Ten Uniquely Horribly Brilliantly Wonderful Music Movies

Ten Uniquely Horribly Brilliantly Wonderful Music Movies

Just as there is no such thing as a bad anti-war film, there is no such thing as a truly bad musical. The impulse itself is noble and raises any enterprise up 11 notches.

The people making a musical film may not be of the caliber of Terrence Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson, but hell—they not only had a song in their hearts, they imagined entire worlds where people burst into song. What kind of mean-spirited douche wouldn’t give extra credit just for that?

Not me. I love me some “bad” musicals. I love to see that what people think goes with sounds. Or vice versa.

Enjoying these films is about readjusting criteria, realizing that po-faced seriousness and Big Drama are all tricks anyone can learn—which is why TV writing staffs are always full.  But the music-based thing that happens in The Happiness of the Katakuris—what is that? You can’t learn it.

Ahem. In the following appraisals, I joke here and I kind of dis there, but I’m always in appreciative awe. I strongly believe that if Georges Méliès were alive and had a song in his heart, one of his films would be on this list.

nullCan’t Stop the Music (1980)

Steve Guttenberg's a totally straight boy who only wants to not have sex with his ex-super model roomie (Valerie Perrine) so he can put together a singing group (the Village People), so he can make disco records.

That Hollywood impresario Allan Carr thought straight America would buy that story, as well as scenes where men showing no interest in women danced with other men while singing about "The Milk Shake"—well, you gotta admire chutzpah.

As for the film, which clearly used up all the spandex, lurex, and Barbarella style “futuristic” plastic baubles that clubs of the period favored, quick dismissal is inappropriate. First, the songs are mostly catchy as hell, and positioned at the Hollywood and Vine where catchy and ludicrous French kiss.

Take a minute: 15 years from now, what do you think people are going to think about those skinny leg jeans and that impractical beard you maintain? And Fun, Jack White, and Skrillex? Yeah, sobering, isn’t it?

nullFlash Gordon (1980)

How much multi-track-mojo did the post “Bohemian Rhapsody” Queen own by the time Dino De Laurentiis decided on an un-upgraded version of the ‘30s Flash Gordon serial films?

So much that even when the film came out, people were contextualizing it within the band’s oeuvre.

Meanwhile, the only sound that outwits Queen’s magnificent Flash sountracksonic pomp is Max Von Sydow’s cackle as Emperor Ming the Merciless, who’s super evil and out to destroy the Earth unless football star “Flash” Gordon (Sam Jones) and journalist Dale (Melody Anderson) can stop them.

Flash doesn’t seem like a musical but it works like one. Through a color palette set to “Art Nouveau sunset,” we suffer through the enjoyably hambone story so we can get to the good parts: the bad green screen, matte, and model effects accompanied by those walls of overdubbed and orchestrated Brian May guitars and the many times overdubbed May, Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor master choir melodically proclaiming "AH!," "OH!," and, of course, “FLASH!”

nullSgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

As a “jukebox musical film,” Sgt Pepper’s never had to do anything but throw together as many stars as corporate music’s golden age could and trust the great unwashed would come. Or so said the cocaine frying the makers’ brains.

Which is the only way to explain The Bee Gees and a mute Peter Frampton as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band looking for magic instruments. Which led to musical numbers by Aerosmith, Steve Martin, Alice Cooper, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Godzilla (kidding, but would you be surprised?).

What’s really on producer Robert Stigwood’s mind is Saturday Night Fever and how to duplicate its mad success. That the answer was a flat, five-camera TV comedy-style style spearheaded by a stogie-smoking George Burns in full Borscht Belt fettle . . . well, when people speak of America’s lost innocence, it’s the addlepated, guileless, ‘ludes-cancelling-out-blow, wanna-put-on-a-show-ness of Sgt. Pepper I think of.

nullThe Apple (1980)

In the Eighties, Menahem Golan produced meat ‘n potatoes actioners starring Stallone, Norris, Van Damme, and Bronson like he was falling off a log. But before that, he sewed some insane oats with The Apple.

Before losing its mind entirely, colorfully, amazingly, The Apple tells us of Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), two freakishly wholesome folk singers from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (!) competing in the1994 Worldvision Song Festival.

Alas! They are beaten by Mr. Boogalo (Vladek Sheybal) who then seduces them into the music industry’s lifestyle of elaborate, badly choreographed dance numbers because Boogalo is also . . . Satan! He is also so powerful that he compels all of America to wear Mr. Boogalo triangular stickers and engage in compulsory fitness workouts.

The Apple just gets more insane, including—I think—God and His videogame sound effects, because there is no ceiling on crazy here just a time limit on how long a movie can be and still get distributed.

nullRock n' Roll Nightmare (1987)

God made the ‘80s so Jon Mikl Thor could becomes a bodybuilder, learn how to rock, and star as Triton, singer of a glam metal band that decamps to a skeezy house in Canada with some babes to work on their new record. But they’re soon infested by demons until Thor smashes. Everything you’re imagining this film will include—uproariously Poison-ous power ballads, over-permed hair, dubious latex demons—is here in abundance.

But the Direct-to-Video ethos hits a new apotheosis when a shirtless Triton battles some tiny flip-floppy eye demons and then, to the beat of hilariously literal hair metal (“We Accept the Challenge”) takes on the main demon, an immobile mannequin Jon Mikal has to be careful not to break.

Thor looks like a big male bodybuilder metalhead, but he’s a little boy and he wants to play with monsters. And so he does. It’s freaking adorable.

nullSpice World (1997)

So now that it’s long over, we can all exhale and admit that, man, did the UK blow in the 90s or what? I mean, okay, Napalm Death, Carcass, and Bolt Thrower, but Oasis? Blur? That poor man’s Muse, Radiohead?

Thank God for Spice Girls. I recall, vividly, that Spice Girls, the film, was what the recent Katy Perry film was trying to be—candy-colored ultra pop—but without Perry’s creepy porn-for-children lyrics and visuals.

Spice Girls personified goofball egalitarianism: all dancing terribly, all singing mediocrely, all embracing a power that was about not taking anything seriously, at a time when the UK boy kings of self importance—your Thom Yorkes and Richard Ashcrofts—could do nothing else.

Spice Girls was a poor girl’s A Hard Days Night, a bunch of skits and non-stop silliness. When I saw the model Spice Girls bus go over the model London Bridge, I nearly injured myself laughing, I do not know why. I love when that happens.

nullThe Happiness of the Katakuris  (2001)

I once interviewed Takashi Miike, the famed hyper-prolific Japanese creator of often disturbing films like Visitor Q and Gozu (both films featuring men crawling out of women’s vaginas).

Through an interpreter, I asked what was, like, up with that.

He chuckled, spoke, and the interpreter said, “Miike say he has trouble understanding women and through his films tries to maybe understand them better.”

The Happiness of the Katakuris lives in some completely mad limbo between his so-so Yakuza movies and exquisitely controlled art films like Box.

It’s a deeply spiritual, family-oriented zombie musical dealing with a failing guesthouse, a suicide, more death, some Claymation, a romantic daughter, her sweet parents and then everyone is SINGING, in a color scheme amped up to look like The Sound of Music.

Does Miike understand women better? Can’t say. But I’d swear he kind of loves them.

nullAcross the Universe (2007)

Across the Universe is so epically dreadful in conception and hilariously, absurdly, offensively and, yeah, beautifully absurd in execution that it manages to overwhelm even director Julie Taymor’s Mount Kilimanjaro of self-regard.

There's no story, just people with Beatle song names like Jude (Jim Sturgess), Lucie (Evan Rachel Wood) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who go to Beatles song places to do Beatles song things, like a Vietnam unit carrying the Statue of Liberty while singing “She's So Heavy'' (seriously), or Bono singing "I am the Walrus," which I'd suspected for years.

There’s tons of whack-a-doodle imagery—five naughty nurse Salma Hayeks?—but surprise MVP Evan Rachel Wood is so devoted, and her tremulous alto is so sweet it even calms down her director, suggesting what would happen if she had even a microgram of aesthetic self-control. Download: “If I Fell.” See?

nullREPO! The Genetic Opera (2008)

REPO! is a movie that I’m sure pretty much aimed for a certain degree of “bad” but not so “bad,” it couldn’t be treasured. In short, an intended cult film.

So! Does this dystopian story of a company that supplies organ transplants and the “repo men” who rip them out if you default—does it work as intentional comedy, or camp or what?

