Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Groovy Automotive – Another Awesome Austin Legacy

As I had mentioned a few posts back, I had some problems with my car's brakes. Specifically, they didn't work. At all. Well, I got them fixed recently, and just wanted to spread word about another great part about Austin – Groovy Automotive.

Now, Groovy isn't a hold-over from hippy-era Austin. In fact, according to their website, they've only been around since 1993 or something (despite their multi-colored neon sign with the Peace Signs for "o"s), but that doesn't change the fact that they're fantastic. Not only the best auto shop I've been to in Austin, but they are easily the best I've been to anywhere. Cheap. Quick. Trustworthy (they have never tried to fix anything that I didn't explicitly tell them I needed fixed). Courteous. Accommodating. All-in-all, just about the best experience I could expect to have while dealing with one of the shittiest of all errands (god, I hate car troubles).

Really, I just wanted to give Groovy their due as a fantastic mechanic's shop. I can't begin to explain how frustrating I find dealing with car troubles (it doesn't help that I know absolutely nothing about cars), and what a foul mood it puts me in. So to take care of something as serious as brakes that don't work (and they didn't work at all) with so little headache is nothing short of a small miracle.

In the unlikely event that you ever find yourself in Austin with car troubles and don't know where to go, trust me. Go to Groovy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

G-String’d Cyclist: The Musical

This afternoon I momentarily stepped out of my cave-like studio apartment, and ventured into the harsh Texas sun. As I stood next to my apartment building, I saw a heavyset guy cruise by on a recumbent bike, complete with little-kid-style flag sticking up out of the back wheel. As I watched this guy, amazed that his bike was able to stay upright despite his almost unbelievably slow speed, I was greeted with an even better sight. Just as the first guy passed out of view, heading west, another bicyclist entered my view heading east. This guy was on a regular bicycle, and was moving at normal speed. So what made him awesome, you ask? Well, how about the fact that it was a full grown man, riding his bicycle through my neighborhood, in the middle of a pleasant Sunday afternoon, wearing nothing but a green G-string.

A full grown man. On a bicycle. Riding down the street. In the middle of the day. In nothing but a G-string. Just a G-string.

Not only was this event totally fucking awesome, but it also got me thinking. Not so much about men in G-strings. I mean, I already got to see that today. But more about the character of Austin. While this bicyclist was definitely a noteworthy event (as soon as I went inside, I called my brother to tell him about it – after which he provided this post's title), it's not completely unprecedented. I want to be clear, I'm not a long-time Austinite. I've only been here for about 2 ½ years, and I am not even from Texas (Michigan, what!). So this is all based on my somewhat limited experience in Austin and definitely limited knowledge of Austin history.

Back in the 1960s, Austin was the little liberal, counter-cultural oasis for the South and Southwest. A strange, little hippy haven in the big sea of the conservative south. Over the years, Austin's hippy, counter-cultural past has evolved, leaving an indelible mark all over the city. There is the legendary music scene. The well-respected independent film industry. The abundant art galleries. The numerous experimental theaters. The murals that adorn the side of just about every building. The love of local business, organic food, etc.

And then there are some things that seemingly haven't changed all that much over the years. Hippies are still plentiful. There are a bunch of communes all over the city. There is the nude beach, Hippy Hollow. Apparently a lot of those experimental theaters do weird nude fertility plays. And then there's probably my favorite legacy of Austin's hippy past. The fact that, of all the hippy-type stuff to stick around, one thing that is still going strong in Austin is the good ol' fashioned hippy freak out.

Now, I guess I shouldn't say that these freak outs haven't gone unchanged. They aren't full blown Merry Pranksters-style happenings. More like individual expressions of personal weirdness. They may be a little more self-conscious than simple free expression (there is the ubiquitous "Keep Austin Weird" campaign, after all), but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable. The fact that at any moment you can come across something like a guy riding a bike in a G-string really lends the city a certain playful whimsy.

