Sunday 29 December 2013

Hard to Swallow

Just started reading Hard to Swallow: Hard-Core Pornography on Screen, edited by Gail Dines and Darren Kerr.

The introductory chapter includes this howler, on Paul Schrader's Hardcore:

"In this film, starring Rod Steiger, a morally upright evangelical preacher pursues his daughter when she runs away to the decadent west coast of the US, only to turn up in a porn movie. The plot takes us on a journey through the LA porn industry, in which all those he encounters are either damaged, or despicable, and wholly deserving of the beatings Steiger’s character dishes out."

But it's not Steiger, rather George C. Scott.

How can academics get away with such basic factual errors?

Then, in discussing the biases of a documentary, Porn Shutdown, about the impact of a HIV outbreak on the LA porn industry:

"That Porn Shutdown, in contrast, simply sidesteps James suggests once more that there is no complexity to men’s involvement in porn, nothing enigmatic – or, for that matter, visually interesting – about the male porn-performer."

Female performer Jessica Dee, one of those who contracted HIV, was not a major figure in this documentary,  So was there nothing interesting about the European porn-performer either?

Saturday 30 November 2013


Olney begins by this academic study by demonstrating that European horror cinema of the 60s through 80s has a surprisingly high profile amongst contemporary horror audiences. As evidence of this he cites the successful re-releases of Eurohorror by Grindhouse Releasing along with lavish DVD releases of both acknowledged genre classics such as Lucio Fulci's The Beyond and decidedly lesser entries such as Bruno Mattei's Hell of the Living Dead.

Following this Olney indicates that fan interest in Eurohorror has thus far not been paralleled with equivalent attention amongst academics, with the exception of some hybrid fan-academics. Olney posits that this paucity is partly explicated by the generally marginal position of European popular and genre cinema as a whole. It is also a reflection of the inherently problematic nature of many Eurohorror texts as far as progressive-minded critics are concerned, given not only their apparent sexism, racism, misogyny, and homophobia, but also their tendency to present transgressive combinations of sex and violence.

Olney then introduces his theoretical route out of this impasse, namely the concept of peformative spectatorship. Drawing upon the work of Judith Butler in particular, he posits that the distinctive challenge and opportunity posed by Eurohorror films is their uneasy dynamics. Whereas the Anglophone horror film invites our identification with the hero-protagonist, the Eurohorror film allows us to identify now with the hero-protagonist and now with the monster-antagonist. Paralleling this they allow us to take the roles of both sadist and of masochist.

It is a strong thesis and one which Olney then goes on to demonstrate via detailed textual analyses of a range of Eurohorror films, including films by Dario Argento (Suspiria, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Mario Bava (The Whip and the Body), Jesus Franco (Eugenie de Sade, Eugenie.. the Story of her Journey into Perversion, Fulci (The House by the Cemetery, The New York Ripper), Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), and AntonioMargheriti (Cannibal Apocalypse) amongst others.

There were two aspects of Olney’s analysis which I found slightly disappointing. First, there is little French or German Eurohorror cinema mentioned, with a strong bias towards Italian product. Second, why he looked at women and prison and nunsploitation films in the context of their sadistic-masochistic dynamic while omitting a third strand of women in total institution exhibiting similar dynamics, namely the Nazi sadism film. I would speculate that this is because it is relatively harder to get the typical viewer to temporarily align themselves with the Nazi. This is doubly so when it comes to the continental Europeans of the 1970s who would have been the original audiences for these films.

The challenge now is perhaps one of operationalising the concept of performative spectatorship and seeing how useful it is with actual audiences  - i.e. bridging the theory/practice divide.

As it is, Olney’s ideas would appear applicable to many other European horror films that he does not discuss. Two that they made me think of were Terence Fisher’s Dracula and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre and their respective treatments of the Jonathan Harker character. In Fisher’s film Harker is a vampire hunter intent on destroying Count Dracula, but falls prey to Dracula’s bride and thus himself turns into one of the undead. At this point his fellow vampire hunter Van Helsing becomes the narrative focus and destroys Harker. In Herzog’s film the destruction of Dracula leads to Harker, here just a lawyer, becoming the reincarnation of Dracula. Put another way, Fisher’s Anglo horror film retains the boundaries that Herzog’s Eurohorror film transgresses.

Saturday 17 August 2013

Do as I say, not as I do?

I have been reading The American West in Film: Critical Approaches to the Western, written by Jon Tuska and published in 1985. Tuska is concerned with seeing how the images of the West presented in Western writing and in Hollywood films (specifically) are true to history.

Unsurprisingly Tuska finds that the films are rarely accurate, with this reflecting a lack of research and/or the deliberate obfuscation of truths about ‘how the West was won,’ namely through violence, treachery,  and genocide.

Then, in his conclusion, Tuska mentions the snuff film, which he views as actually existing, but apparently without bothering to undertake any research or fact checking.

An ironic instance of ‘printing the legend’...

Sunday 4 August 2013

Abuso di potere / Shadows Unseen

Watching Abuso di potere – i.e. literally Abuse of Power, but released under the more enigmatic Shadows Unseen – in the same week as Berlusconi was jailed gives the 1972 film a certain continuing relevance.

The more things change the more they stay the same...

On a more personal level, it was also interesting to compare with my viewing of a few days ago, Colpo rovente, it being another police film exploring the same theme, high-reaching corruption, but a contrasting narrative structure.

For whereas Colpo rovente begins with a death at the hands of persons unknown, here we begin with a death where the identities of at least some of those involved, if not their exact roles, are presented.

Investigative journalist Gagliari goes to a club; talks briefly with Simona (Marilu Tolo); visits money lender Rosenthal (Corrado Gaipa), from whom he recovers a distinctive ring; indicates that he is leaving on business for a few days; departs with hooker Rosaria, and is then set upon, beaten and shot dead by a group of men.

After some discussion amongst the police and political leaders, the decision is made to bring Inspector Luca Micheli (Frederick Stafford) in to conduct the investigation. Micheli has been persona non grata since he used the same illegal methods as many of his colleagues, but happened to do so on the wrong suspect/perpetrator – i.e. someone with connections. He’s also, predictably, the type whose dedication to the job has cost him his family.

Aided more or less only by his loyal sidekick, Micheli begins his investigations. An anonymous tip-off leads them to Delogo, a known mafioso with an impressive record on beating the charges against him. After a beating Delogo confesses to the crime, but Micheli’s intuition tells him what we would already know, even if we had walked in to the film five minutes late; after all, we’re only one-third of the way into the running time.

Getting the forename of the woman seen with Gagliari, Micheli pulls in a low-level drug dealer (Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli) and extracts here whereabouts, this time more with the threat of violence. Visiting Rosaria’s apartment, the investigators find her dead, the victim of adulterated heroin. And so it goes until it becomes increasingly evident what we already more or less knew.

The only matters that remain in doubt are whether Micheli will agree to forget what he discovers and become one of the conspirators, or whether he will continue to fight against them and, if so, with what type of outcome.

Extreme cynicism was rife in the police film internationally in the early 1970s, as a basic schism between the ideals of law and order became increasingly apparent. To give a few examples:

Callahan in Dirty Harry knew that Scorpio was the killer stalking San Francisco, but could not prove this and found his methods led to Scorpio’s being released by too-liberal judges.

Then Magnum Force saw Callahan going up against a self-appointed execution squad of fellow cops who were going too far – a plot point that seems more about box-office than consistent characterisation, at least from a cursory recollection. Certainly I remember preferring Steno’s La polizia ringrazzia, with its decidedly more downbeat treatment of a similar theme.

Or in the UK there is the first film outing of The Sweeney, in which Regan reluctantly investigates the death of a call-girl at the behest of a small-time villain, then realises he has uncovered a big-time conspiracy when said villain also dies and he is suspended from the force on trumped up charges. While the X-certificate given the film allowed for more sex, violence and bad language than the TV series from which it came, its televisual origins were also apparent. There was an obvious need for Regan to ultimately triumph. His regular boss, whose presence would have complicated the conspiracy narrative, was also a conspicuous – or is that structural? – absence.

In each case a further tension is the divide between providing genre entertainment and socio-political critique – and further, what form that critique should take. Here the entertainment aspect is foregrounded in a brief interlude between Micheli and Simona, albeit one tempered by a clear sense that this is a matter of business and not love, and a Remy Julienne-staged car chase. There’s also a shoot-out, and a couple of punch-ups where the blows have that exaggerated, conventional car-door-slamming sound.

