Monday, September 26, 2011

The Hole (1998)

The Hole (1998) is Tsai Ming-liang's beautiful little film about a small part of the world at the millennium, ending not with a bang but with a whimper. The Taiwanese filmmaker sets his film presumably in a Taipei apartment building in an area where the government has encouraged its residents to evacuate. There is an epidemic in the area which is only second to a water shortage. "People cannot live on rainwater, alone" says a radio voice, mildly, over the opening credits. Two residents, however, have chosen to remain in the area and in the apartment building. Upstairs neighbor, portrayed by Lee Kang-sheng, is visited one day by a plumber who tells him that the downstairs neighbor, portrayed by Yang Kuei-mei, is experiencing a water leak. In order to discover if the leak is originating in the upstairs apartment, the plumber destroys part of the floor to expose the piping, creating a hole in the floor where the two neighbors are able to interact. Allegory is rare in Post-Modern art, because of its often transparent and focal nature. Fortunately, I rarely pay attention to it when its present in either film or fiction, for example, and surely, by reading the short plot set-up above, one can glean, at least superficially, some of the allegory within The Hole. As Tsai Ming-liang has emerged as one of cinema's finest filmmakers, it appears any allegory is wholly created by its viewer. The lithe film is deeper in its emotion and creative rendition, closer to Surrealism or Romanticism than any other school of art. The Hole is an apocalyptic film set in an alternative modern times which, save creative flourishes, looks exactly like our own. In one of the most humorous sequences, the upstairs neighbor goes to work at his stall in a market. The market, which one could presume is extraordinarily busy on any given day, is dead quiet. Kang-sheng's character is not deterred, and he resumes his routine: he opens his stall, prepares his wares, and before the customers hit the market, he feeds a stray cat that haunts the area. Littered around the empty stalls are myriad cans from previous days' feeding. The cat eats heartily. A customer arrives at Kang-sheng's stall and asks for a particular brand of bean sauce. Kang-sheng's character tells him that the brand has been discontinued for some time. The customer is disappointed and chooses to exit Kang-sheng's stall and find another vendor. For minutes, the customer wanders around the empty stalls, like a maze, before exiting the market area into the daylight.
This scene, like many in The Hole, reminds me of a celluloid painting and it makes sense only within its own context. Two later scenes in the market are more affecting as each builds on the other. Kang-sheng's character discovers another vendor within the market whose behavior involves not speaking and crawling on the floor like an animal. When Kang-sheng's character gives chase, the vendor retreats into a dark hole in the wall where Kang-sheng's character lets him stay. (The vendor's behavior is a symptom of the epidemic.) In the following market sequence, a hazmat crew arrives to fumigate the market, unaware or uncaring as to whether anyone is still present in the market. In a foreground, low-key composition, Kang-sheng appears in frame carrying the cat and like a cat, Kang-sheng is scurrying to leave the area. In a particularly sad touch, Kang-sheng loses hold of the cat and is forced to abandon it as the hazmat crew fills the stalls with its chemicals.
The downstairs neighbor, portrayed by Yang Kuei-mei, is incensed by her upstairs neighbor. From the first frame from within her dwelling, Kuei-mei mops up the leaking water in her apartment with dirty rags. The wallpaper is soaked and peeling, and it is quite evident that her dwelling is nearing complete ruin. Yet she stays. In subsequent sequences, Ming-liang shows the two neighbors engaging in similar behavior simultaneously in separate dwellings. In a signature Tsai Ming-liang touch, there is little dialogue within The Hole. In an almost literary touch, Kuei-mei's consciousness is rendered through musical sequences, as Kuei-mei performs song and dances to the music of Grace Chang. Not surprisingly, Ming-liang is able to take the antique songs and their lyrics and wholly and effectively weave them into his narrative. Like many other scenes, these sequences make their sense in their own context. Like Grace Chang's musical style, The Hole is pure and a throwback to cinema before, yet it's firmly rooted in its Post-Modern era. The Hole is the type of film that makes me not think of cinema as a product and instills the belief in the me that there are still artists making films. The Hole, and Tsai Ming-liang cinema in general, shows the beauty of subjectivity. (At the time of this writing, subjectivity in cinema is my current obsession, and films which take subjectivity as its focus are the only ones really getting my attention). The Hole is a lithe, playful film with a very carefree sensibility yet amazingly affecting without ever seemingly intending to be so.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mad Max (1979)

It had been years since I have watched Mad Max (1979), and thanks to Netflix Instant Viewing, I was able to revisit it. I originally saw the film close to the North American VHS release of its sequel, The Road Warrior (1981), which would have made me a lad of six or seven years old. Needless to say, I missed quite a bit of the text of the film, as I was mostly enthralled with both films' kinetic action sequences. My parents never censored anything from me, and for that, I am grateful. In any case, seeing Mad Max, today, it is the quintessential Post-Modern film, before being Post-Modern was hip. It's clearly a fantastic exploitation picture, rooted firmly in its genre, and clearly a milestone in "Ozploitation Cinema," the unique brand of genre cinema from Australia, which is now enjoying a renaissance. Mad Max is also a brilliant science fiction film which owes a clear debt to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1973), for example, and provocative science fiction literature, such as the work by J.G. Ballard. In terms of visuals, director George Miller's seminal film was really only topped by Miller, himself, with the film's sequel.

Almost all science fiction, whether literature or film, needs a context. The viewer or reader needs to know what are the rules of the world: what is the year? how has technology advanced? And how has it affected the culture? In a brilliant subversive touch, Miller dispenses with the comforting science fiction exposition. "A few years later," as on-screen text, is all that is delivered. So what is shown? A suicidal, psychotic madman, known as the Nightrider (Vince Gil) is blazing through the countryside in his suped-up muscle car. Leather-clad men, who operate with methods a lot like the police, are bored. Over their walkie-talkies, they hear of the Nightrider's escapades. A leather-clad pair starts their vehicle. The vehicle is eerily similar to a modern NASCAR model. Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) interrupts his meal to hop on his motorcycle and join in on the action. One of their number remains silent in his vehicle, waiting for the Nightrider to pass his way on the road. If this leather-clad group is the police, one would intuitively think that they would attempt to subdue the Nightrider and end his reign of terror. Nope. They're going to kill him. The silent one, waiting in the shadows, is Mad Max (Mel Gibson), and he kills the Nightrider. The Nightrider's death becomes Mad Max's Pandora's Box: it invites the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his violent crew and their wrath. Whoops.

The first act of Mad Max is totally disorienting. If the action sequences weren't enough, that is. There is almost nothing for a contemporary audience to reference to their own world. In a humorous touch, the leather-clad crew of enforcers reside in a decrepit and littered building, titled "Hall of Justice." However, they act like a crew hanging around a motor pool. The local mechanic, in one scene, shows Goose and Max the car that he built piecemeal. It's called an Interceptor, and it's decked-out to the max. Like little kids, they just want to joyride. The small towns that litter the countryside look like old Western towns, with dusty streets, tumbleweeds, and saloon-doors swinging in the wind. The Toecutter and his motorcycle gang pull their bikes up to the building, like they are hitching their horses. Hospitals are like garbage dumps, and ambulances are like tow trucks. WTF?

The essential premise of Mad Max is that men are violent creatures, and they quite enjoy their violence. Chaos is the norm, and civilized behavior is precious and rare. In melodramatic scenes, with accompanying melodramatic music, perfectly appropriate for an exploitation picture, maternal Jessie (Joanne Samuel), Max's wife, shows Max nothing but love. She attempts to sway Max out of his lifestyle. She's very patient, and eventually, Max sees the grotesque end result of violence. When Jessie is out of his life, however, Max returns to the life to which is he familiar. With excellent exploitation results. The final twenty minutes of Mad Max are exhilarating and totally satisfying.

There are also myriad, beautiful surreal sequences in Mad Max. In one scene, Goose has a wince-inducing, high speed crash on his motorcycle. Clearly disoriented (I'm guessing serious head trauma), he calls for help on his CB, but it is not connected. Goose begins to wander on the road as if being on the road gives him comfort. He commandeers a pick-up truck from a local to haul his bike back into town. Is he all right? No. In a charming way, he's bent and crazy.

