Monday, March 30, 2020
In revolutionary Mexico a group of bandits, led by a man called El Chuncho, attack a government munitions train. Things go not as planned, but the bandits get some unexpected help from one of the passengers, a well-dressed American called Tate, who subsequently joins the gang. He is baptized "Niño" because of his juvenile features by El Chuncho and the two men quickly become friends (and maybe more). When the American falls ill and El Chuncho starts searching his luggage, he discovers a golden bullet, but keeps suppressing the idea that Niño is a traitor. The bandits have planned to sell the stolen weapons to revolutionary leader General Elias, and when they arrive in the general's headquarter, it becomes clear why Niño has joined them ...
A Bullet for the General is a groundbreaking movie, the first real Zapata western, and according to some also the best. It was co-written by Franco Solinas, who had also scripted Gillo Pontecorvo's award winning La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers/1966 - Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, 1967). Solinas would also be involved in the writing of two other political westerns The Big Gundown and Tepepa, while one of his writings (based on a play by Bertold Brecht) would be the starting point for Corbucci's Zapata western The Mercenary. It has been suggested that Solinas only saw this movie as preparatory study to Queimada (Burn!/1969, starring Marlon Brando), but he had great interest in Mexico and Pancho Villa's people's revolution. Furthermore he was present on the set most of the time, discussing characters and parts of the dialogue with the director and the actors, making adjustments when necessary. Two other people are listed as co-authors, but according to several people involved in the project, the movie was written by Solinas, Solinas and Solinas.
A Bullet for the General is usually interpreted as an allegory about US involvement in South-American politics. In 1966 there was no evidence of any illegal CIA activities, but there were plenty of rumors and it's hard to read the movie differently. Like most 'committed' screenwriters from the 60's, Solinas was a Marxist. Unlike the more impulsive Corbucci, he was a theorist, well-versed in Marxist philosophies, and this is inevitably reflected in his narratives and characterizations. In true dialectical style, Solinas' characters learn from confrontations with others who are at the same time their equals and direct counterparts. El Chuncho and his half-brother, the priest El Sancho, both serve the revolution, but while El Chuncho is an opportunist, his half-brother takes his revolutionary activities as serious as his banditry: when asked (by a fellow priest) how he can live with those bandits, he answers that Christ was crucified between two bandits and has always sided with the poor. Little by little, El Chuncho learns what a people's revolution is about, and when he is confronted with the information that the people of San Miguel have been massacred after they were abandoned by him, he is overcome by remorse and sentences himself to death.
Corbucci often defined his westerns as proletarian fables about the rich exploiting the poor. In A Bullet for the General things are a bit more complicated. The town boss Don Felipe is presented as a gentle person who has never committed any great acts of cruelty, but - in the words of the local revolutionary leader Raimundo - he has done nothing to improve the situation of the poor. This is closer to Sartre than to Marx: in existentialist philosophy a man is only free when he uses his freedom to take a stance: if he doesn't stand up against injustice, he confirms it, which is an act of injustice in itself. Tate is a hired gun who kills without any remorse, but he's able to feel friendship and what turns him into a villain, is the fact that he seems to lack any sense of the collective, which is, in Marxist views, a mortal sin: he saves El Chuncho because El Chuncho is his friend, but he thwarts the people's revolution because the people's cause is beyond his conception of life. He has saved EL Chuncho, but El Chuncho must execute him. Who knows why? The answer is: the anonymous mass he has betrayed, those poor people who have no voice know why.
Art that is committed to a certain 'cause' (be it Marxist or anything else) easily falls into predictable patterns. Solinas' writings (and this film in particular) aren't entirely safeguarded against these liabilities, but in spite of his dogmatism, he was an inventive and resourceful screenwriter. A Bullet for the General is provocative, intellectually challenging, but also offers first-rate entertainment. The people's revolution is hailed but the revolutionaries are not romanticized, let alone glorified: the people aren't even capable of electing a new town boss without help, and the revolutionaries execute and slaughter simple soldiers in a murderous frenzy.
A Bullet for the General most certainly influenced Corbucci and Sollima, to mention only the most prominent Italian directors of political westerns. According to Alex Cox it also influenced Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Whether this is the best Zapata western in history or not, may be a matter of personal taste. I still prefer some of Corbucci's efforts in this direction. Solinas was a better screenwriter than Corbucci, but compared to Damiani, Corbucci was the more skillful director. Damiani's direction is adequate, but lacks Corbucci's ironic touches and dynamic force, notably during the large-scale action scenes. The film has a great look, thanks to the work of art director Sergio Canevari, costume designer Marilu Carteny and cinematographer Toni Secchi. For once we really get the feeling we're in Mexico. Even 'faces in the crowd' look Mexican. Performances are spot-on. Neither Volonté nor Castel is a personal favorite of mine, but they are both perfectly cast as the talkative bandit and the taciturn stranger. The Freudian overtones are so strong that it's hard to overlook the homosexual symbolism of the relationship. Kinski is a true attraction as the priest who kills without mercy but demands respect for the dead. Bacalov's score is excellent. --SWDB
This 1993 Corey Yuen-directed Jet Li flick ranks way up there on the list of great Hong Kong Cinema experiences. It's about legendary hero Fong Sai-Yuk, who was a member of the Red Flower Society, a secret society who desired to take back the country from the Manchu-run Ching Dynasty. As portrayed by Li, Fong is a happy-go-lucky kung-fu expert who spends his time fooling around with his buddies. By strange happenstance, he gets involved with Ting Ting (Michelle Reis), the daughter of the new Manchu governor (Chan Chung-Yung).
However, Fong really doesn't just get involved with Ting Ting. Circumstances are much more involved and screwball-comedy complex. He wins a kung-fu contest to determine Ting Ting's future husband, but he doesn't realize that Ting Ting is the girl whose hand he's won. Even more, his supermom (Josephine Siao) dresses up like a man to try to bail out her son, and ends up winning the affections of Fong's new mother-in-law (Sibelle Hu). Plus, the new governor doesn't know that Fong's dad (Paul Chu) is a high-ranking Red Flower Society officer. And last but not least, the supreme government baddie (future Wong Fei-Hong Zhao Wen-Zhou) arrives to act mean and terrorize everyone in sight. I've said it before and I'll say it again: hijinks ensue.