The critique is, as might be expected, more muddled.

But then that could be said to be a reflection of a perceived situation where no-one had the answers?

But that could then be said to be a reflection of a perceived situation where no-one had the answers?

The final shot of the film, noted by an IMDB reviewer, is curious in this regard. On one layer, it appears to be a freeze-frame. Clearly, however, it is in fact an optical printing, since on the other layer, there is the motion of a swinging telephone receiver. The two images, previously united, have become fragmented.

On the subject of fragments, parts of Riz Ortolani’s score are reminiscent of cues for Cannibal Holocaust – the discordant strings, but minus the synthesiser bleeps – and Don’t Torture a Duckling – the powerful percussion, but minus Ornella Vanonni’s vocals, that accompany Maciara's death scene.

Saturday 3 August 2013

Colpo Rovente / Red Hot Shot

When businessman Mac Brown is assassinated on a busy New York street, there is only one man to head the investigation: Frank Berin. For the previous year Berin had conducted extensive inquiries into Berin’s business dealings, but had been unable to find incontrovertible evidence of any criminal activity or conspiracy. Unfortunately for Berin, Brown’s daughter Monica has put up a $250,000 reward for information on her father’s killer(s). Worse still, the killers always seem to be one step ahead of him...

Colpo Rovente is stylishly directed by co-writer Piero Zuffi, with some particularly good use of mirror shots and of (then) high-technology to heighten the sense of modernist paranoia.

The film also benefits from smart deployment of New York and other US locations, along with clever opportunism in some found moments of spectacle, with Berin’s visiting Acapulco to follow up a lead inevitably occurring during the Day of the Dead celebrations.

The production design, in what Tim Lucas has characterised as the Continental Op style, nicely captures the contrasting milieus of their inhabitants – the psychedelic hippie happenings; the criminal boardroom; the laboratory replete with vials of brightly coloured liquids; the Greenwich Village gay bar. Pierro Piccioni’s bold, brash crime-jazz score propels the action along, as does the sharp editing by the incomparable Franco Arcalli.

In sum, even though the source of the fan-subbed AVI is cropped, with some familiar names in the credits being somewhat chopped-off, the film still looks good enough to convince that a digital restoration of the original materials would be justified. The main downside is that the narrative can be difficult to follow at times, perhaps most notably when Berin goes undercover and infiltrates a Hells Angels-type biker gang; aficionados of filone cinema will recognise Ugo Fangareggi among their number. There is a justification for this confusion, however, with the denouement also encouraging the viewer to retrospectively re-evaluate a couple of scenes and some key exchanges within them. It is the first of these, incidentally, that seems to provide further explanation for the Red Hot Shot title.

[NB: Spoilers follow after the pictures]

A blade in the dark... 

Black gloves and a gun... 

There's a very good reason for the framing of this shot.

The press reports...

The media reacts... 

The photofit #1 

The photofit #2 

Barbara Bouchet in her fancy penthouse

More a crime drama than a giallo perhaps, the film might be viewed as an alternate configuration of Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. There we know that the titular investigator, the right-wing police chief, is also the his mistress’s killer. By being so obvious about it his culpability, however, he effectively conceals it. Here we don’t know that Berin set events in motion by assassinating Brown. When we learn this we might reconsider the identity parade and photo-fit session, where Berin uses himself as one of the reference points for the portrait of the murderer. Likewise, his brutality against a Bud Spencer lookalike festooned with bad tattoos, comes to make more sense.

Against this, though, we can also see that Berin has been responsible for the deaths of some innocents – if, that is, the world depicted is one where any innocents still exist, as certainly suggested the film’s conflation of business and crime, along with the closing scene of hippies over which are projected images from the film itself and culled from the news. This would also tie in with the importance of drugs to the narrative, even if the effects of LSD and heroin sometimes seem conflated.

All-told, gripping, stylish and provocative. And the always-welcome Barbara Bouchet. And, for those with less mainstream tastes, an appearance by experimental film-maker and all-round renaissance man Carmelo Bene as her reviled husband.

Friday 26 July 2013

The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein

No sooner has Frankenstein (Dennis Price) re-animated his monster than he and his assistant Morpho (director Jesus Franco) are killed. The man behind the murders, Cagliostro (Howard Vernon), wants the monster so that he can mate it with a human female and create a master race. Cagliostro has already conducted his own experiments in creating life which have resulted in a bizarre half-woman, half-bird, blind, vampiric creature, Melisa (Anne Libert). Cagliostro is not going to have things go entirely his way, however, since Dr Seward (Alberto Dalbés) and Inspector Tanner (Daniel White) are investigating the case, as is Frankenstein’s daughter Vera (Beatriz Savón).

When discussing El Topo Alejandro Jodorowsky was fond of remarking that what audiences would get out out of the film was dependent upon what they would put into it. If the spectator was limited then the film was limited.

This is a useful notion to bear in mind when watching a Jesus Franco film. This is because they are replete with inter-textual associations, whether it is the re-use of character names, the casting of what amounts to a stock company of performers, allusions to other films or to art in general. As such a Franco film is often an exercise in hermeneutics, a search for the code that will break the hermetic seal to permit entry into the Francoverse.

Name-wise, we have Morpho, Tanner and Orloff. Cast-wise, beside those already mentioned above, there are Britt Nichols, Luis Barboo and Daniel White – the last often Franco’s composers of choice, and who also provides the music here.

Allusion-wise the film comes across as one of Franco’s tributes to 1930s and 1940s horrors, notably The Mask of Fu Manchu, via the sadistic torture devices in Cagliostro’s dungeon; The Bride of Frankenstein, via Cagliostro himself, as a Dr Pretorius type; and any of the X meets Y permutations and combinations along House of Frankenstein lines.

At the same time, however, the film also has a more contemporary sensibility through the Bava-style red and blue lighting of Cagliostro’s dungeon; a Lady Frankenstein character (and here not forgetting that Rosalba Neri had earlier worked with Franco on Lucky the Inscrutable and 99 Women) and the prescient ideas of mating the monster, as would be mooted in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, and of using it to create a master race, as would be foregrounded in Flesh For Frankenstein.

The idea of mating the monster arguably gives an added element to one of Franco’s obsessions, namely the female pudenda shot. For some of those here seem reminiscent of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde. (One can also conceive of Melisa having stepped out of a Max Ernst painting.)

The version of the film watched was an AVI sourced from the UK Go Video release; it was also released along with companion piece Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein by Tartan on DVD. The longer cut includes an early appearance by Lina Romay.

Friday 19 July 2013

GBH / Grevious Bodily Harm

Club own Murray is in trouble. Gangster Keller wants a cut of his profits in return for protection, said protection being from Keller’s thugs. Murray, however, is not one to back down and so recruits his old doorman and troubleshooter Donovan, who is just about to be released from prison after serving a six month sentence, a sentence that stemmed from the last time Donovan helped Murray...

A Double bill with Peter Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts?

Of course if Donovan had simply said no and walked away we would either not have a film or at least a very different one. So, much like the relationship between Terry McCann and Arthur Daley in Minder, Donovan is soon back to working for Murray.

My reference to Minder is not accidental, given that it was one of the highest rated series on British television at the time GBH and that lead – one hesitates to say star – Cliff Twemlow seems something of a McCann character in real life, having worked as a Manchester nightclub doorman for many years.

In part it is the choice of milieu that makes GBH work, since it is clear that the film-makers actually know about the world they are depicting on screen. More important than this, however, is their fundamental belief in what they doing.

For GBH could otherwise be compared to the various David Sullivan and Paul Raymond films of the era, such as Queen of the Blues, Emanuelle in Soho and Paul Raymond’s Erotica – except for the sense that co-writer, producer, composer (under the pseudonym John Agar) and lead Twemlow and his coterie of friends were intent upon doing the best they could rather than just the minimum required.

Yes, the narrative and characterisation are cliché. Yes, the writing and performances are frequently awkward. Yes, it was shot on video rather than film. Yes, there are basically two car door slamming type sound effects used for punches and kicks. Yes...

