Oct 9, 2012

Madame Wang's

Always the charming and progressive celluloid cynic, anti-aesthetic auteur Paul Morrissey (Trash, Women in Revolt) left virtually nil nihilistically hedonistic American counter-culture group unscathed with his conservative-meets-trash filmic odysseys, so, naturally, when the decidedly destructive punk subculture reared its ugly Mohawk-adorned head during the late-1970s/early-1980s, it was only a matter of time before the factory filmmaker deconstructed the (non)ethos of the movement, swirled it around in a maggot-infested consumerist trashcan, and documented it for the untrained, weary eyes of cretinous fashion victims to see via Madame Wang's (1981). Centering around an East German KBG agent named Lutz (played by German medical student Patrick Schoene in his first and only acting role) who comes to Los Angeles, CA to spark a communist revolution by recruiting “hippies, Americans who hate their country” and Jane Fonda, but eventually gets caught up in the less than dainty disorder of creative panhandling and the L.A. punk scene, Madame Wang’s is a work that is critical of both capitalism and communism, although the former political persuasion takes the larger brunt of Morrissey’s bodacious misanthropic musings and moralizing. Like virtually all of Morrissey’s cinematic works, Madame Wang’s is a keenly unkind kitsch arthouse piece that – unlike the degenerate-friendly films of fellow camp filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living) – maliciously mocks the miserable army of dastardly streetwalking delinquents that it depicts. In his implementation of a tall, dark, and handsome Nordic man of foreign origins with a stoic and deadly serious demeanor, Morrissey has recognized (longer after he finished the film) that protagonist Lutz is his vague alter-ego; a sound mind trapped in a nightmarish no man’s land where traditional Occidental mores have been traded in unwaveringly for nihilistic hedonism and glorified (yet undignified) self-worship that is typical of late period civilization that, in terms of theme, is not totally out of line with Federico Fellini's timely depiction of imperial Rome in his decadent epic Satyricon (1969). Stereotypical, aloof and robotic in movement, Lutz is to Madame Wang's what Arnold Schwarzenegger would later be for James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984); an unwittingly witty gardener of human weeds, but unlike the charismatic cyborg assassin, the cryptic-communist kraut commando has more of a proclivity towards brutalizing himself than sorting out leftist revolutionaries from the future. More punk than Sid Vicious’ postmortem smegma, Madame Wang's is a thematically insane indictment of the United States with a grandiosely gritty garbage dump aesthetic that only a seasoned pessimist could love.