Actually, the marketing sells the film itself short.

With Broadway star Sarah Brightman fantastic as a blind opera singer, Buffy’s Anthony Head delightfully evil, and Paris Hilton as a plastic surgery addict (!), as well as an impressive Hellraiser-as-cityscape look, I’d say that, in terms of sheer sensation assault, REPO! is a success.

The actual songs by Terrance Zdunich and Darren Smith also use a metal/industrial style to create something that actually works as opera. So partial bad news to director Darren Lynn Bousman: your bad film is simultaneously kind of good—and that’s REPO’s odd, sanguine charm.

nullTron: Legacy (2010)

After about 40 minutes of Garrett Hedlund in a cathode-blue-lined black body suit on his video-cycle, zipping around a mainly-black videogame ‘verse, I totally spaced.

Even with occasional splotches of exploding color, and Jeff Bridges digitally shorn of 30 years of age (weird), it was like watching gloomy rave visuals. Even with Olivia Wilde in a fetish bob and body glove, I spaced out. Really—how long can you look at colored lights ping-ponging around a screen?

The answer came: The same way one would listen to Daft Punk’s fantastic score, suggestive of Vangelis’ Blade Runner work mixed with downtempo electronica.

As ambient music, or rather, ambient video.  If only there were a way to put Tron on an eternal-loop, you could totally play it during cocktail parties, or after you’d smoked a few, or whatever. In short, as a movie, not so great. But as a digital lava lamp, I’d totally invest in Tron: Legacy.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

GREY MATTERS: Show Stopper: The End of the American Theatrical Moviegoing Experience

GREY MATTERS: Show Stopper: The End of the Theatrical Movie-going Experience

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At some point, no matter how much you love something, you may have to admit it’s ruined beyond repair, that it really is time to let it expire with whatever dignity it has left. That thing, currently, is the American theatrical movie-going experience, may it rest in peace, forever, quickly, soon.

What was just five years ago a slightly unpleasant thing has turned into a Pavlovian act of outright self-harm wherein the exhibitor game’s guiding business model—absolute contempt for overpaying customers—is just the beginning of the worst show in town.

It’s where we submit ourselves to sticky-floored rooms full of texting and chattering teens and, here in New York City, suffer through forty minutes of TV commercials, followed by twenty minutes of film trailers, followed by five minutes of ads for the theater we’re sitting in while choking down $7.50 Cokes (the cheapest hydration available) and maybe a popcorn that eats a ten-spot in an already profoundly slimmed wallet.

One thinks back to the $5 blown on the subway, the $12 an hour on the babysitter, and, of course, that extra $5 the theater is milking you to experience The Avengers in a version of 3D IMAX that’s all murky because the theater is saving money by projecting with lower-amp light while the vaunted THX sound suggests the flatulence of the Gods, due to blown subwoofers.

And art houses? Please. Wherever you are, there tends to be a place with this recurring funky-but-chic design out of a How I Met Your Mother episode about someone’s artsy trustafarian uncle. These theaters let you pay multiplex money to see what your cooler friends are talking about—the current debased definition of being a "cineaste"—while burning through the kids’ allowance to pay for a Certified Organic, shade-grown coffee and lactose-free muffin.  Mmmm, film culture—it’s so yeasty!

Less flippantly: All this is happening because brick and mortar theatrical exhibition is moribund and going down.  According to The Los Angeles Times, movie attendance in 2011 dropped to a 16-year-low as The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the lobby group for all the major studios, registered zero domestic growth for the industry.

Most devastating was another LA Times piece claiming that “total box-office per film” had plummeted 13% in 2011 because people are more inclined to wait for movies to hit DVD, on-demand and other services.

Time magazine paints an industry kept afloat by international markets where 69 percent of overall sales last year came from beyond these shores. And by sucker-punching customers with arbitrarily increased ticket prices garnished by $3 to $5 extra fees for a 3D craze created by the industry itself for the purpose of raising the cost of admission up to and beyond $8 per person no matter where you live, while a one dollar bottle of water skyrockets—it isn’t like you can leave the theater to buy one elsewhere.

The business model here is contempt: as long as a certain amount of people show up who are willing to have their wallets and handbags stripped, it’s all good. That is, until a summer of no business-saving Avatars or Avengers. When it’s all John Carters.

But this isn’t a business known for planning ahead. Or at all.

And yet the abusive audience/exhibitor relationship continues to be championed—by film writers whose experience of it couldn’t be farther removed from that of ordinary citizens, who enjoy perfect prints in cushy screening rooms with plush chairs and high-end sound systems. There are no texting teens, no phones beeping, no snack bags crinkling.

Which might help explain the cognitive dissonance of Salon’s normally insightful Andrew O'Hehir in a new article unreasonably titled, “Does Hollywood hate adults? Bloated with teen-oriented summer spectacles, the ailing film industry may finally look to moviegoers over 30.”

Putting aside the craziness that Hollywood might dislike anyone rich enough to pay for a ticket, what Salon is re-selling here is the common idea that it’s those damned big-budget CG action and superhero movies are ruining American cinema.

Movies like The Hunger Games, The Avengers, and The Amazing Spider-Man. Whose billion-dollar-plus earnings are the only thing keeping the industry afloat in this time of zero growth, thus making it possible to even imagine “indie film” as an incredibly minuscule boutique business.

Of course, Salon is very much in the business of not countenancing the idea that many cannot afford to throw away $72 per person ($12 per ticket here in New York, $15 for a Coke and popcorn, $5 for trans, $40 babysitter) to see a Woody Allen movie on its first run that in 60 days will be on Pay Per View for $4.99.

Yet that’s exactly what the studios, theaters and culture organs like Salon are selling: time and exclusivity. The great water cooler discourse surrounding a new Allen film when it comes out. Except now it’ll be about Game of Thrones or Girls. Because who wants to endure a platform in its final spasms when you can enjoy a Golden Age still being born?

Anyway, Mr. O'Hehir asserts that the lukewarm successes of Moonrise Kingdom, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, To Rome With Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ted, and Magic Mike are proof positive that “adults are going to the movies in droves and making a huge statement by doing so.”

Since I cannot imagine just what “statement” connects a magical realist pre-Katrina film with a male stripper morality tale, let’s look at those “droves.”

Beasts has made $800K so far. To Rome, $5M. Moonrise Kingdom, $27M. And so on. If you were to tally the total grosses of every film Mr. O'Hehir lists, you still wouldn’t match the $346,178,697 Spider-Man made in its first weekend.   

And so the real problem with the Salon piece—and ones like it, which run all the time—is that they answer an unsure future with nostalgia and cries to a sort of indie populism that just doesn’t fit the incredibly huge, intractable, and complex international film and entertainment market.

As for traditional exhibition—it’ll stumble along for a while. Teens still need a ritual location to meet, text, and cell-talk. And there are indie theaters that make filmgoing an actual pleasure: the Arclight in LA, Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, the Charles in Baltimore, the Sunshine here in New York. And every so often I’ll be goosed into thinking something is a must-see worth four meals-worth of money to see. 

Then it’ll turn out to be an overhyped world market contender like Prometheus or Battleship, and I’ll appreciate again how lucky I am to live in this low cost, post-movie-theater Golden Age, away from the brick and mortar, and at home in the worlds of Breaking Bad, Alphas, and Mad Men, of Teen Wolf, Fringe, and Longmire, of Parks and Recreation, Doctor Who, and Justified. And like Andrea True sang in another golden age, more, more, more.

As for the shared experience of viewing cinema—hey—do it. Maybe individual people will create neighborhood theaters. Or perhaps we’ll have networked versions of those summer film festivals most major metropolises offer. This could get really interesting—and completely lacking in the designed unpleasantness that’s currently the industry’s trademark.

But the good new days can only be hastened when we agree that hey, it was great while it lasted, but theatrical cinema is dead.

Hallelujah.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

GREY MATTERS: MARINA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT

GREY MATTERS: MARINA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT

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There is a hunger out there that cannot be fed by smirks, poses, and irony. In art, in film, hell, in anything. That hunger is why The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” drew Madison Square Garden-sized crowds in 2011 for four months straight. And it’s why believers from around the globe came to New York to mourn the early death and celebrate in a hush the incandescent genius of McQueen, a fashion legend already on his way to art stardom and now definitely a star post mortem.

