenticity test on a Cellini Venus statuette which has carelessly allowed to be displayed as the centerpiece in a major exhibit in Paris’ Kléber-Lafayette Museum, daughter Nicole enlists the aid of the same art burglar, Simon Dermott (O’Toole), she has inadvertently shot while he was attempting to lift a Van Gogh painting (also a fake) from over the living room mantle. The bulk of the film incorporates the pair’s planning and execution of a rather farfetched (though amusing in its simplicity) scheme involving magnets, a scrub woman’s outfit and a toy boomerang, with a serious detour involving the burgeoning romantic attraction between the partners in crime: an affair of great convenience since great pains are taken to make the couple the most glamorous people in the room, with the rest of the cast made to look generally buffoonish (Hepburn’s romantic choices seem limited between the widescreen sparkle of O’Toole’s baby blues or Eli Wallach’s fidgety bulldog sweatiness) and professionally inept, with much of the humor deriving from poking fun at the actual inefficiency of even the most complex security arrangements especially with the aid of a script which resists the interruption of the chic sophistication with anything as mundane as unforeseen monkey wrenches in the robbery (the plan isn’t all that clever and it’s a cheat that its flaws aren’t exploited to comic or tension building effect) that might generate any real suspense or offer an even momentary distraction away from the fact that the real point of the film is to show off how damnably cute and sophisticated it’s all supposed to be; a similar blandness that crept into Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief”, a sibling cinematic bauble which sacrificed the darker side of criminality in favor of the fashionably coiffed.
One of the appealing aspects of the heist film is the pleasure of an immersive invitation into a corrupt but seductive psychology, drawing the audience into a brief conspiratorial congress with a mentality that is equal parts dangerous amorality and thrillingly inventive cunning during the planning phases of the job, which then instills the viewer with an empathetic investment in the outcome of the plan that eclipses a natural predilection toward a moral resistance having a vested interest in the success of a criminal enterprise (proof of this empathetic reversal is amply demonstrated in the swampy car immersion scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, perhaps the most overt demonstration of audience manipulation ever captured on screen). Where too are of the expected subsequent intrusions of fate that threaten to unravel the most masterful anticipatory blueprints, a characteristic entirely missing from Wyler’s film which, incredibly, has the pair staging the robbery without Nicole made aware of even a single detail of Simon’s plan? Thus, instead of the audience being engaged in watching for those random elements which will call for ingenious spontaneity on the part of the crooks (never once is it seriously asserted that the couple are criminals, such a suggestion being contrary to the rather astonishing sense of privilege which permeates the film), we are subjected to interminable shots of moving keys and the constant reminder that the guard is a slob drunk, neither of which contribute momentum to a story which seems comfortable to delay the robbery in mid-action so the sparkling, sophisticated coupling of cinema titans may cast aside the presumed object of the exercise (a robbery) to instead pursue the film’s true romantic objective (the kiss). Unfortunately, the entire affair seems so artificially wrought from far wittier models (the Thin Man series, for one) and to further abbreviate the most commonly anticipated traits of the genre, it severely fudges on an important part of the heist plot: the aftermath. Significantly, there is not a single hint of a detective or policeman investigating this million dollar crime, nor does there seem to be any concern by the duo that there will be any pursuit of the perpetrators; a rather optimistic stretch of credibility considering the trail of clues they leave scattered all over the museum. Nor is there the slightest explanation as to how they exit a crime scene that is, by now, swarming with cops, except to suggest they simply climb down a set of cellar stairs. After the genre heights of “The Asphalt Jungle”, “Rififi” and”Topkapi”, the film seems to take ill-advised inspiration from its own characters and feels like a fake, only unlike the the efforts of M. Bonnet, the counterfeiting here is transparent. It’s not that every film has to follow a rigid formula- far from it -but the film’s willingness to deliver a romantic comic caper that substitutes supposed star power (whatever that’s actually means in a case where the power is wasted) for class, and empty glamor for true sophistication is a letdown when even the basic mechanics of the caper elements are written in shorthand.
