Duet for harpsichord and bongos

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When graphic designers go odd…

So, a puzzled Keir Dullea, surrounded by antique-style furniture, turns around and sees himself as an old man. What film are we watching?

Award yourself 10 points if you answered “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY”, and eleventy million points if you added “or DESADE.” Since DESADE is a film about a man trapped in an infinite time loop, the sense of deja vu Dullea must have experienced from his work as astronaut Dave Bowman may have helped him get into character.

Donatien Alphonse, Marquis de Sade, embodied by Dullea, is on his death bed, adrift in visions from his past life (it doesn’t so much flash before his eyes as trundle) in this late work from blacklistee and ZULU helmer Cy Endfield, produced by AIP. One wonders what must have gone wrong with Endfield’s career to bring him to this point — and thence to the horrors of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER? After 1965’s SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, he didn’t work for four years, and when he did…

…he got a project already rejected by Roger Corman. Corman told his bosses at AIP that this movie wouldn’t work, since the censors would let them show what they needed to show in order to make a respectable life of Sade. He also voiced concerns with their choice of replacement — there was some doubt that Endfield would be able to bring himself to include the exploitation elements the film needed in the marketplace. The whole thing was a balancing act between the censors and the box office. Endfield faithfully promised to shoot a spicy yarn, but seemingly chickened out when it came to the crunch, so Corman was roped in to shoot some extra skin.

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How we laughed. Pouring hot wax on prostitutes — I guess you had to be there.

You can pretty much identify the Corman interpolations: he shoots the orgies in slow motion through a thick red filter, just like Hazel Court’s satanic rite in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. It pretty well robs the scenes of erotic potential, since we lose the flesh tones, and gain only the opportunity to observe jiggling cellulite at 100 fps. Also, everybody’s laughing in Dullea’s orgies. The relationship between sex and humour is a complex one, but generally speaking, if you’re throwing an orgy (does one throw orgies? Or organize them, like posses?) and the “guests” or “participants” or “fuckers” or whatever you call them, are in a constant state of hysteria, is anything going to get done? Is anyone going to get done?

Leaving aside the sex, we have the story, at least in theory. It’s a kind of biography-by-hallucination, comparable to Raoul Ruiz’s more recent KLIMT, only written by Richard Matheson. I admire Matheson’s work, and his contribution to cinema is as fine as his contribution to genre fiction, but I have to admit his bad-guy dialogue is inclined to the fruity. He really needs Vincent Price to get away with some of these lines. A few years later, acting in a TV version of Huxley’s Brave New World, Dullea would display the camp chops necessary to pull off a Vincent, but here he lacks full confidence in his flounce and pout, so it’s left to older hams to relish the rich flow of Matheson’s verbiage.

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Darling Lilli — still porcelain-perfect, but huge black eyes like mouseholes.

Lilli Palmer is in fine fettle as Sade’s mother-in-law (and WHAT a mother-in-law!), and John Huston has disruptive fun with the part of Sade’s wicked uncle, the Abbé. He even plays his first scene with some kind of stage Oirish accent, just because he’s John Huston and nobody can stop him. He also gets the most disturbing scene, the primal scene, if you will, where Sade as a boy spies on his uncle molesting a maid, and then gets caught and punished. The future arch-pervert’s young mind forms a lasting association between sex, cruelty and voyeurism. It’s all very dollar-book Freud, but it’s passable as motivation, and the sequence is genuinely distressing. I’m not sure you could even film it nowadays.

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Eyes Wide Crossed.

Complicating the psychodrama is his love for his sister-in-law. He’s forced to wed plain-jane Anna Massey (in the middle film of her sadeian trilogy, sandwiched between PEEPING TOM and FRENZY) despite being hopelessly in love with glamourpuss Senta Berger. This embitters him and sets him on his path of sexual turpitude, if turpitude is the word for it.

vlcsnap-854234Senta’s little helper.

Matheson may have a simplistic but clear angle on Sade’s psychosexual upset, but he’s forced to short-change us on Sade the philosopher. The do-what-thou-wilt catechisms we associate with Sade’s books are here either ignored, in order to present us with Sade the lovelorn drip, or they’re given to the Abbé, the real villain of the piece. This rather falsifies the story, and is the aspect of the film the Divine Marquis would no doubt have despised the most. In fact, Sade’s writing barely gets a look in.

