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July 28, 2003

DVD Journal: "Another Day in Paradise"; "Scarlet Diva"; Joanna Pacula

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Is your film-viewing bad-boy still alive? Your inner Tarantino, the drunk-on-amoral-sensations moviegoer who wants crazy-edgy-daring-nutty filmgoing experiences -- extreme art and extreme trash both? Mine still stirs to life from time to time, although as you know the action end of the spectrum never meant anything to me. Hong Kong martial arts? That whole film movement might just as well never have occurred. It's actresses for me: talent and beauty, exploitation and art -- dramas I never seem to tire of. These sedate days, though, I confess that I do feel a little sheepish and chagrined when my inner filmgoing badboy lets his voice be heard. I feel like he wants me to do something unseemly, and that, pushing 50, I really ought to be comporting myself with more dignity. But then I cave, and it's off to the exploitation shelves at Kim's Video once again.

Where I make the occasional pleasing discovery. Have you caught Larry Clark's Another Day in Paradise? I enjoyed it more than the movies he's better-known for, "Kids" and "Bully," both of which I found pretty dreary. (I haven't seen his new "Ken Park.") Do you know Clark's work as a photographer? I love his books "Tulsa" and "Teenage Lust." They're seedy, morally dicey, voyeuristic -- Robert Frank hangs with the hoods as they shoot up, kill time, and have stinky sex, basically. Clark doesn't produce arty, distanced, carefully-composed images; Clark takes the photos as though he's one of the kids, and he edits them in Beat/depressive ways that are offensive and eloquent in about equal measure.

Kartheiser and Gregson Wagner explore the scabrous side of town

As a filmmaker, though, Clark always seemed to me to come up short. He's got a nice feel for wasted lives and a near-porno appreciation for the restlessness of adolescents. But in "Kids" and "Bully" he didn't seem to have much to call on besides his eye and a few Cassavetes-esque ideas about the moment, man, and what's real, man. "Another Day in Paradise," though, is more of a movie-movie than his other films -- ie., it has some action, as well as a narrative arc. And being forced to deliver some relatively straightforward scenes didn't do his work any harm at all.

The story? A bad-boy/bad-girl young couple hooks up with a middle-aged bad-boy/bad-girl couple, and moves from petty crime into harder and more dangerous territory. It's a kind of j.d. coming-of-age story, in other words. The visuals are swell in a tacky-America kind of way: bad strip malls, industrial neighborhoods no one should have to live in, the wood paneling and plush carpets in cheap hotels, late-'70s gunboat-style Cadillacs, all of it color-desaturated for that perfect drug-hangover feeling.

What's really terrif about the film, though, are some of the performances. James Woods is the older Falstaff figure, and I wasn't crazy about him. Once in a blue moon Woods' gotta-be-a-domineering-son-of-a-bitch routine amuses me. This wasn't one of those times; he's always acting in his fantasy of a movie rather than in the one before our eyes. But Melanie Griffith as his longtime moll is blowsy and touching.

And the kids are fab. A slim teenaged boy actor named Vincent Kartheiser plays the central role, and he's amazing -- alive in every shot, skillful but natural, full of resentment, fear and goofiness. He's wielding guns, doing drugs, and getting nookie, but a part of him is still 12 years old. Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner (the daughter of Natalie Wood and the step-daughter of Robert Wagner, by the way) have a great acting rapport. She's clearly a little older than he, and she doesn't back away from that; her anxiety and desire make her, at all of 25 or so, a convincing Older Woman, junkie division.

The two youngsters play out one scene in particular that's a mindblower. It was cut from the theatrical release to help earn the film an R rating, and you can see why. In it, Wagner comes on sexually to Kartheiser, doing her best to draw him into what she wants, which is to get roughed-up. This isn't some cheap, lurid scene -- or rather, sure it is, but it also makes dramatic sense. (Ie., it's Larry Clark at his best.) You're convinced this is a young woman who can feel what she needs to feel only when she's getting roughed-up. Abuse? Love? The line for her between the two is blurry; she finds lovemaking unconvincing if it isn't delivered with some anger and violence. And you can feel the boy's horror and arousal in the face of her needs, demands and seductiveness. First-class, wild-ass acting from both of them. All in all: a morally questionable, ratty, repulsive film. That's a recommendation, by the way.

I also caught up with Asia Argento's Scarlet Diva, which is a campier pleasure. Do you know about Asia (pronounced, I believe, Ah-see-ah)? She's a cult actress -- semi-pretty, semi-chic, dark-haired, big-chested and extravagantly tatoo'd, forever appearing in far-out films by people like Abel Ferrara. She's also the wild-child daughter of the famous Italian horror auteur Dario Argento and his sometime muse (and wife) Daria Nicolodi.