The tens of thousands lining up on Fifth Avenue revealed an indefinable demographic. Elementary school kids who’d gasped over impossible McQueen women in dresses made of blood red laboratory slides from used library copies of Vogue, Wall Streeters who pored over McQueen videos while their wives and children slept. The Lady Gaga fans who saw his Alien/aqua-woman fusions in “Bad Romance”. As Robert Palmer sang, every kinda people. (The same need explains last year’s Tree of Life mania).

The McQueen phenomena was a stark relief from the last time someone tried to mint a new art star: the Guggenheim’s up-trading of Matthew Barney from Film Forum ur-hipster with “The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2003)” show, way back in 2003.

A collection of semen-toned sculptures surrounding five pop-tchotchke-glutted films that J. Hoberman brilliantly summed up as “narcotized self-satisfaction,” the root of the appeal of Barney’s was their cold, smooth, ironic hipster deadness—the idea of emotional response their anathema.

And so, the McQueen show solidified an appetite for a new art star. Someone personifying a natural disinclination to buy into an exhausted and drained self-cannibalizing post-modernism, for artists with the nerve to make indescribable emotional engagement their goal.

If McQueen was going to hand-apply tens of thousands of feathers to a dress that evoked the madness of Edgar Allan Poe (and not the stories), whoever came next would have to be literally or figuratively dirty. Or both.

If you tuned into HBO Monday, you know who she is: Marina Abramović. While stylistically McQueen’s utter opposite, she feeds the same need for an extreme in inexplicable emotional experience, and Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present feeds the need in spades. (And sure, she’s been around for decades, and yeah, the actual show took place in 2010, but the film, which is how most people will get to know of Abramović, hits us now, and so this modified timeline.)

Directors Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre have given us a sharp-eyed film with the affect of ambient music and the feel of a myth progressing in real time that hinges on and riffs off images of The Artist is Present’s endlessly fascinating main event:

It’s Abramović in a brightly lit space in at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, stock still in a series of structured/shapeless robes, sitting in a light-colored wooden chair, confronting one of what will come to be 1,565 strangers in a matching chair, saying nothing so long as those strangers need to say nothing back to her. Each trapped in the other’s gaze.

People of every age, race, creed, and yes, James Franco, take the chair (Lady Gaga came but just watched). Abramović sat motionless for 736 hours and 30 minutes over a period of three months, with no days off.

The people who come to see her—they’re actually called “sitters”—often smile, frown, try to out-stare her (forget it) but just as often, they break into helpless tears. Sometimes, Abramović weeps with them.  

Even as the body-breaking pain of the project—although she eerily looks half that age, Abramović was 63 at the time of this piece—becomes alarming, her dedication grows more heroic. No wonder young people in the audience want to be like her.

Structurally, Akers and Dupre’s film works as a constant interweaving of multiple stories and themes building up to the show itself.

nullThere’s the prepping of the MoMA space: the endless daily maddening minutiae of putting together a show that included approximately fifty works spanning over four decades of video works, installations, photographs, and collaborative performances made with ex-lover Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen).

There’s Abramović decamping to her Hudson Valley home with a troop of young people who will re-enact her pieces within the show.

She puckishly treats them to a Spartan Zen/Marines regime of shock troop performance art training during which they learn how to not move, eat or do anything but exist in the moment for days on end, motionless. (For people still unclear on what performance art is, one talking head brusquely explains that it’s just like painting, except with living bodies.)

I had the sense that Abramović was using the film to re-write her biography, to make a better myth.

The daughter of World War II Serbian partisan heroes, Abramović speaks of being under the influence of her fiercely militaristic mother and paints a life defined by The Work and one Great Love: Ulay, the German performance artist with whom she lived and crafted performance art’s basic syntax.  This love story’s arc packs an incredible emotional gut punch one isn’t prepared for in a film on art. Which, one assumes, is the reason it’s here.

We see and hear of pieces where Abramović invited people to use any of the 72 implements surrounding her body—a whip, scissors, scalpel, gun, etc—on her, and came out of it with thorns in her flesh, death barely averted.

nullOther works involved cutting her flesh, whipping herself, walking the Great Wall of China, and pushing her body to extreme limits of pain and suffocation. The Artist Is Present is eventually about the limits of human giving. If they exist.

She says she recalls each person, communicates with each sitter. And yet the filmmakers never address the 800-pound Christ subtext in the room. Would simple boredom with excess Christian yada-yada explain this aversion? Probably. I wonder what the crying sitters think.

The film does suffer from a couple of crises of courage. It gets jittery at Abramović’s embrace of high-end couture in the 80s. As her art becomes more rapturously theatrical, the film quick-cuts away, as if anxious that more surface-pleasing pieces might somehow be less artful.

Lady Gaga, the artist who most obviously mirrors Abramović in terms of absolute dedication, political engagement/fashion-passion, and near-crazy work ethic (think two full CDs, five videos and hundreds of live performances in one and a half years) is alluded to, but only in a dippy Fox News clip that feels like a way to deny the connection, in case Artforum is off Gaga this season.

But that’s small beans. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present is one of the film events of the year, carrying forward the needed romance of the artist as a creature owned by a mission which is carried out by an incomprehensible extreme work ethic that would literally kill anyone less devoted than she is. Abramović helps us remember that anything less should simply not be acceptable.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

GREY MATTERS: The Horrors of THE INVISIBLE WAR

GREY MATTERS: The Horrors of THE INVISIBLE WAR

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The American military has largely dealt with the sexual assault of more than 95,000 service members since 2006 by stonewalling, denial, blaming the victims, and worse, according to Kirby Dick’s horrific and essential new film.

I’d had my concerns about Kirby Dick covering this material: his This Film is Not Yet Rated was a snarky swipe at the MPAA that was entirely too in love with itself and its clever graphics.  In this film, save a very occasional lapse into inappropriately cool-looking statistics, Dick’s baser instincts and any unfortunate slide into Michael Moore-like ‘liberal’ self righteousness are utterly consumed by the urgency of the task at hand. 

To the point where we experience a sort of horror-driven vertigo, The Invisible War provides hundreds of ex-service members a place to tell of their defilement by people they’d trusted with their lives. Even as it explores every conceivable reason behind the grotesque failure to address this ultimate crime, the film refuses to go anti-military, mirroring the across-the-board POV of female ex-soldiers who, despite their rape, still respect the uniform.

This is mainly a film of faces, with Dick cutting away only when needed—to courtrooms, clinics, Congress people, and others who won’t help, along with news clips of recent and mostly forgotten military sexual travesties for context. The relative asceticism gives War the apt hush of genocide.

Dick’s assembled a core group of women. There’s Kori, Coast Guard. Jessica, US Air Force. Robin, USAF.  Ariana, Marines. Trina, Navy. Elle, Marines. Hannah, Marines.

Each tells of their love and pride of country and service. Each then describes having that love obliterated and stolen from them by their perpetrator, who most likely goes unpunished.

Dick takes a blowtorch to any notion that rape is anything else but a crime of violence and power by repeatedly focusing on the unspeakably painful physical brutalization of these young peoples’ bodies.

One woman’s spine is broken. Other women have broken bones elsewhere. Kirby focuses on Kori, a short ash blond spitfire whose jaw was crushed in her rape to the point that she can only eat Jell-O, pudding and other soft foods, as a sort of guide through the slow burn hell her perpetrator has turned her life into.

As her jaw problems worsen, the VA offers help with a back condition she doesn’t have. (Catch-22 lives.) Her husband—like all the spouses seen here—does everything humanly possible to help, and as his life is consumed by that endless job, the rapist claims another victim by proxy.

We meet woman after woman after woman, each with a story of love, service, rape, and betrayal by the military family she thought had her back. Watching these women’s’ faces and voices fuse as they all tell one extended story of incomprehensible soul-rending transgression is like hearing Jung’s collective consciousness screaming J’accuse.

Dick attacks every angle of this rotten story. His talking heads are all high-ranking, no-nonsense ex-military or thought leaders who exude zero-bias competence.  As with other victims who hide behind screens and electronic distortion, unearthed official documents, and military rape advocacy workers, the same story comes out, with the same details, the same narratives, the same outcomes, the same strings of words, even. That such identical details come from such radically different people either suggests that 1) Dick brilliantly coached about 50 non-pros to lie like trained actors or 2) This is the real, 100% true, truth. All it ever does is get worse as things are cleared up.