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“Ooh, I could crush a grape…”

Paul Schrader observed, when he was making Mishima, that the only way to film a writer’s life was by dramatizing his stories. With a composer, you play the music; with a painter, you show the work; but a novelist is unique since you have to actually adapt their art into a whole new medium just to give some (unavoidably falsified) idea of what they do. I’d be interested in a radical solution to this problem that involved lengthy recitations, but I can’t think of one of hand. All I can think of is films that dramatize the work (MISHIMA, DREAMCHILD, GOTHIC) or films that don’t, and fail (IRIS). And oh yes, a third category, which DESADE falls into —

— along with Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH — the films which create a phantasmagoria, the life of the artist merged with their work, or filtered through their style. That’s what Matheson has tried to write, but he’s unable to get to grips with Sade’s pornographic side, and unwilling to get to grips with his world-view (which is arguably even more unpleasant). But at least it gives him an unusual style and structure. Increasingly the film plays like the last act of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, with reality and fantasy cascading together in an avalanche of dream.

How do you solve a problem like the Marquis? I confess I haven’t seen MARQUIS, in which the naughty nobleman’s life is enacted by puppets designed by renaissance man Roland Topor, with the Marquis’s most satisfying relationship being with his talking penis, but that sounds like the most realistic version conceivable. Nor have I seen Peter Brook’s film of his stage success, THE MARAT/SADE. I have scant regard for Brook as a filmmaker, but that might be at least a bit interesting. Saw the play once. It was a bit interesting. Philip Kaufman’s QUILLS falls flat because again, it’s reluctant to admit how nasty Sade’s fantasies were: when it tries to do so, the film’s rather jovial tone disintegrates, which would be fine if it were an intentional effect, but it doesn’t seem to be. Pasolini’s SALO is still the most unadulterated, apocalyptic version of Sade put on screen, and that was promptly banned in nearly every country on Earth. I believe it was legal to screen it on the Moon, but the film came out three years after the last manned flight there. I’m not sure astronaut Eugene A. Cernan has seen the film to this day.

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Their royal lownesses, the King and Queen of Lilliput.

Returning to the Endfield: he directs it with some pictorial flair (although my MGM DVD seems to cut things off at the top), aided by decorous locations, but there’s sometimes a lack of good sense in his shooting: after showing the newly married Dullea and Massey advancing between two lines of people, he cuts to a reverse angle, seemingly a POV, but shot from knee-height as if the protagonists had been abruptly munchkinated. He’s also inclined to masturbate the zoom lens a bit.

Somehow, the film is still a decent watch, maybe because it has enough bad taste  to compensate for its lack of bad taste. It’s not offensive as porn or very upsetting as drama (apart from that one scene), but it’s decorated with enough lapses of common sense to make it amusing. The opening credits, in which Sade is envisioned as a ball-playing winged fish, are ludicrously abstract, and the music by the wonderfully-named Billy Strange chooses to equate decadence with modernity, so that the faux-18th century chamber music segues into bongo jazz or wah-wah guitar whenever anything juicy threatens to happen. Like most bad decisions in films scoring, this approach has a perfectly sound reason behind it: it’s just that it doesn’t work. I expect Michael Mann to try something similar any day now.

Here’s some more sado-erotic action with Lilli Palmer, thirty years earlier in Carol Reed’s pre-make of SHOWGIRLS, enticingly entitled A GIRL MUST LIVE. Lilli’s Scottish opponent is the great Renee Houston.

41 Responses to “Duet for harpsichord and bongos”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Jonathan Rosenbaum is against the idea of doing the writer’s life by way of stories. With good reason because it tends to bowdlerize and simplify the writer as if his stories have no other interest. He cites one film HEMINGWAY’S ADVENTURES AS A YOUNG MAN as protoypical. That said he groups MISHIMA under the same label and I disagree with that. Because Schrader doesn’t dramatize Mishima’s stories so much as use selected fugitive moments from those stories as part of a large collage on Mishima’s life and they work more as commentaries on the work rather than reductions or simplifications of it. Unlike say NAKED LUNCH.

