Sunday, February 05, 2012

Zalman King, 1941-2012

He never acknowledged it. But given his enormous influence on the development of softcore cinema in the 1980s, Zalman King, who died February 3rd at the hardy-har age of 69, derived more inspiration from starring in Some Call It Loving (1973) than any other project in which he was involved. So arresting was the film’s erotic universe that King’s odd 1960s/1970s acting resume has long seemed an obstacle to his true calling as writer and/or director of such succès de steam as 9 1/2 Weeks (1986), Wild Orchid (1989), and the Red Shoe Diaries franchise (1992-2001). Even today the film mesmerizes those lucky enough to encounter it. Despite its glacial pace, virtually an entire classroom of undergraduate students fell for it in a course I taught just last month. And after well over a decade, Some Call It Loving remains my vote for the greatest film ever made.

What King learned from James B. Harris, the director of Some Call It Loving, wasn’t a taste for aspirational erotica so much as the crazed determination to realize a godforsaken vision. And so after the aforementioned films crowned him the King of Skinemax, he embarked on one of the most unique but neglected filmographies of the last twenty years, beginning with the superior sequel Wild Orchid II: Two Shades of Blue (1991) and reaching an apotheosis with Women of the Night (2001). Critics and viewers dismiss these films as “softcore” although technically, according to David Andrews’ excellent book Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in Its Contexts, that label should be reserved for films ordered by a narrative-(sex) number oscillation. King’s films are something else. And how.

It seems impossible, a miracle even. But Women of the Night damn near matches Some Call It Loving in world-making intensity. A convoluted tale of a blind woman sending out incantatory broadcasts into the wee hours from an 18-wheeler, it weaves together four, maybe five stories in riveting, dream-like logic. Image behaves like sound, wafting through the diegetic playground like radio waves in the ether. Repeated phrases and unaccountable bits of dialogue create a dense thicket of sound that competes with the image track. And the mise-en-scène is absolutely gorgeous. One throwaway three-second shot, a woman alone after a farewell party, contains an absurd amount of visual information. King festoons the set with nets, veils, fronds, creepers, lattices, streamers, gauze…oh wait. That’s Peter Wollen on Anatahan. But seriously, Women of the Night is the equal of any Von Sternberg.

As you take in the crew of beautiful people that the blind heroine has gathered to assist in her baffling endeavor, you soon discover that the film is about its own mad realization. Zalman King had the courage to realize films that would not yield their codes easily. But he also knew that they deserved better than their softcore pigeonhole. As the man himself said: “There’s only a handful of filmmakers – maybe two handfuls – in America who are leading with their chins, and I think you ought to get at least a couple of points for that.”* Well, you get way more than a couple from me, baby!

* Maitland McDonagh, Filmmaking on the Fringe: The Good, The Bad, and The Deviant Directors. (New York: Citadel, 1995), 68.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home