Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream

Dressed to kill: Divine in Pink Flamingos

 

 

Or how six films screened in graveyard slots between 1970 and 1977 changed the way movies are watched and made.

The six are: El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mad freakish spaghetti western, the Man with No Name drops acid. Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s splattersome zombie motherlode which even now Romero is rubbing his hands about. Pink Flamingos – John Waters broke through with this excursion into camp sleaze, and how happy Waters is with the idea that almost single-handedly he dragged Hollywood along with him into the world of bad taste. The Harder They Come, the reggae film by Perry Henzell that filled a need created by Bob Marley for Jamaican music on film – Henzell is touchingly humbled even now by the reception that midnight movie audiences gave to a film that had flopped. The Rocky Horror Picture Show – the movie that seems to have sparked the singalong, interactive screening phenomenon is Richard O’Brien’s baby and though he’s less chucklesome than the other interviewees (possibly because he’s spent decades talking about little else) O’Brien is a charmer full of anecdotes. And finally Eraserhead, which looks as mad now as it did when it came out. David Lynch chats happily about the film but he won’t talk about the notorious baby, never has. Expectant mothers used to be warned before going in to screenings of Lynch’s film, apparently.

And that’s it – six films, lots of talking heads, a handful of clips, loads of old stories, plenty of fun. Midnight Movies makes its case – how the B movie became the A movie, how genre movies came back from the dead – eloquently. What is never said is, Rocky Horror and Eraserhead excepted, is how remarkably shabby the movies look.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Midnight Movies – at Amazon.com

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El Topo

Alejandro Jodorowsky takes a dip in El Topo

 

 

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 movie is considered to be one of a handful that changed the way films were watched… and made. Signalling the shift into, and legitimisation of the hitherto critically rarely considered genre movie, El Topo simultaneously satirises and adds to its chosen area of operations. Which is the western, the spaghetti western to be more specific. Though Sergio Leone, or even Sergio Corbucci, never cranked out anything this sensationalist.

El Topo is the spaghetti western as travelling circus. It’s populated with cruel, cackling banditos, pinheads, armless and legless freaks, bare-breasted women, fly-covered corpses and even, at one point, spontaneously combusting rabbits. And all of the above are sewn into a plot that owes as much to mescal as surrealism, to which it owes a lot. And as surrealism is often the refuge of the artistic scoundrel – how can you reasonably set about critiquing a work that is said to spring from the unconscious? – El Topo is the sort of film that divides the critics. Its merits are many – though you can ignore the picaresque philosophical journey of El Topo (which translates as the Mole) from darkness towards light and still enjoy the film. And unlike many an experimental movie, it has the sort of production values that Leone or Fellini or Buñuel (all obvious influences) would be more than happy with.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

El Topo – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Zorro: Who Is That Masked Man?

Tyrone Power as Zorro

The Mexicans like their heroes the way they like their tacos – with cheese.
Enter Zorro. Cue mask, cape and ludicrous pencil moustache



Next time you’re in London, try the Robin Hood Zorro restaurant in Hammersmith. This oddly conceived English/Mexican hybrid serves an equally odd drink called the Robin Hood Meets Zorro cocktail. A mouthful to order and a hell of a thing to drink, it contains tequila, gin and beer. The menu doesn’t say it’s served with a bucket, but it probably should be.

What is it about Zorro that seems to bring out the naffness in … well, everything?

It was not always thus. Dial back to the mists of the silent movie era and there’s Douglas Fairbanks Sr, the original screen Zorro, dressed like some gangsta off the streets of South Central LA, doing all his own stunts. If you don’t believe me, watch the Youtube video here and be amazed.

Made in 1920 only a year after Zorro was created in the book The Curse of Capistrano, this is Zorro fresh and vibrant, a Spanish nobleman championing the rights of the little man in the pueblos of Los Angeles in a California that was still a wild dry desert under the Mexican flag.

Dial forward to 1981 and there’s George Hamilton, in Zorro, The Gay Blade, all porcelain veneers and Ronseal tan. A more unlikely example of courageous masculinity it would be had to imagine.

Zorro is America’s first superhero. A re-imagining of the Scarlet Pimpernel – foppish noble by day, man of action by night – he’s the prototype of Batman and every superhero with a cape, a mask and a secret identity. And like Batman, he’s a very easy figure to turn into a camp figure of fun.