Who rapes? Often people of higher rank. Who know their victim. Who’ve raped before and will again.

We’re introduced to Brig. General Loree Sulton (Ret.) Psychiatrist, US Army, who’s brisk, friendly and assertive in her complete command of victims' psychology.

She tersely, chillingly asserts that tightly knit military units are nothing less than a “prime, target-rich environment for a predator” and points out the terrible irony that the military’s success at creating alternate families causes rape victims to suffer a far worse constellation of psychological damage after being raped, similar to that of incest. These were her surrogate brothers and fathers, after all, who attacked the victim, who may be lying about her, who are turning their backs on her.

Male predators also rape other males, with 20,000 “buddy-fuck” victims in the last ten years. Experts in multiple fields detach this from gay issues: again, rape is about power, violence and dominance. Rapists don’t care about gender. Just targets.

Kirby deftly alternates between small and large-scale abominations so as to keep the human suffering always at the fore, even when he goes historical. When you see a Marine talk about her agonizing violation, and then a second later we’re watching news footage of a famous rape military spree or court decision that says rape is an acceptable part of being in the military (this is a real thing), suddenly those facts are not distant, or abstractions. They’re real things, and you shudder to imagine how they affected the people you’ve come to care about during this film.

Dick follows one woman’s downward spiral from fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom, to being raped and devastated by PTSD and ending up homeless and drug addicted, to asking, How did this happen? Why does the service so grievously mistreat some of its warriors?

And the answer Dick offers? Military justice is not American justice. There’s a chain of command deciding things. The chain of command has all manner of reasons for keeping rape cases closed or invisible and does not work according to democratic rules. Commanders with no personal involvement in a case might see a rape accusation as a potential black mark on their own career, sweeping the issue and possible investigation under the rug. Maybe they think the girl was asking for it. Maybe they’ve committed rape themselves.

We meet Captain Greg Rinckey (Ret.) US Army JAG Corps, a fortyish man who seems to still not believe the awfulness of what he has to communicate to the filmmakers. “The problem in the military is, the convening authority, who is not legally trained, makes the final decision.” That "decision" being what happens in a rape case, which defines a woman’s entire life.

As a corrective to the luxury of selective historic amnesia Americans enjoy, Kirby brings up recent scandals, old nightmares.

There’s the Tailhook Scandal in 1991: at least 87 women sexually assaulted by more than 100 U.S. Navy and United States Marine Corps aviation officers. The Aberdeen Scandal in ’96: 30 women raped.  

In the Colorado Springs Air Force Academy sexual assault scandal in 2003, 12% of all graduates claimed they were victims of rape or attempted rape. (The film reminds us that over 80% of victims never report their rape.)

At a certain point, the film crosses the line between objective documentary form and out and out advocacy in the same way Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s coverage of the West Memphis Three in Paradise Lost gave up even a fig leaf of detachment in the film’s two sequels, as the filmmakers realized the depth of the crime they were covering. I suppose some grand, detached style might be more artful, but I really don’t worry about superior grammar and usage when drowning people scream “help.”

Simply seeing The Invisible War won’t end any of the horrors it catalogues. But a movie like this wasn’t made to stop anything, it was made to anger you, to get you to do that first thing that keeps these monsters at bay. Ultimately, it really is up to you whether this film is a success or not.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

GREY MATTERS: The Haunted Suburban World of TEEN WOLF

GREY MATTERS: The Haunted Suburban World of TEEN WOLF

Anyone comparing Teen Wolf’s second season to Buffy either isn’t paying attention to the dark gem Jeff Davis’s show has become or doesn’t understand what Joss Whedon’s show used to be.  Think instead of this reboot of the silly Michael J. Fox '80s film as fully on par with Ronald Moore’s remake of Glen A. Larson’s way-'70s Battlestar Galactica. It’s that good. And now, it's that grim.

Gone are even the small gestures toward even nominal teen melodrama normality season one made, mostly courtesy a sound-weave that was already more Lynch than CW, more Cocteau-dream-time-floaty than let’s-sell-some-alterna-pop catchy.

From the credits onwards, the second season announces a visual sensibility that suggests Lars von Trier pace Melancholia in a suburb called Beacon Hills, where McMansions literally sit next to rotting poverty homes. Where there is never anyone on the streets, or any place of business open but the ER, the police department, and a 24-hour veterinarian’s office (Teen Wolf may be grim but it's not without humor.)

The last time I wrote about the show, I mentioned an across-the-board ache, a sense that everyone of parenting age had failed, leaving a generation of children trying to reassure the adults that everything would be okay.

That ache has metastasized into distance, malevolence and violence. The show’s teen werewolf, Scott McCall (Tyler Posey), now keeps a certain distance from Mom since a telepathic bond with her revealed her endless well of erotic loneliness.

Scott’s best friend Stiles (Dylan O’Brien) has a father (Linden Ashby) so humiliated by his drunken confession of broken marriage anguish that he can barely face his son anymore.

And Scott’s beloved, Allison (Crystal Reed), has learned that the worst thing in the world isn’t her morally compromised father (JR Bourne), but her morally psychotic grandfather, played with scene-eating intensity by <i>Battlestar’s</i>Michael Hogan, this season’s very bad, big bad, wolf.

All of this is mirrored in the visual poetry of Teen Wolf, most often conveyed in pairs of shots that tersely convey discrete information, the cinematic version of haiku. Cinematographer Jonathan Hall—best known for The Walking Dead—somehow conveys darkness even in his day-lit school hallway scenes.

Oh. Right. Werewolves. Or as I like to say, “weres”, because it’s shorter and makes things sound as un-lame as the show Davis—best known as creator of Criminal Minds—has gifted us with.

Davis still uses his moneymaker moon howlers, but mainly as bearers of metaphor. But since I want you to fall for this show, I’ll run some Wolf basics by you before getting lost in those thickets.

When we first met Scott McCall, he was a golly, gee-whiz teen lacrosse player in love with the lovely Allison. Scott’s pal Styles was a knockabout, but not a pop-culture-spouting one.

Then Scott got clawed in the night and became a were, which, downside, meant turning halfway into a wolf, but upside, meant super-enhanced strength, night vision, speed, healing abilities, and so on. Sure, there was the whole thing with murdering people and eating their flesh, but a little forethought and some chains and locks could take care of that.

Unfortunately, Scott quickly gained the attention of longtime were Derek Hale (Tyler Lee Hoechlin).  Like the zombies hanging around the mall they loved when they were alive in Dawn of the Dead, Derek can’t stop himself from hanging at his burned down, old American dream house.

Last season, Allison not only learned of her family’s avocation—hunting down and killing weres—but saw her sadistic, morally insane aunt killed by the sadistic, morally insane ‘Alpha’—a sort of ultimate werewolf who may or may not lead the pack of weres.

Also, everyone knows that Scott’s a were when his attempts to gain some privacy with Allison at last year’s winter formal only lead to Chris, the werewolf hunter, accidentally finding him while in wolf form.

This season finds the Argent family closing ranks and forcing Allison to break up with Scott. (Of course, the two work out a complex system of signals and signs for meeting up in secret.)

Then Hell comes to town in the form of cruel, killing-‘em-old-school Gerard, who loves the sound of a young homeless were’s screams, cut off when he cuts him in two with a special sword.

Gerard believes in killing all weres, shows zero tolerance of Others, and has a pungent Tea Party vibe to him that, in an election year, one assumes, must be intended.

Then Allison finds out that she must train to take her aunt’s place and become a were killer. As Valentines to nuclear families go, this one isn’t winning anyone’s favor.

The alternative isn’t kittens and roses either. Derek is trying to create an alternative family based on the pain of others, to repel the Argent menace.

There’s Boyd (Friday Night Lights’s Sinqua Walls), a black kid bussed to Beacon Hills, where he’s forced to do menial work, who chooses Derek’s bite to gain power over a core-rotten school system. And Isaac (Daniel Sharman), a white kid whose abuse at his father’s hands reverberates horribly in a post-Penn State context. And an unnamed student (played by the awesomely-named Gage Golightly) ruined by uncontrollable, humiliating seizures is more than happy to give up a known awful life for a life living like Derek looks.

For whatever reason, because the show works under the disguise of genre, because everyone isn’t putting every word uttered under a critical electron microscope, because the show is free to use metaphor freely, Teen Wolf is free to delve deep into topics whose existence a show like Girls might deny.  

