Sunday, October 3, 2010

"....I've been working near them cane fields and I wanna be free!"

Evidently I wasn't the only one less than satisfied with Women In Cages. Roger Corman, never one to throw away scraps, decided that there was still money to be made in his newly minted modern Women In Prison genre and one sequel just wasn't going to cut it, especially one so low on the charm that gave him that license to print money. The solution? Return to basics. Jack Hill was sent back to the Philippines along with Pam Grier and Sid Haig and a bunch of fresh faces (I guess New World Pictures were hedging their bets on disassociating themselves from Women In Cages?) and re-upped their political fervour. This time the revolution wasn't just off screen and in smuggled letters, this time Haig and Grier were going to bring it into the prison themselves. They were going to teach it to every prisoner and then they were gonna either bust out and join the fight or die trying. And, luckily for us, the other thing Hill brought back was a sense of humour to go with his unrepentant lowbrow screenplay. For while there is enough merciless sleaze to satisfy anyone, there's room to breathe and enjoy it as something a touch more knowing than it would be in either The Big Doll House, Women In Cages or any of the WIP films that followed. The Big Bird Cage is really the best of the best: not only is it simultaneously fun and knowingly awful (and make no mistake things get awful), but it's also the closest thing to a real revolution the Philippines saw in the 70s.

The Big Bird Cage
by Jack Hill
I have to admit that the sound of delayed conga drums is now as welcome as the sound of birds chirping on a summer morning. Terry is a woman that every important politician in the Philipines has vied for at some time or another. According to the hushed tones that accompany her arrival at a dive bar, nameless powerplayer on her arm, the prime minister once fought a duel over her. So it's fortuitous that this particular bar is the subject of a robbery by a group of cash-strapped revolutionaries posing as the evening's entertainment. After their leaders, Blossom and Django (Grier and Haig), have cleaned everyone out they make a break for their hideaway but in all the hubbub Django is left behind. He grabs Terry as collateral and hijacks the nearest cab. But contrary to his expectations Terry's thrilled to have been taken, she even balks at the notion of the bearded gunmen having to force himself on her. Django's thrilled about this until he figures out that this is the girl who slept her way into the confidence of every decision maker in the country. Django realizes she's more trouble than she's worth ("They'd pay me to get rid of you!") and ditches both her and the car. The police willingly close one eye to the reality of the situation and send her to prison (well government work camp, but same difference really) as an accomplice to the crime and by extension a part of the revolution. And every politician she's ever slept with breathes a sigh of relief at the sight of the back of her.

Let's meet her cellmates, shall we? There are too many native prisoners to name in cottage #2 so let's stick to the ones who share a first language. There's Rina, a woman who arrives on the same boat as Terry who the former social-climber has taken it upon herself to protect, Mickie, the sassy black girl who loves torturing Karen, the tall, slender lesbian who evidently hasn't convinced anyone to bed down with her, Carla, this movie's Roberta Collins surrogate, Bull Jones, the would-be slut and running the place are Rocco and Moreno, the head homosexual guards and Warden Zappa, the guy who acts the vicious overseer of the camp. His pet project is a giant sugarcane mill run by the prisoners that extracts sugar from coconuts. It's where dissidents, informers and delinquents ends up so that if they happen to die in some unforseen accident, no one thinks twice. The mill is also the Big Bird Cage of the title, so you just know it's going to wind up being Zappa's undoing. Meanwhile Django finally hoofed it back to the revolution's secret camp in the jungle. Blossom assumes he's been away this long because he'd been making time with Terry but after a knife fight and some mud wrestling they quickly find themselves having house-shaking reunion sex. The sight of the whole house shaking gets the other guys thinking that if they had a few more girls around the average joe might be compelled to join the fight. Can you think of someplace with enough women to spare, just off the top of your head? You'll get there, take a sec. So Blossom and Django hatch a plan to get her incarcerated so she can organize a prison break, and him on the staff so he can dismantle the guards. I don't think it takes a genius to see that things aren't going to go exactly as planned.
The Big Bird Cage hit theatres in July of 1972; by September president Ferdinand Marcos had refused to yeild to the constitutional limits of his reign and declared marshall law. The lead-up to this was a desperate time, to be sure, but Marcos was basically responding to his own opposition rather than any kind of need for change. His government had spent wildly and put the country thousands of dollars in debt. Students protested, shutting down every major university and the remaining communists in the country banded together and tried to rebel but lost as many people as they killed and when Marcos seized control he had all his remaining opponents either killed, imprisoned or forced into exile. Incidentally, one of the senators he arrested, Benigno Aquino, Jr., would eventually be his undoing, for after his release, he ran against Marcos for President in 1983; Marcos had him killed and didn't cover his tracks. It took time to prove it conclusively but by '86 he and his party were gone. There's a scene in The Big Bird Cage that actually predicts Marcos' attitude toward his country. In the early 80s he hosted Pope John Paul II and before his arrival publicly declared an end to his complete control over the government, but things went back to normal after the pope departed. In The Big Bird Cage some officials come to check on Zappa's progress and the whole time Rocco walks a few paces behind them pantomiming a big smile for all the girls to see. He might not have known it when he let Jack Hill back in the country but Marcos was the villain of The Big Bird Cage.

