Monday, 21 January 2008

PRETZEL NIPPLE (Ron Aufburger,1983)

Set in a sunshine-drenched Eden, California, the brothers Mael from pop visionaries Sparks play themselves playing other people in this story of a young man (played with faux-naive longing by Russell Mael) who decides to embark on an epic journey around the world to find his true love. Shot at weirdly unnerving truck-stops and motels, Pretzel Nipple gathers in a feel of a day-glo Lolita, as Mael, all listless lust and lovesick in excelsis seeks his true mate. He meets along the way a waitress with a wooden leg (Terri Garr), a science prodigy addicted to drinking water (Michael Keaton) and a mafia hoodlum who cries himself to sleep (Mickey Rooney). His fortunes begin to perk up when he runs into a mute pianist in a dive bar (inevitably played by Ron Mael) who seems to somehow karmically inflect Russell with good luck, while absorbing all the slapstick ill-fortune himself.

After accidentally stealing a case from Rooney containing a happy-drug known ridiculously as Crypto-Fashia, they form a successful travelling medicine show selling the pharmaceutical across the Midwest. Their sales-pitch is augmented by song performances of several Sparks originals, and contain the absurdist truths of love sadness that the band deal in: 'Pretzel Nipple', ('If she needs a bite she comes to me/ Pretzel Nipple! Pretzel Nipple!'), 'Love Search Party' (Love Search Party/ Search Party of One/ If she's not here/ My loins will go home') and 'Sickening Sects' ('Stick Insects/ Have sickening sex/ But your love will never hurt me') are all genuine Sparks classics. In 'Parody/Pastiche', Russell unveils some of the most hilariously desperate lines as he attempts to woo a girl in a bar (played by Theresa Russell). To wit: 'I'm in a film in Hollywood/ but if you're not sure that you would/ then I should also like to say/ I arm-wrestled Hemingway/ And although I didn't win/ I was not humiliated/ And we spent the night on gin/ talking of girls we have dated/ And although he tallied more/ Mine had style with their shyness/ but nothing next to you/ with your when-what-how-who-whyness'; and: 'If 'baby' is your name/ Same as my favourite ex/ Our futures must be intertwined/ In interplanetary sex'.

The performances from Russell Mael are giddy and helium-edged, and as the brothers continue across America making money, he becomes disillusioned as his search for love continues to throw up duds (cue 'Probability of Finding The Zillionth Girl', with his attempt to work out the chances of meeting his one-in-six-billion love: 'I met twenty today, twenty yesterday, twenty the day before/ At this rate I'll need to live for two-hundred years more', before optimistically concluding that if they keep on travelling, his chances grow with every day: Show me the maths, oh Fibonacci/ That prove I'll walk tall in golden Versace/ With my baby on the grass/ Pythagoras is a gas, gas, gas'.

He finds his girl at the top of a mountain, reached when the Maels are sucked through a washing machine into a secret world. The girl (Jane Wiedlin) suggests that they seal their love by eating each other, and they do, singing 'Pretzel Nipple' as they go, this time with an added breakdown (the title sung defiantly to the tune of 'Bread of Heaven') as their animated heads, all that is left of them now, drift into space, licking and chewing each other.

Tim Burton acted as a cameraman on the film, and the tone and story arc is an obvious influence on his Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, released two tears later. The marriage of musical numbers and increasingly disparate narrative means that the psychadelic ending actually makes a perverse sense, and the desperation, pain and wit of the Sparks world prevents the whole affair from slipping into whimsy or silly Zappa-parody/pastiche.

Pretzel Nipple Directed by: Ron Aufberger Produced by: Dwayne House Written by: Jeff Sycke Total Head Pictures /Warner Bros Pictures Starring: Russell Mael, Jane Wiedlin, Ron Mael, Mickey Rooney, Michael Keaton, Terri Garr Music by: Ron Mael Release Date US: October 1983 Release Date UK: N/A RunningTime: 92mins Tagline: 'If She Needs A Snack She Comes To Me!'

Thursday, 10 January 2008

DEATH CLANG (Fritz Lang, 1955)

Lang's taut direction is strangely perfect for this ephemeral tale of the Grim Reaper's earthly representative (Barbara Stanwyck) and her seduction of a string of young artistic men, persuading them into Faustian bargains which are later collected by death's bailiff (a haunted Peter Lorre). Edward G Robinson stars as a former writer who gave up on his dream and is tempted by Stanwyck into returning, much to the upset of his girlfriend Joan Bennett, who remembers how unhappy Robinson was before she met him. A wise, non-judgemental treatise on artistic endeavour and ambition, the most striking thing about the film, beyond it's all-star cast and the stunningly dreamy midsummer Louisiana setting, is the sympathy for the villains: Stanwyck drifts from flinty femme to teary cog in a wheel, and Lorre is so sweetly apologetic, finding any excuse he can to evade his duty. Bennett emerges as the villain, somehow(a woman who nursed an alcoholic back to sobriety, remember) , slowly squeezing the life out of her man as she holds him.

The film embarks on a series of red herring dream sequences midway, and the plot becomes so convoluted (imagine The Big Sleep on a swamp, with dialogue by Marlowe and Freud) as to be left behind, replaced by Stanwyck and Bennett in billowing evening gowns atop the clouds of Robinson's fevered imaginings, Lorre dressed as a sad court jester, and five minute sequence in which all the characters wonder through the woods, evading the unseen, all-powerful Pan (voiced by a hysterical Orson Welles). Lang's ability to dance with cliche is vital, as he embraces some of the hokier psychology with straight-faced aplomb.

Lorre's sad turn as a man in an occupation he cannot escape was ignored by all of the award ceremonies, but it is crucial to weighing down the silliness here. Robinson is thoughtful and beautifully confused, and Bennett is revelatory as a sympathetic noble woman realising her own mistakes. Stanwyck's sly critique of her own persona, and impersonations of Dietrich, Garbo and Hepburn make her performance a spotter's delight.

The ending, where the four attempt to evade the certainty of death in a fairground is brutal but open, with punishments worse than death suggested, but not shown. Hollywood's coyness is to its credit this time, with the downbeat, enigmatic conclusion superior to any alternative that comes to the frazzled mind.

Exhibit A in the case for the studio system's ability to throw off its own shackles.

Death Clang Directed by: Fritz Lang Produced by: Nunnally Johnson Written by: J.H.Willy RKO Radio Pictures Inc. Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G.Robinson, Joan Bennett, Peter Lorre Music by: Arthur Lange Release Date US: January 1955 Release Date UK: May 1955 RunningTime: 83mins Tagline: 'Do You Hear The Toll, The Toll Of The Death Clang?'