Monday, 31 August 2009

Hollywood vs Hard Core.

The title of the book - if not the subtitle - is a bit misleading, in that there is a lot of history of Hollywood from the 1920s onwards before we get to the showdown between Hollywood and hardcore in the 1970s.

Moreover, even then it perhaps isn't so much a direct encounter as an indirect one, with Hollywood being saved through primarily through the actions of Republican politicians. Nonetheless, this can be forgiven in that the longer historical perspective proves informative as well as ultimately tying everything together.

In the 1920s and 1930s attacks on the movies came from two main consistuencies: small-town and rurual Protestants and big city Catholics. Whatever their other differences - as exemplified, for instance, by the KKK - one thing both groups had in common was a widespread anti-Semitism that was played into the fact that most of the studio bosses were Jewish.

The Studio Code was thus brought into being and belatedly enforced. Truth be told the major studios did not mind too much, for the self-regulation it entailed worked to their advantage and, coupled with control over the majority of the first run theatres in the cities, ensured the money kept coming in.



While the New Deal administration had began anti-trust action against the restrictive practices of the studios, the Second World War put things on hold. By the time of the anti-trust action in 1948, Stalin and Communism had replaced Hitler and Nazism as the chief threat to the American way of life, a shift emphasised by the rise of McCarthy and the HUAC. (Another player here, who would become more significant 20 or 25 years on, was Richard Nixon.)

Tapping into an anti-Semitic legacy seemingly little reduced by the Holocaust and heightened by the likes of the Rosenberg case, HUAC duly rounded upon Hollywood Jews. Though some, like their non-Jewish counterparts, were merely anti-fascist and liberal rather than actual communists, they were all tarred with the same un-American brush. Not, however, that the old entrepreneurial capitalist studio heads necessarily escaped either, as they were increasingly replaced by anonymous (and WASP) corporate management.

Into the 1950s and 1960s, the Studio Code became more a liability than an asset. With the rise of television, the teenager and the European art film - which Jon Lewis astutely recognises, per David Friedman, was targeted to different audiences in different ways - the old idea of the movie for everyone became untenable. Meanwhile the Studios increasingly became parts of wider corporate portfolios, with possibilities for synergistic marketing.

1968 saw the introduction of a new ratings system, one that has stated in place, with modifications, for the past forty years. Central here was the division between the R rating and the X non-rating, with which its new president Jack Valenti hoped to draw a line between the studio produced or distributed R film, with its MPAA certification, and the independent X film, without an MPAA rating.

The idea was that the R would allow Hollywood film-makers, many now modelling themselves on the European auteurs, to make more adult films attuned to the increasingly profitable counter-cultural zeitgeist, whilst also keeping the likes of Russ Meyer ghettoised.

For a few years the fate of the idea was hanging in the balance. The likes of Brian De Palma, with Greetings, John Schlesinger, with Midnight Cowboy, and Robert Aldrich, with The Killing of Sister George made films that were released as X rather than R, while Meyer was ironically contracted by a major studio to direct Beyond the Valley of the Dolls shortly after. Porn films, meanwhile, first soft then hard, began to emerge and sported their X or, later, XXX certificates as a mark of pride:

"Independent distributors could not release a picture with a G, M, or R rating without first submitting their film to the MPAA/CARA board. But nothing stopped independent, even hard-core distributors from applying the X rating to their films. Independently made and released (mostly soft-core) X-rated films were made somehow legitimate because they shared a rating designation with a studio prestige picture like Midnight Cowboy. While the indie titles seemed to gain respectability by association, the Schlesinger film suffered by comparison. It, like all those awful indie soft-core pictures rated X in 1969, was, for some filmgoers at least, just another dirty picture."

June 1972 to 1973, the period of The Godfather, Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones was pivotal. Though certainly containing violence unacceptable pre-1968 - what is Sonny's killing but Coppola's response to the end of Bonnie and Clyde?- the film, the biggest grosser of the year, was R material. The X-rated Deep Throat, however, was probably far more profitable in terms of return on investment. It was also technically crude, with little that could be said about it in film-critical terms rather than cultural ones. Mainstream reviews of The Devil in Miss Jones only months later were of a different order: Here was an X rated hardcore porn film with decent production values and direction, performances that were just as accomplished in acting as sexual terms, and a degree of intellectual cachet via its Sartrean allusions. It was, in other words, closer to another key film of the time, the major studio backed Last Tango in Paris, than was comfortable. It was also very successful at the box-office, this despite increasing legal problems.

For it was around this point that the Republican right, under Nixon, stepped in to save Hollywood. The previous administration's commissioned report on pornography, which had taken a liberal, no demonstrable harm stance, was rejected. Eventually, under Reagan, a new commission was formed and duly reported what their masters wanted to hear, that it was bad. Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and other porn films were taken to court and, while winning some cases, lost others. Often the decision hinged upon the specific jurisdiction, highlighting a distinction between liberal and conservative, blue and red states that has continued into the "culture wars" of the 1980s and 1990s and beyond.

The crucial point, however, was that times were a changing back (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) and that Nixon's own criminality had not yet been found out. Thus, the possibility that the independently produced X film might seriously challenge the major studio R was effectively closed off.

So too, after a few more years, was most of the innovative Hollywood film-making that had briefly flourished when the studios were in disarray. 1975 brought Jaws, 1977 Star Wars. In between them we had Taxi Driver, where Scorsese desaturated the colours in the final bloodbath to secure an R. After Star Wars we still had the independent Dawn of the Dead, which Romero valiantly released with an X. But safe, non-threatening movies that said less about politics in the wider sense were increasingly the order of the day. After all, have not Craven, Romero and others long since gotten used to the contractual requirement of turning in an R as they have sucked from the corporate teat, even if there are then also the requisite "unrated" - cynically, perhaps even also contractually obligated - scenes for today's DVD releases.

Jon Lewis's reading of this key period is intriguing for what it says and does not say. On the one hand, he posits that porn cinema allowed for the new right to attack the counter-culture by proxy, that the "different strokes for different folks" message with which Deep Throat concludes had to be refuted. On the other hand, in light of his earlier discussions of anti-Semitism's role here, he does not engage with the apparently disproportionate involvement of (non-religious) Jews in US pornography.

So, what is it?

Was it that Deep Throat was a Mafia production, with the only Jewish involvement as far as I am aware being that of the (now born-again Christian) Harry Reems?

Was it that the mob-connected but Jewish Reuben Sturman, perhaps the most important figure in porn at this time, was not a film-maker?

Is the Jews in porn thing a later development?

A myth subsequently promulgated by the religious right?

Reservations about the exploitation movie type title and some omissions aside, a thought-provoking read.

May Jack Valenti rot in hell, preferably being sodomised by an AIDS-ravaged John Holmes out of his mind while freebasing ;-)

Thursday, 27 August 2009

T-Shirts

Not personally of interest, but probably no harm in doing a Public Service Announcement type post:

http://www.randrtees.com/store/

"Our new shirts Giallo and Bloodletting. Both inspired by the film Suspiria.

The names on the graves on our Giallo shirt are Argento and Bava."

The Sexplorer / The Girl From Starship Venus

This is apparently Quentin Tarantino's favourite British sexploitation film, one that he saw on its initial US release at a drive-in in the mid 1970s; it's also a film that he liked enough to acquire his own print of, which he has screened in some of his Grindhouse type events.

While Tarantino's endorsement is undoubtedly useful for attracting curious audiences to The Sexplorer, the truth is that it's such a fun little film it's hard to see anyone not being won over by, which knows it strengths and weaknesses and plays to them, encouraging you to laugh along.