On top of the G-string'd Cyclist, there was the guy last year who hung out in my neighborhood, dressed in flamboyant clothing and a rainbow afro, dancing on street corners while holding a sign that read, "In the future, you will all look like me." There is Leslie, the city's favorite transvestite homeless guy/girl/perennial mayoral candidate (see picture). Actually, Austin has no shortage of transvestite homeless people, a special little subgenre of Austin weirdness. A friend of mine went to the post office downtown, and the man in line in front of her was inexplicably wearing a Superman costume. On the University of Texas' campus, a cadre of students have taken to riding giant unicycles around.

My G-string'd Cyclist induced musings didn't really lead to any grand conclusions, simply a conscious appreciation for the city of Austin. Sometimes I forget how great of a city Austin Is, and it's nice to have a people around who are willing to ride by my apartment in skimpy underwear to remind me of that.

[Note: After leaving a voicemail for my brother about the G-stringed cyclist he responded with the following series of text messages: "G-String'd Cyclist: The Musical", "starring Josh Hartnett", "and Jamie Lee Curtis", "Christmas 2009". Screenplay is in development, and I am currently in talks with Philip Glass to compose the music, with lyrics by Rod Stewart.]

“Well, I’m not gonna get another [body], so I’m gonna use this one until it’s all used up.”

Bob Flanagan was born in 1952, and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. Ordinarily, Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes the lungs to fill up with thick mucus, kills those who have it by the time they are 6 or 7 years old. Sometimes, suffers of CF live into their early 20s before dying, usually of a lung infection. Flanagan lived to be 43, gaining notoriety for his writing and performance art that focused on his pain and struggle with his disease, often through public demonstrations of extreme self-mutilation.

Documentarian Kirby Dick chronicles Flanagan's final years in his film Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. True to the title, the film follows Flanagan, as well as his long time partner/Mistress Sheree Rose, starting in his early 40s right up through his death in late January, 1996. Sick sheds light on the many aspects of Flanagan's life: his art, his relationship with Rose, the anger and humor he directs at his disease. Flanagan makes for a fascinating figure, be it because of his controversial art or his particularly unique perspective on life. One can't help but have a unique perspective on things when you've lived your entire life being told you're going to die and, by all accounts, you should already be dead. But you're not. (In Flanagan's own words, "All the articles about me start the same way, 'Bob Flanagan should be dead by now. But he isn't.' That's what they always say. 'Instead he nails his dick to a board.'")

In case that last comment about nailing his dick to a board or the term "Supermasochist" didn't clue you in, Flanagan made his name in the art world for his acts of extreme self-mutilation. These acts of supermasochism included, but were not limited to, hammering a nail through his penis into a wooden board, suspending himself upside down from the ceiling of art galleries, being physically abused in just about every conceivable manner, often accompanied by Flanagan's darkly comic monologues about living with CF. The film presents plenty of examples of Flanagan's performances, so be warned, this film is extremely graphic. So if you don't think you can handle watching a close-up of a nail being driven through the head of penis, near constant spanking, frequent cutting, and at least one instance of on-camera sodomy, you should probably stay away.

The film generally focuses on two aspects of Flanagan's of life: how his proclivities for BDSM, both in his art and in his bedroom, gives him a sense of control over his body, a body that refuses to function properly; and the intimate and trusting relationship he has with his longtime partner Sheree Rose. These two elements are, realistically, inseparable. Rose was not only Flanagan's SM Mistress, but also his partner in life and art. The trust and intimacy that is inherent in such a long term BDSM relationship is on full display. The film does not shy away from showing the couple's extreme intimacy, whether it is through homemade videos of their SM adventures or through quiet conversations in bed. It is apparent that there is a closeness, an intimacy, and a trust between the two of them that is rarely found in the most functional of relationships.