And were the show not called Teen Wolf, its to-be-continueds would surely be the stuff of virtual water cooler conversations. Breaking Bad, now there’s some word play for adults. But Teen Wolf, seriously? Next you’ll be saying Battlestar Galactica, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or . . . Oh.

Take the battle for the soul of Jackson Whittemore (Colton Haynes). Everything that’s remarkable about Jackson—his steely good looks, his bottomless checking account, his classic Porsche—only remind him how much he didn’t earn them. And so what good there is in him is eclipsed by a need to act out his self-loathing. Worse, Jackson is aware of this extra dynamic, which makes him truly tragic. We never hate him.

And now he wants Derek to turn him into a were as well. To give him a power that comes from his body, not his Chase Titanium card. If something gay happens, well, whatever.

In direct opposition to Whedon’s wonderful alternative families, the Buffy, Firefly or Avengers crews, Teen Wolf is a dire warning against socialization, especially for Scott: if he enjoys Allison, his mom may be getting killed by Gerard. If he’s with his mom, how can he protect Stiles and Allison?

This is horror for times of terrifying scarcity. It’s why Allison hangs on to Scott and vice versa, and it doesn’t feel clingy or retrograde, and it's why Stiles will save even Derek when a new monster comes to town. In lean times where the family is verklempt due to ideology, bad breaks or character flaws, they’re all they’ve got.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.

GREY MATTERS: Vidal Sassoon: In the Salon, In the Movies, In Life

GREY MATTERS: Vidal Sassoon: In the Salon, In the Movies, In Life

Vidal Sassoon did nothing less in his astonishing life than co-engineering the design and mindset of desire and freedom in fashion, cinema, and feminism—in ways that echo to this day.

nullIn the mid-60s, his radical, Bauhaus-inspired cuts for Twiggy and Terrence Stamp in Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise defined a Mod brand of cool reemerging again today in everyone from Karen O to Ladytron to Lady Gaga; the pixie cut he crafted for Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby made that film all the more effective and is now being rediscovered by Michelle Williams, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Mia Wasikowska, among others; the feathered cut he crafted for Farrah Fawcett in Charlies’s Angels gave the 70s Sexual Revolution a go-to style that, when shortened, also worked for men.

By creating “wash and wear haircuts” that freed women from the tyranny of elaborate post-war styling, Sassoon caused a side effect that was his greatest effect. Women of the early 60s who got Sassoon cuts were no longer spending a huge portion of their discretionary earnings and spare time on the salon, and so, simply in terms of dollars, cents, and time, feminism became that much more logistically possible.

And so I feel as if this amazing history is in danger of being lost when I realize that when people think of Sassoon, they think of superior hair products. In fairness, though, he also created that industry.

Me, I first “met” Sassoon entirely by accident of need.

When Lizzie E. came up to me at high school’s end and asked how I was going to support myself until my band got signed, I was like,  “I have no idea.” When she asked if I wanted to go to beauty school, I said,  “Sure. Why not?”

But beauty school was lame, all boring rudimentary cuts, color, curling iron work, and such. Until The Twins showed up.

The Twins: two impossibly suave young Latino men in Armani suits with hair like Al Pacino in Serpico. They may have had names, but I never learned them. They didn’t talk much. They cut.

The Twins had been to Vidal Sassoon Academy. This was the late 70s. Everyone knew all about Vidal: he was a living media presence in the process of creating that idea, too. Think Tim Gunn but younger, ludicrously cool in his Pierre Cardin suits, and also a mensch.

nullAnyway, at school, students lined up daily as the Twins executed precise Sassoon-style versions of a Ziggy cut, a Bryan Ferry asymmetrical, a pixie, and the Master’s other contribution, the bob.

Everyone came out of a Twin session changed. Happier. More confident. More cool and more themselves at the same time.

I wanted a Twins cut! But I was also only 17 and seething with a crippling sense of how little I deserved such fine things, in part a side effect of the bipolar disorder percolating in my head.

So I just watched.

All very nice, but this is a film blog! Yes, but film and fashion are always absolutely intertwined.  

To explore what I mean by that, you have to ask, and also know: What is a haircut about? You. If you’re in the Marines, for example, it’s about erasing your identity with a buzz cut ten thousand other women and men have, so as to become an interchangeable part of a unit.

A haircut is also code. It’s Audrey Hepburn's hair in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), signaling in streaked hair-color semaphore that she’s a very new sort of girl, an idea and look Gloria Steinem promptly appropriated and repurposed as an act of playful post modernism, whose referencing of Tiffany's was a hidden-in-plain-sight rejection of the top-down, patriarchal conservatism that institution stood for. And all while looking devastatingly chic.

This is all because of an irrefutable bottom line: hair is the most telling human visual tag after skin color. It’s the thing people remember. And that's why when profiling a perp, after race, a cop will ask what color hair, what style, how long, etc. Because everyone remembers that. It’s probably a tribal thing, engrained on a DNA level.

Until Sassoon, post-war America conservatism recognized the threats inherent in hairstyle—sexuality, individualism, personal agency—and quashed them.

A salon visit—and you sometimes needed multiple ones per week—meant enduring having your hair chemically burned with harsh, primitive perm, bleach and color concoctions, then soaked in gum, methylparaben, gelatin, cornstarch-based based adherents, before being wrapped in scalp-tearing curlers. The client was then stuck under burning hot driers for hours on end before having the hair—now decimated tissue resembling burnt wire—tortured into halo-like shapes held together by industrial-strength lacquers.

nullAt this time, the ‘50s and early 60s, nobody looked at hair and thought: Bone structure! Bauhaus! Geometry!

Nobody asked: How can I enhance the way this woman naturally is, instead of warping her into something she’ll never be?

Sassoon did.

Sassoon, who was born in 1928 into such dire poverty that his single mother was forced to send him to a Jewish orphanage, who later joined the Israeli Defense Forces to fight in the 1948 Arab Israeli War, who then, at his mum’s insistence, got in the hair trade, ran a regular salon for a while until he just had it with things as they were, the sheer cruel, ugly oldness of it all.

He threw out the hair driers, the perms, the chemicals, everything but his trusty sheers.

Word spread like wildfire. Some madman was cutting hair based on bone structure, and geometry, and then letting women just leave the salon! No setting! No lacquer. Just beautiful, healthy, shiny hair. Hair he encouraged women to run their fingers through.

nullHollywood came calling: their new, post-war Chinese sex symbol in the making, Nancy Kwan, needed a look. Vidal created a luscious, cascading bob for Kwan for The World of Suzie Wong (1960). The Beats appropriated it, every present-day hipster girl has had one at least once, and actors like Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett and Charlize Theron look especially good with one.

But Sassoon’s eureka moment came in 1964. It was the five-point cut. It was a radical, Bauhaus-inspired design that practically screamed the end of an era and the start of something new.

Craig Teper’s recent gold standard documentary, Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, gets inside the mind of a man who’s known pretty much every way a person can live, and from that experience came a well of empathy that fueled designs that could have been cold or detached or, god forbid, ‘arty’ (and so dismissed.) He could think of hair as a fine artist, as a businessman or, as we’ll see, a method actor. In the film, Sassoon tells his greatest hits in an alternately incarnational/imperious/impish vocal style that’s another pleasure.

nullThere’s the tale of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), where Roman Polanski desperately needed his hero to have a visual signifier of motherhood in crisis that would capitalize on both the rush and anxiety accompanying the first wave of feminism.

He called Vidal. The cut Sassoon delivered for Mia Farrow was short, but feminine. Angular, but not overtly weird. The effect was a triumph of style-based foreshadowing: the idea that this woman would give birth to Satan’s child was totally believable to men—just look at her haircut! American women, ironically enough, wanted to look like Rosemary, and they all flocked to Sassoon-trained stylists.

If I have one complaint with the film, it’s that it’s too humble. Another incredibly important cut, the one worn by Sassoon client Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s boundary-breaking Klute, is a study in, shall we say, influence. That cut is the missing link between the geometry of the 60s and the flow of the 70s, eventually migrating to the heads of Suzie Quatro and Joan Jett and a good many of the lesbian bars my friend Lizzie E. would hang at.

But his greatest achievement will always be a side effect of the wasted time and money his cuts returned to women. The quarterly perm, the monthly color retouch, the monthly cut, the once, twice, thrice roller/set/comb-out/styling sessions. All of them replaced with one haircut every two or so months.

