Saturday, 28 November 2009


You've seen it. Or, you've seen something like it. The same anonymous actors, same colours, but a variation on a theme:
Nick and Debs stop at a donut bar in the middle of a huge goodbye party. Employees of a local office are saying goodbye to a colleague named Donna. She doesn't seem to be there yet, or perhaps she is already gone, but the place is covered in written and drawn testimonials to her. They gaze at her picture. Nick thinks she is pretty. Debs thinks she looks like trouble. Then a friendly guy asks them to sign her card. They protest, saying it isn't right, as they didn't know her. Eventually Debs takes the pen to be polite, but when she looks at the card she sees a message in Nick's handwriting. Did you sign the card before? Did you know her? she asks. Nick is apparently stunned.

Later, Nick finds a letter in the attic from Donna. Or, a postcard arrives from her, saying: Nick, I wish I could have got to know you before I left, D x.

The couple are haunted. The movie ends with first scene being repeated, but with Nick and Debs' discomfort amplified. They do not know why.

Jimmy Jensen was part of the Danewood scene (the brief postwar Copenhagen coterie of state-supported filmmakers), until he left to start a wired, off-the-radar operation in Mexico City. Beginning in 1949, Jensen and his Mexican cohorts churned out over five hundred Hollywood-aping noir thrillers, in English and often with a mixture of C-list Hollywood nobodies and young Hispanic talent. These pictures were largely shot with Mexico City standing in for LA, Chicago or New York and with their pulpy concentration of crime and lust became known as 'Mexican Sexiguns', or just 'Sexiguns'. The films were frequently made simultaneously, with often as many as thirty in production at once, leading to obvious pitfalls. Many films contain overlapping actors, directors and scenes. Sometimes the cast and crew did not know which film they were working on, and some films are clearly a collage of several, causing their plots to be a hash of tangled cliches. Due to this, all films are attributed to a fictional director, Hermoso Equipo (Spanish for 'beautiful team').1 The group found strength in this approach, with Jensen even believing that 'the more of different films we get in one film, more authors involved, the more plots we refer to... the closer to the centre of fiction and humanity we got'.2

American Chiffon Fahey and Englishman Martin Bastion, never stars anywhere else, made several Sexiguns together, notably Bone Ring (1952), Sterling Silver Hallmark (1953) and this. Donna, Or The Power Of Constant Thought also stars the Latina bombshell Luisa Teresa Caracas, better known as 'Pipi', a popular singer of overwrought ballads in her homeland, Peru. Here she stars as Donna, a gossamer image of charged sexuality who flickers on the edge of the grey screen, threatening to burst through Nick and Debs' idea of themselves with technicolor vigour, and further, on through the fourth wall completely, covering the audience with gorgeous neon plasma. Such is her beauty.

Fahey and Bastion, haunted by the suppressed memory/ exposed id/ vibrating chaotic alternative that is Donna perfectly portray a milk-white and gaunt marriage, affectionate but drifting to tepid. (Of course, this being Hermoso Equipo, footage from the same shoot is used to perfectly represent unsure newlyweds on the lam and kissing cousins in Young Marrieds (1951) and Against God's Will (1951) respectively.

Weird interludes abound. A sudden bank heist is prevented, a young homeless boy with a bag of gold wanders across the screen, and Pipi sings a stinging ballad, apropos of nothing. These diversions, clearly intended to be sections from other Sexiguns edited carelessly into the Donna mixture, actually serve to embody the protagonists' confusion about this strage girl very well; indeed, the constant dissonance of overlapping energies can at times be so potent that this hurried B-production transcends mere pastiche and becomes something more ephemeral and spectacular. 'It is as if the actors are trapped in the screen, awaiting the cruel mercies afforded by sudden editing'3

The Sexiguns drifted and died by the early sixties, as inner tensions and a loss of will meant that the focus of the group had been lost. But their achievements are still noteworthy: in fifteen years, an as many as five hundred films were released, but an estimated thousand more jumpy hybrids were made. Most are lost, but some still surface at film festivals or on obscure cable channels. Noteworthy Sexiguns This Seems Like It's Real (1952), Pretty Worn Down, Whatever We Do We Don't Tell William, 14 Carat Gold With A Very Sadly Shattered Amethyst (all 1954), Too Smoky To Be Emerald (1955), Turpentine Lipstick (1956) and The Dark Underbelly (1959) are widely available.

The American-Korean boybuilder, Wii Fit, was perhaps the most famous breakout star of the Sexiguns. His charismatic monosyllabic performances in This Woman Is Amazing (1953), Very Of Their Time, Very Unique (1953) and The Crazy Folk Who Think This Is All Junk (1954), led to a role in Vicente Minelli's Hollywood musical biopic of Mussolini, Il Duce (1959) and subsequently recurring roles in US television shows such as Mork and Spork, Mister Probs 'n' Sister Probs and The Love Fund. He may have become the most famous, but really picking stars from such a collective seems beside the point somehow.

Donna, Or The Power Of Constant Thought Directed by Hermoso Equipo Produced by Hermoso Equipo Written by Hermoso Equipo Starring Luisa Teresa Caracas Chiffon Fahey Martin Bastion Hermoso Equipo Films Release Date US: circa 1951 Tagline: 'Can You Forget Her If You Never Knew Her?'

