Sunday, January 18, 2009

HOLLYWOOD 90028 (1973)

Every picture tells a story, and someday we’ll find out the one behind Christine Hornisher’s smartly made and fascinating HOLLYWOOD 90028. A rare example of a ‘70s exploitation movie directed by a woman, some will mistakenly label this an anti-pornography feminist tract but Hornisher and screenwriter Craig Hansen subvert the nudie-thriller framework to tackle other subjects such as loneliness and existentialism. Artfully done and strangely paced, the film haunted drive-ins and action theaters under several titles (HOLLYWOOD HILLSIDE STRANGLER, TWISTED THROATS) for nearly a decade without finding an audience.

Pic opens with a pre-credit strangulation murder that I suspect was cut from the middle and stuck at the front by one of the distributors trying to sell the film as a horror thriller. The strangler, we soon find out, is a photographer/filmmaker named Mark (Christopher Augustine) who shoots and edits kink loops for slimy skid row producer Jobal (Dick Glass) while pursuing legitimate jobs in the movie industry. On the set of a one-day wonder Mark becomes friendly with porno girl Michelle (Jeannette Dilger), who first shoots down his sexual advances because of “another man” (the wealthy older kind that picks up all the bills), then later rejects his friendship when she senses -- accurately -- that he’s deeply disturbed.

Opening credits reveal Mark’s backstory through still photographs: a childhood spent with an overbearing mother, three bossy older sisters and no father in sight (we find out later that Dad was present the whole time, just henpecked beyond all usefulness). There’s also the quick appearance of a baby brother, who the young Mark accidentally (?) killed by pushing the boy’s stroller in front of a speeding car. “I always liked seeing people as they really are,” Mark tells Michelle, explaining his lifelong fascination with photography as they hang out behind and at the foot of the famous Hollywood sign. “A camera does that. It doesn’t hide anything. It makes you see what’s underneath.” The same close-up still photograph of Mark’s eyes flashes onscreen whenever he’s strangling a woman or about to go nuts. When Mark escorts his first victim to her home, the camera zooms in on a blaring arc light. Glimpsed on one of the grindhouse marquees lining Broadway in downtown L.A. is KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE. In a terrific sequence that eerily plays out like a still photograph montage -- but isn’t -- Michelle charts her sad existence for Mark, from her arrival in Hollywood as a starry-eyed Midwestern gal to the gradual and almost complete decimation of her soul through increasingly degrading experiences in porn (“…and you have no friends, no values, and you’re alone with that obscene image of yourself on the screen”). When Michelle refuses to sleep with Mark, he settles for her obscene image by seeking out her loops in an adult bookstore; the clerk behind the counter is watching religious programming on TV, lending a confessional-like quality to the peepshow booth Mark enters.

The big difference between Mark and Michelle in the seedy world they inhabit is that Mark sees his porno work as hands-on experience and a launching pad for a real film career -- never mind that he can’t use stag loops as sample reels (“Jobal Pictures? I’ve never heard of them” says one frowning producer) -- while Michelle more accurately views it as the end of the line. The first time we see Mark on a film shoot, he’s taking his job very seriously, busily setting up the lights and the camera for a solo masturbation loop. The rotund, repellent Jobal is introduced by the flushing of an off-screen toilet, and enters the frame zipping up his fly. At the same time an echoing, childlike female voice sings innocently in the background but abruptly stops to call out "I'm ready now, Jobal.” Carol, a pretty young starlet, steps out onto a platform above Mark and Jobal and slowly descends to their level, innocent no more, already caught in the downward spiraling career path of Michelle and countless others. As she sprawls out on a bed and begins her auto-erotic performance before Mark’s rolling camera, Jobal emerges on the platform above them and watches through binoculars while “directing” the action: “That’s right, honey, that’s right! Move around! Not too fast. Keep it going – GOING! Take off your blouse – SLOWLY! Now your bra. That’s good. Flat on the bed again. There, that’s it, sweetheart. Yeah. Yeah. TAKE THE SKIRT OFF! Slow. Slow. Yeah, that’s right, Carol! Rub your thighs. Rub. Move in a little closer, Mark. Now slowly, honey, slowly open your legs. That’s good. Good.”

Mark initially relocated to L.A. not to be closer to the motion picture business but to get the hell away from his family. A phone call from one of his sisters provides the aural evidence of what the opening credits handled so well visually: Mark’s screwed-up head no longer hears just one female voice chastising him for something -- it hears four talking simultaneously, all saying different things. Maybe he would’ve connected better in a more social city like New York rather than L.A., where people spend large portions of their day alone in their cars, but I doubt it. He’s alone in his mind yet always ready with a stock answer to convince himself he’s still a part of the world around him, from his first exchange with Jobal…

Jobal: “Did you get tied up in traffic?”
Mark: “Doesn’t everybody?”

…to a casual conversation with one of the porno girls on an S&M film shoot…

Porno girl: “He’ll do anything for money.”
Mark: “Well, won’t we all?”

…to a revealing moment with Michelle…

Michelle: “Do you live alone?”
Mark: “Everyone lives alone.”

When Mark picks up Gretchen, a cute beach-bound hitchhiker, one of the first things he asks is “Do you always go so early in the morning?” She responds with “I like it when there aren’t so many people,” then proceeds to babble like a Woodstock attendee until we’re ready to strangle her, but Mark manages to hold out for the magic words: “You remind me of my brother.” She dies on a sailboat where there aren’t so many people, and like the title on that marquee downtown, Mark comes back alone. His own jaw-dropping demise turns out to be the ultimate Hollywood ending. It’s too bad so few have seen it.

1 comment:

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

This played a short time ago at the New Beverly in LA. I missed the screening, but lucked into a DVD-R. Great movie. You couldn't scrape this one off your memory if you tried.