What makes Fong Sai-Yuk such an incredible delight is the overabundance of eager-to-please yet very agreeable comedy and action sequences. The comedy is typically Hong Kong, meaning lots of minor shtick, gender confusion and mistaken identity silliness. Still, unlike usual comedymeister Wong Jing, Corey Yuen manages to make the comedy pleasing and unobtrusive. The action is in another entire class. Fong Sai-Yuk is loaded with intricately choreographed classic set pieces, including a famous fight atop the heads of a crowd, and a showdown between Wong Fei-Hongs Jet Li and Zhao Wen-Zhou. Even the drama manages to work.
To assign negatives to Fong Sai-Yuk would seem like ungrateful nitpicking. The film is a rarity: a popcorn crowd-pleaser that elicits so many different cinematic emotions that calling it exhilarating would be an understatement. In a perfect world they would still make Hong Kong movies like this.
Sunday, March 29, 2020
Malatesta's Carnival Of Blood is one of those low-budget nightmare oddities which came about from time-to-time in that era between Night Of The Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which changed the horror landscape forever. It is roughly in the same company as Carnival Of Souls (1962) or Messiah Of Evil (also 1973), with which it shares a distaff post-hippie vibe.Wedging itself between expressionist narrative film (paying homage to silent classics like The Phantom Of The Opera and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame) and ambient happening/freakout (tape loops and upside-down VW Bugs and mylar and 'improvised ghoul action'), this is an excellent late-night ramble. Filmed at an already run-down amusement park (Six Gun Territory, formerly Willow Grove Park, which I have learned was one of the most successful amusement parks in the United States from the Late 19th Century to roughly the 1950's, meeting its demise in 1975 to make way for the Willow Grove Park Mall in Willow Grove Pennsylvania), Malatesta's Carnival Of Blood is an offering to and an encapsulation of an unretrievable past, of older-school horrors, nocturnal vibes and a playful counterculture nearly buried by shock and anomie. --Letterboxd
Saturday, March 28, 2020
Friday, March 27, 2020
Tsui Hark merges the punk outrage of his early films with the lavish, effects-driven wuxia of his later, much more financially successful works in this pointed denunciation of the hypocrisies both sexual and racial of China's religious traditions, the backward superstitional blindness of Taoism and the calcification of Buddhism into a rules-based organizational structure that has forgotten the most basic rule of all major religions and moral philosophies: "Be excellent to each other."
Based on an oft-told story of two snakes who over 500+ years master enough kung fu that they're able to transform into humans, Tsui shifts focus from the usual hero of the story, the White Snake (played by Joey Wang) who falls in love with a hapless but decent young scholar, to her younger sister the Green Snake (Maggie Cheung), who is much more suspicious of the benefits of becoming human in the first place. As the White Snake's tragic fairy tale plays itself out in self-sacrifice and honor and all those things myths tell us are important, the Green Snake sees only the lies and corruptions of the self-righteous and ultimately decides she'd rather be a snake.
The villain of the film is a super-powerful Buddhist monk who has made it his mission to keep non-humans and humans separate. Whether the non-humans are enlightened or not, whether they are moral or not, makes no difference. His xenophobia is pure. Similarly, his belief system demands that he totally repress any sexual desires he may have. The Green Snake challenges him on this and succeeds in turning him on. Surely any god would understand, seeing as she's Maggie Cheung, of course. But rather than accept his defeat with humility, he lashes out in anger and refuses to uphold his end of their wager. He then kidnaps the scholar, forcing the young man into what can only be described as a Buddhist re-education camp (shades of the Cultural Revolution here), where he is literally rendered insensate by the mindless chanting of the monks (it's a kind of spell where, deep in meditation, the monks' ability to see, hear and speak is removed).
Eventually there is a final battle in which the snakes, in self-protection, unleash a violent flood. The monk lifts the mountain holding his monastery above the waters, destroying the nearby town and killing hundreds of people. Out of a mad desire for doctrinal purity, he tries to rise above the flood of emotion and worldly desire, only to cause mass destruction. I couldn't help but be reminded of The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh's documentary about the Khmer Rouge that was one of my favorite films at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. The Khmer Rouge, like the Cultural Revolution, were human catastrophes on a massive, almost unimaginable scale, driven by the desire for ideological purity above all else. In a hyperkinetic fantasy film driven by Maggie Cheung and Joey Wang playing sexy snake/humans, Tsui presents much the same critique. But he seems to have mellowed a bit from the nihilistic explosiveness of the Hong Kong New Wave from 15 years earlier (best exemplified in his third film, and one of his greatest, Dangerous Encounters - First Kind). Rather than seeing the world as hopelessly corrupted and in need of burning down (the way the monk sees normal humans in the films remarkable opening sequence: ugly, deformed, lower beings), Green Snake offers the possibility that we might someday become decent enough for her to return. All we need to do is learn to prioritize basic human decency over the dictates of the arbitrary rules and regulations of our organizing institutions and ideologies. --Sean Gilman, The End of Cinema
Thursday, March 26, 2020
The cinema, more than any other art form, works by exploiting our often-shaky grasp on what is real and what is not real. Everything we see on the screen is at once itself – an object or face that has been photographed – and an illusory shadow of itself, which will vanish like some ghostly apparition the moment we switch on the lights. Cinema fascinates because we know what we are seeing is unreal, yet feel unable at the same time to deny its existence. As we once believed in ghosts or demons or angels and sought to commune with them in a myriad of ways, we now sit in thrall to alluring but ephemeral shadows on a cinema screen.
The German Expressionists of the 1920s had a more complex and tortuous love of shadows than any before or since. A shadow to them was more than a place on which the light did not fall; it was the secret and invisible space in which the true drama invariably played out. The actors, the costumes, the décor … all these made up the conscious ego of a film. The shadows were its dark and Freudian id. Lotte Eisner compared the Expressionists less to Freud than to Tieck, one of the more eccentric of the German Romantic authors. She wrote that:
"The rhyme of Schein (seeming) with Sein (being) […] leads them, like Tieck, to “juggle with reality and dreams until the forms born of the darkness seem the only genuine ones.” Life is merely a kind of concave mirror projecting inconsistent figures which vacillate like the images of a magic lantern, sharp-focused when they are small and blurring as they grow."
