In Part II in what’s shaping up be my ongoing series devoted to underpraised American women (Part I here), today brings us Jessica Harper. Familiar to many as “Suzy Bannion” in Dario Argento‘s Suspiria, and “Daisy” in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, it’s her “Phoenix” in Brian De Palma‘s Phantom of The Paradise which compels my (all too) frequent revisiting of that film.
For those of you who’ve yet to see it (queue it up, already!), Phantom’s an updating of the Faust tale, where composer Winslow Leach (played by early De Palma muse William Finley), seeking to have his great “cantata” realized, sells his soul to a devil-in-disguise Swan (played, with Sterling Holloway slipperiness, by the film’s composer Paul Williams).
Typical for De Palma, the film offers up an art-versus-commerce parable that’s as bleak as it is unsparing. But beyond its easy, showbiz cynicism, it’s Harper’s wonderfully committed performance that elevates Phantom into the realms of tragedy and heartbreak.
Harper plays muse and soulmate to Leach. But then, as these things happen (though less so, these days), Leach is horribly disfigured in a “record pressing mishap.” Newly reborn as “The Phantom,” he makes an agreement with Swan to audition singers for his cantata. This is where Harper slips in, and pretty much runs—or struts, really—off with the movie.
Beyond the forgettable Inserts, Phantom was Harper’s first feature role. And in this clip here (newly added, raw footage outtakes—the actual clip has been scrubbed from YouTube), you get a definite sense that she’s not just auditioning for Swan, she’s auditioning for the rest of her life.
In fact, as the song goes along, you can actually see Harper finding her voice, as an actress, a person. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to this film—this clip. It doesn’t seem like Harper’s acting at all.
Fortunately, after Phantom, Harper found her way to not just Allen and Argento, but into the relatively secure (by Hollywood standards) arms of Tom Rothman (co-chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment), where she’s now a wife, mother, children’s book author, occasional actress, and, of course, still special to me.
An exhibit opening soon at London’s Drawing Room art gallery displays the materials produced for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s sadly never-produced version of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels:
This exhibition includes production drawings made by Moebius, H.R Giger and Chris Foss alongside commissioned work made in response by three international contemporary artists Steven Claydon, Matthew Day Jackson and Vidya Gastaldon.
Following the release of his mystical Western ?
In reference to Rudy Wurlitzer‘s ‘69 debut, Nog, none other than Thomas Pynchon said: “The novel of bullshit is dead.”” A not bad start for Wurlitzer, the sole member of the piano-making clan who never saw a dime (or not many) from his family name.
Tracing the often-psychedelic wanderlust of its title character who was either insane or drug-addicted (or both), Nog brought Wurlitzer a certain degree of fame as a novelist, but he’s perhaps best known, and celebrated, for his screenwriting. His collaboration with Sam Peckinpah yielded the Bob Dylan-scored Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Two years before that, though, he and Monte Hellman pulled off one of my all-time cinematic favorites, Two-Lane Blacktop.
Starring James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (both looking shockingly boyish) as eternally drifting drivers, Two-Lane featured sparse dialogue and even sparser performances. Visually, though, it’s pure poetry, and, to me, a still-vital piece of American existentialism—especially in its final moment. The trailer for Two-Lane follows below.
And just up at Chuck Palahniuk‘s website, an excellent, yet typically elusive, interview with Wurlitzer where he discusses everything from Dylan to Pynchon. Regarding his new-ish novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder, Wurlitzer also addresses, politely, “l’affaire de Jim Jarmusch.” Apparently, the director “pillaged” from Wurlitzer the raw material he’d later shape into Dead Man. You can read the interview here.
Instead of Hal Ashby, what if Nick Cave (circa And The Ass Saw The Angel) directed Being There? It might look something like Rolf de Heer‘s Australian ‘93 cult comedy, Bad Boy Bubby. We first meet Bubby (fearlessly played by Nicholas Hope) as a 30-something man, imprisoned by his mother all his life in a shitbox room for reasons never fully explained. Maybe it’s ‘cause “mum” so enjoys bathing and having sex with him?
Anyway, even as an “outside-fearing” captive, Bubby’s got his hobbies: he’s a gifted mimic, and he enjoys wrapping cats in cellophane. To say any more might spoil this film’s many, often moving, surprises. The arc of Bubby does, though, follow the familiar “holy fool” trajectory: change brings growth and maturity, which almost by definition entails some loss of innocence. Still—cellophaned cats!
The Mystery of Picasso is one of the most mind-blowing art documentaries I’ve ever seen. You actually get to witness Picasso paint twenty pieces before your eyes. It’s really astonishing:
Like a matador confronting a bull, the artist approaches his easel, his eyes blazing. As he wields his brush, we see through the canvas as the artwork unfolds, erupts, dances into being before our eyes. Pablo Picasso, the most influential artist of the twentieth century, is making a painting, and Henri-Georges Clouzot, the famous French director (Wages of Fear, Diabolique), is making a movie. In 1955, Clouzot joined forces with his friend Picasso to make an entirely new kind of art film “a film that could capture the moment and the mystery of creativity. Together, they devised an innovative technique” the filmmaker placed his camera behind a semi-transparent surface on which the artist drew with special inks that bled through.
Clouzot thus captured a perfect reverse image of Picasso’s brushstrokes and the motion picture screen itself becomes the artist’s canvas. Here, the master creates, and sometimes obliterates, 20 works (most of them, in fact, destroyed after the shoot), ranging from playful black-and-white sketches to Cinemascope color murals “artworks which evolve in minutes through the magic of stop-motion animation. Unavailable for more than a decade, The Mystery of Picasso is exhilarating, mesmerizing, enchanting and unforgettable. It is simply one of the greatest documentaries on art ever made. The French government agreed, in 1984 it declared the film a national treasure.
“When we are all dead, you and me and everyone,” said Clouzot to Picasso, “the film will still continue to be projected.”
This is probably my favorite section from the film. I especially like watching the painting of the nude reading come to life. When I first saw it I kept thinking he was finished and then he’d make it even better:
“Pink” films, that brand of cutesy, cuddly, Japanese softcore, hold, for me, limited cinematic appeal. But I do adore Mitsuru Meike‘s bravely outrageous, The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai from 2003. In it, the director of such fare as Bitter Sweet, and, of course, Lascivious Nurse Uniform Diary: Two or Three Times, While I’m Wet, injects the genre with a (needed?) dose of political commentary.
Here’s the shorthand: out making the rounds one night, sexy tutor-slash-call girl Sachiko Hanai (played by the adorably game Emi Kuroda) winds up with a bullet in her brain. She’s cool with that. In fact, the bullet gives her a genius-level IQ. She even—if I’m remembering things correctly here—starts quoting Nietzsche. But the plot really kicks in when Sachiko learns she’s come into possession of George Bush’s severed finger. His cloned severed finger. Unlike what I’ve seen of Bush the man, though, his finger has an unstoppable sexual appetite. Oh, and it’s also wanted by North Korea to trigger a nuclear holocaust.
What’s Meike saying with all this? I couldn’t put my finger on it. But here’s both a warning and a possible enticement: Bush’s finger winds up exactly where you think it will. The (vaguely NSFW-ish) trailer for Sachiko Hanai follows below: