From Art-House to Slaughterhouse (Week Two: Twentynine Palms)

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Countdown to Halloween: Twentynine Palms

This is Bruno Dumont’s bizarre homage to late 60s, early 70s drive-in cinema: road film-cum-horror film. It’s so unlike the bulk of Dumont’s oeuvre. Twentynine Palms is generally ignored, rarely considered or discussed even by his fans. When put beside his other work, it’s almost like a ‘forgotten film’.

We examined Claire Denis’ foray into the realm of horror with “Trouble Every Day”, her 2001 “horror film”. But, she’s not the only French filmmaker who’s recently interested in exploring these realms. I could go into the work of Gaspar Noe, for instance, but I’d say all his work is influenced by and steeped in American exploitation, genre and horror film? Recently, there seem to be a whole clique of French filmmakers who’re making films that utilize exploitation film elements. Instead, I’m more interested in these art-house filmmakers who rarely, or barely, tread in those waters. For instance, Claire Denis and the brilliant Bruno Dumont.

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Generally, Dumont’s films deal with the sublime, the transcendent and the spiritual. They exist in a halfway house, somewhere between religious and philosophical. Some even deal with religion, specifically, as their subject matter. Dumont, an avowed atheist however, seems to be drawn to and fascinated by the spiritual experience. I wouldn’t say “Twentynine Palms” does not contain any interest in this realm, but it certainly hides it more than the rest. But, “Twentynine Palms” isn’t really one of his naturally spiritual films. Instead, it seems a meditation on America. Even perhaps, an ode to American exploitation films of the “psychedelic” period-road films and shock horror specifically.

 

This interesting diminutive film, always struck a deep chord with me. I find it to be Dumont’s strangest, most peculiar work in an otherwise consistent filmography. Most viewers, I think, didn’t know what to make of this thing? It’s clearly Dumont’s least popular work, even considered a ‘failure’ by many. In my opinion, however, it’s at least as good as his next film: “Flanders”. A film that always generated far more respect because its subject matter, the current mid-east conflict, will always generate more gravitas. Whereas a sexually graphic road film wrapped round a shock-horror core, tends to be looked upon with jaundiced eye by those in the “art-house community”. A snobby group, in case ya didn’t know (no surprise to exploitation fans, I’m sure?)? But for someone like myself, who’ll view any cinematic offering from any source, these ‘politics’ are just plain annoying. In fact, another ‘secret’ is that most exploitation/horror film fans are just as snobby. Many of them are probably scoffing right now, at this discussion of a ‘foreign/art-house film’ on a page for exploitation/horror films and think me ‘pretentious’, I’m sure?

“Twentynine Palms” begins like a standard road film. A couple drive through Southern California and finally into Twentynine Palms, California. The male lead is an American photographer scouting locations, the female half is the photographer’s French girlfriend who seems to be along for the ride as; part concubine and partially to keep him from getting lonely while he scouts his locations. I can’t help but think that this may have an autobiographical element to it? I can easily see the photographer representing Dumont himself and a girlfriend or wife as they look for locations, perhaps even while scouting for this very film? It has a strong feeling of coming from some place real and personal.

At this point the film too gets literally personal. The two main leads engage in rather graphic sexual activity across various exotic locals throughout Southern California. They engage sexually at their barren motel swimming pool, inside their cheap, tawdry motel room, out of doors, on rocky formations and atop desert mesas, in their SUV, hell, Just about every place they end up for an extended period of time. Their rutting seems to reflect a better way for them to communicate with each other, since their verbal communication seems highly problematic (he speaks a little French, she hardly speaks even a little English). Perhaps Dumont is representing sex as the one way these two can more freely and easily communicate with each other? At times, it even seems like their sexual act has distinct ‘personalities’ to it; loving and gentle, as they express love to each other. At other times, when arguing and fighting with each other, their sexuality expresses ‘hatred’ and ‘anger’. It seems Dumont is showing us the transformation from verbal to physical with scenes of sexual intercourse taking the place of their lack of verbal skills.