William Wyler directs with the sure hand of an experienced director who seems to have had all intuitions toward originality flushed from his efforts; disappointing especially after his fine work on “The Collector”, a far more challenging project which he approached and executed with stunningly aberrant finesse. Still, “How to Steal a Million” is undeniably entertaining but in an extremely vaporous fashion: the memory of it vanishes within minutes of leaving the theater and we’ve certainly seen it all- and better -before. Surely, with all of the talent involved, the audience cannot be faulted to expect more.
One of the most immediately promising aspects of Bonnie Sherr Klein’s anti-pornography documentary “Not A Love Story: A Motion Picture About Pornography” is the fact it is a product of Canada, and as such will not be immediately weighed down with the typical obfuscating arguments that would have arisen had it had its genesis in the United States. Gone are the arcanely labyrinthine ACLU contortions of Constitutionally-based doublespeak, frustrating any discussion- outside of billable lawyer’s hours -as to the cultural and psychological ramifications of a society awash in pornographic content. A reminder is in order that that the release date of the film is 1981, light years away from the age of the porn engorged Internet, yet the cogency of the arguments within the film’s narrow focus are certain to retain their credibility regardless of any historical changes in the culture-at-large; though this also supposes that they are cogent and well reasoned on the basis of intellectual observation and analysis rather than strictly reactions of emotion. After all, relevant conclusions should be based upon fundamental philosophical cultural principles which contain certain consistent values despite the cosmetic trappings of technological and social trending, which, in the end, may be amusing diversions for the unenlightened but only offer the opportunity for critical waffling born of incomplete thinking.
The film, with a limiting running time of a mere 69 minutes, attempts to bite of more than is sensibly digested, with the field of pornography covered not merely printed and film materials, but also in the related sex trades of exotic dancing, magazines, prostitution and live sex shows. In a nutshell, the producers of the film are attempting the impossible task of encompassing the entire sex industry in its withering gaze, ensuring, at best, that the film may provide a primer on the subject but it may be impractical to expect much more than surface exploration of the subject, which leads to the danger that it could succumb to the very exploitative values it means to condemn. Unfortunately, this may be the case, though the cheapening of the subject derives less from the cataloging of depravity than in questionable intent for which these materials are used. Though there are explicit documentations of exotic dancing, live sex shows, porn film shoots and myriad examples of the most tawdry film clips, there is not a moment that even hints at a genuine erotic charge, a result achieved by the degenerate nature of the representative materials chosen and through a palpable bias of disdain toward the subject (understandable), its providers and consumer base. It’s almost impossible to view the film without the sensation of feeling unclean. However, what is problematic is that the film’s perspective is entirely grounded in a hostile posture of radical feminism, quite obviously anti-male and anti-sex. By the end of the film, the militant feminism is so hostilely expressed, the very concept of sex is made to seem a loathsome weapon of misogyny; an deliberate invention of the chauvinistic male with which to oppress and objectify all women. There is a disturbing lack of charity present within this distinctly radical feminist framework nor even the merest possibility suggested that every man in the world isn’t party to the pornographic objectification of women. There is a palpable hatred of men unearthed in Klein’s rather limp investigations that are illuminating but demoralizing: certainly the defensive accusations of sexual objectivity against women are as equally untenable an absolute as the enraged expression that all men are culpable in the process of demeaning and objectifying women. Intellectually, abstract absolutes are a suspect and lazy path which limit the scope of both a clear sense of observation and a cogent capacity for argument over the full meaning of what those observations unearth. (Ironically, it is the mindset of absolutes which is precisely what the feminist camp within the the film is ultimately railing against as it these same asserted absolutes that fuel and generate misogyny.) While this attitudinizing may be understandable in a spontaneous expression of emotionally charged outrage- where the absence of fullest reason might find momentary harbor in explosive utterances of frustration stoked by a society that increasingly exploits women -it undermines the usefulness of the film as documentary and instead devolves into an extreme and in many ways equally distasteful, though ultimately revealing, polemic.
There is a basic intellectual dishonesty in the deliberately stubborn attitudinizing inherent in the film’s ultimately narrow mission- where none of the featured radical commentators bothers to be reacting to the evidence gathered by Klein, but merely campaign within their own deeply rooted emotional agendas -evident that the film’s perspective is one born of a moralist’s crusading zeal rather than the cogently considered editorial intention. Nor does the film ever uncover information and either pursue an renewed direction based upon such evidence nor is there a capacity for spontaneous of creative thought displayed: never is there an occasion where Klein brings an immediacy to her arguments when faced by a contrary statement, her arguments all seem preplanned and read off of a sheet. Most curious of all, there is no distinction made in the legitimate popular sexualized culture and the more crassly commercialized sex industry, or how the sexualization of the advertising world might lead (if indeed it is a causational force) to the extreme boundaries of the pornographic. That it fails to delineate (or even the attempt at such delineation) the difference between pornography and the very concept of genuine artistic eroticism is an inevitable casualty of the film’s inflexible insistence that the culturalization of sex is both demeaning to, and a deliberate, attack on women by men and only for the salacious pleasure of the same. This assertion fails to recognize the participation of men as a subject of the same lurid objectification- either in “straight” or gay sexually explicit materials. nor does it attempt any balanced gender representation in the film’s directed commentary. In fact, the film surprises in that it fails to cover the basics 0f its extant subject; much more than any casual perusal of the cellophane wrapped periodicals behind the register of a local convenience store might equally provide. What is missing in the film’s investigative approach is not the willingness to delve into the seamier ends of the sex trade or to even find credible, illuminating “witnesses” who might convey their own experiences in the trade and the detrimental (or not) effects it has had on their lives; but in acknowledging the facts uncovered in its investigations and then by manipulating those findings or outright denial of their informational value by their callous dismissal by meaningless roundtable discussions peopled by shockingly narrow-minded and unrelated literary and academic “experts” who are all proponents of the specifically militant radical viewpoint that undercuts the credibility of the film’s intentions.
To understand the perspective (despite the breadth of commentary, there seems to be only one point-of-view accepted) presented by the film, its important to understand just what questions Bonnie Sherr Klein is attempting to answer, motivational presumptions that are possible by the evidence within the demonstrations of unsubtle inquiry the film operates. For example, if Klein believes that the sex industry seriously damages society (and culture), how and why? Would it not be instructive to feature discussions with workers in these industries, especially women? The film’s central failing arises when we realize that Klein does indeed pursue the aforementioned workers as evidentiary participants and then scathingly dismisses their testimony within the context of academic snobbery which devolves far more into class separation than either sisterhood or legitimate journalistic receptiveness.
Not coincidentally, the Klein’s chosen “experts” with few exceptions tend to be women and with this gender imbalance also emerges a rather disturbing class snobbery through which lies the key in explaining the source of the film’s limited editorial curiosity, a limitation which ultimately undermines the film’s general intent (a more specifically defined purpose never emerges). Expert witnesses are separated into two distinct categories: the participants in the industry, and literary/academia types, the latter whose effusive sense of superiority is so suffocating, it is- by far -the most unsavory aspect of the film. This violent dichotomy of classicism- more defined by social positioning rather than legitimately useful knowledge or experience -might be revealing in itself, if it weren’t so enthusiastically encouraged by Klein; the endless parade of close-up reaction shots of the (usually) scowling director are deliberately inserted to tell the viewer exactly how to react to the material at any given moment- since these shots intrusively break up the fluidity of the testimonials, using her own hangdog expression as an assertive and interfering visual punctuation. Additionally, Klein never really includes many on-camera questions aimed at her more literary brethren, perhaps feeling they don’t need the intellectual prodding she practices with the actual sex industry workers, in some instances shamelessly leading those witnesses into what she wants them to say.
