Sep 15, 2015

Betaville (1986)

While the daughters of Hebraic lawyers are not exactly the sort of people you would typically expect to be involved in any half-serious avant-garde cinema movement, such is certainly the case with Alyce Wittenstein (Rent a Wreck, Multiple Futures), who is one of the more obscure figures associated with the Cinema of Transgression movement and who was apparently once labeled the, “Queen of the New York Underground.” Like many of the films associated with both the No Wave and Cinema of Transgression scenes, Wittenstein’s fairly obscure cinematic works are not exactly easy to find, yet I managed to stumble upon her kaleidoscopic 20-minute dystopian farce Betaville (1986), which was marketed as “A Post-Modern Nightmare” and is probably best described as a satire of Jean-Luc Godard’s obnoxiously minimalistic (anti)sci-fi flick Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965) aka Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution as directed by an overly scene conscious chick who seemed more interested in making a sequel to Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky (1982) than lampooning the style of some unintentionally goofy frog commie filmmaker. While directed, co-written, and produced by Wittenstein, the film owes a great deal of its charm, character, and aesthetic integrity to lead actor Steve Ostringer, who also acted as the co-writer and production designer (in fact, he would work in the same capacity on virtually every one of Wittenstein’s other films, thus one could argue that all of these cinematic works really have two central auteurs). As its ironical title somewhat hints, Betaville is set in a dystopian realm of perennially sneering beta-bitch man-pussies, albeit of the somewhat idiosyncratic stripe as most of these exceedingly effete fellows look as if they had been run over a by an ice cream truck that was driven by Klaus Nomi and John Sex while the former was inseminating the latter with AIDS. In other words, the flagrantly fairy-like fellows featured in Wittenstein’s fairly politically incorrect flick are not even fit to shine Eddie ‘Lemmy Caution’ Constantine’s shoes, or so the outmoded pseudo-alpha-male protagonist of the film discovers as he watches in compulsively cynical horror as his beloved city degenerates into one big gigantic fag New Romanticist-esque fashion show where traditional film noir men fall prey to salacious sluts with dyke haircuts who prefer jumping the bones of androgynous wimps that wear more makeup than they do. While a regime of logical science where free thought, love, poetry, and emotion are banned rules in the titular dystopian metropolis featured in Godard’s Alphaville, Wittenstein’s film features a pompous poof urban pandemonium where radio networks dictate fashion sensibilities and a person’s worth is judged by how flamboyantly they dress. Indeed, Betaville may not make any serious statements about the collective Weltschmerz that is plaguing the metaphysical corpse that is Occidental man, but it does provide charming and witty campy fun and offers the closest thing to a neo-noir equivalent to Mark L. Lester’s Class of 1984 (1982), Troma’s Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986), Stanley Lewis's Punk Vacation (1990), and various other 1980s cult flicks where the bad guys resembled rabid psychopathic punks. Somewhat bizarrely, the fashion victims in Wittenstein's film probably most resemble those featured in the aberrosexual hardcore porn flick Squalor Motel (1985) directed by tranny pornographer Kim Christy. Surely the most intriguing short but sweet avant-garde micro-noir since Cabaret Voltaire scored 22-minute celluloid cult item Johnny YesNo (1982) directed by Peter Care, Betaville is probably the most pleasantly playful cinematic work on the fringes on the Cinema of Transgression movement. 

 Betaville begins with protagonist ‘Coman Gettme’ (Steve Ostringer) driving around in his car with a little lady simply known as ‘The Girl’ (Holly Adams of Richard Kern’s Horoscope (1991) and Charles Pinion’s Red Spirit Lake (1993)), who he states to, “I’m glad we’re outta that pile of transistors” and “You’re lucky I had some business there…Or you’d still be plucking at those circuit boards with those little tweezers.” Indeed, as depicted in a black-and-white flashback scene from the day before, Coman saved the girl by picking her up from the pavement and giving her a lift in his car after she was thrown to the concrete in pouring down rain after her fat old factory manager caught her reading a Superman comic when she was supposed to be putting together transistors like her fellow serfs in the futuristic sweatshop where she worked. As demonstrated by the fact that scenes set in the Girl’s home are in black-and-white, the female lead is from a place that resembles Godard’s Alphaville and which Coman describes as a “Bauhausian boobyhatch” and “technological tour-de-farce.” A sort of metropolitan nationalist that loathes leaving his home turf, Coman loves his city and is quite vocal about this love as reflected in his remark to the Girl, “I’ve never really loved anything except this city. The graphics on the neighborhood drugstore…The linoleum in the lobby of the Bijou…The curious expressions on the faces of the kids…The lonely ladies on the barstools…The lonely men that try to talk to them…The sound of the garbage trucks in the morning…The traffic in midday…And the sirens at night. Out of it all, everything’s different…interesting…it gives me something to think about. Some people say it is all a bit too much…But to me, anything else is a bit too little.” Unbeknownst to cityslicker Coman, a pernicious plague has infested Betaville and when he finally arrives back to his hometown, the social cancer of underground fashion trends will completely consume the hopelessly vain and stupid Girl, who comes from a literally colorless world where reading a stupid comic book will get you thrown in the street like a pile of rotting garbage. 