An innuendo laden US poster for the film, under its Girl From Starship Venus title

We open with a cheesy sci-fi theme - one of several - and a mock-portentous voice over, as the Starship Venus prepares to land on the planet Dom, the Purple Planet, to investigate its inhabitants. The spaceship, which proves to be the size of a ball bearing, lands in what is described as an uncharted sea. But it is actually a puddle in the middle of Picadilly circus, London.

Having extricated itself, the tiny spaceship discharges one of its crew, the surveyor, who then takes the form of a Dom, or human. The surveyor's cover is that, if anyone asks, they are the author Mark Twain.

Never mind that Twain is 170 years old, nor that 'he' has the form of a female, more specifically German-born nude model and sexploitation actress Monika Ringwald, nor that looking down at her naked, "ugly" form for Twain's moustache, described by the spaceship's data bank as a patch of superfluous hair, the surveyor identifies it with her pubic hair.

Given the potential for misunderstandings in all this, it's fortunate that the first place the surveyor happens to investigate is a sauna, where most of those present are also nude. Thinking that she has been robbed, the staff kit her out with a dress and send her on her way.

Having made the discovery of "another Dom of differing configuration," "some sort of mutation," flatter and with their moustache spreading further up, the surveyor next ventures into an adult bookstore, followed by a gents, together allowing for some initial observations: The "canopies," the tribe of her assumed form, seem happier and the norm, while the "tubulars," the other, perhaps dangerous, mutant tribe, seem overly anxious.

By this time another pattern also begins to in the Surveyor's interactions with the tubulars: When they aren't running away, they are keen to take advantage of her. The bookstore manager tries to interest her in a photo shoot and telling the photographer on the phone that his new find is "a bit dim but well stacked - just the right combination." Then, in a porn theatre, another patron tries to "refuel" her with his "probe" in the manner that the tubulars on the "holoplay" screen have just attended to the canopies.

Significantly, the film-makers use these misunderstandings in a self-deprecating manner, with the theatre manager throwing the Surveyor out and remarking that they deal strictly in fantasy, not reality. His bookstore counterpart, meanwhile, was played by Ringwald's real-life manager, Alan Selwyn.

Though it would be stretching the point to call the film feminist, there's nevertheless a definite something to Sexplorer's mocking of its primary male audience, even as it gives them the T&A that they've come for.

Indeed, given the way in which the men often respond to the surveyor's tendency towards silence, I was reminded at times of the dynamics of Abel Ferrara's Ms .45 and Zoe Tamerlis's mute heroine, perhaps as hybridised with John Sayles's Brother from Another Planet, as a film with alien whose 'just happening' to look like an African-American also leads to all sorts of misunderstandings.

There's also perhaps a hint of a vegetarian subtext as the Surveyor later passes a diner and wonders about the Dom's putting pieces of scorched bird into their bodies, as a "ritual" she describes as being "primitive" in a manner recalling an early, unreflexive, 20th century colonialist anthropologist.

Although The Sexplorer isn't what you would call imaginatively or particularly well directed, it doesn't need to be. The voice-off dialogue between the surveyor and the crew back on the ship and the survey and the Doms she encounters are witty, while Ringwald herself is attractive to look at and suitably unconscious about showing us her goods. More generally, her foreignness appears a help rather than a hindrance, precisely because not knowing how to act, react or speak like a member of the culture is what the film is all about.

Being a Derek Ford production, The Sexplorer was also released in a different version to that reviewed here, one incorporating hardcore inserts. Whether these feature Ringwald or an other female performer I don't know.

To finish with the obvious pun: Anyone out there come upon this hardcore version?

[See http://templeofschlock.blogspot.com/2009/01/girl-from-starship-venus-1975.html for another review of the film]

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Mental Hygiene

Written by Ken Smith, Mental Hygieve is a survey of the US classroom film from its beginnings around the end of the Second World War, when concerns over the impact of the depression and the war on the nation's youth began to belatedly be addressed, to its end around 1970, when film-makers inability to adapt to an approach of showing rather than telling rendered their work increasingly out of touch with their target audience.

Following an general overview / introduction to the form and a time-line of significant events and films, the book divides into three main sections, on genres, film-makers and the films themselves.



The genres encompass "fitting in," or conformance with social norms, mores and rules of etiquette, with much that seems ridiculously over-the-top from half a century or more distance; "cautionary tales"; dating do's and don'ts; "girls only," or menstruation; drugs; sex education; "bloody highways," with real accident footage and methods of gathering it that wouldn't be out of place in an Italian mondo film; and "sneaky sponsors," ranging from manufacturers of sanitary towels, to the meat and dairy industry, to insurance companies, to the Mormon church.

Four key film-makers, three based in the Midwest, are discussed, namely Coronet, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Sid Davis and Centron, with Smith bringing out their distinctive personalities and styles. For example, Encyclopaedia Britannica productions eschewed music, while Davis's films tended towards sensationalistic, downbeat endings of a "do as you're told or you'll be dead" sort. (Centron meanwhile was the company Henk Hervey of Carnival of Souls fame worked for; seemingly he made his only feature film while on vacation.)

Over 250 films are reviewed, in all the sub-genres and from all the producers discussed in the preding chapters, outlining the content of each film and points of significance, amusement or trivia interest, along with choice lines: "What Jimmy didn't know was that Ralph was sick. A sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but not less dangerous and contagious. You see, Ralph was a homosexual."

That almost all the films discussed are of US origin gives the discussion coherence and provides an insight into the collective psyche of the country in the quarter century following World War II. (Those looking for a comparative study with other countries are thus going to have to do the work for themselves - assuming that comparable output has not suffered a similar fate to the countless hundreds of US titles not included here that Smith indicates have been lost, discarded or destroyed.)

From the presumably representative sample available, the vast majority of the films produced were aimed squarely at white, middle class America and were dedicated to promoting social conformity.

Uncomfortable issues around gender, class, race and sexuality so evident today were never really raised, with the assumption always being that it was the individual who had to adjust themselves, their attitudes and behaviour to fit into the one true American Way.

The brevity of the films and their need to work for a wide audience precluded complexity, with issues usually being addressed in straightforwardly black and white terms, without little sense of ambiguity or nuance especially in the earlier films. This said, it was also sometimes expected that teachers would be using the films as a springboard for discussion, with Smith questioning how far this happened in practice.

It is also important to remember that these films were not bankrolled by the US government as propaganda, as had been the case with adult educational films of the New Deal and Second World War that preceded them. Rather, they were produced by private enterprises, sometimes for sponsors with a particular product or message to sell, but more often than not without. Moreover, while some of the film-makers were clearly motivated in the first instance by profit, others, like Davis, seem to have had a genuine belief in their work and the messages it was promulgating.

Omissions prove equally telling: Films about the dangers of VD invariably emphasised syphilis rather than gonorrhoea, despite the fact that the latter disease was seven times as prevalent, and never mentioned prevention in the form of the condom. Films about road safety foregrounded the responsibilities of the individual driver rather than those of the Detroit auto manufacturers, who were more interested in developing "muscle car" engines than safer vehicles until the publication of Ralph Nader's seminal and self-explanatory Unsafe at Any Speed in the mid-1960s. Films about drugs inevitably presented the one-sided, sensationalist Reefer Madness style accounts with the supposed vox pops of actual youthful users actually scripted and delivered by actors.

Conveying conformity also entailed its own contradictions. On the one hand the films promoted the message that you should be like everyone else, but on the other hand you should also resist peer pressure around drugs, alcohol, driving too fast, going too far sexually and so on. Likewise, the films never seem to have made it clear how different life in the US was from the despised USSR when being different was not an option: Yes, you could be a part of the consumer society, but what if you had other ideas about your life or the kind of things that you should be free to consume?

