Flaming Torture

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2022 by dcairns

The FLASH GORDON episode recaps are turning into word soup. “Doomed shark city” sounds like som kind of garage band, while “forced to feed radium to the mighty atom furnaces” supplies information that I don’t think was even present in the previous episode. That’s radium he’s shovelling? I’m afraid Thun is screwed.

And the rapey King Vultan is, we are to understand, merely “boisterous”? Although we admit his boister “terrorizes” Dale, as well it might. Possibly the title-writer is attempting to seed in a rehabilitation for the alarming man-fowl, since he’s got to perform a volte-face later on. Or possibly it’s an example of the cautiousness with words Nic Roeg detected in the newspaper strip. “You could have Princess Aura whipping Dale Arden but the caption would just say something like ‘Oh! That hurts me a lot!'” Roeg was attracted by the idea of smuggling sex and kink into a kids’ film, and when he departed the 1980 project, Mike Hodges inherited that ambition…

Two-part recap! The fall of Barin’s stricken rocketship is mysteriously arrested mid-plummet — is this the birth of George Lucas’ tractor beam? — then we flashback in order to allow the stripey bear to appear again, by popular demand and so the production can get their money’s worth. The bear leaves (again) and Vultan starts advancing indecently (again).

By a surprising temporal leap, the indecent advance is interrupted by the arrival of Barin, Aura, Zarkov and Flash, all chained at spearpoint. I suppose Vultan could have continued advancing, but decency prevails: not in front of the prisoners.

Meanwhile — what’s Ming up to? Sitting at an instrument panel, receiving news from the armour-plated minion with the adorable kidney-bean shaped torso of the kind so beloved of Robert Crumb. Except that said minion is a dude, a disqualifying attribute to becoming a companion to Honeybunch Kaminsky or Angelfood McSpade.

The episode is halfway over and nothing has happened but talk! A touch of mid-serial droop is detected. It’s like an Eric Rohmer movie in space. Better hurry up and get to the FLAMING TORTURE.

Flash and Barin, stripped to their trunks, are sent to join Thun, whose beard and fangs should’ve fallen out by now, shovelling radium into the furnaces. I’m unclear whether setting light to your scoops of radium is the best way to get the value out of them. I’m no physicist but…

Is this the flaming torture? The flames look uncomfortable, but I would imagine that it’s the radioactivity that really makes for unsafe working conditions.

Zarkov, meanwhile, is excused shovelling, and it put to work in yet another electrical Strickfaden workshop, where he sets about making the novelty contraptions flash on and off in a stimulating fashion.

Aura now gets to work on Dale, trying to make her renounce Flash — good MEAN GIRLS psych-out stuff. Judging from this serial, when girls want to attack other girls, they work on their emotions. When guys want to attack other guys, they use a DESTROYING RAY or else hit them with a spear. Men are from Mars, women are from Mongo.

You’ll notice the visual quality of my viewing copy is even better now, so we can all appreciate Aura’s exotic eyebrows (inherited from her father, no doubt).

SUDDEN WEIRD PRODUCTION NUMBER! Undoubtedly stock footage. The chorines bouncing in their boob tubes are notably wingless. Plus, it looks expensive. I’m not sure if it’s from JUST IMAGINE, but I think it’s likely. I’m not sure I ever made it through that movie… it has El Brendel in it.

JUST IMAGINE is on YouTube! You can see that Zarkov’s lovely rocketship model has also been ported over to FG. But I don’t see the stock shot above. Anyone who knows which obscure early thirties musical it’s culled from, let me know.

The stock shot doesn’t last long, and soon Vultan is eating roast chicken — a clear case of semi-cannibalism. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII is just three years old, and Jack “Tiny” Lipson clearly seems to have been influenced by Charles Laughton’s performance. But Jack “Tiny” Lipson, sir, is no Charles Laughton. This being a movie serial and not a Korda film, the banquet is cut-rate too — “Tiny” must content himself with a small piece of chicken, a goblet of something, and two loaves. Then we pull back and there’s a big plate of some kind of meat and a fruit bowl. Better.

