Judge Daryl Loomis has done a lot for meals in his day, but has standards higher than cat food.
Our review of Phoenix (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published April 11th, 2016, is also available.
Once it is lost, it is gone forever.
Alternative Cinema's release of Tony Marsiglia's (Lust for Dracula) newest film coupled with his first feature makes for an interesting double bill. Both are about deeply troubled women, and both carry more artistic weight than the films that have come in between, but does this double feature show the evolution of a filmmaker?
Facts of the Case
Suzie Heartless: Suzie (Wendy McColm), a teenage prostitute, is spiraling downward fast. The final days of her life consist of trading services with a convenience store clerk for a dinner of an apple and a can of cat food, taking systematic abuse from her pimp and johns alike, and deeply regretting what has become of her life.
Phoenix: Two stories intersect in Marsiglia's first film. A woman who grew up in a sexually abusive household is searching for her sister who ran away and may well be dead. Her search brings her in contact with a sexually dysfunctional morgue worker. He's dealing with his own issues involving his repressive parents and a hair and stick fetish, but he may somehow be connected to the woman's sister.
Had somebody told me that the director who made the films presented in this set was the same man responsible for such movies as Lust for Dracula and Sin Sisters, I would not have believed it. That's not to say that Suzie Heartless and Phoenix are perfect examples of artistic cinematic expression; far from it. Marsiglia is clearly trying for something more substantial in these films than campy titillation and comes out with mixed, though respectable, results. Neither film is easy to watch, with his first a little less difficult than his latest, but this comes down much more to content and tone than to quality.
Phoenix, as a first feature, is surprisingly good, especially for the obvious budget limitations. Shot very nicely in black and white, Marsiglia show a good, natural hand for filmmaking. Mixing a dark sense of humor into some very uncomfortable moments, he keeps the mood light enough that the film doesn't feel overpoweringly oppressive. Make no mistake, though, it has its share of quite uncomfortable moments, as the theme of incest takes center stage. These scenes, and much of the film as a whole, are told with dreamlike incongruence, shifting between storylines until they make a semblance of sense. I found myself comparing the film constantly to Nikos Nikolaidis's Singapore Sling. Though Phoenix is far inferior to that freak show of a film, it does carry some of the same themes and a similar, if less artistic, look. The performances are campy and the sexuality is bizarre (especially the notion that the mortician's solution to self-pleasure involves a stick with a nail at the top that he lays swatches of hair upon). Phoenix is not what I would call a "good time," but it is a day at the beach compared to Marsaglia's other film in this set.
Suzie Heartless is a far different film in every way from Phoenix, throwing all bits of camp and fun out the window for a stark, bleak landscape of one woman's internal and external torture. The film is told without dialog or voice of any kind beyond the occasional bits of sobbing, this is an extremely difficult film to watch. Shot in mostly documentary style, we watch Suzie, who is the only character who appears more than once, as her shambles of a life turns even worse. There are no attempts at humor here, this is as morose and serious as a film can get. Wendy McColm does a fantastic job in the title role, portraying a blank and burned out soul with gut-wrenching believability. Part of this may come down to the fact that she doesn't have to say anything but, nonetheless, it is quite a performance from her. The lack of dialog does not make the film difficult to understand, all that is very clear. It does make the film interminably slow, however, and adds to the punishment inflicted on the viewer. Violent both physically and sexually, Suzie Heartless is a beating, one that I'm somewhat glad I endured, but not a journey I care to repeat.
Alternative Cinema's two disc release of these films is about as good as you could ever expect for films of this level. The print for Phoenix is astoundingly clear with sharp contrast and a fine transfer. Suzie Heartless doesn't sport quite as solid a print, but the lighting and the style precludes some grain. The transfer itself is fine. The stereo sound on both films is adequate, but never very dynamic. For extras, both films feature good commentary tracks from Marsiglia, who clearly states what he's trying to accomplish and gives some interesting information and back story on both films. Phoenix also contains a short making-of featurette and audition footage, while Suzie Heartless includes a single deleted scene.
Did I like the double feature of Suzie Heartless and Phoenix? I don't think these are the kinds of films one can actually "like," but they do have their merits. Marsiglia is definitely trying for more in these films than he has for much of his career, and I definitely respect his vision. It is easy to recommend the films for the brutal experience, just don't expect to come out of them feeling very good about very much.
These people have punished themselves enough. Case dismissed.
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