Archive for Joe Eszterhas

Forbidden Divas: The Eyes Have It

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another entirely guiltless pleasure:

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

The Eyes Have It

“It can get pretty dangerous to look your lover straight in the ass.”

  • An anonymous opera-goer, Mascara

It starts with a view of the sea. An expanse of pale blue water, flat and eerily serene. A white Art Nouveau monstrosity stands atop a cliff and looks out upon it. A lone figure comes out of the building, dressed in an all-white ensemble that suggests a sort of 80s designer space suit, complete with shoulder pads. She climbs into a compact but elegant silver-grey car and drives off. As night draws on, the lights of passing cars play across her face. We see in, a sudden close-up, that she is Charlotte Rampling. She looks quite rapturously beautiful, her hair cropped short so she resembles some exquisite androgynous boy. A white and geometrical earring, which looks weirdly akin to a Giacometti sculpture, dangles from one ear. Her mood is abstracted, so much so that she all but runs over a strange man crossing the road. She winds down her window and warns the stranger to be careful. He is a handsome man with a face of angular if slightly overripe beauty and an unruly mop of black and tousled hair. It is clear at once that he is not the careful type.

Our lady pays him no heed and drives on. Her car stops outside a solidly bourgeois apartment block in the heart of the city. She goes inside and comes face to face with a man who is looking, not at her, but at his own reflection (and hers) in a massive antique mirror framed in gilt. He is tall and distinguished and dressed immaculately in evening dress, adorned with a long and flowing white silk scarf. He is played by Michael Sarrazin, an actor best remembered as that most fetching of all Monsters in Frankenstein – The True Story (1973). We realise, with a quick double take, that this man and this woman look almost exactly identical. Their prominent cheekbones, sensual lips and cool blue eyes mean that each one is the other in an only very slightly modified form. Moving and speaking in the mirror, their images are at once their own and one another’s. “Your smile looks more and more like your mother’s,” the man says. “What does that mean?” the woman asks with cool provocation. “It means your mother had a beautiful smile.” We may or may not have guessed they are brother and sister. What we do know is they are two sides of a single self.

vlcsnap-2020-04-21-10h57m38s070

A bizarre and hallucinatory psychosexual thriller, Mascara (1987) is a Belgian-French-Dutch coproduction and one of only two features directed by the poet and visual artist Patrick Conrad. It was dumped into cinemas by Cannon Films and sank almost without a trace. I can still remember sitting, enraptured, through a matinee in a cavernous West End movie house – empty apart from me and three other spectators, at least one of whom got up and walked out before the end. Mascara is that most curious and forlorn of objets d’art, a cult movie that has never found its cult. (To this day, it is unavailable on Blu-Ray or DVD.) To that vast majority of the human race who have not seen it, I can say only to imagine a film by Joe Eszterhas (Jagged Edge, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct) that has been that has been consummately rewritten and restaged by Jean Cocteau. Or better still, a Pedro Almodóvar movie that is played lyrically, poetically and with barely a hint of camp. It is the archetypal Charlotte Rampling movie, the celluloid epitome of Divine Decadence and sulphurous yet seductive doom.

vlcsnap-2020-04-21-10h59m01s755

That unnaturally intimate brother and sister are on their way to an evening at the opera. The sister, Gaby, tells an acquaintance that her brother, Bert, imbibed his love of opera with their mother’s milk. At that night’s performance of Orpheus and Eurydice by Gluck, they are enthralled in particular by a long and rippling white gown that is worn by Eurydice in Hell. It comes equipped with an enormous headpiece of white feathers and is ornamented at the bosom with a glowing red neon heart. The brother and the sister act on their obsession in differing yet strangely complementary ways. She starts a romance with Chris the designer (Derek de Lint) who just happens to be that handsome stranger she narrowly avoided running over. Her brother, on the other hand, wheedles the designer into letting him borrow the dress. Or rather, to bring it in person to his oh-so-very-secret hangout, a place of which his sister knows nothing. This is an underground S&M club with the suitably operatic name of Mister Butterfly. It is a place where drag queens in chain mail masks pass raw oysters from mouth to mouth, where a man performs fellatio on a glistening black leather crotch bursting with lurid red orchids.

vlcsnap-2020-04-21-11h02m44s596

Technically speaking, the gown is not for him. It is a birthday gift for a beautiful androgynous showgirl named Pepper, who is played by the real-life Italian transsexual Eva Robins. (She had a similar role in 1982 in the Dario Argento film Tenebrae.) Pepper, as expected, wears the haunted gown as if she had been born to it and lip-synchs a scene from Orpheus and Eurydice to the delight of the assembled guests. But back in her dressing room after the show, she unwisely declares her love to Bert. She has slipped off the gown and stands behind him naked, with most of her lithe body plunged into shadow. Yet we see, as she moves slowly into the light, that she has both breasts and a penis. This moment of shock revelation was pillaged more or less wholesale by Neil Jordan in his absurdly overrated The Crying Game (1992). To watch it in both movies is to see it staged, first, by a director with an authentically erotic sensibility and, later, by a director who is largely without one. (Jordan’s one truly erotic film Interview with the Vampire (1994) involves copious and extended bouts of man-on-man action, a thing Conrad shows us only in brief but tantalising glimpses.) It is scarcely a surprise when Bert turns round and strangles Pepper. Sexual confusion has been known to exact a frightful toll.

