The Sunday Intertitle: Cave Art

vlcsnap-127789“In order to launch a product, a good enough publicity idea.”

From QUANDO LE DONNE PERSERO LA CODA — WHEN WOMEN LOST THEIR TAILS, a sequel to the popular, dumb, wildly unfunny Italian stone-age sex comedy QUANDO LE DONNE AVEVANO LA CODA, or WHEN WOMEN HAD TAILS.

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Both movies are spectacularly stupid, devoid of wit, and waste a vaguely promising comedy idea, done rather better by Buster Keaton in THREE AGES (which is one of his least interesting films). The fact that the films, directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile, use rock-carved intertitles, sets up a promising expectation that they might do without dialogue. Italian audiences love slapstick, and cavemen often communicate in grunts in the movies, so this seems like an interesting exercise for the filmmakers to undertake. But they don’t undertake it. All they undertake is curvaceous German import Senta Berger in a fur bikini, surrounded by a lot of hideous Italians in fright wigs, in a big ugly artificial Flintstones set, where the boulders actually cast shadows on the sky.

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CAVEMAN, which I was always perversely curious to see, is a lot more ambitious. The cavemen grunt in this one, using a primitive language created by Anthony Burgess farted out by writers Carl Gottlieb and Rudy De Luca, which should clear the way for visual gags to drive the plot. Unfortunately, there are (almost) no gags worthy of the name and (actually) no plot. Ringo Starr plays the hero, which would be funnier if he DID speak English. Ringo is only really funny when he attempts verbal acting. Future Mrs Starr and former Bond girl Barbara Bach plays the sex interest. A very cute young Shelley Long plays the love interest, Dennis Quaid is the best friend (so young!), and it’s all very wretched indeed, apart from the dinosaurs.

How wretched? A major “comedy” moment involves Ringo drugging Barbara with knock-out fruit so he can rape her in her sleep. And she’s meant to be the bad one (she gets dropped in dinosaur poo at the end). Of course, Ringo fails to get his drumstick in her, so we can all laugh, can’t we? Er, no.

(The Italian one has Senta Berger subjected to unsophisticated caveman mating techniques too, until a more sensitive, modern caveman turns up who teaches her the kama sutra, or something. Naturally, he becomes the enemy of the other troglodytes. Either way, both movies exude an authentically stone-age sensibility.)

But the dinosaurs! Jim Danforth ¬†and Dave Allen, of EQUINOX fame, created some beautiful goofy monsters for this, which give by far the best performances and get all the laughs. And they actually manage to have charm, when surrounded by this putrid film. Actually, maybe the job of the movie is to make them look good. At the climax, Ringo rides atop a saurian, and the animated Ringo doll gives a much better perf than the real Richard Starkey. The best shots are the ones where the top half of the real Ringo has been matted onto the bottom half of the doll straddling the dino’s back. The stop-motion ass and legs are infinitely more nuanced and expressive than the live-action torso, arms and head.

EQUINOX is a movie so bad, with monster effects so good, that somebody has helpfully posted all the monstery bits on YouTube. Somebody should do the same with CAVEMAN.

The device of mixing live-action and stop-motion, with little animated people interacting with the big beasts, and match-cuts between miniature and real actors, all seems to date back to Keaton, who has brief but beautiful dino action in THREE AGES. His inspiration was Winsor McCay, who had interacted with a hand-drawn brontosaurus in GERTIE THE DINOSAUR way back in 1914. That seemed an impossibly long time ago even in 1923: Keaton’s collaborators told him he not only knew his film history, but his prehistory.

McCay, a brilliant cartoonist for the Hearst press, used to exhibit this film in the music halls, speaking to Gertie, anticipating the action in the cartoon so she would seem to obey his instructions. At the climax he would step behind the screen as Gertie lifts an animated McCay onto her back… all of which utterly trumps the seventies and eighties fantasy-farce of Campanile and Gottlieb, as far as I’m concerned.

Wait! Maybe I’m being unfair? Maybe these filmmakers, Campanile and Gottlieb both, are trying to make films the way actual neanderthals would? Such films would be concerned only with eating, fucking and shitting, and would avoid any kind of intelligence or originality in favour of wallowing in universally understood cultural effluent. Abandoning all efforts at aestheticism, they would crudely fashion their cro-magnon movies out of animal hides, bark, and bits of flint, projecting them by firelight on the cavern wall using a projector made of tusks and dung.

No, I can’t see it. Cave art is way more beautiful than these movies.

(Note: Gottlieb is co-writer of THE JERK, which is a funny film, in which he also plays the small part of Iron-Balls McGinty. De Luca worked on some lesser Mel Brooks flicks, including HIGH ANXIETY, which is a funny film. But any writing team needs to avoid self-satisfaction, with each writer spurring the other on to greater heights. My impression: that didn’t happen with ¬†CAVEMAN.)

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18 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Cave Art”

  1. For someone of my generation, the exposure to dinosaurs began with JURASSIC PARK. The effects of that first film hold up pretty well where they combined early CGI with robot models.

    I don’t think THE THREE AGES is a weak film at all. It’s better than COLLEGE or BATTLING BUTLER and Keaton has a lot of fun in making fun of gender roles. I especially love how after Caveman Keaton has defeated his alpha male opponent, he then drags his girl by her hair and there’s this close-up to the girl who gives a dreamy blissful expression. The joke being that Keaton’s caveman isn’t that kind of alpha ma,e but still takes on that role. Keaton based the cross-cutting of the three timelines as a joke on Griffith’s INTOLERANCE. 20s Keaton was quite cinephillic as SHERLOCK, JR. makes clear. THE CAMERAMAN seems influenced by a number of 20s avant-garde films and it anticipates Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA made concurrently.