Cutting back to the dupey stock shot makes it clear that this gay performance is meant to be happening right in front of Vultan’s dinner table, an illusion which crumbles before it’s even formed. I don’t care what Mr. Kuleshov says, that banquet and that dance number are not happening in the same sky palace.

Still, as a kid I was always fascinated by those shots, so much more elaborate than anything involving our main cast.

A really miserable looking winged chef brings Vultan a fresh platter of turkey legs. More cannibalism ensues. Dale, coached by Aura, tells Vultan how attractive she finds him. He gets amorous again, so the serial cuts to Flash & co being whipped in the furnace room — a kinky case of erotic displacement. The perversity of the 1980 FG is all fully-present in this version.

REBELLION! Since a shovel is a deadlier weapon than a bullwhip, the slaves can easily overpower their overseers, especially since the big turkeys don’t consider taking flight, and are weighed down by their huge rigid wings. But now some guards enter, armed with futuristic pop guns. “If anyone moves, you’ll all be destroyed!” Good luck keeping the “city in the sky” airborne without a slave force, bozo. Flash and the gang could have taken over simply by going on strike.

Marvelous emoting from “Larry “Buster” Crabbe in response to the threat. Flash, big dummy that he is, responds to “don’t move” with an exaggerated brandishing of his shovel, despite the fact that his foes are way out of range.

And so the mutiny is quelled, I believe the word is. Vultan comes along to gloat from a catwalk, bringing his bitches along to enjoy the view. Dale forgets to act indifferent, overcome as she is with compassion for the sight of the sweat-sheened Flash getting lacerated. She screams and faints. “She did not eat enough dinner,” diagnoses Vultan, whatever medical acumen he has distorted by his fat-guy sensibility.

Vultan resolves to punish the unruly Flash. “Take him to the Static Room!” I envision a room where everybody is sedentary. It sounds like a perfect encapsulation of this episode.

Aura berates Dale in what passes here for an opulent boudoir. It’s quite attractive, actual: Grecian deco. “What happens to him now will make those whip lashes seem like love pats!” spits the princess. My favourite line in the whole photoplay to date, the perfect combination of sado-eroticism and awkwardness. The dramatic equivalent of snagging a nipple clamp on your partner’s earring.

The Static Room turns out to be an elaborate Kenneth Strickfaden torture chamber, the impressive set-piece needlessly elaborated upon by stock shots from God-knows-where — FRANKENSTEIN? No. MASK OF FU MANCHU? I wonder. Director Stephani’s signature move is the pull back from a close to a wide, or the opposite, and he does a nice expressive rush towards Dale’s reaction, standing in a palatial doorway ported over from some bigger and more dignified production. Why the torture chamber NEEDS a door that size is beyond the scope of this dissertation.

Flash passes out from the non-specific torment — it’s not exactly FLAMING TORTURE but it’ll do — I guess we could admit that the episode has featured both flaming and torture — and a lightning bolt wipe introduces the TO BE CONTINUED title —

OK, it was a talkie episode, but it made up in sheer perversion what it lacked in punch-ups. I look forward to the Shattering Doom with undimmed enthusiasm.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Lee’s Rough Rider

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2022 by dcairns

THE BIG GUNDOWN is a really fun Italo-oater directed by Sergio Sollima and written by Franco Solinas, Fernando Morandi and Sergio Donati, with Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian in the leads.

Alex Cox, who writes favourably about the film in 10,000 Ways to Die, is a big Bunuel fan, and I perceived a Bunuelian parallel with this one: Van Cleef is hunting Milian’s Mexican rascal, who is accused of raping and murdering a twelve-year-old girl. It’s basically The Fugitive, in terms of the plot dynamic. What’s surprising is that the movie doesn’t let us know that Milian is innocent for quite a stretch of the runtime. The parallel is with Bunuel’s excellent, underseen THE YOUNG ONE, which does the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD thing of having a Black man falsely accused of rape, but in this case confuses our feelings by not revealing his innocence until halfway through or so. In his memoir, Bunuel may be misremembering the film when he credits himself with making the Black man both good and bad — in fact he’s good, but we’re not allowed to know this for a while.

