What's Old Is New Again

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Ineptitude is the purest form of honesty—it doesn't know any better.

 

It's no secret that people would rather watch movies at home instead of going to the theater. Who needs the ordeal of paying good money to sit in front of loud kids and hoarse whisperers who lose the plot ("What'd he say?") every five minutes, not to mention the contagion of ringing cell phones (and the epidemic of those who actually answer them)? It takes an extraordinary movie—or extraordinary hype—to bring people to the multiplex these days, considering all the coming detractions.

Blockbusters may have pockets as deep as the Titanic's resting place, but most movies are pure product, as far from real art as lipstick or liposuction. If you need proof that artistic integrity has only a minor role in current Hollywood, remember that we live in an era when surprise endings are actually announced (if not revealed), shamelessly touted in the marketing process. Knowing that a movie has a twist ending in the first place is as bad as knowing what it is. Maybe we can blame The Sixth Sense for that practice, but it's no secret that the blame really lies with the motion-picture industry. Greed has no patience. Witness how a movie's opening weekend has become its theatrical climax. It's premature tabulation, an embarrassing condition. But now, with the popularity of the DVD format, theaters have become mere cinematic outhouses (as opposed to art houses), and a film can reap more profit squished on a small disc than splashed on the big screen. Naturally, people take chances and rent movies they would never travel to see at the multiplex.

dvd_valleydollsAs a reaction to the cynicism (cinema-cism?) of mainstream Hollywood, I love off-the-beaten-track DVDs and often seek refuge in B-movies and unapologetic schlock. Unlike the obnoxious and meretricious blockbusters, schlockbusters are at least honest, if only by the skin (or film) of their teeth. Ineptitude is the purest form of honesty—it doesn't know any better. Somewhat inept and wildly outlandish, the cult film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has finally been released, on a two-disc DVD set. Directed by the late Russ Meyer (who saw large breasts as a pair of dollar signs) and scripted by the young film critic Roger Ebert, the 1970 musical drama follows the exploits of the all-girl pop group The Carrie Nations. Although Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is far from classically bad—Meyer knows the rhythm of good editing and the power of crisp cinematography—it has a special tackiness all its own. Imagine Douglas Sirk on LSD (Sirk was the lauded director of '50s fluff like Imitation of Life) or a vicious satire that hasn't been let in on its own joke. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls cheats by supplanting—if not outright implanting—cleavage for cleverness and gall for guile. The richly packaged DVD set includes several featurettes, audio commentary by Ebert, even an Oscar-night–sized envelope full of lobby cards. Dolls is a must for those who don't mind a movie that fluctuates in tone (from satire to soap opera, to '60s gullibility and back); or one with a straight-faced silliness that, like the hippie culture itself, can turn ugly on a dime. The Carrie Nations' music, which the group sometimes performs in an alembicated flower-power montage, is good folk-rock, reminiscent of the Turtles' best work. Be sure to avoid 1968's Valley of the Dolls, which is based on Jacqueline Susann's tawdry novel about addictions to pills and fame, and the movie from which Beyond got the gist of its title. Also released by 20th Century Fox and packaged almost identically, it's boring, overlong, and sappy—a lethal dose of uncut sugar.

dvd_irreversibleIrreversible is the kind of modern film that goes far beyond Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, purveying hard shocks that make a mockery of the latter's (belated) NC-17 rating. The French release is that rarest of Gaelic commodities: a blend of high-brow art and low-brow exploitation. Irreversible has a simple story that's told not so much in reverse as inside out. The special effects are integrated so seamlessly that you don't notice the CGI enhancements (in one scene a literal enhancement); you're too busy being repulsed by the convincing, jaw-dropping images. Irreversible is the tale of a horrible rape and the consequential (and out of sequence) journey toward revenge. Though the film is revolting and maybe even nihilistic, there's no denying its power: its grip on (what seems like) reality and director Noe's trim sense of storytelling. What's more, it has a High Noon (or closer to Low Midnight) accruing sense of real-time tension, even as the story runs backwards, or in circles. One of the DVD's bonus features, "The Making of the Special Effects," is reassuring to watch, as it deconstructs some of Irreversible's nastiest, most unavoidably believable scenes. Finally, you can take a deep breath and say, "It's only a movie."

dvd_wildwildReportedly, the top-selling DVDs are box sets of television shows. Giving permanence to an entertainment form designed to be seen once or twice (remember when "rerun" was a dirty word?) isn't exactly the problem. It's the very idea of giving digital immortality to treacle like The Facts of Life or Saved by the Bell—shows that were worthless the first time around. Who buys this stuff? But exceptions to the rule of nostalgia being better in idea than execution actually exist. Take The Wild Wild West. CBS/Paramount has released the first season of this bizarre '60s series with many bonus features, including audio commentary by its star Robert Conrad. Maybe the luckiest actor in TV history, Conrad was basically a stunt man thrown headfirst into a starring role on prime-time. He's never done another series worth anything, before or since, but nobody else could have possibly embodied the turn-of-the-century spy and tough guy James T. West. Teamed with the late Ross Martin, a nimble character actor who played his colleague Artemus Gordon, Conrad traveled the country in a fancy train car, saving the world from evil scientists and anachronistically Bondian madmen. He had a switchblade in his boot and a gun up his sleeve. He combined Tae Kwon Do with boxing skills and could beat up a dozen bad guys at once. Martin was the master of disguise and occasional gadget-inventor; his hilarious, scenery-chewing performances expertly balanced the coiffed, stoical Conrad. And the show played it straight; never like a spoof. The Wild Wild West had it all: inventive scripts, great acting (guest star Agnes Moorehead won an Emmy for The Night of the Vicious Valentine) and unparalleled stunts (action fans once voted it the best martial-arts series in history) that, on at least one occasion, almost cost Conrad his life. Best of all, since the series takes place in the old West, it can never look dated like the fun but inferior The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (which hasn't made it to DVD quite yet). Forget the terrible film starring Will Smith, which almost commercially bastardized the series. There's nothing like the real thing, and DVD makes it real all over again.

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