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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 50 years on, 'Pink Flamingos' is still...

Screen Grabs: 50 years on, ‘Pink Flamingos’ is still a delightfully absurdist shock

Plus: Timely tales of Russian-European friendship and war, Unnamed Footage Fest, Hawaiian psychedelia, more

Much was recently made about The Godfather’s 50th anniversary, with a theatrical re-release a couple weeks ago honoring a film that for a short while was the highest-grossing of all time. Its popular influence remains large, from obvious heirs like “The Sopranos” to the “operatic” angst now commonplace amongst certain comic-book movies. But equally influential in its way was a feature whose March 17, 1972 premiere on the University of Baltimore campus provoked disgust as well as delight. Though he’d made two features already, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos was a first for him, as well as most of its eventual audiences: It was compulsively watchable (those prior efforts remain tough sits), yet near-unwatchably repulsive to many.

Of course, that latter effect was entirely deliberate. Casting Divine as Babs Johnson, self-appointed “Filthiest Person Alive” (a title she’ll kill to keep), its outlandish criminal hijinks were advertised with the tagline “An Exercise In Poor Taste.” The star eating dog poo in a short epilogue won most of the initial notoriety, but Flamingos endures because its nihilist trailer-park costume party absurdism is a comic universe unto itself—a whole much more than the sum of a few shocking parts. Slowly accruing a following (in part due to New Line Cinema’s ingenious trailer, which showed only stunned viewer reactions after screenings), it wound up being a major driver of the “midnight movie” trend that lasted well into the 1980s, as important in that regard as the later Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead.

You could argue that Water’s next film Female Trouble was his (and Divine’s) trash zenith, or that his later mainsteam stabs Polyester and Hairspray were more accessible. But Pink Flamingos giddily broke taboos that stayed broken; its proto-punk, drag-camp sensibility would, like so many “underground” ideas, eventually be embraced by a mainstream that still couldn’t/wouldn’t quite stomach the original model. Strangely, nobody seems to be programming the film locally in tribute to its half-century milestone. But don’t let that stop you from dusting off that VHS tape, or making a streaming rental.

Found Footage Fiesta

While snobs and prudes continued to decry Waters’ works as glorified “home movies” for some time to come, even they couldn’t have imagined a day when (outside the realm of porn at least) faux home movies would constitute a genre unto themselves. Yet since the original Blair Witch Project in 1999, “found footage horror” has been a thing. It was hardly the first feature to deploy such a concept (that what we’re watching is “real” material shot by onscreen protagonists), but it was such a commercial success that entire franchises like the Paranormal Activity, [REC], V/H/S, and Grave Encounters films soon sprang up in imitation. Nor is it going anyway anytime soon: Just a few days ago, the SXSW festival in Austin opened with Deadstream, a horror comedy about a live-streamer in a haunted house.

Many of these movies are so repetitive and uninspired, you might wish their wobbly-cam, “OMG I’m so scared now!!” ilk had never come into being. Yet every year there’s one, two or more examples with enough fresh ideas to remind that there’s room for innovation yet. Hopefully some of them will be found in Unnamed Footage Festival 5, the latest edition of an annual extravaganza dedicated entirely to the subgenre. (Why, one may ask, isn’t it called the Found Footage Festival? Presumably because something rather wonderful—but entirely different—named exactly that has already existed since 2004) Sprawling over several San Francisco venues, it begins Tue/15 at the Alamo Drafthouse with a special revival screening of Scott Glosserman’s 2006 Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a slasher sendup that does not spare the gore, laughs, or Robert Englund.

The official opener at Artists Television Access on Thu/17 is Bad Ben 7: The Haunted Highway, latest in a series by producer-director-writer-star Nigel Bach that you’ve probably never heard of. (One must credit him for chutzpah: The third entry five years ago was called Badder Ben: The Final Chapter.) UFF shifts to the Roxie Fri/18 for Richard Parry’s The Base, then to the Balboa for two full days (Sat/19-Sun/30) of mostly new features with such savory titles as Masking Threshold, He’s Watching, Malibu Horror Story, The Gerber Syndrome: Il Contagio, and Putrefixion. All-access and day passes are available as well as single tickets; for full schedule, program and ticket info, go here.

