Sweet Trash /The Hang Up (1970, John Hayes)
Probably my greatest cinematic pleasure of 2015 was finding out about the films of John Hayes, a totally unheralded trash auteur. This double feature disc features Sweet Trash, a fragrant little gem that plays like Al Adamson directed an Arthur Miller adaptation of Alphaville, and The Hang Up, about a vicious, racist, homophobic cop who tries (unsuccessfully of course) to turn over a new leaf when he meets an underage prostitute. Hayes’ best films share a focus on men being incrementally poisoned by their own thwarted, meager desires, and an almost quotidian bleakness created by his accidental combination of cheap ineptitude, stilted earnestness, and generally unvarnished inhumanity.
Parole Violators (1994, Patrick Donahue)
Insanely action-packed, comically sleazy, and absolutely the sincere effort of a great many ambitious people that, despite not really knowing what they were doing, produced a back-alley plastic-surgery hybrid of Lethal Weapon, Death Wish 3, and America’s Most Wanted, in its narrow way an epic, tantalizing journey into the barely-competent. The rare trash extravaganza that actually transcends the “so bad it’s good” descriptor that often follows its irresistible combination of sheer ineptitude and balls-out ambition. A lot of junk cinema makes claims to WTF holy grail status. This is maybe the only true Carpenter’s Cup, simultaneously ridiculous and thrilling. I was lucky enough to put this in front of a packed Drafthouse audience this year, and I know for a fact some lives were changed.
The Journey (1987, Peter Watkins)
Massive, multipart documentary about nuclear disarmament produced for Swedish television in the 90s by legendary crank/avant-garde filmmaker Peter Watkins. A manifesto of sorts, with Watkins’ personal grievances about being marginalized as an artist only exacerbated in the 30 years since he made it. Here he presents global militarization as an engine of capital, in turn a colonialist oppressor of women and minorities via deliberate economic inequality, all cheerfully shepherded by a fully complicit media that ignores dissent in favor of approved narratives. Hardly new news, but this sprawling 14 and 1/2 hour document extends so many tendrils into so many lives and points of view that the full extent of these allegedly obvious issues becomes suffocatingly all-encompassing. Extremely dry (it was ostensibly meant to be shown in Swedish schools, hence the 19 lesson-plan-friendly 45-minute episodes, complete with on-screen discussion questions) but constructed from intercut components intended to be as unmediated as possible, even going so far as to indicate with sound effects when information-eliding cuts have been made (both to news reports and Watkins’ own footage). A great deal of the running time is given over to ordinary families from numerous countries and political and economic systems simply attempting to articulate a response to a worldwide structure that no longer values anything but its own perpetuation, if indeed anything else has ever been the case. Daunting and not-infrequently monotonous (a necessary effect given that repetition is central to its project), but still totally essential. See this if you’re able and have the time and patience.
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992, George Miller)
A movie about a dying boy made with an abundant love of life that consistently returns to Miller’s common theme of the importance of community, even while rejecting the help of others. A disease-of-the-week story filmed and edited with the energy of a Mad Max film.
Fist of the North Star (1986, Toyoo Ashida)
What’s the deal with nobody telling me I absolutely needed to watch this?! It’s just one crazy ultra-violent fight after another! Pretty damn close to perfection. A pure cinema jolt of post-apocalypse punks and exploding appendages.
Girlfriends (1978, Claudia Weill)
Girlfriends is set in New York and focuses on a post-grad photographer who lives with her best friend until she gets married and their lives start to part ways. This really poignant, quietly funny, and relatable film about female friendship and 20-something ennui can be seen as a precursor to films like Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. The director, Claudia Weill, has directed a documentary, one other feature, and several TV episodes and movies, but most recently she directed an episode of HBO’s “Girls,” which can be seen as thematically similar to Girlfriends on several levels.
Salaam Bombay! (1988, Mira Nair)
I happened to be staying in a hotel over Halloween weekend and there was a TV with cable and remote and a comfy chair. Why would I go outside when TCM is right there in front of me at the oh-so-affordable price of free? Weirdly, and I assume it’s because the box set just came out, they were running Decline of Western Civilization part 3 – the one about the street kids.
Whoever does TCM’s programming is a real smart guy because they also showed Salaam Bombay! that night. I was stunned. The two films could not have gone together better. Both are about kids living on the streets, one a raw documentary and the other a narrative drama, and both use the real kids from the neighborhood instead of trained actors. Makes it so real. The directors, Penelope Spheeris and Mira Nair respectively, are still in touch with the kids, too. Very cool to know that the subjects of these films are cared for and respected beyond the martini shot.
Salaam Bombay! is a gritty film that gives us a keyhole peek into the plight of India’s city kids, seen through the eyes of young Krishna (Shafiq Syed), an illiterate, rural boy, who is abandoned by his mother at the circus they work for. She told him not to come home until he has 500 rupees ($7.50!) to pay for something he broke that belonged to his brother. Krishna is sent on an obvious fool’s errand—he’s a kid, what does know?—the circus packs up and leaves town, and he is left alone to fend for himself. Krishna uses his last few rupees to travel to the first city on the train line, Bombay. Thrust into a life on the street among the pimps, hustlers, drug addicts, prostitutes, and thrown away children that proliferate in India’s urban settlements, Krishna struggles to survive. His resourcefulness saves his skin more than once, as he quickly develops street smarts and falls in with a scrappy crew that (sort of) has his back. He scrapes together some money selling chai and hustling tourists so that he can return home to his mother and the family whom he misses, only to be duped in the end by a member of the crew with whom he placed his naive trust. Heartbreaking and sadly realistic. A powerful film.
Luckily for us this just got reissued on Blu-Ray too. And if you need a third movie to round this out for you, get Streetwise. It’ll give you that local flavor you’re looking for to make all this stuff hit you like a ton of bricks.
The Sound of Music (1965, Robert Wise)
I had to watch The Sound of Music as a writing assignment for a local entertainment website, in anticipation of the live musical that ran at the Fifth Ave Theater a couple months ago. I was dreading the task, to be honest. It’s three hours long, it’s about nuns and children and singing and I had video games that desperately needed playing. I forced myself to stuff the DVD into the machine and I took a deep breath. Three brisk and delightful hours later, my face was stained with happy tears and I had finally discovered why this movie is one of the most widely beloved and respected films ever made. I wrote extensively about it here, but since writing that article I’ve watched it again and put some of the songs on my regular YouTube rotation. “So Long, Farewell” is impossibly heartwarming, to the extent that it pisses me off that something can get to me that much. “Do Re Mi” is so exciting that it makes me want to go out and start fights with people on the street. I may be developing an unhealthy relationship with The Sound of Music. It’s an unexpected—but not unwelcome—development.
Matt, Kevin, Emalie, Travis and Jensen all work at Scarecrow Video. Come on in and say hello to them some time! Please don’t give them a hard time.