Without that boon, feminism would have been incalculably harder to pull off.  Or as Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington, a one-time model who enjoyed the original five-point cut, has said, "He changed the way everyone looked at hair . . . and it liberated everyone."

Me, I never got my hair cut by The Twins. But my band did get a record deal, and the guy who cut my hair was, by incredible good luck, the haircutter for Bryan Ferry, once and future king for all things cool beyond measure.

And, of course, that haircutter trained at Sassoon’s.

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Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.

GREY MATTERS: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR VS. ALIEN VS. PROMETHEUS

GREY MATTERS: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR VS. ALIEN VS. PROMETHEUS

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For months Twentieth Century Fox has been frothing us up over Sir Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien business with Prometheus. But for me, this is an occasion to not only celebrate the uncelebrated—Paul W.S. Anderson’s fantastic Alien vs. Predator—but to see through Scott’s contributions and mourn their horrible legacy.

First: Scott didn’t think up Alien’s feminist hero angle. All reports indicate that just sort of happened at the behest of producers David Giler and Walter Hill. Nor did he think up the paradigm-shifting H.G. Giger bio-mechanical alien design. Nor the story.

What he deserves credit for is saying yes to those elements.

But above and beyond that, what Scott—an ace adman whose Chanel #5 ads fused wealth, sex and property to almost pornographic levels—really brought to Alien (1979) was class. And Class.

Writing about Prometheus recently in Box Office, James Rocchi, after trashing the unimportant Alien vs. Predator (2004), just up and said it’s “nice to have Sir Ridley classing the neighborhood back up.”

Yes, ‘Sir”. As in knighted by The Queen. And “classing” things up, one assumes, like he classed up Hannibal with those splendidly art-directed, scrumptiously-lit scenes of Ray Liotta eating his own brains.

But why would you need "class" in a films about chest-bursting phallus monsters? Knowingly or not, Rocchi had used the correct verb.

Back in the late 70s, there’s no way that Scott could help but understand the discomfort we colonials felt around art and the class struggles we’re not supposed to suffer from. Watching Alien, you can see how he capitalized on that discomfort, on the way many Americans were still not quite sure how to process, say, a Bergman film. Did you act as if you got the long pauses, unfamiliar allusions, and the beauty for its own sake? Or should you just walk out, and fear being judged an idiot?

Doing what worked so well in the Chanel ads, he slathered Alien with style and class, and with the glacial pace, mood lighting, anti-hero casting, and doleful music he guessed we’d associate with "serious films." By the time the first finished print rolled through a projector with a really long, 2001-looking spaceship named after Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo and Howard Hanson's august Symphony No. 2 ("Romantic") rolling over the end credits, Scott may have imagined Americans who wouldn’t be caught dead seeing low-class fare like Friday the 13th feeling downright continental about watching what Scott himself called “the Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science fiction."

A Chain Saw, that is, about working-class stiffs deceived by an upper-class android, in which a blue-collar girl (Sigourney Weaver) kills the Giger menace.

British critics like the indispensible Kim Newman (author of Nightmare Movies) saw through the class story, seeing a pose that hid a monster/gore/Ten Little Indians hybrid whose plot required its characters to seek out dark places where they might get killed. But for Americans, that cold, humorless seriousness was the key to what made Alien so damned scary.

James Cameron understood that "serious" was a one trick pony: his war movie remix sequel, Aliens (1986), went for creature battle and feminism, blowing Scott’s pretense and future grunge chic out the air locker: the film was a huge success.

Alas, both Alien 3 (1992), wrought by the future king of high faux seriousness, David Fincher, and Alien: Resurrection (1997) both behaved as if somber, existential gloom—the Sir Ridley touch currently being pimped in the Prometheus teasers like the “Happy, Birthday, David” viral videos, which are basically ruling-class Danish modern architecture porn disguised as futurism—were the key to Alien riches. This proved incorrect.

But then came Paul W.S. Anderson, egalitarian king of deep focus mayhem and why-the-hell-not, ripping any shred of swank out of both the Alien franchise and its déclassé Predator brother, an 80s rasta hunter-monster that was either all developing-world anger-subtext or just a super bad-ass space demon, in a film that pitted one against the other to the death! Finally, some fun, for fuck’s sake!

Anderson is the creator of the terrifyingly strange Event Horizon (1997), the neo-grindhouse exploitationer Death Race (2008), and Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), which proved that he demonstrably owns the most visionary sense of spatial geometry in modern cinema. He loves mixing, matching, and fusing ideas, conveys a palpable sense of sheer cinema-making glee, and most critics despise him as an aesthetically base-born, second-rate creator of vulgar garbage. 

But beyond these inaccurate judgments lie deeper, troubling, truly dispiriting things that go far beyond anything in any Alien film. I’ll get to that in a minute.

In Anderson’s alternately inspired and nutso screenplay for Alien vs. Predator (or AvP), an African American environmental scientist Alexa (Sanaa Lathan) leads a crew of experts to the Antarctic, where they discover a vast sub-glacier pyramid in which the titular Reagan-era monster icons are about to do battle.

But first, a whopper of a casually sacrilegious backstory posits humanity as just another race, made intelligent enough by predators to farm and worship predator gods, sacrifice themselves, and unknowingly become impregnated with aliens, assuring predators of awesome hunts. And if that doesn’t work out, they can blow up the city and start all over again a millennia later.

And then, back to the present day, amid the pyramid’s Aztec, Cambodian and Egyptian wall carvings, Alexa teams up with Predator to battle the alien queen mother, whose twice the size of either of them.

Anderson stages the main event like some Aztec SF Götterdämmerung, but it’s spiritually the original Kong v. Dinosaur with 21st century technology.

For anyone who’s loved the wonders of Willis O'Brien, Jan Švankmajer, Ray Harryhausen, the men-in-suits of Toho, or other toilers in the strange discipline of bringing the inanimate to life, AvP is like a screaming memorial to gods and monsters made of dead materials.  If Neil Gaiman had relayed this, or if Guillermo Del Toro had filmed the same story, there would be worship.

But Anderson? Too low class, honey. But like I mentioned, it’s more than director issues.

I worry that our always-coded class agita and blind reverence for high seriousness over all considerations has so mangled our appreciation of genre values that people might walk out of Mario Bava’s transcendentally gorgeous Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) or Gareth Edwards’ Lovecraft-in-the-jungle Monsters (2010), because the effects are so “unrealistic” (code-phrase for “not enough money”) and the dialogue “not good enough” (code-phrase for “not ironic, hiply detached, or displaying another luxury commodity trait prized by entitled classes”).

No doubt, Prometheus will offer the usual Scott attributes—as with Blade Runner (1982) and Alien, the out-sourcing of designs to the most exclusive and expensive creators on Earth; the ice-blood mise-en-scene; and gold standard blood and guts effects.

But Anderson? He does what only he can do: His unique mental mad lab, cutting and pasting an endless fountain of pop art, geographic, child-dream, King Kong, multi-culti-architectural, exploitation, Chariots of the Gods, and Lord knows what other fantasies. I imagine him laughing, maybe a little crazily, while the sparks fly.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

GREY MATTERS: What Is Sherlock Holmes Afraid Of?

GREY MATTERS: What Is Sherlock Holmes Afraid Of?

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Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s present-day adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s century-old sleuthing stories, gives us two heroic figures struggling with, well, not much. But you wouldn’t know it to watch them, as the creators of the most recent version of Doctor Who conjure up one of this year’s best rides.

It’s a show that lacks not one bit of wit, pace, and all-around smarts. It gives you everything you could reasonably want from a Sherlock Holmes movie—and not one iota more. It sidles right up to greatness—but stops right before it gets there.

The splendidly named Benedict Cumberbatch and his magnificent cheekbones play Sherlock as a zero-patience dandy with a mainframe for a brain. This Sherlock, using deductive reasoning, can suss out your life story from a scratch on your watch and a murder from a smear on a wall. He shares the storied 221B Baker Street flat with Afghanistan war veteran Doctor John Watson (the UK Office’s Martin Freeman), the only person he can tolerate for more than sixty seconds. Watson, in turn, is enthralled by Holmes’ brilliance. Thus, a bromance blooms, as arcane cases are engaged at light speed.

And aside from a consistent subplot in which Watson hopes to bring out the human side in Sherlock that may not exist, that is that. Never has a cigar so strenuously insisted it is just a cigar.  Or, in Sherlock’s case, a nicotine patch. Once the dust settles, the most remarkable thing about Moffat and Gatiss’ smashing new Sherlock is how little there is to say about it, on the surface.