Just about every German Expressionist film plays out this concept to a greater or lesser extent. The one that most directly sums it up, however, is Arthur Robison’s Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (Warning Shadows, 1923).
The original title translates as “Shadows – A Nocturnal Hallucination”. There is nothing grandiose or gratuitous about this: the collective ‘hallucination’ experienced by the characters is not just a commentary on – or a distraction from – the main narrative; it is the very form and substance of the narrative itself. Nothing that actually happens in the film is of real or lasting importance. Yet the fantasies that assault them in their artificially created dream world are brutal, decisive and life-changing.
It takes place in the early 19th century, at a dull party in the home of an unhappy married couple. All four guests are male; each harbours a none-too-secret desire to sleep with the wife. A wandering illusionist entertains them with his ombres chinoises. He seems a world away from the magus or evil-genius figures seen in films by Robert Wiene, F W Murnau or Fritz Lang. He is no more than a mountebank, a cheap huckster who seeks to kill a few hours in exchange for a few coins. Yet by placing the characters under hypnosis, he lets them play out – in a realm of dreams – the passions they keep hidden within their subconscious selves. “In a state of trance,” writes Siegfried Kracauer, “they anticipate the future by doing exactly what they would do if their passions continued to determine their actions.”
As in a Freudian case history, the narrative splits into schizophrenic polarities of eros and thanatos, Sex and Death. The husband (Fritz Kortner) feels such a purely voyeuristic passion for his wife that he is unable (we strongly suspect) to consummate their marriage. Spying through curtains as she flirts innocently with her admirers, he sees their shadows merge in a tableau of group sex that is almost indescribably obscene. As she dances after dinner, the illusionist holds up a blazing candelabrum so her legs appear naked through her white muslin gown. Later, as they watch the play, the illusionist shines his light on her hand as the youngest of her suitors reaches out to touch it. In reality, their two hands do not make contact. Yet their shadows, cast on the floor, form the shape of an act of coitus in graphic close-up.
In the second half, these shadow-images of Sex give way inevitably to shadow-images of Death. The husband sees – again, through curtains – his wife’s shadow as she makes love to the younger man. In a homicidal rage, he has his footmen seize his wife and tie her to the dining table. The act is barely visible, concealed by the mise en scène like those acts of carnage that happen offstage in a Classical Greek tragedy. Yet it is magnified to lurid proportions by the shadows the actors cast on the wall. In a perverse tableau like something out of the work of Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, the husband compels his other guests to skewer his wife with long rapiers. This act evokes both an ‘honour killing’ and a gang rape. Again – mercifully, this time – we see nothing of the act. It transpires exclusively through shadows, the realm where the truth of the story lies.
Not that the shadow play in Warning Shadows ever shows what happens. It shows only what may happen if the subconscious drives of its characters are allowed to run unchecked. “Used by the magician for ultimately benevolent ends,” writes Thomas Elsaesser, “it ostensibly allows the characters to confront themselves, attain a degree of self-knowledge about their fears and obsessions, jealousies and murderous rages.” Graphic but illusory images of Sex and Death turn out to be harmless, even salutary. Yet a decade after Warning Shadows was made, the shadows in the German psyche sprang horribly – and all too realistically – to life. --Senses of Cinema
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
It begins with titles that famously run backwards. Deadly ... Kiss Me ... Aldrich ... Robert ... Directed by ... Then, two scenes in, a women we have assumed to be the heroine is tortured to death. This is no art film, though; no knowing homage. Instead, it's the roughest, least compromising film noir of them all - Kiss Me Deadly.
The hero (if we can call him that) is Mike Hammer, a tough, no-nonsense detective created by pulp fiction author Micky Spillane. Spillane's Hammer was of a different breed from the detectives who had gone before. Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op and Raymond Chandler's Marlowe were tough and cynical, but also intelligent, decent and insightful. Spillane's Hammer was an indecent thug. A product of Senator McCarthy and the blood-lust of the Korean war, he liked nothing better than pounding commie sympathisers' heads against a wall until their eyeballs popped.
Robert Aldrich's Hammer - played by the oddly named Ralph Meeker - is worse than Spillane's. Aldrich's protaganist is cynical and dumb; a thug without insight, a detective who fails to detect. In a way, he is a prototype for the automaton-hero played by Lee Marvin in 1967's Point Blank, and done to a turn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.
Made in 1955 - the fine black and white photography is by Ernest Laszlo - Kiss Me Deadly is filled with the trappings of modernity. Hammer has a reel-to-reel telephone answering machine in his apartment. Despite this, and his predeliction for fast sports cars and faster women, he achieves next to nothing. He doesn't solve the mystery. He doesn't get his man.
Kiss Me Deadly inevitably suffered problems with the British censor. But it's hard to see what Trevalyn or Harlech could do about it, other than ban it outright. The torture of Christina (Cloris Leachman) is played off screen. It seems almost tasteful in comparison to the woman-hating antics of V for Vendetta or Kill Bill. More disturbing is Hammer's casual sadism - as when, looking for information, he destroys an opera-lover's record collection, or traps an old man's hand in a desk drawer.
Aldrich was a bold and radical director, masquerading as a maker of popular action films. Kiss Me Deadly, disguised as tough-guy detective picture, is actually an anti-nuclear parable with classical allusions - most obviously, to the story of Pandora and her box.
The script was by AI Bezzerides. That must have infuriated Spillane, since Bezzerides was a leftist, blacklisted screenwriter. Aldrich took a risk working with such a writer. Aldrich, director of The Big Knife - a rigorous dissection of a corrupt, crowd-pleasing Hollywood movie star whose criminal past makes him the studio's patsy - clearly didn't care. Like his protagonist, he steamrollered ahead, doing what he wanted. And what he wanted, at the height of the McCarthy frenzy, was to warn us that nuclear power was going to destroy us all.