An interesting and informative read, Mental Hygiene encouraged me to revisit my Educational Archives box set and start wondering what's else like it is out there in the likes of the Prelinger Archives.

Recommended.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The VRA debacle - a brief chronology

1973
UK joins the EEC.

1983
An EEC directive is passed saying that national "standards" laws also have to be passed before it. Basically, other member countries need to know what your standards laws are to facilitate free trade, that they can or cannot sell these goods in your country. Meanwhile, in the UK, there is the beginnings of a moral panic over the so-called "video nasties".

1984
The British government duly passes the VRA, placing constraints the upon video industry. It fails to formally notify the EEC. Thus, German, French, Italian and other EEC/EC nationals would unknowingly commit a crime by trying to distribute their videos in the UK. Ignorance of the law is, after all, no defence.

1985 - July 2008
Thousands of pre-cert titles disappear from video shelves because it is not economical to have them mandatorily certificated. Many small distributors fold, much to the benefit of the major studios, who had been caught on the hop by the rise of home video. These same companies are also placed in advantageous position with regard to the BBFC as a whole, because they can keep resubmitting a film for classification and paying the requisite fee until they get the certificate they want. Smaller companies are not in a position to do. Prosecutions of individuals continue, as does the impounding and destruction of imported material.

Society becomes no safer - indeed, the shocking murder of Jamie Bulger by two boys takes place in the context of "video nasties" being illegal. Nonetheless, the gutter press quickly stirs up a new moral panic, blaming one of the BBFC-certificated Child's Play series for inspiring the crime; that neither of the killers ever saw the film is besides the point.

Subsequently the BBFC begins to relax its policies, with a number of previously banned films being re-released uncut. Meanwhile, the development of the internet and the replacement of video by DVD means that consumers are increasingly importing what they want to view from abroad anyway. The resulting influx of previously banned material does not cause the collapse of society, as the moral minority had claimed it would.

August 2009
Someone notices that the VRA was never properly ratified. The British government's response is to say that the legislation will be hastily re-enacted and the EC properly informed this time. This does not offer anything to the 1700 or so people successfully prosecuted under a quarter century of the VRA and thereby given fines, sentences or criminal records; those priced out of the market by the apparent requirement to have a BBFC certificate, or indeed all those who ever shelled out money to that organisation for something they did not necessarily want. They'll be lucky to get an apology, never mind any form of compensation or redress.

Was the Video Packaging Act of 1985 properly ratified? Are are any other laws that might turn out not to have been properly ratified which people are suffering under? How come none of the lawyers in Parliament or who took on VRA-related cases as either prosecution or defence never even noticed?

And, more worryingly for trash cinema fans, who is to say any new legislation won't contain new clauses to tighten things up?

So, if you want your copy of Grotesque, as banned last week by the BBFC, you'd better get it now - although having just watched it a couple of nights ago I can't say it was particularly engaging, but it's also no worse than other Japanese ero-guro stuff I've seen as far as sadism, torture and mutilation go...

Video Recordings Act never properly implemented

25 years of the VRA and now it is discovered that it was never properly implemented:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article6808592.ece

Unfortunately rather than recognising that it was bad legislation, passed in a moral panic, that ought never to have been passed in the first place, it is being re-implemented.

Order your un-classified films now and take advantage of the loophole?

Monday, 17 August 2009

British Horror Cinema

Published in 2002 this anthology is part of the British Popular Cinema's series on British genre cinemas, with other volumes discussing science fiction and crime films.

Like most collections it's a bit hit and miss, with certain chapters likely to be more or less relevant depending upon your own particular interests. Similarly, there's also inevitably a degree of overlap and boundary making with those texts that potentially fall into multiple categories or sub-categories – more on which later.

Nevertheless, the chances are that if you have an interest in British horror cinema you will get something out of this volume. The academic essays which form the bulk of the book are uniformly well-written and well-researched, with the reader all but guaranteed to come away with some new facts, ideas to test out, or texts to seek out.



The first essay by Mark Kermode charts the history of horror film censorship in Britain, from the H certificate in the 1930s through the 1960s and 1970s onto the video nasties in the 1980s and the fallout from the Jamie Bulger case in the 1990s. Though containing nothing really new, it's a useful primer.

Julian Petley then discusses the relationship between critics and censors, finding it to be a close one whereby critics' negative opinions have often encouraging censorship. What makes his analysis more interesting is that he works back from 20th century cinema to 19th and 18th century fiction, showing that the critical preferences for realism over fantasy, suggestion over showing and terror over horror are historically well-established, with works repeatedly being attacked for what they were not rather than being considered in their own terms.

This is followed by Bridgit Cherry's empirically study of female horror fandom, in which she points out some of the differences between the genders in their approach, such as the importance of trivia to male fans. Interestingly in the footnotes Cherry explains the way in which a chi-squared test works, hinting at a difference in knowledge realms between audience and text based research, with none of the other authors employing statistical techniques to demonstrate the confidence they have that some finding is not merely by chance.

Next Ian Conrich examines the horror film in 1930s Britain, foregrouding the absence of horror per se insofar as alternative labels were repeatedly used, with US productions being labelled as horrific and domestic productions with horror components being identified in the first instance as thrillers (The Ghoul) or melodramas (Tod Slaughter's films). Also of interest here is the way in which the H certificate initially operated: Like the US R-rating today, it did not prevent children from going to see H-films if they were accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

Following this Kim Newman discusses the British psycho-thriller, which he distinguishes from the psychological thriller, in his typically exhaustive genealogical manner, with a useful check-list of titles linked by theme, but comparatively little detailed mise en scene analysis. The difficulty I had here was that the boundary between the two sub-genres – a psycho-thriller must feature a psychopathic killer whereas a psychological thriller need not – seemed a somewhat 'angels dancing on pinheads' one.

The problems inherent in any exercise in boundary drawing were brought further to the fore by Leon Hunt's examination of the British occult film: Given that The Wicker Man features no supernatural manifestations, might it be said that Lord Summerisle is a psycho-thriller killer? Or, casting things into the terms of Charles Derry's distinction between the “horror of personality” film and the “horror of the demonic” film, what happens if we have a human occultist committing murder on account of their beliefs, without any definitive manifestation of the demonic? These questions and overlaps aside, Hunt's is a useful discussion, which brings out the distinction between two phases of the British occult film, the first – the 1950s and early 1960s – marked by a not-quite British quality (Night of the Demon, Night of the Eagle etc.) and the second – the late 1960s and 1970s – more British (Virgin Witch, Satan's Slave) and marked by the increasing correlation between magic(k) and sex. What Hunt gains in detailed analysis compared to Newman, he loses in completeness: There is no mention of Michel J. Murphy's (admittedly later) Invitation to Hell, for instance, although with its to the devil a daughter theme, it clearly engages with occult sex.

I didn't get much from Michael Tibbets's discussion of architecture in The Innocents and Turn of the Screw, but that's perhaps because my own understandings here been shaped by other influences, particularly Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space.

Nor was I particularly enthused by Stephen Schneider's discussion of female madness in British horror cinema, in part again because of that awkward sense of individual texts, here Repulsion, being arbitrarily discussed more within one essay/context than another.

