Archive for Josef Von Sternberg

Sex-Positif

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2013 by dcairns

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Amazing! Picked up the special edition of Positif from 1964 in Lyon for two measly euros. This was a FIND, partly because it intersects with NATAN, the film Paul Duane and I made. Bernard Natan has been falsely connected with several pornographic films, and one of the “sources” for this is a short list of early smut films in the back of this magazine. Many of the films are unattributed, but a few have the name “Nathan” attached. The anonymous author probably did mean Natan, since earlier publications like a 1938 edition of Match also attributed some of the same titles to Natan. But repeating the allegations strikes me as dodgy, since the Positif “article” gives no sources, offers no evidence, and getting the guy’s name wrong doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence. (Natan’s name is spelled “Nathan” all over the place — Georges Sadoul does it in his Histoire General du Cinema, despite getting it right elsewhere in the same book. This is odd, since the title Pathe-Natan appeared ahead of all Natan’s thirties films, often with his signature.)

Anyway, the magazine has a few other things of interest, as you’d expect, including the following piquant questionnaire, which I think we can have some fun with.

MR INDIA. Invisible man musical sexiness,

1) What is the most erotic movie you ever saw? Give your reasons.

2) What seems to you to be the perfect example of a non-erotic movie? Limiting yourself, of course, to films that deal with love.

3) Has the cinema had an influence on your erotic life?

4) What situations, scenes, objects or attitudes in the cinema, seem to you to have the greatest erotic significance?

5) Who is the actress (or actor) who, for you, embodies eroticism? Why?

6) Of  those who are supposed to embody eroticism on screen, which actor (or actress) is for you the negation or eroticism? Why?

7) What erotic work would you like you see adapted (or would you like to adapt yourself) to the screen? With who?

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Fellini’s last drawing: on the bottom of a model in a magazine.

A few notes on the questions and answers.

I love the “(or actor)” and “(or actress)” which are positioned with a hilarious assumption that most of the respondents will be straight men. In film criticism, has this ever been true? At any rate, they at least allow for exceptions, but they want to make it very clear, via parenthesis, that they ARE exceptions. At any rate, the only women quoted are France Roche (respected screenwriter, still with us at 91) and critic Grace Winter.

The aforementioned Sadoul puts Dovzhenko’s EARTH at the top, which surprised me as I didn’t hear swooning over its sexiness at Pordenone, but maybe I didn’t have my ear to the right patch of ground. And maybe I should see for myself. Sadoul is also very keen on Louise Brooks, who was undergoing rediscovery.

Raymond Durgnat is fascinating, as you’d expect. Lots of top choices for erotic film, including but not limited to BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 42ND STREET, PICKPOCKET, KING KONG, HAXAN and ARTISTS AND MODELS. Polymorphous perversity! But I have to admit, Shirley MacLaine looks cute as Bat Lady.

Private Property (1960) Directed by Leslie Stevens Shown: Kate Manx

The little-known PRIVATE PROPERTY (1960, above) appears on Durgnat’s non-erotic list, and on Grace Winter’s erotic list. Makes me want to see it!

Michel Ciment champions QUEEN KELLY (a popular choice), Sternberg and Bunuel. The ideal erotic film, he says, would stand at an equal distance between Stroheim, Sternberg and Bunuel.

Ciment and several people mention BRIEF ENCOUNTER as a film about love without sex appeal. One critic hasn’t even seen it, and says it’s a good thing too.

Roche on unerotic actors: “Cary Grant: old young man with still-young arteries, but dry elsewhere. Rex Harrison: furry slippers and lumbago.” Mean! This question is apt to get VERY mean, so let’s try not to turn into John Simon when we approach it. John Simon is not a good look.

Poor Brigitte Bardot gets cited as an answer to question (5) by several correspondents. Vadim is chosen as an unerotic director, but Gerard Legrand disagrees and puts ET DIEU CREA LA FEMME at the top of his sexiness chart. Clearly, the negative feeling about BB was simply a reaction against the prevailing fashion, as if there’s one thing she is for most people, it’s sexy. It’s perfectly legitimate to disagree, but so many erotic nay-sayers?