In a hundred-and-eighty degree turn, Miller can also be haunting. When the Toecutter and his crew hound a couple down the road and subdue their vehicle by force, Miller cuts away from the inevitable carnage. Max and Goose hear of the exploits and go to investigate. When they arrive at the accident scene, they see the male of the couple running in a wind-shook field, half-naked and full of fear. One of the Toecutter's crew, Johnny (Tim Burns) is still at the scene, completely inebriated. Johnny has lassoed the female of the couple with a long steel-link chain, like an animal. She's been traumatized beyond belief. Later a local remarks that the couple's car looks like "it's been chewed up and spit out." Miller's aftermath scenes rival in power most filmmakers' depiction scenes. These surreal, trippy sequences are the heart of Mad Max: they flow from their own logic and are their own chaos.

Mel Gibson, regardless of what one thinks of him today, was immediately captivating and charismatic from his first scene. The youthful Gibson is amazingly handsome and virile. He's a very credible badass as Mad Max. Gibson plays Max as youthful, playful, and innocent, especially in his scenes with Jessie, and when he's behind the wheel, he's like a man possessed. The rest of the cast deserves further praise, as all are quite good. Miller's action sequences are all about speed. The viewer really feels as if he/she is literally riding shotgun on the action. Cars are presented as powerful tools of breathtaking violence. Is Mad Max thought-provoking? Certainly. However, it's one of those films which takes center stage here at Quiet Cool: it's too playful to be taken seriously, yet it's too serious to be taken lightly. Mad Max has many allusions and influences, too many to name here. A definite must-see for all serious thrill-seekers of cinema.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Diabolicamente... Letizia (1975)

Diabolicamente... Letizia (1975) arrived at my doorstep on DVD, unexpectedly. The film, released under English-language title, Sex, Demons and Death, is a One 7 release. I must have dumped the film into my Amazon basket, ordered it, and forgot about it. I’ve given it a spin and am here to tell you all about it.

Architect Marcello Martinozzi (Gabriele Tinti) is married to Micaela (Magda Konopka). They are unable to conceive a child, and as a result Micaela suffers from depression with occasional bouts becoming severe. Micaela wants to remove her sister’s daughter, Letizia (Franca Gonella), from her boarding school and locate her to Marcello and Micaela’s villa. Micaela wants to raise Letizia as their daughter, despite Marcello noting that Letizia is no longer a child. The teenage girl arrives as the Martinozzi ward to the villa, and immediately, the entire household embraces an open dysfunction—everyone, including the servants, have almost sex (a term explained below), and Micaela’s depression worsens to madness.

Diabolicamente... Letizia seems a hybrid of two films which take aim at boo-gee values, The Exorcist (1973) and Pasolini’s Teorema (1968). Letizia becomes a willing catalyst for destruction of the family, exposing middle-class values as a house of cards. Unfortunately, Diabolicamente... Letizia does not have quite a film grasp on its own execution. The film is not campy nor is it sensational (unless nudity bothers the viewer). All of the would-be sensational material results in teasing: Letizia possesses a diabolical power which allows her to control others. She only uses this power temporarily. Her typical scheme is to engage say the manservant, Giovanni (Gianni Dei), or the maid into a sexual scenario with Micaela. When the two are about to have sex, she ends her power. Micaela pushes the other way, incensed, and summons the other away. Letizia does this herself with Giovanni and the maid (I apologize I do not know this actress’s name). She begins to seduce one or the other and immediately stops and scolds the other for trying to take advantage of her. I do not understand director Salvatore Bugnatelli’s motivation in this regard. It appears as if he wants to make an erotic film yet does not want to make Diabolicamente, a film of the erotic ghetto. I believe Bugnatelli admired Friedkin’s film in its ability to show shocking sensational material yet still retain its credibility as a drama. Pasolini, of course, was not concerned with such labels. Save Tinti, none of his actors are quite capable of making Diabolicamente the drama that Bugnatelli wants it to be. To the actors’ credit, the script is poor. So the almost sex makes it an almost genre film, and the lack of direction and poor script make it an almost drama.

Gabriele Tinti, as Marcello, is the only actor with whom I am familiar. Despite the fact that I must have seen hundreds of Italian genre films, none of the other participants are as memorable as Tinti. The handsome actor left quite a legacy in film. Within Diabolicamente, he shows his obvious talent and charisma, despite the ridiculous scenario. Not surprisingly, his character arc is the most interesting. Letizia is able to successfully seduce Marcello (they do not have almost sex). Not only does she seduce his body, but Letizia is able to influence his spirit. She convinces him to rethink his conservative lifestyle: she drags him to a dance club to his dismay and convinces him to purchase a prize of male virility, a hot motorcycle. By the beginning of the third act, it appears that Marcello is ready to embrace the coquettish young lady and forget his ailing wife. Of course, the plot of Diabolicamente will not let him do so, because the young lady is actually diabolical, and Marcello genuinely loves his wife.

Diabolicamente is quite boring, because it exists on a liminal plane: it’s too afraid to be erotic and not capable of being dramatic. The filming style does not appear to be professional, either. However, this is not a deterrent. Despite the fact that most of the compositions are not classical, some arresting ones are included. Of note are the compositions which play with the foreground and background. Overall, the visual style flows more from fear or conservatism, just like its narrative.

I have to give kudos to One 7 for releasing Diabolicamente on DVD. If I had to speculate, the lack of English audio on the disc makes me believe an English audio track was never recorded. Perhaps the film saw no export sales which led to its obscurity. Perhaps, also, the lack of notable participants, save Tinti, led to its obscurity. Perhaps, finally, Diabolicamente is just shitty and no one wanted to see it. Except me. However, anyone that reads Quiet Cool regularly knows that I like to take risks on curious cinema. It just didn’t pan out successfully this time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

L'alcova (1985)

If La chiave (1983) is D.H. Lawrence, then L'alcova (1985) is Henry Miller. Well, not quite. Joe D'Amato's L'alcova found its commercial inspiration in Tinto Brass's film, and while the film lacks poetry, it certainly does not lack a charming vulgarity, visual beauty, and purity in an exploitative sense. L'alcova oscillates from latent offensiveness to patent offensiveness with the film being continuously offensive. Joe D'Amato's period piece begins in holy-shit territory and never leaves. For this film to exist and to be one of his most successful films (Spaghetti Nightmares, edited by Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Fantasma Books, Key West, Florida, 1996, p. 80), I am simultaneously offended and impressed. Whenever these conflicting emotions from me are elicited from art, I don't fight it. I also relish the opportunity to see my favorite Italian actress, Lilli Carati, in just about anything.L'alcova stars four titans of European Cult Cinema. Elio (Al Cliver) returns home to his indulgent wife, Alessandra (Carati), after a military campaign. Having won a victory over a tribe during his campaign, the tribal leader awarded Elio his daughter, Zerbal (Laura Gemser) as a prize. (Yes, you're reading this correctly.) Elio has brought Zerbal back to his lush villa to live. While Elio was away Alessandra kept herself busy with secretary, Velma (Annie Belle). Neither Alessandra nor Velma are happy to see Zerbal. Elio begins to produce income for the household by writing a book. He gives Zerbal to Alessandra as a servant, much to the disapproval of Velma.

D'Amato dispenses with lofty ideals for his narrative of L'alcova and employs various soap-opera trists. Someone is having sex with someone during almost the entire duration of the film, and D'Amato stayed with his strengths--handsome photography and production while delivering quite a bit of sensational material. L'alcova's singular setting, the villa, intensifies the action, so these characters are going to create their own traps and pitfalls. The notable character arc is with Gemser's Zerbal and Carati's Alessandra. Indulgent Alessandra enjoys being dominant, but as the film unfolds she becomes more seduced by Zerbal. By the end of the second act, it is Zerbal who is in command and Alessandra who is doing her bidding. L'alcova has a genuine point of no return. Elio's book plans to produce income do not come to fruition. Therefore, he embarks upon a journey to see a woman whose identity Elio learned from a man within his company. This woman is in possession of two films, what modern audiences would later call "stag" films. Elio negotiates a price and takes them. He also purchases a camera and tells Velma and Alessandra upon arrival at the villa, that they are "going into the motion picture business." With Elio's statement, D'Amato begins his third act with all the participants collecting together to watch the films, become aroused, and convinced that they can make a better one. The film becomes, unsurprisingly, more outlandish and patently offensive.

