All posts by Stephen Bowie

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The Upper Crust (1981): Frank Gorshin Gives the Performance of His Career in a Forgotten Austrian Thriller

Imagine an unassuming policier directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and that will give you some idea of the atmosphere of Peter Patzak’s The Upper Crust (Den Tüchtigen gehört die Welt; literally, The Brave Own the World, 1981), an impressive and unjustly forgotten bilingual crime film. Although it appears never to have opened commercially in the United States, The Upper Crust screened in a retrospective of Austrian films at the now-defunct Carnegie Hall Cinema in May 1982, and returned to New York earlier this month as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Vienna Unveiled” series.

Very much a product of the post-1968 hangover era, in which thoughts of revolution gave way to dispirited cynicism, The Upper Crust concerns a murky political conspiracy in which a trio of well-connected government officials (Ernst Konarek, Bibiane Zeller, and Fred Schaffer) turn to murder to suppress a potentially ruinous scandal. Although it’s not entirely clear (at least via the English subtitles) what kind of corporate crimes these starched-collar villains are up to, they are also connected to a prostitution ring via their pimp-enforcer Kralicek (Pavel Landovsky). When a small-time con man, Haumer (Lukas Resatarits), learns that Kralicek got his teenaged girl addicted to heroin and turned her out, he puts his unorthodox professional skills to work in a scheme to exact revenge on the whole group. Not wishing to sully their own hands, the trio send away to America for a mob-connected hit man to dispatch Haumer.

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Although it isn’t quite their equal, Patzak’s film more closely resembles the political thrillers of Costa-Gavras or Wim Wenders’s The American Friend than the exuberant, violent Italian poliziotteschi that remain the most-exported Eurocrime genre of the period. Patzak’s palette is all muted browns and grays, and The Upper Crust takes place in an overcast, rain-soaked Vienna of modern metal buildings and post-industrial blandnessa far cry from Johann Strauss’s Austria. The look of the film is of a piece with the central performance by Franz Buchrieser, who plays the police detective assigned to the case with a thick mustache and a shrug. Smarter than his superiors, Major Kottan is also burned-out and all too aware that bureaucracy will derail any meaningful police work, especially as he follows the misdeeds up the chain to the “upper crust.”  Kottan’s portly partner (Walter Davy, a World War II amputee) has only one leg—an inspired visual metaphor for the ineffectuality of the police.

The Upper Crust was a spin-off of an acclaimed Austrian television series, Kottan ermittelt, which depicted police corruption and incompetence with a darkly humorous tone. The main character’s name is itself a gag, a pun on the Jerry Cotton series of films, and in The Upper Crust Buchrieser glares balefully at a couple of suspects who bust out the George Nader jokes. The show is unknown in the United States but sounds a lot like Hill Street Blues, which Kottan predates by five years.

The chief element that distinguishes The Upper Crust from Kottan ermittelt is also the factor that should make the film ripe for an English-friendly home video release: the addition of American locations and actors to the mix. Patzak connected with Bay Area producer Richard Chase’s Baytide Films, in what Variety surmised was “the first true U.S.-Austrian co-production since World War II,” in order to shoot a prologue in some grungy San Francisco locations during the winter of 1980-81. (Primarily a director-producer of television commercials, Chase also worked as a journalist and a Dallas-based restaurateur before his early death at 46, in 1992.) Chase also recommended an American actor to play the villain: Frank Gorshin.

Best remembered as Batman’s The Riddler, Gorshin made most of his living as an impressionist and a nightclub entertainer. His career in front of the camera had sputtered after Batman; there were guest shots on crime shows like Ironside and Charlie’s Angels, but nothing more substantial, and Chase thought of him after reading one of many interviews in which Gorshin complained about the dearth of film roles on offer. The American non-release of The Upper Crust meant that nothing much changed for Gorshin -  while promoting the film’s sole appearance in New York City, Gorshin noted that he was about to get killed off after four months on the daytime soap Edge of Night. It’s a bit of a tragedy, because Gorshin gives a first-rate performance—maybe the best of his life—in The Upper Crust.

