Oct 11, 2015

Pagan Rhapsody




With my growing obsession with the films of the Kuchar twins, especially in regard to the more prolific brother George (The Devil's Cleavage, Symphony for a Sinner), I have discovered that a scene featuring a gigantic monster turd in a toilet does not exactly make for bad melodrama, or at least so is the case with Pagan Rhapsody (1970), which seems to be one of the more underrated cinematic works directed by the unfortunately belated The Mongreloid (1978) director. Apparently, as the director would oftentimes reveal himself during lectures, many film critics wrongly believed that George K. was “all washed up” after the release of his hilariously self-pitying masterpiece Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966) because they felt that none of his other cinematic works could ever possibly live up to that work, yet I would argue that he has directed various superior works since then, especially around the same time period (for example, the film's somewhat lesser known sequel Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967) is, at the very least, just as good and certainly more intricate and ambitious). Indeed, while I am not totally sure that Pagan Rhapsody is unequivocally superior to Hold Me While I'm Naked, it is indubitably at the same level, even if it lacks the same fiercely and neurotically self-reflexive tone. An eclectically tragic micro melodrama of the hypnotically high-camp sort that demonstrates why Kuchar was a master at being able to pack more ‘pathos’ (or, more accurately, ‘bathos’) and hysterical emotions in about 20-minute than most filmmaker can pack into an entire feature, the unhinged featurette is notable for featuring an eclectically tragic(omedic) and romantically cataclysmic conclusion where every single major character suffers a distinctly dejecting end that certainly inspired the early films of John Waters (who once stated of Kuchar and his brother that they, “...made me want to make films.  THEY are the reason.”). Ironically, despite being one of Kuchar’s most pessimistically tragic and even misanthropic cinematic works, the auteur did not originally intend it to be as such, or as he once stated himself that, “[although] originally not scheduled as a tragedy, things swiftly changed as the months made me more and more sour as I plummet down that incinerator shaft I call my life.”  Featuring busty yet brainless big bosomed scheming whores, less than handsome lovelorn pseudo-aristocrats with bastardized noble blood, self-loathing closest queen playwrights who have dubiously dedicate their lives to writing heterosexual high dramas, and a couple other more minor but no less colorful characters that remind the viewer that Kuchar was just as good at finding the right superstars for his films as Fassbinder, Pagan Rhapsody is an elegantly obscene and largely anti-erotic cinematic ode to those that find romance films and romance in general to be rather repugnant. As one can expect from a Kuchar flick, there are no morally righteous and dignified fair ladies, but instead conniving and self-absorbed sluts whose use their twats as their sole means of survival, whether it be robbing a rich fat brokenhearted loser out of his money or attempting to con empathy and protection from a lonely art fag. Of course, what makes Kuchar’s film different from most films in general is that the abhorrent (anti)heroine/femme fatale gets what she deserves in the end by dying the most absurd and undignified of tragicomedic of deaths. On the other hand, men are depicted in a no less unflattering light, as the film demonstrates that even repressed homosexuals can be conned and cuckolded via the wiles of wicked wanton whores, thus exposing man’s greatest and most perennial weakness. Ultimately, Pagan Rhapsody is a rare example where the typically preposterous phrase “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” has real meaning, as it is a film that reveals things about the so-called fairer sex and heterosexual relationships from a poof’s perspective that most straight men are either too blind and/or too afraid to see. 




 There are probably few things that are more pathetic to a tearoom-lurking gay man than a lovelorn heterosexual who has yet to get over a woman that has long vanished from his life, or so one would assume while watching Pagan Rhapsody where a rather wealthy yet all the more miserable middle-aged fat fuck named Edgar (Kuchar regular Bill Cowan of Color Me Shameless (1967) and Encyclopedia of the Blessed (1968)) attempts to pay tribute to his long deceased beloved by contracting a young latent homo named Camillo (Lloyd Williams) to write a play about their lurid love affair, but ultimately ends up committing suicide when a scheming cunt of a femme fatale who he hires to portray his dead lover betrays him and ultimately destroy the entire project in the process. Indeed, at the beginning of the film, Edgar states to Camillo following a lavish credit sequence, “You understand, Camillo, that I’m not exactly an Adonis, but I do possess royal blood…at least on my mother’s side of the family. My affair with the Countess Del Monaco was, therefore, not a national scandal but a beautiful affair. An affair I wish you to immortalize on the stage with your remarkable talents as a playwright. Although it’s been fifteen years since her tragic death in a skiing accident in Zürich, her memory is more real to me than all the wealth and extravagant garbage I have accumulated since.” Edgar’s most magical night with the Countess Del Monaco apparently involved the two playing an otherworldly arpeggio-driven rhapsody, which also happens to be the film’s exceedingly ethereal score, on a piano together during a romantic evening that eventually evolved into sex and mutual declarations of love, or as the mixed blood aristocrat states in a somberly nostalgic fashion, “I can remember us now. That night at the Steinway.” As poor Edgar will soon learn during his hopelessly and ultimately tragically failed attempt to create a lavish stage play in tribute to his belated beloved, it is futile to attempt to recreate or even pay tribute to a glorious romantic past, especially when you live in a pathetically prosaic present and are surrounded by whores and homos who could certainly care less about such banal things.




