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Husbanding 'Cleopatra'

[whitespace] Cleopatra's Second Husband

Local director Jon Reiss blows up with 'Cleopatra's Second Husband'

By Richard von Busack

SOME PEOPLE are willing to run over their parents to get into show business. Jon Reiss, who made the promising debut Cleopatra's Second Husband, wasn't that ruthless, but he did film his parents getting run over. It happened some 10 years ago at a shoot of a video about Survival Research Laboratories, Mark Pauline's high-explosive mechano/carno demolition-art troupe. "At one of SRL's early shows, I almost got maimed," Reiss says by phone. "My parents got hit by one of the machines, and I got that on camera. Then the machine swung up and came straight back at me. I was a little more careful at SRL shows after that."

Reiss is from Los Gatos. He was a Homestead High student who went to UC-Berkeley to study economics. Reiss was preparing to go to Stanford as a grad student when he became interested in the punk-rock bands that were then springing up all over the Bay Area. Working for Target Video in San Francisco, Reiss began filming bands such as the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and Silvertone, Chris Isaacs' ex-group. After his time with SRL, Reiss made a famous grisly video for Nine Inch Nails, "Happiness in Slavery," in which Trent Reznor is first colonized and next devoured by a sort of futuristic La-Z-Boy recliner. (Mark Dery writes an excellent account of the video in his study Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the Turn of the Century.)

The dark tone in Reiss' work is apparent in Cleopatra's Second Husband, a sometimes intense story about a recessive worm named Robert (Paul Tripp). The meek photographer is pushed to desperation by Hallie, his castrating wife (Bitty Schram), and two house sitters who won't leave. Sexual chemistry is provided by Radha Mitchell, so memorable as the provocative, blasé culture-vulturette in High Art. Cleopatra's Second Husband is a horror movie about oppression by erstwhile friends. Reiss explains: "What I had in mind for Cleopatra's Second Husband were films that aren't being made anymore, like Joseph Losey's The Servant, Polanski's Cul de Sac and Fassbinder's In a Year of Thirteen Moons. There used to be a fair amount of these films made in the '60s. Neil LaBute [Your Friends and Neighbors] has been mining this territory lately."

Reiss' film also made me think of Blier's Menagé, though it's less a comedy than it is a Jacobean revenge story. That brand of horror stems from a society in which upstarts are menacing an established order; Robert's final turning of the tables seems to be less motivated by crime against himself than by crime against his property. "The movie is kind of more about personal responsibility than revenge," Reiss argues. "It's based on a period of my life when I had a lot of issues, a lot of problems, and how basically I was the one causing them."

The title of Reiss' debut refers to Marc Antony's less noble role as Cleopatra's plaything. Reiss is surprised that the distributors he's met with haven't asked for a change of the film's title. The director has hopes for a small distribution of Cleopatra's Second Husband in the larger cities sometime this fall. Meanwhile, he's finishing the editing on a documentary on raves titled Better Living Through Chemistry. "It's a pretty unique culture," Reiss explains. "I wasn't looking forward to working on the documentary. I've got a 3-year-old boy, and I knew that even if I was up all night, I'd have to get up at 6 in the morning. But it was so stimulating being out there at the raves, that I didn't even know how late I was staying up." Doesn't an ex-punk rocker like Reiss think that rave is just disco with Hanna-Barbera characters all over it? "I had that prejudice," he admits, "but I was astonished at the similarities to punk rock. It has way more in common with punk than disco. Rave is a whole do-it-yourself culture. Ravers are trying to create a world outside of normal life, which is what we were doing at the time in punk rock."


Cleopatra's Second Husband (U.S.; 92 min.) shows Feb. 26 at 9:15pm and Feb. 28 at 7:15pm at the UA Pavilion Theatres.

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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