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Monday, January 31, 2011

UNITED TRASH at The Silent Movie Theatre's NIGHT WITH UDO KIER

Cinefamily at Silent Movie Theatre's "Night with Udo Kier" was an embarassment of riches. The showing of the Kier-starring short film MRS. MEITLEMEIHR and two previously unscreened Guy Maddin shorts (part of a project to reconstruct over 200 lost silent films) were fascinating and a fitting tribute to the actor's comedic and avant-garde sides. And the Q and A session, in which Udo responded frankly and engagingly to moderator questions and audience questions, was also fascinating. While Kier's biography would be a fascinating thing to read, what hooked me the most was his comment that, the reason he thought he did such a good job playing bad guys and creeps was that, at heart, he was a nice guy.

And of course, Kier seemed to enjoy the night as much as we did. He remarked that this was the first time he'd ever seen a marquee lit up with his name and that he wanted to get a picture of it himself. I feel like what makes Kier so engaging as a performer and a person is that combination of professionalism and sheer enthusiasm he has somehow maintained over almost a half-century. Even when he's appearing in a Uwe Boll film, he's enthusiastic about being in the same film as Michael Madsen and Ben Kingsley. And it's great to see someone who still recognizes the sheer fun of getting to do a photo-shoot with Madonna or smell Pamela Anderson as his day job.

But I think what I'd really like to talk about is UNITED TRASH (a.k.a. THE SLIT, 1996), the feature-length film they showed. Directed by Christoph Schlingensief, starring Udo Kier and Kitten Natividad, this film really is something.

Kier introduced it as one of the craziest films he'd ever done. The whole thing was shot in Zimbabwe, and during filming, the director was arrested by the government for filming pornography (a charge originating from a scene where Natividad runs naked toward a midget with a vagina in his head, apparently) and the actual film had to be snuck out by the German Consulate in diplomatic pouches.

And following in that tradition of ridiculous complications, the distributor sent Cinefamily a copy without English subtitles. Luckily, all of Natividad's dialogue is in English, as is the majority of Kier's. And in a further stroke of luck, the film is so over-the-top and disturbing that I'm not sure understanding everything the actors are saying would clarify anything at all.

The plot, as far as I could puzzle it out, follows the ramifications of a deployment of UN peacekeepers to  a (so far as I can tell) generic African nation that seems to be suffering from famine and disease. The UN peacekeepers are under the command of General Werner Brenner (Kier), who is married to Marta Brenner (Natividad). Despite the fact that he's married to a woman played by a porn starlet and former girlfriend of Russ Meyer, Brenner has never had sex with his wife. In fact, he prefers the company of Lund (Jonny Pfeiffer), an aging bodybuilder and all around pervert.

So when Marta gets pregnant, the people of Africaland believe it is a virgin birth and that her son will be the messiah for both the nation and the world. However, Marta was actually impregnated by insane African Catholic Bishop Pierre (Joachim Tomachewsky) in a scene that suggests John Waters filming Rosemary's Baby.

The baby is named Peter Panne, and through a series of perverse events, he's given a lobotomy by mad German rocket scientist Vanderberg (Milos Koniger), who is also the mission's medical scientist, apparently under the theory that one doctor should be able to do anything done by doctors in general. The operation leaves Peter mentally retarded and physically deformed, with a giant vagina-like slit in his head that spurts sperm. 

As Peter Panne grows up, the peacekeepers (except for the Brenners, who are displayed as carnival freaks to paying customers) are massacred by the natives, led by a dictator named Hassan (Jones Muguse). Hassan institutes a rocket-building program that will launch a nuclear missile at America, said rocket to be powered by Peter Panne's slit. While Hassan's scheme succeeds, we are presented with a kind of happy ending, depending on how happy any marriage involving incest and child molestation can be.

If my plot summary sounds scattershot, it's only partially due to the language barrier. Even when the events occurring are narrated or explained in English, they're more motivated by a sense of gross-out humor, perversity and dark humor. The mutilation of Peter Panne, for example, ties into the ongoing rivalry between Lund and Marta, the break-up between a German cyclist and his murderous flame, a pitiful German tourist who gets shot, stabbed and strangled, the occult machinations of Bishop Pierre and Doctor Vanderberg's insane mad science.

The danger with watching a film like this, especially when the dialogue and story is so unclear, is to merely judge it as "Everything is Terrible" weirdness, as inexplicable and campy as one of those Turkish films that team up El Santo and Captain America or re-use Star Trek and Star Wars footage for un-related stories. And certainly, there is much to enjoy on that level. After all, Udo Kier puts on blackface and masturbates into a skirt made of bananas. That's not something you see every day.

But there is also a point to the surreal and scatological humor, and there is a talent marshaling the bad taste, aesthetic crudity and camp. I'm not sure it's a talent that I'd want to experience very often, and one that has flaws, but that's exactly how I feel about John Waters or Terry Zwigoff.

Because the movie is grappling with the way that West expropriates and uses Africa as a venue it can play-act in while also indulging and exploiting the inhabitants. And, at the same time, African nations are willing to exploit and use the Western nations, whether for graft or food or merely as a force they can marshal resentment against. After all, the nominal plot is the various machinations of a German peace-keeping force trying to civilize the natives, counter-posed against a rogue bishop trying to use African evangelism to launch a coup against the Vatican, while a brutal dictator rises to power on their coat-tails.

And Schlingensief wants us to put this together. Towards the end, he stages a carnival that explicitly celebrates UN disaster areas such as Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

Beyond the ideological level, the decision to film mostly in existing structures in Zimbabwe and use a number of local performers also lends the film some cumulative power. Judging by release dates, this was shot during a period when Mugabe was consolidating his hold on power, crushing the unions and students, and almost every shot testifies to the dilapidated state of the nation's infrastructure. When the camera pans from a bunch of stereotypical "spiritual Africans" to the wreckage and corpses lying behind them, it's an alienating moment, in the Brechtian sense. The world of the film is no longer the traditional Hollywood crucible in which white people prove their character (as most contemporary American films set in Africa are). It is a place where people are suffering and dying because other people they have little or no control over are playing out their own ambitions.

At the end, the white English-speaking characters are reduced to nothing more than freaks and monsters, human wreckage in a landscape filled with it, leaves us at the end with the mutilated and deformed Peter Panne, now dressed in dictator's garb, surrounded by his followers in a parody of the Nativity, celebrating the arrival of yet another monster to ravage their land.

Unrateable
United Trash ( Die Spalte ) ( The Slit ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.0 Import - Germany ]

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