vlcsnap-2020-04-21-11h01m14s229

The rest of Mascara hinges on Bert’s nefarious scheme to pin the murder on his sister’s hapless lover. The fact he is the chief of the city’s police gives him distinct advantage here. But very wisely, Conrad avoids shifting his movie into full-on policier mode. This is first and foremost a mood piece, dedicated to the purveyance of rarefied if distinctly kinky aesthetic and erotic frissons. He leaves ample time for Rampling to stare at her own exquisite form in the mirror, or out her giant picture window at that vast and seemingly tideless sea. Her wardrobe by Claude Montana appears to be more sculpted than sewn. It is undeniably opulent, but confining and constricting at the same time. Glimpsed above the fireplace in her sitting room is a huge Symbolist canvas of a naked woman with her hands bound by chains. Dare we hope that Chris can set her free of her brother and his clinging, incestuous love? (Among the many novel ideas in Mascara is the one that a man who designs gowns for the opera can be solidly and unimpeachably heterosexual.) Or will those sleazy and sinister denizens of Mister Butterfly get the better of Bert and Chris and Gaby and – who knows – possibly the entire known world?

vlcsnap-2020-04-21-11h04m09s123

There is only one way you will ever know the answer to these and a multitude of other questions. That is to track down and snap up any surviving VHS copy of Mascara you can lay your hands on. It takes only a handful of hardcore obsessives to make a cult. The cult for this movie is many years overdue.

David Melville

The American Problem

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2019 by dcairns

The following contains spoilers for Joe Eszterhas’s Number One Plot.

I remember thinking THE MUSIC BOX was OK, but now I’ve watched it again and it’s kind of not.

I think Costa-Gavras thought he could make intelligent political films in the US (post-producing them in France to maintain some distance) but maybe he was wrong. The most pernicious form of censorship, suggested Alexander Mackendrick, is self-censorship.

The screenwriter is Joe Eszterhas but I vividly remember that at the time most of us were not on to him. He had written FLASHDANCE (which I’ve never seen — the Wikipedia plot synopsis, however, is HILARIOUS, just a bunch of random incidents separated by dithering — I’ve been working on editing together old movie serial recaps, and this seems like one of those) and JAGGED EDGE and Costa-Gavras’ BETRAYED.

The big obvious joke with J.E. is that he always writes the same movie. Well, JAGGED EDGE (his signature work, it even shares his initials) is the exact same story as BETRAYED, THE MUSIC BOX and BASIC INSTINCT and I assume JADE. Someone is involved with someone else who may be a monster spoiler alert they totally are.

Though it was fashionable to say that JAGGED E. “kept you guessing to the very end,” I did notice, aged eighteen, that I was not guessing at all at the end. It was obvious to me that if Jeff Bridges wasn’t the killer, they would have to do a lot of tiresome explanation, SUSPICION-style, and also it wouldn’t be as dramatic. Still, let’s give J.E. (the man and the film) credit for doing a version of SUSPICION with the right, and less obviously commercial, ending.

Then he just does it again and again. In MUSIC BOX, for the first time the villain is a father, not a lover, and the crimes are historic. I recall the friend I saw it with back in 1989 saying, “The moment I saw that guy I knew he was guilty, but I was still sucked in.” Which is true. You do need to know how it’s going to turn out.

Flatly, is the answer. The very strong premise of a daughter defending her father on war crimes charges, complicated by the fact that the communist government of Hungary might be framing him because he’s a vocal anti-commie, seems like a good set-up, and it is, but they have no ending up their sleeve other than “Surprise! He’s guilty!” And since we’re not surprised, that’s not very gripping. They know they can’t trump up some kind of fight over a hunting knife and kill the guy. So they’ve got nothing.

I do like how Armin M-S’s credit appears over an animatronic likeness of him.

This being a J.E. script, all the men are inappropriately sweary or sexual, something that is more obvious to us post-SHOWGIRLS (written on the FLASHDANCE random-shit-and-dithering model) but was always a feature of Dirty Joe’s writing (JAGGED EDGE, Peter Coyote: “The guy’s got a rap sheet as long as my dick!”)

Costa-Gavras’ direction is smooth, there are some good-ish shots, but nothing breaks out of the Oscar-bait conventions of the script. When Jessica Lange walks by the Danube in search of inspiration, there are some shots of rippling water, but no cinematic poetry to lift us out of the merely photographic and suggest the emotional process the screenwriter has failed to write.

Freeze-frame ending. Ugh.

Fiona’s main observations: “This script is LEADEN,” and “That’s a really ugly dressing gown.”

Lange refuses the case because she’s too emotionally involved (mythic structure #101) then changes her mind after examining her knees in a mirror. She seems about to go full Sharon Stone. I have no idea what’s going on in this scene.

I like C-G, normally, because he weaves political considerations into rivetting stories, seamlessly, and because he is one of the best storytellers with the camera we have — he doesn’t get enough credit for his dynamic visual language. But it just feels like he has nothing to work with here. It’s like trying to sculpt soup.

And yes, Armin Mueller-Stahl is good, if a bit one-note (everyone is one-note, it’s an Eszterhas script).

Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Oscar campaign.

The best thing Joe Eszterhas wrote, a horrifying, craven piece of unintentional black comedy, is his letter to Mel Gibson. You will scream.

MUSIC BOX stars Dwan; Thronfolger; Hammett; Lyndon B. Johnson; Samuel; and Henry Portrait.