Porno For Pyros

Volcano

area theaters

Screwed

Oak Street Cinema

Tuesday at 7:30 and 9:15 p.m.

PRE-MILLENNIUM TENSION is still the best explanation for the recent tidal wave of disaster movies, but I for one am getting bored with it. Yes, Hollywood epics with huge budgets are required to tap the zeitgeist in order to recoup--and since everyone's scared of something these days, phenomenons like twisters and floods make the perfect universal metaphors. (It's only a coincidence that Mother Nature appears to have conspired with the industry to produce Grand Forks.) But as the studios' titanic compulsion to spend amounts to a literal disaster, there's a sense in which films like Volcano exist mainly because they're expensive to make, and thus easy to market because they're expensive to make. To wit: Volcano cost $90 million before advertising! It's an epic!

Nevertheless, this one's smarter than most, and a masterpiece next to Dante's Peak. Amid the FX avalanche, Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche pull off some delicate chemistry as L.A. professionals whose opposing MOs collide during an urban volcano. He's an emergency chief with such workmanlike crisis skills that he pulls out a jackhammer to help direct the flow of lava; she's a seismologist who favors more scientific methods while philosophizing that "this city's finally paying for its arrogance." As required by the genre, Volcano's first five minutes offer a hilariously concise soundbite montage of what ails us: drive-by shootings, armed robbery, cancer, a church being turned into a mini-mall, a rap artist's release from prison.

But where most disaster films are predicated on conservative resolutions, this one contrives a neo-Marxist plot to take from the rich and give to the commune, as the city's powers that be discuss using the supply of swimming-pool water to cool the volcanic conflagration. (Touchingly, a chi-chi apartment complex across from the Beverly Center is surrendered for the greater good.) Likewise, in the heat of this L.A. riot, the Jones and Heche characters develop a mutually respectful equanimity--and so do a civilly disobedient black man and the white cop who cuffs him, as Volcano's symbolic eruption gives way to a "Can't we all just get along?" tract. Indeed, the movie asserts that everyone's the same color under a half-inch of ash.

And now for something completely different, sorta: Screwed is a low-budget bio-doc of Screw publisher Al Goldstein--which, like Volcano, suggests that the human race may be destined to burn in hell. But, perhaps as it should be, there's no cathartic triumph over the elements in this picture. Attempting a raunchier whitewash of its subject than The People vs. Larry Flynt, the film at least ventures to roll in the mud with the pig pornographer whose hardcore mag predates Flynt's Hustler. Since launching Screw in '68, this self-described "charmer" has been arrested 19 times and was indicted on obscenity charges during the Nixon era--but he has never once settled out of court. Thus a biggie in his own mind, the 300-pound Goldstein loves to throw his weight around, at one point telling the doc's off-camera interviewer to fuck off. The man is clearly being serviced by the filmmakers (and vice versa), but he does have an outlaw reputation to uphold.

Indeed, lewdly expressed misogyny, blatantly incorrect politics, and a vigorous denial of his own privilege are key to Goldstein's success in the '90s. In Screwed, the Brooklyn-born millionaire disclaims responsibility for perpetuating porn, but flaunts his right to make money on it while lamenting that "I'm not rich like I think I should be." He complains that the public types him as a cartoon character but relishes such animated antics as giving head to a bored-looking porno actress; he expresses a vicious hatred toward his four ex-wives but off-handedly praises one of them as a feminist. The doc's weirdest moment comes when an excited Goldstein asks an associate to tape a CNN interview with Catherine MacKinnon--whom he calls something awful before hailing her in the next breath for saying "nice things about me."

Notably, we don't get to hear MacKinnon or many other dissenting voices in Screwed. An anti-porn rally is given ridiculously short shrift, while the film's chief naysayer by default is a New York Guardian Angel who calls Goldstein "the biggest sleazebag in a city where there are many sleazebags"--and who, in turn, seems fairly sleazy himself. Hardly disputing Goldstein's prideful view that "We are one sick nation," director Alexander Crawford uses an abrasive AmRep soundtrack to signify cool nihilism, and agrees to withhold the slightest challenge of Goldstein in trade for his earnest participation. No doubt this scuzzy transaction bespeaks a certain authenticity. But if Screwed seems an unpleasant piece of work, that owes only partly to the subject at hand.

 
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