May 14, 2014
The National Socialists and their kindred spirits may have been wrong about a couple of things, but they were totally right in regard to the debasing and degenerating power of cities, or as Teutonic Conservative Revolutionary philosopher Oswald Spengler—a man who prophesized a number of the societal ills that now plague the Occident—once wrote, “Long ago the country bore the country-town and nourished it with her best blood. Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country.” Indeed, the soul-sucking metropolis has the power to turn a rampantly heterosexual country cowboy into a morally corrupt campy cocksucker who moonlights as a drag queen, or so one learns in a much neglected celluloid cult item. In the fiercely farcical piece of unfortunately but unsurprisingly forgotten psychotronic low-camp celluloid Exquisite Corpses (1989) aka Deadly Cabaret directed by Venezuelan auteur Temístocles López (Chain of Desire, Bird of Prey) just that happens, as a work that follows a conservative country boy of the happily heterosexual sort who relocates to NYC and degenerates into the the kept-man of a conspicuously gay casting agent, who transforms the sub-literate cowboy into a flamboyant cabaret singer in what is indubitably one of the most wanton and whacked-out reworkings of Pygmalion ever made. I do not know how many Midnight Cowboy (1969) rip-offs exist, but Exquisite Corpses most certainly has to be the most insanely idiosyncratic one, as a work that is part erotic thriller, part cabaret musical with Vaudevillian undertones, part campy dark comedy of the innately immoral sort, and part political satire of the loony left-wing variety. As one can expect from such an aesthetically and thematically ambitious low-budget film that attempts to do a million things at once, Exquisite Corpses is a major mess that falls apart at the seams, yet that is one of its greatest appeals as a marvelously mystifying and never mundane mess of a would-be-midnight-movie that deserves a cult following, if only a minor cult following as a work that was made with seemingly no audience in mind aside from diehard cinephiles with an appreciation for unhinged camp, genre mutilation, and/or the belated beauteous bad girl Zoë Tamerlis Lund. Directed by a man who worked as a stage director in the mid-1970s and directed classic plays as varied as Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Cocteau’s The Knights of the Round Table and Goethe’s Faust and who co-penned the script for the Salvador Dalí biopic Dalí (1991), Exquisite Corpses was clearly helmed by a man with a vast understanding of European art, culture, and cinema, yet it is a film that wallows in conscious bad taste and reeks of 1980s low kultur cheese, cardboard kitsch, and all around thematic and aesthetic tomfoolery of the pomo homo sort. I discovered the film by happenstance after reading an article about junky actress/model/writer Zoë Lund, who is probably best known for her iconic role in Abel Ferrara’s artsploitation flick Ms. 45 (1981) and co-penning the script and shooting up junk in Bad Lieutenant (1992), and I must admit that the tragic little lady steals the show as a lethally lecherous femme fatale who ultimately proves to be no match for the always conspiring minds of communist spies and jealous shitstabbers. An exotic Europid of half Swedish and half Romanian extraction, Lund demonstrates in the film her talent for enticing an eclectic selection of men, but being a queer work, she ultimately meets a tragic fate in a work that uses a role reversal of typical film noir conventions, thus also making the film a work of resentful and somewhat misogynistic fag fantasy.
