OH, THE LACK OF HUMANITY: Junk and Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan

junkAs far as I’m concerned, Junk, the new movie about the independent film and film festival world, is the perfect example of what is right and wrong with American indie cinema today (I say indie as opposed to independent to distinguish it from movies made on a higher budget through major independent production companies).

On the right side, it’s to the credit of Kevin Hamedina and Ramon Isao (who wrote and star in it with Hamedina also directing) that they even got the movie made.  And it’s a well enough crafted film, I suppose.  I mean, it does demonstrate a certain amount of basic skill such that one could say that the movie works more or less on its own terms.

At the same time, and on the wrong side, that is about all one can say to it.  It’s there. It exists.  They got it made.  They didn’t exactly embarrass themselves.  They might do better in the future if they want to.

But it’s just…well..I…okay, I’m sorry, okay, I have to say it.  It also lacks ambition, shows no real imagination, doesn’t seem to have anything to say, has no real reason for existence, and is also more than a bit clunky and obvious, in direction, screenwriting and acting.   In the end, the movie never really comes together or works in any satisfying way.

The story revolves around two estranged hack filmmakers, Kaveh (Hamedini) and Raul (Isao), who, some time before, collaborated (pretty much in the same way they collaborated in real life here with Junk) on a grindhouse exploitation film, Islama-Rama 2.

Based on the scenes that we are shown of said film, it’s pretty awful.  I couldn’t even tell if it’s supposed to be satire or just an ineptly made bad movie.   Only Raul seems to understand how terrible it is, sometimes, here and there, but then again at other times not, I mean, I don’t know, I don’t know what to tell you.

Why they are estranged is probably mentioned somewhere in the movie, but I don’t remember and can’t really say, and it doesn’t seem to be driving the movie in any serious way, so I’m not sure why it’s part of the plot.

But to the filmmakers’ surprise, this movie they’ve forgotten about gets accepted into the Outsider Film Festival, and Kaveh’s agent (yeah, he has an agent, don’t ask me how based on the quality of Kaveh’s output, but he does, which might say tons more about the state of movie making in this country that this film as a whole…but, I digress)…

Kaveh’s agent wants him to make nice with Raul and go to the festival with the idea of pitching some sort of remake of a sequel to a sequel of a remake to a horror film (any horror film, the agent doesn’t care as long as they sell it) to Yukio Tai, a legendary Japanese director of B-films who will be there to get an award.

And thus the basic plot is set in motion.  I mean there are other through lines concerning ex-girlfriends; the egocentric, homophobic lead actor of their terrible movie; some competitors they hate who make art house films.   But this is basically it.

There’s not a lot of subtlety anywhere here, not in the writing, directing or acting.   Deft is certainly not a word that one will find in Hamedini and Isao’s thesaurus.  Everything is pretty on the nose (especially if your nose is Cyrano de Bergerac’s) and a bit much and forced.

And as the story goes on, our two frick and fracks go from annoying, to annoyinger to annoyingest.

It culminates with an orgy that leaves a bad taste in both of their mouths (in more ways than one).  Kaveh ends up being his usually clinging, needy self and is rejected by the woman he’s interested in while Raul has buyer’s remorse, feeling waves of Hamletian anguish and guilt over cheating on his wife (I’d feel for him if he hadn’t been flirting with the opposite sex all the way through the movie such that his morning after felt more like crocodile tears than true shame).

It’s not that there aren’t some redeeming features.  There’s one pretty neat twist toward the end concerning Hamedini’s love life; there’s a shocking moment when out of nowhere their actor gets hit by a car and runs off screaming, “I’ve been hit by a car, I’ve been hit by a car” that is almost transcendent; and Hemedini and Isao have some nice chemistry together with Isao having one great moment where he mimics autoerotic asphyxiation in order to mock Hemedini.

The movie is also filled with scenes from movies the characters have made or, more depressingly, dream of getting made.  All are over the top approaching camp, if not kitsch (which may or may not be the point, hell if I know).

But Hamadeni and Isao’s satire feels dated or just plain misses the boat.  They come up with an idea about a Gremlins’ sequel with punch lines (mainly revolving around the rules of owning a Mogwai) that feel like they’re older than the film they are making fun of.