1. This led to a curious and no doubt apochryphal incident when in 1963 Fidel Castro invited 'the genius who offers gorgeous satire of the evil empire, Hermoso Equipo' to visit Cuba. Castro of course, being a Spanish speaker, would not be confused by such an obvious ruse, but the story lives on.

2. LA Times interview, Sept 1977.

3. So says film critic Jean-Luc Sofie, whose book Sexie was a crucial factor in getting critical attention to Sexiguns many years after the fact.

Friday, 13 November 2009

THE PRISON RODEO (Shye Phillips, 1990)

'An incredible thing about cinema is that if someone is hiding in a closet, for example, perhaps from a group of pursuers, then we almost automatically feel a sense of trepidation about their potential discovery. This happens whether the hidden protagonist is a cop, a thief, a child murderer... what is this moral blur, and how does it occur?'1

This thriller has a trim and simple plot over which it plays a desolate magic:
Lance Guest stars as Vince, a man who is rightfully imprisoned for his part in a jewel heist. Despite swearing to stand by her man, his wife Hope (Penelope Ann Miller) soon shacks up with an avant garde country star DK (Dwight Yoakam) who writes a song celebrating their love.2 When this proves to be a smash on the charts, Vince vows to find a way to escape prison and win his girl back. The only problem is securuty has been stepped up after several high profile escapes, and there is no way out. Enter the Doc (Roky Erickson), a lifer whose eccentric practices suggest he can help Vince.

This much is established in the first ten minutes, with little fuss or fanfare. The swift arrival at
this juncture leads us to suspect a regulation prison drama, as our hero avoids survives lunch room staredowns and shower assassins. But we get something else when the Doc shows up. This isn't the wise and weary mentor we expect, for the Doc is somewhere between a poet preacher and magus. Through a series of incoherent, electric Erickson rants, we discover the Doc's escape plan for Vince: He will teach him to teleport through the walls.

'Vince, according to the law you deserve to be here. You did it. But there are higher laws. The rites of love give you access to more transient powers. Belief and control of this will come if you listen. I know, I know, you hear vulnerable sounds. The room has a changed timbre, with ideas wedged in a funnel and allowed to run. An unusual combination of textures is before your eyes. It makes every sound visible. Every now and again, as you breathe, allow a memory of your girl to bleed. Like the time you met, the time you approached her in the interval at the movies and said Will you have a drink with me?
You'll be confused. You'll be real confused. But these ideas float in a Xenon mist, and are only visible if you look straight ahead. No-one else here has this perspective, so they can't steal them. Classic military strategy. Steady. Don't fight the chair. Gung-ho iguanas tell me to relax. A thousand distractions, but you'll walk through the stone. Meanwhile, a beta unit that looks like yourself will warm your bed at night. Olefactory senses will guide you. Soon you'll be making it up to one another over warm beer at Silver Lake. The defences are like turrets. You'll dodge past them, a ghost, keeping radio silence in the fourth dimension. I'll jam the frequencies of nether ghosts while you dance on through the caves of the mind... shooting your way out through the walls like light. A long and fruitful life awaits with your little sweetie. Possibly.'
'Why possibly, Doc?'
'There is another possibility of course: Vince passes through the wall. His ghost walks twenty miles to her house. He sees her crying and thinks it is for him. It is not. It is because she is being haunted by her con ex-husband. Because it hinges on this: If your love is as true as you say, and hers is too, then the auditorium will clap your miraculous escape. But if not, then you are the stalker in their bad dreams.'

With this exchange, the Doc sets up a thought in our minds that it takes Vince a whole film to consider: that his wife was never supposed to be with him. Their love is over. Vince's Hope on the outside is someone else's, and should be.

Time passes. Vince practices. His teleportation appears successful. But increasingly, our sympathies are drawn away from him; Erickson's witchy tones don't ever stop, they drip over the images like a devil's treacle, or haunted molasses, or a wired broth. The frantic actions conveyed by his voice suggest all too well that he, not Vince, is the only one of them to truly feel hot emotion; Vince seems to slip away, his moral compass gone, his face a bland shadow. Our protagonist is essentially rubbed out of his own narrative halfway through, leaving only the memory in his wife's head of a failed first husband. And he disappears as if teleported not only out of prison but out of the world, and we are left hoping, in a final scene of domestic bliss between Hope and her DK, that Vince cannot touch her ever again.3

The Prison Rodeo Directed by Shye Phillips Written by Tom Tipley Produced by Shye Phillips, Martin Scorcese Starring Lance Guest Penelope Ann Miller Roky Erickson Dwight Yoakam Warner Brother Pictures US/UK Release Date: March 1990 Tagline: 'When Inside is Outside, is Outside In?'

1. 'The Slack Chariot: Cinema As 1000 Messages' esseay by Painter Williams, Times Literary Supplement, Sept 17, 1995.
2. The song includes the fevered quatrain that gives the film its title: 'Don't worry about him right now/He'll be starring in the prison rodeo right now/ You can call his name if you please/ But it's not him in your bathtub sha-sha-shaking your knees'
3. A 1993 sequel (Prison Rodeo II, 1993, starring Guest and Phoebe Cates) explored events after the first film, with Vince haunting his ex-wife in her new home in New Mexico. It played like Jerry Zucker's Ghost (1990) if Moore had been horrified throughout and Swayze had no Goldberg to filter his confusions through, comically or otherwise.