 Upon sneaking the Girl into Betaville by hiding her under his dashboard since she does not have a passport to show a border guard (who is actually a dubious blonde chick in disguise who will stalk the protagonist for the rest of the film), Coman turns on the radio and is distressed to discover that every single station is playing what he describes as, “the same lousy tune.” Indeed, the radio stations are spreading a message of authoritarian ‘fashionism’ as reflected in one announcer’s ludicrously languidly spoken declaration, “Green may not be worn with blue. Fashion is the dictum of a free people. The substance of a nation is style.” As Coman states, “Betaville’s always been a place where a guy can feel at home…Full of quaint little bars and cafes where you can feel human again,” but little does the protagonist realize that his beloved hometown has been invaded by hedonistic homos, fierce fag hags, and pretentious postmodernist artists and that he will soon will feel like nothing more than outmoded human garbage that fell out of fashion decades ago. While Coman hopes to take the Girl to his favorite diner to get some home-style chipped beef not longer after arriving back to Betaville, he only finds a disappointing modern pizza joint that has pretentious painters, New Wave hookers, and swarthy Guido-esque pimps lurking around it. While eating slices of pizza with the girl at the less than class pizza place, Coman has his first encounter with what he less than flatteringly describes as, “the new elite…noveau homos, so to speak.”  Indeed, Conman is approached by three particularly pompous-looking poofs, including a longhaired chap carrying a purse and sporting an extra tight blue sports bra, a sort of sod pseudo-sailor with a silver glittery ‘uniform,’ and funny fellow in a giant yellow suit jacket and swarthy complexion that the protagonist describes as looking like “Reginald Van Gleason III from Mars.” Needless to say, Coman is disgusted when the Girl licks her lips at the perennially posturing queersome threesome, especially after ‘Reginald’ gives her an invitation to a show, though the protagonist is also somewhat confused by the entire dubious encounter, thinking to himself, “I couldn’t figure if they were after the girl…or just trying to bone me.” As Coman narrates, “going to a party with these futuristic fops of the funny pages wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” but he is willing to do anything to please the girl, especially after he takes her back to his apartment at a place called the ‘Skyline’ and she jumps his bones. Indeed, like most film noir heros, Coman seems fairly hopeless when it comes to reading the minds of the members of the opposite sex, but luckily the Girl takes it upon herself to change into some lingerie, sit on his desk in a provocative fashion, and then literally jump into his lap, thus making it quite clear to the protagonist what she really wants.  Unfortunately for Coman, it is not only the first but also the last night he will be spending with the Girl.

 The next day, Coman is rather dismayed when he takes the Girl to a seemingly pessimistic place called ‘Schopenhauer Square Park’ and discovers it has been transformed into a landfill. Indeed, it seems that the bombastically dressed beta boys that have infiltrated that city not only have poor taste in clothing and haircuts, but philosophy as well. Out of supposedly sheer “masochistic curiosity,” Coman decides to take the Girl to the club that fashion victim Reginald gave the latter an invite to and naturally the protagonist is surprised to see the patently preposterously sight of a group of New Romanticist style perverts dancing to generic synthesizer-driven New Wave music. While the Girl wallows in the entertainment and dances provocatively with various strange and seemingly queer men, Coman eventually “decides to make a quick getaway” and leaves by himself after suffering the shame of dancing all by his lonesome for a minute or two while sticking out like a sore thumb next to all the cyber-punk fashionistas at the club. After shooting a man dead for daring to break a bottle over his head after he simply asks him for a light, the rather reluctantly lovelorn Coman becomes somewhat emotionally vulnerable and attempts to call the Girl, but she says literally nothing and immediately hangs up on him upon picking up the phone because she wants to continue making love to and drinking wine with some borderline tranny in a glittery outfit with an absolutely appalling avant-garde Jew-fro. At this point, Coman rightly realizes that he is a “stranger in this town,” but rather wrongly assumes that the Girl needs to be saved by him because she is supposedly “naïve and vulnerable” when, in fact, she is a cold and calculating femme fatale cunt who wants him dead. Meanwhile, Coman realizes that a strange blonde (director Wittenstein) has been stalking him, which he finds somewhat annoying since he, “hates blondes.”

