Notes from the Underground By Andy Gately. Psychopathia Sexualis (Bret Wood, 2006) From psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s 1886 tome of the same name, as well as his 1905 Text-Book of Insanity, comes this 2006 film by Bret Wood, the writer/director who brought us the darkly hilarious and highly recommended 2003 documentary Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films (2003)...
Psychopathia Sexualis (Bret Wood, 2006)
From psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s 1886 tome of the same name, as well as his 1905 Text-Book of Insanity, comes this 2006 film by Bret Wood, the writer/director who brought us the darkly hilarious and highly recommended 2003 documentary Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films (2003).
You’ve probably heard the name Krafft-Ebing before, but if you’re like me, you didn’t know much about him. His claim to fame was popularizing psychiatry and elevating discourse on sexual perversions into the realm of science, legitimizing them as medical conditions in a time when they were even more taboo and misunderstood than they are today. His vast influence is evident in the work of Freud (a contemporary of Krafft-Ebing’s), Alfred Kinsey, and Jung, who was inspired to study psychology after reading Psychopathia Sexualis.
Krafft-Ebing gave his book its scientific title and wrote its more salacious passages in Latin "to discourage the lay reader." This is a good example of his complicated personality, for, while he might have only meant to deter people interested in the book solely for erotic purposes, this also kept his knowledge exclusive to those who could afford an education. Then again, he also gave numerous public speeches on sexual psychopathy, and has probably done more to bring frank discussion of sex into the mainstream than anyone in history.
Wood’s film provides an outstanding window into the good but conflicted doctor’s mind by adapting real case studies from the book in the form of vignettes, accompanied by Krafft-Ebing’s fascinating commentary. Narration is so often used superfluously to tell us what we’re already seeing, or to lazily advance plot points that are easier said than done. I was thrilled, then, to actually hear voiceover being used effectively; we get to listen to Krafft-Ebing in his own words, complete with all his marvelous revelations and contradictions. And this is but one way in which the film brilliantly employs sound and picture to put us inside the head of a headshrinker.
The film is beautifully shot and highly stylized, and yet it somehow manages to refrain from sensationalizing the delicate subject matter. In case you’re curious, this includes prostitution, pederasty, mutilation, lust murder, necrophilia, vampirism, leech bloodletting, mustache fetishespretty much every form of S&M you can fathom. (Incidentally, both "sadism" and "masochism" were named by Krafft-Ebing, the former after De Sade, the latter after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.) But don’t let this scare you away, because no matter how lurid you might perceive the act in question to be, the filmmakers and the actors (especially standout Lisa Paulsen), do a marvelous job of avoiding the obvious temptation to exploit the many unorthodox sex acts practiced by the characters populating this film for cheap visceral effect. Like Todd Browning did in Freaks (1932), the camera treats them respectfully (with almost no shock cuts) and mostly objectively. It all feels almost too detached at times, until you realize that this was clearly a conscious decision on the part of the artists. For by juxtaposing unflinching shots of these sympathetically portrayed characters with Krafft-Ebing’s highly judgmental narration, his frequent moralizing becomes more and more unsettling.
Take, for example, a scene where Krafft-Ebing is going on about the "diseased conditions of the homosexual mind" while we’re shown the long-unrequited love between two lesbian friends finally being consummated in a beautifully photographed and heartfelt union. Or the scene where he intones, "It’s quite common for hysteric paranoid women of insane asylums to complain of sexual violations by demonic or divine beings, often on a nightly basis," as we’re being shown a doctor raping a restrained patient.
His labeling of his subjects’ bedroom pastimes as "unnatural," and his mingling of ethical and religious language with that of science, with words like "tainted," "polluted," and "degeneracy," all work to betray his hubris. "No soul is beyond redemption," he once remarked. And to him, both homosexuality and onanism are "repugnant." "I abhor the love of men, as it is against religion, nature, and law," he makes a gay man repeat under hypnosis, aimed at "curing" him. He later writes of the same man, "Patient is showing signs of improvement; he discreetly requested the address of a brothel." Much healthier!
The dangers of the scientist playing God come full circle in the epilogue, where we see how science continues to supplant religion. One of Krafft-Ebing’s protégés boasts, "People will no longer go to judges and priests for answers, judges and priests will now come to us!" His patient then asks his doctor. "So you’re starting a church?"
This surreal tone is furthered by David Bruckner’s outstanding German Expressionism-influenced cinematography, whose edge-blurred framing devices and repeated use of iris shots gives the viewer the discomforting feeling of being a voyeur spying on these people through a peephole, or, perhaps, a microscope. In fact, every element of the movie works to complement the others, from the lighting, to Paul Mercer’s eerie score, to the many period details of costume and dance. There’s even a shadow puppet sequence that is both gorgeous and disturbing, in keeping with the entire movie. If only all those awful reenactments on the History Channel were this good.