... but director David Kent-Watson also throws in some Dutch angles, slow motion and so on that he did not have to and also handles the action scenes well. Many of the exchanges written by Kent-Watson and Twemlow are also, in their own way, quite brilliant:

Donovan: Didn’t know this was a gay bar.
Barman: It isn’t.
Donovan: What about those two poofs over there?
[Fight ensues]

Tracy: The big hard type?
Donovan: Didn’t know I was showing.

Monday 24 June 2013

Abducted by the Daleks

The plot?

Well, if you are familiar with any of other ‘films’ by director Don Skaro under his other pseudonym Roman Nowicki, you’ll anticipate that is is minimal.

The auteur of the Fantom Kiler and Fantom Seducer series is not exactly known for complex plotting. Rather it is about stringing together a few scenes with the same basic slasher/porno dynamic. Woman gets naked, then woman gets killed (in the former) or fucked (in the latter).

This is much the same, following the softcore dynamic of the former series, with Daleks in the place of Fantoms.

We begin with four women in a car, travelling through woods reputed to be the domain of the Serial Skinner, clearly a close cousin to the Fantoms.

Their car hits something (which we see is a Roswell type alien) so they get out to explore. Three of the four soon end up naked and prisoners of the Daleks.

Here I found it impossible not to think of Victor Lewis Smith’s TV Offal and his Gay Daleks skits, and of Jon Pertwee era Who companion Jo Grant actor Katy Manning appearing topless with a Dalek.

That said, the special effects are probably better than the original Who, if only by virtue of being 20-30-40 years later. (Is there a CGI setting to do CSO?)

Following the extermination (not insemination) of the women (white wee wee, white wee wee) an alien dominatrix in female form, indistinguishable from the others (i.e. bleached blond, silicone breasted, shaved pubis, heavy accented non-native English speaker) finds herself in the woods, where she is captured by a hunter seeking the Serial Skinner.

The Daleks intervene, attempting to teleport her back to their craft, but get the Skinner instead...

There are amusing aspects to Abducted by the Daleks, such as some of the credits (besides Don Skaro the script is by one Billy Hartnell, for instance) and the Star Trek TOS door opening/closing sound, but overall it is a tedious watch even at just 55 minutes.

Maybe Big Finish and Johnny Trunk / Wisbey should do an audio collaboration inspired by this?

Thursday 13 June 2013

Little Shoppe of Horrors #30

The new issue of Little Shoppe of Horrors, devoted to Hammer’s Vampire Circus, courtesy of the fine folk at Hemlock Books arrived earlier this week. I had a vague personal interest in this issue as, in the late 1990s, I was involved with a university film society screening in which one of the film’s actors, Laurence Payne, was in attendance. Unfortunately I could not remember much about the Q&A after the screening and so was unable to provide publisher/editor Dick Klemensen with anything that could have been included in the issue.

One thing that I did do for the film society screening (self-promotion...) was prepare a programme note, a page of smallish type, maybe seven or eight hundred words on the film. Watching Vampire Circus and comparing it to other Hammer films that I had seen to that point – basically whatever had turned up on the four terrestrial UK channels, with the exception of Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair, which I had annoyingly failed to set the VCR for – I was struck by how atypical it was.

There was no obvious savant to oppose the monster. Nor, indeed, was there an obvious monster, the lead vampire Count Mitterhaus having been dispatched in the prologue – a sequence that would have likely presented the climax of an earlier Hammer vampire film, or been given a brief recap before plunging into the main narrative, Dracula Prince of Darkness style. The approach was more ensemble based, with character actors rather than stars. You have Thorley Walters, for instance, but no Peter Cushing. As the film went on, it became increasingly fantastique – i.e. Continental, European, not stolid British, physical, Manichean Hammer, in the Terence Fisher mould. There was the tantalising prospect that evil might, for once, win.

So I put all this into my programme notes. I doubt if anyone else in attendance would have got these references. (Okay, so I'm an arrogant SOB...)

Now, reading the various contributions to this issue I feel vindicated. What I said, what I thought, seems broadly in line with what the contributors here felt. (Okay, so I'm an arrogant SOB #2...)

Away from the Vampire Circus related material, Klemensen continues to present a meta-commentary on fandom via his reviews. His magazine also continues its commitment to looking at lesser-known Hammer personnel, through an insightful and tragic interview with actor Peter Arne, unpublished for 30 years, Arne being murdered soon after.

All told, anyone who is a fan of Hammer, British Horror, or even cult cinema in general should get this.

Video Nasties

If you are at all interested in the UK video nasties affair of the early 1980s you have to go here. The creator of the site, devoted to Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, has meticulously went through UK newspaper archives, many on microfilm and held at the British Library in London, to re-produce hundreds of newspaper articles on the nasties.

I am only one-sixth of the way through one of the PDF's, but it is already giving me new information - and I say this as someone who has read Martin Barker's The Video Nasties; David Kerekes's See No Evil; John Martin's Seduction of the Gullible; Kate Egan's Trash or Treasure, and watched almost all of the nasties, including the likes of Mardi Gras Massacre and Cannibal Terror, along with various documentaries on the affair.

I can only say thank you to the person who has produced this invaluable resource.

Friday 31 May 2013

Little Shoppe of Horrors #29 - The Abominable Dr Phibes

Although it has been out for the last six months or so I had not got around to reading this issue of Richard Klemensen’s long running British horror magazine until now – a few days before the next issue, focusing on Hammer’s Vampire Circus, is released.

In reading this issue on the Dr Phibes films I had an epiphany of exactly what it is that I so like about Little Shoppe of Horrors. It is the polyphonic, kaleidoscopic, triangulated approach that Klemensen takes.

Triangulation is a concept that I first encountered in relation to map-reading and orienteering and then in relation to social sciences research. It means that when you have multiple takes or perspectives on something then you are better able to pinpoint exactly what that something is.

Or, to bring it back to a British horror subject of particular relevance this week, that of Peter Cushing’s centenary, it is the way in which just about everyone who ever worked with Cushing indicates how he was a gentleman, a consummate professional, and was heavily affected by the death of his wife Helen.

Or, in relation to the Phibes films, it is how the various authors’ contributions not only cumulatively tell you just about everything you could ever want to know but also give you a sense of where the truth likely lies on those occasions when there are multiple conflicting or mutually reinforcing accounts.

For instance, the tension between Vincent Price and Robert Quarry on the second Phibes film appears to have stemmed less from anything either actor did than certain third parties insinuations that the latter was being groomed as a replacement for the former. Additionally matters of sexual orientation may have played their part, with contributor David Del Valle noting that Quarry was openly gay and Price’s daughter that her father bisexual and closeted.

Away from the Phibes films specifically another thing that emerged from the issue is the importance of the TV series The Avengers for 1960s and 1970s British fantasy cinema. While this had earlier been argued for by Matthew Boot in his study of the British horror cinema Fragments of Fear, it is the detailed discussion of director Robert Fuest’s work as a designer on The Avengers that makes all the difference here.

Another point that several contributors make is how The Abominable Dr Phibes makes little sense when considered in terms of conventional narrative logic (who/what is his mute assistant Vulnavia, for instance), but nevertheless works despite – or indeed because of – this. This in turn leads on nicely to the Vampire Circus issue, insofar as that film is so atypical and fantastique in the Hammer canon.

Of Muscles and Men - Essays on the Sword and Sandal Film

When you are a fan of Italian filone cinema one thing which quickly becomes evident is how some filone have received far more attention than others, especially in the context of English-language scholarship. There’s most material on the Italian Western, followed by horror and the giallo, but considerably less when it comes to the peplum, sex comedy, mondo, spy film, war film etc.

As such this recent collection of academic essays on the peplum or sword and sandal film is especially welcome, even although only some of the authors investigate the Italian cycle of the late 50s-early 60s and there is certainly scope for further research.

Editor Michael Cornelius begins the collection with a overview of the genre and the areas which the individual essays explore.

Cornelius notes how the peplum, sword and sandal or strongman film is difficult to place within a generic taxonomy. Unlike comedy, romance, horror and thriller films there is not any obvious emotional state or mood associated with the peplum. In this it is like the Western. However, whereas the iconographic objects of the Western have symbolic value (white hats vs black hats, the horse vs the iron horse etc.), the sword, sandal and skirt are primarily functional.