Things picked up with Peter Hutchings's chapter on Amicus, always one of the problem entities in British horror because of the transatlantic / Mid-Atlantic nature of its productions. Although providing detailed analyses of key scenes and images from The Skull and The Psychopath among the company's single-subject features – with the latter film identified as having affinities with Argento's Deep Red that make me want to seek it out – Hutchings identifies Amicus's portmanteau films as its most important product. Usefully establishing the history of the form and noting the similarities between the films' masters of ceremonies and the parallel figures in EC horror comics and US television horror film screenings, he also begins to disentangle them from Dead of Night and the inevitable negative comparisons that ensue.

Next, Michelle perks presents an impressive analysis of one of my own favourite 1970s British horror films, Gary Sherman's Death Line. The thing that really impressed me here was the way she went from examining the film's aesthetics and thematics, and the way that they are intertwined, onto relevant psychoanalytic theories, rather than – as is so often the case in this kind of writing – taking the theory and then applying it to the film, regardless of its suitability or otherwise.

Steve Chibnall's chapter on Pete Walker is somewhat redundant if, like me, you've read his book-length study Making Mischief, but presents a useful primer on the director and his work if you have not. In the context of this collection, however, there are again some overlaps and connections that aren't fully drawn out. For example, I didn't realise until now that Walker's Flesh and Blood Show screenwriter Alfred Shaughnessy had earlier directed the similarly theatrical The Impersonator, as mentioned by Newman.

Though Paul Wells's interviews with Clive Barker and Doug Bradley and Richard Stanley's personal memories and opinions of the Scala Cinema and Palace Pictures are perhaps a bit out of place, they also provide a useful views of British horror from film-makers' perspectives.

Overall, British Horror Cinema is itself a bit many portmanteau films with multiple directors: Not always representing the individual authors' best work, a bit uneven, but with enough to be worthwhile.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Cicciabomba / Fatty Girl Goes to New York

Following on from my previous piece, this 1982 comedy from Umberto Lenzi can be best summarised as one of those "I've got to eat" projects.

The star of the show is pop singer Donatella Rettore, billed under her last name in accord with her wishes: "Non chiamatemi Donatella! Il mio nome รจ Rettore!" / "Don't call me Donatella! My name is Rettore!"

She plays teenager Miris Bigolin, an aspiring disc jockey - albeit on church radio - in a provincial northern Italian town, whose large size prevents her from declaring her love for altar-boy Mirko, who then plays a nasty practical joke upon her.

Depressed, Miris is about to commit suicide when she learns that she has won a competition she had entered some time before. The prize is a trip to New York. There Miris meets Baronessa Judith von Kemp (Anita Ekberg, looking well past her best as far as glamourous star attractions go) who chooses her to test a new slimming treatment.

Miris loses her excess weight and undergoes an extensive makeover, thereby giving Rettore fans the opportunity to see their idol as herself, or at least without the fat suit.



Note how the poster emphasises Rettore as star, with Lenzi and Ekberg getting second billing.

The new Miris-Rettore returns home to learn that Mirko has seduced and abandoned her younger sister Deborah, who is now pregnant by him. She thus proceeds to extract her revenge...

While intermittently funny, Cicciabomba is best described as being for Rettore's fans - there must be some out there - and Lenzi completists, such as myself, but very much in that order.

For Lenzi fans, the issue is that the film is utterly impersonal and could have been made to the same standard by any of a dozen other directors.

Admittedly, comedy can be a difficult genre for the non-specialist to make their mark within, all the more so when working with a star whose name undoubtedly represents the film's main selling point.

Nonetheless, as Lucio Fulci's collaborations with Lando Buzzanca demonstrate, it is also possible for the director to impart something more personal into the proceedings: Dracula in the Provinces and The Senator Likes Women are comedies whose incorporation of elements of surrealism, anti-clericalism and class conflict marks them as of a piece with Fulci's better-known horror and giallo entries.

They may be marginal compared to these films, or a Beatrice Cenci, but they nevertheless confirm the impression that a genuine auteur, someone whose work is marked by the same obsessions, is behind them.

Indeed, by commutating Fulci into Lenzi's place here, we can well imagine what he might have done to make it his own in playing up the anti-clerical angle Lenzi only hints at, or featuring surrealistic food nightmares...

La legione dei dannati / Battle of the Commandos

At the end of the 1960s, the editorial collective of Cahiers du cinema proposed that films could be positioned as politically radical or reactionary depending on where they sat on the axes of form and content.

For a film to be genuinely radical it had to have radical content and radical form. This was a combination which meant that 99% or more of films could be condemned as reactionary, including that five or ten per cent which aspired to be politically progressive.

A key influence here was Berthold Brecht’s theories of epic theatre, with their emphasis upon constantly distancing the audience from the action on stage by making them aware that they were watching a constructed fiction.

Crucially, however, the Cahiers writers also provided a get out clause for their own favourites by suggesting the existence of the famous category E film, the one that seemed to initially be formally and ideologically complicit with the status quo, but which could conveniently be recuperated for radicals like themselves to watch without feeling bad, through various strategies of deconstruction and detournement. The classic case was John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln.

So, what does this have to do with Battle of the Commandos, a 1969 Euro-war entry directed by Umberto Lenzi from a script co-authored by Dario Argento?

Well, on the surface not a lot, given that the film sees yet another post-Dirty Dozen special squad of the condemned sent on a suicide mission, is replete with anachronisms and sees the reduction of complex material forces to simple battles between individual characters – including, of course, the obligatory evil Nazis.

Yet what I would argue is that if we look a bit further and consider the film in the light of its director’s avowed anarchism and similar tendencies in its co-author, we might begin to see it as a commentary – now more intentional, now more unconscious – on the awkward interface between popular film and politics, as a kind of Category E film for the Euro-trash enthusiast.


Palance was also in Godard's Contempt, where Brecht is quoted. Coincidence? Maybe...

We begin with Jack Palance’s Colonel Charlie MacPherson marching into his CO’s office to the strains of Marcello Giombini’s appropriately stirring, martial music.

MacPherson has just returned from his latest mission, unlike the 20-odd men serving under him. For MacPherson their deaths are what matters. For his CO it is that the goal of the mission was accomplished: Yes, 20 men died, but their sacrifice achieved the destruction of 75 enemy panzers.

It’s a basic difference in accounting strategies, nicely summarised by Brecht’s poem “General, your tank is a powerful vehicle”:

“General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.”

The general knows this, however, and plays upon it to entice MacPherson into a new mission, one that gives him the opportunity to go up against his old enemy Colonel Ackerman.

MacPherson swallows the bait and hastily assembles a team of military prisoners for the mission. While the usual mismatched group, they’re better characterised than some of their counterparts elsewhere and are used by the filmmakers to make further points.

Claudio Undari’s Private Stone is the profiteering individualist, a Mother Courage type who doesn’t care whether the Axis or the Allies win the war.

He’s contrasted with Helmuth Schneider’s Sam Schrier, a German-Jewish anarchist who fought in the Spanish Civil War and bears a concentration camp tattoo. (One here wonders if the film has exerted any influence on Tarantino's forthcoming Inglorious Basterds, with its all-Jewish hit squad.)

In the middle are the likes of Bruno Corrazzini’s Frank Madigan, who invariably compares anything he eats or drinks to the menu of a luxury hotel, which he apparently visited every day in civilian life; the deliciously revealed punch-line is that this was in the capacity of working as a waiter rather than as a customer.

Rounding out the team are Thomas Hunter’s demolitions expert Captain Burke, a happy-go-lucky type from the USA whose womanising marks him out as less professional than the disapproving – but possibly envious – MacPherson, and the Colonel’s sidekick Sgt. Habinda.

Habinda is one of the film’s most awkward characters, his loyalty to MacPherson and, through him, the British Empire implicitly marking him out as a traitor to his own people in India.