The prologue also features two other American actors: Broderick Crawford and stand-up comic Joey Forman, both of whom died not long after the film was made. Forman and Gorshin take Crawford to a sparsely-attended high school basketball game, buy him a couple of beers there, and then kill him during the drive back. They’re all connected to the mob, but Crawford’s character had been talking to the cops. As they leave the body in the passenger seat of a jeep parked under a freeway overpass, Gorshin puts the gun in Crawford’s hand.  Forman jokes that a shot to the back of the head is not a very convincing suicide. Gorshin says that’s the most popular way to do it in Germany, then strains a muscle reaching around behind his neck to demonstrate. “Ow!” he exclaims with a sheepish grin, and . . . cut to the opening credits.

The banal nature of this murder—a high school basketball game?!—sets the tone for Gorshin’s character, Harry Werner, who loves to gamble online at casinodames.com/live-casino.  He’s as at ease in his work as any paper-pusher who’s been working in the same cubicle for twenty years. Patzak shows him assembling his rifle (and adjusting a loose screw on the sight, which later seems to work itself loose every time he uses it; a nice detail), but spends just as much screen time on Harry’s progress in acquiring a rental car. Any macho posturing or moral agonizing would be out of place within this sketch of pragmatic evil. Gorshin gets that; he plays Harry with total nonchalance, his worn face usually devoid of expression but still captivatingly pregnant with uncertain intent. Every hired killer has to be a sociopath, one imagines, but Gorshin lifts the veil for only an occasional flash of menace. Near the end of the film, on the run from the cops and holed up in a lonely woman’s apartment, Harry kidnaps (catnaps?) his hostage’s beloved feline for leverage.  The woman picks up a pan, then hesitates. Gorshin never looks at her; he’s busy stroking the cat.  “What do you think?” Harry coos, addressing the pet. “Is she going to hit me with that pan?” It’s a satisfying irony that Gorshin, who became famous for mimicking a certain type of savagely ferocious actor (Richard Widmark, James Cagney, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster) should understand that he could be even more mesmerizing by channelling the somnolence of Robert Mitchum.

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Gorshin’s only Riddler-esque indulgences in The Upper Crust are an occasional Nicholsonesque grin and the battered fisherman’s hat he keeps pushing down over his eyes. Both attract more attention than Harry might be expected to want, but it’s okay—they remind us that The Upper Crust is first and foremost a star turn. The film’s major flaw is its pulpy, at times nonsensical plotting, and the toughest part to swallow is Harry’s decision to stick around after the job is done—foolish behavior for a experienced lawbreaker. It’s as if Patzak couldn’t bear to let go of Gorshin, even at the expense of his story. Ultimately Harry sticks around until the end, becoming not so much the villain as a twinned, flawed protagonist, equal in stature and screen time to Buchrieser’s Kottan. The Upper Crust is Gorshin’s movie all the way. Every underutilized character actor should have one like it.

Rivette Featured

No Love for Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivette is my favorite director, and Criterion hates him.

Actually, I have no idea how the folks at Criterion feel about Rivette. But the 85 year-old filmmaker may now be the only acknowledged master who remains completely unrepresented in the Criterion Collection as it inches toward 1,000 titles (counting the titles in its Eclipse offshoot).  Of course, rights and consumer demand are the major factors behind what movies get released, even for a home video label that has cannily branded itself as a synonym for quality and staked a claim towards defining the canon. For much of the DVD era, a few other notable omissions kept pace. But after Criterion finally released its first selections by Satyajit Ray and Rivette’s French New Wave compatriot Claude Chabrol (both in 2011), it was Rivette who stood alone out in the cold.

Criterion’s lack of Rivette love has become a grumpy running joke at cinephile hangouts like the (unaffiliated) Criterion Forum – as well as an ongoing meme on Criterion’s Facebook page, where, in 2009, the label innocently asked whether anyone would be interested in a release of Rivette’s legendary, little-seen masterpiece Out 1: Spectre (1971). Criterion hasn’t spoken of it since, and it’s still unclear whether that post was meant to genuinely gauge interest, or tweak the noses of the Rivettean faithful. But in a way it’s appropriate that Rivette should remain a persistent outsider, both because he was one of the few French New Wave directors to gain little commercial traction in the U.S., and because secrecy and paranoia are one of the key themes in Rivette’s filmography. Of course, that’s little consolation to region-locked Americans, who must content themselves with adequate home video versions of only a half-dozen of Rivette’s more recent films.