D'Amato had just finished filming Anno 2020 - I gladiatori del futuro, The Blade Master, and Endgame, and seemingly, he still had action movie mentality running through his veins. The plot of L'alcova is like an action film, building upon its action sequences, leading to bigger and better explosions. No pun intended, L'alcova works in the same way: the plot is a vehicle for a series of sexual escapades and episodes, each growing a little steamier or a little kinkier along the way. Unfortunately, all of the characters are rather repellent, so what the viewer is left with is a soft-to-hard core film. It's sensational, exploitation cinema, handsomely filmed, and filled with participants, each giving especially erotic performances. Lilli Carati gave one of my favorite performances in Fernando di Leo's Avere vent'anni (1978). In that film, she radiated energy and beauty. Her character personified the themes of the film and without her performance, it would not rank as one of di Leo’s best. Seeing her in L’alcova is quite different. Carati seems very cold and sophisticated and detached. This role almost appears as the beginning of the end for Carati’s career. When I watch her adeptly draw a line of cocaine to share with Gemser’s Zerbal, I shudder a bit. She would never replicate the energy from Avere vent’anni, again. Cliver and Gemser give perfunctory performances. Belle stands out from the others. She seems to have embraced her role of Velma. In all of her scenes, she imbues her performance with emotion and she works the dramatic range. Unsurprisingly, Belle gives the best performance. To D’Amato’s credit, L’alcova is a pretty hot film. It’s memorable for its participants and its overtly non-”politically correct” stature. D’Amato’s photography is in its top form. L’alcova would be followed by three films, all period pieces, and each features Carati. As L’alcova stands, it’s only for fans of its participants.

Monday, August 22, 2011

La chiave (1983)

Despite its "erotic" moniker, Tinto Brass's La chiave (1983) is about freedom inasmuch as it is about sex. Based upon the novel, The Key, by Junichiro Tanziaki, La chiave is about a husband and wife who explore their sexual relationship through each other's diary. One spouse reads the other's and vice versa, leading to an awakening for both. Brass sets his film in 1940s Venice (for reasons that he states in his interview included as a supplement on the Cult Epics DVD release) to imagine a time when there was formalism in a marriage. That is to say, Brass sets his film during a time when sexual matters were not spoken of openly between spouses. Second, and most interestingly, Brass was intrigued by the idea of this matter of privacy between a husband and wife set during a very public moment. The resulting intimacy of the film is heightened, and the quest for freedom, undeniably, takes on more power. The professor (Frank Finlay) is married to Teresa (Stefania Sandrelli). They have a daughter, Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), and their close friend is Laszlo (Franco Branciaroli). Lisa is taken with Laszlo, but by all appearances, Laszlo is attracted to Teresa. The professor is very attracted to his wife, yet he cannot create a satisfactory sexual life with her. He begins to imagine her and create her in a different way: with the aid of Laszlo's camera, the professor begins photographing his wife in various positions. This leads him no closer to any intimacy yet only fuels his imagination. Subsequently, he fills his diary with his desires and leaves the key to his locked desk in the open. Teresa finds his diary and reads it and is in turn inspired to open up her life. Teresa begins a courtship with Laszlo, much to the dismay of her daughter, Lisa. Teresa awakens sexually while the professor grows ill.One of the key aspects of La chiave is that there are risks, limits, and sacrifices in attempting to obtain freedom. The professor does eventually reach an emotional intimacy with Teresa at the cost of the realization that he always loved her intensely yet was never going to be able to express those emotions towards her physically. The end result is that Teresa, upon her sexual awakening, finds love in the arms of another with Laszlo. As the professor grows ill and wastes away, Teresa comes to terms with the love for her husband. By the end, she has a new life waiting for her with Laszlo. Intuitively, one must think that the result is irony, but perhaps not. Freedom is presented in La chiave as a foreign concept with its results being unknown. This uncertainty is borne from fear. In one scene, Lisa, Laszlo, and Teresa are spending an afternoon together and decide to stop in a cafe to wait out the rain. Lisa is summoned away so Laszlo and Teresa are left alone. Teresa becomes frightened and wants to go home. Why? She's afraid of her desires which have now become stronger. She's afraid to let go. Likewise, as the professor grows ill (Finlay gives a very tragic performance), he realizes that his attempts to create his wife into someone she is not, he has lost precious time in appreciating and loving who she is. There is a particularly tender moment after the professor suffers a seizure. One of the reasons that Tinto Brass's cinema, especially his erotic cinema, is appreciated is that, like a horror author who indulges his/her own fear, Brass is in touch with what he finds sexy. In his interview included as a supplement on the Cult Epics DVD, Brass reminisces on the 1940s and why they are an important period in his cinema. There's an innocence and secretive nature to sexuality, almost incidental. Garters and stockings and high heels are some of his fetishes. In the film's best erotic scene, the professor is imagining a coupling between Laszlo and Teresa. While Laszlo undresses, Teresa teases Laszlo with a series of poses. None of Teresa's positions are vulgar, and if one looks closely, she is mimicking many a classic pose of paintings of centuries past. The professor grows jealous of Laszlo seeing a private and intimate moment of beauty from his wife. All of Brass’s trademark fetishes are present. The viewer gets very close to the intimacy of the film, and perhaps this is where Brass is most successful with La chiave. Cupisti as Lisa gives a subdued and sad performance, as her character eventually watches her father succumb to his illness and also watches her mother steal the heart of the man whom she loves. In the hands of a less adept actress, this role might be over shadowed, but Cupisti shines. Finlay is perfect as the professor. At times he seems a dry and staid academic, while at others, Finlay is animated and vibrant. He has a wonderful expressive face, so those Tarkovsky-ian tragic moments, like the professor sitting alone in a cafe, are really felt with his performance. Sandrelli literally and figuratively bares all in La chiave in a high risk performance which she executes with the utmost certainty. She is undeniably amazingly beautiful and she easily conveys her inner beauty and transformation as La chiave unfolds. La chiave is a turning point in Tinto Brass cinema and an important film in the evolution of erotic cinema.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Amore sporco (1989)

Valentine Demy ("l'italianissima Marisa Parra") is Terry Jones, a young woman who wants to turn her passion for dancing into a career. She leaves her family and treks to Richmond, Virginia to enroll in a dancing school to learn the needed skills. Once in the big city, Terry realizes that the path towards her dream is littered with some shitty people, some decent people, quite a few erotic adventures, and tough decisions. Did I mention dancing? Lots of dancing, too. Joe D'Amato's Amore sporco (1989) seems borne from Adrian Lyne's Flashdance and the sequel to Saturday Night Fever (1977), Staying Alive, both from 1983. The script of Amore sporco is a mishmash of the narratives of the two dancing films with the softcore spice that only D'Amato could deliver. Ultimately, then, would Demy and D'Amato be able to transcend this film's Skinimax-cal roots and deliver memorable erotic sequences; or would Amore sporco languish in its dated 80s-ness, dance scene and light narrative? In other words, is Amore sporco sexy and is it worth sitting through? Let me openly be an asshole, today, and employ a risk versus benefit analysis towards Amore sporco.