It should be said that there are some fun updates. Dr. Watson posts Holmes’ adventures in a blog. High tech replaces creaky Victorian science. And Moriarty is now a master computer coder/madman with a Bee Gees infatuation, a playful riff on Doyle’s vision of Sherlock’s arch enemy, who was a master criminal utilizing the day’s highest technology to wreak havoc (Watson would call him “the famous scientific criminal”).

In addition, Doctor Who fans can, of course, point out the traits The Doctor and Sherlock share: uncontrollable braininess, love of long coats and fascinated companions, the threat of boredom, and arch enemies. But where Doctor Who has turned out to be the stuff of university courses, Sherlock displays a flashy insubstantiality. Which is, again, fine. Or is it?

After the end of the second season broadcast two weeks ago, the image I have trapped in my mind is that of Sherlock and Watson in a long dark corridor, running, from a scene on the show. By now I wonder, however, what from?

SEX.

Doyle was a man of his time. He disapproved of women’s right to vote and created in Sherlock the ultimate logical man, one who believed that “women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them” and “ "the motives of women . . . so inscrutable . . . . How can you build on such quicksand?”

Moffat and Gatiss, meanwhile, who brought to Who not one but two main female characters as integral as the Doctor, along with some of TV's most ceaseless casting of female secondary characters, are the most feminist showrunners this side of Joss Whedon. They’ve gone beyond mere surface changes, pissing off the traditionalists to make their show really work in the 21st century.

Already their Sherlock doesn’t dislike women any more than men. But then it gets complicated.

I’ll take Watson’s word that he and Sherlock are not gay. But what are we to make of Sherlock, cutting an almost ridiculously Romantic figure, running across the hills and moors of the Baskervilles with his scarf and Saville Row coat unfurling in the whipping wind?

I’d say the game is afoot.

In "A Scandal in Belgravia," the show hits its low point, because it tries to reconcile Doyle’s female aversion with a semi-female-interest story for Sherlock, courtesy of a contemptuous dominatrix named Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) whose client list and sexual allure could topple nations. (Literally.)

Aside from the absurdity of Adler as a character—in 90 minutes she goes from S & M top to intellectual peer to Bond-style girl of international mystery to terrorist victim—there’s the dissonance of any of these female types fitting into any Sherlock-esque story. (Yes, I know an Irene Adler exists in the Canon, but she was nothing like this, and that was another Sherlock, a long time ago.)

The Holmes stories have nothing to do with love. When Sherlock makes it clear to Watson that he doesn’t have friends in the plural sense, you realize there is even less room for a lover, and the obligations love entails. And that’s why the story rings so hollowly.

One assumes that, if Sherlock ever felt the slightest erotic stirring, he would deduce its chemical origins and construct an elixir to neutralize the sensation. And that’s what Sherlock Holmes is all about.

He lives in an intrinsically adolescent, sex-negative safe zone—which also describes the official club for Holmes enthusiasts, The Baker Street Irregulars, who did not allow female members until 1991, when the appearance of ASH (The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes) leveled the non-erotic playing field.

At the moment, we’re at the exact point in the show’s existence where Watson can’t continue to look satisfied with his exclusive relationship with Sherlock without wanting something more. (My limited understanding of the books is that he gets a bit more, but that this happens largely off-stage, which wouldn’t be adequate for modern drama.)

The point is—who are these guys? For two short seasons the show has floated on appearances, in a very Victorian fashion. And I suppose it could keep doing that, in a very "series TV" fashion.

And I know, for a show that doesn’t give you much to talk about, I certainly talked a great deal, but that’s what I’m talking about—the empty spaces, the things the show hasn’t yet addressed.

Earlier, in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” drugs cause Sherlock to think he’s seen a monster, which leads to doubt, which he suffers badly.  Add this to his usual arrogance and tiny cruelties, and you wonder why other characters insist that Sherlock could be a great man.  Not a good one, a great man.  And yet it’s Moriarty, a mad genius, a sociopathic criminal and mass murderer who sees in Holmes a fellow traveler in boredom and compulsive puzzle playing, who’s more accurate.

Watson too has his own dark bipolarity.  When we first meet him, he seems to be suffering from PTSD. But as he says himself, what was wrong was that he missed war. The thrill of being with Sherlock—the crime, death and violence—was curing him.

If Moffat and Gatiss want, they can tell the traditionalists this: Hey, we stayed true to the original model for two seasons. But Sherlock is gaining an international audience. If you could take Russell T. Davis’ version of Doctor Who and make it your own, can’t we add some dark shadows to this Victorian black and white?

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

GREY MATTERS: Black Widow Spins Webs Around THE AVENGERS

Black Widow Spins Webs Around THE AVENGERS

nullBlack Widow is the first hero seen in The Avengers, the latest entry in Joss Whedon's career-long feminist project. She does not immediately display the super powers enjoyed by the other Avengers—Captain America’s unnatural super-strength, The Hulk gamma-ray rage giant, Iron Man’s wearable rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot suit, or Thor’s hammer of the demi-gods. The only visibly super things about Black Widow are the latest in cat suit couture and a striking asymmetrical crimson bob. And yet she’s still able to trash a clutch of Russian scumbags with her hands tied behind her back. With a chair tied to her rear. While talking on her cell phone.

She’s also the sole Avenger that S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) trusts to convince Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to join Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and Captain America (Chris Evans) in the fight against Thor’s psychotic brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, having stolen the ultimate source of power in the universe, the Tesseract, plans to use an alien army to devastate the Earth. (The plot ends there.)

As egos collide, Black Widow—street name, Natasha Romanova—is the only character who does not throw a monstrous hissyfit.  The only character to gather actionable intelligence against Loki from Loki. The character who not only literally kicks sense back into the brainwashed Hawkeye, but then absolves him of any sins performed while under the loony god’s spell.

You want fearless? When midtown Manhattan is swarming with thousands of robo-aliens, the dreaded Chitauri, Black Widow commandeers one of their slippery aero-sleds and flies it to steal Loki’s glowing phallic scimitar so as to save the world so Iron Man can blow up the aliens.

Oh—and the Tesseract? It’s female. I know this because everyone calls it by female pronouns—respectfully. How does that work? Well, the way all Whedon works: second viewings reveal not only layer after layer of multiple meanings, jokes piled on jokes, but seemingly random elements that are actual thematic glue. Nothing is never there without a reason.

Anyway, Black Widow! A worthy addition to Whedon’s female action bloodline, right? The flame-haired heir to Buffy, Faith, Kendra, River, Echo, Zoe, Fred, and Illyria, right?

No.

Writing in The Guardian, Henry Barnes noticed Black Widow but could not be bothered to isolate just what she did in the film. The New York Post’s Kyle Smith dreamed of a Black Widow who would perform one errand and and then be gone.

The New York Daily News’ Joe Neimaier admitted that Black Widow “kickstarts” things, but by deleting her from the rest of his coverage, implied that was that. Still, that was a lavishment compared with the treatment by A.O. Scott, who in his New York Times review found it beneath himself to even give Black Widow a job description, while The Globe and Mail went with “token sexy female,” clearly hoping only young boys and people who hadn’t seen the film were reading.

Meanwhile, in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern claimed Black Widow “spends lots of time looking puzzled or confused,” while Steven Rea's Philadelphia Inquirer review dispensed with Black Widow’s name, suggesting we “watch Scarlett Johansson clench her brow” while in “Ninja garb.” The Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez wasn’t as generous—his single sentence also accused Johansson of playing dress-up, but, perhaps mercifully, did not specify what in.

Meanwhile, as if transported from another dimension, Kim Voynar’s Movie City News review both acknowledged Black Widow and lavished almost two paragraphs on Johansson’s terrific performance.

Over at Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg took for granted what the aforementioned critics could or would not see. “The two characters least-well served by their previous incarnations in Marvel movies,” she wrote, “the Hulk and Black Widow, are the ones best served by Whedon’s greatest gifts and strongest tendencies.”