Also: those who put Delphine Seyrig or Grace Kelly in their hot spot, are correspondingly apt to dismiss BB and all the busty Italians of the era.

Lotte Eisner has the best choice for work of fiction to be adapted: William Beckford’s Gothic novel Vathek, under the aegis of Luis Bunuel. Don Luis crops up as preferred adaptor on several lists. The Gothic fiction he really wanted to do was The Monk, of course.

Someone called Debourcieu chooses a science-fiction novel by someone called Pierre Versins, and wants Minnelli, Sinatra, Novak and choreography by Jack Cole.

OK. Harumph. Now, it behooves me to answer the questions myself, and honestly. Rather than just knocking everyone else’s choices. In theory I have an advantage, since I have almost fifty years more cinema to draw upon, and it’s a half-century that’s enjoyed more latitude than the earlier era. On the other hand, I have a disadvantage: shyness.

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Evidence: I was just in a room with Dominique Sanda, who meant a lot to me as a youngster and still does. Now, at her age, would she be horrified if I said, as Jonathan Ross did to Britt Ekland, “Thank you for helping me through those difficult teenage years?” I think not. But instead I just gave her a small salute. She saluted back, perhaps slightly bemused.

1) Impossible to pick a single most erotic film: too self-revealing. But

(a) I had my young mind blown by Robbe-Grillet’s TRANS-EUROP EXPRESS. It’s very dodgy, though;

(b) BETTY BLUE, for all its serious problems, did combine explicitness and photogenics, and if the story had some nasty, unexamined retrograde aspects, the sex was good (everyone seemed to enjoy it);

(c) SOME LIKE IT HOT: kissing as hard porn (fleshly, leering, over-extended), and a film which refused to go as far as I wanted it to, but teetered on the brink like an expert tightrope walker;

(d) GIRL WITH A SUITCASE: the power of enforced chastity: the young hero is home alone with Claudia Cardinale, who seems eminently available. It’s like RISKY BUSINESS for the DOLCE VITA generation. But as he’s a realistic teen not a Hollywood concoction, he doesn’t know what the hell to do so nothing happens. For two hours! It’s hell, I tell you.

(I didn’t see La Cardinale in Lyon, though she was apparently there — the encounter could only be disappointing, in the sense that I would be disappointed in myself.)

(e) THE WICKER MAN had a lot of impact on my b&w portable TV in the bedroom, fuzzy signal picked up from Grampian Regional Television, and probably would’ve “worked” even without the nudity — the singing, the drumming, and the torment, plus the extreme duration

A theme is emerging here in spite of my best efforts: the theme of intense frustration. And yet THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE and the other versions of La Femme et le Pantin don’t do that much for me.

2) Non-erotic movie? I just visited Venice so DON’T LOOK NOW is in my mind. The justly celebrated sex scene is sensitive, intimate, frank, tender, emotional, and beautifully played and rendered. Of course, as a male person I can obviously be stimulated by anything with a naked woman in it as long as she’s not actually Michelle Bachman, but for me what is impressive about the scene is how it doesn’t particularly need the audience to become excited about sex or skin (and as for the age-old “Are they really doing it?” — PUH-LEEZE). It’s beautiful, and not in a vapid way, just not in a way that’s strictly sexual. And it’s one of very, very few films to show married people having sex. With the possible intent of having a child. And the censors still went after it. THAT’S the obscenity.

(See also: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.)

3) Yes, cinema has influenced my erotic life. It has BEEN my erotic life for more of the time than I care to discuss. It seems unfair to blame any kinks or hang-ups on the movies, though — although James B. Harris, at Lyon, stated unequivocally that the theme of his deeply weird SOME CALL IT LOVING is that people get sexually imprinted by their first encounter with sex, in which case BARBARELLA has a lot to answer for and the continuing unavailability of an affordable Excessive Machine is a major problem.

