The New Stepford: The Influences of Get Out

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Brainwashing, body snatching, experimental procedures, what have you, there’s a lot to fear from the power of affluent white people. That may sound crazy but science fiction ulterior motives are almost more comforting to believe in than a grand evil scheme concocted by white upper class than age-old racism and sexism. Get Out has made a huge splash as being one of the most woke horror movies ever made. It brings the subtext of oppression and otherness that past genre films have alluded to and made it literal text. The story of a black man Chris (Daniel Kaluyaa) going on a weekend vacation to visit his white girlfriend’s parents devolves into a conspiracy of modern day slavery and exaggerated cultural appropriation. Sure it is a heightened scenario of a white community luring black people to be used as body surrogates since they are superior physical, artistic and intellectual beings but there are many other smaller interactions that director Jordan Peele tackles of modern day racism such as a black man being followed by a car in the suburbs or the excessive need for the white people Chris meets in this upstate neighborhood to prove they’re not racist by stating how much they like Tiger Woods. Get Out couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for America where the conversation on race has come to the forefront. Now being a white person, I’m not the right person to talk about the importance of Get Out or the black experience in any way but Peele has expressed that his inspiration for the movie came from 1975’s The Stepford Wives, that premise being a similar affluent suburb of Connecticut has men turning their wives into subservient robots. The female experience being something I’m more familiar with, I decided to double feature the 70’s horror film as well as it’s 2004 comedy remake to see where Peele drew his influence and how I can tangentially talk about Get Out.

I’m first inclined to believe that Peele derived from both incarnations of Ira Levin’s novel. Obviously tonally he’s going for the thriller elements of the 1975 Wives which was also a slow burn build up as Joanna (Katharine Ross) and her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) move to the town of Stepford from the big city and during her four months stay, she notices the abnormal perfections that are the women of the prim and proper suburb. Yet Frank Oz’s Stepford Wives is a richer satire as well as being a broad comedy which has some time to shine in Get Out which supporting actor LilRel Howery brings in the third act. The thesis statement in those films is that the modern woman is becoming too independent and free-thinking so their boilerplate, vanilla husbands invent a way to replace their partners with identical looking fembots whose only desire is to please whether that be sexual or dedicating their time to a clean house and home cooked meals. This obviously derives from the 50’s idyllic homemaker which is more pronounced in the remake. Not subtly shown in the opening credits montage are vintage household appliance commercials being modeled by ecstatic women then once actually in the town, everyone is made up in the dresses and hair dos presented in the aforementioned ads. The real biting satire comes from the fact that all the transformed Stepford wives were career women, CEOs and novelists whose husbands were left inferior and therefore compelled to “upgrade” their women into big breasted cyborgs. The motivations in the ’75 version are much less warranted where our lead Joanna is not the creative director for a television network but a stay at home mom with a budding photography interesting. The fact that her schlub of a lawyer husband Walter feels the need to change her because they sometimes argue is way more disturbing.

Stepford Wives is examining the gender gap of “boys will be boys” and “women belong in the kitchen” stereotypes which in Get Out translates to the gap between the long-standing racial divide in America. Both have a storied history in these McMansion neighborhoods. Peele is examining how going back to slavery, blacks were viewed as either the help, seen at the Armitage estate with the housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson) or as sexual beings like former Brooklynite Andre (Keith Stanfield) standing as arm candy for a much older woman. Chris and Joanna are witnessing these reductive molds being forced on their peers and know that no one does this willingly. Just as Joanna sees her slobbish, eccentric friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss and Bette Midler respectively) transform into trophy wives, Chris similarly sees the phony exterior of Andre and the haywire mechanism triggered by either a camera flash or slight trauma proves that their humanity is somehow vacant. All films are tales of humans using advanced technology to simplify one’s identity, the funniest instance is that of in ’75’s Wives it’s an ex-Disney Imagineer who is the proprietor of the Mr. Lincoln-esque fembots. It’s the paradox of no matter how far we improve in science and technology, there’s the need to hold on or revert to the past, in this situation the oppressive former ways of life.