 After jumping ship in the Pacific ocean and swimming ashore, Lutz’s first duty as a would-be martyr of Marxism is to cut himself up with his only piece of luggage; a sharp switchblade. As depicted early on in Madame Wang's, likeable loon Lutz is a stoic sadomasochist who is ashamed of the artificial Soviet nation state he carries out espionage for, as expressed by his irksome response and lack of answer when asked about his curious country of origin. Not long after leaving the sewage-covered seaside, Lutz encounters a pretty prostitute (listed as ‘Girl in Temple’ in the film's credits and played by Morrissey real-life niece Christina Indri) who introduces him to her unconventional family of lapsed hippies, gay Buddhist gurus, intolerable drag queens, and petty, pathetic criminals that live in a post-industrial wasteland of sorts where trading worthless garbage makes for the sub-subculture's most vital currency. The middle-aged members of the decisively disgusting derelict group range from odious, obese drag queens to pathetic purveyors of Eastern religions, but what they all have in common is that they are all perverted and unscrupulous ex-hippie degenerates that – being the putrid parasites they are – hope to use protagonist Lutz for some sort of unsavory ghetto-level capitalist scheme. Undoubtedly, one of the most interesting and wildly idiosyncratic characters in Madame Wang’s is a fiercely flaming fag pimp/door knob fetishist (listed as ‘door knob collector’ in the film’s credits and played by off-off-Broadway star William Edgar) with probably every discombobulating mental affliction known to man, hence his obscenely ostentatious obnoxious and his complete and utter lack of personal integrity. Not far behind in libertine lunacy is a morbidly obese ex-hippie-turned transvestite (played by Jimmy Maddows) who is the sole parent of Lutz’s hooker friend and a fat and seemingly half-retarded blonde boy that is addicted to McDonald's hamburgers and flatulence. The man-mother feels that,“It’s not easy being a single parent, both mother and father, to two kids,” hence why s/he recruits Lutz for robbing cars and wallets, which is totally unbecoming for an East German who states, “If I have any success here it’s because I have discipline” in a country where any and everything has a price and getting rich by whatever deplorable means necessary is the highest of virtues, especially for those individuals that have the honor of living in L.A. Shot in part at the Long Beach Masonic Temple, which was owned by Jack Simmons, who also acted as the financial backer of Madame Wang’s upon the agreement with Morrissey that he would use his building as a set for the film. Needless to say, the iconic superstructure makes for a sneering yet strangely symbolic place for Lutz and the hobo family squat, as the currency they so perilously crave is garnished with the same masonic symbols featured in their humble abode. Although Lutz believes he, “should become something like Che Guevara,” out of necessity and to hide his Stasi origin, he is forced to take up odd jobs including being a pimp, prostitute, and punk rocker. Out of all of these particularly pathetic street person trades, Lutz – a miserable yet indomitable masochistic commie twink – seems to best excel at being a punk rocker due to his preternatural propensity for slashing himself with his beloved switchblade, but this anomalistic career choice doesn’t last long as the East German declares he “would rather do anything – anything than this.” In a scene echoing the erratic and musically inept stage performances of The Germs frontman Darby Crash – a fascistic junky homo-punk demigod inspired by Mussolini, Nietzsche, and Spengler (hence the most probable title origin of Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization) who believed in supreme order – Lutz ironically uses his communist anti-individualistic self-discipline to mutilate himself for a shocked audience that  mistakenly believes his actions to be a display a of individualistic visceral punkness at Madame Wang’s (played by Ziegfeld girl Virginia Bruce in her last acting role) punk rock Chinese restaurant, which was based on a real-life L.A. punk venue owned by a certain Esther Wong.

 Although Madame Wang’s features amateurish direction not much better than the "Paul Morrissey Trilogy" (Flesh, Trash, Heat), horrid and sometimes inaudible sound, and set and costume design that would probably even offend barmaid-turned-thrift store proprietor-turned-John-Waters-superstar Edith Massey (Female Trouble, Love Letter to Edie), it was indubitably a conscious decision on the director’s part as his previous work The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978) – a comedic period piece and spoof – proved Morrissey was more than just a crude creator of risqué X-rated home videos. Probably more than any of his films, Madame Wang’s manages to be both an insightful reflection and relentless roast of the intrinsically valueless subculture it depicts. Featuring musically inept lesbian folksingers with totally talentless tot song lyrics like, “I like Charlotte, I think she’s so swell and if you don’t like her Buster you can burn in Hell,” a seemingly half-retarded, Johnny Thunders-like singer that throws infantile temper tantrums while on stage, and performances from real-life punk acts like The Mentors and Phranc, the self-described "All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger," Madame Wang’s is debauched enough for most real-life punk rockers to enjoy, even if they have no inkling to the fact that Morrissey is relentlessly poking fun at them with his film.  In the end, a brainwashed Aryan of the Marxist persuasion proves to be the most individualistic nonconformist punk rocker, but rather absurdly, it was only through collectivist communist brainwashing that he was able to persevere in a foreign land where freedom and self-expression is touted as one of the country's greatest virtues.  Forever tainted by capitalism and punk, Lutz leaves America with the decision that he will no longer help spark a communist revolution, declaring, "I don't care anymore, it's their problem."  I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that in Madame Wang's and virtually all of Morrissey's other cinematic works, liberalism, counter-culture idealism, and consumer capitalism are no less worse deleterious against one's soul than spiritual syphilis.

-Ty E

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