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But as for me, I’ve just imported what may be my most cherished disc release of last year: Masters of Cinema’s UK Blu-ray of Le Pont du Nord (1981). It marks the film’s English-language home video bow, and Rivette’s high-definition debut. Le Pont du Nord is one of Rivette’s most accomplished works, and also a good entry point for a director whom some find daunting. Like most of Rivette’s films, it combines several recurring obsessions: female relationships; games; the city of Paris; and (perhaps the motif that has the most resonance in post-September 11) the assumption of vast, barely-glimpsed conspiracies that operate underneath the events on-screen in a Lovecraftian way. The film’s two heroines, played by real-life mother and daughter Bulle and Pascale Ogier, are strangers who meet near the Lion de Delfort and spend a few days in each other’s company. Both are outsiders, exiled to the streets by circumstances that they gradually share with each other (and also by Rivette’s limited budget, and attraction to the simplicity of what he called a “reportage” style). Marie (Bulle) is just out of prison and, as a consequence, too claustrophobic to venture indoors; Baptiste (Pascale) is a sort of street punk who fancies herself as a modern-day knight, defending the city against unseen enemies. She appoints herself as a bemused Marie’s protector.

Although Baptiste remains something of a cipher until the very end, Rivette fills in Marie’s backstory fairly early in the film. She is a former revolutionary, alternately pursuing and pursued by a former lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), and a mysterious man in black (Jean-François Stévenin) who may be a cop or a secret agent. A plot, of sorts, involves a dossier and a map stolen from Julien’s briefcase. The documents are a Macguffin that connect the film explicitly to specific events during the Giscard government; the map, on the other hand, becomes a springboard for Marie and Baptiste’s quixotic journey across Paris (from the center to the outskirts), as Baptiste hatches the idea of deciphering its uncertain meaning by “playing” it as a chutes-and-ladders game.

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The use of the adjective “quixotic” is no accident; Quixote and Sancho Panza provided the inspiration for Rivette’s heroines. Like Cervantes’s novel, Le Pont du Nord can be taken as either a tragedy or, if not quite a comedy, then a beguiling, fantastical adventure. The ominous, Langian scenario grounds the film in a harsh external reality. But it’s the magical realist touches, and the quick throwaway gags (reminiscent of early Truffaut and Godard, during a period of the New Wave that Rivette mostly sat out), more than the looming bummer, that provide Le Pont du Nord’s most thrilling moments. The tone is elastic enough to permit a moment in which Marie and Baptiste, who have slept outside due to Marie’s phobia, notice a movie marquee for Les Grands Espaces (The Great Outdoors); with a shrug, they spend the night contently inside the theater. (It ruins the pun to note that this is actually William Wyler’s The Big Country, under its French title.) There’s also the wonderful moment where Baptiste “kills” her damaged, loudly whirring motorbike by cutting a hose with her switchblade, like a cowboy shooting his wounded horse – one of many ways in which Rivette, a film buff’s film buff, inscribes Le Pont du Nord as a disguised western.

Rivette is careful to provide a realistic explanation for Baptiste’s mania, a moment at which the “normal” Marie realizes with horror that her companion is a genuine schizophrenic. Yet the film doesn’t insist upon dispelling of all its myths and ruining the fun of its games. Le Pont du Nord has two climaxes – one a tragedy, the other an absurd, adorable showdown between Baptiste and a modernist metal dragon (which some sources describe as a children’s slide, although if so it’s a rather steep and terrifying one; and it also breathes fire) – and an enigmatic epilogue, an impromptu karate lesson that corrupts any strictly literal interpretation of the preceding events. The symbolic and structural function of this, one of my favorite movie endings, reappears in a better-known film: it is reinscribed as the explosive breakdance that ends Beau travail (2000),  directed by Claire Denis, who was an informal student of Rivette’s during the seventies.

I first viewed Le Pont du Nord on December 2, 2006, as part of an essential theatrical revival of Rivette’s films that toured the U.S. Also that day, I saw Love on the Ground (L’amour par terre, 1984), the director’s second-best film of the eighties – but in a shortened, two-hour version that is generally regarded as inferior to Rivette’s original, 176-minute cut. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when the bare-bones 2008 DVD of Love on the Ground, from a relatively minor UK label called Bluebell Films, turned out to contain the long version.

