Posted August 29, 2017 by D. K. Holm
Having dealt with the coincidence of two Legionnaire films appearing at the same time, the following week in the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris is back to the grind of seemingly random films openings. Yet the three films he dealt with for the August 29 issue do have a common currency: sex.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is the first film with Jodie Foster since Taxi Driver. She plays a girl living alone in a house under mysterious circumstances. Satan’s Brew (Satansbraten) is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1976 film, made between a TV movie and Chinese Roulette, a slapstick self-portrait made some seven years before his death. Sugar Cookies, originally from 1973, was reedited down to an R rating, and rewritten in part by Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman, who comes from the ringleader-huckster-circus-showman school of filmmakers along with Russ Meyer and Hershel Gordon Lewis.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is more like a filmed play than a movie. Most of the action takes place in the “little girl’s” rented house, with her father mysteriously always in his writer’s study or in New York City conferring with a publisher. The other main characters are Alexis Smith as the snoopy landlord, Martin Sheen as her son, the town’s local pedophile, and TV’s Scott Jacoby, a Matthew Modine lookalike, as the lame magician eccentric whom she befriends as an accomplice. Shot in Canada the film pretends to be taking place in Maine (used for exteriors), and is based on a novel (YA?).
Satan’s Brew was made just after the break up of his stock company, and is a parody of his own extreme, sometimes pretentious behavior, sexual identity, and the sexual quirks of his friends and colleagues. It concerns a few days in the life of a Artaud-esque poet-writer who extorts money from a rich mistress and then shoots her, abuses his wife and brother and best friend, and takes on a groupie, all of whom live in the same white walled apartment building. All ends happily. Sugar Cookies is set in the world of New York filmmaking and concerns a casting call for a new movie by a director who likes to play a form of roulette with his leads.
Sex and murder are the linking elements. The “little girl, ” who is 13, eliminates problems by eliminating their human source, starting with the landlord and ending with the son. Spared are the Italian town cop, a sympathetic character and the victim local racism, and the new boyfriend. The film begins on Halloween with Sheen showing up to trick or treat in advance of his two sons (never seen or heard from again), and the way he comes on to Foster’s Moroccan-garbed loner is beyond creepy … was it so in 1977? I can’t remember, but time as swept away looser attitudes about sex, especially later in the film when the two teen characters get together all too casually (Foster’s older sister served as a body double). The presentation by Nicolas Gessner (It Rained All Night the Day I Left, and 19 other directorial credits) and his DP (René Verzier) is about TV movie level, and the film stops without really ending.
Satan’s Brew is unusual among Fassbinder’s output. Sarris was an advocate of Fassbinder’s since The Merchant of Four Seasons finally introduced the German director to American audiences via the New York Film Festival. It’s unexpectedly wacky, but eventually the viewer can go with it, and the narrative holds to his themes of power struggles within relationships and Germany’s then-repressed relationship with its past. The gun that the main character, played by Kurt Raab (also in Merchant), figures frequently in the plot, with a cop often snooping through the poet’s apartment for the weapon.
Sugar Cookies begins and ends with the use of a gun as an erotic plaything, and overall comes across as very much in the spirit of mainstream non-hard-core erotic films of the time, with a clunky story line and poor or at least uneven sound recording. The stand out element, though, is Mary Woronov as the “casting director,” or pimp, who is remarkably realistic and beguiling in a part seemingly written without nuance. The film was directed by her then husband, the late Theodore Gershuny, whose notable film among about five films, and two television episodes is Silent Night, Bloody Night, also with Ms. Woronov, arguably the most under-rated drive-in movie actress of all time. Woronov is a tall, angular, in some angles mannish witch-like figure of great determination and secrets, who could easily slip into an Anna Biller film. Like Jodie Foster, she has changed little over the succeeding decades, possibly via a pact with the devil. Woronov acts the others off the screen simply by being more real while the rest of the cast aspires to “acting.” Contemplating ancestral advice continuums, one wonders if Broadway star Smith gave the young Foster any tips on how show business really works that she might have passed on, augmented by her own unique experiences, to Kristen Stewart when they made Panic Room together.
Having written the above, I turned to Sarris’s review.
[Note: In the small page search box, type 22 or 23, which takes you to the two-page spread, visible if you have the browser open full screen. The opposing page, 44, is Bell Tells. “Films in Focus” is on page 45.]
Each review is from two to three paragraphs but he manages to pack a lot into a small space (a lesson that contemporary digital writers could learn, given the adamant space limitations assigned to blogs these days by editorial fiat). Though he likes Foster, he finds Little Girl, advertised as a horror film, deficient. “Even today there can be too much suggestion, too much ellipsis, too much understatement.” For Sarris the “iconographic frissons” between Smith and Foster are the soul of the movie, a ruling that requires that the reader be familiar with the stage and minor screen career of the older actress and the lurid overlay of the youngster’s (maybe Smith should have been killed at the end, after her son, not at the beginning). Sugar Cookies inspires an early glance at the then-emerging alliance between feminists and right wingers to join together to suppress sexist and sexual films. As for the film itself, the main narrative, about “evil exhibitionists” was so common at the time that they began to bore Sarris.
Sarris went up and down on Fassbinder over the years, but he always respected his work and thought hard about the director’s ideas. He doesn’t go much into Fassbinder’s astute use of camera placement, learned perhaps at the foot(age) of Douglas Sirk, nor about his carefully monitored decor. Instead he is struck by Fassbinder’s lack of “flair for farce,” adding that he “is never really overtly funny … [he] should never actively seek humor but allow it to lurk in the background of his dark lyricism,” something Fassbinder was to do with later masterpieces such as Despair, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lili Marleen, Veronika Voss, and others. Sarris finds that the influence of Cocteau to be more prevalent in the film than Artaud, but another author actually cited is Stefan George, the 19th-20th century poet, who provided a link to German literary modernism; the film’s poet thinks that his writer’s block has ended, but he has simply started to plagiarize the work of George, which seemingly no one, including his editor, recognizes. Sarris doesn’t go into that detail, but he unerringly captures the strengths and weaknesses of the film as a totality.
Unfortunately, this week I’ve spent too much time summarizing my views and not expanding on Sarris’s influence, but perhaps that is the point – after 40 years, Sarris can still inspire a writer to explore ideas and links to the past and present.
Next week, a farewell to Groucho.
 Predictive of later, simultaneous volcano movies, Capote biopics, and undersea alien cash-in movies in later years.