While we might guess, based on the incidences of misogyny in the genre, that the filmmakers figured their protagonist’s guilt was unimportant, but I don’t think that’s credible: Leone might shrug off rape on several occasions, but not child murder. I think it’s a bold and interesting strategy — our sympathies are with Van Cleef, we’re curious about Milian, and our negative attitude to him is undermined then reversed.

Not that the film isn’t breathtakingly cynical. At one point, anti-hero Cuchillo falls in with a Mormon wagon train — the weather immediately gets overcast and muddy. Van Cleef tracks him down and seems to be on the verge of rescuing the Mormon leader’s fourteen-year-old daughter from almost certain overfamiliarity. After Cuchillo has escaped, Van Cleef learns that the girl is actually the leader’s fourth wife.

Of the writers, Solinas, who co-wrote SALVATORE GIULIANO for Franco Rosi and BATTLE OF ALGIERS with/for Pontecorvo, wanted to write a political western, and succeeds subtly. Morandi was AD on that film, and they both went on to write Joseph Losey’s M. KLEIN. And Donati worked for Leone on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER. So it’s a really interesting mix of people (Italian movies seem even more apt than Hollywood ones to feature whole football teams of writers).

All this background comes from Cox’s book, where he says that the Solinas-Morandi draft conceived the Mexican fugitive as older, the American pursuer as younger — a Tuco-Blondie set. Sollimo and Donati flipped the ages so that Lee Van Cleef could be Corbett and Tomas Milian could play Cuchillo, young and reasonably attractive under the obligatory stubble and dirt,

The film should be political, but the references to Cuchillo as one of the “dogs of Juarez” don’t add up to much. And as Cox observes, for a tale of American adventurism — Corbett follows Cuchillo into Mexico despite it being out of his jurisdiction — it all turns out very nicely. Of course, Cuchillo is innocent (as charged) and the corrupt rich dude (Walter Barnes) and his son who’ve sicced Corbett on him are really to blame. Which is an implied social criticism, anyway. Spaghetti westerns are good that way — the villains are often wealthy businessmen and politicians who play with toy soldiers.

The chase story allows for picaresque developments — there’s a weird episode involving a sadistic female landowner (Nieves Navarro as “the widow”) who is so beyond-pathological she seems more like a character from Greek myth — someone Odysseus would have some trouble with. And Van Cleef’s realising that Milian has been framed coincides with a miniature political awakening in Mexico, where he’s reduced to the status of prisoner and pauper. And there are entertaining novelties like the Austrian duelist, complete with monocle, who LVC has to square off against.

Cox rightly appreciates the plotting, stating that it deploys “genuine reversals rather than the contrivances of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY.” Sometimes I wonder if he even likes Leone, but in fact he’s just clear-eyed about his weaknesses: tackling the DOLLARS films and OUATITW, he’s both extremely critical and wildly enthusiastic. Anyhow, the twists in TGTBATU may be contrived, but they make the contrivance amusing — Clint being saved from hanging by a cannon-blast that destroys the entire building is a bravura moment and I can’t understand anyone not enjoying it. Van Cleef being tricked into thinking a rattlesnake has bitten him, so that Milian can escape, is clever, but still depends on the serpens ex machina showing up at just the right time.

Cox is a very opinionated commentator, which can be bracing, but he baffles me when he (rightly) praises Morricone’s score, then (wrongly) complains about the “hideous, screeching vocals of Edda Dell’Orso, and the diabolical song, ‘Run, Man, Run.'” I first knew this movie via its soundtrack, several tracks of which appeared on the LP of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY I bought when I was twenty. Enjoying Dell’Orso’s soprano seems to me a necessity if you’re going to appreciate spaghetti westerns in general and Morricone scores in particular. Cox obviously finds enough to enjoy without liking this component, but I can’t help but feel he’s flat-out wrong and ought to WORK ON IT. Personal taste is a weakness we should all strive to overcome. I like this and I don’t like that is what keeps us from broadening our minds. The only thing a canon is good for is leverage to convince us we might be missing something.