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If Le Pont du Nord can function as Rivette for beginners, Love on the Ground is a post-graduate exercise. Like Le Pont du Nord, it centers upon a female duo: a pair of actresses, in this case linked not by blood relation but by a shared foreignness, thanks to Rivette’s ingenious casting of two of the most prominent English-speaking actresses in Europe, Jane Birkin and Geraldine Chaplin. Love on the Ground’s other primary subject is the theater, a major Rivette trope that’s absent, in the literal sense, from Le Pont du Nord. Birkin and Chaplin first appear in an avant-garde (but terrible) performance of a play in a real flat, where the spectators follow the performers around from room to room. When the author (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) shows up he’s intrigued by both the approach and, more importantly, the actresses, whom he invites to rehearse in a new, unfinished play to be staged in his own country home. As the play develops, so do romances between the women, the playwright, and his friend Paul (André Dussolier), a magician and a key to the film’s relatively minor strand of overt fantasy. The amusing – or perhaps infuriating – result of the “theater at home” conceit, in which domestic and performance space overlap completely, is that it’s often impossible to be certain, at the beginning of each scene or at the end of any line, whether we’re witnessing a rehearsal or “real” life.

Unfortunately, as I watched the DVD, I couldn’t really remember what sections of the longer cut were missing from the print I saw seven years ago. The material of Love on the Ground feels a bit thin to fill three hours, although, as Rivette devotee Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, the short version perversely retains most of the play-within-a-movie material and excises the richer relationship subplots. The extended length struck me as lending a better sense of balance and pace to the disorienting, circular story, and it also led me to think of Love on the Ground as something of a companion piece to Rivette’s best-known film, Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline and Julie vont en bateau, 1974). Celine and Julie has a similar duration, and also positions its paired heroines within a cloistered mansion where the division between reality and fantasy is blurred.

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Duration is one of the things for which Rivette is famed. Céline and Julie and Love on the Ground are both a tad on the short side, actually. Out 1, made for but rejected by French television, is thirteen hours long. Noli me tangere (1971), the alternate “short” version of Out 1, is four hours long; L’amour fou (1969), another early masterpiece, is four and a half. The length issue is part of a widespread characterization of Rivette as too difficult or obscure to succeed in the kind of mainstream spotlight that, say, a series of Criterion Blu-rays would throw. (Rosenbaum, as far back as 1983, described the phenomenon of encountering lonely Rivette fanatics all over the world – exactly the sort of secret society that you’d find in a Rivette film, of course.)

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I always argue the point when it comes up, and I think I’m right: Nothing signed by Rivette is any more daunting than, for instance, any of the Godard films that have received U.S. distribution during the past thirty years. How could anyone not fall for Duelle and Noroît (both 1976), Rivette’s colorful, plucky diptych from the late seventies? Noroît stars Bernadette Lafont and Geraldine Chaplin as pirates, for heaven’s sake. Pirates! But I guess accessibility is relative. If you’re on a filmmaker’s wavelength, you can step into his universe with ease, and find it perplexing when others can’t. Rivette’s wry paranoia –  just like the somber alienation of Antonioni, who also remains something of a hard sell even to serious movie fans – mirror the way that I look at the world. I lap up every minute.

For the same reason that I carefully qualify my enthusiasm for Love on the Ground, Rosenbaum frets about the particular perils of recommending a lesser entry in Rivette’s unusually insular body of work, and perhaps alienating a potential convert. Sadly, that’s almost unavoidable in the case of Rivette, where the ready availability of the films tends to operate in an inverse ratio to their quality. In the U.S., the rights to most of his films have accrued to cost-over-quality labels like Koch Lorber, Facets, and especially the financially challenged New Yorker, which spent a decade promising a Céline and Julie Go Boating DVD and never delivered. Brits have things a bit better, with worthy BFI editions of Céline and Julie and Rivette’s astounding first feature, Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1960), although I hesitate to recommend them since those two seem a bit likelier to get a Blu-ray upgrade than any of Rivette’s other films. But Le Pont du Nord is a must-have for any movie fan who’s multi-region capable (and it is, alas, one of Masters of Cinema’s few Region B-locked releases), and likely the most comprehensive edition of the film we’ll ever get. Except, maybe not, because it isn’t quite complete: the voluminous liner notes begin with an apology for MOC’s inability to license Paris s’en va (1981), a short film with the same actors that served as a sort of sketch for Le Pont du Nord. The curse of Rivette persists.