    I think the problem film-makers have with writers is that it is a very internal artform so hard to express visually. Resnais achieved a lot of success with PROVIDENCE but that’s presented as a kind of frenzied monologue.

    One writer who I am surprised nobody has made a film about is Dostoyevsky. I mean the extremes of his life and his attitudes is almost as great as his characters. Raymond Carver wrote a screenplay for a film but it didn’t get made. Apparently Michael Cimino was going to do it.

  2. Well, adapting a life is also fraught with problems of oversimplification, arguably more so than adapting a book or even extracts from books. In a way, what Schrader is doing is equivalent to the extracts and synopses which would appear in a literary biography. It seems a biographer must draw some kind of parallels between the work and life, dangerous though that is, otherwise why write about a writer?

    Some films about writers treat the work as a given, but that rarely feels satisfying to me. Iris is a good example: maybe it doesn’t matter what she wrote, but if so, they better have a grand story to tell. And they kind of don’t. The tragedy of a great writer losing her mind is a key part of it, but they have no way to dramatize Iris Murdoch the writer.

    The Carver Cimino Dostoyevsky would have been, at the very least, a fascinating mess. I’m sorry it never happened.

    With Sade, the obvious solution now would be to incorporate readings from his work, which could put over the obscenity with less risk of censorship. Quills would seem all set to do this, but can’t bring itself to say anything nasty. And yet I once saw Joan Bakewell read from Justine on the BBC, and there was no storm of protest.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    I personally never cared for Sade as a figure, whatever interest he has as an object of desire for surrealists and intellectuals. And I’ve never read any of his writings and have little inclination to do so. Maybe I’m too prim and judgmental but I don’t like Sade self-justifying his life as a hedonist and find his self-justifications trite and boring. Although I wouldn’t mind seeing SALO, Pasolini I admire but I’ve never seen that one…yet. Michel Piccoli has a jokey cameo as deSade in LA
    VOIE LACTEE which is okay, I guess.

    There are some writers who are hard to make a film work around and have their work come into touch with it. I don’t think you can make a film about Nathaniel Hawthorne for instance because he was entirely a writer, but you can do one about Herman Melville whose work is very much connected to his life experiences as a sailor, as a struggling writer, his religious issues, his ambivalent sexuality, and his struggling marriage. Raoul Ruiz did Proust-man and Proust-writer well in TEMPS RETROUVE partly because Proust-man made no divisions between his work and his life. Dostoyevsky was similar, as was Joyce.

    New attrocities coming our way include Marilyn Manson’s biopic about Lewis Carroll which is about the “dark side” of a “children’s writer”. What a waste of time, as is Tim Burton’s new Alice film which makes Alice a 19 year girl who returns to a “darker” wonderland. They defeat the purpose of the artist. The Alice books are powerful because they are poetic visions of childhood imagination, instead of working with that they try to make it smarmier and more “adult”.

    Among British writers, there has to be a film about Dickens and I think doing a “dark side” take or whatever, provided it’s done by someone sophisticated could work. Because he was a complex contradictory personality, he wrote about the class structure but was himself a social climber who tried to hide and deny his roots. It should be a great film about Victorian Britain and they should give Terence Davies a blank check.

  4. That’s something Davies might actually be able to get backing for! As opposed to his proposed take on Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song, a book nobody reads, which seems like a tough sell.

    The Burton film could conceivably be good, I can see the idea working the way Dreamchild works, with Alice as an old woman looking back on her life and understanding more about Dodgson. The Manson projects sounds far less appealing — unless you’re going to show him as a pedophile (which he may have been but there’s not the slightest evidence he ever acted on it) then there really isn’t a dark side.

    Carroll seems strangely resistant to adaptation, though. The Svankmajer and Miller films overstress the weirdness, the Disney gets the tone all wrong, and the Burton seems less than original to me since Alice is nearly always played by a teen!

  5. I saw Marat/Sade live on stage in New York when they brought it over. And as a result for me Patrick Magee IS Sade. The movie is teriffic. It’s on my list of top ten favorite musicals — right up there with Good News, Singin’ in the Rain and I Love Melvin.

    As for “doing” Sade on screen Salo is it, and that is that.