I am trying to master that thing Donald Sutherland does with his arm in DON’T LOOK NOW. Am certain it’ll revolutionize my bedroom existence when I’ve got it down.

I am extremely lucky to be wed to a very impressive Louise Brooks type, and an even more impressive Fiona Watson type, Fiona Watson. Our shared love of movies is part of the bond.

4) I’m not at all sure how I’m supposed to define “erotic significance”. But I could list objects: The Excessive Machine (one wants to call it an Orgasmatron but it’s not); the windscreen in COOL HAND LUKE; the chair in CABARET; Joel Cairo’s cane in THE MALTESE FALCON; the boa and the numbered cards in IL MAGNIFICO CORNUTO; actually, this is harder than I thought — I guess I’m not much of a fetishist.

5) The embodiment of eroticism? My screen harem is too extensive to enumerate (picture Guido’s mental farmhouse in EIGHT AND A HALF but extending for at least a city block). Cardinale and Bardot both drive me berserk for reasons hard to justify on any higher plain. Ann-Margret in her (extensive) prime also. On a subtler note, Grace Kelly was my first love on the big screen. Louise Brooks is an obsession. For some reason, Elsa Martinelli is leaping unbidden to the forefront of my mind, but on another day it might be the Geeson sisters. Clara Bow. Romy Schneider.

Embodiment of male beauty: Horst Buchholtz. My idea of un vrai homme: James Coburn.

flint

6) The opportunity to be mean: the negation of erotica… Bo Derek never did anything for me. Her breasts seemed boring. Sharon Stone too artificial: la Welch a blushing ingenue by comparison. Madonna, always and forever unappealing, though Fincher tried in the videos. I see the glamour of Garbo and Dietrich but not only don’t want to but can’t even imagine engaging in any kind of passionate interaction with them. They are abstract creatures of light and I admire them enormously. Mickey Rourke always seemed disgusting. Tom Cruise never projects any sense of desire or desirability. Most of these people have other good traits though.

Manara-Fellini

7) At one point, Roman Polanski wanted to adapt the porno comics of Milo Manara as an animated feature. This strikes me as the worst combination possible, but Manara’s comics might be a suitable source. The lousy Jean-Louis Richard film of CLICK is quite good, even though it’s totally lousy, if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, Manara is a deeply sexist idiot, and there’s a nastiness to his work I’d prefer to avoid — plus his real talent is his drawing, so why adapt him to another medium? His adaptation of unfilmed Fellini scenarios was a better way for him to engage with cinema.

Bertrand Blier and Alain Robbe-Grillet were both masters of the perverse who really get into their fantasies and make even the most obnoxious imaginings photogenic, but can they be trusted? Nic Roeg was more sound, you could even hand him something like The Story if the Eye. Jane Campion has a wonderful erotic imagination which can create powerful effects out of small, seemingly almost innocent things. Given her flair for the Gothic, Geoffrey Lewis’s The Monk?

The glimpses seen of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND suggest that Welles could have been a great director of sexy stuff.

Plans for another version of Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella have stultified for years, and by the way Robert Rodriguez is the wrong man. Incidentally, if you read the original comic, the lines that sound most like Terry Southern scripted them (the best lines) are already there. I’d love to see a BARBARELLA that had to aim for PG-13, so there was something to struggle with and smuggle through, some necessity for restraint. The original’s combo of American star, Italian design and French director was a neat selection, but they had the wrong Frenchman. Clouzot would have been better!

Keanu would have been a great Pygar.

Imagine Von Sternberg’s DRACULA, with Charles Boyer.

John Barrymore as CASANOVA for Cecil B. DeMille.

Now I want to hear from YOU. Regular commenters and people I never heard from before. Shadowplay just became the Kinsey report of the movie blogosphere. Spill it!

The Sunday Intertitle: All the Fun of the Fair

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , on April 7, 2013 by dcairns

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Finally saw something I’d been longing for — the surviving fragment of Josef Von Sternberg’s THE CASE OF LENA SMITH.