A further area of difference (one likely shared with the Italian Western cycle) is around the dynamics of the gaze, or who looks at whom. Rather than men looking at women, the peplum is more likely to have men looking at other men. This, of course, raises issues around the homosocial and the homosexual.

Cornelius contends that four major periods of peplum filmmaking can be identified, the first two being associated with Italian cinema and the latter two with Hollywood. The filone/genre emerged in the 1910s, with the first colossal epics drawing on Ancient Rome and strongman Maciste’s shift from being a minor figure in Cabiria to the title character. The filone then reappeared in the late 1950s, beginning with the success of the Steve Reeves starring Hercules and would continue for another ten or so years. It then experienced a resurgence in the 1980s, with Conan the Barbarian, and in the 2000s, with Gladiator. (Regarding to the 1980s sword and sandal film it is worth noting that the likes of the Ator series, The Barbarians and Conquest are not mentioned.)

Maria Elena D’Amelio’s ‘Hercules, Politics and Movies’ proves one of the most rewarding chapters for the enthusiast and/or scholar of Italian popular cinema, both for the points she makes and where they might be taken.

D’Amelio identifies three key individuals or groups within the pepla of this period. First, the hero. Second, the tyrant. Third, the wider society. The role of the people is usually passive, the victims of an oppressive tyrant who has usurped power from a rightful ruler. Although the hero is sometimes responsible for overthrowing the tyrant, it is also frequently the case that the latter is undone by his own actions. Where he does overthrow the tyrant, the hero declines to take power himself, even if the people ask him to, instead returning power to the pre-tyrant ruler or their heir.

Though D’Amelio does not mention Will Wright’s structuralist study of the Hollywood Western, Sixguns and Society, the relationships she identifies seem much the same as those of the ‘classical’ Western there. In both cases the hero and the villain are strong and the society weak.

Beyond this Wright mentions a further three Western plots that presented different configurations of the relationship between these parties: the transitional plot, the revenge plot and the professional plot. Later Christopher Frayling and Bert Fridlund would explore how well these plots and the trajectory from the classical to the professional could be found in the Italian Western, with both proposing a number of alternative plots. In Frayling's case the factor that is especially important is his sense that the differences between American and Italian plots related to wider differences between the two societies.

Returning to D’Amelio, she likewise relates the particular configuration of the Italian peplum to politics and history, particularly Fascism and the post-war re-alignment into Western and Eastern blocs. Essentially the tyrant was Mussolini, the people the Italians, and the hero America. Establishing the rule of the tyrant as a deviation from the norm accorded with a post-war narrative that required ordinary Italians and Christian Democrat politicians to be excused from culpability with Fascism. Presenting the people as needing an external liberator downplayed the role of the left-dominated anti-Fascist resistance and the Communists in particular. Establishing the hero as someone who magnanimously defeated the tyrant but then chose not to himself take power suited the interests of the US, as the power behind the throne.

The next chapter is by Kristi M. Wilson and examines Pasolini’s Medea and the distinctive contributions of its director. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the piece, it does seem a reflection of a weakness of many studies dealing with popular cinema, namely giving greater attention to the auteur film than would strictly be warranted given its audience size.

Following this Jerry B. Pierce looks at Gladiator, Troy and 300 and how they respectively work to performatively establish the heterosexuality of their protagonists within their primarily homosocial context.

Andrew B. R. Elliot also looks at the contemporary peplum and how it typically features a group of heroes rather than an individual. This is again interesting in relation to the Western and Wright’s analysis of its different plots. The last of Wright’s plots, the professional plot, is likewise characterised by having multiple protagonists.

John Elia’s essay presents a defence of third and fourth generation pepla by seeking to draw a distinction between ‘reverent’ and ‘irreverent’ violence. This distinction is one that is situated as going back to ancient Greece and which potentially has uses elsewhere. In particular we might consider the subject of vengeance and the vendetta in Italian society; in Nietzsche’s notion of Christianity as a slave morality that inverted the values of earlier belief systems such that taking vengeance was wrong rather than right; and how revenge is treated in the Italian Western.

Subsequent chapters are of less obvious interest, in that they again exclusively address third and fourth generation pepla, but without less that can be drawn upon in relation to their second generation counterparts. Two essays that are worth singling out are those by Robert B. Pirro and Cornelius. Pirro brings out points where Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy departs from Homer’s source texts and relates these to the director’s personal history, as a German growing up post-WWII. Cornelius examines the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe franchise of the early 1980s and its affinities with the gay male clone subculture. (He-Man et al were literally clones, the action figures coming from a few basic moulds; whether He-Man and the others devoid of genitals ever got any 'action' is another matter...)

“Do you like gladiator movies?!”

Saturday 25 May 2013

The Hammer Frankenstein

This new book from Bruce Hallenbeck, published by the UK’s Hemlock, follows on from the same author’s The Hammer Vampire.

If the chronology and complexity of producing works on the two foremost Hammer franchises seems a bit back-to-front, given that the studio’s first vampire film followed its first Frankenstein film, and more challenging, in that there was greater variation amongst the vampire films, it perhaps made commercial sense as vampire films were more popular at the time and, if Underworld and Twilight are considered, more popular today.

The Hammer Frankenstein begins with a brief foreword by Veronica Carlson, who is distinguished by being the only female lead to appear in two of the studio’s Frankenstein productions – Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970).

Following this Hammer scholar Denis Meikle provides a general introduction to the Gothic as a literary genre and the place of Mary Shelley’s source novel within it.

The remaining chapters are all by Hallenbeck and take a chronological approach, with one chapter on each of Hammer’s seven Frankenstein films – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), the aforementioned Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Horror of Frankenstein (the odd one out in that it a re-imagining of the first film rather than continuing on from its predecessor) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973).

Prior to discussing Hammer’s Frankenstein, however, Hallenbeck first of all devotes a chapter to the story’s pre-Hammer film history, from the Edison Company’s 1910 short through to the Monster Rallies and inevitable encounter with Abbott and Costello in the 1940s. Here, as the author indicates, the Whale/Karloff films are the most important, establishing the definitive look of the monster and that he, rather than his creator, was given primacy. (Subsequently the author does the same with a chapter on the post-Hammer Frankenstein film.)

Both these points were to prove crucial when it came to The Curse of Frankenstein. For, as is well-known from more general histories of the studio, Hammer found themselves with a basic source that was now out of copyright alongside certain aspects which were Universal’s intellectual property, most notably the look of the monster. Hammer’s response, of course, was to both give the monster a new look and to shift the focus from the creation to his creation.

It is through this chapter that the strengths and, to a far lesser extent, the weaknesses of Hallenbeck’s approach come through. Taking the positives first he expertly draws together and selects from the existing and ever-expanding literature (the aforementioned Meikle, Richard Klemensen’s long-running Little Shoppe of Horrors fanzine, Dr Wayne Kinsey’s Bray and Elstree Years volumes, Marcus Hearn’s various ‘official’ studies; Jimmy Sangster’s autobiography, etc., etc.). Hallenbeck also skilfully addresses various facets of the film’s production, distribution, reception, and influence, placing each in their specific and general contexts. In so doing he also crucially manages to give his own critical perspective upon the film. I would argue that it is this that is so vital when dealing with something as well known as the Hammer Frankensteins. This in turn relates to the main failing of the book, if it can be called a failing, namely the extreme difficulty of bringing something new to bear without spending ever greater and less productive amounts of time in the archives or lazily invoking and applying capital-T type Theory.

Against the former – “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” to cite Walt Whitman – it should also be considered that the various reproductions of (often annotated or crossed out) key pages from scripts are a delight.

Hallenbeck’s next chapter, on the abortive US television series attempted in between Curse of Frankenstein and its sequel, is perhaps more interesting for the Hammer aficionado. This is partly because its subject is less familiar, partly because ideas first mooted here would be Frankensteined and given new life in some of the later films.

The third and fourth chapters, on The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Evil of Frankenstein, prove similarly strong. Hallenbeck adjudges Revenge superior to its predecessor as a sequel and steers a course between the Scylla and Charibdis of the US/pro-Universal and UK/pro-Hammer camps with regard to the latter, the only entry in the main cycle to be directed by someone other than Terence Fisher.

Turning to Frankenstein Created Woman, Hallenbeck usefully brings out how Fisher’s return was combined with stylistic and thematic innovations, in the director’s modish use of the hand held-camera and the hitherto scientific-materialist Frankenstein now experimenting with the transplantation of the soul. He also notes how the lab sets were less impressive than those of the preceding film, nicely illustrating how low-budget filmmaking is always a creative compromise.

