Director: Larry Cohen
Writer: Larry Cohen
Cinematographer: George Folsey
Producer: Larry Cohen
by Jon Cvack
Bone was the second film from my friend’s Divided America series; featuring the legendary Yaphet Kotto (of Alien (1979) fame) as the film’s title character. Directed by B-movie filmmaker Larry Cohen (of The Stuff (1985) and It’s Alive (1974)), who arrived in the back of the book store to introduce the film, and provided a long and entertaining story about how he bounced from studio to studio to try and sell the thing; finally finding a buyer and launching his career.
The opening is a Fellini-esque surrealistic sequence, taking place in a junkyard where dead bodies fill each of the automobiles. It then cuts to the backyard of a rich Beverly Hills couple - Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten) and Bill (Andrew Duggan); Bill as a car salesman and Bernadette who doesn’t work, instead opting for endless margaritas throughout the day. When a rat ends up in the gutter, Bill and Bernadette are at a loss for what to do and suddenly Bone appears; kneeling down next to the pool and grabbing the rodent. Problem solved.
The couple are horrified at the situation; both disgusted by the rat and that a black man is in their backyard. Bone takes them hostage, going straight to the husband’s office where he ravages the place, looking for money. He doesn’t find any and reveals Bill’s dire financial situation. He owes far more than he’s taking in. Bone demands he go to the bank and retrieve the remaining few thousand dollars that exist and pay him off and he’ll spill the beans.
Bill heads out while Bone stays back, vowing to rape Bernadette if he doesn’t return. Soon Bernadette convinces Bone to let her make some strong blended margaritas in the game room, where after a quick drink, he attacks her; ripping off her clothes and exhibiting a terrifying rape scene that embodies the idea of why I think we filmmakers should reserve these explicit scenes for historical events only. I’ve seen enough of them - most recently in Wind River (2017) - and whatever shock value it provides is nothing beyond shock value itself. Cinema works best with the power of suggestion, but to watch a man explicitly sexually assault a woman seems next to impossible to defend in most, non-historical situations. There’s no reason to see it, and I think the only people who take pleasure from it are the ones who shouldn’t see them in the first place.
Yet, in what would become all the more common in the 80s, Bernadette, though naked, bruised, and terrified soon finds herself sexually attracted to bone and the pair later have consensual sex; with Bone providing Bernadette one of the first orgasms she’s had in a long time - if not ever.
Meanwhile, at the bank, Bill runs into an attractive young kleptomaniac, named The Girl (Jeannie Berlin), who brings him along on an adventure around town (similar as to that seen in Joe) in which they head to a local grocery store where she gets Bill to steal some steaks, which she cooks well done on a hot pan in her cramped apartment before she then seduces him; providing Bill with a night of equally passionate lovemaking.
Postcoital, Bone and Bernadette devise a plan to kill Bill in order to retrieve his insurance, kickstarting the film’s third act, in which the pair chase Bill down, quickly elevating to a car chase which lead the pair onto a bus that drops them off near the sand hills of Malibu, where Bernadette smothers and suffocates Bill with sand. She then looks up and Bone’s gone.
One of the first references people made was to Mike Nichol’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966; 1962). It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the film, and while I think back on what it was about exactly it was about - a marital dramedy about an upper middle class married couple who drink and fight all night, whose son had recently died - I’m not sure why I also had felt the same way. I suppose instead of the tease of murder from Albee, the fantasy is actualized. And simplified.
The next comment made was whether or not Bone was an actual person, or figment of their imagination. Remove him from the film, and it’s a story of Bill going to the bank, meeting and sleeping with a random girl, then getting murdered by his wife. Bone’s addition provides both an enlightening and pejorative view of Black America. On the one hand, Bone’s unique lifestyle breaks the conservatism of the upper class white people. On the other, he’s presented as a complete brute with next to no moral code; embodying the stereotypes so often launched toward them. He might not rape Bernadette, but he unequivocally assaults her. He might not murder Bill, but if he definitely coaxes her into the act, and would be an accessory to murder. If Bone was real, the film tops off his unscrupulousness by allowing a criminal to go free and wreak his havoc again.
Over the weeks since seeing this I’ve tried to consider a different view of the film. Floating above Bone’s character logic is, I suppose, a comment on Black American; a satire in which white America’s upper class confront their greatest fear. However, the more I try and take this apart and see what the message ultimately aimed to explore, I’m left reaching. As we never see Bernadette and Bill entering into the violence bickering like George and Martha from Who’s Afraid, I never saw any reason for Bernadette to want to kill her husband beyond his lying about their finances, failing to give her an orgasm, or falling in love with Bone; and still that fails to justify what takes place, and worse, adds another layer of immorality to Bone. All the while Bill is presented as a similarly unscrupulous man - failing to pay his bills, cheating on his wife, all while earning a living selling luxury cars. But again, beyond those traits, I’m not sure what I was supposed to take away. He was a bad person who didn’t necessarily deserve death, failing to change or follow any form of arc.
It makes me consider the ways in which bigotry existed even with liberal and inclusive intent; the way the 90s satires (i.e., Scary Movie (2000)) highlighted the fact that while most teen-oriented films, whether horror or rom com, contained black characters; they were almost always portrayed as hip one-dimensional comedy relief who speak in cheap racial phrase (“Man, that’s whack!”), never getting the girl, never going through much of any transformation, and are often killed first in horror films. Looking back, you realize how often this was the case. In terms of Bone, I’m left wondering if the intention was to make Bone a noble anti-hero, but remained mired in racial stereotypes and white class fears.
BELOW: Hey, but the music's good!
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