Tim Lee (Gary Knox) is a confederate cowboy who moonlights as a tromboner that moves to seedy late-1980s Manhattan because he plans to marry his stereotypically dumb blonde girlfriend Sue (Ruth Collins), yet on his first day there, not only does he get dumped by his fiancée for a decidedly dumb rocker named Jim (played by David Ilku, who made his acting debut in the cult classic Liquid Sky), but he also gets robbed by a gang of rowdy metal head degenerates. When Tim goes to a bar the same night, some hustler scams him out of most of his money for something called ‘megabucks,’ which he naturally does not deliver and a Call Girl (Zoë Lund) attempts to swindle the rest of his money, but he does not have enough to give. When Tim plays his trombone in public in a pathetic attempt to beg for cash, a blond art fag/urban alchemist asks him to stand next to a pile of dog feces that he has spraypainted gold so that he can take a photo. Indeed, the Art Fag is working on a pretentious art project entitled ‘Freud Redux,’ describing the major theme of the project as follows, “Freud had this theory equating excrement with money…anally retentive nature of capital…excrement is money, gold is excrement, excrement is gold thing.” Later on that day, Tim turns down a ponytailed pansy club owner (ironically, played by Zoë Lund’s rampantly heterosexual husband Robert Lund) down for a job because he cannot see himself working for a flaming ‘fag’ at a club frequented by a bunch of flamboyant fruits and fairies. When Tim is approached by a gay casting agent named Lou (Frank Roccio) and flattered with the compliment “I can tell…by your bone structure. You have a very expressive face,” he agrees to demonstrate his 'talent' for the horny homo. When Tim goes to Lou’s apartment, the sexually voracious queen begins feeling him up, with the moronic cowboy asking, “What…is this some kind of method exercise or something?,” as if it was not patently obvious that the cultured poof wanted to get in his pants. Needless to say, Tim leaves without a job because he has yet to become desperate enough to sell his pole and hole to a flagrant fairy. Out of abject desperation, Tim tries in vain to get jobs ranging from working at an Art Deco gallery to slavishly serving at sleazy restaurants, but no one will hire him and he eventually becomes homeless, even losing his much cherished trombone and all his other possessions in the process after being evicted for failing to pay his rent. Tim is even robbed at scissorpoint by a raving whack-job with a horrendous haircut, but he has no cash to give his exceedingly eccentric attacker. While walking the streets, Tim meets an eccentric old homeless spoken word artist with a pet chihuahua who teaches him to love with a pure heart and even wish his enemies good luck. Of course, Tim eventually becomes the unwitting victim of both friends and foes, but luckily he develops a pseudo-romantic relationship with a faithful fag who will save his loser life.
Finally fed up with being homeless and seeing bums dying while sleeping with trash bags for blankets, Tim opts for going back to gay casting director Lou, who gives him a complete queer-eye-for-the-straight-guy makeover, including a new wardrobe, accent, and, most importantly, new pompous prick attitude, but it comes at the cost of his rampant heterosexuality and unique urban cowboy persona. Indeed, Tim sells his soul to sodomy and almost instantly becomes a cultivated cocksucker and hit cabaret performer, who even dresses in drag from time to time, after becoming Lou's slavish lover. While at a tryout session for a club gig, Tim bumps into his ex-girlfriend Sue and her boyfriend Tim, who is playing with his band and demonstrates his undeniably unique talent by farting into a microphone. While Lou is ostensibly his boyfriend/mentor/sugar daddy, Tim begins a romance with a fellow cabaret performer named Belinda Maloney (Zoë Lund), who he previously met when she was working incognito as a high dollar hooker and who is married to a rather wealthy fellow named Pat Maloney (Chuck Perley). Of course, although he gives her three orgasms a sex session, Belinda has ulterior motives for fucking Tim as she wants to use him to kill her hubby, but little does she realize that husband Pat has also hired him for his own ends. While Tim does ostensibly murder Pat by shooting him in front of Belinda, the man is really not dead as the whole thing is part of an elaborate charade to fool the femme fatale. Among other things, Pat is really a Soviet spy and he is in cahoots with the CIA. As a Yiddish spy named ‘Spitz’ (who is really Pat in disguise) tells Belinda regarding Pat, he is apparently, “the most honorable and brilliant Russian spy to ever set foot in this country. Unlike the Reagan administration, he has never been caught in his multiple and varied secret deals. As a matter of fact, he just completed his final assignment with the willing collaboration of the pentagon. Thanks to him, the Kremlin now possesses the ultra Star Wars secret plans.” Eventually, Tim is arrested for the dubious murder of his lady lover by a sleazy Policeman (Robert DiTillio), who has been spying on the lapsed Cowboy's affair with Belinda and has secretly recorded everything they have done together, that is working with Pat (the two do a secret chant, “Until victory or destruction, with secret devotion, the world will be ours.”), but luckily lover boy Lou comes to his rescue while in drag and demands while pointing a gun at the corrupt cop, “I want you to set my baby free.” In the end, Tim gets out of prison and goes to Paris with his ex-girlfriend Sue and Lou as strikingly attractive ménage a trios. To go back to Spengler regarding the sort of person it takes to survive in NYC (a common theme throughout the entire film): “In place of a world, there is a city, a point, in which the whole life of broad regions is collecting while the rest dries up. In place of a type-true people, born of and grown on the soil, there is a new sort of nomad, cohering unstably in fluid masses, the parasitical city dweller, traditionless, utterly matter-of-fact, religionless, clever, unfruitful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman and especially that highest form of countryman, the country gentleman.”
