Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Lair of the White Worm

We don't cover the latest movies here. And we can't be said to make up in comprehensiveness what we lack in timeliness. Nor can it be said that we locate previously overlooked gems, due to our unparallelled powers of critical discrimination. The best that can be said is that we review some movies some of the time, occasionally though not generally in a timely fashion, and that these movies are of varying quality and interest. And a lot of the time we don't talk about movies at all. Sobeit. A calling so unique cannot be denied. (Yes, that does sound important, dunnit?)

I have dozens of videotapes in my cellar. They originated over the years in the used bins of a variety of video stores. The seductive train of thought in collecting lots of useless items goes something like this: $4.99 (often less)! Why, this costs little more than the weekend rental price! And you get to keep it! And watch it as often as you like! Good enough in principle (as so many things are), and many times it often worked out that way. But more often -- even when utilizing the most aesthetically advanced methods of tape selection -- it did not. This is due to a simple fact often overlooked in the helter-skelter workaday madness of an industrially advanced nation: Most movies are not that good. Many movies can be enjoyed once, even twice -- No, strike that. Many movies can be enjoyed once. (We take it for granted that just as many, if not more, cannot even be enjoyed once; but my aesthetically advanced methodology did succeed in weeding out most of those. I'm not a complete idiot, occasional appearances to the contrary.)

The upshot is that after twenty or so years you end up with a lot of crap piled in boxes in your cellar. But the bright side is that, because you watched the majority only once, sometimes twice, you have largely forgotten a great many of them. So you can now sort through them, and every time the "What the fog is this?" bulb goes off, you have your entertainment for the evening. Sometimes you will uncover a great forgotten masterwork; and sometimes you will uncover some horrid bit of rubbish; and sometimes you will uncover some justly-forgotten who-cares mediocrity. Strangely (at least for strange people), this indeterminacy factor makes the entire procedure rather exciting. (In psychology, it's called intermittent reinforcement. In real life, it's called wasting your time.)

Last night's feature (after midnight, of course) was The Lair of the White Worm. Should you rush out and rent a copy? Absolutely not. If you're hard up for a rental some time and happen to see a copy in the store, should you rent it as a what-the-hell item? I wouldn't think so, unless you are both very odd and half in the bag. Is it a cultural curiosity of the kind that a disinterested intellect might find indicative of certain social, moral, and artistic trends towards the end of the last century? Ha. Meaning, yes -- but that the movie is so utterly mad that you would have great difficulties subsuming it to any general thesis whatsoever. Is there any reason at all for anyone ever to bother to see this movie? Probably not. Equally, perhaps more, interesting: Is there any reason (compelling or otherwise) for this movie to have been written, financed, produced, distributed, and rereleased several times on VHS and DVD? No, but that's what happened.

I enjoyed it. Part of it was the thrill you get from, say, falling into a volcano, or losing a limb in a gardening accident: I can't believe this is happening. Part of it is like receiving a proposition from someone you'd previously considered harmless, if given to weirdly arbitrary conversational intrusions: I can't believe a human mind would conceive such a thing -- or, if conceive it, render it conherent enough to express. Part of it is the "Is your refrigerator running?" reaction: Can this person be serious?

Mind you, we're talking about Ken Russell here. By 1988, which is when Lair was made (otherwise I wouldn't have mentioned 1988), he was well past his prime. If he had a prime. Women in Love was rather good, given that D. H. Lawrence was so far unsubtle as to foreclose the option of exaggerration to his interpreters. (No, that's not a dare.) The Music Lovers was far removed from fact, as though that were relevant to movies, and had a certain hysteric fascination, like a car accident viewed through a nightmare and rendered as a comic book. You could say many things about it, but you certainly felt you got your three dollars worth. The Devils was much the same sort of thing, only if you'd also had an attack of malaria while butchering cattle. I left my fingernails in the theatre armrests during that one. Not recommended for those under 18, or over, or anyone who does not enjoy leaping from airplanes while on psychedelics. While eating popcorn, I guess. Then there were Tommy and Lisztomania. I suppose it says something that I can't remember which of those had Ann-Margaret bathing in a tub of baked beans. I suppose it says something that it doesn't much matter.

Lair is based on the final novel by Bram Stoker, said to have been written while he was going mad in the last stages of Bright's disease. I haven't read it, probably never will. There's probably a reason it's perennially out of print. But given Ken Russell's mass of quivering obsessions and their concomitant psychotic visual playfulness, it might have been based on Herbert Hoover's midlife tax returns and still have turned out much the same. The story has to do with a young English lord who finds that a pagan cult of snake-worshippers, who also had something to do with the ancient Romans raping and murdering while also engaging in a crucifixion (crucifixions being something of a Russell specialty, regardless of context) supervised by a snake god, have survived to the present day. They are just like ordinary folk, except that they have fangs, spit a hallucinogenic/paralytic venom, go into trances when they hear reed and woodwind instruments playing sinuous melodies, prance about in gaudy S & M costumes, and practice human sacrifice to the monstrous snake-god. This is just the sort of thing that can easily elude notice in the pastoral English countryside. But fortunately the heros are masters at deducing the unbelievable on the basis of nothing whatsoever (just try to follow their reasoning: this old pocketwatch was found near the mountain cave in the vicinity of excrement, and therefore must, aha, have passed through the entrails of a giant snake who consumed the owner.) So-- Oh, never mind.

The casting is remarkable in a perverse sort of way. It is quite difficult to match Hugh Grant with someone equally annoying, let alone significantly more so. Ken Russell has managed it with Sammi Davis -- a braying actress of no charm who was briefly, inexplicably popular in British films in the late 1980s, then vanished forever. At least I hope she did. Catherine Oxenberg is called upon to dangle unclad above the dark pit wherein the white worm lurks (yes, there is Symbolism in this movie, so take notes), and scream quite a bit. Nor do the challenges of this role prove beyond her talents. Amanda Donohoe is given the most demanding part, that of a cultist who must prance about naked, often while painted in blue or gold, hiss, stick out her tongue, dance, spit, wear stiletto heels and mini-skirts, and deliver absurd lines of dialogue as though they were merely ridiculous. The scene where she seduces the boy scout -- Well, I told you not to bother with this movie.

And yet. And yet. There was something so positively good-natured about this movie that somehow I enjoyed every minute of it. (Well, okay, the boy scout thing was over the top, even by my rather lax post-midnight videocassette standards.) More, um, gripping than thrilling. And many laughs. The odd thing was that many of them seemed intentional, as though Ken Russell's usual hallucinogenic phantasmagoria had at sometime in the late 1980s become tempered by...lighthearted mirth? I know. I'm not sure I believe it either. A nut is a nut is a raving lunatic, right?

Another one back to the cellar. Tonight: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie...or Shattered?