In terms of Flanagan's art, the film explores how Flanagan views his masochism and his self-mutilation as a way for him to reclaim control over a body that refuses to function as it should. His explorations of the limits of what he can endure forces him to engage with his body in a way that gives him a fuller understanding of his physical self, as well as teaches his body what it is capable of, despite its disease. It is as much about his own self discovery as it is about confronting audiences with shocking experiences. It is about bringing the audience into Flanagan's own experiences with his disease (including one art gallery exhibition of his work, a part of which included Flanagan sitting in a hospital bed, in the gallery, throughout the duration of the exhibition, allowing viewers to see him and talk to him).

Ultimately, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist paints a very intimate portrait of a man who had to learn very young what he wanted and how to take it for himself. Up through the end, in which Dick films Flanagan dying in his hospital bed, Flanagan seems scared and, above all, confused by his own death. Even though he has spent his entire life confronting his own death, he seems just as terrified and confused as anyone else. Sick and its subject are extremely funny, intimate, heartbreaking, and, more than anything else, inspiring.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Do you have a lot of friends? [Not really…] Do you wish you did?"

Writer/director Atom Egoyan is one of a host of independent filmmaking luminaries to arise in the 1990s. He has a reputation for making deeply emotional, moody films that delve into the darker and more complex realms of the human condition. And Exotica is no exception.

Broadly, Exotica examines the individual lives of a set of disparate characters, all related in some way to the titular strip club. There is Francis, the IRS (or the Canadian equivalent of the IRS) auditor, who is obsessed with Christina, one of Exotica’s dancers. There is Eric, also obsessed with Christina and her former lover, the DJ/MC at Exotica. There is Zoe, the pregnant owner of Exotica, who has a vested interest in both Christina and Eric, beyond that of employer/employee. And finally, there is Thomas, the reclusive, socially awkward, and lonely gay pet store owner, who is dragged, somewhat unwillingly into Exotica’s world.

The characters are slowly fleshed out, not only through their actions in the present, but through the slow reveal of their individual histories. As the film progresses, we see how each of the individual characters’ stories are deeply entangled with one another, in ways both known and unknown to the characters. I don’t want to get much more into the plot than that. To reveal much more would ruin the impact of the story.

Unlike films such as Crash (the racism one, not Cronenberg’s auto accident fetishism one) or the films of González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), the interweaving story lines of Exotica are not the result of grand spectacular events (car crashes seem to be a popular one). In fact, with one exception, none of the relationships in the film take place during the film, the vast majority are revealed slowly through flashbacks and characters’ histories. Egoyan paints a vivid world that by the end seems so small, so claustrophobic, that it is not only natural that these characters’ lives have tangled themselves up with one another, it would be almost unbelievable if they hadn’t.

It is a testament to Egoyan’s story telling ability that he takes a concept (the interweaving storylines of seemingly unrelated characters) that is so inherently contrived, and manages to tell a story that is so naturally convincing. Rather than spectacular, sensational events, Egoyan reminds us that all of our lives are naturally tied to the lives of all those around us, either in profound ways, or ways so subtle that we are totally unaware of them.

Upon finishing the movie, I remember thinking something along the lines of “oh, well, that was pretty good,” but I’ve been thinking about it for days. The more I think about it, the more I realize how good it was. The story is so well constructed and so subtly presented, that the more I reflect on it, the more I grow to really appreciate how good it was. I’m actually pretty disappointed that I sent it back to Netflix the next day, rather than watch one or two more times. It’s the kind of film that gets under my skin, and now I can’t stop thinking about it.

I would highly, highly recommend Exotica. It is a gloomy, moody, beautifully told story of how all life experiences, good, bad, and heartbreaking, impact everyone who comes in contact with it. Reminding us that all aspects of life are extremely fragile and their fallout contagious, spreading far and wide.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"I'm not a preacher and I'm not drunk. I'm a politician."

In 1962, character actor Timothy Carey released his labor of love, The World’s Greatest Sinner, which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. It took Carey four years to bring his vision to life, creating a bizarre, blasphemous, surreal cult masterpiece.