Peele gleans a mix of small details (the heroes being photographers because they have the eye to see the truth) and the larger arcs (rich white people shouldn’t be trusted) to make a more relevant version of Ira Levin’s work but with the less often shown perspective. As a white person, even watching the 2004 Stepford Wives I couldn’t help but be taken aback at how upper class and removed that environment feels. It’s a prerecession America and all those husbands now are the 1% who have a hard-on for Paul Ryan and his tax cuts. The film doesn’t even address the lack of diversity, their chosen statement of inclusion is a gay couple and an obviously self-loathing one at that (Roger’s partner apparently hates his flamboyant nature). At least the 1975 version addresses the fact that the neighborhood has been strictly caucasian until the local busybody giddily informs Joanna and Bobbie that a black family is moving in and that Stepford is the “most liberal town around.” In Get Out whether you’re black or not you relate to the uncomfortableness of the opulent lifestyle. Millenials distrust of old money and those wealthy people that placed us in our current political and economical predicament informs the tension of the film, even if they say they would have voted for Obama a third term. They probably didn’t vote for Hilary! I digress, all this is to praise Peele for making a more identifiable movie for my generation. Just as Moonlight was the movie that needed to win Best Picture, Get Out is the horror movie needed to start off this year. When the world turns sour, in response, the best art is born.
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For brief reviews of Get Out, The Stepford Wives (1975) and The Stepford Wives (2004) here.
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The Vintage Revisits: Westworld (the movie!)

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When you first hear the premise of Westworld, an adult theme park where patrons can relive a particular historical era until robots go awry and kill everyone, it sounds perfect for a television show that can spend seasons worth of time building the vast environment and inner workings of such a place. Surprisingly enough at the original conception which was a 1973 movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, jammed all that into 90 minutes, and quite unsuccessfully. Not from a financial standpoint as the film was a box office hit earning $10 million and that’s in 1970’s dollars. It spawned a sequel (Futureworld) and a previous flop of a TV Show (only 3 episodes aired) which is proof that audiences and executives have been in love with the concept which is why it is continually resurrected. Where the original falls short is that it is fairly poorly structured as a screenplay and directed by an inexperienced Crichton. The fact that with these flaws my feelings still skew positively is a testament to the foundation that’s so intriguing and that it can carry a film that otherwise falters under its ineptness.

To an extent why I give it a pass is because it starts so strong. It kicks off with news footage or more likely a promotional video where a chipper interviewer speaks to guests leaving the park about their experiences. In a tongue and cheek manner, people knowingly smile as the articulate how much they enjoyed the hunky men in Romanworld and shooting outlaws in Westworld (the visitor hoping he only shot robots and not real people). It’s a great tactic to build up the excitement for these time travel Disneylands before we even arrive. We’re then introduced to our protagonists Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin as Christian Bale) a situation where I couldn’t figure out who was the main character until one of them dies at the midway point. These seeming strangers who are actually friends (another script problems) embark on their vacation of drinking and debauchery in Westworld. The film jumps around between their experience, some other unknown characters in Medievalworld and the row of nameless control room operators who direct the action while ordering their lunch. The film manages to be specific enough that you understand the intricacies of running this park as each night deactivated robots are cleaned up off the roads and taken underground for maintenance and how these humanoid A.I.s interact with the either with sexuality or violence but show signs of overriding their programming yet at the same time is vague enough that you don’t care about all these people who die at the hands of vengeful machines. It’s entertaining to watch our heroes get into bar fights and seduce whores (which leads to the most bizarre, dissolve heavy sex scene ever) but I don’t care or even understand why robots want to massacre them. The main villain is the Gunslinger played by Yul Brynner who Michael Myers-esque stalks Peter the whole movie for some unestablished vendetta.

Why this expansive plot can be carried out in 90 minutes is because there’s not a second act. The movie goes from the exposition of the parks and behind the scenes to Gunslinger killing John and everything going to shit. If you didn’t guess it by now, this movie is a prototype for Jurassic Park. Westworld is very top-heavy with exposition and escalates so quickly with nothing to transition that in between where JP cultivates an amazing group of characters and starts with the bang the initial T-Rex escape but still can build tension after that climactic turn. The third act or second act (whatever it is) in this case has its creepy moments and unexpected brutality for what had been a bright movie but lacks any pathos because you don’t have the reasoning for the machine’s malice other than the 70’s fear of uncharted technology. At least for JP, dinosaurs are just being dinosaurs which entails eating humans. These robots are fed up I guess but no emotional cognizance has been presented to show that they don’t like their designed enslavement. Peter is as baffled and relinquished as us as he runs from the Gunslinger maintaining the most neutral and uninterested expression.