This issue is one that Brecht addressed in his own discussions of the Hollywood film of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Gunga Din: Despite his politics, Brecht found himself being drawn into agreeing with the film’s racist, imperialist sentiments and needing to constantly re-assert his critical distance. If it might be argued that this was a testament to the power of classical Hollywood mise en scene, the point I would make is that neither Gunga Din’s form nor its content proved able to successfully interpellate the viewer.

If Brecht was an exceptional viewer in some regards, his freedom to read the text against the grain is not in itself exceptional.

As it so happens, Habinda is played by Aldo Sambrell. This in turn sets up some questions around performance styles and political correctness: As someone who really gets into his characters Sambrell is akin to a method actor, the antithesis of Brecht’s gestural approach. Although there’s a hint of boot-polish to his make up and an awkward incongruity to the removal of his turban revealing short, thinning hair rather than flowing Sikh locks, he’s a reasonably convincing Indian. Yet these same elements also make for a degree of distancing, that he’s a Spaniard playing at being an Indian.

In one way Sambrell is showing the artificiality of identity but in another he’s being politically incorrect, precisely because these selfsame theoretical identity politics often assume only those who are ‘really’ X should play or depict, X without questioning the reality of X when it pertains to the non-dominant other. (Let’s see who can be more anti-essentialist; you go first.)

Similar productive, thought-provoking contradictions emerge as the mission gets underway. MacPherson and his men successfully establish a beach-head, but the boats following them are spotted and destroyed, leaving them stuck behind enemy lines.

While the SS man, played by the inevitable and inimitable Gerard Herter, is confident that the attack has been repulsed, Ackerman, played by Wolfgang Preiss, is less sure. What’s in play here is not just the conventional contrast between the good German and the bad Nazi – as also seen in another Argento-scripted Dirty Dozen copy, Probability Zero – but also the contrast between the SS ideologue and the Wehrmacht professional.

Viewing the war as all but lost, Ackerman’s goal is the best possible, honourable peace. Having no faith in the Fuhrer nor the master race like his SS counterpart, he’s the kind of soldier who would have supported the July 1944 plot and, had it succeeded, possibly have given the Allies a harder time of things militarily by, for example, not devoting much needed resources to wasteful campaigns of genocide. (Co-incidentally or otherwise, Dirty Dozen II sees the commandos presented with an opportunity to kill Hitler, which they don’t take.)

A game of move and counter-move, bluff and double-bluff between MacPherson and Ackermann thus ensues.

If this gives scope for plenty of battle scenes and set pieces, we can again emphasise their latent contradictions. Clearly dealing with relatively limited resources – albeit still more considerable than he and other filone directors would have to deal with ten or fifteen years later, as evinced by the train-mounted gun that becomes the McGuffin around which MacPherson and Ackerman converge – Lenzi makes extensive use of the zoom lens as an alternative to cutting and, when doing so, frequently presents rapid montages of shots that show little regard for continuity.

While this approach makes it harder to notice the ill-fitting uniforms worn by the extras or the fact that they are wielding Italian manufactured submachine guns not used by the Germans in WWII, it also makes the action sequences that bit harder to engage with for the average viewer. Insofar as this viewer was more likely troubled by difficulties in following the action than with the props – see, for example, some of the comments on the film on the IMDB, this again comes across as something of a distanciating element.

Finally, the theme of food resurfaces again through the ambiguous character of Diana Lorys’s Janine, the erstwhile lover of a collaborationist mayor, who is then taken by MacPherson to be a guide, and is then captured and interrogated by the Wehrmacht and SS in turn. Throughout all this, her motivations are about survival and pain avoidance rather than ideology.

Or, as Ludwig Feuerbach famously put it, “Der Mensch ist was er isst”: “man is what he eats”.

"Food first, then morality."...

Saturday, 15 August 2009

UK and Belgian Demons of the Mind posters

Or, the use of similar graphic elements by different artists:





Both with the face behind the keyhole and Michael Hordern's priest with the flaming cross.

Schiave bianche: violenza in Amazzonia / Cannibal Holocaust 2: The Catherine Miles Story / Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story

Let's get straight to it: The Cannibal Holocaust 2 title is misleading in a number of ways.


More the subtitle than the title

First and most obvious, Roy Garrett/Mario Gariazzo’s film has no actual relationship to Ruggero Deodato's 1979 classic, despite the connotations of Franco Campanino’s Riz Ortolani styled theme and the panoramic aerial shots of the jungle that open the film.

Second, the actual story is more like a cross between Umberto Lenzi's Deep River Savages and Deodato's earlier Lost Cannibal World, albeit told from a female rather than a male perspective.

Third, the main Amazonian tribe featured are headhunters rather than cannibals, with anthropophagous activity the province of their white-faced rivals.

As such, the film is better considered in its own right, in terms of its subtitle, The Catherine Miles Story.

Purporting to be a faithful reconstruction of Miles's experiences, based upon her own account and the records of her trial for murdering her aunt and uncle - an awkwardly presented complication that punctuates the rest of the narrative - the story begins in London.


Animal lovers may want to look away now...

With the school term having ended, Catherine (Elvire Audray) jets out to South America to join her parents on their rubber plantation for the holidays.

We learn that her aunt and uncle, the Vegas, are the poor relations, who lost their own money in some ill-advised speculation and thus now work for Catherine's parents managing the plantation - pretty well, it has to be said.

Aunt and uncle propose a trip into the interior, which leads to an attack by some natives. They shoot Catherine and her parents with curare tipped darts, paralysing them. It's here that the second awkward complication emerges, with the introduction of what will eventually prove a romantic subplot involving a tribesman, Umakai (Will Gonzales).



Catherine comes to finding Umukai crouched over her, his mouth all bloodied. He then proceeds to decapitate her parents...



The viewer is privy to the fact that Umukai has just sucked the poison from Catherine's wound (which he will continue to treat later, with a paste of masticated tree grubs) but are positioned with Catherine in not seeing the attacking tribesmen, who were in fact members of the bad tribe in the service of the now-absent Vegas.

In other words, we're in a confusing situation with regard to Catherine, as our point of identification in the narrative: We know more than she does at this point, but she, via her surrogates behind the camera, has withheld vital information from us.

While not a complete show-stopper, it is a basic structural flaw that suggests an uncertainty on the part of the film-makers as to the kind of film they wanted to make and how to mix the ingredients of survivalist account, courtroom drama and unlikely romance.

On the basis that most potential viewers are likely to approach something entitled Cannibal Holocaust 2 as an exercise in survivalist horror, the film must be considered a failure.

Although there's a decent amount of gore, it's never particularly convincing. Gratuitous human on animal violence is also (arguably thankfully) conspicuously absent. Though we get some stock footage of a big cat killing a hapless herbivore, it doesn't look like the actor playing Umukai, actually chewed real grubs, never mind he or anyone else beheading and gutting an unfortunate turtle or suchlike.


Compare this settlement to those of other Italian cannibal entries

Indeed, the tribespeople as a whole are remarkably clean and civilised looking, with their settlement being a large circular hut around a flat field rather than some huts, trees or caves as seen elsewhere.

While it is true that both Deep River Savages and Lost Cannibal World went some way to representing the cannibal women played by Me Me Lai as being more 'civilised' or 'evolved' than the other cannibals - hence her relative suitability for the western hero but inability to survive to leave with him, one suspects - what we have here are a whole village of such types. Hell, one even conveniently speaks English as a result of having spent much of her childhood with missionaries…

The issue is again one of falling between poles, of their neither appearing as abject-ified others, nor as western extras in bad wigs as in Jess Franco's impossible to take seriously entries.

