Friday, March 28, 2014

Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story

Michael Lee Nirenberg says he had no idea his dad, Bill Nirenberg, had been “a pornographer.” The senior Nirenberg worked for many years as art director of Hustler magazine, and is one of the sources for Michael's excellent documentary, Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story, playing this weekend as part of the Cleveland International Film Festival. The film provides a riveting history of Hustler's raunchy empire, from a four-page black-and-white newsletter to a multimillion-dollar media enterprise, and an insiders' view of what it was like to work for the mercurial, volatile and very shrewd Larry Flynt.

Nirenberg has asssembled many of the prominent players in the skin-mag trade to reflect on Hustler and Flynt, including porn star/mogul Ron Jeremy, photographer Suze Randall, friendly competitor and collaborator Al Goldstein of Screw magazine, a slew of former staff artists, writers and editors, even the Cincinnati prosecutor who brought Flynt to trial on obscenity charges in 1976 and still thinks the 25-year sentence Flynt received – since overturned – was fair. A news clip of anchorman Tom Brokaw contemptuously pronouncing Flynt a “smut peddler” is retrospectively amusing.

The speakers provide interesting insight into what made Hustler, the unreservedly crude, calculatedly tasteless magazine, unique. Ron Jeremy provides this assessment: Playboy models represented “the girl next door,” who the average male reader considered unattainable; Bob Guccione's Penthouse featured the “rich bitch” fashion model, also unattainable; and Hustler proffered a “raunchy, horny,” more down-market girl, who might be at home on the back of a motorcycle. “I got a shot with this girl,” thinks Joe Average, the one-handed reader.

The magazine built its notoriety on “pink,” the spread-legged, gynecological photos the “classier” magazines wouldn't run, as well as the tasteless but admittedly funny cartoons. (A former staffer aptly describes Hustler as “National Lampoon with more titties.”) One reason Hustler could publish these pictures, as well as bold political exposés, gross and violent imagery, nude pictures of Jackie O., and scabrous features like “Asshole of the Month,” was that Flynt eschewed mainstream advertising, relying almost entirely on adult ads and newsstand sales. He also refused cigarette ads, so was free to print sharp ad parodies like the one that read “Welcome to Marlboro Country” over a photo of patients in a cancer ward.

There is much ground to cover in the story of Larry Flynt, and Nirenberg puts it together in a swift package, interspersing the revealing interviews with fast flips through Hustler's back pages, as well as the many headlines accrued by the notorious Mr. Flynt, Hustler's seemingly immortal clown prince. We hear about Flynt's conversion in 1978 to evangelical Christianity, under the auspices of Ruth Carter Stapleton, in 1977; he remained “born again” only briefly, later declaring himself an atheist. In the film, he says he has bipolar disorder.

There is his marriage to his much-loved fourth wife, Althea, a former stripper who ran Hustler with an iron fist while Flynt was recovering from injuries suffered from an attempted assassination, and died in 1987 of AIDS. Flynt, partially paralyzed, has required a wheelchair since the 1978 shooting. He was in almost constant pain for years, which caused him to become addicted to painkillers; multiple surgeries finally eliminated his pain, but medications caused him to suffer a stroke, which has made his speech slurred. There were insane, coke-fueled years at the magazine, vividly described by former staffers, insane, wildly extravagant photo shoots, explosive editors who threw things at employees. There was Flynt's short-lived run for President. And there are many more astonishing episodes in the life of Flynt, some only glancingly touched on in this film.

The most interesting chapter of Flynt's life concerns his emergence as an unlikely First Amendment champion. His high-profile legal battles made him the subject of famous Constitutional law cases. One argument resulting from the Cincinnati prosecution reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and became the subject of the movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, starring Woody Harrelson. Another legal triumph was Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, in which Jerry Falwell sued Hustler for libel over a parody ad that described the evangelist as having lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. Though the page was clearly labeled “ad parody,” Falwell sued, and the Court held that public figures cannot recover damages for emotional distress based on parodies, an important Constitutional precedent that is still, as Flynt points out, taught in law schools today. (Interestingly, Falwell and Flynt later became friends.)

There have been several films, fiction and non-fiction, about Flynt, but Back Issues provides a unique behind-the-scenes view of the stressful day-to-day workings at Hustler — not, save for the “pink” and the fake excrement, so different from other magazines. "It was a lot of fun and a lot of pressure," says Bill Nirenberg, who went on to do other things but, he says, "nothing as exciting."