    MIshima was a nice try, but Doing biopics through an aritsts work can only go so far. Give me the bracing simplicity of Ken Russell.

  6. Hey — Marat/Sade‘s up on YouTube!. Complete.

    Beautifully shot by the great Peter Watkins.

  7. Russell has an easier time of it, since the marriage of music and film is a very natural one for him. Not sure how he would cope with a novelist, but he’s probably find music and images to evoke the work.

    You must mean David Watkin as cameraman — my favourite! I’ll have a look at this later. I’m not convinced Brook deserves Watkin, but definitely agree Magee is grand casting. Although physically, Sidney Greenstreet might be closer.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    I see the Alice books as being essentially anarchic. That line at the end of the first book, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards” is a key line in world literature. So you need to have someone who gets that. It’s not a scary book even if it has some weird and disturbing parts(like the way they torture that dormouse) it’s a book about being brave and taking control of your own self but it’s also about fun. It’s very much a work for children and you should get a young girl for the part. As for Carroll’s personal life, if there’s no evidence that he ever acted on it and it’s based on conjecture than the film people should be making it about are the people who self-project twentieth century hysteria into the past. The Alice books are chaste and inoffensive and there’s nothing creepy at all in it.

    Now J. M. Barrie on the other hand…and even moreso Walt Disney…

  9. Arthur S. Says:

    I like Peter Brook’s stuff. His LORD OF THE FLIES is a terrific film and his recent film of HAMLET is probably the best version ever made on the play.

  10. Yes David Watkin — who also shot Ken Russell’s supremely Sadean The Devils

  11. david wingrove Says:

    God, I’ve ALWAYS longed to see this movie! I’m hooked…obsessed… bedazzled…you name it.

    Frankly, I can’t imagine a better de Sade than Klaus Kinski in his worldess cameo in the Jess Franco JUSTINE. (Did he even know what part he was playing? One has to wonder.)

    Certainly, anyone is better than Geoffrey Rush, who possesses all the sex appeal of a rancid cabbage leaf.

  12. THe trouble with Quills is that its makers see Sade as a writer of naughty books. Kind of like Jackie Collins avant la lettre.

  13. The idea behind Quills seems to be anti-censorship, in which case Sade is the right man for the job: if you can successfully argue in favour of him, then you’ve won all your arguments, since he’s the most scabrously obscene writer of all — even Burroughs would be struggling to compete. But watering Sade down is cheating, and it actually defeats the whole point.

    I don’t know if Sade needs to have sex appeal, per se, but some kind of sexuality is obviously essential, and I don’t think Rush projects much of that, whatever his other virtues (and it’s getting harder to remember what those might be, the more duff films he makes). Alan Rickman would be better. His Snape has a strange following…

    Dodgson’s semi-nude photos of little girls are more suggestive than anything in his fiction, but even those aren’t definitely sexual, and certainly weren’t seen as wrong by the Victorians.

    I remember finding Peter Brook’s Lear very disappointing, despite an amazing cast, several of whom ought to have given definitive performances, except that Brook’s conception of the play gets in the way of pretty much everything.

  14. The trouble with Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is he can’t seem to get a handle on gay sexuality, and then to make matters worse drags Jane Bowles into the mix — fogetting that Jane and BHiil couldn’t stand one another.

  15. Arthur S. Says:

    I am not anti-censorship so much as anti-censor. Censors by nature have very poor taste and lack of understanding of human life hence they censor stuff on pseudo reasons and mke their self-justifications later. If someone were to censor Michael Bay or ban his movies on grounds for being crimes against humanity, I’ll gladly jump on the wagon.

    Peter Brook’s first love is obviously the stage of which he is “God” according to contemporaries. Not everyone is happy with what he does with Shakespeare and he himself had issues with King Lear…but his HAMLET is terrific. Try and get it on DVD.

  16. Arthur S. Says:

    Well all I know was that it missed the force and vitality of the book. When I first read NAKED LUNCH what put me off wasn’t the graphic bits but the fact that such description could be written so well and the use of language you can’t really get on camera. The only reasonable way it could be done was if it was done as an essay film…the right director ought to have been Chris Marker or the Resnais of Mon Oncle d’Amerique or Raul Ruiz. Of course they’d probably use the appendix on his drug use as the starting point.

