The Telephone Book
or: Are You Hung Up?
You ever see a film that makes you think, "They don't make 'em like this anymore"? Of course you have. Much rarer than that sensation, though, is a film that makes you believe that not only do they not make 'em like this anymore but they may have never made 'em like this to begin with. That's the world which this film inhabits. It's a product of the '70s NYC underground, but watching it is like stumbling across a transmission from another planet. Mike Vraney of Shock Cinema tagged it "mind-roasting", and I'd say that's a fair assessment.
It's about a young girl named Alice (played by Sarah Kennedy, who's fabulous). We first see her lounging around her apartment, waiting for something to happen. We discover that the girl knows how to decorate -- her bedspread is an American flag, while her wallpaper is comprised of dozens of pictures depicting people having sex. Eventually, the telephone rings. It's an obscene phone call. Rather than being repelled as one would expect, Alice is transfixed by the man on the other line. Something in his demeanor, the things he says, the sheer unmitigated audacity of his 24-karat calls just drives her crazy. After a couple more calls, she decides that she absolutely must meet this champion of dirty callers. The man says his name is John Smith, and he's in the telephone book. Alice's job? Find him. With that, the film dives into the world of sexual perversion circa 1970, and brother, if you're gonna follow it down, be forewarned that it ain't comin' up for air any time soon.
Naturally, Alice isn't going to find her man straight off, and that's where the film has its fun. Her quest leads her into the clutches of others who are eager to use her to satisfy their own sexual peccadillos. (Here, the film's X-rating helps immensely -- hard to remember there was a time when an adult rating could freely be used and embraced by adventurous filmmakers with something to say...) As you may have gathered, there isn't really a narrative; instead, we have a series of incidents. And yet it works, maybe because moment by moment the film is as sharp and funny as anything you're likely to see. It's a pretty pointed satire on sexual mores, and it doesn't leave anyone out. Much like the Mothers of Invention's great album "We're Only in it For the Money", this film takes a subculture and mercilessly mocks all involved parties -- the off-kilter people who've bought into it, the straight-world inhabitants who don't get it and the poor souls who try to live in both worlds. The last category provides one of the film's best segments, wherein a psychiatrist who previously exposed himself on a subway to Alice tries to get her to tell a dirty story about her best roll in the hay and she responds with a long, strange story about a respectable businessman (played by William Hickey!) who wakes up one morning with an extraordinary case of what the medical community calls priaprism.
It's also in this segment that we get a piece of one of the larger themes at work here. When asked to say a dirty word, Alice thinks for a minute and responds with "sidewalk". She then explains that she thinks that's a dirty word because obscenity is all in the mind and that word just doesn't sit right with her. This idea keeps coming back; for instance, later in the scene when the psychiatrist draws a crude penis and asks Alice to tell her what the picture makes her think of, she responds with "The state of Maryland." There are also a few scenes of former obscene phone callers being interviewed about their experiences and why they stopped making calls; in one of these bits, the only word that gets bleeped out is "snot". Even the film's main business contains a sly joke: When Alice finally meets the real John Smith, he explains that he got to be the greatest obscene caller in history by understanding psychology and tailoring his calls to have maximum impact for the callee... yet we never actually hear one of these calls. The only thing we see is the response of the person on the other end. The one call we do hear a part of is at the beginning, and that one's cut into mere suggestion. As I mentioned, the film carries an X, and yet it's mainly for copious femme nudity and the obvious verbal thematic material (plus some extremely naughty animation at film's end). It's a prank on the 42nd-Street-raincoaters, a dirty movie that mocks the very idea of a dirty movie. (This idea would later be taken to its aggressive anti-erotic extreme in "Cafe Flesh", but that's a different discussion.)
Speaking of the audience, the film's preoccupation with sex belies an understanding of how people actually view
dirty movies -- alone. There is a slight strain of melancholy trickling through the knockabout fun. The choice of obscene phone calls as this film's modus operandi speaks to the idea that, for all the sex that's going on, nobody actually talks to anyone anymore. (This is actually explicitly stated in a riotous sequence between Alice and a porn star making his comeback film; the man says his film will speak the the condition of modern man, and when Alice presses him to define this condition, he responds with "Fucked up. Unable to communicate.") The psychiatrist, a man paid to listen and understand, has no interest in Alice's words except to get himself off. A woman Alice meets in the park doesn't say two words to her before taking her home for power-tool play. Her friend (played by Jill Clayburgh!!) never really cares what Alice has to say, not even when she mentions that she doesn't want to make calls at her apartment because her apartment makes her suicidally depressed. She even reveals that, despite being young and attractive, her sex life is more or less completely masturbatory and that she prefers reading dirty books to personal interaction. It's natural, then, that's she'd fall for John Smith, a man whose entire erotic charm lies on his words -- all she needs is someone to talk to her. Smith, meanwhile, uses the phone as a substitute for actual sex -- when Alice asks him if he's had any physical relations with women, he responds angrily that he's had hundreds of women... all on the phone, of course, but to him that's as real as anything. He also admits that he doesn't do well with people when he has to speak to them eye to eye, which explains why he shows up at Alice's apartment wearing a pig mask. (Great Moments in Dialogue: Alice: "Why don't you just wear dark sunglasses?" Smith: "I'm theatrical.") The film views sex as an essentially narcissistic activity, which lends a harder edge to much of the satirical material. Quite a thing to bring up so soon after the free-love movement, but that's how it goes.