After hiring Camillo to write the play, Edgar immediately begins looking for a lead to play the role of his deceased lover Countess Del Monaco. It does not take Edgar long to find his female lead as he merely calls a somewhat questionable ‘heroin chic’ blonde named Olga (Janine Söderhjelm of Kuchar’s Unstrap Me (1968)) and asks her to have her new roommate Eva (Jane Elford of Kuchar's Tales of the Bronx (1970) and Portrait of Ramona (1971)) come by his humble abode so that he can ‘interview’ her to see if she is right gal for the part. A not-quite-ravishing redhead with big bosoms who apparently bears a striking resemblance to the Countess (of course, Elford portrays the Countess during the flashback scenes), Eva is instantly hired by Edgar, who proudly describes her as the “perfect girl” and then sends her by Camillo’s apartment so that he can tell her about her important part in the play.  While Eva might resemble the Countess in terms of physical appearance, she could not be any less aristocratic, as she is more or less a proletarian whore who lives to con and seduce men but lacks the intellect to pull off any sensual scam that transcends simple one-dimensional romantic deceit.  When Camillo opens his door after Eva knocks, he is absolutely stunned by her entrancing pulchritude, but being a crypto-cocksucker who has no real use for women, he is more intimidated than enticed by her. In fact, when Eva decides to get naked for no reason at all while lying on his couch, Camillo gets fairly afraid and immediately calls Edgar to tell him to immediately come by his place and pick her up. As demonstrated by a shot of her sinisterly smirking when Camillo meekly calls Edgar while there is an discernible expression of fear on his pudgy little pansy face, it is quite obvious that Eva gets a sick kick out of using her sex appeal as a means to strike fear in men, especially when it comes to pansy wimps like the playwright. As for Edgar, he calls Olga and tells her to drop Eva’s luggage at his place as he is having her move in with him. Indeed, it seems that Edgar not only sees Eva as the star of his play but also as a sort of replacement from his long deceased lover.



A very voluptuous yet somewhat creepy broad with big tender tits and seemingly stoned glazed eyes, Eva has an almost ominous presence about her that is underscored by foreboding music that is played during crucial scenes featuring her. When Camillo remarks to Eva regarding the Countess Del Monaco, “She must have been a remarkable woman,” she simply says nothing as if jealous of her blueblood predecessor’s borderline mythical reputation as an otherworldly beauty that still holds the heart of a wealthy man despite being dead for about fifteen years. When Edgar foolishly gives Eva a dress that belonged to his beloved Countess, the redhead subsequently puts out a cigarette in a skull ashtray in a shot that will foretell the grisly fate that both characters will meet. While Eva becomes Edgar’s live-in whore, it is quite obvious that she is rather repelled by her swarthy sugar daddy because at one point she walks in his bathroom and screams in abject horror upon discovering a gigantic unflushed turd in the toilet. Indeed, Edgar might be an elegantly spoken and dressed over-the-hill dandy of partial noble blood, but he is also a fat slob who is clearly too lazy and careless to flush his inhuman horse-sized feces down the toilet when a beauteous woman is living with him. Needless to say, it does not take long before Eva goes behind Edgar’s back and begins bringing dumb hunks to the house while he is away so that she can properly fulfill her seemingly voracious sexual appetite.