    Why did Jane Bowles dislike Burroughs?

  17. Because Paul deferred to him too much. She wanted ultimate control — even as her mind was slipping away. A great writer and a very sad person.

    Of course the fact that Burroughs liked very few women played a role in this as well.

  18. I like Naked Lunch’s reality games. It’s certainly a very different animal from the book. Cronenberg admitted he couldn’t do justice to the homosexual aspect (which is a fairly important part of Burroughs’ makeup!) and for years didn’t think a film would be possible.

    Queer and Junkie could be filmed much more readily, although perhaps not by Cronenberg.

    I’ll have a look for Brook’s Hamlet. In Lear, he decided that there were parts of the text too rich to be illustrated by shots of actors’ faces, so he opted to use shots of the backs of their heads. When I read that, I rather felt there was no hope for him as a filmmaker, and my faith was not restored by a viewing of the movie. A strong belief in the limitations of cinema is the one quality that should result in an artist being banned from making movies.

  19. chris schneider Says:

    For Dostoyevskian biographical fantasia, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Siodmak/Isherwood “The Great Sinner.” No one ever said it *worked*, but … and, did I nod off, or was there no mention at all of the Carroll-connected “Dreamchild”?

    I have a lot of fondness for the “Naked Lunch” movie, not least becasue of Judy Davis as Jane Bowles. My two favorite anecdotes connected with screenings of it:

    1) A female friend and her 20s-ish daughter went to see “Lunch.” In the row behind them were a male couple, who would make girlish screech noises at each new on-screen indignity. Finally, my friend turned around and growled at them: “WILL YOU BUTCH UP YOUR ACT???”

    2) I accompanied a male & female couple to a screening, where the latter was put off by what she saw. I just observed, poked-faced, “Some people can’t handle their bug juice …”

  20. Heh!

    Dreamchild DID get mentioned, by me. Fiona wouldn’t allow me to ignore that one.

    I like The Great Sinner a lot! It’s rather absurd, as Siodmak was well aware, but that adds to its peculiar quality. I’d love to see the six-hour cut! (Siodmak warned them their script was going to be too long, but MGM wouldn’t listen…)

  21. The Great Sinner certainly helped Chris and Don pay the bills, but it’s auteur is Ava Gardner. She’s just so ravishing one scarcely needs a script or a director. Just a good DP.

    Cronenberg chocked on Teh Ghey in Naked Lunch but he more than made up for it in the climax of Crash with James Spader all over and under and in Elias Koteas.

  22. david wingrove Says:

    Sorry, but I’m sure it was Elias Koteas over and in James Spader.

  23. Cronenberg remarked that the Spader-Koteas clinch had straight guys storming out of the cinema – dragging their awe-struck girlfriends behind them. DC’s other stand-out homoerotic moment – beating everything in M Butterfly – is the sauna fight in Eastern Promises, the strongest sequence by far in the film.

    There’s some amazing illustrative voice-over in The Great Sinner, anticipating Goodfellas, or channeling Tex Avery, where Peck describes the various examples of degenerate gambler. Hmm, quite fancy running that film again…

  24. It always intrigues me that Cronenberg made what can only be described as heroic attempts to (ahem) get gay only after Robin Wood’s sustained and fascinating deconstruction of his work as being based on a deeply felt horror/adoration of the male human body and its capacity for being sexually violated. Cronenberg publicly dismissed Wood as a crank, but I think on some deeper level the criticism really stung him, and maybe made him a more thoughtful filmmaker, if not a better one (he’s never really outdone Shivers in my book).

  25. That’s a fascinating reading. Although Wood was knocking Cronenberg quite early on, as I recall. In a way, the engagement with homoeroticism comes after Naked Lunch, and maybe arose from a feeling that he hadn’t done justice to that aspect of Burroughs. He could have more easily sidestepped the aspects of the later films (excepting M Butterfly), but chose to become quite invested in them.

  26. Actually I got into a major knock-down-drag out with Cronenberg over Naked Lunch — which I reviewed for The Advocate. And apparently it did some good as witnessed by both Crash and Eastern Promises. The latter is especially interestign in that the Russian emigre thug world it displays is riddled with homophobia. The chauffeur who wins out in the end clearly isn’t upset by same-sexuality. And neither is the lovely Viggo who plays him.