So yeah, this film's pretty great. It's funny and freewheeling and, despite the serious thematic material I've brought up, it's never self-serious or pretentious. Movies like this are what makes this hobby so enticing -- it's like having a secret movie all to yourself that you can't wait to share with the world. It's a rarity worth finding.
Milk Plus Poll: How Does 2003 Stack Up (So Far)?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve read a lot carping on various movie boards about the dearth of quality films this year, which got me thinking. I pulled out my 2003 Movie Spreadsheet (my memory is getting a little poor in my dotage) and looked at all of the films released this year that I have seen. Looking at the list of films, I certainly see a lack of quality among the Hollywood releases, but among the independent and foreign sector, I don’t really see a drop-off in quality. I have several films that I would not feel ashamed of putting on my “best of...” list when the time comes (or at least, my honorable mentions): Divine Intervention
, Mon Rak Transistor
, The Decay of Fiction
, The Real Old Testament
, Rivers and Tides
, The Son
, Eloge de L’amour
, All the Real Girls
(still my favorite film of the year), Down With Love
, The Shape of Things
, The Man Without a Past
, Unknown Pleasures
, 28 Days Later
, Whale Rider
, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
, American Wedding
, Capturing the Friedmans
, Raising Victor Vargas
, and Russian Ark
. That’s a pretty damn good list if you ask me, and there is still four months to go. How would you characterize the year in movies so far:
A. Spectacularly Awful, I’m Finding a New Hobby.
B. It’s Like the Sahara Out There.
C. Not Too Good, So Far...
E. Fairly Good, So Far...
F. It’s Raining Good Movies.
G. Stupendous, It’s Like 1939 All Over Again.
H. Uh, Ask Me on January 1st.
If you want, please explain how you came to your conclusion?
Just a short review of Jackie Chan’s latest disappointment, er, movie, which I managed to squeeze in yesterday afternoon. It’s not like I high expectations going in (the only reason I even saw it, was because it was playing at the cheapie, downtown theater), as I knew we were far, far from Project A 2
territory, but even so, I left the theater disappointed. Where to begin? Well, how about the screenplay, credited to five different writers, which borrows liberally from Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child
? Not a good start, especially when the movie has been clearly reedited, creating either gaping plot holes (my “favorite” is how the wife of one character suddenly becomes a character from a “heroic bloodshed” movie, and nobody else makes mention of it afterwards; plus the whole medallion thing is never used very consistently) or condensed scenes in the form of montages set to American oldies standards. Now, personally, I think it’s pointless to argue which is worse (the montages, IMO), but both are symptomatic of what a mess the story actually is, especially when you factor in the lazy exposition, inconsistent characterizations (especially Lee Evans character, who alternates between a priggish buffoon and a shotgun toting, killing machine out of a John Woo movie), and lame comedy bits repeated ad nauseum (again, mostly involving Lee Evans character).
Now, mind you, I wouldn’t care about a little narrative incoherence, if there was a lot of other stuff to enjoy, but sadly there is little. Jackie Chan and the fetching Claire Forlani (I hadn’t actually realized that Forlani was British, and for some reason, her accent through me for a loop while watching the film) have zero romantic chemistry, Julian Sands villain is boring and decidedly unmenacing (HK actor Anthony Wong is just wasted in his role, tsk, tsk), the digital SFX are murky, and Gordon Chan’s direction is pedestrian at best (uh, who thought that playing the noises of screeching cats on the soundtrack, while Forlani and one of Sands’s female minions square off, was a good idea?). Is the film devoid of any redeeming qualities? Well, no, I mean any collaboration between Jackie Chan and action director Sammo Hung is going to be of some interest; the martial arts and action sequences of The Medallion
are certainly no classics, but they are generally exciting and well-orchestrated (at least when Chan is concerned). There’s also a rather macabre streak of comedy running through The Medallion
, best exemplified by the scene where Lee Evan’s character Watson repeatedly stabs the now immortal Jackie Chan (who can still feel pain) way beyond the point of necessity. That was fairly funny, in a sick, twisted sort of way.
Now, I’m a big fan of martial arts movies, so I was kind of bummed when I left the theater, but any depression was alleviated when I finally saw the Fall 2003 UW-Madison Cinematheque schedule.
For the entire month of September, the Cinematheque will be playing two classic Shaw Brothers films from the 1960s and 1970s each Saturday. First up, King Hu’s debut film Come Drink With Me
and Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman
. Also, this semesters director retrospective if Dorothy Arzner, though it lacks the film many consider her best: Dance, Girl, Dance
. Arzner is a director whose work I’ve wanted to see for quite a while, so I’m kind of stoked for that series too.