There is no doubt that Ms. Demy is sexy, and D'Amato doesn't hide it. The opening sequence of Amore sporco is Terry being driven to the train station by her boyfriend. In a montage credit sequence, one can easily tell that he loves his girlfriend and wants to encourage her hopes and dreams. He is so full of happiness towards Terry's bold move towards her dancing dream that he is going to take the opportunity during the car ride to fondle her breasts and caress her inner thighs. "Don't betray me, Terry," he says as he drops her at the train station. Terry won't betray her boyfriend but she will forget that he exists (which is understandable). Terry misses her train, and the next two assholes that pick her up while she is hitchhiking also take to caressing her inner thighs. This is how D'Amato sets his exposition for his heroine: this is how the world sees her and this is her obstacle to overcome. In the hypocritical exploitative sense, this how D'Amato wants you, the viewer, to see his heroine yet he also wants you to sympathize with her, too. During her first evening in the big city and after dancing class, Terry is walking through a dark alleyway where two assholes, donning some serious heavy-metal attire, attempt to assault her. She is rescued by yuppie, Robert (Cully Holland), who takes her to his townhouse. He tends to her wounds, and despite taking a peek or two at Terry's crotch, Robert in gentlemanly fashion takes her home. After a series of assholes are introduced into Terry's life, is this yuppie going to be a saint? Probably not. Terry becomes taken with Robert and near the end of the first act, Terry and Robert consummate their attraction in the elevator in quite an erotic sequence. D'Amato employs some bold compositions in Demy-centric fashion. The actress with whom D'Amato is quite taken, especially Ms. Demy's legs and derriere, become even more focal in the subsequent two acts of Amore sporco. In two sequences where Terry is exercising and dancing alone in the studio, the compositions of the actress become the height of inappropriate. Well, inappropriate compositions in another film. These two sequences are unabashedly ogling time for the viewer, and Demy's irresistible. Interestingly, Amore sporco introduces a series of male assholes who take advantage of Terry. However, when dancing colleague, Michael (Jeff Stryker), recommends that Terry get a massage with his friend, Terry is cool when the masseuse becomes inappropriate. Why? The masseuse is portrayed by Laura Gemser, of course. I have never witnessed a massage where there is so much fondling of the buttocks. The sequence goes beyond unbelievable when Gemser's character introduces a foreign object into the proceedings. I was offended, but in hypocritical, exploitation-film-fashion, I was also amazed by this sequence. Unsurprisingly, Amore sporco does become overtly offensive with a political/sexual scenario, ending in scandal. By this point, the film could continue to unfold in this manner, but the narrative is intended to be inspiring: Terry's a dancer with hopes and dreams after all. As with most D'Amato narratives, Amore sporco suffers from a lack of focus. A couple of hallway dance sequences become tired very quickly. Way too much time is devoted a Chippendale-like dance club scene which ends, unintentionally, very funny at its attempts to be tragic. As an overall narrative, Amore sporco wants to celebrate dancing culture, in general, instead of chronicling Terry's dancing career. Then again, Terry's dancing sequences are sequences objectifying her body, so really the narrative is a vehicle for more sexy sequences. Valentine Demy is pretty hot in a leotard. Amore sporco has enough filler for the fast forward button and enough to deter most casual fans. As a Joe D'Amato experience, Amore sporco is kind of fascinating. I've always wondered what he values. A commercial impetus for most films, like Amore sporco, is certain, but there is always an overwhelming sense that there is someone with an intense love for the craft of cinema is behind the camera. With quite a bit of talent to boot. However, certain sequences, again as in Amore sporco, are sweet and then, within a moment's notice, the film takes a turn into holy-shit territory. Often I'm offended by exploitation cinema, but I'm never ready for when D'Amato pulls his shocking twists. This is an indefinable, amazing quality, and perhaps unique to D'Amato and a few choice filmmakers of his class. Joe D'Amato really excelled at softcore, erotic cinema, so see Amore sporco if a fan of the genre or a fan of D'Amato.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sangue negli abissi (1989)

Inasmuch as I love films made in the commercial wake of Jaws (1975), Sangue negli abissi (1989) is an incredible piece of tedious cinema. It's cinema done paint-by-numbers style--a little drama here, a little action there, and a big dorsal fin sticking out of the water, here. Sangue negli abissi has no energy in its pacing nor in its impetus. Sangue is a Joe D'Amato production, and the former statement is perhaps the most offensive aspect of it. Sangue is almost wholesome--a film about fraternal loyalty in the face of adversity. Huh?Four young boys are on the beach in Florida, enjoying the sun setting. A Native American approaches the young four and warns them of a monster, steeped in legend from when he was a boy. The monster resides in the water, and if ever the day the monster returns, the four boys make a blood pact to unite and fight it. Cut to present day, and the four are recent high-school graduates--one is the mayor's son, prepped for a military career; one has a father who was once a fisherman but is now scared of the water; one has lost his mother and is living a slightly wayward life with a distant father; and the final young man is happy-go-lucky with conspicuously a lack of a back story comparable to the other three. They all have names, yet I do not remember them. Not to be disrespectful towards this production, but I believe their names are not important. The happy-go-lucky of the four gets attacked and killed by a shark while his slightly-wayward buddy looks on. Cue the small seaside town shenanigans: enter sheriff, enter collateral drama, and enter plan to stop the shark. Let's get some of these characters into the water. Transition is the primary flaw of Sangue negli abissi. The script of the film is too short and too complicated, so ordinary scenes which would be cut out for pacing are included to its detriment. Sangue needed to decide which film it wanted to be--small-town drama or adventure. Unlike Jaws, the script (and the budget) of Sangue pulls in opposite directions--the drama hurts the adventure and vice versa. Surprisingly, scenes like the sheriff visiting the shark expert get little serious treatment in the narrative, but scenes like one of the young men having a heart-to-heart with his returning-home girlfriend get included. I don't even understand why the girlfriend is in the film. She's included as if Sangue needed someone to worry about the main characters. Someone needed to be at the foot of the pier when the young men returned from the shark hunt ready to say "I'm glad to you're safe."

All the locations appear genuine. Joe D'Amato says Sangue negli abissi was filmed "[i]n Florida mostly, though we did do a small part along the Mississippi River, which proved very awkward because the water there is very dark and murky. The actual underwater scenes, though, were shot in various places: at Venotene, in a Roman swimming-pool and in a New Orleans aquarium." (Spaghetti Nightmares, edited by Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Fantasma Books, Key West, Florida, 1996, p. 79). Sangue appears recorded with direct sound with little clean-up in post-production, as voice echoes in big rooms are heard, for example. During a night beach scene, however, where the local bartender decides to take a swim into the ocean for a slo-mo shark attack scene, her voice audio seems inserted to cover for the loud sounds of the wind and crashing waves. In addition to the genuine locations, all the actors appear to be its residents. That is to say, Joe D'Amato and company showed up to shoot Sangue and asked people, "May we shoot a film in this home? And would you be willing to act in a scene here? We're making a Jaws-like film."

Raf Donato is the credited director. Joe D'Amato explains: "Raf worked with me in Giubbe rosse as dialogue coach, taking care of the actors' English diction. He's Italian-American and lives in New York. He works for Martin Scorsese as diction secretary. ¶ When I met up with him again after ten years, he revealed to me that he wanted to start up as a director, and so I went along with the idea. However, after shooting the scene where the kids gather to seal their blood pact, he realized that he didn't feel up to directing the film through to the end, and since I was on the set anyway as producer and director of photography, he agreed that I should take over." (Spaghetti Nightmares, pp.78 -79) Take over he did, and Joe D'Amato went into professional mode keeping Sangue clean with classic shots, such as close-ups, mediums, and wides. D'Amato shoots Sangue in a wholly uninteresting style, save the underwater scenes; yet he takes a flawed script and wrangles a coherent narrative. It's a palatable package in an established commercial market for buyers and distributors. "It was very successful abroad," says D'Amato, "it even sold well in Japan." (Spaghetti Nightmares, p. 79)
The best scene of Sangue negli abissi comes in the third act at an underwater wreckage, where the young men engage in the laborious, ridiculous, and complex task of killing the shark by detonating the wreckage (and hoping to kill the shark with the blast). The scenes of the wreckage are brilliant and made me wish the whole film was set down there. The dark shadows and corners of the wreckage are merely a plot device for Sangue, but the mystery that D'Amato creates with his visuals are enough to see this talented director working on something not worthy of his time. Sangue negli abissi is the very definition of tedium and is recommend for those who enjoy tedium. I presume, perhaps unwisely, that there are few who enjoy such. With a "mechanical shark's head and the rest we used [from] stock footage shots that we bought from National Geographic," (Spaghetti Nightmares, p. 79) Joe D'Amato pulls another cinematic prank at the expense of all. Including the shark. Rock on.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stake Land (2010)

Three of my all-time favorite horror novels stem from the premise that the vampire is an invasive specie, leading to an epidemic of catastrophic proportions: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson; 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King; and Midnight Mass by F. Paul Wilson. Unfortunately, the screen adaptations that I have seen have rarely been satisfying. The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, and The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, both adaptations of Matheson's novel, are entertaining because of their leads; yet both lacks something special making them truly great. Both television adaptations of King's novel have their strengths: Tobe Hooper's 1979 version has better casting of the leads and stronger performances by David Soul, Bonnie Bedelia, and James Mason, for example; but the mini-series suffers from poor pacing and structure. It's biggest flaw is with its rendition of the villain, Barlow. The 2004 version is better-paced and the collateral characters are better cast: Rutger Hauer plays an excellent Barlow, and while I enjoy Mason's performance in Hooper's version, I much prefer Donald Sutherland as Straker. James Cromwell was particularly affecting as Father Callahan. The 2004 version of 'Salem's Lot, however, suffers on all other fronts with its biggest flaw being its modern-day setting. There is also an adaptation of Midnight Mass which ranges from the occasionally brilliant to completely fucking up the source material. I would be curious yet reticent to see another film which had as its premise a vampire epidemic, leading to an apocalyptic situation. When the recent Stake Land (2010) was announced with a DVD release, my curiosity was piqued, yet I wasn't interested enough to give it a gander. I gave in when I learned that its director and co-writer was Jim Mickle and its star and co-writer was Nick Damici: the same duo who made Mulberry St. in 2006. Mulberry St. was unique in the fact that it was a modern-horror film which created a real sense of community, buttressed with likable characters with good performances. I have a rule when I watch horror films (really any film but especially horror films): if any character within the first fifteen minutes of the film annoys the shit out of me, I cut it off and go do something else. I didn't even think of my rule while watching Mulberry St. The atmosphere of the film was adeptly-drawn, and the visuals were extremely creative. So with a creative team of filmmakers and a very intriguing premise, I gave Stake Land a spin.

