Monday, December 29, 2014
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Big Bird Cage
Our story starts in 1971 with Jack Hill's 'The Big Bird Cage', a fairly standard example of the women-in-prison genre (or more particularly of its especially sleazy subgenre which locates said prison somewhere in the wilds of a politically unstable tinpot South American country) which was enlivened no end by Pam Grier in a supporting role. It was only her second film appearance and it kicked off a four-movie relationship with Hill that spanned the first half of the 70s and made Grier a blaxploitation icon.
Fast forward to 1972 and Hill made an in-name-only sequel, 'The Big Bird Cage', this time with Grier in the lead. She plays Bloosom, an hilariously inappropriate name for a Marxist revolutionary who's as handy with a gun as she is with her fists. Blossom is committed to the revolution, even if her leader - and lover - Django (Sid Haig) is content to postpone the glorious moment to a never-ending parade of tomorrows as long as he can swing on his hammock and drink wine and have a small army of followers defer to him.
Said followers, however, are a tad disaffected that Blossom is the only woman amongst them and exclusive in her favours to Django. They, too, dream of revolution but more fervently so of female company. A two-birds-one-stone solution presents itself when they learn of a women's prison run by a sadistic warden (is there any other kind?) by the name of Zappa (Andres Centenera). More work farm than penitentiary, the inmates labour at a giant mill known as the bird cage and are occasionally pimped out to visiting dignitaries.
The revolutionary front decide to liberate this facility (and hopefully score some new recruits). To this end, Blossom finds herself "volunteered" to get arrested and shipped out to the prison, whence she will foment rebellion; the plan is for Django's troops to provide firepower to assist with the break-out. So far so excessive force, but what none of them realise is that the prison's latest detainee, American party girl Terry (Anitra Ford), owes her arrest to a case of misidentification arising from Django and Blossom's actions earlier in the film.
Indeed, 'The Big Bird Cage' focuses as much on Terry as it does Blossom, perhaps more so in the early stages as Terry negotiates the prison's power structure, learns who to befriend and who to be wary of, and looks out for fellow wrongful arrestee Rina (Marissa Delgado).
Naturally, the Blossom/Terry plotlines eventually coincide, but the outcome isn’t what you might have been expecting, one of several unexpected swerves Hill makes with the material. Likewise the ongoing feud between aggressive lesbian Karen (Karen McKevic) and smart-mouthed Mickie (Carol Speed): when Mickie is forced into harm’s way at Zappa’s hands, rather than take advantage of the situation, Karen reacts with righteous fury.
Perhaps the oddest thing Hill does, though, is during the mid-section where Django infiltrates the camp by getting hired on as a guard. Zappa, keen that his staff keep their hands off the inmates (there is a general “no sex” rule at the camp that’s only repeal when Zappa wants a visiting politician or businessman to have a good time), hires only gay guards. Django expedites his employment opportunities by allowing himself to be picked up by chief of guards Rocco (Vic Diaz) in what seems to be a gay bar in the middle of the jungle.
While all of this malarkey is as stereotypical and risible as the lesbian bar scene in ‘Foxy Brown’, the absurdity somehow makes it not only palatable but outright entertaining. There’s something about Sid Haig – Sid fucking Haig, ladies and gentlemen – pretending to be gay that totally rewires the synapses and leaves your head spinning.
By the time Blossom, Terry et al stage the break-out, a set-piece that occupies the last quarter of an hour and delivers explosions, shoot outs, chases and Rocco suffering the proverbial fate worse than death (another moment that has to be seen to be believed), ‘The Big Bird Cage’ has not only careened through a deliriously inclusive exploitation checklist, but upended most of them even as it ticks them off. It thumbs its nose at intellectualization, renders redundant the reviewer, and glories in its gorgeous and strikingly iconic heroines. ’Nuff said.