Only one character knows what Kiss Me Deadly is about. GE (General Electric?) Soberin, a spooky gangster who has got his hands on stolen nuclear material, which he intends to sell to the highest bidder. All the other men in the film are ignorant dolts, obsessed with machines and toys, most of all Hammer. By contrast, the women, including Hammer's assistant, Velda (Aldrich regular Maxine Cooper) seem to intuit what's going on. Only the Pandora character, Lily (Gaby Rodgers), likes what she sees: access to great power and influence. In this sense, Lily is the manliest character in the film.
Velma, the ever helpful, ever sexy, ever available secretary (who lives in the office, like Tony Curtis in The Sweet Smell of Success) loves Mike and regrets his stupidity. Without knowing what it is, she calls the box "the great whatsit".
Perhaps as a result, the mysterious box has been described as a classic "MacGuffin" - or an arbitrary plot device of no real significance ("The 39 steps are ..." Bang! "Aaargh!") - and as a surrealist device like the boxes in Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou and Belle de Jour, and the briefcase in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.
Yet, it is neither of these things. The lead box in Kiss Me Deadly is real, and specific: its contents are glowing, unstable radioactive isotopes, which - when the box is opened - set off an explosive chain reaction that can't be contained. Instead, the characters are the MacGuffins.
In his excellent book Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film, Jack Shadoian points out that in Kiss Me Deadly we know everyone's full name (even the minor hoodlum played by Jack Elam has a name, Charlie Max). Yet Bezzerides' excessive detail works in reverse (like the backwards title sequence) - rendering Mike's familiar, tough-guy world both complex and meaningless. Only the box is real; only the box has meaning. Both Hammer and Soberin say their names don't matter. Adversaries, they are identical meat puppets, driven by basic animal desires: to dominate, to take, to consume.
In the hands of another director, this might be considered accidental. But there are no accidents in Kiss Me Deadly, no irrelevant scenes. Aldrich returned to the nuclear issue for another film, late in his career: Twilight's Last Gleaming in 1977.
This, too, was a thriller made of the horror-stuff of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which an American general, played by Burt Lancaster, tries to provoke a nuclear confrontation so as to teach the world - the hard way - of the dangers of atomic war. It's not a successful film. Aldrich's powers were fading, and the script is nowhere near as precise or intelligent, but clearly he cared enough about the nuclear threat to return to it a second time.
Made half a century ago, Kiss Me Deadly seems entirely contemporary. The other week, the cops knocked down doors and shot a man in east London, looking for WMD. Like Aldrich's protagonist, they came up empty-handed, too. But still we're warned the threat is real. The US government acts as if Mike Hammer were a nation-state, reserving the right of "extraordinary rendition" - torture, Aldrich might call it - to get to the bottom of a mystery they've designed.
But is the US really Hammer, the implacable, ignorant detective? Or is it Lily/Pandora, far too fascinated by the power of absolute destruction to slam the lid back on the box?
Hollywood flirted with the stolen-nuclear-material theme again recently, but got it all wrong: The Sum of All Fears lacked tension, was confused, poorly written, and inspired no fear at all. American cinema (likewise its dependent branch, in London) needs another Aldrich, a fearless director who knows what fear is, what questions to ask, and where the WMD are stashed.
-- Alex Cox, The Guardian
Tuesday, March 24, 2020
Bill Gunn’s black vampire film Ganja & Hess premiered on April 20th, 1973, eight months after AIP’s Blacula cleaned up at the box office. Its financiers saw an opportunity for a quick cash-in: if black audiences wanted black-centric horror, it was cheap and easy enough to give it to them, as evidenced by bottom-feeding quickies like Blackenstein and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. But Gunn’s film was something quite different, and less than a week after its premiere it was pulled from release. From there it was re-cut, retitled and forgotten - until a grassroots movement to restore the film finally culminated in a DVD release a quarter century later. Though missing out on the VHS and cable boom of the 1980s might have robbed it of any potential cultural cache, Gunn’s vision was in all probability too ephemeral and oblique a tale to have ever scored any real mainstream success. Even today, miraculously restored on Blu-ray, its power will only reveal itself to the patient and open-minded, who’ll discover a challenging but rewarding fable with a voice like no other filmed work.
While the film was pitched (and financed) as an exploitation horror flick, it’s closer in tone to ‘70s art films like Nicolas Roeg’s inscrutable The Man Who Fell To Earth, which Ganja & Hess predates by three years. Writer/director Gunn allegedly filmed a script which contained more traditional, mainstream horror elements, but later claimed he intended all along to remove most of them, leaving a frustrating but weirdly resonant meditation on addiction, isolation, and the existential struggle of the “Blackman” (Gunn’s term) to retain his identity in a culture that seems to demand either assimilation or extinction.
Hess studies dead civilizations; the lonely scenes captured by Gunn’s camera suggest the doctor is also part of one. That’s about as overtly political as the film gets: there are no rallying cries for equality or clumsy speechifying about race, just frame after frame of Gunn’s Blackmen occupying near-deserted bars, sparsely populated streets and big empty rooms. Even dialogue scenes are framed in ways that isolate the individual. As Hess quietly ponders a relic and dozes off, dreaming of ancient Myrthia, there’s a genuine feeling of mournfulness, of memory bleeding out into history, on its way to being forgotten forever.
The film’s plot, such as it is, is set in motion when Hess hires George Meda (played by Gunn) as his assistant. We find out as abruptly as Hess does (which is to say almost immediately) that Meda is quite out of his mind. After their first dinner together, Hess finds Meda sitting in a tree, threatening to hang himself in Hess’ yard. This is easily the film’s funniest exchange, in which Hess asks Meda to consider the amount of trouble his suicide would bring to “the only colored on the block.” Meda then gives a long speech about his suicidal impulses with a stalactite of snot dangling from his mustache. It’s a moment that tells you much of what you need to know about where this stubborn, uncooperative film is coming from. In the very next scene, for reasons which we’re never sure, Meda attacks Hess in bed, stabbing him with the Myrthian dagger.