 

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Finding My Way Into Schlock

Massage Parlor Murders

Massage Parlor Murders! (1974) would be just another generic morsel of sleaze, if not for its weird six-minute pre-title sequence. In it, a masseuse attempts to negotiate the removal of her clothing with a pasty-faced, flustered client who starts forking over twenties more out of nervousness than sexual desire. The conclusion of this oral contract caps what passes for suspense in this affectless scene, which is flatly lit, staged proscenium arch-style, and accompanied by a jaunty Mickey-Mouse score. Massage Parlor Murders! is probably the only slasher film ever to open with a vaudevillian blackout sketch. The fact that only one of the two characters in it appears again in the movie (and then only for a few minutes right at the end) creates a narrative disconnect, and the scene is hilarious because it contrasts so jarringly in tone with everything that follows. It’s also endearing because it’s one of those surprising movie moments in which an especially appealing bit performer brings a bland scene to life. Olive-skinned Annie Gaybis, who plays the masseuse, has an unusual beauty and a soft Noo Yawk accent, and she really nails the stripper’s seductive hard-sell routine in a funny, authentic-sounding way. It turns out the movie isn’t about Gaybis’s character, but the fleeting possibility counts for a lot.

The other seventy-four minutes of Massage Parlor Murders! (and don’t leave off that exclamation point!) comprise an banal, semi-comprehensible serial killer procedural. But, as Chris Poggiali’s thoroughly-researched liner notes point out, it would be hard to find a more useful time capsule of its particular moment in the history of crap. Like many low-end exploiters, Massage Parlor Murders! was stitched together out of barely usable footage. Chester Fox, whose Hitchcockian cameo happened to be in the role of Gaybis’s befuddled john, was the first of two credited directors, a fringe figure whose other oddball credits included an obscure Marcel Marceau short and an aborted attempt to film the famous Fischer-Spassky chess match. The other, Alex Stevens, was a stunt man hired to add some brisk car chase scenes and a bathhouse not-quite-orgy that looks like it might have been filmed with a hidden camera. Incoherent as it is, Massage Parlor Murders! may be the grindhousiest of all 1970s grindhouse movies, just because it’s set and photographed in and around the place where more people saw them than any other: Manhattan’s Times Square at the depth of its Ford to City: Drop Dead-era decay.

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Re-release prints of Massage Parlor Murders! scissored off the prologue, turning it from a mostly ordinary exploitation film into a wholly ordinary one. A complete theatrical print of the original version is now available as a crisp, colorful Blu-ray thanks to Vinegar Syndrome, a new, Connecticut-based company that specializes in the kind of fringe sinema that even connoisseurs of schlock have never heard of. Ready to explore the oeuvre of porn auteur Kemal Horulu? Vinegar Syndrome has you covered with not one but two double feature DVDs. In the midst of a scary transitional period in which many once-thriving independent labels (and major studios) have cut back or given up on catalog releases, cult and exploitation is one of the few niches still being profitably mined for home video special editions. They’ve been through hard times – Something Weird now releases on DVD-R, and Code Red produces self-distributed limited runs that go out of print almost immediately – but hardy labels including Synapse Films, Scorpion Releasing, Shout Factory, and Grindhouse Releasing are still rereleasing little-known trash classics upon an unsuspecting public at a rapid clip.

It was through another Vinegar Syndrome release, Mark Haggard’s The Love Garden (1971), that I discovered Barbara Mills. Also credited as Barbara Caron, Mills was a prolific sexploitation starlet who somehow never received the same kind of cult recognition that Pam Grier or Claudia Jennings, or even Haji or Marsha Jordan, still enjoy. In The Love Garden, Mills and Linda York (her frequent co-star, and also a wispy redhead with offbeat looks) play lesbians whose partnership is threatened when a new, male neighbor falls for York’s character. At first, this very low-budget film – which has only three characters, and entirely post-synched dialogue – comes across as a dated exercise in “curing” homosexuality. Even though the male protagonist is a Jewfro’d, un-macho Tony Roberts type, he also details (in voiceover) a plan to intrude upon a relationship that he sees as unnatural, at least compared to the lovin’ he’s trying to bring. Mills’s character is the least sympathetic of the three – not quite a stereotypical “predatory lesbian,” but older than York and possessive. So it’s a shock – a calculated, well-crafted shock – when The Love Garden reverses course entirely in its last few minutes, upending all of the hero’s comfortable sexist assumptions and taking an explicitly anti-homophobic stance. I’d also argue that The Love Garden, which devotes 28 of its 70 minutes to a pair of equally tender and unhurried sex scenes (one gay, one hetero) that stop just short of going hardcore, functions as feminist porn avant la lettre.