 While hoping that the Girl will realize that Betaville has transformed into a perturbingly preposterous “postmodern nightmare” as a result of “fashion” (or what he describes as “contamination”), Coman has let love contaminate him mind and is suffering from a stereotypical heterosexual film noir hero delusion that ultimately gets him killed. Indeed, in the film’s intentionally anti-climatic climax, Coman senselessly runs inside a futuristic building to save the Girl even though he has no clue as to who and/or what awaits him inside the seemingly pernicious place.  In the end, Coman is immediately shot dead when he enters the building and comes face to face with his ladylove, who barely even bothers to acknowledge him upon killing him. After shooting Coman, the Girl hands her murder weapon to the mysterious blonde woman and somehow the gun manages to vanish in thin air immediately after being placed on the golden girl's palm. After a scene featuring close-up headshots of various automaton-like fashion victims, including the Girl, who seem like they they are a New Romanticist equivalent to the extraterrestrial alien duplicates in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the film concludes with an audio recording of Coman stating, “This isn’t inexactly what I had in mind.” 

 It should be noted that Betaville is the first chapter in a satirical lo-fi sci-fi trilogy entitled Multiple Futures starring Holly Adams that was followed by No Such Thing As Gravity (1989) and The Deflowering (1994). In fact, although these films are more of sequels in terms of theme as opposed to characters and storyline, Wittenstein later decided to combine all three films and release them as the 100-minute feature Multiple Futures (1995). While I cannot really comment on The Deflowering since I could not locate a copy (though I do know that it features a quote from Guido commie theorist Antonio Gramsci's posthumously published work Prison Notebooks), No Such Thing As Gravity is notable for featuring the special novelty of featuring Cinema of Transgression anti-messiah Nick Zedd portraying a fairly normal and level-headed hero, as well as featuring one-time Warhol superstar Taylor Mead (Gregory J. Markopoulos’ The Illiac Passion, Warhol's Lonesome Cowboy) and eccentric dwarf Michael J. Anderson of David Lynch fame in a rare pre-Twin Peaks role. Somewhat strangely for someone that collaborated with Mr. Zedd and was associated with the Cinema of Transgression movement, director Wittenstein would go on to become both a yoga teacher for babies and a member of her father’s law firm Wittenstein & Wittenstein in Queens, NYC.  Of course, a good portion of the appeal of Wittenstein’s films charm and potency are a result of the neo-retro sci-fi visuals, which were created by Steve Ostringer, who also co-wrote all the scripts, thus they are, at best, collaborative works between two main individuals and not true auteur pieces. While not exactly the most bizarre of the various neo-noir flicks associated with the No Wave and Cinema of Transgression movements (Mexican-born auteur Manuel DeLanda’s Raw Nerves: A Lacanian Thriller (1980) is simply one of the most one of the most preternatural and absurd neo-noir pieces ever made), Betaville is arguably the most addicting, especially for cinephiles, including someone like myself who does not exactly have a hard-on for Godard or Alphaville. Far too tongue-in-cheek and just plain goofy to be truly subversive despite its overt anti-technocratic message (indeed, one could argue that the film is a direct attack against Italian Futurism, even if seems to be somewhat aesthetically influenced by Futurist flicks like Thaïs (1917) directed by Anton Giulio Bragaglia), Wittenstein’s short is like the NYC underground equivalent of a Friedberg and Seltzer flick, albeit actually sometimes humorous and witty and with an actual smidgen of artistic integrity. More or less feeling like the quite curious result of a heterosexual Jewish American princess who wanted to rebel against her hopelessly bourgeois background by attempting to create a campy sci-fi flick in the spirit of the films of underground queer goyim filmmakers like the Kuchar brothers and Jack Smith, Betaville ultimately makes art fags seem like a menace that is ten times worse than the plague, which is certainly something I can appreciate, especially in our real-life dystopian era when there is a rather queen-ish double-bastard as the U.S. president who decided to display his own aesthetic (and possibly sexual) sensibilities when he had the White House lit up with gay rainbow lights. While I rather much prefer re-watching Kamikaze 1989 (1982) featuring Fassbinder in his very last acting role when I am feeling inclined to see a sardonically satirical cyber-punk flick, Wittenstein's film deserves to be credited as the closest thing to a Blade Runner of the Cinema of Transgression scene.  Of course, like Ridley Scott's classic cult film, Betaville is inordinately memorable and begs for repeat viewings.

-Ty E

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