Late in the film, the interviewees provide a wistful lament for the way things used to be, before the Internet made pornography so easily accessible, and people could still be shocked. “We were lucky,” says photographer Suze Randall, “to have taboos to break.”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel


By Pamela Zoslov

“Love/hate relationship with Wes” and “Can't stand quirky for quirky's sake” are the titles of two contentious comment threads on the movie website Participants in these conversations vociferously debate the merits of director-writer Wes Anderson, who is known for his quirky, stylized films, the eighth of which is The Grand Budapest Hotel. Set in an aging, once-elegant hotel in the mythical Republic of Zubrowka, it is perhaps the apotheosis of Anderson's stagebound, confectionary style. And, like the Courtisane au Chocolate, the fancy pastry that figures in the movie's Byzantine plot, it may be too cloying for some.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Typecasting: "Populaire"

By Pamela Zoslov

The clack-clack-clack-ding! that punctuates Régis Roinsard's Populaire sets off pleasant waves of nostalgia, if, like me, you miss the satisfying sounds and feeling of a manual typewriter. A stylistic and thematic hommage to American romantic comedies of the late 1950s, the movie tells the story of Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François), a shy young woman from a Normandy village who, tired of working in her father's general store and unwilling to marry the son of the town mechanic, dreams of being a secretary. She practices tirelessly on a portable Triumph typewriter. According to Rose, “A secretary means being modern.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

Jane's Addiction

Movie Review: Austenland

By Pamela Zoslov

Keri Russell and her would-be suitors.

I'll be honest: I never really "got" the obsession with Jane Austen. I read the novels required in high school and college — Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, some others I've forgotten — and found nothing magical in their themes of love and courtship among the landed gentry and genteel poor in 18th-century England. I realize Austen's prose is prized for its ironic tone and wry commentary on marriage as a way of elevating a young woman's social standing, but if I want social satire, I'll take Anita Loos. I have never been a fan of costume drama, and the “Janeite” cult that has spawned innumerable Austen film adaptations and meta-books and movies about women obsessed with Austen, eludes me.

I can understand, though, why Jane Hayes, the heroine of Austenland, is fixated on Austen's novels, in particular the aloof romantic ideal of Mr. Darcy as portrayed by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Jane (charming Keri Russell of Waitress fame) is in her thirties, unmarried, and all her boyfriends have been disappointing. None of them, of course, can compare to the fictional Fitzwilliam Darcy, a life-size cardboard standup of whom — in the guise of the chin-challenged Colin Firth — stands proudly in Jane's frilly, Austen-bedecked bedroom. So frustrated by Jane's fixation is one suitor that he hauls off and punches Firth's smug paperboard face.

Austenland is adapted from Shannon Hale's novel of the same title, a breezy “chick lit” story that has Jane Hayes inheriting from her wealthy aunt a paid trip to Austenland, a kind of Jane Austen theme park offering an immersive “Austen experience” at an English country estate, complete with Regency gowns and manners, pheasant hunting, needlepoint, games of whist, and a simulated romantic happy ending with one of several hired actors. The movie was directed and co-scripted (with the book's author) by Jerusha Hess, creator with husband Jared Hess of Napoleon Dynamite, and the pairing of her absurdist sensibility with the novel's light premise is promising. Humorous energy pervades the opening, which dispenses with the story of Jane's aunt's bequest and has Jane, in romantic desperation, spending her last dollar on the Austenland adventure, with the help of a sleazy-looking travel agent reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite's stuck-in-the-'70s uncle.

Hess' absurdist style surrenders all too quickly to bland silliness as we meet Jane's fellow Austenland visitor, a blowsy middle-aged doyenne calling herself “Miss Elizabeth Charming.” Elizabeth, who is looking for sexy fun rather than an Austen experience, is played by Jennifer Coolidge, whose outsize manner and looks have added amusing punctuation to several Christopher Guest comedies. Coolidge's character here, spouting witless lines in a stagy Eliza Doolittle accent, is cartoonish rather than funny, though I did laugh when she gushed, “Look, a car from the 1800s!”

Elizabeth and Jane are whisked off to the estate and Jane learns from the evil proprietess, Mrs. Wattelsbrook (Jane Seymour), that because she's paid only for the basic package, her accommodations are considerably more humble than the others guests'. Each client is given a scripted narrative, and Jane, owing to her lack of funds, is cruelly cast as “an orphan of no fortune.” She's dubbed “Miss Erstwhile” — another way of saying “has-been” — and relegated to sleeping in the servants' quarters and wearing drab gray gowns. Jane's experience, it seems, is to be more Jane Eyre than Jane Austen.

The gentlemen who populate this fantasy retreat are Col. Andrews (James Callis), Mr. Wattlesbrook (Rupert Vansittart), the proprietess' old, libidinous husband; and Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), the supercilious “Mr. Darcy” type. Jane, ostracized by the other guests and players, takes her romantic fantasy where she finds it, in the arms of the stable hand, Martin (Bret McKenzie). Jane thinks she's having a defiant“off-plan” romance as Martin shares with her his love of Billy Ocean songs and enables her to witness the birth of a foal — “the miracle of life” he says in his New Zealand accent that Jane somehow mistakes for British. After enlisting Elizabeth to fancy up her hair and gowns, Jane becomes an object of desire, pursued by some of the other actors, including Mr. Nobley. Who is real and who is acting in what Nobley calls “a dangerous game”? In this story, the lines between fiction and reality are blurred.