It’s still a fun hodgepodge of ideas that obviously needed twenty years and Steven Spielberg to do correctly. I would breakdown Westworld as 75% set up, 10% robots going crazy and 5% laborious horse chase and I like that 75%. It’s so 1970’s future a la Logan’s Run with its blocky hovercrafts and light bright switch boards which are always a delight. Overall though it’s just a brilliant concept. The delineation from what would be repurposed into Jurassic Park is that Westworld is a strictly adult resort and I like the choice to keep the movie as such. It’s perfect for HBO because they can maintain that hard R rating as the appeal is the idea of an amusement park that caters to vices and immoral acts that you can’t commit in normal society that’s paired with the sweeping backdrop of a period piece. This movie is a great pitch that someone has finally realized how to form into prestigious television. Give me characters to root for, complexity to the A.I. and most importantly, spare no expense.

The Vintage Revisits:The Panic In Needle Park

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Before Requiem for a Dream there was The Panic In Needle Park which has the appearance of a film sponsored by D.A.R.E. if it wasn’t so artfully made. The 1971 film was adapted from James Mill’s exposé in Life magazine as an intimate tour into the danger and grit of New York City which was perceived as a hub of dope fiends and criminals by middle America. Panic definitely doesn’t prove that incorrect because you are placed directly amongst the most adulterated inhabitants. These are addicts who go to alarming lengths to get their next fix yet what makes this depiction of the perils of heroin so unsettling is its level of humanizing done for its characters. You’re welcomed into the lives of young couple Helen (Kitty Winn) and Bobby (Al Pacino), presented through a nonjudgmental lens. While brutally honest about their imperfections, the enlightening performances provoke such sympathy so as their lives spiral out of control, it becomes a gut punch with each poor decision. Shot cinéma vérité, director Jerry Schatzberg takes you deep into the dark allies of the city but paired with such moving performances, you can’t look away.

What differentiates Panic from Requiem is the appeal of the characters. With Requiem, everyone starts off pretty unlikeable (except for Ellen Burstyn of course) as Jared Leto kicks off the movie stealing his mother’s television. The film’s tone is immediately pessimistic as the three leads situation goes from bad to worse that by the end characters are either incarcerated, homeless or turn to prostitution. All this is included in Panic but at its core, it is a love story. It’s a tragic love story of a couple doomed by drugs and lose themselves in a cycle of self-destruction but in a fucked up way, they have each other. It’s not all bad, at least to start, you’re lured into the sweet amidst the sour environment. We are introduced to Helen quite deceivingly as she sits dazed on the subway. We already know her fate as the film states upfront with text that Needle Park is the nickname for Sherman Park on the Upper West Side populated by heroin addicts. Her vacant stare leads you to believe she may already be in the throes of a habit but as she returns to her then boyfriend’s loft (a handsome Raúl Juliá) you learn she had an abortion, a botched one that lands her in the hospital. An equally handsome Bobby who has become smitten with her sneaks into the hospital to flirt with her and this is where the affair blossoms. The chemistry between the two is palpable. Even though Helen is conscious of his reputation as a user (her boyfriend his supplier) she is instantly charmed and you can’t blame her. We meet Bobby at a high point which later becomes few and far between but when at his best, he’s magnetic as hell. He chats up the bum outside the ER, playfully teases the elderly pawnbroker to whom he sells a stolen TV and he loves sitting on the park bench with his pals swapping stories about what drugs mix best. Helen being an introvert is drawn to his bravado and they become a winning couple. So when Helen inevitably gives in to her curiosity and takes her first hit, you feel as betrayed as Bobby. She’s no longer pure but as flawed as him. The light in her eyes in gone as she is a zombie with a hunger stronger than Bobby’s.

Panic must have been shocking to audiences at the time of its release with its brazen depiction of heroin use and even by today’s standards is quite jolting. It’s not for the squeamish as there are long takes of how one injects heroin, something most films generally cut away from but that’s part of the film’s impact. This is coming out of the era of censorship when such sadism was only implied. The first time we witness shooting up is when Bobby takes Helen to a flophouse and while they talk mundanely in the background we watch a man strap up, find a vein and insert that needle, injecting the clear liquid, pulling back some blood, injecting again then sitting back as he’s hit by the rush of the high. The sound fades out as all we hear are his heavy breaths and watch his eyes go cross. A registered nurse was reported to be on set observing the technical precision and safety of the act making it all the more unnerving, knowing it’s real. The depiction in continually gratuitous with needles dangling from long track marks as unattended babies cry out on the shared bed.