Undoubtedly, aside from the absurdly underrated Belgian-Dutch-French coproduction Mascara (1987) directed by Patrick Conrad and starring Charlotte Rampling, which is like a Werner Schroeter film meets a Hollyweird murder mystery, Exquisite Corpses is one of the most ambitious attempts at mixing camp with film noir genre clichés. Apparently, auteur Temístocles López was such a queen on the set of the film that star Zoë Lund described him as, “an impossible director.” Ultimately, Exquisite Corpses seems like a sick sodomite fantasy covered in grotesque glitter and glam as a work where a manly cowboy is converted to homosexuality out of desperation, the femme fatale who steals a man from a man is murdered, and a flagrantly faggy fellow becomes the main hero in the end. A sardonically playful piece where characters are more like intentionally shallow stereotypes/crude archetypes than actual individuals with real emotions and the CIA is portrayed as an even more innately evil entity than the KBG, Temístocles' film is certainly a work that was sown in deep, if not obscured, hatred, but it is also inconspicuously sprinkled with sod sugar on top so as to make it more palatable for so-called ‘heteronormative’ people. Of course, Temístocles failed in that regard as Exquisite Corpses is far too campy, convoluted, and just downright debauched to appeal to the tastes of the typical Hollywood-lobotomized automaton, hence why the film is all but totally unknown today, except among diehard Zoë Lund fans. The most audacious reworking of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1912) since Radley Metzger’s porn chic hardcore flick The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976) starring Constance Money and Jamie Gillis as a camp-ridden black comedy musical farce where a conservative cowboy is inexplicably transformed into a charming and cultured avant-garde cabaret artist virtually overnight, Exquisite Corpses is nothing, if not a piece of patently perverse postmodernism that actually manages to rise above pretense and puffery, as it buries its eclectic source influences under a playfully putrid pile of eccentricity and pageantry. Like the films of kraut queer auteur filmmakers like Rosa von Praunheim (i.e. Tally Brown, New York, Überleben in New York aka Survival in New York), Walter Bockmayer (i.e. Flammende Herzen aka Flaming Hearts), and Monika Treut (i.e. My Father is Coming), Exquisite Corpses features a romanticized outsider’s depiction of the rotten Big Apple that lingers between heaven and hell in terms of its various subcultures and (non)mores. With that being said, one must also note that the film is more effective in capturing the essence of NYC than virtually any of the films associated with the so-called Cinema of Transgression and related film movements, even though it employs camp and satire in a patently preposterous fashion. Indeed, Exquisite Corpses features a sort of sometimes nefarious neo-Weimar microcosm where sexual and monetary deceit is the name of the game, thus making the film like the Cabaret of obscure NYC cult flicks, albeit infinitely more outrageous, if not nonsensical, not to mention the fact that Zoë Lund gives what is arguably the most mystifying performance of her short but nonetheless notable acting career. That being said, Exquisite Corpses is mandatory viewing for any self-respecting camp connoisseur and/or Lundphile.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 11:21 PM
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