I love fragments, me. I love fragments maybe even more than I love complete films. And I can think of all kinds of modern movies that would be better as fragments. You could probably find a three-minute clip from AUSTRALIA that would make people think “My, what was that? I wonder if that was ever any good?” The intact movie doesn’t make anybody think that.

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Critic Dwight MacDonald called THE CASE OF LENA SMITH as “the most completely satisfying American film I have seen,” which you couldn’t, alas, say about the clip. But I can and do say “Isn’t that an uncredited Sig Rumann as the magician?” If so, even Alexander Horwath and Michael Omasta’s exhaustive volume on the lost film, Josef Von Sternberg: The Case of Lena Smith (Filmmuseum Synema Publikationen) doesn’t mention it. A Shadowplay first!

The sequence, set at Vienna’s famous Prater, scene of memorable events in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and THE THIRD MAN, is also fascinating as it recreates the setting of Sternberg’s own childhood, suggesting a more than usually personal production from this idiosyncratic and often autobiographical filmmaker. Here’s the relevant extract from his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, a sentence of John Collier-like length and ebullience.

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“Hundreds of shooting galleries, Punch and Judy and the inevitable Satan puppet, chalk-faced clowns in their dominoes, boats sliding from a high point down into water with a great splash, leather-faced dummies that groaned when slapped, pirouetting fleas, sword swallowers, tumbling midgets and men with skirts flaring from them, proving that not all females had lost their undergarments, a forest of balloons, tattooed athletes, muscle-bulging weightlifters, women who were sawed in half and apparently spent the rest of their lives truncated, trained dogs and elephants, tightropes that provided footing for a gourmet who feasted on a basketful of the local sausages with horse-radish that made my mouth water, graceful ballerinas, grunting knife-throwers with screaming targets whose hair flowed down to the hems of their nightgowns, hatchet-throwing Indians and phlegmatic squaws, double-headed calves, members of the fair sex, fat and bearded, with thighs that could pillow an army, magicians who poured jugs of flaming liquid down their throats, drum-thumping cannibals and their wiggling harems, a glass maze from which the delighted customers stumbled with black eyes and gashed heads, hypnotists who practiced levitation and passed hoops around the dormant females swaying five feet from where they ought to have been, and the central figure of a huge Chinese mandarin with drooping mustaches longer than the tail of a horse revolving on a merry-go-round to the tune of Ivanovici’s Donauwellen — what more could I have asked?”

Alas I’ve been forbidden from uploading the clip, which Waseda University seem to be anxious to keep as their own personal stuff (Bastards! Bastards!) and some of the nicest bits are distorting reflections of crowds, a la CABARET, which can’t really be reproduced here as still images since they just kind of melt into blurry inkwash smudges. They’re gorgeous in motion, take my word for it. Or better still, ram-raid Waseda University and steal the clip and put it up on the internet.*

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The female Johnny Eck! The heroine’s naughty blonde friend whispers a remark about her into the heroine’s ear — she looks scandalized at the suggestion. Of course — dramatic irony — it’s the virtuous heroine (goody-goody Esther Ralston) who will be seduced by the handsome soldier…

*It wouldn’t actually be cool to do the first part of this.

Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Underworld / Last Command / Docks of New York) (The Criterion Collection)

The Chimp of the Perverse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2012 by dcairns

Revisiting the works of the late Richard Franklin, which I remembered as being pretty good. They are! But alas he perhaps never quite achieved a totally satisfying film… still, agreeable oddity, a likable spirit, and some camera panache counts for plenty.

Franklin was an Australian Hitchcock fan who studied film in America alongside John Carpenter. He was certainly the right guy to make PSYCHO II, from a smart Tom Holland script. If you’re going to do such a criminal thing, at least do it with respect and humour.