This is also the case when it comes to the final Hammer Frankenstein, where the enclosed spaces of the insane asylum in which Frankenstein now lives and works help connote the sense of diminishing returns that, ironically, echoed the studio’s fortunes (or, rather, lack thereof) at the time.

Overall, a worthy addition to anyone’s Hammer library.

Amicus Horrors: Tales from the Filmmakers' Crypt

I bought this new volume from Midnight Marquee, via the UK’s Hemlock Books, after seeing it on Troy Howarth’s Facebook feed.

A book about Amicus would be very welcome, I thought, especially if it treated the company’s horror and non-horror output in a manner comparable to, say, John Hamilton’s book on Compton/Tigon/Tony Tenser.

Amicus Horrors certainly starts off promisingly, with a worthwhile discussion of the musical anthology films produced by Amicus partners Max Rosenberg (production, finances) and Milton Subotsky (writing, in this case of both screenplay and musical numbers) and how the approach taken in them would feed into Amicus’s better-known horror productions.

If the writing also seemed somewhat fan-boyish that could be excused on account of many of the recollections and quotations stemming from author Brian McFadden drawing upon his meeting Subotsky over 40 years ago.

It was also balanced out by the author’s explanation of the similarities between the narrative structure of Psycho and of Amicus to-be’s first foray into horror, City of the Living Dead/Horror Hotel: made after Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho but before Hitchcock’s film Psycho, it was highly probable that Subotsky, a voracious reader, would already have read the former.

Additionally, McFadden nicely brings out how Subotsky’s experience in television production; padding out or cutting down material to fit a certain length; and general knowledge of how to put the money on the screen proved (in)valuable to Amicus.

Unfortunately it is pretty much all downhill from this point.

Though entitled Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee at Amicus, the chapters on the three horror icons devote as much or more space to their careers elsewhere.

The chapter on the Amicus Stock company that follows makes little sense given the author had previously indicated, quite correctly, that a key feature of the Amicus approach was the casting of stars on a one-off, short-term basis to make the films look more expensive than they actually were.

For instance, Ingrid Pitt’s inclusion, despite appearing in only one segment of the anthology film The House that Screamed, is explicated in terms of the iconic qualities of one of the still taken off her in the production.

There is some valuable material in these chapters, as is also the case in McFadden’s discussions of Amicus at Shepperton and at Twickenham Studios, and of some of the composers who worked for the company, such as serialist Elizabeth Lutyens and jazzman Tubby Hayes. But, and it is a big but, it is very much a case of sifting through considerable quantities of less-than-gold material to find these nuggets.

In between the studio and music chapters a foray into Hammer territory also highlights the basic problem with the book. To wit, there is no doubting McFadden’s enthusiasm for his subject, but it isn’t always clear what this subject actually is.

Ultimately, we are still waiting for the book that will do Amicus justice. Until then the Little Shoppe of Horrors issue on the studio, #20, remains the reference of choice.

Friday 10 May 2013

Creative Destruction makes for depressing reading.

The authors of the site allege, and provide plenty of evidence, that the owner of Creation Books, James Williamson, has systematically ripped off authors for over a decade.

This helps make sense of the recent Glitter Books publications of collections of essays on Dario Argento, Jean Rollin and others, each edited or co-edited by Jack Hunter. For Hunter is apparently a Williamson pseudonym, and Glitter one of his various imprints. Moreover, the essays in the Argento collection (by Xavier Mendik, Ray Guins and Julian Hoxter) had earlier been published in Creation publications in the 1990s.

Monday 15 April 2013

Latsploitation, Exploitation Cinemas and Latin America

The obvious question that comes to mind with this 2009 collection is what is within it for the fan of European exploitation cinema here?

Well, for one thing you may also be interested in the likes of José Mojica Marins, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Rene Cardona Jr., Emilio Vieyra, Isabel Sarli, and the Brazilian pornochanchada, each being the subject of one of the essays contained herein.

For another, some of the other essays more directly address European exploitation cinema and its relationships with its Latin American counterpart.

Perhaps most important, however, some of the essays are exemplary in the ways they investigate aspects of exploitation cinema in general, whilst remaining attuned to national and cultural specifics. Indeed, as the volume’s editors Victoria Ruétalo and Dolores Tierney explain in their introduction, their coining the term Latsploitation is a conscious decision intended to convey that Latin American exploitation cinema cannot and should not merely be subsumed within more familiar US and European frameworks.

Taking Mexico as a case study, Ana M. López highlights how the framework provided by Eric Schaefer with reference to the US does not apply, as Mexican cinema lacked the industrial infrastructure required. This said, however, the reader will likely also identify their own points of connection to their own particular areas.

The first of the essays with a stronger European dimension is by Antonio Lázaro-Reboll and looks at the reception of Latin American exploitation cinemas by Spanish fans, with specific reference to the fanzine 2000 Maniacos and the San Sebastian Festival of Fantasy and Horror films. Lázaro-Reboll emphasises the benefits of a crossover between fans and academics and their respective areas of knowledge.

The second is by Andrew Syder and examines the use of Latin American locations in Italian cannibal and zombie films, with particular but not exclusive reference to Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, Zombie and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals. Syder identifies that there are two curious absences in these and other films. First, cannibalism is always situated in Latin America or Asia, but never Africa. Second, the characters within the films are never Italians, instead usually being Americans. Indeed, each of Syder’s four key films begins and ends in Manhattan, in addition to presenting images of it and New York that are recognisably distinctive when compared to US films using these same locations. Syder posits that these two structuring absences relate to Italy’s particular colonial history and allow its discussion to be elided and displaced. Here Snyder also makes reference to some earlier films, including Africa Addio and Grand Slam. Prosperi and Jacopetti’s mondo film is critical of British and French colonialism but also adopts a paternalistic attitude towards the colonised Africans, by suggesting that they were not ready for independence. Giulio Montaldo's film characterises the Italian approach to Latin America in 1960s films, one that contrasts point by point with those of the 1970s. In the earlier decade Latin America was a dynamic, modern, fun place. In the latter decade it was backwards, atavistic and deadly.

The third of the essays with European connections is by Andrew Willis and looks at the career of Leon Klimovsky in both his native Argentina and in Spain. He suggests that Klimovsky may have left Argentina for political reasons. Having been associated with the Peron regime, it was possible that Klimovsky feared a backlash from the new regime. Willis contends that Klimovsky found Franco-era Spain to be more in accord with his reactionary world view. As support of this Willis notes, for example, how The Devil’s Possessed presents an evil nobleman but then has him defeated by a good nobleman espousing Christian values rather than by the oppressed peasantry themselves. At the end of the film, that is, the peasantry have not been liberated nor liberated themselves, as these alternatives would have been too radical and subversive. All that has changed is that they now have a more benign aristocratic ruler.

While I would agree with Willis’s central point, that we should not automatically assume exploitation films are progressive, I felt that his reading of Klimovsky’s career failed to address one major biographical factor. This is the fact that Klimovsky’s own religious background was not Catholic but Jewish. It seems an important omission given the importance of Catholicism to Francoism.

Of the other essays in the collection, the one on José Mojica Marins is also worth noting. Author Tierney identifies a central contradiction in the canonised Cinema Novo movement that dominated discussions of Brazilian Cinema in the 1960s. This is that the movement’s theorists were nominally in support of filmmakers from marginal backgrounds, but were themselves often from privileged ones. Whereas, for example, Nelson Periera Do Santos undertook formal studies at the Italian state film school Centro sperimentale, Marins left school at 13 and was an entirely self-taught filmmaker. Despite these proletarian origins, the considerable aesthetic challenges posed by his films, and the blasphemous qualities of his Coffin Joe character, he was not championed by the critics.

Here I would also make a couple of personal points. First, I remember seeing in a documentary about Marins how he ran an acting school and as one of his teaching methods had a series of numbered photographs of himself performing particular facial expressions. He would use these in drilling his students and when working with them on his films, asking them to give him a number seven, a number thirty-one, or whatever. It seemed like a technique that had unconscious affinities with Soviet and Brechtian avant-garde practices, and thus something that a filmmaker with more cultural capital could have represented as directly political. Second, when doing a MSc in European Film Studies just under a decade ago, one of my fellow students was from Brazil. One time we got talking about the then topical City of God, a film which he characterised as a somewhat touristic exploitation of the underclass by privileged filmmakers.