Not every movie made for the raincoat crowd had subversion on its mind: The Love Garden is paired on DVD with another Barbara Mills vehicle, The Suckers (1972), a clunky attempt to make a softcore Most Dangerous Game. The Suckers doesn’t get around to explaining the obvious “twist” in the plot until after the halfway mark, and its sex scenes are as crude and unappealing as The Love Garden’s are sensuous and open. Mills has a fairly minor role in Escape to Passion (1970), the second film by director James Bryan – she’s one of the participants in the long Crisco orgy at the, er, climax of the film. But Mills and Bryan shared a connection to the Venice Beach hippie scene. Mills, who died in 2010, used her nudie work to support a free-spirited lifestyle as a Venice artist. Bryan, who also lived and worked there, was an authentic regional filmmaker who captured this corner of Los Angeles with the same perceptive eye that George Romero turned upon western Pennsylvania. A film student at UCLA around the same time as Jack Hill (and Francis Ford Coppola, whose first feature was a nudie), Bryan has a fraction of Hill’s skill for self-promotion and, to judge by the three early films released on DVD together by Code Red, twice as much talent.

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Only sixty-five minutes long, Bryan’s debut feature The Dirtiest Game in the World is clearly a B-side – a lengthy sex party hung on a thread of political satire, albeit bookended by documentary footage of the 1968 Democratic convention and an epigraph by Richard Nixon (!).  But Bryan’s formal imagination dominates Escape to Passion, his magnum opus. Using the B storyline about a laid-back orgy impresario (Titus Moody, in full Roy Orbison drag and playing a version of himself) to supply the requisite nudity, Bryan pours his heart into the story of another Angeleno fringe dweller, a petty thief named Leo (the talented Leonard Shoemaker) whose higher criminal aspirations orchestrate noir-style tragedy. Clearly a New Wave enthusiast, Bryan fills Escape to Passion with naturalistic, often handheld camera work, associative editing, and a remarkably dense sound design. Cutaways to movie stills of Robinson and Cagney as Leo describes his dream of a big heist are pure Godard, and the hilarious pop-art bank heist (complete with kiddie space helmets and a naked lady) wouldn’t be out of place in Shoot the Piano Player. The honkytonk soundtrack (set partly in a topless country-western bar, Escape to Passion is almost a musical) anticipates Ashby’s and Scorsese’s pop music scoring. Bryan’s I Love You I Love You Not (1974) is one of the great Los Angeles time capsules of the 1970s; Century City, the Classic Cat and the Aware Inn on Sunset Boulevard, and Venice’s Pacific Avenue are all caught in its amber. I Love You is the story of a nymphomaniac, which in Bryan’s hands becomes a sympathetic portrait of a young woman (Lynn Harris, touchingly vulnerable as she wanders the L.A. streets in an incongruous fur coat) on the edge of mental illness, for whom sex with a series of selfish, damaged men (and women) proves an unsatisfying, temporary escape. Although more constricted by amateurish performances and gratuitous sex scenes than Escape to Passion, I Love You still feels like the bizarro-world, soft-porn version of some canonical New Hollywood film – A Woman Under the Influence or An Unmarried Woman or Coming Home.

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I wish it had been Bryan who tried to turn Barbara Mills into a star instead of Mack Bing, the sitcom director at the helm of Gabriella, Gabriella (usually dated 1972 but probably ca. 1970; Code Red). Mills plays the title character, a teen who flees from the bad vibes given off by her hypocritical, repressed parents (depicted Love, American Style-style, albeit with unflattering middle-aged nudity) into a series of vignettes in which she discovers free love and (literal) sexual revolution. It’s a terrible movie, although its incoherence and obvious symbolism make Gabriella, Gabriella more reminiscent of the European New Wave’s flower-power excesses than any mainstream American film of the era. (In other words it’s closer to Chytilova’s The Apple Tree or Varda’s Lions Love than to Skidoo – but again, that’s not a recommendation). If The Love Garden shows off Mills’s acting chops in what amounts to a character part, Gabriella is an infatuated tribute to her natural beauty (which encompasses a prominent, if adorable, overbite and a crop of clearly visible hair on her upper lip and forearms) and uninhibited exuberance.