As the sex between the couple begins to disintigrate and decline, the film takes on a more paranoid, brutal and anxious tone. It’s here the film seems to remind one most of the 70s film, “Deliverence”. There seems to be a feeling of menace, coming from without. One can feel a palpable sense of dread, that there are ‘others’, out there and that they’re (more than likely) not benevolent. Just as it’s revealed in “Deliverance”, it’s also revealed here. In fact it is revealed in a strikingly similar way. I get the feeling that, much in the way many people in America were haunted and disturbed by what can happen in the most rural areas of the south in “Deliverance”; Bruno Dumont seems to feel the same about the United States in general? I may be wrong, perhaps he’s trying to express something else entirely, but the feeling I take away from the film is one of a certain fear of location.

The ending of the film works on one’s mind in a most shocking and transgressive way. The first act of violence blindsides us, just as the proceeding act of murderous brutality does. The first act of violence makes me sense the filmmaker gets the feeling America is chock a block with utterly warrantless, random acts of violence. While the second act of violence seems to be making a comment on the effects of the first. In reality nearly all violence is random and it’s rarely, if ever, well thought out. Violence is what happens when verbal communication breaks down. Which leads me to think the film may be about break downs in communication. First, between the couple, then by the world at large and finally between individuals. I don’t see the film as an indictment of America*. Instead, it seems to summarize the fear and paranoia inherent in open and wild landscapes and the violence that comes from the inability to articulate oneself.

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*It should also be noted that Twentynine Palms, CA also happens to be the locale of a known Marine base…there may be something to that?

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Films…That Never Existed (Part One: Who Killed Bambi?)

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Most people are aware of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” and, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s “Napolean”. Two films that were never made and never will be. Personally, my favorite film that was never made was 1978’s punk rock gem: Russ Meyer’s “Who Killed Bambi?”

This really begins when I was 12 or 13 I remember flip-flapping through albums at a local record store (Flipside Records) and continually being drawn to the soundtrack album to “The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle”. I’d already owned “Anarchy in the Uk”, but I was strangely drawn to this album. There were photos of bizarre British ‘punks’ all over it, odd, weird people, dwarves in spiky hair, punk gals with green hair and safety pins all over and through their flesh (not to mention, a topless photo of Sue Catwoman, who I immediately crushed on and set in motion a fetish for young punk chicks for years to come!) what I remember most however, was the back of the record. It showed a color photo of an actual deer, dead, arrow pierced it’s neck, red blood smeared across the wound and in bold red Disney font the phrase: Who Killed Bambi? emblazoned above! I was in awe! Everything about the image resonated with me! The grisly real life carnage of animal death (reminding me of nothing so much as the imagery from Mondo movies) contrasted with that Disney lettering and word “Bambi”, it reminded me of the adult animation I was fixated on at the time. After deciding I’d buy this album, I brought it home, put it on the turntable and listened to the whole thing. The first “swindle” was that none of the songs were by the Sex Pistols, it was other people doing their versions of Pistols songs, or songs like “Who Killed Bambi?” by Ten Pole Tudor, which I loved (!) but were ‘technically’ not Sex Pistols songs. In fact I liked most of the songs on the album, I liked them more than most of the songs on “Anarchy in the UK” in fact. At this point I decided I HAD to see the movie! I could imagine all sorts of punk rock sex and violence and it it was more than an adolescent boy’s mind could bare! I kept wondering: how was the dead deer and “Who Killed Bambi?” going to play into this whole thing?