Overall an impressive, stimulating and wide-ranging collection that is well worth a look for fans and scholars of exploitation cinema whether specifically interested in Latin America or not. 

Sunday 31 March 2013


Have a look, see what you think, maybe help them out?

Aenigma Fanzine

Two things:

First, Aenigma #2 is out.

Second, Aenigma now has a web page:

I Bastardi / The Bastard

The first thing to note about this film is the implications of its Italian and English titles. The Italian title translates as The Bastards, whereas the English title and the English lyrics to the theme song (“he’s a bastard”) refer to The Bastard. This plural/singular distinction is an important one, since the English version is likely to make the viewer think that the titular bastard is Jason (Giuliano Gemma) whereas the Italian is likely to make the viewer also think of Jason's older, hypochondriac, half-brother Adam (Klaus Kinski) and perhaps also Jason’s girlfriend Karen (Margaret Lee) and the rest of their gang.

The narrative begins in medias res as Jason flees with a bright yellow bag filled with jewels into the waiting getaway car. Having got out of town, Jason and his two accomplices find their way blocked by a police car. Jason encourages his driver to slowly go forwards and then suddenly accelerate. The stratagem works, but the police car pursues and eventually traps the robbers. The three men get out and the two accomplices are then summarily gunned down by the two cops, who prove to be other associates of Jason’s in disguise.

Jason is the bastard.

Then, however, the cops in turn seek to betray Jason.

Everyone is a bastard.

Jason, however, had predicted as much and, having chained the bag to the floor of the car, manages to take them out.

Having disposed of the getaway car and removed the false fittings from the ‘police’ car, Jason arrives in the next town, stops off for a glass of milk – this an apparent nod to Gemma and co-writer/director Duccio Tessari’s earlier collaborations on the Ringo spaghetti westerns – and then meets up with the waiting Karen.

After dealing with another attempted betrayal in a night club – Karen turning the music up so Jason’s shots will not be heard – the duo rendezvous with Adam, their mother, and the other members of the gang.

At this point also we get a more diegetic explanation for Jason’s avoidance of alcohol, his mother being an alcoholic. This said, he later sends his mother a crate of whiskey as a gift; Adam, whether out of concern for his mother and/or a desire to discredit his half-brother, has the bottles watered down. When Jason learns of this, he gifts his mother another lot of the proper, good stuff. Amusingly, this time we see the bottles, complete with telltale J&B labels.

Rather more important in relation to the narrative, however, is that Jason announces he is not going to share the loot with his brother and the others, instead intending to use the $100,000 to bankroll setting up his own gang. To this end, he has hidden the loot; it may be significant that we do not see him do this.

Jason is the bastard.

What Jason proves not to have foreseen, however, is Karen’s betraying him to Adam. Worse, Adam has his surgeon associate (an unrecognisable Umberto Raho) shoot Jason up with drugs and sever the tendons in the wrist of his gun hand.

Jason is taken in by ranch-owner Barbara (Claudine Auger) who helps him to recover (Gemma here displays his athletic prowess by jumping backwards and somersaulting into the swimming pool, apparently on the first take). Barbara’s kindness makes Jason begin to question his previous life, but not to the extent of foregoing revenge.

Jason may not be the bastard, but he is still one of the bastards.

It is somewhat ironic that, having made some comparably Hollywood-style westerns in Spain, Tessari and Gemma should go to New Mexico to do a crime film with a contemporary setting. This said, the trope of the gunman with a maimed hand is a common one in the Italian western (cf. Django, The Great Silence) and a scene of Jason practising by shooting out the strings of a harp and his donning of a leather wrist-guard seem inspired by A Fistful of Dollars.

Tessari makes good use of the landscape, contrasting its brown and green exteriors with some yellow, blue and red interiors (Dante Ferretti has an early design credit here). Tessari's direction is similar, the obvious stylistic flourishes in some scenes (e.g. Jason’s flashbacks/hallucinations as he stumbles deliriously through the near desert landscape) forming a nice contrast with the less emphatic functional approach elsewhere.

Gemma, Kinski and Lee each acquit themselves well, even if none is being called upon to deliver anything outside of their comfort zone. Hayworth's performance is harder to judge, on the grounds that she was afflicted by undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease at the time. Without seeing the original script, it is thus difficult to know the extent to which her character's drunkenness was there from the outset or was improvised during filming as a response to difficulties.

One aspect of the script, as written or rewritten, that comes across as rather unsatisfactory is the somewhat deus ex machina ending with its rather too-neat settling of accounts (this term, referenced within the dialogue, is yet another spaghetti westernism).

In sum, a film that starts off well, but loses its way a bit towards the end – much like its lead character, admittedly.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema

This 2011 volume published by I B Tauris presents an analysis of a number of films that may be identified as a sub-genre of a sub-genre, namely Italian or Spaghetti Westerns that have an explicit political (read left) orientation.

Whilst adapted from author Austin Fisher's PhD thesis and thus possibly more theoretically oriented than some fans would like, the author's use of the likes of Louis Althusser and Franz Fanon does not come across as gratuitous name dropping or shoe-horning of the theory into the text, coming across as more bottom-up than top-down.

Fisher begins by establishing the broader context in which his corpus of films emerged, most notably that of the post-war settlement where the anti-Fascist alliance of the resistance (a resistance which was a formative experience for some of the key filmmakers) was represented, with overt and covert US support, benefitting the Christian Democrats party and marginalising the communists.

Turning to the films themselves, the key distinction Fisher makes, responding to the taxonomies of Will Wright, Christopher Frayling, and Bert Fridlund, is that between RSA and insurgency narratives.

The RSA narrative is derived from Althusser's distinction between the Ideological State Apparatus, or ISA, as represented by the education system and the mass media, and the Repressive State Apparatus, as represented by the law. Put crudely the ISA tells you what to think and do, while the RSA then comes into play if you fail to follow the ISA.

The key characteristic of the RSA film, as epitomised by Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown and Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence, is the power of the law, or the RSA, being (ab)used by the powerful against the weak.

In Sollima's film it is how land baron Brokston sends Corbett off to bring back Cuchillo dead or alive (preferably the former), for the peon's supposed rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl to divert attention from the real perpetrator, his son.

In Corbucci's it is how businessman Policott contrives to have those who refuse to surrender to him outlaws, such that they may be legally murdered by bounty hunters/killers.

For Fisher the key point about The Big Gundown is its ultimate incoherence. Here it is germane to remember a fundamental difference between Sollima's film and Corbucci's. In The Big Gundown the ending of Franco Solinas's screenplay was dropped, so that Corbett did not kill Cuchillo and the real villain was punished -- i.e. an unhappy ending. In The Great Silence Corbucci was asked to provide a happy ending for some territories, one in which Silence triumphed. Corbucci subverted this request by presenting a happy ending that it was difficult to take seriously, reminiscent of the self-consciously ironic coda to Murnau's The Last Laugh.

The insurgency narrative is drawn from Fanon, and is exemplified by Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General and Corbucci's Companeros. These are narratives where a US or Anglo character heads south from the US into Mexico and thereby becomes involved with the revolution, whether supporting or subverting it.

The key question these narratives raise, to Fisher, is the place of violence and its justification/rationalisation: how do we distinguish between legitimate violence against an oppressor and illegitimate violence whereby the formerly oppressed becomes the oppressor?

The most important film in this regard is Sollima's Face to Face, with its civilised eastern academic going west for the sake of his health and then becoming a ruthless bandit leader.

Sollima's film is also important for featuring the two key actors within the Italian political western, namely Gian-Maria Volonte and Tomas Milian.

There are perhaps two notable areas of omission in Fisher's discussion. Both are, however, perfectly understandable given the origins of the book in a PhD thesis where (as I was advised) it is better to accentuate the positive by looking for confirmation rather than refutation of one's ideas.

The first of these is where these films fit in relation to the taxonomy proposed by the editors of Cahiers du cinema around the time of May 1968 (and all that). They suggested that films could be divided into five main categories in relation to form and content and whether these were conservative or radical in approach.