Out of all the horror movies I consume, I can stomach ghosts, serial killers and masked assailants but nothing scares me more than drugs. It’s more terrifying because it’s undeniably around me. Helen’s deterioration could happen to anyone especially when it comes to the most addictive of substances. Kitty Winn incredibly sells Helen’s descent from the bubbly girl who picks at her fries to a pale, disheveled shell of a person turning tricks to pay for her $80 a day needs. What is so agonizing is how the film will give you these fleeting moments of happiness. There will be instances where both are somewhat clean and take the ferry to Long Island to buy a puppy and Helen dreams of moving away and starting a home. Before her thoughts can be completed, Bobby whisks her into the ferry bathroom for a hit, leaving the puppy to stumble off the side of the boat. Optimism is always dashed as the drugs dimish any good intention. They encourage each other’s habits but hate it when one is too strung out or hides their dwindling supply. What they look like slack-jawed, eyes rolling back from heroin could be mistaken for a corpse. The addicts in Needle Park are the real Walking Dead.

Panic is now a faded snapshot of a sanitized New York. Sherman Square is now adjacent to a Trader Joe’s and Haagan-Daz. That doesn’t mean these dark narratives have disappeared, they merely aren’t as visible. Even without the abysmal aesthetic, it’s a pertinent cautionary tale. Though maybe it only scares straight edge people like myself, inherently fearful of all forms of illicit consumption. I mean this couple marred by drugs finds solace with each other. The film concludes with Bobby being released from jail, a situation which Helen set him up for, yet they walk in toe towards the Manhattan horizon. There’s no way they live to see another winter but that’s ultimately unknown. They could get clean, finally get married and move to Connecticut, but throughout their relationship, we see little promise of that. Bobby is in love with Needle Park and Helen is in love with Bobby and the cycle continues. That entrapment is what is so haunting, addiction eliminating one’s free will. All that’s left is death which one of Bobby’s friends remarks “is the best high of all.” A depressing outcome to look forward to but that’s what this movie is, the dispiriting life of a junkie. It’s a morose note to end on but that’s how I felt when it was over, completely broken. So yeah, thumbs up.

Sampling Surreal Cinema with The Greasy Strangler and Multiple Maniacs

 

I wouldn’t consider myself the most adventurous cinefile. The more strange and bizarre crevices of the cult film canon I shy away from, opting for the safer conventional narrative structures and cohesive storytelling. When I go see a genuinely weird movie, I leave feeling so uncool thinking “who is this for?” I realize there’s merit in pushing the limits of cinema and often these types of filmmakers’ goal is to break the mold. There are some instances where I can respect that like with John Water’s newly restored 1970’s black and white feature Multiple Maniacs with its counterculture sensibilities aimed to shake up the conservative suburbs he grew up in. The film’s guerrilla style tactics and raw production value provide a unique experience as you feel a part of this crew of Baltimore misfits, accomplices in their dirty deeds. Adversely, the horror/comedy The Greasy Strangler which draws heavily from Waters’ off kilter performances aesthetic paired with the deadpan delivery of Tim&Eric is aimless and egregious through gratuitous male nudity and consumption of grotesque substances. Maniacs works because of its place in film history as the unpredictable and untrained early emergence of independent filmmaking while Strangler is a sequence of “made you look” moments as characters’ dicks hang and farts rip.

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Multiple Maniacs is the best kind of amateurish filmmaking. The camera work is shoddy as it often drifts in and out of focus and every actor is delivering their lines at an unplacable pace and cadence. Yet even with budgetary limitations, the movie goes all out. The opening carnival of oddities wherein we meet our band of conning, drug addled, horny misfits is obviously some tents propped up in a patch of land next to a development of houses and yet is completely charming. You can tell everyone involved is just excited to make a movie. The young actors used to play the uptight observers of the unacceptable musings are noticeably breaking character as they fake appallment at two men kissing. This perverse story only escalates as the unconventional behavior continues to the most inflammatory sex ever to take place in a church pew intercut with reenactments of a slightly modern take on the Stations of the Cross. If that wasn’t shocking enough, the real astonishing scene is that of a monstrous, most likely paper mache, crustacean first attacking then presumably raping our antagonist, Divine, after she has brutally murdered everyone she knows. Nothing has blindsided me that intensely since the giant spider from Enemy which still haunts my nightmares. Amidst the madness, Divine scream/laughs her way through the whole ordeal with a grin on her face as she can’t even believe it’s happening.

