The Barbara Stanwyck of aphids

“In my blood.”

Yes, BUG. Rather impressive. You have to see it just for the concept of “the Barbara Stanwyck of aphids.” Can you really live with your lack of knowledge of what that expression signifies?

Let’s be clear, this is the William Friedkin BUG, not the Jeannot Szwarc BUG, which was a rather enjoyable William Castle production about fire-raising insects with a group mind. Castle should be celebrated not only for his gimmicks (Emerg-O, Percepto) but for the weird ideas permeating his mainly macabre oeuvre(I spelled it right!) PROJECT X features cloning and virtual reality in a goddamn SIXTIES film, while THE TINGLER famously posits a parasite that lives on our spines, feeds on fear, and is deactivated by screaming. In this light, Castle productions like ROSEMARY’S BABY (a Manhattan coven breeds the antichrist in the Dakota Building) and even LADY FROM SHANGHAI (a rich weirdo hires someone to kill him) can be slotted neatly into Castle’s world. And don’t even get me started on SHANKS. An electro-galvanist love story silent film with Marcel Marceau and an undead motorcycle gang? RESPECT!

Smoke alarms: more radioactive than plutonium, apparently.

HOWEVER, Friedkin’s BUG is a different beast (though Friedkin more schlockmeister than Castle), a genuinely paranoid drama that, like THE EXORCIST, has already claimed a life (according to last month’s Fortean Times, which I don’t have handy, somebody who saw the film cut somebody else open, in order to “get the bugs out”). I would advise, if you think you may be a paranoid schizophrenic (and one of the symptoms is a lack of insight, so if you think you aren’t, that might mean you ARE) you probably should stay away from this film.

But if not, how can you resist the Stanwyck aphid? And here’s another one: Harry Connick’s sausage truck. You won’t see the truck in the film (Harry’s sausage-hauling days are of yesteryear), but you will hear about it, and you can readily picture Harry rumbling up the nocturnal highways, munching a Yorkie Bar and delivering meaty goodness to sundry destinations.

You’re really best seeing this knowing as little as possible, because it has a fascinatingly unpredictable journey. I won’t say “narrative arc” because it’s more like a twisted zigzag with bits missing.

Ashley Judd is excellent, Connick Jnr. is amazingly hateful (“Will somebody please fuck Harry Connick up?” I demanded after half an hour, and you know what a peaceable fellow I am) and Michael Shannon is the man of the match. A sort of unspoiled Ray Liotta. Very very interesting guy. The interviews on the DVD make him seem uncomfortably like his character, too, which makes me think maybe we need a raving lunatic like Friedkin to hire someone as… disconcerting as this.

When he tells Judd his father was a preacher, she asks what church, and he says no church. “Where did he… meet his people?” she asks. “Well… he didn’t really have any,” shrugs Shannon. A likeable guy!

Believe me, asides from the lovely odd concepts flung up by Tracy Letts’ unique script (from his play), I could stick in some dazzling and bewildering screen grabs here, but I really don’t want to spoil this one for you. Whether you like it or not in the end, you’ll get more out of it by going in virginal.

My only worry about the piece is an uncertainty as to whether it actually has any purpose beyond the usual Friedkin shock tactics (which are very effective here). It’s a study of paranoia, sure, and a love story about lonely, damaged people (and its outsider sympathy feels genuine), but as some helpless and angry-sounding punter on the IMDb Message Boards puts it, “What do you Honestly think this MOVIE IS ABOUT???”

If it’s Friedkin’s best work in years (decades?) it may be because this is all he can manage now — an eye-grabbing, disorienting little chamber piece with no particular point to make, just a strong handle on its own passion. Friedkin himself, I’m told, regards the inane JADE as one of his best works, which suggests a man who values a certain surface gloss over everything else, but his peculiar, sadistic talents have always been better served by works that can embrace confusion of purpose, extreme sensation, and some kind of heightened but recognisable reality. The best results are always morally questionable (I think Friedkin may actually be something of a psychopath), sleazy, and hysterically intense. The quality of thinking is never as high as the adrenalin level, but some kind of interesting ideas will at least be thrown up. BUG manages all this, plus some convincing, screwed-up humanity, which is a relief after CRUISING, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and THE GUARDIAN.

A stray point: BUG features, by way of opening out the play, a sympathetically-presented lesbian honky tonk bar, which could be read as atonement for the shrill homophobic terror marketed by CRUISING. If so, it’s WAY too little too late, but at least it’s something.

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6 Responses to “The Barbara Stanwyck of aphids”

  1. I haven’t seen the Friedkin-ized “Bug,” so I’m in no position to talk about it. I have, however, seen a good production of the Tracy Letts’ play upon which it’s based, a script which contains many of the virtues attributed to the film. Adding the name of this playwright might be a good idea while discussing the film.

    It’s a four-performer play, with the second woman a lesbian friend of the heroine. With that as a given, it makes sense to add a scene at a lesbian bar. Sorta like the scene at the road-house in “Virginia Woolf.”

    The first few scenes of the play felt like, among other things, a dead-on parody of Shepard’s “Fool For Love.” Did any of that come across in the movie?

  2. I named-checked Letts, who is clearly the prime creator of this work. Friedkin would never have been able to pull it together without such a tight script.

    The film has five roles (the mysterious “Dr Sweet” shows up at the end), and the lesbian friend is intact.

    I, in turn, haven’t seen Fool for Love, film or play, but the milieu and style do mirror Shepard somewhat, and there’s a creeping suspicion that this is all a jet-black comedy. Part of what makes the film unpredictable and disconcerting is you can’t be sure how seriously to take it.

  3. Fool For Love, BTW, is all about Sam Shepard’s first wife O-Lan noisily serving him with the divorce papers on the set of that Disney film Country in which he starred with the woman he left O-Lan for , Jessica Lange.

    In his younger days Shepard wrote plays for O-lan, the most memorable being Forensic and the Naigators a surrealist jape which climaxed with O-Lan singing a spirited chorus of “Ahab the A-rab.”

    These days O-lan is best known for playing dyspeptic waitresses (eg. Natural Born Killers, Seinfeld) and disgruntled suburban housewives (eg. Edward Scissorhands)

  4. I recently had the pleasure of seeing Shirley Clarke’s two Shepard collaborations, Savage/Love and Tongues, which are very rich indeed. Shepard’s monologues are delivered by Joseph Chaikin, whose big mug is smeared around six ways from Sunday by Clarke’s video tricks. The VT technique might have looked terribly dated a few years ago, but now is quaint in an entirely positive way.

  5. Chaikin’ s “Open Theater” created the sand dune “free love” free-for-all in Zabriskie Point.

  6. Wow, it all connects up!

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