All told, a failure, but one with a certain inherent curiosity value.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Harry Alan Towers, RIP

http://eronline.blogspot.com/2009/08/legendary-eurotrash-producer-harry-alan.html

British Low Culture

The first thing to say about British Low Culture is that it's an academic rather than a popular book, author Leon Hunt being a lecturer in film and TV studies. The second is that this shouldn't be a deal breaker for the cult film fan, inasmuch as Hunt prefers to build up from the objects themselves rather than imposing a theory upon them from above.

The book, published in 1998, is perhaps now dated in the way that any study looking at one decade from the perspective of another is going to be, in that now we're well into nostalgia for the 80s. It's also perhaps been superceded in some areas by more recent work, such as Steve Chibnall's study of Pete Walker's films or Simon Sheridan's guide to British sex films, while the references to Gary Glitter are obviously before that performers paedophiliac predilections came to light.

Nonetheless, it's still a valuable read on the whole and a useful introduction to a wide range of 70s “low” culture – low being distinguished from the “popular” in terms of its double marginalisation, as neither part of the 'official' high cultural canon nor of the 'alternative' cultural studies canon as it has emerged.



What this means in practice is that Hunt concentrates not so much upon the now-recuperated and respectable likes of Powell and Pressburger and Hammer horror, but upon the likes of the Carry On films, the Confessions series, On the Buses – whose films were Hammer productions, and highly successful ones at that – and the independent post-Hammer productions of Walker, Norman Warren, and James Kenelm Clarke. Or, in that he does actually discuss Peeping Tom, it's more in relation to Pamela Green and Harrison Marks's involvement.

As a consequence, the discussions tend to be more socio-political than aesthetic, as these texts, with their endemically problematic discourses around class, gender and race are read in relation to the various crises and discontents of the time. If much of this is predictable, it's also interesting to read how Carry on at Your Convenience, set in a lavatory factory, engaged with the subject of industrial unrest and unionisation – or, rather, the awkwardness of its engagement as a sign of a collapsing consensus.

The chapter on the New English Library, coming at a time when the Skinhead novels of Richard Allen had been reprinted – and thus perhaps already begun to become part of a cultural studies canon – but Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange not yet re-released again serves as a reminder of how things have changed: What do Anchor Bay's handsome DVD box-sets of Walker and Warren mean for their recuperation? Is it is now possible, or even necessary, to look even lower?

If Hunt's endnotes provide indications for where such a project might go, towards the likes of Harrison Marks's Corporal Punishment magazines or Hellcats Female Mud-Wrestlers, the issue for the potential scholar is precisely there triple marginalisation, that these are things relegated to the sidelines even here. (While Ramsay Campbell has written about CP stuff, he is a successful horror author rather than an academic.)

Another project that suggests itself is looking at British East Asian representations and experiences around this time, with 1970s racist discourses as they are discussed structured very much in terms of 'Blacks' and South Asians. (An essay on Me Me Lai's film and television career anyone?)

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Trashfiend

Trashfiend is a book that almost wasn't, with author Scott Stine losing his manuscript and materials due to computer trouble. Its subject is disposable horror fare of the 1960s and 1970s – films, comics, magazines and collectables.

The first section comprises 60 pages of horror film reviews, looking at 24 films ranging from The Asphyx to Zombies, better known as I Eat Your Skin. Each review is structured around a comprehensive list of credits, followed by a spoiler-free plot synopsis, Stine's verdict and some details of note. There are some interesting discoveries here, such as The Asphyx being inspired by one Hippolyte Baraduc's attempts to photograph the spirit leaving a dead person's body. But there is also some misinformation, as with attributing Seddok to Mario Bava and crediting Bryan Edgar Wallace with working on Dario Argento's first three films. (Stine also has a habit – admittedly one I share – of overusing dashes and parentheses, which some may find irritating.)

Next is a forty or so page discussion of blaxploitation horror films, including Blacula, Ganga and Hess (which Stine correctly acknowledges isn't really a black exploitation film) and The Thing with Two Heads. For me the discovery here was that Welcome Home Brother Charles, whose trailers had led me to believe was more of a straight drama, is actually a monster movie, with the title character having what Stine amusing calls a “kaiju eiga” sized penis in reference to Gojira and company! Another interesting point is that many of the poster reproductions that illustrate the chapter - the book is profusely illustrated throughout - are of Mexican origin.

This is followed by a shorter article on William Beaudine's Billy the Kid vs Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's daughter, along with an interview with Cal Bolder, who played the Frankenstein's daughter's monster.

Next up are another two interview based pieces, one on The Crater Lake Monster with actor and writer Richard Cardella, the other with Nightmare in Blood director and horror show host John Stanley, both of which sell but crucially do not oversell the films, making you curious to see them for yourself if you haven't done so already.

The same can be said of the next pieces, on film-maker and comic creator Pat Boyette and Rankin Bass's Mad Monster Party and Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters respectively.



By this point, it's also becoming clear that Stine is better subjects closer to his heart than reviewing more or less random horror films that he doesn't necessarily like. While his introductory piece on Belgian horror posters is disadvantaged by black and white reproductions and a relative unfamiliarity with the artists themselves, none being identified, subsequent articles and interviews with horror comics writer Bruce Jones (which includes illustrations from his story Jennifer, later adapted by Dario Argento for Masters of Horror); Marvel's horror magazines; Haunt of Horror, horror digest magazines; Shriek and House of Horror, seem much better.

The issue is that seems: Although, for example, Stine discusses Stephen King's pre-Carrie work in Startling Mystery and various girlie magazines, I just wasn't sure what to make of such information in the light of the earlier film reviews. Certainly Stine appears to know a lot more about his chosen specialist subjects, also noting the golden age comic character The Heap as a possible precursor of Marvel's Man Thing and DC's Swamp Thing alike, for instance, but there was still that lingering doubt at times.

This is less of an issue in the subsequent articles on 8mm horror films, Mars Attacks and Wally Wood, and monster-themed children's toys, precisely because they are more about Stine's own experiences as a collector of such memorabilia. (I did note, however, that a super 8mm film box for the Korean Yongary is incorrectly identified as being the Japanese Frankenstein vs Baragon.)

The book closes on a high with a 25 page essay on Nightmare Theatre, a Seattle TV programme from Stine's childhood, and his quest to find out more about its host, Joe Towey. From this you really get a sense of what it means to be a fan of something and of the kind of effort that can be involved when seeking to know more about it. It also gives you a renewed appreciation for Stine's accomplishments after that somewhat awkward opening 60 pages.

With the appendix providing a comprehensive checklist of the various horror comics and magazines discussed earlier, the final impression is of 240 pages of good to great material out of a total of 300 – an agreeable ratio, especially when the trying circumstances of the book's production are factored into the equation.

Trashfiend is published by Headpress, http://headpress.co.uk/

Scott Stine's personal site is http://thetrashcollector.com/

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Bad Mags 2

Published by Headpress, Tom Brinkman's Bad Mags 2 is perhaps less a follow up to Bad Mags than a continuation of it, as signalled by the fact that the page numbering for the 260-odd page volume starts at 312.

Not having read the original, I can't say how it compares in terms of content, though I can say that if the first volume is anything like this I will definitely be getting a copy of it as soon as possible.

Brinkman's subject matter is, as the cover blurb states, "the strangest, most unusual and sleaziest periodicals ever published".

How far that's true on a wider basis, given the geographical and temporal frame of the US and occasionally Canada between the 50s and 80s is perhaps debatable, but only in terms of being stranger, more unusual, or sleazier in a pissing match way that is part and parcel of cult territory.