At the beginning of Stake Land, the vampires have taken over the world, and survivors are few. Most humans have banded together in makeshift towns, scattered throughout the country side, away from the big cities. One evening, a young man, Martin (Connor Paolo), and his parents and infant sibling, are taking shelter in a farmhouse. The family is attacked by vampires, but Martin is saved by an older man whom he calls "Mister" (Nick Damici). Now alone, Martin accompanies Mister on a trek to a place called "New Eden," a community in Canada where vampires have not been seen. During their journey, Mister teaches Martin how to take care of himself in this new world. The two also make new friends along the way who become traveling companions: a nun (Kelly McGillis), a pregnant young woman (Danielle Harris), and a young marine (Sean Nelson). In addition to the vampires, who are feral and animalistic, there is a violent cult called the Brotherhood who are kidnapping and murdering their fellow survivors. Stake Land is going to be an adventure.There are grander philosophical ideas within Stake Land about humanity, but they reside in the background and really only take focus in reflection. The human drama is focal in Stake Land, and Mickle and Damici are able to recreate that strong kinship from its characters, so evident in Mulberry St. Dialogue is sparse, and the character motivations are surprisingly simple. Mister and Martin help people without asking for anything in return. It is so refreshing, because the modern character is drawn as if he/she has to earn the audience's trust. It lacks the post-modern irony that every relationship is built around power: you must want something, don't you? Mister and Martin do not. Likewise, the Brotherhood characters appear as despicable characters, especially a leader named Jebediah Loven (Michael Cerveris). Their single motivation is that they are the few to be saved while the other survivors are food for the vamps. With the simplicity of the focus of Stake Land, human drama, and the simplicity of each character motivation, Mickle and Damici can add depth to details. For example, when Danielle Harris's character is introduced (named Belle), she is singing in a bar in one of the makeshift communities. It's a sweet performance and quite endearing. With the subsequent images, not with some trite dialogue, the viewer realizes that her performance bought her a meal that night. There is not a lot that a pregnant young woman can do in this new society to earn her keep. She is going to have to depend on others' kindness, at least a little. Stake Land is full of these enriching yet subtle scenes. Visually, the duo of Mickle and Damici top their work from Mulberry St. Ryan Samul, who also lensed Mulberry St., captures some arresting compositions. Post-apocalyptic imagery and images of destruction are often affecting, and Samul makes many of these images beautiful. None are overt and none are designed to be shocking. Later, Martin in voice-over, after a vampire attack, relates his feelings about the carnage. The victims are piled together in the center and covered with blankets. A child victim is amongst their number. Her small feet protrude out from the blanket. It is this image that affects Martin, and he comments upon it. Likewise, there are many such images within Stake Land which have a similar effect upon the viewer. In addition to the visuals Graham Reznick did the sound design. He is responsible for work on Ti West's The House of the Devil and Trigger Man, for example. With his body of work as it stands now, Reznick is one of cinema's finest technicians. The sound design of Stake Land is wonderfully layered from echoing screams to the effective use of music throughout the film. The vampire sequences are particularly intense with a standout sequence occurring at the beginning of the third act. It's survival horror. Period. Veteran actress Kelly McGillis gives an outstanding performance. She has such an inherent beauty and vulnerability that is as evident in Stake Land as in say, Witness. Danielle Harris has blossomed into a fine young actress, and it is very easy to fall in love with Belle. Cerveris as Loven almost steals every scene that he is in, and Damici plays Mister as a kind-hearted and wounded warrior. He brings a tragic quality to his role. Connor Paolo has to carry the film as the proverbial heart of Stake Land: wide-eyed and innocent, it is though his eyes that the viewer takes this journey. After Mulberry St. and Stake Land, I'll see anything that the duo of Jim Mickle and Nick Damici make. Like Ti West, the two are clearly superior to their contemporaries in the genre. So, Stake Land gets a hearty recommendation, cool cats. See it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981)

Walerian Borowczyk's Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981) stands as one of his crowning achievements in his career: playful, transgressive, subversive, erotic, and beautiful, inside and outside of the film: Borowczyk attempted a ruse at a skeptical public: the authors of Immoral Tales write, “At one time Borowczyk stated that he had based his film on the original Stevenson manuscript--which was supposed to have been destroyed by Stevenson’s wife because of its sexual content. He claimed to have discovered a copy in the Bodleian library in Oxford. He confessed later, to film critic Tony Crawley, that this was all just a stunt, but still maintained that his version was truer to Stevenson’s conception than any of the earlier films. Dr. Jekyll wants to be Mr. Hyde; he uses the transformation as a way of letting his unspoken desires have free reign.” (Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies: 1956-1984, by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, St. Martin’s Griffin Press, New York: 1995, p.226) Borowczyk even had the help of novelist and collaborator, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, who writes in his preface to Borowczyk Cineaste Onirique, “Walerian Borowczyk a-t-il vraiment retrouvé, à Londres, quelques vestiges de la version initiale, ce n’est pas impossible.” (Collection La Vue, Paris, France: 1981, p.7) This stunt by Borowczyk, by its appearance, seems a just a joke, played for the fun of playing a joke. I suppose he needed to play one somewhere, somehow, as there is little intentional humor in Docteur Jekyll despite its playful nature. Docteur Jekyll et les femmes is an ambient film, designed to be disorienting. To accompany Borowczyk’s impressive visuals, composer Bernard Parmegiani creates a dissonant score which effectively haunts the film and creates its own moods. As a composer of images, few compare to Walerian Borowczyk. Often his compositions are compared to still paintings in their striking quality. Borowczyk did the set design for Docteur Jekyll et les femmes, and unsurprisingly, the film has myriad beautiful set-pieces. Of specific interest, however, is Borowczyk’s use of point of view with his camerawork in Docteur Jekyll. Borowczyk effectively mixes the subjective and the objective point of view with his camera in both subtle and overt fashion. This style becomes its most affecting (enhanced by Parmegiani’s score) as the film reaches its climax. Let’s start at the beginning first.

Doctor Jekyll (Udo Kier) is engaged to be married to Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). To celebrate this engagement, a party is being held at the Jekyll home. In attendance are Jekyll’s mother and Osbourne’s mother (no fathers?), an eccentric general (Patrick Magee) and his indulgent daughter, a reverend (Clément Harari), and Jekyll’s long-time friend and academic rival, Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon), amongst others. In the film’s meticulous first-act sequence, following a murder on London’s streets, the guests arrive in staggered fashion to the party. As each arrives, he or she signs a commemorative guest book. Of course, this is classic character exposition, but Borowczyk concludes his first act effectively--the last, late guest to arrive, in a darkened foyer, is Edward Hyde. His signature more than announces his arrival: it begins the second act of terror as he has his way with the party guests.

The underlying theme of Borowczyk’s take on Stevenson’s story is personified in the relationship between Jekyll and Lanyon. Jekyll is an advocate of transcendental medicine while Lanyon is an empiricist. Lanyon sees life as limited by what is perceived by human senses. Jekyll intends to prove during this evening’s events that there are senses and awareness beyond the scope of human perception. This awareness can be achieved and realized.

The philosophical theme of Docteur Jekyll isn’t belabored with dialogue: it comes only as dinner conversation. Borowczyk’s visual style is the real commentary. Think of the classic, “objective” film style: wide frames (often used as establishing shots), medium shots (primarily focuses on character action), and close-ups (which focus on characters’ faces and highlight emotion). Now think of the subjective shot. This camera positioning is to substitute for the point of view of another character. The subjective composition is designed to be unique, so what is shown in the frame is to expose something about who is doing the seeing in as much as it is about what is being shown. The framing of a subjective shot differs from the classic, “objective” style: off-kilter framing is typical and handheld work of the camera is frequent. What is so interesting about Docteur Jekyll et les femmes is that it is composed primarily of subjective shots. At first glance, I thought that Borowczyk’s style was arbitrary framing, but that thought gave way with subsequent viewings. The reason that I thought the style was arbitrary was that there were myriad shots composed as if they were glances around corners, through doorways, and down hallways. There was an overtly voyeuristic quality to these sequences, yet there was no character to reference these subjective shots. In one sequence, for example, Jekyll has handed his last will and testament to his lawyer in which he disposes all of his property to Edward Hyde. The scene is covered with primarily one composition of Kier standing in his laboratory with the camera from behind a door’s threshold and partially obscured from a corner. This is clearly not a shot from the point of view of Edward Hyde, lurking in the darkness, as the viewer is “looking” at Hyde in his form as Jekyll. This is a subjective shot with no character reference: a subjective shot from no character, subjectivity beyond a human perception...very nice.