After a couple of softcore exploiters he didn’t much like to talk about, Franklin made PATRICK, a comatose telekinetic kid thriller, then the enjoyable ROAD GAMES, which we also watched. After PSYCHO II and CLOAK AND DAGGER (haven’t seen it) came LINK, his psycho chimp thriller with Terence Stamp, made for the late unlamented Cannon Films –

What most of the best Franklin films, and most of the best weird Australian films, have in common, is a script by Everett De Roche. Check his credits — besides the Franklin films, he wrote HARLEQUIN (Robert Powell as a modern Rasputin) and LONG WEEKEND (when everything attacks!) and RAZORBACK (JAWS in the outback with a wild boar!). Apart from the Peter Weir and Rolf de Heer Festivals of Strangeness, he seems omnipresent.

LINK is set in the UK (locations on the Scottish borders) but de Roche’s script makes Terence Stamp’s nutty primatologist an honorary Ozzie, with his matey, classless, no-frills manner. It’s a great way to take the curse off the scenario’s more fantastical elements — have them explained by a casual (yet intense) ordinary (yet impossibly handsome) bloke. Stamp is blocked on his latest opus –

“I was gonna call it Out On A Limb but Shirley MacLaine beat me to it.”

It’s actually one of Stamp’s nicest performances, and nobody appreciated it because it was in a killer chimp film. If A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE had a homicidal ape in it, we’d never have heard of Marlon Brando.

Stamp is joined at his isolated clifftop manor by a young Elizabeth Shue, who’s better than the average girl-in-jeopardy, although the script doesn’t do her as many favours as it does Terry. There’s a blandness in the role, and a bit of 70′s bloke sexism — I’m surprised the actress didn’t mutiny when called upon to answer the question “Can you cook, clean?” with “Well, I’m a woman, so I guess I have some kind of genetic aptitude.” The role, and the film, ultimately devolves into a lot of running around, rather as HOLLOW MAN would years later.

But what we were really watching for was the APES, and here LINK satisfies fully, if bizarrely. At the time, there was a certain amount of critical incredulity about the idea of chimpanzees as horror movie menace. The world is a bit better informed now about the dangers of apes run wild — a chimp is pretty much the most dangerous escaped zoo animal you could hope to meet. Stamp tells a charming story over dinner about one ape who savagely dismembered his human owner to try and sell us on this idea. “What had he done to the chimp?” asks Shue. “Oh, nothing. The chimp was just glad to see him,” smiles Stamp.

This is one of the few primatology-based movies to show signs of real, intelligent research. All of which is nearly overshadowed by the bizarre casting of the titular ape, a chimp played by an orangutan in blackface. Presumably because no adult chimp of sufficient training was available, some poor orang has been given a close-cropped haircut and a dye-job, then dressed as a butler (his character is a former circus artiste). It’s the simian equivalent of Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, an embarrassment to modern sensibilities. We were also shocked that none of the apes (three appear) were accorded a screen credit. I mean, that’s just good manners and good showbiz.

Whoever the anonymous ape is, he acquits himself well, aided by a few bits of prosthetic trickery, most of them well concealed. Unfortunately, orangs are pretty sluggish compared to chimps, so he’s not as adept at moving in a threatening way, but he sells the moments of sexual tension well, eyeing Shue’s body double with the sly lechery of a primeval George Sanders. It might seem like the movie’s most B-picture exploitation angle, but Link’s attraction to Elizabeth Shue (this is the same year as arthouse monkey-love epic MAX, MON AMOUR) is perfectly accurate in terms of simian behaviour. Captive apes often have crushes on humans. Lucy, raised as a human child, liked to relax with a glass of gin, a copy of Playgirl and a Hoover attachment.

Orangs, even in the wild, are known to be sexually rapacious. The name may mean “old man of the forest,” but it ought to be “dirty old man of the forest.” as Julia Roberts nearly learned to her cost.

“Pretty human!”

LINK is good fun — lots of problems, but only the score seems truly wrongheaded — Jerry Goldsmith has been encouraged to rip off his own GREMLINS theme, and it doesn’t work — although it gets better when he adds the timpani from Marlene Dietrich’s Hot Voodoo number in BLONDE VENUS, which Franklin quotes at the film’s start, in a bit of sub-Joe Dante pop culture referencing.

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