Not unlike many great leading men of film and theater history, the fellow that is cast for Edgar and Camillo’s play, Desmond, is a homosexual, though he is so exceedingly effete and insufferably queer that he makes Montgomery Clift and Anthony Perkins seem about as butch as Herr Schwarzenegger. Naturally, being that Camillo is a sexually repressed sod with nil sexual experience, tragedy strikes when he goes by young booty-buffer Desmond’s apartment by himself so that he can show the actor the play. While Desmond describes his play as “Pretty hot material,” it is quite obvious that he is not interested in heterosexual romance as he as gay beefcake muscle magazines lying all over his apartment floor, which naturally makes Camillo somewhat uneasy. When Desmond decides to randomly take a shower, Camillo is compelled to follow him into the bathroom where he impulsively opens the shower curtain while his leading mensch is in the middle of bathing. Somewhat curiously, instead of defiling Desmond, Edgar instead subsequently encounters two completely unclad phantoms that appear out of nowhere and proceed to fuck in front of the clearly shocked and seemingly schizophrenic playwright. Of course, when one of the poof phantoms begins carnally manhandling Camillo, the closest queen becomes completely petrified and immediately runs out of Desmond’s apartment as if his life depended on it. As can be expected from a repressed queer who is too afraid to even be defiled by other queer dudes, Camillo experiences a truly vomit-worthy absurdist tragedy of sorts when Eva eventually attempts to get him to screw her.



While redheaded hussy Eva might bear a striking resemblance to the late, great Countess Del Monaco, Edgar seems to begin to see her as nothing more than a low-grade counterfeit cunt and cheap carnal cipher whose value is purely visual. Indeed, while making love with Eva in a bed that is absurdly sitting next to a gigantic Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo soup can that would probably cause Warhol to cream his panties, Edgar gets noticeably agitated, declares, “I have to get up, really,” pushes his pseudo-lover aside, and abruptly leaves the house, but not before informing the raunchy redhead that he will not be taking her to a fancy restaurant that he originally promised to take her for dinner before. Far from offended or agitated by Edgar’s flaky behavior, Eva seizes the opportunity to call her equally lecherous lady friend Vivian (Kuchar regular Donna Kerness of Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965) and House of the White People (1968), who was pregnant at the time of the shooting) and joyously declare, “Hello, Vivian. He’s gone. Get the boys and come over.” Although Vivian does not bring multiple boys to Edgar's apartment, she does at least bring by a single boy that wastes no time in sharing carnal knowledge with Eva, who is certainly flattered by the fellow’s almost bestial behavior.



Needless to say, when Edgar abruptly shows up and discovers that his home has been transformed into a vulgar beatnik party pad and finds his ‘kept woman’ Eva being defiled by some scruffy biker type, he becomes homicidally enraged and begins choking the redheaded wench like a berserk Frankenstein monster on cocaine, though unfortunately the lecherous leading lady eventually manages to escape his grip and run out of the apartment after her male friend knocks out the melancholy pseudo-aristocrat. As an aggressively wanton woman that thinks she can get whatever she wants from any man so long as she shakes her ass or flashes her tits in the right fashion, Eva decides to seek both emotional and physical support in pathetic beta-boy Camillo and she does so by simply appealing to his innate male protective instincts by running to his door under the guise of being a poor damsel in distress and hysterically sobbing like a stereotypical battered housewife, “He’s crazy. He’s crazy. He tried to strangle me.” At this point, the two embrace kissing and in the process Eva hilariously rips off Camillo’s shirt after he makes a half-hearted attempt at grabbing her hearty derriere. While the two make love, closet homosexual Camillo is so grossed out by the entire anti-erotic experience that he begins violently projectile vomiting to the point of petrifying Eva, who is probably not used to men being repelled by her meat curtain. Horrified at the sickening sight of Camillo perversely puking white substances all over the place, Eva makes a valiant attempt to hightail it out of the apartment but in the process slips on some of the barf and hits her head upon falling backwards on the floor, thus killing her instantly. Meanwhile, Edgar decides to kill himself by swallowing an entire bottle of pills after Camillo fails to pick up his telephone. While playing the eponymous theme score on his beloved Steinway in the dark while it is violently thunders outside, Edgar’s face becomes drenched in tears of sorrow. In the end, Edgar drops dead in the middle of playing, with his head fittingly hitting the piano keys and producing discordant noise when he finally succumbs to his self-administered intentional drug overdose.