As masterful, meticulous, and playful Borowczyk’s film appears, according Howard Vernon, who plays Dr. Lanyon, perhaps it was more chaotic on the set:

“I can remember a German actor named Udo Kier in this picture. He was also very nice but became quite angry during filming because Walerian had to finish the picture earlier than planned. He had some money problems and so many, many nice and important scenes had to be cancelled. He also cancelled a very interesting scene with me. I played a doctor who does an autopsy on a young murdered girl...[Vernon’s response edited by me for “spoilers” here]...Borowczyk was very much in love with the leading actress, Marina Pierro, an Italian girl.” (European Trash Cinema, Vol. 2., No. 5, ed. Craig Ledbetter, Kingwood, TX: 1992, p.42)

Vernon’s final statement is a truly an understatement. Any casual or cursory stroll through Borowczyk’s cinema involving Marina Pierro will instantly see his worship for the actress. As Fanny Osbourne, her character is objectified as Jekyll’s fatal flaw: as much as Jekyll wants to merge his old self completely into his new self as Hyde, the only vestige of his old life which he wishes to keep is his love for Fanny. The film’s most famous sequence comes from Fanny’s point of view, where she witnesses Jekyll’s transformation. It’s a low-key sequence in terms of action but it’s hypnotic in its rendition, with appropriate dim lighting, Parmegiani’s score perfectly punctuating the action at key moments, and its languid pace. The transformation sequence perfectly sets up Fanny’s later decision in the final act where the film escalates to its violent and chaotic conclusion. The compositions of Pierro in the third act, especially, are marvelous. Haunting and beautiful.

I would be remiss to not add how nasty Docteur Jekyll et les femmes is. There are few filmmakers that I can think of who love to upset and disturb conservative viewers more than Borowczyk. In terms of erotic content and flesh display, Docteur Jekyll pales to other Borowczyk cinema (although quite erotic sequences are included). The lack of erotic sequences may make Docteur Jekyll more accessible to conservative viewers, as erotic sequences tend to divide and disturb those viewers more than violent scenes. While Docteur Jekyll has more grisly aftermath scenes of victims than of scenes of graphic violence, they are, in my opinion, equally affecting. So prospective viewers are forewarned. I have never watched Docteur Jekyll et les femmes just once. When I view the film, I have to watch it again. It’s a mesmerizing experience, as it’s just one of those films which takes everything that we hold dear in our culture and turns them on its head. Playful and perverse, beautiful and disturbing, creative and innovative: that’s Docteur Jekyll et les femmes and Walerian Borowczyk cinema.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Il Decameron (1971)

The Decameron (1971) was the first in a trilogy of films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, all three based on classical works of literature, borne each from different cultures. The Decameron is adapted from the work by Giovanni Boccaccio; and in his own words, Pasolini relates his desire to make the trilogy of films:

"But more than one 'ideological' element is hidden in these three films I have made. The main one is the nostalgia for the past era which sought to recreate on the me [making the Trilogy] represents an entry into the most mysterious inner workings of the artistic process, an experiment with the ontology of narration, an attempt to engage with the process of rendering a film filmic, the kind of film one saw as a child." (573)

Nostalgia and narration, perhaps linked together:

"Never was cultural analysis more wed to everyday life, nor more self-revelatory; Pasolini found himself in everything, and everything flowed back to his selfhood. For him, the ancient playwright codified human realities, those deep-seated characteristics of man that predate politics. These are tied to the 'uterine experience'--to Susanna, to whom all loyalty went--and were 'irrational,' the material of dreams and poetry. Fighting for the place of the irrational in politics (that is, in rationality) was fighting for himself and for her, for his commitment to her and thus his most profound identity. But he was going to fight without losing what the ancient Greeks called sophrosyne (self-control).
"He was never to abandon this theme. The mysterious visitor in Teorema is this irrational god, this Dionysius of the post-Revolution. The Trilogy (1971-1974) based in fable appealed to him because what he called 'archaic' societies--those societies preliterate, preindustrial, without sexual inhibition or class manipulation--had the wisdom (not to be confused with science or progress) to give the Eumenides their due. The worlds of the Decameron and Canterbury Tales and Thousand and One Nights had not lost touch with the irrational, not fallen into 'conventionality, conformism, standardization,' which he saw growing at an alarming rate in Italy in the summer of 1960. That they existed only in his creation hardly mattered: If the artist cannot create, God-like, what distinguishes him from other men?" (370,371) Pasolini appears as Giotto, an artist painting a fresco upon a cathedral’s wall, during the second half of The Decameron. His appearances, interestingly, segue the episodes of the second half of the film and also serve as commentary. The three-act structure of the traditional narrative for film, which to some viewers wholly defines “film,” is dispensed. The non-classical style of filming, with its photography by Tonino Delli Colli, is far from arbitrary but doesn’t necessarily seem organic. The energy derived from the locations, the performers, and their ancient stories create The Decameron, indisputably, into an affecting and enduring work of art.

Two of the most famous episodes from The Decameron are its best and are easily contrastable. In the first episode of the two that appear, at a villa, a family is celebrating over dinner. The young daughter of the household is confronted in the forest by a young male guest who proclaims his love for her and his desire to be with her. She shares the same feelings yet does not know any possible way that the two can be together. The young man plans a scheme: he tells the young lady to sleep on her balcony during the evening where he will visit her. The young woman tells her mother that she desires to sleep outside, so that she can hear the nightingales sing while she sleeps. The parents agree, and the young woman is visited by her lover. The two spend the night together, and in the morning, the father awakens to find his daughter with the young man. He awakens his wife, and the two conspire to arrange a beneficial wedding between the two young lovers. Of course, the threat of death to the young man is a strong inducement to the wedding. The father and the mother awaken the young couple and deliver their proposal to the young man. Without hesitation, he accepts the proposal unequivocally and will marry the young woman. In the later sequence, three brothers share a home with their sister. One morning, one of the brothers sees a young man leave their sister’s bedroom. The three brothers ask their sister’s lover to accompany them on a walk into the countryside. They murder their sister’s lover and bury him in the field. The lover appears to the young sister in a dream and reveals the whereabouts of his corpse. The next morning, accompanied by her maid, she finds her lover’s body. Unable to move his body, the maid helps the young woman remove his head, and she takes it home, washes it, and places it in a large pot. The pot is covered in basil and rose water and placed on the window sill of her bedroom. In their most comfortable categories, here is comedy, ending in marriage, and here is tragedy, ending in death, respectively. If there is any consistency in Pasolini’s visual style in The Decameron, then it is with powerful use of the close-up on his performers. Uncannily, Pasolini is able to capture (and/or generate) such unforced emotion from his participants. Like his character of Giotto, who finds inspiration for his religious fresco from the faces of the populace, Pasolini sees in his performers’ expressions genuine emotion. The life and energy that Pasolini wanted to capture of a people of his youth (or for a people that never really existed) are translated through The Decameron. It is easy to see that Pasolini’s attempts at “filmic purity” are an attempt at trying to capture something essential in humanity. A bold endeavor, indeed, and at the present moment, I believe that Pasolini comes very close to succeeding.