Thinking he’s killed Hess, Meda takes a bath, brushes his teeth (using his bathwater), and shoots himself. Next, Hess is seen sitting up in bed, no worse for wear, and upon discovering Meda’s body begins to drink his blood. Much of this film can’t rightly qualify as horror, but the sight of Jones slurping congealed blood off the bathroom floor is a moment of genuine revulsion (allegedly for the actor as much as the audience), and says everything the film aims to about addiction.
Meda’s corpse ends up in Hess’ walk-in freezer, and Hess begins the life of an addict - petty theft from a blood bank, cruising bad neighborhoods for his fix. The commentary isn’t terribly subtle here, but it’s delivered with a measured hand. Soon Meda’s estranged wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) shows up looking for him. From here the film becomes a kind of love story, before sending the title characters down a road of increasing debasement and self-loathing to feed their craving. As their addiction brings them together, it slowly drains their humanity and isolates them from the world.
On a first viewing, the film often feels a bit patchwork and unwieldy in trying to get even the basic narrative setup across, as if Gunn has so much to say, but is battling his own framework in the process. And his subtext feels at times as confusing as his talky, wandering narrative. The Christian church scenes are messy, sweaty bits of handheld vérité, while the flashbacks/dreams of the Myrthian Queen are shot in loving, elegant slow motion. Is Gunn criticizing the Western European eclipsing of African culture? It often seems so, but the film’s resolution suggests otherwise.
Similarly, posing Ganja and Hess as a well-off black couple in 1973 seems a deliberate, progressive stance. But why are they then portrayed as such assholes about their status? Hess’ black butler is a constant object of their ridicule and derision (by Gunn as well; the director literally robs him of all identity in almost every shot, his head cut off by the top of the frame in nearly all of his scenes). Is the filmmaker criticizing Ganja and Hess for their bourgeois social status, or the butler for his willing subjugation? Or both? And the film’s final shots are guaranteed to frustrate as much as they resonate.
But what seem like problems with the film begin, on repeated viewings, to feel like stubborn badges of honor. And you begin to realize it’s not that Gunn CAN’T make a more traditional story; he simply refuses to. (There are 17 minutes of deleted scenes on YouTube which connect the details of the evasive plot; Gunn shot them and threw them away.) There are just enough moments in the film to show you that Gunn could have easily gone a more mainstream route. The film is beautiful when it’s meant to be beautiful. The use of ambient sound is downright cutting edge for 1973. Gunn is not an amateur. But not every movie is willing to meet you halfway. There are films that are fun to watch; Ganja & Hess compels you to watch. There are films that ask more questions than they answer; Ganja & Hess answers zero questions, nor does it aim to. But maybe that’s why it lingers in the brain.
Gunn never directed another film (he started work on the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest, but was replaced by Monte Hellman). He returned to the stage and television, and ended up at the kitchen table on the set of The Cosby Show, playing one of Cliff Huxtable’s poker buddies. Gunn died in 1989, and as far as he knew, Gana & Hess was dead and forgotten, a perfect illustration of the cultural oblivion the film itself decried.
But in a bit of on the nose poetic justice, Ganja & Hess has refused to die. Battered and butchered 16mm prints played rep houses and museums throughout the 1990s. At some point Gunn had apparently stashed the print from Cannes at the Museum of Modern Art, and once the original negative was reworked, this became the only surviving version of Gunn’s original cut. A 1998 DVD restoration of this print brought the film to a new generation, and several years later an even more complete version was released on Blu-ray. (For the whole, amazing history of the film’s rescue from oblivion, check out the great Video Watchdog article by Tim Lucas and David Walker, reprinted on the video release. Reading it, one realizes it’s nothing less than a miracle that the film exists at all.) In 2014, Spike Lee stealthily remade the film, giving it a new title (Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus) but hewing so closely to Gunn’s original that the late filmmaker received a screenplay credit. This week the once nearly lost film is popping up in social media feeds as a black horror touchstone, taking its place in a sadly sporadic continuum that continues today with Jordan Peele's Get Out. Like it's lonely, cursed subjects, Ganja & Hess has spent years teetering on the edge of extinction. But with the help of its familiars, it has stubbornly clung to a tenuous - and much deserved - immortality. --Birth Movies Death
Monday, March 23, 2020
Full text of Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord:
Sunday, March 22, 2020
Utamaro was one of the first period films made in Japan under the American Occupation. The Motion Picture section of CI&E (MacArthur’s Civil Information and Education division, who were responsible for pre-production censorship) only approved the script after they had submitted director and producer to intensive and gruelling cross-examination and were assured that it fitted the ideological guidelines of the new order. In this early period, the Occupation censors were fearful of period films, which they erroneously believed to be the chief purveyors of undemocratic values – ultranationalism, feudalistic ideology and militarism. Mizoguchi had to assure them that there would be no swordplay and that his hero was a man of the people, a democrat ahead of his time.
Mizoguchi’s regular scriptwriter Yoda, who worked with him (more precisely, for him) for 20 years, claimed in his memoirs that in the script for this film he was “almost unconsciously” drawing a portrait of Mizoguchi through Utamaro. The equation Utamaro=Mizoguchi has been irresistible to most critics as the two artists did have a lot in common. Both of them worked in a popular mass-produced medium operated by businessmen, and chafed under oppressive censorship regimes; both frequented the pleasure quarters and sought the company of geishas; but, most significantly, they both achieved fame for their portraits of women. In a highly charged scene in this film, Utamaro paints, directly on the back of a beautiful courtesan, a sketch that is later tattooed into her skin. One could say that this creative act (and the passion the artist displays in executing it) literalises the fact that both artists achieved fame on the backs of women – relying on them to arouse and express themselves, emotionally and aesthetically.