The film raises many questions about the modern day fields of psychology and psychiatry, and about how our legal system deals with these aberrations. When private acts are criminalized, it just makes more criminals, many of whom are so repressed that the sex act becomes a guilty, joyless need that must be fulfilled illegally, and then never spoken about, like the masked orgy participants in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). But what of the extreme cases? Are they immoral? Merely sick? Or is it society that sickens? Psychopathia Sexualis doesn’t provide us the answers, it challenges the audience to.
God Is On Their Side (Mark Eisenstein, 2002)
Having just been introduced to the films of Mark Eisenstein, I found myself in the presence of a true outsider artist. His dark comedy, The Final Journey of Arnie Schwartz (also known as The Electric Chair), features a powerfully honest performance by the late, great Victor Argo as an aging standup comic, and struck a chord in me somewhere between Bob Fosse’s Lenny and Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Early on in a scene from his latest film, a terrified infantry man approaches his superior:
"What is it, soldier?"
"It’s God, sir. He’s on the other side."
We soon are soon shown Godwhite robes, halo, and allgleefully mowing down scores of soldiers from inside a divine foxhole. So begins the surreal odyssey of a dysfunctional platoon of World War I soldiers. They are led by a dwarf general with a disproportional temper, who, when he’s not kowtowing to the needs of his high-maintenance trophy wife, enjoys arm-wrestling his underlings to prove he’s the "bigger man" (they wisely let him win). The underlings include Colonel Gimpfoot, an opportunistic sycophant with a Billy Pilgrim-like leg injury; Colonel Machine, who looks like he just transferred from Dr. Strangelove’s command; and the general’s wife (Joan Marie Moossy, Bill Hicks’s cousin), who might as well have her mail forwarded to Machine’s bedroom. They are all vying for the Napoleonic general’s attention, while he’s busy trying to impress God enough so that He and His heavy machine gun will join their side.
The film has a ball satirizing religion, the military, overcompensating masculinity, and the area where the three most overlapwartime. What sets the film apart from the many anti-war classics are its creative surrealistic touches, such as having the general’s office wallpapered with his face, and the imaginative art design by Nada Severdija. The mise-en-scene calls to mind the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Also worthy of mention is the singing, acting, and dancing performance of David Johansen as Buster Poindexter, AKA God.
The conceit of the film gets stretched a little thin over the eighty-eight minute running time, making this viewer wonder whether, perhaps, the concept might have worked tighter as a short film. Certain standout moments, such as the musical numbers and the scene where a television reporter calls the battle carnage like a sports announcer play-by-play, make God Is On Their Side more than worthwhile. What other film has prayer offensives and God doing standup comedy?
Mae Brussell in Santa Cruiz (Tim Canale, 2006)
The late researcher and radio show host is considered by many to be the queen of conspiriology, with theories on nearly every facet of societal ills. Tim Canale’s debut film, which is mostly comprised of Brussell’s 1987 lecture at UC Santa Cruz, is a rare opportunity to see Lady Mae herself going on one of her patented esoteric rants against all the nefarious government plots that are heralding our imminent descent into a tyrannical post-capitalistic police state.
Throughout the course of her speech, the former housewife and needlepoint enthusiast stitches together so many disparate elements and rogue agencies into one overarching cloak-and-dagger meta-narrative, it’s a challenge sometimes just to keep pace with her. In Brussell’s worldview, it’s not unlikely to hear Hoover, Hitler, Hoffa, and Hughes, all in the same breath. And while her research is highly meticulous and annotated, its delivery is so rapid-fire, and the implications of each sentence so far-reaching, that watching it in one sitting is downright exhausting.
Whether or not you agree with any, or all, of her theories, or if you’ve even heard of her, you can still enjoy this film. It does, however, help to be fluent in the tongue of the paranoid, the language of the conspiracy buff. Conspirinoia, call it. Unless you can navigate through a conversation on the New World Order, the Warren Commission, the Illuminati, and MK-Ultra, you may find yourself staring at Ms. Brussell like a dog that’s just been shown a card trick. For novices, I’d recommend reading a transcription of one of her broadcasts first, so that when your mind begins reelingand it willyou can let it all marinate a bit before returning to the fray.
Her basic argument, though, goes something like this: by studying the techniques employed by the CIA to overthrow foreign governments and replace them with more Western-friendly despots (sorry, Reagan; "autocrats") who are less hostile to the idea of contracting out their labor pools and natural resources to the U.S., and comparing these methods to those used by Nazi strategists and propagandists. Brussell discovered that the same tactics and even names recurred again and again. Her disquieting conclusion? The Third Reich didn’t die off after World War II, but rather was, in effect, absorbed secretly and purposefully into our own country’s highest echelons of government and industry and thrives to this day, acting as the invisible hand guiding our great big SUV down the road to ruin. Even though our government’s original goal was probably just to put all the German scientific know-how and insight to use for America, Brussell might say that we miscalculated. Hey, our leaders can’t think of everything. They were just giving top cabinet jobs to Nazi war criminals in order not to waste such bright minds. What could go wrong?