The Canterbury Tales (1972) would follow The Decameron and it shows a more confident Pasolini. The Canterbury Tales is also a lot more playful and certainly more willful than The Decameron. There is an innocence to the style of The Decameron which only enhances its impact. A personal favorite. All parenthetical notations which follow quotes are citations to pages from Pasolini Requiem by Barth David Schwarz, Pantheon Books, New York: 1992.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Jeunes filles impudiques (1973)

Jeunes filles impudiques (1973) is a very shy piece of erotica."Lionel [Wallmann]," says director Jean Rollin, "obliged me to put some sex scenes in Requiem...during that dungeon sequence. I told him that I wasn't too fond of that kind of thing, and he answered: 'But you do that kind of thing very well. If we make an entire film like that, I bet it would be successful. You may not like it, but you know how to do it.'" ¶ I said, 'Okay, I'll do it, but I won't invest any of my own money to do it.' Well, he raised the money, we made the film [Jeunes filles impudiques], and he was right. The two sex films I made, this one and Tout le monde il en a deux (1974) were very successful.” (Virgins and Vampires, editied by Peter Blumenstock, Crippled Publishing, Germany: 1997, p. 148)

Jeunes filles impudiques is shy in two ways. One, the film was made during a liminal period in cinema, not just in France but elsewhere. Pornography was not yet legal in France, although it would be at the time his Les demoniaques (1973) opened in her theatres. (Virgins and Vampires, p.149) Erotic cinema, prior to the legalization of pornography, had a clear boundary. How far filmmakers were willing to push their content, in terms of explicitness, towards that boundary, varied. Cultures were changing in their attitudes towards depictions of sex, and hence, perhaps, producer Lionel Wallman’s desire to enter into the sex-film market was a direct result of these cultural changes. The second way that Jeunes filles impudiques is shy, Jean Rollin explains: “It’s strange, but it was more embarrassing for me to shoot my first softcore film, Tout le monde...; I walked off the set one day because I couldn’t direct phony lovemaking. When it became real, I had no problem at all. I really don’t know why. Maybe because in softcore films, the only person revealing his obsession is the director, because he has to call the shots while the actors simply do as they are told. In porno, both the actor and the director are in the same position. One reveals his obsession, and the actors live them out, so there is nothing to be ashamed of.” (Virgins and Vampires, p.148)

Jeunes filles impudiques is about Monica (Joëlle Coeur) and Jackie (Gilda Arancio), two friends who are making a camping trek through the countryside. The two, while wandering, come upon a maison, and from all appearances, it is empty. They decide to spend the night there. A jewel thief (Willy Braque), however, is using the maison as a hideout. When Monica discovers the jewel thief, all three spend the night together, and in the morning, Monica and Jackie leave. The jewel thief’s two associates (Marie Hélène Règne and Pierre Julien) arrive to split the stolen jewelry, and it is revealed that the loot is gone. The trio decides that either Monica or Jackie must have taken the loot, and they go off to find them.

The story of Jeunes filles impudiques plays out like an adolescent detective story. (Interestingly, in Immoral Tales in a footnote, Jacques Orth is revealed as “[t]he sex-film maker Jack Regis, who had also written the script for Rollin’s pseudonymous sex film Jeunes filles impudiques (1972) (Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies, Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, St. Martin’s Griffin Press, New York: 1995, pp.158, 176); whereas in a filmography, compiled by Mark Brusinak with Peter Blumenstock, Christian Kessler, and Lucas Balbo in European Trash Cinema Volume 2, Number 8, Nathalie Perry is the credited screenwriter. (edited by Craig Ledbetter, Kingwood, TX: 1993, p.27)) The kindest way to describe the story is to say a youthful energy and curiosity wisp the tale along; while one could also describe the film as tediously episodic and tenuously linked. Take your pick.
Jeunes filles impudiques is a curiosity in Rollin’s curious filmography, of interest for the charismatic presence of Joëlle Coeur and a look into how Rollin would broach the sex-film genre. As to the latter, the first sex scene is revelatory, as is a later scene (which would contain repeated imagery from Rollin’s other cinema.) When Coeur and Arancio arrive at the maison, they find the bedroom upstairs. At a leisurely pace, the two fold down the bed and put slipcovers over the pillows. The two get into bed after undressing and begin cuddling and kissing. The scene never really changes in its energy. Rollin then pans from an ecstatic look from Arancio to a shot near the floor (a finishing or climatic shot, rather than a transition). The scene resumes again, and the sheets are definitely off of the actresses. The flesh is much more on display, and the writhing is pronounced. Seeing the sex scene in two parts, like this, is as if the first wasn’t satisfactory and the second was perfunctory. In a humorous final shot to the scene, Coeur stands at the bedroom door while the camera sits in the hallway. Coeur’s Monica slams the door upon the camera, as if a third scene will play out but not for the viewer. In the film’s best visual sequence, a gazebo is located somewhere near the maison. The gazebo is covered with stained-glass windows of varying colors (which Rollin plays with in a voyeuristic sequence later with Marie Hélène Règne). After Braque’s jewel thief captures Monica and Jackie, Jackie is the first to be interrogated. She is located to the gazebo and bound by her wrists to the ceiling. This is clearly an exploitative scene. Little questioning is done, as Braque takes a small whip to Jackie. Arancio’s nudity is focal as is the kinky bit with the bondage and the whipping. These images do not last long. Rollin cuts to the camera’s point of view, substituting for Jackie‘s. Marie Hélène Règne circles her victim as the camera makes a circular pan. Her ultimate act of torture is trimming Jackie’s hair with scissors. However, the scene concludes with a nasty act by Règne, but it just appears as perfunctory exploitation fare.

Joëlle Coeur was a painter who was suggested to Rollin for the role of Monica by a mutual friend. (Immoral Tales, p.150). She also stars in Tout le monde and Les demoniaques. Coeur is amazingly beautiful, and it is quite evident that Rollin was completely taken with her charisma. In several scenes, it appears as if she is just doing what she wants, and Rollin has no problem with that. Her absence is felt when she is not on screen.

I am certainly glad that I was able to see Jeunes filles impudiques in an English-language version via the DVD released by Redemption. It ultimately comes off as uninspired straight sex film, although there is Rollin’s sweet sensibility and shyness carrying the film. Jeunes filles impudiques is ultimately of interest to Rollin’s fans and is definitely worth a peek.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

The younger brother and I had a steak dinner via the stove top, as it was a hundred degrees outside, far too hot to do the holiday-grilling routine. After dinner, he had an espresso, and I settled in with a mug of coffee. I asked him if he wanted to watch a movie, maybe something off of Video on Demand, and he did. I perused the selection and narrowed my picks. I asked him to finalize my pick by choosing one to watch. Here is how I presented them:

1. Did he want to watch a Norwegian movie about trolls?

2. How about a German zombie flick? Or, it could be a viral-outbreak flick?

3. Did he want to see a Quarantine sequel sans Ms. Jennifer Carpenter? Maybe set on an airplane?

4. Sucker Punch. I heard it sucked and I've only seen one Zack Snyder film.

"Let's watch Sucker Punch," he said. So we did.

Within the first few minutes of Sucker Punch, I quickly realized that at thirty-six years old, I am three times older than its target audience. I had heard the Eurythmics song during its original incarnation as a child in the eighties, heard the Manson redux, and am certain that at least once more I will hear it again redone before I die. When I heard "Army of Me," I thought Tank Girl? And again later, was that the song from The Craft that played over its credits? From time to time, my brother paused the film, appropriately via the XBOX controller, and we bullshitted about movies.

Above all else, I value imagery in cinema. One striking composition can become memorable while a string of them can create lasting memories. At some point, those images become affecting, and the story that they tell can touch strong emotions and evoke deep thought. Likewise, cinema can just be beautiful scenes flickering along--that's cool, too.

Sucker Punch has narration, has emotion, and has a story. In order for me to grasp any of the mentioned three, I am going to have to watch Sucker Punch, again. Sucker Punch is a "theatre" movie. You're definitely looking at it.

During Dave Chappelle's brilliant run on Comedy Central on his sketch show, he had a skit where he presented a scene of himself entering into a laundry mat with a sack of dirty clothes over his shoulder. He sat down his laundry and said hello to an elderly woman folding her clothes. That was it, the whole scene, mundane and boring. Chappelle then presented the same scene again to his audience. This time Chappelle strolled into the laundry mat in slow-motion with an accompanying beat as the soundtrack. A wind machine blew his attire around, and the elderly woman folding her clothes appeared as a young woman, dancing to the soundtrack. Persuasively, Chappelle proved slow motion made everything look very cool.

Who doesn't love the scene of a snowy Japanese temple with a courtyard, imposing mountains looming over its walls while soothing soft light emits from candles within?
Whether it's Meiko Kaji, Lucy Liu, or Emily Browning in the frame, this imagery is a cinematic battle arena. It's live-action anime and gatling-gun crazy. Around the time dragons appeared within Sucker Punch, however, I was ready to watch something else or nothing at all. I flippantly told my brother that I would have loved this film when I was twelve.

"What movies did you love when you were twelve?" asked my brother. That espresso must have been jet fuel, because he was really alert.