For example, the film presents stripper Linda Lee Tracey with an explanation by the director that she admires Tracey’s “comfort with her own sexuality” and observes that the dancer is also “asking questions about pornography”, though it becomes abundantly clear that Tracey’s views on sexuality are far more generously considered but also have a basis in direct knowledge born of direct experience and are expressed with a selfless lack of gender and class bias but which are answered with by the director’s own arsenal of facial scowls, frowns and beaming smiles depending on which opinion conveniently agrees with her own. In a particularly telling piece of testimony (which Klein seems to dismiss despite its inclusion), Tracey relates an incident in which:
“I went to this pornography rally in New York. It was Women Against Pornography marching down 42nd Street. Now, these women were saying that the hookers that were not to blame for their plight, it was the pimps and the club owners, OK? And when I joined their ranks and told them I was a stripper, it was like: “Oh, poor you. Oh gee, where do you work? Oh, those guys. Oh boy.”, and they were making excuses for me. They were very condescending and when you get anyone who’s condescending, they’ve already passed a judgment on you, OK? And it’s like this party line is that I’m stupid and I’m being used and I really have no choice whatsoever, so let’s hit the dirty guy, let’s hit the men. Listen to the same line the guys are using: that women are stupid.”
If this statement is an example of Klein’s reference to Tracey’s “asking questions about pornography” then how can the director find inspiration in the stripper’s “plight” while simultaneously turning such a blind eye to her actual thoughts born of experience of which Sherr is entirely ignorant? The film lacks a structural focus, and except for the relentless tactics of indoctrination Klein employs against Tracey by rubbing her face into the worst of the pornographic marketplace until she relents to her way of thinking, but by offering up Tracey as a sacrificial lamb to prove her own philosophical ends, Klein is just as culpable in objectifying and victimizing a woman as her targeted pornographers. It is an example of appalling intellectual sloth and an editorial dishonesty at work here, which is not suggesting that a film is not entitled to its own perspective despite the intrusion of a blinding radical bias, but there must be collaborative content which fairly supports that proffered bias without the intervention of strong-arm tactics, though there is a caveat which emerges when catering to a very reactionary point-of-view that renders suspect the conclusions of such discussions. It is a self-defeating process, antithetical to rational, dispassionate thought and threatens to undercut many of Klein’s areas of concern, doubly so as the blind siding extremist radical feminist commentaries are actually continually encouraged by the director. (It’s as if she is not secure enough to impose her own editorial rationale without attempting to prejudicially stack the deck.)
The film comes from an unwavering radical feminist stance, which though it is legitimate to express all viewpoints, immerses the film’s argument into an irrational accusation of exclusively female objectification- not onlys,one suspects, in the sex industry, but in society in general -which is baffling since many of the depicted participants (not consumers, mind you) of the industry are male, and yet nothing is mentioned of the objectification nor abuse of those of the male gender. (Nor does the film ever mention pornography that excludes women such as gay porn, nor examples where men would be portrayed as objectified victims such as dominatrix material.) This would only make sense if the argument were that sex itself is an objectifying, demeaning and victimizing act (but only against women), a polemic stance which is mirrored in the viciously ant-male rants of star “expert” witnesses (though what this expertise is comprised of-beyond the mere fact of being a woman, is unclear), though how the director’s onscreen victimization against Tracey is different from that for which she accuses the pornographers except that it is initiated by a woman? The film is an ugly process of dehumanize by the director against a chosen individual, who is mercilessly pummeled into liquid submission that if not objectifying, is soullessly corrosive. None of this honestly addresses any natural degenerative process pornography may have on society since there is no similar grinding of the average citizen’s face in the sordid materials or venues to which Klein’s Pygmalion is summarily subjected. Just the opposite, in fact, as there is no explanation as to how Tracey might be employed within the sex industry and yet maintain a healthy self-image and disinterest in the more prurient ends of the pornographic industry until the enlightened, educated elite feminists rub her nose into the dirt (though they would never think to immerse themselves in such ugliness, that particular experience being reserved for the underclasses) and remove from her this sense of self-worth. Just who are the persecutors of women to these same feminists, one who prominently promotes- without contradiction -an immersion in pornography as a path to enlightenment? (What?? This rationale taken to its logical conclusion would have everyone flocking to support the very industry these “intellectuals” posture and rail against!) To take these testimonials at face value is to embrace a number of clearly damaged personalities (one writer works up such a self-loathing lather she practically talks herself into an on-screen nervous breakdown) that is more a cautionary public service announcement warning against the lack of lucidity and emotional stability within the feminist core. One would presume this was not Klein’s intention, though the cruelly meticulous method employed by the director to pick at the initially healthy self-image of Linda Lee Tracey does give pause, as the uglier connotations of such methods suggest that in the world of unhealthily radicalized feminism, misery demands company.