Indeed, this is something Brinkman confronts but then assiduously swerves away from in introducing the first of his subjects, magazines dealing with the occult and eroticism, insofar as he mentions Nugget as a fetish magazine that was launched in the wake of Playboy but which has "definitely mutated" since; I'll say no more on the subject here, but rather leave it for the curious to investigate at their own convenience. (Curiousity may be aroused or diminished by the toilet and pissing metaphors...)



What impresses in the discussion itself are the way it charts the cultural developments of the 50s, 60s and 70s, from the magazine Satan with its relatively vague use of an iconic Devil as a counterpoint to the Playboy bunny onto slightly more authentic publications, and as an organic introduction to what follows:

The dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the establishment of the Church of Satan are followed by two chapters on the murder of Sharon Tate and on Charles Manson that neatly show up the confused and contradictory situation in the USA circa 1970, while also illustrating how little has changed since.

Reading the headlines pertaining to Manson and the most famous victim of his cult, along with those focusing on other celebrities of the day, it is amazing how easily you could simply change the names and the graphical style and have a contemporary publication.

This quasi-random / Markov Model approach to text generation is something that also comes through in the fourth chapter, which discusses the career and work of Myron Fass, the king of US pulp in the 1960s and 1970s.

Quite simply, Fass did not care what crap he published, so long as it sold enough copies of a given title. His gimmicks included offering student discounts, without bothering to check the subscriber's credentials - who cared, as he was still making money anyways? - and, with his Official UFO magazine, presenting the incredible story - as in beyond credibility - of one Buddy Weiss, a Kasper Hauser / Brother from Another Planet type (Weiss even has a wooden horse!)

Often laugh out funny, the chapter provides a welcome respite from Manson and the fifth chapter, which discusses true crime and atrocity magazines, including the infamous Violent World, as immortalised by The Misfits in the song of the same name.

Lodi's finest are, however, conspicuously absent from the final chapter, on 'punk' magazines; I use the scare quotes because the difference between these opportunistic magazines' version of punk and the 'real', 'authentic' thing is a key theme.

Maximum Rock and Roll these magazines were not: they had no ideology, other than (an unironic) implicit endorsement of capitalism and consumerism, about as far from (idealist) punk anarchism as you can get, except when you consider that Malcolm McLaren had already subverted Situationism into a chaos = cash syllogism with his Sex Pistol puppets...

Yet, at the same time, one also thinks of Black Flag's 'creepy crawl' tours across the USA, or the Bad Mags style headline collages in Dead Kennedy's LP inserts, and thereby realises the way it all fits together; to paraphrase a Misfits bootleg, "If You don't know [what I'm talking about] then what the fuck are you doing here?" (These magazines would never try selling such bands - can you imagine Minor Threat or The Minutemen's responses?)

The appendix provides a checklist of Ed Wood's writings for 'Bad Mags' in the 60s and 70s. One of his pseudonyms was, tellingly, Ann Gora....

Brinkman is definitely someone who knows his (US) trash culture, whether noting the appearances of porn star Rene Bond in satanic/occult magazine layouts or the use of stills from Love Camp 7 and Snuff in their true crime/bondage counterparts.

In a word: essential.

[Bad Mags 2 is available from http://www.headpress.com]

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Some posters

Some British posters for Italian exploitation films, that I wish I had the money and space to possess...













Mondo Exotica

I've just been reading Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation, which I would heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in the lounge revival of the 1990s.

This, of course, also translates into a recommendation for any readers of this blog insofar as it brought us reissues of the likes of Piero Umiliani's mondo scores for Luigi Scattini or a renewed interest in the work of Les Baxter, AIP's go-to man for re-scoring Italian horror films in the 1960s.



Author Francesco Adolfini's discussions of Italy's colonial experiences, particularly under fascism, are also of particular interest from the perspective of the country's popular cinema and culture.

Discussing the battle of Adua in Ethopia in 1896, in which some 15,000 Italian soldiers were killed by the native forces, he notes how the Ethopian Emperor Menelik's name entered into the vocabulary, "synonymous with 'bad,' 'devil' or 'rebel'."

I'd be tempted to say that the names of Diabolik, Satanik and other fumetti neri figures of the 1960s bear a trace of this legacy.

Likewise, I wondered how far the fate of Sandokan was tied up with politics: As a anti-British figure encouraged by the fascists, who made two films of his adventures in the early 1940s, was he too politically suspect to be revived prior to the 1960s, when he could be refashioned as a more general anti-colonial figure?

More widely, was it easier for Italians (or Germans) to be anti-colonial at this time because there was less of a direct impact compared to Britain and, especially, France? (Also, is this one of the many problems with Africa Addio: that 'they' should be free to rule themselves, but 'they' are not ready yet seems to be its message? )

Such discussions also provide useful background for understanding the likes of the Black Emanuelle films of the 1970s, as when Adolfini quotes Nico Fidenco's intentions with his scores and then brings out their unintentionally racist subtexts and discourses around the exotic other.

A fuller review may follow if this hasn't been enough to convince you...

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Fine primo tempo

The kind of Italian films that get discussed in this blog would be shown with an intermission splitting them up into two parts; sometimes when watching an Italian-sourced print you'll see the intermission cards within the film.

But were there intermission placements standardised, or left up to the projectionist to decide upon when he was making up the film from its component reels?

And has anyone ever discussed the construction of the film in relation to this: in the former case that there needed to be a climactic moment at the designated intermission reel change point or, in the latter, that each reel had to have its own discrete climax, so that the intermission could be placed after any reel?

Or, to put it another way, is there a Planet Hong Kong for Italian popular cinema circa 1956-84 that relates the formal properties of the films to their mode of production in a comparable manner

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Argento budget question

I've just been watching the documentary Italian Kings of B, which has a brief segment with Tony Musante. He says The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was sufficiently low-budget to be made with ends of film stock, and that Argento would say cut as soon as he felt a scene was done, while Storaro would keep shooting if there was something that interested him. What do you think is the truth of this? I'd be inclined to disbelieve him, that even at this point Argento wasn't exactly the Italian equivalent of poverty-row, but is / was buying ends of film really such a rarity for a first-time director, or a lower budget production? (After all, didn't the spare wood left behind by Lawrence of Arabia furnish spaghetti westerns shot in Almeria?)

And, indeed, does anyone have a sense of who are reliable sources and not in Italian popular cinema (e.g. Fabrizio Jovine as someone who the Lucio Fulci Remembered DVD people found to be a ‘key informant’), or anything to do otherwise triangulating sources?

The documentary itself is great; I just wish there was more of it...

Yeah, whatever

Every visit to the cinema, despite the utmost watchfulness, leaves me dumber and worse than before.”
- Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

Yeah, and a hearty 'fuck you' to you too!

La legge dei gangsters / Gangster's Law / Quintero

We open in medias res, with the robbery of bank robbery. This is followed by a series of flashbacks, introducing the various robbers and how they came to be together on the job. Then, it is revealed that there is a traitor in the men’s midst…

It could be a brief summary of Reservoir Dogs or any of a number of Hollywood crime films inspired by it, but in fact it’s the opening half of Siro Marcellini’s 1969 Italian thriller Gangster’s Law.

Given the absence of flashbacks from the second half of the film and the way in which it then proceeds in a linear manner, it seems likely that the heist was chosen as a starting point to grab the viewer’s attention and give top-billed Klaus Kinski some early screen time.