Somewhat humorously, Pagan Rhapsody is partly best remembered today as influencing the infamous shit-eating scene at the conclusion of John Waters’ classic art-trash masterpiece Pink Flamingos (1972), or as the Baltimore-bred ‘Pope of Trash’ stated in the documentary It Came from Kuchar (2009) directed by Jennifer M. Kroot in regard to the film, “There is a close-up of a turd in a toilet, which may have led the way to the end of PINK FLAMINGOS. I don’t think I had ever actually seen a turd in a movie. That was…Even today, that was a fairly rare shot.” Still, despite the film’s fleetingly scatological tone, it is also arguably Kuchar’s most eclectically beauteous, transcendental, solacing, and lavish cinematic work as a sort of shockingly hypnotic high-camp meta-melodrama that successfully manages a seemingly aesthetically schizophrenic marriage between the decadently gorgeous and hilariously grotesque. Out of all the cinematic works that I can think of, Kuchar’s 20-minute masterpiece of melancholic celluloid majesty most reminded of a Jesús Franco flick of all films. Indeed, with its elegant aristocratic and neo-classical sets, heavy use of lit candles in dark rooms, ethereal piano score, unhinged psycho-dramatic essence, and hysterically exaggerated tragic tale of dark romantic deceit that eventually evolves into a deadly bizarre triangle, Pagan Rhapsody features a number of striking similarities with Franco’s underrated Marquis de Sade adaptation Sinfonía erótica (1980) aka Symphonie érotique aka Erotic Symphony. Additionally, I would argue that Kuchar’s film is the closest American aesthetic equivalent to the great high-camp German-language arthouse works like Daniel Schmid’s La Paloma (1974) and Werner Schroeter’s Goldflocken (1976). In fact, next to Kuchar’s film, Jack Smith’s magnum opus Flaming Creature (1963) seems like a retardedly redundant and aesthetically autistic piece of handicapped camp that really suffers due to its lack of bathos and storyline, among other things. In its depiction of a self-loathing fag’s failed attempt at embracing heterosexuality, Pagan Rhapsody follows in the somewhat preternatural thematic tradition of the director’s twin brother Mike Kuchar’s classic short The Secret of Wendel Samson (1966), which brother George also stars in.  Of course, unlike Mike's flick, George's film does not feature any sort of happy ending or positive resolution for the gay character (as Mike has revealed in interviews, his brother George was apparently more deeply influenced by their mutual traditional Catholic upbringing).



Notably, in the doc It Came from Kuchar, Mike Kuchar would state of his brother’s film Pagan Rhapsody that it was, “about the underlying organic horror of existence.” Personally, I feel that the film is more about the absurdity of life, love, and romance, but then again it is sometimes hard to read the exact intent of Kuchar’s rather idiosyncratic work, hence its singular brilliance.  Of course, there is no doubt that Kuchar's film informs the viewer that love, sex, and romance can drive most people to the point of insanity if the ‘right’ variables come into play, especially if you're a lovelorn heterosexual man who cannot simply go cruising in a public park or bathroom to get a blowjob like many homos oftentimes do.  As Kuchar once stated himself in an interview featured in the book Queer Looks (1993) in regard to the power of sexuality and as to why he would maintain abstinence while working on a film, “People want different things, different shades and graduations. The world of sex is based on how you were brought up, other peculiarities. I’ve been to that world. There’s an incredible driving power, it gives so much energy. It’s also funny to see it masked in mainstream films—it will always surface, and you can read it, you can get the message. People are driven by sex. It’ll drive you crazy. Everyone knows if you hump before making a picture, you lose that spark. You have to clean yourself up before you make it work. You have to go on to the steam room, get the poison out, the vices. Then you make a picture about the vices, but you have to be clean to do it. And then the process makes you pent up. I was never really able to merge the two. My pictures are mostly about the binges, the vices.”  While Pagan Rhapsody certainly features a sort of gay gaze, its cynical conclusions regarding heterosexual romance as just as keen as the lavish Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, albeit with a sort of good honest no bullshit venom injected in them.  While mainstream gay movies like Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Tom Ford's A Single Man (2009) attempt to persuade straight viewers that homos are just like heteros when it comes to romance, Kuchar's film demonstrates that gays are more likely to be tormented by neurotic self-loathing and deleterious compulsions than the loss of a single lover.  As for women, Pagan Rhapsody depicts them as parasitic and perpetually conniving creatures who see men as a means to an end and nothing more, especially if they are attractive dames that know how to take full advantage of their carnal currency. Sort of like the (anti)Rebecca (1940) of the late-1960s/early-1970s NYC underground, Kuchar's film is a delectably deranged cinematic dance with dark romance that ultimately reminds the viewer why you should never allow a woman that you have just met to move into your home under any circumstances.  Arguably more importantly, Pagan Rhapsody also reveals why you might look like a serious asshole if you attempt to create a piece of art in tribute to some great long lost love.



-Ty E

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