There is also an undeniable suggestion that among the director’s chosen expert female witnesses, none revealing a direct experience with the world of lurid pornography (unless they have viewed this film which is so gratuitously loaded with extreme, sexually violent imagery that it would undoubtedly be attacked by these same experts as yet another opportunity to shamelessly degrade women had this same film been made by a man), that their real issues are not with the sex industry but with men in general, for never is there one acknowledgement of the damage this culture of supposed objectification might have on the self-image of the male. Rather than the misogynistic ogres engorged in sexual violence as epitomized either in the feminist verse or reflective commentaries, the men portrayed in the film- not directly involved solely in the craven money end of the business -are almost entirely comprised of the wincing wounded in varying degrees of psychic emasculation. In an interesting passage with a group calling themselves Men Against Male Violence, the suggestion emerges that real-life women can’t measure up to the standards the erotic fantasy figure represented by the sex object, a rational observation entirely in keeping with the feminist line of thought concerning women’s objectification, however, an interesting observation can also be made as to the boundaries of such an argument, as not unlike the radical feminist camp, this assertion of objectification works both ways yet these men who are clearly damaged by such self-inflicted doubts based on the same rationale of impossible demands raised by objectification go unaddressed. Only former porn actor Marc Wallace directly addresses this issue head-on, though his unflattering hubris tends to undercut any universal value his thoughts might convey. However, there is a more direct demonstration of bullied gender timidity in the case of Kenneth Pitchford who is the very portrait of a man terrified to speak without the threat of psychological evisceration from his spouse writer/poet Robin Morgan whose blind hatred of the perceived of society borders on madness. whose rambling vacuous arguments (each taken as a golden nugget by the director and the increasingly unhinged Morgan who appears enormously pleased with herself in holding her own Inquisitional Court, especially when a pained Pitchford reveals he’s felt the demands of feminism were making him impotent) accuse others against a lack of intimacy though her statements suggest she’s really never met another human being in her life except through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.
Nor is there a credible basis to many of the underlying facts presented in the film. It’s as if the director felt that the subject itself is of such a controversially inflammatory nature that any direct showdown would be sufficiently courageous to blur the usually necessary lines of diligent research complimented by well reasoned (and focused) editorial articulation. It is interesting to note that whenever Klein finds herself stuck in a philosophic Catch-22, she falls back on tired arguments on organized crime’s participation in the pornography game (this mistaken path would concede legitimacy to pornography as long as the money trail were clean, a conclusion which is doubtful to have been her intent), as if there were no better method to gain easy sympathy than to conjure the criminal element, and even this accusation is rendered less than wholly reliable with the sloppily contradictory assertion that the profits from pornography are hidden as taxable income from an illicit enterprise, yet she then proceeds to quote the average profit distinctions between a porn palace and a McDonald’s franchise. What happened to the Mafia Code of Silence? Nor does it advance the credibility in another of her experts- this time a man -a psychologist who inexcusably misreads the motivational points of the novel and film “Deliverance”. Though what is most disturbing of all in the film’s method is Klein’s choice of illustrative materials: she seems thoroughly obsessed by the most violently extreme boundaries of pornography and seems to find little distinction between consensual sex, rape and torture. Instead of earning her Brownie points legitimately (which should have been a cakewalk), she force feeds the audience with a funnel and plunger.
As a primer on the subject of pornography, “Not a Love Story” fails to reach any level of useful contributory value in the ceaseless arguments inherent in the continued artless sexualization of mass culture, a subject dealt with in both the media and judicially with an exhausting dishonesty and thus the film is a major disappointment. How often does anyone attempt a serious film which unflinchingly approaches such an uncomfortable subject? How sad that Klein loses her way by foolishly allowing the easy road to polemic to obscure the evidence directly at her fingertips.