Quelle famille! For "Scarlet Diva" -- a low-budget, semi-autobiographical DV fantasia -- Asia cast her actual mother Daria as her film mother, consulted with her father about the script and the editing, and dedicated the completed film to her own very young daughter. And what's in the film's first scene? Asia taking it enthusiastically from behind from a large black man. Soon after, in flashback, Asia has her mother (playing her mother) die. Boy, showbiz families sure are different than the small-town Republican families I grew up among.

For shame!!!! Which seems to be the point ...

There's no reason to sit through every minute of the film, though I found quite a lot of it appalling, fascinating, and not without many shrewd-lunatic qualities. Asia seems to like doing sex and kissing scenes with black men; there are many scenes of drug use and fucking; there's a lot of shrieking ... Asia wants to horrify and fascinate, in other words -- and not for a minute can you say that she isn't devoting herself heart and soul to this pursuit. It's cringe-making and luscious at the same time.

Asia's a loony exhibitionist, in other words -- narcissistic to the max, incapable of experiencing anything in the normal range ("extreme" might be her middle name), perhaps crazy, but with the crazy-narcissist's gift for seizing and holding your attention. There's a little bit of this I'll-do-anything quality in many performers, though in most it's mixed up with a lot of other elements (talent, sweetness, generosity, etc). With Asia, it seems to be all she's about. So you watch, appalled but not feeling bad about feeling appalled. She lets you relish the shameful spectacle she makes of herself. Did I say "lets you"? More like "insists that you."

If you ever do rent the movie, be sure to explore Asia's director's commentary for a few minutes. Asia talks about about what a bad girl she is, how screwy she is, how much she's messed up other people's lives, about whether the actors in a scene were actually having sex, about whether her mother was a drug addict ("No! But she was crazy"), about how much she hated Vincent Gallo for failing to show up to play a role ... Come to think of it, Asia might be the female equivalent of Vincent Gallo. A frightening if (I don't know why) rather thrilling thought.

There are a handful of actresses I'll watch in just about anything -- which is a good thing, because that's about all they make. Joanna Pacula is one of them, a supertalented, beautiful actress who for some reason appears in almost nothing but exploitative junk. Do you remember her in "Gorky Park" a hundred years ago? She played opposite William Hurt. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a kind of Transylvanian glamor -- it looked for a few minutes as though she'd have a decent mainstream career. For some reason she fell into exploitation films instead, and has largely stayed there ever since.

Lady Pacula of the Expressionist Eyebrows

Bizarrely, it hasn't coarsened her acting; if anything, she's gotten more daring over time. Even in junk like "The Kiss" and "Every Breath," she can crank up a lot of intensity. She's fine if uninspired in the straightforward scenes; it isn't until things onscreen get bizarro that her own very personal light starts to gleam. At those moments, she's as wild and good as Nicolas Cage was in his early movies -- a daring, far-out, super-physical performer with an Expressionist, silent-film grandeur.

I wonder if that explains why she hasn't had a mainstream career -- the fact that while she's brilliant in the crazy/nutty scenes, she's no more than good in the straightforward scenes. Why? Because a lot of what actresses are paid to put over in mainstream movies are the kinds of square scenes that Pacula seems to have little patience with. Perhaps she's a born avant-gardist, someone who comes into her own only at moments of extreme stylization. (I looked her up on IMDB and discovered that her very first movie was pretty highbrow, as well as one of my own favorites, Zanussi's "Camouflage.")

It's hard to recommend any of her movies given how bad most of them are. "The Kiss," maybe -- it's short, and it has a few scenes that provide Pacula and her dementia specialty with decent showcases. But I guess the film I'd suggest first would be Mauro Bolognini's Husbands and Lovers, which is pretty bad, but in a tacky, underbudgeted-yet-lavishly-produced, wannabe-decadent way I found enjoyable. It's taken from a Moravia novel and co-stars the ineffable Julian Sands -- and if those names don't ring a thousand bells, well, then you didn't really earn your '70s and '80s film-buff card, did you? Ponderous pseudo-sophistication, in other words. But Pacula gets a lot of scenes to show off her kinky, doomy zest.

Exactly the kind of thing that keeps me going back to Kim's. Well, there: I've demonstrated either that I've retained a certain amount of throw-it-all-away filmgoing hipness, or else that I'm still the same juvenile idiot I've always been. Your turn: what kind of movies does your inner filmgoing-bad-boy enjoy most these days?



posted by Michael at July 28, 2003


Do you realize that James Woods and Melanie Griffith were also both in "Stuart Little II"? My gosh, what is this country coming to!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 29, 2003 1:57 AM

To understand Asia's cinematic family reunions, you may want to check out "The Stendahl Syndrome." It's quite a disturbing little movie directed by dad: not just for the usual grisly happenings, but because he directed Asia in a brutal rape sequence.

Posted by: Ed on July 29, 2003 1:00 PM

FvB -- Good lord, they're the new Hepburn and Tracy!

Ed -- "Stendhal Syndrome": essential viewing! Like I say, showbiz families, huh? Thanks for the reminder.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 29, 2003 1:05 PM

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