Category A encompassed the bulk of films, especially those produced by Hollywood. These films were conservative on both the form and content axes. As such they were condemned by Cahiers. The far rarer category B encompassed films which were radical in both form and content, such as Godard's Wind from the East. Category C encompassed films which were formally radical but conservative in their content. The Cahiers critics felt such films preferable to those in category D, which were formally conservative but politically radical. Finally, category E encompassed films which did not fit into this schema, in that they might initially be taken as conservative texts but then proved to question this through their contradictions.

With this taxonomy Italian political westerns would seem to be closest to category D. But a problem perhaps then arises when it comes to identifying what conservative form means. A key characteristic of the films of Leone and, more pertinently, those who he influenced is, after all, their comparative lack of regard for David Bordwell classical Hollywood style or Noel Burch's Institutional Mode of Representation.

To give one example, in Django Kill there are rapid-fire montage type flashbacks which are tinted and at times appear to be in reverse motion, with bodies rolling uphill rather than downhill. Rather than seeking to conceal his interventions Questi makes them obvious.

What thus arguably emerges is a situation where formal radicalism becomes less clear cut. Django Kill is radical in relation to The Searchers, but conservative in relation to Wind from the East.

The second area where I felt that Fisher might have commented is with regard to Pier-Paolo Pasolini's broadly contemporaneous notion of an “unpopular cinema”. Pasolini identified three approaches to cinema and politics, the first two of which broadly correspond to Cahiers' categories A and B. For Pasolini the popular cinema, as represented by Hollywood, lacked political bite. The avant-garde cinema, as represented by Godard, was critical, but was also self-defeating as it could only ever reach a minority audience and even then implied a fundamentally sado-masochistic relationship between the sadist filmmaker and the masochist spectator. Pasolini's alternative, the unpopular cinema, was political, yet accessible to wider audiences. As such it could be considered as having affinities with Cahiers' category D.

Pasolini himself took an unpopular cinema line with his Trilogy of Life, of The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and The Thousand and One Nights, the wider accessibility of which could be directly compared to the films that preceded them, Oedipus Rex, Pigsty and Medea. Pasolini also, however, subsequently repudiated the Trilogy of Life and made Salo as a film which he hoped would be deliberately unwatchable and impossible to recuperate.

Italian political westerns would appear to clearly fit into Pasolini's framework as instances of an unpopular cinema. As such, Fisher's failure to provide a detailed discussion of Carlo Lizzani's Requiescant/Kill and Pray arguably emerges as another structuring absence. Lizzani was, after all, avowedly leftist, as were the actor playing the film's protagonist, Lou Castel, and a performer playing an important supporting role -- none other than Pasolini.

Deleuzean Hybridity in the Films of Leone and Argento

As the corrections to my PhD thesis, on Deleuzean Hybridity in the Films of Leone and Argento, have now been approved, here it is for those who wish to read it.

Basically what I say is that Deleuze formulates his concepts of the movement-image and the time-image primarily in relation to classical Hollywood genre cinema and modern European art cinema respectively. As such, the films of Leone and Argento raise questions regarding this framework, in being post-WWII European films, but also being genre films (westerns, thrillers, fantasy-horror, and a gangster film). I then try to bring out how these films have hybrid characteristics, and relate this to certain earlier and later films to place the two directors within a broader tradition.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Popular Italian Cinema: Culture and Politics in a Postwar Society

This 2012 academic essay collection has two main sections.

The first features five chapters on specific post-war cycles. These are, in order of presentation, the peplum; horror, this including the giallo; the western; comedy, more specifically the Comedy Italian Style predominant in the 1960s but not Franco and Ciccio nor the Sex Comedies and Decamerotics of the 1970s; and a group of films dealing with the Tarantela.

The second features two chapters on violence in relation to the western and treatments of rape.

Taken as a whole the volume serves to consolidate some established understandings whilst challenging or extending others in useful directions and, as such, can be recommended for readers of this blog – although you may want to wait and see if there is a paperback edition, given its somewhat prohibitive price

In her introduction editor Flavia Brizio-Skov establishes a few guiding principles taken by the four contributors to the volume.

 They are more interested in the consumption of the texts rather than their production. In other words, they are more concerned with what people (audiences) do with these films than what filmmakers intended them to do. They assume that all texts are ideological, with a text that purports not to be ideological likely being one that is implicitly conservative.

In his chapter on the peplum Frank Burke begins by looking at three early post-war examples of the form, each preceding the boom that followed Hercules (1959). He highlights their increasing conservativism, relating this to the consolidation of Christian Democrat regimes backed by the US.

Burke then looks at Leone’s The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) and foregrounds how it works as a parody, with nominal hero Dario being inept and ineffective. Burke thus suggests that the film was perhaps more successful in Leone’s terms, as an intentional parody, that Christopher Frayling would appear to indicate in his discussion of the film. For Burke the problem with The Colossus of Rhodes is that its critique of the peplum is too subtle, generally only becoming apparent on a second viewing. Burke nevertheless tacitly agrees with Frayling that The Colossus of Rhodes is an important predecessor of the Italian western, where the parody would be more obvious.

Burke then examines another ironic peplum, Cottafavi’s Hercules and the Captive Women. He emphasises how its Hercules is an indolent figure whose motivation to act against the Atlantean Aryan/Nazi-coded villains stems not through commitment to more abstract notions of morality or a wider concern for the people but rather friendship, and that the eventual destruction of Atlantis that Hercules precipitates is one that has both allusions to nuclear weapons and that is indiscriminate.

Burke’s chapter arguably also raises a question which recurs throughout the book: by what means and how adequately can the film scholar looking at the meanings audiences attached to these films be verified, given the general infancy of cultural studies at the time and the distance of several decades?

Andrea Bini’s chapter addresses the Italian horror film. He argues that it comprises of three broad periods, each spanning approximately ten years. In this he both confirms and extends the work of previous scholars (such as Maggie Günsberg) by suggesting a slightly different breakdown of the first two periods and introducing the third one. For Bini, as Günsberg, the first period spans the years 1956-66 and can be characterised as Gothic. For Bini, as Günsberg, the second period is characterised as giallo, but begins in 1967 rather than 1969/70. For both critics, however, the key film heralding the Gothic to Giallo shift (can we say epistemological break? or paradigm shift?) is Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Bini’s third period, that of excess and gore, begins in 1977 and lasts until 1986.

Bini says that the Gothic-Giallo-Gore progression sees horror move from being marginal to mainstream and back to marginal. Here he foregrounds that Suspiria and Inferno were less successful within Italy than Argento’s earlier films, alongside the increasing importance of producing films for export. This gives an interesting angle on Suspiria in particular: according to the figures in Maurizio Baroni’s Platea in piedi, Suspiria was more successful than any of the Animal Trilogy and Deep Red in terms of its absolute ranking in box-office take for the year, as 4th most successful film of 1976/77. However, this success can also be measured in relation to a decline in absolute cinema attendances and, concomitantly, the amount of Lire taken, over the 1970-77 timespan.

Bini also notes the absence of the vampire in Italian culture and how they are replaced by the powerful witch. This helps explain the commercial failure of Freda’s I Vampiri, the figure of Asa in Bava’s Black Sabbath and, indeed, the non-Italian settings of both films alongside the Wurdalak episode of Black Sabbath.

Bini further emphasises how horror was a specifically adult genre in Italy, with reference to the sex-horror films of Renato Polselli. This also explicates their often problematic position in the US marketplace, where horror tended to be seen more as something for children.

For Bini the reason why The Bird with the Crystal Plumage achieved the breakthrough that previous gialli had not seems to have been partially down to making the right film at the right time. Whilst denying that Argento’s films are explicitly political, he suggests that the director managed to tap into the fears and uncertainties that emerged in the Years of Lead, generally taken as beginning in 1969.

Bini, finally, puts forward that Argento’s films along with the genres or cycles as a whole express and ambivalence toward the feminine. This can be seen as being in accord with Mikel Koven’s reading of the giallo as a form which is ambivalent towards modernity more generally.

In her chapter on the Western Brizio-Skov posits that a fundamental difference between the Hollywood Western and the Italian Western is the remove at which they operate: US Westerns dealt with the myth of the West. They were Westerns about the West. Italian Westerns dealt with the myth of the myth of the West. They were Westerns about the Western. One expression of this distinction is that the US Western, as epitomised by Shane, has a hero, whereas the Italian Western, as epitomised by A Fistful of Dollars, has an anti-hero.