Die Hard. Rambo. Robocop. The Lost Boys. As we bullshitted further, with the explosions in the background, we talked about how the best escapist movies were about escaping. The underlying trauma and situation from where the young women from Sucker Punch are escaping, when you stop to think about it, is quite horrible. If their situation was presented in any other way, then I wouldn't be writing like this. Who wants to travel across country to see his wife to whom he is separated and decide whether or not to stay together? Killing a bunch of terrorists in a high rise fills the void. Who wants to revisit a country on whose soil a major conflict took place with a highly unfavorable outcome? Well, just one man, who fucking kicks everyone's ass by himself. Who wants to go to a quickie mart at eleven o'clock at night only to encounter an armed robbery? Anyone, because there's a badass cyborg roaming the city as law enforcement. Who wants to move to a new town and make new friends? How about meeting vampires?

Sucker Punch is in the same vein of the cinema of my youth. Somewhere, I'm certain, there is someone echoing my original sentiments about The Lost Boys: "Man, that was so fucking cool." Lost Boys has some serious subtext, too. When I got older that Rob Lowe poster made a lot more sense to me. Sucker Punch is cinema which belongs to someone else, just as The Lost Boys belongs to me.

Beyond any criticism of the film, already espoused by professional critics, Snyder's film is a little too serious for me. Sucker Punch could have taken at least a minute or two of its nearly two-hour runtime to loosen up and do something unexpected. I actually love the fact that Snyder made Sucker Punch so unabashedly. It's like a primer for a whole generation of filmmakers with new cinematic tools.

Anyway, this blog entry on Sucker Punch turned out to be more musing than substantive review or criticism. I enjoyed hanging out with my brother, having dinner on a holiday weekend, and bullshitting about movies. Quiet Cool needed to loosen up anyway. I also watched the Norwegian film about trolls. It was quite funny. Happy Fourth.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Kamikaze '89 (1982)

Kamikaze '89 (1982) is one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last artistic endeavors. Subsequent to the release of his Lili Marteen (1981), Fassbinder was offered the lead role by producer Regina Ziegler who was developing the project for her husband, director Wolf Gremm. (175) Robert Katz, co-screenwriter of Kamikaze and author of Love is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, describes Gremm as the director who held the record for winning the German film critics' Sour Lemon award more than any other director. (175) The Sour Lemon is awarded to the director who made the "worst film of the year." (175) Fassbinder was not deterred by Gremm's reputation and accepted the part but would back out of the role when he read Gremm's script. (175, 176) Katz was subsequently hired as a screenwriter to rewrite Gremm's script "in order to broaden the film's appeal and tap the English-language market." (176) Katz suggested that the source material, from the novel Murder on the Thirty-first Floor by Swedish author, Per Wahloo, set in the 1960s, be "projected into the near future of the 80s." (175, 176) Juliane Lorenz suggested the title Kamikaze while Gremm added the "'89" to "connote the future." (176) (All parenthetical notations previous to this statement are citations to pages from of Love is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, by Robert Katz and Peter Berling, Jonathan Cape, London: 1987.)

Kamikaze '89, today, is little-seen and little-discussed. When the film is discussed, Fassbinder attracts the majority of the attention. Although it should be noted that Kamikaze's soundtrack by Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream has developed quite a cult following. Cinematographer, Xaver Schwarzenberger, who shot Berlin Alexanderplatz and Fassbinder's subsequent directorial efforts until his death, lensed Kamikaze; and Fassbinder regulars, such as Brigitte Mira, who appears in a small role, and Günther Kaufmann, who appears in a fairly substantial role, for example, fill the scenery. Above all, however, Kamikaze '89 is perhaps notable or notorious, even in its obscurity, for Fassbinder's attire. Director Wolf Gremm explains:

"When I plan a film, I often think in terms of animal images for the characters. In conceiving Kamikaze '89, I always had Fassbinder in mind as a leopard, but I never told him this. At the first costume fitting I showed him fifteen possible futuristic detective and police costumes of very different styles. It happened like this: He came in. I was smoking a cigar. I offered him a Camel cigarette. He looked over the costumes. I smiled. Then he looked at me and smiled too. He said, 'You like this leopard one.' And I said, 'Don't you?' And he said, 'Let me try it on.' He looked at himself in the mirror and said, 'I love me. Now I'm Lieutenant Jansen.' From this point on, we never had to discuss the style of the film." (Love is Colder Than Death, p.177)

I wish that I could grab screenshots of Fassbinder in his leopard suit, but unfortunately Kamikaze '89 is only available on VHS in the U.S. (There is, however, a DVD released in Germany.) The leopard suit that Fassbinder wears throughout Kamikaze forms a part of an ensemble: his dashboard of his police vehicle is covered in the material; his exercise outfit with matching headband that he wears at the police club is also leopard skin; and even the handle of Jansen's revolver is covered with the soft material. According to Katz, Fassbinder liked the "phony leopard-skin" suit so much that he kept it and wore it from time to time in the remaining months of his life. (Love is Colder Than Death, p.178)

Germany. 1989. Society has solved all of its problems. For example, there is no unemployment and no pollution. Society runs like a machine with everything having its essential place. Mass-media is controlled by one powerful group, the Combine, who are located in a high-rise tower (which from the film appears that it can be seen from anywhere in the city.) One day, the group receives a bomb threat, and Police Lieutenant Jansen (Fassbinder) is dispatched to the Combine building to investigate. A note was sent to the Combine on particularly unique paper revealing the bomb's presence in the building. Jansen evacuates the building, and the bomb threat turns out to be false. Jansen's superior commands him to find the suspect behind the would-be bombing within four days.

In my view, knowing that Fassbinder would die soon after the completion of Kamikaze '89 (and prior to its release) gives the film a more tragic air. It is difficult to take any character seriously donning a leopard-skin suit, surrounded by neon motifs of the 1980s with accompanying colors such as hot pink and turquoise. The future, at least in cinema, is more palatable and hence believable when the color scheme is somber or dark, such as in Minority Report (2002). The costumes and set design of Kamikaze '89 are stimulating and are supposed to evoke feelings (echoing Ms. Lauper) of fun, but Fassbinder plays Jansen as a police officer floating through a completely mechanical and predictable society. Jansen holds a streak of forty-plus cases where he has successfully solved a crime. The successful completion of a case is the only thing that he has to look forward to. Jansen often tells the other characters "avoid asking unnecessary questions" or "avoid saying unnecessary statements": in his view, any attempts to be anything other than predictable is futile. The most popular show on television, pushed upon the masses by the Combine, is the Laughing Contest: twenty-four hours a day, a contest is shown where its participants laugh. The one standing last and still laughing wins. Demoralizing imagery just about everywhere in the city.

The traditional investigation with Kamikaze '89 isn't particularly viewer-friendly. Often my cinematically-trained mind passively watches the story, waiting for specific lines of dialogue or cues of dramatic music in order to recognize that a clue has been found or a breakthrough in the mystery has been had. For example, the paper upon which the note detailing the bomb threat is the second half of an award, handed out by the Combine to specific individuals. Hence, the paper is rare, since the award has only been given to about twenty-five people (a manageable list of suspects). Of importance is that the half of the letter was hand-torn and not cut with scissors. During a later scene, when Jansen is questioning the head of the Combine's nephew, who is now confessing to sending the letter, Jansen asks him where are the scissors that he used to cut the award in half. The nephew responds by saying that they are in his desk and that he has many pairs. Jansen, by this admission by the nephew, knows that his confession is false. No revelatory, contradicting dialogue comes from Jansen to impeach him; no dramatic music plays over this damning admission; and no cross-cut to an earlier scene as reminder come at all. I watched Kamikaze '89 several times over the past week, and it took me a while to identify this change in the investigation. Yes, I am that vegetative when I watch films. When Franco Nero appears near the end of Kamikaze '89, his character provides the most important information towards the plot and the investigation. However, despite Nero and Fassbinder giving very good performances, the impact and weight of Nero's dialogue are only really felt (and the viewer subsequently made aware) with subsequent viewings. I suppose Gremm wasn't that adept as a director.

One of the saddest scenes in Kamikaze '89 is Fassbinder alone in his apartment. He pulls a whitebread sandwich from the microwave and takes a bite. Its flavor must be quite disappointing according to his reaction. He leans against a table and eats the sandwich anyway. He arms himself with his camera (a futuristic police tool) and his gun and stares into space. Fassbinder looks like a bloated and fat drunk, dejected about what the future holds for him. The ending of the investigation is all that he has to look forward to, and his prospects are somewhat grim. There has to be something of value to carry him along. At the end of Kamikaze '89, Jansen stands alone, looking at the camera and laughing as the credits roll.