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This unreleasable (and evidently unreleased) smorgasbord of peace-love-dope clichés would be totally forgotten today had it not been scavenged for a more high-profile film, Class of ’74 (1972; Code Red). Although the finished product is ultimately no better than Gabriella, Gabriella, Class of ’74 (credited to Bing and a more experienced director, Arthur Marks) has to count as one of the most clever efforts to reconstitute a new film out of the spare parts of an old one. Marks fashions Gabriella, Gabriella into a sequel to itself, packaging the earlier footage as flashbacks to high school and reintroducing Gabriella as a college student (at the University of Southern California, this writer’s alma mater), eager for amorous adventures – or more of them, that is, this time with her new besties as sexual tour guides. If Bing’s movie tried to cash in on Woodstock ideas of sex, Marks’s is pure proto-yuppie cynicism. The sex is transactional, every orgasm a brass ring. Ostensibly the huntresses, Gabriella and her girlfriends somehow end up as trophies for the kind of smug middle-aged clods (played by Gary Clarke and Phillip Terry, among others) who were objects of ridicule in Gabriella, Gabriella. Even the transformation of Mills’s body illustrates a shift from empowerment to conformity: the hair on her arms and face has been waxed off, and the hair on her head is longer and styled with blonde highlights. To put Mills on a par with her relatively A-list co-stars (Marki Bey, Pat Woodell, and Sondra Currie), Marks gave her a glam makeover – and subdued a lot of her personality.

If James Bryan was an auteur of the scuzzy fringe, then Arthur Marks was about as corporate an exploitation director as one could be – a shrewd packager of blax- and sexploitation trends for mini-majors like General Film Corporation (his own company) and later AIP. His films are formulaic and impersonal, but not without their charms. I’m especially partial to Bonnie’s Kids (1973; Dark Sky), a violent, anarchic road/crime spree movie often (and perhaps dubiously) cited as a Pulp Fiction influence. The best thing about Bonnie’s Kids is Tiffany Bolling, a sexy blonde who could be dull in ingénue roles but came ferociously to life when cast as bad girls. She’s terrifyingly feral as a sociopath who engineers a ransom kidnapping in Guerdon Trueblood’s The Candy Snatchers (1973; Subversive Cinema), a more plausible Tarantino inspiration and one of the most unrelentingly cold-blooded movies ever made, right through to the savagely misanthropic twist ending. If there’s one Nixon-era obscurity that deserves to be recategorized as a “real” movie rather than exploitation, it’s The Candy Snatchers. Trueblood (primarily a television writer) ties with Electra Glide in Blue’s James William Guercio as the great one-and-done feature director of 1973, if not of all time, and his invisibility is probably the factor that has kept The Candy Snatchers out of the canon. If some auteurist cred would help up its profile, note that screenwriter Bryan Gindoff’s only other credit is Walter Hill’s beautiful debut film, Hard Times (1975).

These crawled-out-from-under-a-rock films of the 1970s are full of low-rent “stars” who substitute energy and sensuality for finesse, and not all of them were female. Alex Nicol’s deliciously gaudy Point of Terror (1971; Scorpion Releasing) offers a worthy introduction, and farewell, to the forgotten Peter Carpenter. Playing a lounge singer at a seaside dump called the Lobster House, the often shirtless Carpenter manages a decent approximation of Tom Jones’s sweaty charisma in this lurid neo-noir that rips off The Postman Always Rings Twice and half a dozen of its contemporaries. Crammed with unexpectedly good songs (credited to Motown producers Hal Davis, Jerry Marcellino and Mel Larson), Point of Terror seems less interested in operating as a suspense or a horror film than as a star vehicle or a pop opera. Carpenter, who apparently died young (variant accounts of how and when have surfaced across different DVD extras and the internet), also co-wrote Point of Terror, his final film, as well as the earlier Blood Mania (1970; Code Red).