Rosenberg hit key reasons why Black Widow matters:

She never becomes a victim or a lesser member of the team. Her pain and exhaustion after a CG Marvel battles triggers our empathy, and centers us. And while all this superhero battling may look fun, without superhero augmentation, it must be terrifying. Johansson offers a true career-best turn here, easily negotiating splinter-thin spaces separating old pains and a chilly professionalism that hides we’re not sure what—regret? Denial? Lingering rage over the childhood abuse that turned her into Black Widow? It’s all hinted at as the actor works Whedon’s many shades of dark grey beautifully. In short, and despite all the Wagnerian bam-boom-pow, Whedon and his star never lose sight of the fact that Natasha is profoundly vulnerable, with nothing but smarts, heart and a .45 for protection.

Finally, AlterNet’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd cut to the chase and celebrated The Avengers’ “stark feminist perspective” and what she saw as fact: that “Johansson’s Black Widow is just as front-and-center as the rest of the cast.”

To which I can only say—exactly! And: isn’t this remarkable? Two parallel realities! Men who see nobody at all and women who see the next Faith (without the crazy, I mean). Don’t tell Disney, or they’ll be marketing the film as 4-D.

Jokes aside, how to explain this blanket amnesia?

If I were to be optimistic, I’d say this brand of blindness is about change happening too fast. Change is weird, scary and disorienting. And TV’s a great place for incremental change because it shows slow transformations occurring over time.

At first, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer was, literally, a joke. A cheerleader fighting the undead! Hilarious! And she’s so unthreateningly cute! But over time, people came to believe in the take-charge slayer, until someone in Season Four’s “A New Man” [sic] episode could remark to Buffy that “You're, like, make the plan, execute the plan, no one giving you orders,” and instead of intimidation, there was a shrug. Because it was true.

And so over time people weren't alarmed when Alias’ Sydney Bristow nicked bits of the 007 crown. Or when a female Starbuck showed Han Solo-level energy in the new Battlestar Galactica.

But The Avengers moves so fast, with so many zingers, tiffs, explosions, turnarounds and implications that I’d like to think reviewers simply didn’t have time to process just how radically and playfully Whedon (whose mother co-founded Equality Now) cedes yards of traditionally male genre property and space to Black Widow. 

Some part of the male unconscious, down there where The Hulk lives, just didn't go for it.

How is there not at least one guy who can figure out how to fly Chitauricraft? Why is Captain America looking to Black Widow for strategic ideas in midtown Manhattan? And the greatest power of the universe is a She? How does that work?

Answer: It works so easily that The Avengers is well on its way to becoming one of the most popular films in human history. Maybe a mess of male critics can’t see a triumphant Black Widow in the malange of superheroes crowding the film. But in this election year defined by demeaning treatment of women, it’s encouraging to know that a whole lot of America can.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.

GREY MATTERS: The Decline and Fall of April Ludgate

GREY MATTERS: The Decline and Fall of April Ludgate

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I guess it was inevitable, especially when you think about the place of women in TV and the size of the NBC machine. But the worst has come to pass, and April Ludgate, the beyond-deadpan carrier of careless anarchic energies, the one-woman friction element who’s kept Parks and Recreation from being an Office clone from the unsteady git-go, has been muffled into a millennial-generation version of a wacky neighbor from a sitcom.

This, well, sucks. Because April Ludgate, it’s not a stretch to say, is the most extreme, most uncompromisingly strange, noncompliant female character in the history of broadcast TV. There is no mold for April Ludgate to break. When she ends up sunning herself in a South American dictator’s pool in one episode, the joke is that she fits there as well as she fits in small town America. Meaning she doesn’t, to her amusement.

Because of April, Parks and Recreation was an utterly unique situation comedy, set in a binary universe.

On the one hand we had Amy Poehler, playing Leslie Knope, a passionate bureaucrat in an Indiana small town’s Parks and Rec department, and her hugely adorable co-workers.

And on the other hand, as if reporting in from a parallel universe lorded over by deadpan semi-surrealist Steven Wright, there was April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), permanently hunched over, with huge, give-me-a-break rolling eyes, snark, and all-around Dada-esque hostility.

April’s acid grin gave the Libertarian outbursts of Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) their exclamation points. Her eye-rolling threw water onto Leslie’s eternal happy hour of optimism. She showed proper disgust when one-joke wannabe playa Tom (Aziz Ansari) said something, well, disgusting. Let’s put it baldly: April Ludgate was Parks and Recreation’s stealth weapon.

But now? Now the girl who used to answer the phone with impossible dates and times, glower at the horizon for fun, and hang up on people for sport—all to the endless delight of her boss, no-government Ron, it should be mentioned—has been shorn of her playful, perverse and puckish identity.

She now prefers conservative work force clothing to better integrate into the office. She also shares hugs with anyone when needed, and when her cutely thick musician husband Andy (Chris Pratt) does something really dumb, she will throw her arms up and cry “Andy!” like a million other flustered wives before her. All that’s missing is a laugh track.

How far the mighty fall. I mean, sure, she’ll say something surly every now and then: I bet they have five or six 18 year old interns at NBC tasked with the job of coining her devilish rejoinders.

Anyway. Back in the day (before this season), I loved the way that April and Ron had bonded as peers in their mutual disgust over institutions, government, groups and, hell, everything but rare steaks, whiskey and causing more problems.

Not anymore! Now that Ron has committed an actual act of governance and promoted April to a job with more responsibilities, he has also become a father figure for April, because all girls, the subtext logic goes, especially uppity ones like April Ludgate, are really looking for the right substitute father.

Maybe here you can see why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was so remarkable. When Rooney Mara’s punk hacker was dragged into another dubious Girl Domestication scenario with another Oedipal-freighted father replacement, she soundly rejected it: that just doesn’t happen that much. That is breaking the law, after all.

Meanwhile, as I mourn April Ludgate’s spiky soul—I can see, in indelible ink, the writing on her face, saying “Don’t worry folks! She’s normal! Really!”—the show itself trundles to an ignoble season’s end.

Knope has run for city council. Since this is NBC and actual political parties cannot be named, the show instead goes for the Maureen Dowd school of politics, where there are no issues or ideologies, only personalities.

Knope should win, the show argues, because she’s wanted it longer. Me, I could use less of my favorite comic actor getting shitfaced and falling into hot tubs, failing career-making interviews and becoming the buffoon she never was.

Meanwhile, over in the kingdom of bad decisions of which April is queen, we find a high princess in Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones). Like April, Ann has been shorn of delightful prickliness and is now so needy that she pairs up with Tom, because he is now an adorable man-child. Or child-man.

Look. I revel in the promise of serialized TV’s ability to let people change. But there has never been any fine print about devolving them. And the other promise and pleasure is that they also stay essentially the same. I just don’t buy a Knope who’s recently so often a dope, or an Ann willing to forget everything she knows about romance so that Tom can annoy her into having sex—or as Tom described it, “The four sweetest words: you wore me down.”

Maybe I’m spoiled by girls doing whatever they want. Maybe I’m paranoid about endless notes and tweakings by suits after terrible ratings because lord knows Parks & Rec had those last year, but when all your female characters have been blunted and your male characters left the same or improved, it's just weird. Add on characters name-dropping the feminist critic Laura Mulvey and making knowing reference to “the male gaze” in time for Ron to have hot monkey sex with an actual female feminist, and I can’t help but feel as if the showrunners are not only winking at us, but at least partially aware that they knew exactly what they were doing with, say, April,
and probably knew we'd be at least somewhat put off by it, and hence the un-Parks and Rec-like avalanche of Community-style referencing meant to ensure we don’t get actually mad at them about doing any of it, because, like, see, we get the whole discourse, so we’re cool, right?

This irks me.

Still, the anarchy-in-the-USA energies have been passed to a male body now: that of real-life Republican Rob Lowe, here playing state auditor Chris Traeger.  (Yes, that is irony.)

At first a running joke of narcissism and mortality fear, Chris’s encroaching middle age anxieties have turned him into the show’s new wildcard of strange/insightful behavior (playing terrifying Gregorian chants at a Valentine’s Day DJ gig for example). Chris, it seems, is the new April.

With HBO’s Girls zeitgeist on the one hand and FOX’s retrogressive indie pixie gold mine The New Girl on the other, next season will tell whether April and the other women on Parks and Rec are allowed to rediscover their spiky roots. I hate to say it, but my hopes are not high. And maybe if I don’t watch any more demoted Aprils, I can think of this impossible character more as some incredibly rare, unstable mineral that let off this amazing, crazy light that was never meant to shine more than a few years before exploding beautifully into nothing. Yeah—I can think about it that way without getting cranky.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.