Kinski, one minute in

Absent for the next forty or so minutes, he’s also predictably the traitor…

This said, the extended flashbacks also allow Marcellini and his co-writer Piero Regnoli to introduce an element of social comment as the background story of each of the gangsters, Kinski’s Reiner excepted, is given in turn. (Curiously, in the version I watched, Regnoli is credited as Dean Craig with his real name given underneath.)


Citti, in a characteristic proletarian role

Franco Citti’s Bruno Esposito is the southerner who has come north – in this case to Genoa – in search of a better life for himself and his dependents, only to find that he is habitually treated without respect by the northerners. Getting beaten up in a nightclub after he seeks to dance with a local girl who is already spoken for, he is the one picked up by the police afterwards and who then loses his job as a panel-beater as a result.


Poli; in an Italian crime thriller it's a bad idea to get into a car with him to perform a heist (cf. Rabid Dogs)

Maurice Poli’s Rino Quintero is, like Reiner, a professional criminal, but at a different position in the criminal class hierarchy. Quintero is recently released from jail, whereas Reiner has always keep his hands clean. Quintero needs Reiner’s money to bankroll the job, while Reiner needs someone like Quintero to pull it off: Significantly it is not that Reiner is the brains and Quintero the muscle, but rather than the Reiner is the capitalist.

The other two robbers, Franco and Renato, are young rich kids involved with the counter-culture. Renato is bored and looking for ways to kick against the system he is otherwise destined to be a paid up member of, while Franco has some gambling debts his Countess mother is unwilling to pay off.

Between them they thus hatch a plan to have the Countess’s villa broken into that brings them into Quintero’s orbit.

Their presence also allows for some of the more awkward social comment, precisely because it is inserted into the film as a piece of speechifying via Renato’s girlfriend:

“Its so easy for us to change everything, to try to freak out [..] to put down morality, conventions, to try to break with the past and its taboos. But where do we stop trying to change things? For your sake I hope you realise that your 'joke' wasn't just your fault but a whole generation's fault, and that now you have a responsibility.”

The female characters in turn are also one of the film’s weak points as a whole. They were obviously felt necessary in box-office terms but are both underwritten by comparison with their male counterparts – the long-suffering moll girlfriend type is prominent – and by thus taking up screen time lessen the extent to which the 90-ish film can explore masculinity more deeply compared to Reservoir Dogs.


The distanced opening heist

Marcellini’s direction is hit and miss. The opening heist and chase are largely perfunctory. Some of their counterparts later on do, however, have more energy to them, with there also being some nice long tracking shots and good use of dockside locations and - yes – a fairground haunted hose for one shoot-out, with all the opportunities it affords being taken.




Images from the haunted house; note that the film makes use of blue-yellow contrasts in a number of places


Didn't we see this spider in Bloody Pit of Horror as well?

The film also benefits from wonderful Piero Umiliani score that supplies the right mood for each and every scene, be it 60s disco for the club Esposito visits, psychedelic-tinged grooves in the hipper underground venues habituated by Renato and Franco, or just straightforward crime-jazz suspense cues.

The preparation for the heist also sees Marcellini experiment with stopping the music momentarily in time with the freeze-frames of the photographs the men take.

Il Terzo Occhio / The Third Eye

This little known film is something of a missing link in the history of Italian post-Psycho and necrophile cinema, taking as it does elements from Freda’s Hichcock diptych earlier in the 1960s (both also being Panda productions) while itself providing the model for D’Amato’s Beyond the Darkness a decade later.


Diana Sullivan is in fact Erica Blanc; the entire cast and crew hides behind sometimes unconvincing English credits, including the transliteration of Olga Solbelli as Olga Sunbeauty

The Freda connection sees the music box theme from The Ghost being reused, while the roles played by Erica Blanc, as sisters Laura and Daniella, could easily have been shoe-ins for Barbara Steele were it not for the fact that neither is possessed, undead or actually malevolent.

Instead the villain roles are filled by veteran Olga Solbelli, whose career extended back to the 1930s, and Gioia Pascal, in what was her only acting role, with murderous necrophile Mino, played by a young Franco Nero, a more (sym)pathetic figure by comparison.

Solbelli plays the elderly widowed Countess who will not allow her son to marry his beloved Laura, while Pascal plays the loyal family servant, Marta, who covets Mino for herself, along with what is left of the family’s admittedly diminished estate, as payment for her father's loyal service in decades past.








The mise-en-scene augments the dialogue, as a conspiracy is formed

To achieve her goals Marta cuts the brake cable on Laura’s car, causing the vehicle to roll off an embankment and into a lake, and murders the Countess, pushing her down the stairs.

This also marks the one way in which D’Amato’s film departs from its model: He makes housekeeper Iris something of a composite of Solbelli and Pascal’s characters and begins with his Mino, Frank, already orphaned through the deaths of his parents in a car accident. In so doing he also gives his film more of a supernatural horror aspect, by having Iris cause Frank’s beloved Anna to sicken and die through black magic.

The shock of the his mother’s and, more importantly, Laura’s deaths drives the already mentally troubled Mino over the edge. He takes Laura’s body and preserves it; unlike D’Amato’s film there’s no subplot of having to steal the body from its grave, nor lovingly detailed exploration of the taxidermical process itself, although Mino does earlier give a bird the Norman Bates treatment.






I'm a taxidermist; I hate parties

From this point on the two films follow pretty much the same path, with the key points being their necrophile’s compulsion to pick up women and make love to them while in the presence of his immortal / preserved beloved; his equal compulsion to then kill them; his relationship with his housekeeper / would-be lover, and the eventual arrival of his beloved’s double to bring the whole thing to a shocking denouement.

Gore-hounds will likely prefer D’Amato’s film to Mino Guerreri’s for the simple reasons that it’s more explicit and is in colour rather than black and white. Others may be more open to Il Terzo Occhio’s own achievements.


Blanc uses 'no chance' bubble-bath

As far as explicitness goes, it's actually quite extreme, with Marta at one point bringing down her heel on the injured Countess's face, along with plenty of shots of the various female cast members (the 68-year-old Solbelli excluded) in their underwear and diaphanous nightwear that wouldn't have been out of place in a fumetti neri of the time.








The Countess's fall

Nero is clearly a better, more subtle, actor than Buio Omega’s Kieran Canter, his performance all the more interesting for being in such contrast to his most famous role, Django, which he had essayed only the year before. The other leads likewise hold their own, with Blanc welcome as always and the Sobelli/Pascal one-two proving as memorable as Franco Stoppa.

Where the film really impresses, however, is Guerreri’s direction, with set-ups that make make good use of foreground and background space, mirrors-based framings, and natural dividing elements; elegant and complex camera movements (including mounting the camera inside a rolling car and tracking the Countess's fall down the stairs), along with expressionistic superimpositions (including an apparently Vertigo-inspired nightmare sequence) and off-balance compositions. Though otherwise something of a journeyman, whose credits comprising a predictable mix of filone product, he really hit the ball out of the park with this one.




Why use words when images will suffice?

The cinematography is also beautifully crisp, bringing out the quality of the production design, whilst the romantic score moves the film out of the realm of “necrophile soap opera” – as critic Kim Newman once described Buio Omega, with its cold, detached Goblin score – towards that of necrophile melodrama.














Visions in Mino's Third Eye

The film is presented as being a free adaptation of a story by Gilles de Rais. Whether or not this is true, it’s worth noting in closing that Buio Omega’s story is credited to one Giacomo Guerrini, whose paucity of credits makes it difficult to determine for sure whether he was Mino Guerrini’s brother and had perhaps also provided the story credited to de Rais, although this does seem possible or even plausible.