And the spoof of what they think an art house film looks like looks like no film I’ve ever seen (The Simpsons and Family Guy have done much more spot on parodies).  If you want to see a send-up that really gets it right, try Not Another Sundance Movie (google it, it’s hysterical and does more in its three minutes than this movie does in an hour and forty-five).

I don’t even know why these filmmakers in the movie are making movies.  They’re obviously so bad at it.  So why do they bother?  And it’s a little hard to become interested in characters who give you nothing, who are bland and formulaic, and who are so talentless (at one point Isao says one of his major influences is Ozu, but he says it so seriously, I don’t know if it’s a suppose to be a joke or not, because, believe me, I find it hard to believe he’d know an Ozu film if it bit him in the ass).

And it’s even harder to become interested in a movie that seems so unimaginative and pointless.

I know I’ve been very hard on this film and even harder on the filmmakers.  But it’s not that I want them to not make movies.  I just want them to make better ones.

I just want them to make movies with a passion or that mean something to them (not even to me, just to them).

I want them to make movies in which I know why they are making movies (something that is never remotely revealed about their filmic alter egos).

I don’t want them making movies just to show they can make a movie, which to me, is about all they’ve done here.

With George Hardy, the father from Troll 2, in an inside joke cameo as a somewhat toady motel manager.

madamsatanposterMadam Satan, Cecil B. Demille’s 1930 movie that climaxes with a costume party on a zeppelin that gets struck by lighting and starts “sinking” like the Titanic, is a disaster film in more ways than one.  It went so over budget, got blasted by the critics and did such bad box office that DeMille fled to Europe without the certainty that he would ever make another film in the U.S. again.

Spoiler alert: He did.

But it’s just a tad hard to feel sorry for old Cecil B. because Madam Satan’s so terrible, it doesn’t even rise up to camp as so many of his movies, like the Ten Commandments, do now.

It’s probably not all his fault.  It is a musical after all, believe it or not, and let’s just say that perhaps that’s a suit of clothes that didn’t fit DeMille any better than it did Hitchcock when he directed Strauss’ Great Waltz.  It’s not until DeMille’s able to put on a new set of garments, the zeppelin disaster, that he can find any magic to cast onto the proceedings.

The story basically revolves around a floundering marriage.  Bob has Peter Pan Syndrome and his wife Angela is boring in bed so he takes on a mistress, chorus girl Trixie, who is more than happy that Bob is married.  Angela, desperate to prove she can out vix any vixen in the city, goes to the party dressed as Madam Satan, and woos her husband back without him knowing she is really his wife.

But even pre-code Hollywood (and DeMille’s morality) had its limits and before the two can have sex and the party can turn into an orgy, the angry hand of god strikes the dirigible with a thunderbolt and it all comes crashing down.

The movie is not without its oddities.  The party stops at one point for a ballet mecanique with legendary dancer Theodore Kosloff as Electricity doing a tribute to power complete with leather harness (Love it, as Carmen Ghia says in The Producers) and bolts of electricity coming out of his costume (it has to be seen to be believed if you want to know the definition of kitsch).

And there’s a patter song revolving around auctioning off some of the women that gets its laughs even if the idea of selling women to the highest bidder might make you a little queasy.

But DeMille can never get the pacing right and Kay Johnson as Angela and Reginald Denny as Bob are pretty dreary.

Only Roland Young, as a dipsomaniac playboy who throws the party can do anything with this role.  He says his lines as if they were Oscar Wilde (they’re not, they’re not even Dorothy Parker or Robert Benchly, who DeMille wanted but couldn’t, but still, they hit their mark more often than not when Young says them) and he’s the only one in the cast with any sort of dramatic or comic timing.

He actually pulls off the patter song somehow; don’t ask me how, but he does.

Written by Jeanie Macpherson, Gladys Unger and Elsie Janis.  One critic said that the screenplay was credited to three writers, but it does none of them credit.  I’m not so sure the problem was as much with them as the director and acting, but still, I suppose he has a point.

The whole thing ends on a sort of interesting bit of double standard morality.  When Bob didn’t know his wife was Madam Satan, he wanted to ravish her.  When he found out, he lost his erection…very fast.  In other words, he complains that his wife is boring in bed until she isn’t and then is outraged that she has sexual feelings.

The more things change the more they stay the same, I suppose.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Sunday with Madam Satan | Karavansara

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