Other new arrivals to arthouses and streaming this week roam the globe:

Compartment No. 6
Bumped from a scheduled opening at the Embarcadero last month when that venue abruptly closed, Juho Kuosmanen’s Cannes Grand Prix winner arrives at a time when its tale of reluctant rapproachement between a European and a Russian is all the more poignantly meaningful. Finnish archaeology student Laura (Seidi Haarla) is in Moscow, lodging in the apartment of a landlady (Dina Drukarova) with whom she has a relationship considerably more than just transactional. Yet her hostess-lover cancels on their planned trip together to view petroglyphs in the country’s far north, leaving her make the long train journey alone.

Well, not entirely alone: Laura is displeased to realize she’ll be sharing her sleeper car with Ljoha (Yurij Borisov), who’s heading to Murmansk to work as miner, and wastes little time before getting loud and drunk en route. But he’s not as noxious as he first appears, nor she as stand-offish. This isn’t a romance, but rather a low-key seriocomedy about two people who despite all obvious differences recognize enough in one another to become true friends. It’s a small, unassuming movie, but also a rewarding one. Compartment is currently playing the Kabuki, Albany Twin and Rafael Film Center, expanding into farther-flung Greater Bay Area locations this Fr/18.

The conflict between nations and cultures is hardly metaphorical in this first film from French editorial cartoonist Aurel. It is, like the acclaimed recent Flee, an excellent use of animation to dramatize a real-life story of very grown-up tenor and pressing political relevance. Left to mind his dying grandfather for an afternoon, a bored teen discovers a notebook of drawings amongst Gramps’ possessions—and is told about his unpleasant tenure just pre-WW2 as a guard in an internment camp for refugees from the Spanish Civil War after Franco’s Nationalist forces and his dictatorship prevailed.

Eschewing the xenophobic cruelty of his colleagues, he became friends with Josep Bartoli, a prisoner with a talent for drawing. That knack would eventually take him far, including to the bed of fellow artist Frida Kahlo. But this film is primarily about life in the brutal camp—where the protagonists’ Shawshank Redemption-like bond is one among very few rays of sunshine. Drawn in a simple but evocative graphic-novel style, this is not an aesthetically dazzling animated feature, but its unshowy nature underlines the considerable emotional power of the story. Icarus Films releases Josep to DVD on Tues/15; it’s also available for streaming on OVID.TV.

Rock Bottom Riser
If it’s visual spectacle you’re after, you could do a lot worse than Fern Silva’s first feature, an experimental documentary whose essayistic take on Hawaii operates from both a colonialist-history and geological perspective. Actually, its collage of elements free-ranges from Paul Simon’s “I Am A Rock” to The Rock, from celestial navigation to underwater photography, astrophysics lecture to grandiose theatrical recitation, from vape shop (where many an impressive smoke-ring is blown) to tons of majestically infernal lava-flow footage.

Speculating variously on the islands’ “settler state” and issues of “decolonizing science” (native Hawaiians have protested giant telescopes atop sacred-land peaks), provides a lot to chew on. Some may resent the fact that its survey is so unpredictable, without an apparent thesis statement. But the sights afforded are often stupendous, not least a final shot of tow-in surfing to die for. And I like that it appropriates the title of my favorite Smog song without even including the thing on its soundtrack. The Roxie is playing Rock Bottom Riser on 35mm Tues/15-Thurs/17.

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs
Also offering some eye-filling excitement in a context resistant to easy interpretation is Pushpendra Singh’s Indian feature, which is inspired both by 14th century Kashmiri mystic poet Lalleshwari and recently deceased Rajasthani literature titan Vijaydan Detha. In a modern yet timeless jungle settlement on the India-Pakistan border, Laila (Navjot Randhawa) gets reluctantly married off to a tribesman who wins that honor simply by lifting a heavy rock—as opposed to, say, asking her consent. Even wedlock does not prevent her still being constantly being spied upon and harassed for her famed beauty. Still, she is no shrinking violet, fending off the advances of a military patrol commander despite the harm that might invite to her nomadic peoples.

Divided into the seven songs of the title, with some lovely music to match, this alternately comedic and meditative piece may recall the folkloric cinema of Soviet cinema great Sergei Parajanov, a Ukraine emigre. While similarly enigmatic as a storyteller, Singh is less formal in his visual enchantments, more interested in nature than artifice. The film keeps us at a certain detached emotional distance, yet Laila’s very hard-won final independence does have a resonant splendor. The Shepherdess is releasing to US On Demand platforms Tues/15.

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