The World’s Greatest Sinner is about an insurance salesman named Clarence Hilliard (Carey), who decides one day that he is completely unfulfilled with his life. He quits his job to form a new political party, proclaiming that the only true God is man. He runs for president on a platform of promising entire life to all of his followers, deeming them “super-beings.” Along the way he starts a rock band, renames himself “God Hilliard,” and manages to incur the full wrath of God.

Think that sounds strange? That doesn’t even begin to describe the bizarre craziness that is The World’s Greatest Sinner.

The movie starts with Clarence Hilliard sitting at his desk at his insurance salesman job. After giving the entire office the day off for no reason, he takes a call from a woman looking to buy some life insurance. He convinces her that life insurance isn’t worth buying since “once you die, your body starts smelling pretty bad. They’ll just bury you for free eventually.” Shortly after this exchange, Clarence’s boss fires him.

Upon his return home, Clarence explains to his wife and daughter that he’s going to write a book. He’s going to change the world. Then he’s going to write another book. He’s going to run for president. He continues to plot out how he’s going to change the world in a manic craze, roping his more than willing gardener into his plan.

That night he goes to a teen dance club, where he witnesses the awesome power that rock’n’roll has over the teenie boppers. He returns that night, declaring that rock’n’roll is the perfect way for him to spread his gospel and gather followers. He and his gardener set out the next day, guitar in hand, to begin preaching on street corners and in vacant lots. Slowly but surely, his message of the supreme power of man, his promise of eternal life, and his unassailable enthusiasm begins winning over more and more followers.

Soon he starts a full rock’n’roll band, touring the country, holding crazed and unruly rock concerts that double as political rallies. As he continues to preach his message, Clarence begins to refer to himself as “God Hilliard,” declaring himself and his followers the only true gods. As his movement continues to gain members and momentum, God Hilliard becomes increasing manic, believing himself to be a true god. He starts seducing all women he comes in contact with, including the elderly and the underage. God even forces a follower who expressed doubt to commit suicide, proclaiming the follower’s doubt a symptom of his weakness, rendering him unfit for the power God would have given him.

God’s “political party” increasingly becomes a cult of personality, taking on tones of fascism as a mysterious, bispectacled campaign manager appears, blatantly feeding God’s delusions. Eventually God Hilliard begins openly challenging the Christian God, daring Him to prove His existence. Ultimately, this leads to a climatic confrontation in which God Hilliard teeters between repentance and full-blown megalomania.

I can honestly say that The World’s Greatest Sinner is one of the most bizarre movies I have ever seen. The premise is strange enough, but as a self-financed, independently filmed movie, shot over a number of years, the movie is imbued a number of surreal qualities. The editing is so bizarre that a scene will change seemingly before the previous scene has had a chance to end. Scenes are edited together in ways that make it difficult for the viewer to understand what is going on spatially (the poor film stock and lighting doesn’t help either). The dialogue is confusing and hard to follow. While all of this may make the film seem amateurish, it also lends it a nightmarish fever-dream quality. You vaguely know what’s going on, but you can’t really nail down specifics, be it what the characters are discussing, where the characters are, or how you got from scene A to scene B.

The movie appears to have been filmed in sequence, as some of these editing and lighting problems lessen as time goes on, suggesting they were figuring out the basics of filmmaking as they went along. As God Hilliard and his movement fly more and more off the rails, the viewing experience gets progressively more accessible. Though it never really obtains a level of normal competence, which is actually a good thing. As straightforward as the filmmaking gets, it maintains its difficult and surreal style throughout.

While The World’s Greatest Sinner takes on serious issues like religion, politics, media manipulation, and the corrupting natural of power, I do want to make it clear that the film is flat-out entertaining throughout. Be it the very strange and strangely powerful musical performances (pre-Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa wrote all the music) or moments of truly laugh out loud humor (a discussion Clarence has with his gardener about whether or not he should grow a goatee to look more like a real leader is fantastic – he compromises and starts wearing a glued on goatee), the movie is thoroughly enjoyable.