Augmenting the speech footage are various inserts of interviews with her friends that paint a portrait of Brussell as a true believer, and this comes across in the film. The conviction and righteous indignation with which she dissects and reassembles lies into what she sees as hidden truths are akin to the zeal of a preacher out to save the souls of the unconverted.
The film’s video and audio quality aren’t anything to write home about, but the chance to see Mae do her thing in front of a live audience of eager students is definitely worth the viewing. When she tells them (to paraphrase), "Your parents send you through our education system where they brainwash you for sixteen years, and if you once question it, they call you ungrateful," the crowd erupts into applause. She comes across as sincere, earnest, and even humorous, and while you may scoff at some of her wilder connections, you’ve got to admire her dedication. For twenty-five years she spoke her mind to anyone who would listen on her little radio program out of Carmel, California, and even though she’d been threatened with death multiple times (including once by Sandra Good of the Manson Family) and monitored by the FBI (who have a 120-page file on her), she soldiered on until her death of cancer in 1988 (her followers suspect foul play). If her speculations seem too outlandish to be true, consider this: she predicted RFK’s assassination to his wife a week before it happened, and after World War II the US did in fact pardon war criminals from both Japan and Germany, including employing over five hundred Nazi scientists from the Third Reich and the S.S. into what eventually became NASA under "Operation Paperclip." Perhaps the idea that some of them retained patriotism to their homeland isn’t so farfetched.
By the same token, it’d be a psychologist’s dream to examine Mae Brussell and make a case for her as a textbook Paranoid Personality or even Delusional Disorder. Yet the more you begin to examine the official record of history, the more you may find yourself wondering who’s been deluding who.
Gunner Palace (Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker, 2004)
The first of several upcoming documentaries that are headed here like ballistic missiles from Iraq, Gunner Palace succeeds in hitting home with Western audiencesa difficult task, given our increasingly jaded attitude toward war ever since the advent of 24-hour satellite news coverage of the fighting. This film is, if nothing else, a jolting reminder that even CNN filters and censors certain realities of battle. Enter the embedded journalists to fill in the blanks, armed with digital cameras shooting thirty frames a second and total access to the daily lives and deaths of American servicemen.
And these servicemen are a new breed of soldier, having grown up on just as many anti-war movies as gun-blazing flag wavers, combined with being witness to reality television’s power to make average people into household names. This weird influence might explain why these kids embrace the media presence overseas and make love to the camera like their Vietnam counterparts never did: we get guys helpfully explaining how to fortify the armor of an under-protected Humvee with scrap metal, and black soldiers freestyle rapping about their war experience while drumming on the hoods of their tanks. This movie also demonstrates how hip-hop really has become the soundtrack to the Iraq war, just as rock ‘n’ roll was to ‘Nam.
The grunt’s-eye-view provided by the film is by far its best quality; like the best art, Gunner Palace raises questions and doesn’t presume to answer them for you. Director Michael Tucker wisely shies away from politicizing and philosophizing and simply shows the soldiers as they perform both on- and off-duty. This alone is enough to leave in ruins any preconceptions and opinions of the war.
What do you make of the sight of an infantryman floating in the pool of Uday Hussein’s captured palace, quoting from the quintessential anti-war film, Full Metal Jacket: "I joined the army to travel to foreign countries, meet interesting, exotic people, and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block with a confirmed kill," without a hint of irony? This self-consciousness is equally alarming and disarming, genuinely disturbing, and darkly amusing. Francois Truffaut once declared that it is impossible to make a true anti-war film, because movies inevitably end up making war look heroic and fun. After watching Platoon, which this movie also references at one point, Roger Ebert suggested in his review of the film that Truffaut might have modified his statement had he lived to see Oliver Stone’s harrowing portrayal of modern combat. And yet I am reminded of a kid I once worked with at Baskin-Robbins who used to gleefully quote the Platoon line, "Hop on one foot, motherfucker!" from the scene where Charlie Sheen’s character kills an innocent villager.
It is this kind of surreal tone that Gunner Palace achieves. Images of an American soldier backlit by an Iraqi sunset while playing Hendrix on his electric guitar make it at times feel like a real Apolcalyps Now, while the gritty handheld shots of urban warfare later look like a sequel to Blackhawk Down, when major combat has ended and Vonnegut’s proverbial "mopping up" begins. In fact, the movie opens with the title "Minor Combat," as G.I.s dodge 360-degree sniper fire. As the tagline points out, some stories really don’t make the nightly news. For moments like these, I encourage everyone to see Gunner Palace, and with any luck, your kids won’t be quoting from it in Gulf War 3.
Note: In an unprecedented move, the MPAA granted the film a PG-13 rating, despite over thirty uses of "Fuck." Clearly, they understand the value of such an important historical document, and, for once, I couldn’t agree with them more.
Back to Issue 15