Brizio-Skov contents that in social terms the likes Clint Eastwood’s Joe/The Man with No Name worked for those Italians who were winners and losers in the new economic system of individualism. Those who were winners could see themselves reflected on screen, those who were losers could enjoy a wish fulfilment of what they would like to be on screen.

Individualism also manifested in the way in which the Italian Western anti-hero would destroy a corrupt system, but decline to stay around or settle down to construct a better one in its place.

Above all, in Brizio-Skov’s analysis, the Italian Western was a sub-genre marked by contradictions in how it could be read, this leading to its being criticised by the left and the right on the one hand, and being enormously successful with audiences on the other.

Finally, Brizio-Skov suggests that the Leone Western ushered in the post-Western, as inaugurated and exemplified by Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

In this regard, a crucial distinction between the Western Italian Style and Comedy Italian Style was that the former could readily be exported internationally, whereas the latter was too close to home to be successfully exported widely.

In his chapter on Comedy Italian Style, Bini suggests that three distinct periods of films could be identified, thus repeating the magic number as already seen in Italian horror and in the Western (US-Italy-US). In general the success of a film depended upon how well Italian audiences were able to see and recognise themselves as the subjects of the comedy whilst not feeling insulted or threatened. Unsurprisingly the boundaries here shifted considerably between the late 1950s and mid 1970s.

Though Comedy Italian Style is perhaps less interesting to readers of this blog, it is worth remembering that Leone employed writers Age and Scarpelli for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly on the basis of their work within the form. That is to say, the connections are there if one seeks them out.

This also applies to Flavia Laviosa’s examination of films featuring the tarantela, which emerges as a more specialised topic with several films about the phenomenon being documentaries and/or not exported. She does, however, mention tarantism in Flavia the Heretic Nun, whilst references to appearances of spiders in other European and North American horror films might lead back to the likes of Canevara’s The Black Belly of the Tarantula or Fulci’s The Beyond.

The second section of the book begins with Brizio-Skov’s chapter on violence in relation to the three periods of the Western established in her earlier discussion: classical-, Italian-, and Post-Western. The last of these, inaugurated by The Wild Bunch, continues through various 1970s Westerns before reaching its high point in Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Drawing on Murray Slotkin in particular, Brizio-Skov suggests that the classical Hollywood Western presents a situation of regeneration through violence, accompanied by a clear-cut positioning of the good and the bad and their respective relations to the community. The Italian Western sees an initial breakdown of these frameworks. The post-Western then presents spirals of violence, where one excessive retaliation spawns another excessive retaliation. Tantalisingly the author then raises the issue of where in contemporary cinema a regenerative violence might still be found and mentions the cop film. Accordingly one is left wanting more, in the form of a discussion of the 1970s cop and gangster film cycle in Italy.

The second chapter in this section, and the last in the book – there is no conclusion – is by Lavioso and addresses how rape has been dealt within in Italian cinema. Lavioso foregrounds a discursive change from texts which discuss rape in the context of sex to texts which discuss rape in the context of (abuse of) power. One issue here, perhaps, is that the popular status of some of the texts/films discussed is less clear; though my own understanding of Damiani’s The Most Beautiful Wife was certainly enhanced by learning about its real-life background and inspiration. Likewise, I wondered whether another case mentioned had any relationship to Di Leo’s To Be Twenty – especially given that Di Leo’s films often have a realist/sociological bent – whilst the deployment of Trauma Theory might suggest a new way of looking at Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome.

All in all, a very fecund collection where even the least obviously relevant chapter – the tarantela – suggests new lines of inquiry.

Friday 15 March 2013

Dunyayi kurtaran adam / Turkish Star Wars

As Pete Tombs mentions in his book Mondo Macabro a group of French Situationists once took a martial arts film, marketed as Crush Karate, and performed a detournement upon it, changing its title to Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

This comes to mind because Dunyayi kurtaran adam – literally The Man who Saved the World, apparently– has, as its colloquial name of Turkish Star Wars, would suggest qualities that seem almost to be those of an unconscious detouernement of its better known counterpart.

While not an expert on Turkish popular cinema by any means, a few common factors have emerged in the films that I have seen, these generally being the ones that seek to imitate a Hollywood or other foreign success and rework it for the Turkish market.

First, Islam tends to play a more significant role. This makes sense in a film like The Turkish Exorcist, but seems out of place here as a substitute for Star Wars’ force.

Second, there is absolutely no shame in lifting footage or music from the source film or films – a factor that likely explains why Turkish Star Wars will never appear on a legitimate DVD release in the US or UK even if it were to be called Not Star Wars: A Turkish Parody in the manner of the tedious deluge of Not [insert name of intellectual property here]: An XXX Parody that US porn producers have inflicted upon us in the past few years.

Holy intellectual property law Batman!

Third, the Turkish films tend to be more violent than their foreign models. Here, for instance, there are various shots of people getting a mace or a spear in the face and another of a boy having his head being crushed by a robot.

The gore is, however, difficult to take seriously simply because it is so inept and comic-book/cartoon like in style.

This brings us on to a fourth difference, the one that relates most strongly to the detournement idea: the use that the filmmakers make of their appropriated footage and what they film themselves is just so at odds with European and North American stylistic norms as to appear inept.

A one-two of initial cheap shots occurs during the credits through the Musak type theme and the presence of two men with the unfortunate sounding forename of Kunt. Yes, this is a Kunt Film.

After just under two minutes of names scrolling upwards on a black screen in a reasonable no-budget version of Star Wars the action proper begins. Or, rather, an assemblage of footage of a rocket launch, the X-Wing crews preparing for the battle of Yavin, their Imperial counterparts on the Death Star and a voice-off that, over the course of two-and-a-half-minutes explains what is going on – if, that is, you speak Turkish. As the version I watched this time did not have subtitles, I could only go by memory and how it made a lot of religious references.

Then, at the four minute 30 second mark we are introduced to our two protagonists, both pilots of one of the various spacecraft seen flying about during the voice-off. Here we can see that the filmmakers have used back-projection to interpolate them in the place of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and so on. Unfortunately they also play some of the back-projected footage the wrong way and generally show such a lack of awareness of the  rules of continuity editing that we cannot follow the battle nor determine which of the various spacecraft are being flown by our heroes.

While this is going on we are also introduced to the main antagonist. Here the filmmakers actually shoot some new footag eof their own, showing a cut-price Darth Vader alike and his various goons in their lair, one that looks more like the cavern-like interiors of the Mos Eisley cantina than the antiseptic ones of the Death Star.

Our two heroes than crash land on a planet. The landscape here is reasonably effectivve as an alien world, though the filmmakers then ruin the mood by showing the Sphinx, pyramids and a selection of hieroglyphs alongside reintroducing the voice-of-god narrator, making it seem that we have wandered into a Chariots of the Gods type documentary. At this point the musical accompaniment also switches to the portentous horror-movie tones of Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue.

This proves, shortly afterwards, to be the cue for the introduction of a half dozen figures on horseback, They are either skeletons, in the manner of the Blind Dead, or merely men with skeleton designs, in the manner of the Marsh Phantoms of Captain Clegg.

Whatever the case, they are hostile and charging at our heroes. This leads to a long melee sequence in which our heroes prove adept at martial arts, while the filmmakers again illustrate their ineptitude by making it appear more as if the protagonists have been attacked by 20 or 30 riders. Taking two horses, they gallop to the accompaniment of the Indiana Jones theme. This is intercut with monsters jumping out in extreme close-up before us; exactly where these monsters are in relation to the two riders is unclear.

The men’s horses are then shot out from under them by some Cylon-B-grade robots and taken to a cliff-front settlement where the villains are torturing and murdering the locals, including the aforementioned head-crushing robot. On seeing this our heroes break free of their bonds and proceed to use their martial arts skills, as the Indiana Jones theme is again played.

Though suffering some injuries at the hands of the villains, they manage to drive them off and then have their wounds tended by a village woman. The playing of the Indiana Jones love theme and a shot-reverse-shot pattern of close-ups indicates an attraction between the woman and one of the men.

Love springs eternal, even in an unintentionally surreal Turkish Trash Masterpiece...

All this is only in the first twenty-odd minutes of the film. It runs an-hour-and-a-half.