Utamaro worked in many genres (including porn) but he became (and remains) famous for his bijin-e (portraits of ‘beauties’). The genre was closely linked with the prostitution industry, as the prints were used as publicity for the courtesans, geisha and tea-girls who worked in the walled enclaves on the edges of Tokyo and Kyoto, euphemistically known as the Floating World, that serviced masculine desire with wine, women and song. Mizoguchi also worked in many genres, but became famous as a director of women’s films, especially films on the lives of prostitutes, geisha and fallen women. Both artists relied on artistic collaborators – wood carvers, colourists and live female models in the case of Utamaro; scriptwriters, photographers and star actresses, in the case of Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi’s artistry had a symbiotic relationship with the oppression and suffering of women, which generated in him a powerful attraction, emotional identification and rage. This has been partially attributed to his personal experience, episodes of which bleed into his films. (His sister paid for his education by becoming a rich man’s mistress; a geisha lover once attacked him with a knife in a fit of jealousy; his wife went mad.) Pascal Bonitzer (in the most penetrating essay on Mizoguchi’s cinema that I have read) argues that Mizoguchi was so enraged by the sins of Japanese men against Japanese women, and in particular at the sexual violence perpetrated against women, that, in a horror of penetration, he even refused to allow his camera to penetrate the scene of the crime – to reveal everything – and thus explains the director’s preference for the long lateral travelling shot, and his distinctive method of hiding acts of violence behind props or walls within the frame or locating them off-screen altogether. With the violence almost always off-screen, the horror is conveyed in the traumatised face of the victim – or onlooker.
The five women of the title – the refined courtesan Tagasode, the fiery geisha Okita, the respectable artist’s daughter Yukie, the shy peasant girl Oran and the plain artisan Oshin – cover a range of feminine types and personalities but they are alike in two respects. They all actively pursue the object of their desire, however puny he may be. They also share a respect for the power of Utamaro to make them famous in life, if not posthumously, to render them eternally young and beautiful. (These women had in fact very brief careers. Under the ruthless system of exploitation that operated in the pleasure quarters, young bodies were required. In the rapid turnover of staffing, they would be soon discarded and replaced by younger women.)
The film exposes both their pathetic vanity and the brutal lust and voyeurism of the male artist – who is often one of their clients, and certainly a servant of the system that exploits them. In the two crucial scenes when Utamaro, who has been suffering from a creative block, is first turned on and then artistically inspired by the bare body of young Oran, Mizoguchi prefigures and extends (beyond the West) the thesis of John Berger and the whole feminist critique of the functioning of the female body in art. --Senses of Cinema
Saturday, March 21, 2020
Jean Rollin’s second French feature (following The Rape of the Vampire ['68], and the incomplete L'itinéraire marin ['63]), and the second of his infamous erotic horror pictures, The Nude Vampire ('70) applies the cult auteur's trademark ethereal, opulent eye to rather standard vampire tropes. The tale of a wealthy industrialist (Maurice Lemaitre) who keeps a gorgeous young bloodsucker (Caroline Cartier) in his urban chateau, allowing her to prey on a suicide cult while scientists analyze her blood, it's a dizzying work of dreamlike malaise. Through this nymph, the rich man hopes to uncover the key to immortality, but his son (Olivier Rollin) falls in love with the beauty and becomes determined to free her. Set against a backdrop of Gothic castles and windswept beaches, the deadly familial showdown is observed with an omnipotent detachment, placing us in the shoes of lustful Gods who never pass judgement on those involved.
In the new collection of female-penned criticism, Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (edited by Samm Deighan; published by Kier-La Jannise and Paul Corupe's Canadian specialty imprint, Spectacular Optical), the essay "Cults of Decadence, Cults of Rebellion: La Vampire Nue and Fascination" (penned by Kat Ellinger) describes the director's opening tableaus as such:
La vampire nue opens with scenes of science and mysticism working in complete synergy; a naked woman, hooded, donates blood in a lab. Far from the sterile environment usually associated with this type of setting, the brightly colored bottles on display and the contours of exposed flesh elevate the mundane to the magical right from the first frames. Next, the unnamed female protagonist (Cartier) explores the drab streets of modern day Paris with timid curiosity, reminiscent of the wide-eyed wonder of the subject of Sir Frederic Leighton's painting Flaming June (1895).
As Cartier's enigmatic center continues her trek, being watched from afar by a collection of pagan-masked hooligans looking to scoop her up off the streets, she enjoys a chance encounter with Olivier Rollin's equally striking male answer to her waifish awe-struck presence. It's this meeting of
innocents (despite one of them perceived as being a nefarious creature of the night) that allows the filmmaker to dive into his dissection of Parisian class structures, and the upper crust's elemental desire to extend life to infinity, just to further indulge bourgeoise whims.
For Rollin, the vampire became a symbol that staunchly stood against the ways the mythical creature was used by his English genre contemporaries and predecessors, as the essay continues:
Rollin subverts the trope of the vampire into one of enlightenment and transcendence, a far cry from the bloodsucking wretches hiding in the shadows of Hammer Horror. For Rollin, the vampire becomes a totem for the evolution of humanity: a master race, immortality brings a new independence from petty economic concern; carnal obsessions of the flesh are replaced by messages of purity and love.
To go along with the 19th Century mythology, Rollin employs silent film technique, applying light and shadow to long stretches of pure visual storytelling that are accented by Yvon Serault's ominous plucked string score. This antiquated approach amalgamates with modern fashions and primitive medical technology to help create a timeless sensibility, drawing parallels between its oblique cultish narrative and countercultural notions regarding black magic that took root in 60s pop culture:
...individuals looked for spiritual meaning in a world fueled by sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, the fetishizing of commodities, and political unrest. As Christopher Partridge outlines in The Reenchantment of the West, 'As the inclusion of individuals such as Crowley on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper cover, and the title of The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request ('67) suggest, even during the 1960s the truly eclectic nature of the occulture was becoming apparent.'