The funny movie lurking in this premise, suggested by a goofy end-credits sequence set to Nelly's “Hot in Here,” is never quite realized. The film is wobbily paced and only fitfully amusing, relying too heavily on Coolidge's malapropisms and heaving bosom. And yet the movie has its charms – a likeable cast, a zesty spirit and a blithe optimism that's balm for the romantically wounded.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby

The Cleveland Movie Blog: The Great Gatsby: Review by Pamela Zoslov The news that Australian director Baz Luhrmann was making yet another adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald&#...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Cleveland Movie Blog: The Big Wedding

The Cleveland Movie Blog: The Big Wedding: Review by Pamela Zoslov Everything about THE BIG WEDDING , a comedy written and directed by Justin Zackham, reeks of Hollywood cynici...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

By Pamela Zoslov

The surprise of Derek Cianfrance's second feature, The Place Beyond the Pines, is that it is three films in one. The first section of the triptych, shot in the moody, azure-tinted style of Blue Valentine, centers on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a drifter and stunt motorcyclist who adopts a life of crime to support his baby son. The second, shot in a more traditional style, is a police drama focusing on Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie patrolman who has a fateful encounter with Luke. The third, and least successful section, set 15 years later, focuses on the now adolescent sons of the criminal and the cop. Cianfrance, who also co-write the script, has attempted a multi-generational saga, with linked sections reminiscent of Stephen Soderbergh's Traffic (or, less flatteringly, the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas). Ambitious in its sweep and running just under two and a half hours, the film promises greater significance than it delivers. But it is not without stylistic flair and thematic interest.

In the first section, Gosling is a laconic antihero, a man with no background, copious tattoos and cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips. Cianfrance, who also directed Gosling in Blue Valentine , is evidently enamored of Gosling's bleached-blond outlaw image, framing him against a blurred night background of carnival neon. Luke, a stunt cyclist of legendary reputation, is performing in a carnival in upstate New York, where a beautiful ex-girlfriend, Romina (Eva Mendes) approaches him. Luke visits Romina's house and learns,from her mom that he is the father of Romina's baby son. Father-son relationships are a central theme of the film; one of the few things we learn about Luke is that his old man wasn't there for him (there's an original theme), so he wants to be there for his kid. Toward that end, he lets a low-life pal talk him into a new career: robbing banks.

Luke ignores his friend's advice to commit the robberies without violence. Instead, he robs banks maniacally, like Batman's Joker, wearing a Darth Vader helmet and leaping atop the tellers' windows, shouting and threatening employees and customers before making a fast motorcycle getaway. Not surprisingly, his criminal career hits a dead end, happy news for the viewer weary of Sean Bobbitt's mannered cinematography, the heavy, ominous score, and dialogue mixed too low to be intelligible. The poignancy of Luke's fate is muted by the fact that apart from his love for his newly discovered son, Luke is kind of a dick.

In section two, not only is the dialogue more audible, the story is also more interesting. Patrolman Avery is a law-school educated cop, new on the beat, who ends Luke's crime spree in the line of duty. Hailed as a hero, Avery has lingering guilt feelings about Luke's year-old son, the same age as his own boy. The father-son issue folds in as Avery, who has political ambitions, tries to live up to the expectations of his dad, a retired judge. A straight arrow with a conscience and a Medal of Freedom, Avery becomes privy to police corruption and makes dangerous enemies on the force (one of them played with suitable scariness by Ray Liotta). Shedding the first section's mannered, mumblecore style, Cianfrance displays a sure hand with the police thriller genre; too bad the entire film isn't as solid as this section. Part three introduces Avery's son AJ (Emory Cohen) as Avery is campaigning for state attorney general.  The kid is a muttering suburban “wigga” whose chief interests are getting high and scoring Ecstasy and Oxy. He preys on classmate Jason (the excellent Dane DeHaan), son of hapless "Moto Bandit" Luke. Would-be thug AJ enlists innocent Jason in his criminal adventures, setting in motion a chain of retributive violence.

The tripartate film doesn't quite cohere, but it does contain strong scenes. It also enables comparisons between Gosling and Cooper, two popular, good-looking leading men, In this cage match, Cooper is the victor. He continues to demonstrate impressive range and sensitivity, and in emotional scenes, he's the cinema's best crier since another Cooper, the famous 1930s child actor Jackie Cooper.