So, I set forth to find a copy of the film. This was not an easy film to locate. It wasn’t readily available in video stores (to those too young to know, video stores were these arcane places where you paid, like, $70-or more likely, your parents did-as collateral, along with a copy of their drivers’s license, then you could rent videos at their store. It was a kind of hostage situation. See videos, or VHS in those days, were worth, like, $99! So, obviously, the store needed to make damn sure you didn’t run away with their precious $99 piece of merchandise!) after much hunting around and talking with various people, it ended with my friend Bill (my one stop source for all things ‘punk’ AND he lived right around the corner from me!), he informed me about this thing called The Gore Gazette-a little xeroxed ‘zine that offered obscure movies-the owner of The Gore Gazette, was (I believe) related to the guy who owned Flipside Records, the store I bought the Sex Pistols soundtrack from in the beginning, see everything come’s full circle! It was through The Gore Gazette that I managed to obtain a cruddy VHS copy of the Sex Pistols’ (mostly unseen in the US) film, “The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle” (that’s what one had to do back then, kiddies, ya had to physically visit different underground and black-market outlets and seek out a copy of a copy of a copy of a foreign PAL version of what you were looking for-it was all a bit like that scene in the movie “8mm” where Nicholas Cage is trying to procure a ‘snuff film’ from a shifty Joaquin Phoenix), when I finally watched it, I was crushed! Highly disappointed! What, no dead deer? there seemed to be no reason for the song “Who Killed Bambi?” The only parts I enjoyed were some animated sequences and one where Sid Vicious (singing My Way) walks down a lit staircase, pulls out a revolver (I fetishized guns-I was 12 and a boy-duh!) and shoots these British, upper crust, bourgeois audience members. Squibs exploded with bright red blood and covered everything, being a typical ‘gore hound’, I was marginally happy with that scene. Otherwise…that’s it! Literally, the rest of the film was a giant bore! I was expecting a wild and crazy punk film, instead, it was all uninspired, clunky cinematography, dumb skits, crummy aesthetics, no sex, no violence (apart from that one scene), bad direction, shitty performances and even worse story lines! I wondered why I’d bothered, I could have stayed home, watched The Young One’s and gotten a far more clever and interesting take on what British punk rock in the late ’70s.

After this “great” and final “swindle”, I’m not sure how long, perhaps it was when I talked to the owner of Flipside about my “great” disappointment with “The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle”, when I was finally informed about the first piece to this puzzle. He told me that originally, the Sex Pistols were supposed to make a different film altogether, called “Who Killed Bambi?”, but made “The Great Rock ‘N Roll Swindle” instead…and whamo! I had a new obsession!
Who killed, “Who Killed Bambi?”?

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It was decades later when I finally cobbled enough pieces of the puzzle together and learned, as much as one could, exactly what happened to this never completed film. For me, it was a case of two different ‘obsessions’ colliding with each other.

Shortly after the incident with “The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle”, I saw a film called “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” it was directed by the master of sexploitation films, Russ Meyer. I remember when I rented it, I had to be crafty, the film was rated X. And rental houses were (kinda) strict in those days, sometimes. Well this rental house had “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” placed in the “porno” section, so there was little, to no way, we were gonna be able to rent this thing! Eventually, I was able to work out a scheme. I got my mother to rent me the film. I explained how it was not a ‘real X rated film’, it was only rated that way because of the violence. See, in my family it was perfectly acceptable to rent a film that was violent, so I could watch films like “Last House on the Left”, “Pieces” and “Three on a Meathook”, but ask to see “Porky’s” and it was “no way, José!!!”. So this was how I conned the video into my warm and clammy adolescent hands to watch with all my friends. We all loved it! It was a superb, splendid, campy, slick and sexy piece of cinematic history (with some violence too, so it wasn’t a complete lie) and we were all wondering if the screenwriter billed in the film as Roger Ebert, was THE Roger Ebert, the one we knew from TV, the movie critic we all knew as “the fat guy” and judged movies either: ‘thumbs up, or thumbs down’, we couldn’t for the life of us imagine it was the same guy (it was!). The movie would have easily generated a soft R, even then, and why on earth it was placed in the “porno” section is ‘beyond’ me! After that, I decided I was gonna see every single Russ Meyer film he ever made. Which was not an easy feat. You see how hard it was to try and rent his most accessible film? Well, imagine how hard it was gonna be to get the films he produced and distributed himself? It was extremely difficult and took many, many years. Eventually, I saw them all and became SO obsessed with Russ Meyer, I determined that he was not just one of the best sexploitation filmmakers, he was, one of the best filmmakers. Period!

So, it was, while I was wallowing in Russ Meyer’s cinematic world of giant breasts, when I became aware, readung an interview with (of all people, Malcolm McLaren) that Russ Meyer was the filmmaker who was hired to make “Who Killed Bambi?” AND (Reading Meter’s insane 1000 page autobiography!!) I learned that there was actually an opening scene that he shot! This gave me mixed feelings, it further added to my feelings of loss and regret, as now I knew for sure that this would have been a magnificent film and worse still, I’d never, ever get to see it! But, I had a new obsession, I had to see this opening scene, that supposedly existed!