Perhaps this is part of Rollin's movies' appeal: the simple fact that they work as pop alchemy; combining symbols, fashions, sounds and artistic ideas into works of cultural dissection, singular in vision and execution. As Ellinger notes, Rollin was always reluctant to discuss influences to any meaningful degree, even if he "openly acknowledged his adoration for classic French filmmakers like Georges Franju, and also spoke about the art of Clovis Trouille or the poetry of Tristan Corbièrer." He was an artist making movies that reflected both his fetishes and observations regarding his home country's moral erosion, filtered through several lenses that combined into a signature style, never speaking about his work pretentiously in interviews and insisting that (like other great French Symbolists), "we use the light of our own imaginations to lead the way." -- Birth Movies Death
Friday, March 20, 2020
The story is universal: a brave son must defeat his wicked father to save the world. The setting, if not Pan-African, is at the least Pan-Malian: a sprawling journey through Sudan and savanna, stagnant wetlands and sandstone cliff-sides. The time is eternal: an era before colonization, when each people had their land and the land their spirits. In this story, in this place, in this time Souleymane Cissé weaves his film Yeelen, a tale that is all tales in its scope, tragedy, and triumph. When first released in 1987, it heralded a breakthrough for African cinema, winning a Jury Prize at Cannes and becoming one of the first African films ever distributed on video. Though Cissé was trained in the Soviet Union and cut his teeth with documentaries, the film is a defiant rejection of many American and European cinematic modes, electing instead for a broader stylistic esotericism rooted in formalized rituals and ceremonies. Scenes and sequences move less like traditional narrative beats—though the story is linear, uncluttered, and straightforward—instead favoring the meticulous unhurriedness of a priest preparing for vespers or a surgeon for surgery. Scenes of eating and bathing, crafting and praying make up as much of the run-time as the film’s many battles, visions, and scenes of sorcery. In Yeelen we see another reinvention of cinema as an African art form, a continuation of the legacy of Ousmane Sembène and Idrissa Ouédraogo.
And yet the film can be challenging for many Western viewers. Yeelen, also known as Brightness, assumes deep familiarity with the peoples, histories, and cultures of Mali and wastes no time on explanatory exposition; so unconcerned with Western audiences, the film necessitated the addition of several introductory inter-titles giving viewers a crash course in West African cosmology and mythology. Perhaps daunted by this esotericism, many Western critics and scholars have treated the film through the lens of Campbellian monomyth. And though the film meets several of its criteria, to reduce Yeelen to a simple Hero’s Journey strips it of much of its nuance. It is more than a simple story of good versus evil, it tells of the salvation of peoples and cosmos rotted by greed and corruption while promising rebirth and salvation not just for its protagonist, but for the world itself.
At the heart of Yeelen is the concept of nyama, an animistic spiritual force believed by the Bamana people—the dominant ethnic group of Mali—to be inherent in all living things. As described by Suzanne H. MacRae:
“Nyama animates all living beings, including plants and animals, and controls the powers of nature itself, governing crop production and rain-fall. This psychic force impels all human thinking, will, and action, and in turn is released by all actions. It generates the underlying pattern or coherence of the entire world. Because it executes the operations of cause and effect, it could be termed African karma.”
Among the Bamana are the Komo, an ancient society of blacksmith/sorcerers both feared and respected for their power and control over nyama. In Bamana cosmology, the Komo gain their authority from their mastery of fire as a tool for transforming things and materials from one state to another, skills that are passed directly from father to son through rigorous training and esoteric lessons in arcane knowledge. To turn a chunk of metal into a plowshare or a lump of clay into pottery isn’t just craftsmanship, it’s an act of actual transformative magic empowered by nyama. Likewise, crafted objects like pylons and fetishes aren’t just things—they’re conduits for the force of nature itself.
As toolmakers and diviners essential to the survival of the Bamana, the Komo are supposed to be beneficent and magnanimous, but Yeelen examines a time when they were corrupted by the lust for power. The film opens with Soma (Niamanto Sanogo), a powerful sorcerer and member of the Komo, sacrificing a chicken to Mari, the god of the brush, to help him find his adult son Nianankoro (Issiaka Kane) who is prophesied to kill him. Led by a magical beam that works like a giant divining rod, he hunts the son he abandoned as a child so that he may slay him. Meanwhile, Nianankoro—spurred by a magical vision he sees in a jar of water he activates with spit, a substance believed to have great power by the Komo for its infusion of water with life force—sets off on a journey to find his father’s twin brother Djigui (Sanogo in a dual role) for help.
Aided with a fetish from his mother, he travels into the liminal space separating the peoples in the Malian savannah, a mysterious place inhabited by beasts, monsters, and magical creatures like a man-hyena in a tree who prophesies about Nianankoro’s future. His adventure takes him into the land of the Fulani, a horseback riding nation of herders who mistake him for a cattle thief and capture him. Their king Rouma Boli (Balla Moussa Keïta) orders him killed, but Nianankoro enchants his executioners so their bodies freeze and their weapons combust. Seeing a potential powerful ally, Rouma Boli offers him his freedom in exchange for aid against a warring party that has killed many of his men. By hammering a specially prepared horse bone into a termite mound—an object considered magically charged by many West Africans as an inversion of earth; a space literally turned upside-down by insects—he summons a swarm of bees and a swell of bushfire that destroys the raiders. Hailed as a hero, Nianankoro is adopted by Rouma Boli who gives him the new task of curing his wife Attou’s (Aoua Sangare) infertility. Nianankoro’s healing magics prove too powerful and the two have sex. Nianankoro and Attou dutifully present themselves to Rouma Boli for execution for their adultery, but in an act of mercy he gives Attou to Nianankoro as a wife and sends them off to the land of the Dogon people, the third and final Malian ethnic group prominently featured in the film.
Among the Dogon, Nianankoro discovers his uncle Djigui. Blinded by Soma for trying to use their powers to help people outside of the Komo, Djigui stole the Kore Wing—a carved board symbolizing the holy vulture which itself symbolizes the Komo—and took it to the Dogon plateaus to wait for Nianankoro to reach manhood. After Nianankoro and the now pregnant Attou cleanse themselves of their adultery by bathing in a local spring gushing forth from a cliffside without an apparent source, Djigui combines his mother’s fetish with the Kore Wing, revitalizing it as a tool powerful enough to counter Soma’s magic. Nianankoro finally confronts Soma and the two battle their magic against each other, resulting in an apocalyptic blast of light (or brightness, the literal translation of the word “yeelen”) that levels the verdant prairie into a sandy desert and turns father and son into ostrich eggs.