I would highly recommend tracking it down if you have any interest in bizarre cult movies, and have a high tolerance for borderline incompetent filmmaking. It is truly a mesmerizing, surreal, hilarious, and confusing viewing experience.

Single White Female v. Single White Female 2: The Psycho – A late night Lifetime Movie Network Showdown

This past Saturday I was supposed to attend a housewarming party at my friend Brencho’s new place. I got in my car and noticed that there was a warning light telling me my parking brake was on. This struck me as odd, seeing as I never use my parking brake. Turns out the light was actually warning me that my brakes didn’t work, because they didn’t. I pretty quickly figured out that my brakes essentially do nothing. After a very short, and somewhat terrifying, drive back home, I decided it would probably be best for everyone if I just stayed home.

Upon getting back to my apartment, it was 11pm on a Saturday and I had to decide what to do with myself. I had a couple of movies from Netflix I could watch. I could do some reading. Maybe spend the night having a few beers and listening to music. Or I could just go to bed at a reasonable time like a normal person. Then I found out that Single White Female was on the Lifetime Movie Network (which as you could probably guess, LMN is a channel that shows Lifetime movies 24 hours a day). I’d never seen Single White Female, and had the impression it was supposed to be a pretty good movie, or at the very least, campy, guilty fun. So Single White Female it was.

Bridget Fonda plays Allison, a beautiful, young, successful urbanite. When Allison discovers her fiancé cheated on her, she kicks him out of the apartment they share, and must take in a roommate in order to make rent. Enter Jennifer Jason Leigh as Hedra, an insecure and emotionally needy woman who by all appearances is the opposite of Allison. Naturally, Hedra becomes the roommate, and naturally, she turns out to be crazy.

I should confess, I missed the first 30-40 minutes of the movie (I think I was watching “The Soup” on E!). I missed all of the lead-in with Allison’s fiancé cheating on her, and Allison meeting Hedra (I checked the synopsis to catch up on what was going on, and subsequently stole it for the previous paragraph). By the time I came in, Allison and Hedra’s relationship had already developed into unhealthy and creepy codependence. Allison’s selfish ego was fed by Hedra’s lavish adoration. Hedra found confidence and a sense of self-importance by tying herself as close as possible to the seemingly have-it-all Allison.

Shortly thereafter, their relationship changes from unhealthy to dangerous. Hedra begins dressing in Allison’s clothes, and even cuts and dyes her hair to look like Allison’s (a bigger deal than it sounds, when you consider Allison had a pretty heinous super-short bob-cut that was dyed a ridiculously unnatural red). Eventually, Allison and her estranged fiancé begin to make amends, threatening to destroy her relationship with her new roommate. With her ego having been restored by Hedra’s attention and her reconciliation with her fiancé, Allison is about to kick Hedra to the curb, and resume her life as it was before. Hedra, seeing the object of her increasingly dangerous obsession pulling away from her, begins lashing out violently.

In what is probably the movie’s most famous scene, Hedra dons Allison’s clothes and perfume, and heads over to the fiancé’s apartment. She slips in and seduces the fiancé, who thinks it’s Allison until after they’ve had sex. After revealing herself post-coitus, Hedra explains that she knew the fiancé would cheat on Allison again, and has proven it by seducing him. As the ensuing argument escalates, Hedra stabs the fiancé in the eye with the heel of her stiletto. From there on out, it becomes a scramble by Hedra to hide everything while framing Allison for the murder.

The rest of the movie revolves around Allison trying to play off of Hedra’s obsession to escape her escalating rage, and Hedra trying to reconcile her love for Allison with her obsessive desire to destroy her. The second half of the movie becomes an emotional cat and mouse game between the dangerous and unstable Hedra and the frightened Allison.