Zorro – the thin pencil moustache, the trousers tucked into leather boots, the gaucho hat, the cape, the bandana. You can’t imagine Jason Statham growling his way through a film dressed like that.

Which takes us to Tyrone Power, a famous Zorro of the 1940s, an actor who actually did look good in hat, cape and etc. So good in fact that the rumour factory had soon decided Power was gay. And Zorro the gay blade he remained till his death and beyond.

And from Power, on past George Hamilton (enough said already) to Antonio Banderas. Now no one is going to suggest that Banderas is anything but 100 per cent man’s man – certainly not while there’s a lawyer still breathing on the planet – but his two outings as Zorro are undoubtedly the campest of the lot. “Nobody leaves my tequila worm dangling in the wind”– he says in The Legend of Zorro, legs athwart, arms akimbo, tongue rammed hard into cheek.

And in Shrek 2 and Puss in Boots Banderas turns up again as a cartoon Zorro who’s even more of a joke than his live-action version.

Is it because he’s Hispanic that gringo American productions turn this iconic mother lode of 20th century superhero culture into something of a mother’s boy? Or is it the mask? Let’s face it, it’s not much of a disguise. Who is that masked man? Er, it’s Antonio Banderas, obviously.

Whatever it is the Zorros keep coming – Disney are hatching an animated version, while the Gypsy Kings are planning on opening their musical Zorro in multiple worldwide locations after a box-office bonanza in London.

Whoever that masked man is, he’s making a lot of people a lot of money.


Ten Great Mexican Films



Amores Perros (2000, dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)

Three stories collide in the key work of the New Mexican cinema, a gorgeous looking, superheated drama full of macho men, fiery women and fighting dogs.

Amores Perros – at Amazon


Y Tu Mamá También (2001, dir: Alfonso Cuarón)

The drama that made Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal internationally famous is a coming-of-age road movie with a philosophical flavour. Maribel Verdu ensures it’s pretty sexy too.

Y Tu Mamá También – at Amazon


El Topo (1970, dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky)

One of the maddest films ever made, a freakish spaghetti western populated with cruel, cackling banditos, pinheads, armless and legless freaks, bare-breasted women and spontaneously combusting rabbits.

El Topo – at Amazon


Midaq Alley (1995, dir: Jorge Fons)

The film that helped Salma Hayek bust – in every sense of the word –out of Mexico into Hollywood is a full-to-the-brim soap given extra wallop by Hayek’s sex-and-drugs storylines.

Midaq Alley – at Amazon


Cronos (1993, dir: Guillermo Del Toro)

The breakthrough of director Guillermo Del Toro is a classic horror film about a medieval device that makes the wearer immortal. An offbeat vampire story that’s full of magic realism, humour and horror.

Cronos – at Amazon


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir: Guillermo Del Toro)

Del Toro’s best to date, a fierce fantasy set in Franco’s Spain about a girl who escapes the world of her brutish stepfather by entering the realm of a horned and threatening mythical beast. Magical.

Pan’s Labyrinth – at Amazon


El Mariachi (1992, dir: Robert Rodriguez)

Shot in Ciudad Acuñaby by second-generation Mexican Robert Rodriguez on a budget of $7,000, the story of a wandering modern minstrel looking for work. What’s in his guitar case? And why is everyone out to kill him?

El Mariachi – at Amazon


Like Water for Chocolate (1992, dir: Alfonso Arau)

In Mexico a person in a state of sexual arousal is said to be “like water for chocolate”– this beautiful intense love story, in which everyone seems ready to boil over, makes it clear why.

Like Water for Chocolate – at Amazon


Sex, Shame and Tears (1999, dir: Antonio Serrano)

A lively film that will remind some of Doris Day and Rock Hudson sex comedies. That’s if you ignore the fact one of the main characters is a rapist! Weird, disjointed and beautifully acted.

Sex, Shame and Tears – at Amazon


Rudo Y Cursi (2008, dir: Carlos Cuarón)

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna star in about the best film made to date about what happens to a poor boy from nowhere when he becomes a superstar footballer. Funny, believable, tragic.

Rudo Y Cursi – at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2011