Here is where the monomyth model fails to properly represent the highly metaphorical underpinnings of Yeelen. The film ends with Nianankoro’s son entering the desert and recovering his father’s egg and the Kore Wing before leaving for a new land. As the son of a Bamana father and a Fulani mother raised among the Dogon, Nianankoro’s son represents a synthesis of three of Mali’s largest ethnic groups. His retrieval of his father’s egg and the Kore Wing bestows him with the power of the disgraced Komo to restore and recreate the fractured Mali as a peaceful, just land. But Cissé’s story requires the destruction of its hero sans apotheosis or revival. He shares no gained knowledge with his people, exercises no mastery over the worlds he transitions between. And crucially, he doesn’t restore the Komo. What magic is left in the world is transferred to the next generation. What they do with it is up to them.
Though the film is deliberately situated in an unspecified and ancient era (despite a few inconsistencies like one of the Dogon smoking a corncob pipe and Soma’s magical beam featuring faceted stones, a crafting technique not adopted until after contact with Europeans), parallels with modern-day Mali are inescapable. Though once the largest empire in West Africa, Mali was exploited and colonialized by the French in the late nineteenth century until it regained independence in June 1960. What followed was decades of political chaos and economic decline exacerbated by military coups, famine, and corruption culminating in the presidency of Moussa Traoré, a despot who killed protestors and political opposition. With Yeelen Cissé created a new creation myth for Mali, envisioning a nation united not divided by its ethnic and cultural diversity; it hopes for a country capable of ridding itself of its own evils through its own efforts. Only then will the yeelen truly return.
This article was written with the considerable aid of Dr. Elisabeth Cameron, Professor of African Art History at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Among her suggestions was the use of the term “Bamana” when referring to the Bambara people, as “Bamana” is the term they use to describe themselves and “Bambara” is a derogatory term literally meaning “unbeliever/infidel” which was invented and applied by outsiders as punishment for their refusal to convert to Islam in the mid 1800s. --MUBI
Thursday, March 19, 2020
A direct poem about life, consumerism and a society in the need of God and love directly written on celluloid, Pyaasa masterfully and heartbreakingly showcases Guru Dutt's idealization of a society whose main priorities are based on human relationships rather than materialism.
- It explains the consequences of a neoliberal economy where money and idols are worshipped instead of human beings.
- It showcases unapologetically the ugliest attributes of a society that dismisses the importance of family relationships and seeks personal recognition.
- It displays the lack of importance society gives to art as the most honorable and benign means we have for the exteriorization of the soul through brutal honesty.
- It ridicules the futility of intellectual discussions regarding how poetry, and any art for that matter, can be better if they treat certain themes, like nationalism and patriotism, or even love, instead of sadness and mourning.
Reportedly, Guru Dutt fell in love with actress Waheeda Rehman while being married to famous playback singer Geeta Dutt. Rehman plays the archetipically good-hearted and good-natured prostitute Gulabo, the main source of strength and inspiration in Vijay's life. The details about their relationship are unclear up to date; some claim Rehman didn't correspond him back. According to his brother Atmaram, Guru Dutt was "a strict disciplinarian as far as work was concerned, but totally undisciplined in his personal life". What remains as a fact is that both were driven to alcoholism, and both Guru and Geeta died because of that sickness. Guru combined it with an overdose of sleeping pills, whereas Geeta suffered heavy liver damage. When Guru died, he wasn't even 40 years old.
The tragedies of his unbalanced life somehow found their way into his films, where his poems reflect the world he still longs for, no matter how idealized his characters might seem. Pyaasa masterfully combines what Guru knew is commercially successful and appealing with India's signature stamp in cinema. Therefore, it is artistically and emotionally pleasing, while also achieving to be thought-provoking and socially true.
The true tragic poet is Guru disguised as a man named Vijay, and even if we are nobody to judge his personal life, nor to criticize his films based on his life, we can fully acknowledge the ugly truths that Pyaasa states about the society he sees, a world put upside down, hypocritical to the core, materialistically ambitious, that loves worshipping dead idols instead of valuing the living neighbor. It is a testament full of hope, with the finest atrezzos of the best Golden-Age Hollywood productions, with the aesthetics of a Japanese arthouse classic, sometimes with the female cast having Chinese mannerisms that we would see in modern Chinese films, but with its Indian heart put right in the middle, featuring an almost epic length, great musical sequences, heartfelt humor and, again, an ending that places a solution in spiritual nirvana and personal detachment rather than striving for finding your place within a crumbled society in all aspects.--Edgar Cochran, Letterboxd
Wednesday, March 18, 2020
In an abandoned monastery, a young girl gives birth to a daughter; after she allows a witch to whisk her away to a nearby convent, evil forces close in on the woman. 16 years later, innocent Justine arrives at the convent after her parents pass away. She befriends Alucarda, the baby girl from the prologue, all grown up, dressed in black, and a bizarre creature indeed. The two girls encounter a hunchback who introduces them to Satan worship, and after Alucarda unleashes the spirits which killed her mother, the forces possess the two girls, resulting in some of the most outrageous horror setpieces you'll ever see!
Juan López Moctezuma, a collaborator of Jodorowsky (who claims Moctezuma stole money from him to make his films!) and one of the creators of the infamous Panic Theatre, has created a minor masterpiece with ALUCARDA. Those who associate Mexican Horror with Santo monster pics are in for a rude awakening. But the film is still just as wild as those films and then some! As Michael Weldon points out in his review for the film in Psychotronic, you'd be hard-pressed to find a horror film with more screaming. There are bloodier horror flicks and of course those with more nudity, but ALUCARDA is so jam-packed with both that even the most jaded fan will be rubbing his eyes in disbelief! Satanic rituals, coffins filled with blood, sadomasochistic flagellation amongst priests and nuns, nasty decapitations, and a fiery finale complete with Satanic scripture and multiple instances of spontaneous combustion that must have influenced DePalma's CARRIE, this flick is simply never boring! Some viewers have found fault with the script not deciding who the villains are, the church or the girls, but this adds a schizophrenic element to an already delirious viewing experience! The cast varies from superb to over-the-top, but most turn in admirable performances. Tina Romero in particular creates a very memorable character in Alucarda, and Susanna Kimini is an acceptable Justine. Claudio Brook (also in Moctezuma's MANSION OF MADNESS and the awful THE BEES!) in a dual role as the hunchback and as Dr. Oszek, the man of reason, and Tina French as the overly protective Sister Angelica are both quite good. --dvd drive-in