  2. I like The Three Ages fine — even Keaton’s weaker films are more interesting than most of the competition, and this one is certainly not short of ideas. I find the tripling of the story slows the pace of narrative development down quite a bit, though. But there are excellent gags and it’s a fascinating document of Keaton’s growth towards — his very next film, a full-on masterpiece, Our Hospitality.

    Referencing Intolerance was very nearly as archaic as referencing Gertie in those fast-moving days. Keaton’s may be the first filmmaker to harken back to an earlier time while also moving forward.

  3. Caveman is an absolute gem. Ringo is amazing in it. A peerless cmic performance. And the dinosaurs are fabulous.

  4. Agree about the dinosaurs. Can’t really agree about the rest. Although I like Ringo in other things — he’s hilarious in Lisztomania, where his inability to “act” in any conventional sense becomes part of the delirious pantomime. And he’s winning in the Beatles movies. But his movies are oddly chosen — Candy, Blindman, and Caveman all seem at odds with his rather innocent-seeming persona. Lisztomania too, I guess, but casting him as pope is such a funny idea anyway…

  5. Randy Cook Says:

    Good to hear such a flattering assessment.

    I actually sculpted the Ringo puppet, and animated him atop the lizard for most shots (Pete Kleinow animated the shots where he turned round and flicked the Dennis Quaid puppet—which I also sculpted—off his tail. I am not sure if Pete or Dave Allen animated the “split Ringo” shots). Ringo is now rotting happily away on my shelf—the puppet, that is. Not sure about the original’s current location or condition.

    I also animated the T-Rex crotch-rubbing sequence (the verisimilitude of which owes to many years of careful research) up till the shot where he runs off (Dave animated that one). Also the “stoned” T-Rex (which I played with [I hope] funnier drunk pantomime, from the shot of him leaning off the cliff through his fall and settle at the end—again, careful research was vital here).

    Both the lizard and T-Rex were sculpted by the peerless Jim Danforth.

    Nice that these long hours of toil handed you guys some laughs.

  6. Christopher Says:

    “TUMAC SPEAR!!”……I just can’t seem to get it up for Caveman pictures,altho I do recall like that 80s film Iceman quite a bit,tho it was in modern times….maybe Teenage Cavemen :o))

  7. The stoned T-rex is beautiful! But all the animation work is outstanding, it’s the thing I particularly enjoyed. I remember hearing some rumour that the studio or director quarreled with Danforth about how comical the dinosaurs should look, but I think the end result works well — they’re convincing and beautiful and funny and full of character. It’s pretty remarkable that a “low comedy” had this much care and craftsmanship put into it.

  8. Randy Cook Says:

    Jim prepped the effects and left with what I felt was a wholly justified dispute with the producers. Animation was by Kleinow, Allen, me, and Laine Liska…sorry to say that those Laine, Dave, and Pete are no longer with us. But Jim is, devoting his time to painting, a producer-free pastime.

  9. Randy Cook Says:

    For the record, Jim always wanted the dinos to be comical, both in appearance and performance, from what I remember. As a sculptor/animator, I was left out of the political maneuverings and confess to a general ignorance thereof.

  10. Just going by the rest of the film, I think they should have allowed Danforth to do whatever the hell he wanted! Because he’s talented.

    As Frank Tashlin said of retiring in order to paint, “If somebody looks over my shoulder and says, ‘I don’t like that shade of yellow,’ I can say, ‘Screw you.’”

    Hope Jim is enjoying his artistic freedom!

    Just looked up your CV and WOW. Can I interview you sometime?

  11. Interview? Sure, you bet.

    Shame we couldn’t hook up when I was in the UK… even went through Edinburgh on the way to Pitlochry, which is a long and pointless story.

    But an interview could be set up via Skype at some point, when the whims of our respective schedules synchronize.

  12. Beautiful! I’ve been meaning to become Skype-literate. I’m generally very slow with these developments. Alternatively, we could do it by email if that’s not too onerous.

  13. Well, a Skype call can be more entertainingly digressive, as the temptation to waffle is dampened somewhat by all that keyboard-pounding.

    Interview by email allows one to be more articulate, despite any evidence to the contrary my posts to your column might provide.

    Both would be a good idea. How about Skype first, ask questions later?

  14. “Well, a Skype call can be more entertainingly digressive, as the temptation to waffle is dampened somewhat by all that keyboard-pounding.”

    Not if you’re me!

    Sounds like a good plan, I shall attempt to get my Skype up and running and test my mic.

  15. david wingrove Says:

    Could any of these caveman ‘comedies’ possibly be as hilarious as ONE MILLION YEARS BC (Raquel Welch in false eyelashes and fur bikini vs. some Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs) or, better still, PREHISTORIC WOMEN (Martine Beswicke as the spectacularly evil Queen Kari)? Some genres are actually funnier when they’re played straight.

  16. Hammer’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth was the first film I saw that had a bare lady in it. Good dinosaurs by Mr Danforth and co, nothing much else of note (even the bare lady disappointed me when I revisited it). Creatures the World forgot is hysterical, though. It would be a brilliant bad movie if the structure itself weren’t so awful (even a bad movie needs a decent shape). Imagine, it begins with the characters being born. Then they grow up. Nothing actually happens until their adult, but still Michael Carreras couldn’t imagine starting any other way, it seems.

    No dinosaurs, just hilariously fake bears and the like. But a first-rate bare lady, Julie Ege.

  17. david wingrove Says:

    CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT. Is that the one with two near-naked men fighting a duel with whips? Strange I should remember that…

  18. I think that’s the one. Everybody’s nearly naked in it. There are killer antelopes if that’s any help.

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