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Directed by Robert Vincent O’Neil, Blood Mania is another stylish, modestly-scaled, fatalistic crime film that synthesizes familiar femme fatale / male patsy clichés. From there one might leap to O’Neil’s The Psycho Lover (1970; Something Weird), a sort of companion piece, made in the same year and with a similar plot, but with Lawrence Montaigne (best known as a Star Trek guest star) subbing for Carpenter. All three of the films have the look and feel of a reasonably good episode of a comfort-food crime series like Mannix or Barnaby Jones – a compliment, not a dig, when you consider how indifferently made most grindhouse fare was content to be. On style points alone, Point of Terror is by far the standout of the three, thanks to cinematographer Bob Maxwell’s oversaturated colors and some imaginative transitions by editor Verna Fields (Medium Cool; Jaws) – not the sort of talent you’d expect to find working on a Crown International release. But all three of the Carpenter and/or O’Neil pictures are what passes for classy (or classical) in an era when the most revelatory independent action movies – like Walter Cichy’s Cop Killers (1973) and Robert Endelson’s Fight For Your Life (1977) – were punishing, self-conscious exercises in simultaneously gratifying audiences’ lust for blood and damning them for it.

I hasten to emphasize I’m far from the first critic to discover any of these gems (or polish any of these turds, to say the same thing a different way). Film historians like Tim Lucas and Michael Weldon have devoted slavish attention to schlock since the dawn of home video, and there are several thorough DVD review sites (like DVD Drive-in, Mondo Digital, and 10,000 Bullets) that only cover cinema’s underbelly. Personally, I never really knew what to do with this scuzzy corner of movie history. I always read Psychotronic Video on the newsstand but never sought out many of the films it covered, not even as a horny teenager in search of illicit nudity. For a young movie buff discovering Hitchcock and Hawks and Nicholas Ray, and a bit later Antonioni and Rivette and Tati, what room is there for Harry Novak?

Only as I near my twentieth year of cinephilia have I gotten interested in crap, and started to find slots for it in my personal mosaic of movie-watching. I’m still skeptical of any iteration of movie fandom that focuses exclusively on junk cinema, and there seem to be many movie fans who are content to traverse only the Mystery Science Theater 3000-Tarantino-Shock Cinema axis. And I think that writers who trump up articulate defenses for talentless hacks like Jess Franco or Ray Dennis Steckler usually end up making less of an argument for the films than for the impulse to validate guilty pleasures as good taste. But over the last few years many of my favorite discoveries have been in this category of cinema, and I suspect it’s crucial that I came to them as something of a postgraduate cinephile.

Although trash might seem to be entry-level cinema, I think it may be more rewarding for the movie fan who’s seen everything. Since what’s good about these films is rarer and arguably harder to suss out than in mainstream filmmaking, it helps to have somewhat refined taste – as well as the patience of a seasoned truffle-hunter. If that sounds snobbish, understand that I’m not patting myself on the back for aptitude, only for endurance. Affinity for a medium counts, but I suspect that taste is more a factor of the 10,000 hour-rule: unless you’re a complete idiot, once you’ve seen 5,000 movies you’ll be able to tell good from bad. That’s how you can zone out through the turgid bulk of Massage Parlor Murders! and still reliably snap to attention for the six minutes in which it gets weird. Exploitation is low-yield cinema – much of it deserves scorn, until suddenly it doesn’t – and again, plumbing those highs and lows is bonus-round territory for the avid cinephile. Another benefit of being in the 10,000-hour club (a club I joined, for the record, somewhere around 2009) is that it gradually purges one of any inclination to point and laugh at art that doesn’t work – a desire that comes, of course, from uncertainty about one’s own judgment. It helps to come at fringe cinema with judiciousness but no condescension.

I remember a prominent film critic, one of my teachers at USC, telling us that she didn’t find her voice as a writer until about five years previously, and then suddenly it clicked. The same could be said of confidence in one’s own taste, and I’m glad I waited to start exploring these movies until after I passed that threshold. In the same way that an artist can’t move to abstraction until he understands technique, perhaps an aficionado can’t recognize outsider art until she knows the canon. Would I have fallen in love with Joe Sarno (probably the most gifted sex film director, even more so than Russ Meyer) had I not already seen the Bergman and Dreyer classics that his films seem to be in a conversation with? I doubt it. The films of James Bryan, who also strikes me as an authentic primitive, might only be a tenth as good as Nashville or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. But a tenth as good as those is still pretty good, and the time to unearth someone like Bryan is probably after absorbing the oeuvres of the masters whose sensibilities he echoes or gropes toward. (Or, to paraphrase Monty Python: if you liked this film, you may also enjoy La Notte.) If I have a guiding principle as a committed movie lover, it’s that curiosity and experience must always expand, never contract. I don’t know what the next frontier will be, but it might be Kemal Horulu.

Stephen Bowie is a contributor to The A.V. Club and the founder of The Classic TV History Blog.