I also like the song — I like Morricone’s pop arrangements too, and I like the naked emotionalism of it. That’s a key part of the Italian western thang — deeply cynical stories about horrible violence, venality and casual betrayal, with soaring, romantic music. I think it’s also part of why English-language critics not only disliked the films for their inauthenticity and sadism, they were thrown by the weird two-tones-at-once approach, and concluded that the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing.

RUN, MAN, RUN is also the name of THE BIG GUNDOWN’s sequel, starring Milian sans Van Cleef, which I plan to watch.

THE BIG GUNDOWN stars Angel Eyes; Django; Porthos; Emanuelle; Zorro; Yevtushenko; and Stevens.

Pg. Seventeen, IV: The Final Chapter

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2022 by dcairns

I am now going to begin my story (said the old man), so please attend.

I picked up a few things I’d missed. The kid had a nickname, Obie. Probably from his middle name, since the initial was an O. Obadiah, possibly. Somehow, Obie Westphal sounded better than Henry Westphal. Maybe I’d use it that way after the lead; it would give the story an informal touch.

We were silent for a while and I knew that Obie, like me. was thinking of all the time spent in journalism schools and how little of it could be used when you worked on a Negro newspaper, and how rough it was — how damned nearly impossible — to get something on a daily paper.

In spite of the fact that my father had hidden $400 under the cash register, he was indicted for arson because of the $5,000 worth of insurance on his shop. He and my mother hired a Schrift relative recently out of law school to take the case. They were all convinced the charge was ridiculous. Why would an arsonist set such a small fire? All my father wanted was the $5,000 of stolen stock to be replaced. Because we didn’t have the money to raise the bail, he was taken to The Tombs. When I heard that word, I was convinced he was buried alive like my Zayda, so I was very surprised to see him alive at the trial.

The trial lasted one hundred and ninety days. Some hundred witnesses swore that the accused was Roger Charles Tichbourne–among them, four comrades-at-arms from the 6th Dragoons. Orton’s supporters steadfastly maintained that he was no impostor–had he been, they pointed out, he would surely have attempted to copy the juvenile portraits of his model. And besides, Lady Tichbourne had recognized and accepted him; clearly, in such matters, a mother does not err. All was going well, then–more or less–until an old sweetheart of Orton’s was called to testify. Not a muscle of Bogle’s face twitched at that perfidious maneuver by the “family”; he called for his black umbrella and his top hat and he went out into the decorous streets of London to seek a third inspiration. We shall never know whether he found it. Shortly before he came to Primrose Hill, he was struck by that terrible vehicle that had been pursuing him through all these years. Bogle saw it coming and managed to cry out, but he could not manage to save himself. He was thrown violently against the paving stones. The hack’s dizzying hooves cracked his skull open.

The countless tight squeezes you have been in during the course of your life, the desperate moments when you have felt an overpowering need to empty your bladder and no toilet is at hand, the times when you have found yourself stuck in traffic, for example, or sitting on a subway stalled between stations, and the pure agony of forcing yourself to hold it in. This is the universal dilemma that no one ever talks about, but everyone has been there at one time or another, everyone has lived through it, and while there is no other example of human suffering more comical than the bursting bladder, you tend not to laugh about these incidents until after you have relieved yourself–for what person over the age of three would want to wet his pants in public? That is why you will never forget these words, which were the last words spoken to one of your friends by his dying father: “Just remember, Charlie, he said, “never pass up an opportunity to piss.” And so the wisdom of the ages is handed down from one generation to the next.

All the spurious old father figures rush onstage.

Seven paragraphs from seven different page seventeens from seven different books, variously located.

Tales from the Arabian Nights, edited by Andrew Lang; The Deep End by Fredric Brown; One For New York by John A. Williams; Shelley: Also Known as Shirley, by Shelley Winters; The Improbable Impostor–Tom Castro, from A Universal History of Infamy, from Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges; Winter Journal by Paul Auster; The Place of Dead Roads by William Burroughs.