It should be noted how engrossing Divine is as the cinematic focal point. The film knows as much as the audience that she is an icon to behold. The opening carnival is all leading up to her reveal which couldn’t be more perfect as she lies naked on a ottoman admiring her own beauty in a hand mirror. You inherently love her because everyone around her does. She is indeed larger than life as her sarcasm and wit emanate from the screen. You realize how important she is when all scenes she’s not involved in begin to drag underneath labored dialogue because to be honest, there’s not that much happening. Once she returns with her leopard print skirt and brash attitude you can’t look away. The narrative revolves around her unhinging, inspired by the Manson murders which is addressed head on within the film. Waters is clearly making a reactionary piece of ordinary people trying to make sense of those unimaginable killings in California. He presents the most profane and hedonistic collective who end up destroying themselves from within and Divine becomes this enraged beast rampaging through Baltimore as civilians run in fear. Not the smoothest allegory but what can you expect from a film crew constantly tripping on acid. It still gets in its winks and nods to the camera, aware of its insanity and reveling in it.

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The Greasy Strangler is its own branch of off beat comedy, a little John Waters mixed with Tim&Eric. The father/son pairing represent the latter as the plot centers around the constantly bickering characters as the elder, Big Ronnie (Michael St Michaels), is domineering and bossy while the younger, Big Brayden (a Eric Wareheim looking Sky Elobar), is timid, subservient and most prevalent hobby seems to be crying. Together they run a makeshift tour company scamming unsuspecting tourists as they dress up in bright pink outfits and present abandon warehouses, claiming it was historically significant in the world of disco. Often when customers are unsatisfied Ronnie hunts them down and murders them because he moonlights as a lard ladened serial killer. Yes, the film only spirals downward from here as a woman, Eastbound and Down’s Elizabeth De Rozzo playing Janet, threatens to tear the duo apart. All this set up seems to resemble a plot which gives it slightly as much narrative as Multiple Maniacs but at least that movie moves forward. Greasy Strangler is obsessed with repetition therefor scenes and conversations are repeated ad nauseam. This leads to massive stalls the plot as we have to pause for 5 minutes of yelling back and forth. Director/writer Jim Hosking believes in his own comedy rule of ten. There are instances where this works for example with the ethnically mish mashed tour group where we listen to an Indian man incomprehensibly pronounce potato or later when the men’s relationship with Janet turns sexual and as verbal foreplay they begin yelling “hootie tootie disco cutie” at an unflinching volume. These are the few jokes that entertained me but other than that any amusement relies on flagrant dick shots as Hosking’s is convinced a penis, no matter how big or small, will always get a laugh.

There’s so much intended shock value here that would make the Dreamland team proud. Aside from prosthetic appendages, grease does indeed play a large role in the plot as the title promises. The props department intensified every scene involving food with buckets of vaseline thick gravy that serves as grease which Ronnie craves. Whether he’s smeared in it or lapping it up, you can’t escape the substance. The grossness continues with the cartoonish murders in which eyes pop out skulls with ease and our artfully dined on by the killer. Even with a decapitated head being kicked around and sticking fingers into bloody faces, the food related repulsion got to me the most. The film devolves into a nonsensical ending which furthers my opinion that this has all been ultimately pointless. There’s little substance beyond the two leads bickering. If you find their animosity humorous as they shout “bullshit artist” at each then this is for you. De Rozzo does a great job being a neutral character between the grotesque men but it’s a bit too similar to her role in Eastbound as Brayden is equally as fragile and emasculated  as Steve Little’s Stevie. 

 
It seems unfair to praise Maniacs for it’s weirdness yet punish Strangler for the same reason but it comes down to the spontaneity and originality that Maniacs had on its side in the 1970’s. Niche cinema was still fresh then. In 2016 there’s many facets of absurdist comedy, some that I adore immensely like the filmographies of all The State members with their charming no sequiturs and silly antics but then there’s the rise of the Adult Swim peculiarities. That kind of forced insanity and vulgarity rubs me the wrong way. It wants you to wallow in its indecency and gross out humor. That plus the mean spirited nature which is apparent in Strangler, I find immediately off putting. There’s lots of people who will see this and claim it’s brilliant. I don’t want to be the censorship police as I’m glad there are films that go against the grain and break away from societal norms. That was John Water’s whole philosophy. It’s great that there are movies not made for the masses and are intended for a select few. I’m fine with being excluded from this one. It’s not that I don’t get it, I just don’t want it. Maybe I’ve become a square like those ogglers of Divine’s freak show. Fascinated enough to peek in but disgusted by what they see. Never thought I’d be my old-fashioned type but give me traditional gore and mutilation. I don’t need anything more vomit inducing than that.