The Big Bird Cage was the first of these movies to function nakedly as a metaphor. The camp is a stand-in for the country it was filmed in (or really any country undergoing totalitarian rule) and the stuff about sex is mostly window-dressing. You'll notice the sexual content is perfectly symmetrical. Terry's first escape attempt leads to her being gang raped by some local horndogs and her second one leads to one of the guards being gang raped by the prisoners. Carla's all encompassing need to get laid is matched by Django's fellow revolutionaries wanting to break into prison to steal women. Horniness drives everyone in the movie so it has to come down to politics. The women in cottage #2 were already looking for a reason to escape and though Blossom has to prove her point using brute force, she only suceeds because she has the revolution driving her to success. Her sleeping with Django is just an extension of that. And then there's the shift in the dynamic between Karen and Mickie. After the scene when the bird cage breaks down and Mickie is sent below to fix it, the metaphor becomes double what it was. Watching labour bosses ignoring work conditions to the point of fatal ignorance is the kind of thing you'd expect in a Jules Dassin film. So when Pam Grier puts a machete in the arms of every prisoner and organizes the raid she's not just starting a jailbreak, she's arming the work force and seizing (and destroying) the means of production. The machetes they work the fields with become the thing they hack their oppressors to pieces with. It might not mean much to some people seeing as how this is a movie that features the line "You can't rape me, I like sex!" but that I can find Marxist overtones in a movie I already like on dirty, shameful principle is icing on the cake. It's films like this that sent Mark Hartley looking into movies from the Philippines in order to find the rebellion the insurgents were never able to pull off.
And while we're at it, let's talk sleaze. The Big Bird Cage has all the requisite mudfights you could ask for, as well as purple sex talk and all kinds of batshit imagery I can't say I've ever seen doubled. The scene where Karen covers her naked body in chicken fat so that the other girls can't grip her long enough to prevent her finally beating the shit out of Mickie is a stroke of mad genius on Hill's part. The sight of a woman as tall and thin as Karen McKevic running naked is weird enough without the addition of her choice of lubricant and the scene where Carla starts the huge rape of Rocco is pretty goddamned filthy, too. I can't get behind the use of gay stereotypes but I still like the methods Sid Haig employs to infiltrate the guards. It's hard not to laugh at lines like "Alright you silly bitches, back to your cottages" when delivered through Sid Haig's lisping southern accent and there is something kinda sweet about the scene where Rocco stares at Haig while he's pissing then hastily makes a comment about his shoes. It helps knowing that while he was giving the role of Django his all, Haig was also shooting second unit for Jack Hill. His chemistry with Grier is also endlessly watchable after the first viewing, where it's just kind of jarring because until now he's just been either psychos or generic heavies. But once you get used to it you really dig their brief time together and really love it when Grier smashes a guitar to snatch her machine gun and Haig grabs two .45s. Hill didn't call them his Tracy and Hepburn for nothing. Pam Grier for her part gives her best performance to date. When she runs onscreen after Django's return to camp and delivers easily my favourite piece of dialogue in the film "I told you I was gonna cut it off if you try to pull that shit on me!" she's no longer Roger Corman's former secretary. She was Coffy, she was Foxy Brown, she just needed a change of warddrobe and she could take down either white dope dealers in LA or Ferdinand Marcos. There isn't a moment where you don't believe she could kick your ass. Anitra Ford, Karen McKevic, Candice Roman and Carol Speed are all a lot of fun to watch and their respective subplots make for engaging detours from the revolution/prison break. And considering that the prison break is the only thing guaranteed by a women in prison film, this film more than delivers in so many ways. Hill had a bigger budget and was able to deliver a conclusion long on action and explosions, even if he still couldn't do better than that image of Pat Woodell leveling two M-3s at her captors. Women In Cages proved that these movies could be perfunctory and still make a pretty penny and this one proved how good they could be. The Big Bird Cage is so much more than the sum of its parts; a sex-crazed, machete-wielding warrior that looks good in skimpy prison clothes.

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