  27. david wingrove Says:

    A bit like Ken Russell and Joseph Losey, David Cronenberg is a (presumably) heterosexual film-maker with a flair for making flamingly gay movies. Would it, in fact, be worth launching a competition?

    WHAT’S THE GAYEST MOVIE EVER MADE BY A HETEROSEXUAL?

    Personally, I’d go for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA by David Lean…but I’d love to know what fellow Shadowplayers think.

  28. Lawrence is pretty high up the list. No speaking parts for women at all in it. Fellini would be another name we could bandy about — maybe not gay films, but flamingly camp ones. Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon would likewise be on my list.

    But then there’s Victor Fleming, a “man’s man” who somehow helmed The Wizard of Oz.

  29. Re Cronenberg, his most homosocial moment has got to be the running gag of James Spader being constantly rear-ended by practically everyone he meets during Existenz. Spader’s expressions during these sequences are quite hilarious.

    Gayest Film Made by A Straight?

    Well, we love Mommie Dearest round my house. I have tried to institute an agreement to watch it every Christmas Day but so far that hasn’t taken. Anyway, that’s my nomination.

  30. That’d be Jude Law in Xistenz. He does have a tough time of it. The scene of Willem Dafoe applying a bolt-gun to the base of his spine is wickedly funny/queasy.

    As for Mommie Dearest, I have Frank Perry’s autobiographical film about his battle with cancer, which is very moving. He seems quite camp, though. Definitely straight?

  31. david wingrove Says:

    The lovely Faye Dunaway has a tendency to bring out the camp side of even the straightest hetero male. Just look at THE WICKED LADY (made by arch-womaniser Michael Winner) and EYES OF LAURA MARS (made by Irvin Kershner). It’s not for nothing she wound up playing Joan Crawford!

  32. All About Eve seems to have “man appeal” too, and was the work of the metrosexual Mankiewicz.

    I’m also curious about which film by a gay director is the most butch. Eisenstein must be up there.

  33. david wingrove Says:

    It all depends if you believe Maureen O’Hara’s stories about John Ford. If you do, some of his films must be well up there.

    Perhaps the supreme fusion of butch and camp appeal is Robert Aldrich – BABY JANE and LYLAH CLARE versus KISS ME DEADLY and THE DIRTY DOZEN. How schizophrenic is that?!

  34. If we believe O’Hara then ALL of Ford, barring the fascinating exception of Seven Women, could probably be up there.

    Throw in Sister George and Aldrich’s career is even weirder. Oddly enough, in photos he looks exactly like the South Park character of Big Gay Al, only he’s always miming acts of violence.
    Big Gay Al:

    Robert Aldrich: http://www.comedycentral.com/press/images/southpark/BigGayAl.jpg

  35. Eisenstein? Not really. Nestor Almendros wrote a marvelous piece for Film Comment years ago in which he examined the screaming obviousness of Eisenstein’s homoerotic imagery, comparing him to Mapplethorpe.

    Stylisitcally I’d say Todd Haynes is the butchest of all gay directors. On a “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” level, however, Gus Van Sant is TONS butcher.

  36. Fellini was a TRULY enlightened filmmaker when it came to sexuality in all its forms. Just had a look at Fellini Satyricon again recently and its sophistication is breathtaking.
    THe late and much missed Anthony Minghella also understood sexual complixity as is obvious from <i.The Talented Mr. Ripley. Jude Law’s portrayal of a stright man who knows the sexual power he has over gay men — and uses it quite recklessly — is quite unique. And on the heterosexual side of the aisle Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of a woman in thrall to a man who has no respect for her whatsoever is as true as it is heartbreaking.

  37. The Mapplethorpe-Eisenstein comparison is initially a little surprising, then absolutely apt.

    It’s impossible to account for how Fellini became so sophisticated.

  38. Aldrich = Big Gay Al; I am utterly floored by the greatness and perfection of this.

  39. Big Gay Aldrich.

  40. If only he was a transvestite, he could have gone by the name Vera Cruz.

  41. Or Ulzana Zraid? Enough!

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