Ultimately, the movie was pretty good. Not great, but a pretty solid thriller. Jennifer Jason Leigh as the emotionally unstable and needy Hedra was fantastic. Bridget Fonda was good as the vapid and selfish Allison. Director Barbet Schroeder lets the movie dip its toes into sensationalism, without letting it plunge headlong into ridiculousness. Overall, it ended up being better than I thought it would be.

Feeling pretty satisfied with Single White Female and the fact that it was now pushing 3am, I was about to go to bed when I saw that LMN was going to show Single White Female 2: The Psycho. Even the commercial made it look terrible, but I figured I could have another beer and watch a little before calling it a night. I ended up watching the entire thing and not getting to bed until 5am.

Single White Female 2: The Psycho immediately has a lot going against it. That subtitle should serve as a pretty big warning that the movie is going to suck in a very straight-to-DVD kind of way. Kristen Miller (“She Spies” – remember that show? No? Too bad, it was kind of awesome) takes over the Bridget Fonda role and Allison Lange (who has apparently been in nothing I’ve ever heard of) takes Jennifer Jason Leigh’s spot. The movie also starred Brooke Burns (who was on Baywatch, I think, but has since popped up periodically in a variety of places) and some actor whose name I don’t actually know (he was in one of the many “Saved By The Bell” rip-offs that ran on NBC’s Saturday mornings in the ‘90s and may have been on “Band of Brothers”). Not a very encouraging cast. By the end of the credit sequence, you can already tell you’re watching either a made-for-TV movie or, at best, a straight-to-DVD movie (after some terrible dubbing over of swear words later on, I figured it was the latter). Generally, it’s usually not a good sign when your sequel comes out a full 13 years after the original.

The plot is essentially the same as the original, just dumber. Holly is SWF2’s Allison. Tess is the new Hedra. Holly’s roommate sleeps with Holly’s boyfriend, prompting Holly to move out. She ends up moving in with Tess. Tess is sweet and insecure, Holly is confident and successful. Tess starts wearing Holly’s clothes and dyes her hair the same crazy red color. Holly gets back together with her boyfriend. Tess starts murdering people. Yadda-yadda-yadda.

Really, one of the only differences between the original and the sequel was that the sequel was terrible. Terribly acted, terribly written, terribly shot, edited, etc. and so on. Holly moves in with Tess, rather than the other way around. Holly’s roommate is the one who gets the stupid bob-cut this time around. There was some crap about Tess being into BDSM, but that really only seemed to come up as an excuse to shoot a scene in a sex club. Instead of something about a dead sister, Tess was crazy because of some botched suicide pact with her high school best friend. And the big climatic show-down between Holly and Tess was probably the least climatic ending I may have ever seen: Tess was about to stab some guy, Holly shoots her. The end.

Well, actually there was one more scene were Holly is in her new apartment with her boyfriend (unlike the original, he just gets almost killed, not full on killed), and she looks at a razor blade. Cue Tess’s face superimposed on the screen, delivering her speech about how death is the end to all pain. Holly looks thoughtfully (or what passes for Kristen Miller being thoughtful) at the razor, before smiling and gallivanting off with her boyfriend. (What the hell was the point of that?) Now, that’s the end.

After watching Single White Female and Single White Female 2: The Psycho back-to-back, I can confidently say, Single White Female was the better of the two, by far. That’s not saying much though, because SWF2 was embarrassingly bad. And after watching LMN for 4 hours straight, I can also confidently say that it was a night well spent. As bad as SWF2 was, it was totally worth staying up until 5am for. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of movie you would stay up watching on cable until 5am. Definitely worth it.

The movie starting at 5am was an actual Lifetime movie proper about a college professor who develops a dangerous obsession with a sexy young student. Looked pretty promising as far as Lifetime movies go (which are totally enjoyable in their own special way), but at that point I had to call it a night. Four hours of LMN? Awesome. Six hours of LMN? Maybe a little unnecessary.