Over the years, I’d pieced together small details about the film. I once even tried to ask Mr. Meyer personally, when I spoke with him at a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls 25th Anniversary Celebration, in Orlando, FL. But, I was dating a gal at the time who was, what Russ would call, “heavily cantilevered”, so all I could get from him were brief sentences like, “Who Killed Bambi would have been the best film I ever made!” (Which may have been true, but was hardly any new information) and “Malcolm McLaren was a shit heel!” (Which I also already knew, since Meyer had always maintained that the film went under because McLaren was a cheapskate, which may also have been true?) Otherwise, he was ogling the gal I was with and trying to talk to her. He didn’t give a shit about me, some ‘fan boy’, although it was fun to know that both Russ and I were vying for the affections of the same girl, for a little while anyway. Of course, I’d heard all the stories about how Meyer hated Johnny Rotten (neé John Lydon) because of Lydon’s hatred for America (Meyer was an old WWII vet, so things of that nature did not fly with him) and how Sid Vicious was gross, disgusting and impossible to deal with…but apparently Meyer got on famously with Steve Jones and Paul Cook, whom Meyer said, “wanted the American Dream!” and that was probably true? I’d also read interviews with Roger Ebert, slated to write the film (!) who said that all the Pistols, including Malcolm McLaren loved “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and would watch the film constantly, so they decided Meyer was their man! They wanted him to make their first film! Meyer had quite the cast already lined up as well, playing Sid Vicious’ mother, was to be Marianne Faithful! Can one imagine? What brilliant casting! In the infamous scene with Sid and his mother, it begins with Sid coming home and finding his mum shooting up (I think I know why Marianne jumped at the role?) and then the mother seduces her son and the two begin making love! Suddenly, right in the middle, coitus interruptus, Sid’s mum’s boyfriend catches them in the act! Cuckolded, the man tries to separate the two while being smacked at with chains, vases and Sid’s fists! It would have been quite the scandalous scene. Meyer also planned to have his friend, the man who played Darth Vader (not James Earl Jones of course) but the actual guy in the Vader suit to play the chauffeur of the aging, rich rock star called MJ (whom I later learned was to stand in for Mick Jagger and represented an the older aeon of rock) He was also in Meyer’s earlier film (the highly underrated) “Blacksnake”! Meyer, also cast the wonderfully bizarre, P.J. Proby as the Max BIalystock character, I believe? Basically, this was going to be one fantastic line up! Well, financial backing came through in dribs and drabs, but Meyer (always the fastidious work horse) already began shooting the opening scene, when (you know how things in film go?) financial backing, well, backed out! I first heard about the only available footage of the film, described by Meyer himself, in his autobiography and it’s extremely descriptive. But when I saw real scene, with my own eyes! It was magnificent, I’m convinced this would have been a film that would not have disappointed the 12 year old me, no, this was exactly the kind of film I had always envisioned.

The opening scene begins with a chauffeur driven limousine careening through the forests of some English countryside, a man called “MJ” (Mick Jagger) sits in the back of the limo, they stop at a clearing. MJ leaps from the back seat, dressed like Robin Hood, crossbow in hand. He aims, then shoots a deer. The deer lays dead, an arrow through it’s neck! This was the exact same image that drew me to the back of the “Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle” album in the first place, MJ ties the deer to the front of his limo. Drives to a small village, removes the deer and throws it at the front door of a small thatched-roof house. MJ gets back into his limo and is gone! The front door to this small house opens, out steps a 12 year old blonde girl, her hair braided in a pair of golden ponytails and dressed in a full Alpine/Heidi costume. The girl looks down and sees the dead deer lying at the foot of the door and shouts:

“Mummy, mummy…Who Killed Bambi?!!” And thats its…that’s all there is! It’s all I’ve ever seen, and it’s the best opening scene I’ve ever viewed! That little scene alone, beats the entirety of “The Great Rock an’ Roll Swindle”, to death!

“Who Killed Bambi?”‘s script reads like a film that would have been somewhere between the high camp, look and raunch of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and a punk version of Richard Lester’s “A Hard Days Night”, it could have been brilliant!

Much later, in 2010, Roger Ebert, mercifully put the script he wrote, up on his blog. I read it all in one sitting! One can, now, only imagine the brilliance that would have been “Who Killed Bambi?”

I won’t go on to describe anymore of the movie, I wouldn’t do it justice, so here’s a link to the script, and I hope you all read it!

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http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/who-killed-bambi-a-screenplay