Moreso the Torso

KOBELKOFF, a curio from 1900, poised on the knife-edge between celebrating the triumph over adversity and pressing its nose against the glass to drool at the sight of malformity and difference. Asides from questions like “But is it art?” and the more urgent “Who would win in a fight between Kobelkoff and Prince Randian from FREAKS?” I’ll give the (nameless) filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here.

Not an experienced actor, Prince Randian (Prince of where?) is a little quick with his single line of dialogue, which is consequently hard to decipher. The DVD subtitles give it as “Say, can you do anything with your eyebrow?” which is a GREAT line, possibly the greatest and most obscure sentence since the last words of Dutch Schultz. (If you watch FREAKS with the subs on you get a lot of fringe benefits, heavily-accented line readings suddenly explicated, lines you didn’t even realise you hadn’t understood…)

While enumerating the limbless, we should pause to resembled the character of the war hero in SATYRICON — Fellini apparently instructed his assistant to find him “the most crippled cripple he could get.” (All this via John Baxter’s chatty, somewhat middlebrow biography). When Federico saw the living torso who’d been sourced for the role, he congratulated his underling: “I didn’t think you’d go that far.”

“I will go a long way to see something I haven’t seen before,” says Clive Barker, and I agree with him, but that does make the world of the cinema a short step from that of the tent show. I guess it always was. So I don’t require total scrupulousness from filmmakers who deal with or exploit disability, I’ll settle for some measure of complexity, conflicted response, or even the childlike wonder of a Fellini or a Jodorowsky at times.

23 Responses to “Moreso the Torso”

  1. I want to dance like Kobelkoff.

  2. I saw FELLINI SATYRICON today…and I noticed the person you mentioned. It was in the scene where Encolpio(Martin Potter) and his friend/double/rival find the Hermaphrodite. I can’t say I liked the film as much as I did other Fellini…it seems a very Glauber Rocha-esque celebration of folk culture. I wonder what Pasolini thought of it since he seems a better match for it than Federico.

  3. Pasolini might have taken a more literary, narrative-based approach to the material. Interesting that you didn’t respond to it as well as Gangs of New York, which it influenced. Scorsese’s film is “a western set in Mars,” and Fellini’s is “a science fiction film set in the past”.

    Although Prince Randian wriggles into battle with a knife between his teeth in Freaks, it’s not established that he can use it without hurting himself. But we can’t count him out without being sure what he can do with his eyelids. But Kobelkoff, being perpendicular and having fragmented limbs rather than none at all, would seem to have the edge.

  4. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Prince Randian lights matches faster than me – the rough paper never seems to work! For myself, I think it’s better to employ people with disabilities in films than to avoid offence by not. It may not be subtle but a shoe-horned in scene of the actor showing what they can do at least answers the questions that have formed in the viewer’s mind.

  5. Aside from being shot on Cinecitta, I don’t see any influence at all on Gangs of New York. It being a “western from Mars” highlights the influence of a major Scorsese favourite, Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes(although I prefer the Portuguese title which should translate as The Dragon of Evil Against the Warrior Saint), Scorsese felt it was the only non-traditional variation on Westerns which came of as real things rather than parody-deconstructions, since initially he hated Sergio Leone’s films.

    With Satyricon although its this great fevered imagination on Ancient Rome, it reminded me of Eisenstein’s metaphor of an uneven film as pearls without a string. Some scenes are magnificent, especially the Trimalchio section(which is far and away the most famous section of the Petronius original) and Danilo Donati’s sets are great and the use of colour and camera movement as always with Fellini is something else. I also loved that strange section of that couple in the villa(the wife is played by Lucia Bose). What it reminded me of more than anything was the strong influence Fellini had on Terry Gilliam, since the opening theatre section with Vernacchio and Giton reminded me of nothing else than The Adventures of Baron Munchaussen(whose sets were done by Dante Ferreti who started with Pasolini, moved to Fellini than Gilliam and of course Martin Scorsese whose work on GoNY is perhaps his masterpiece). It also tied in to the influences I noticed it had on Berlin Alexanderplatz(the alley of brothels in the seventh and eighth episodes and the Epilogue) and Rocha’s final film, The Age of the Earth. It also felt heavily inspired by Michael Powell’s films, especially the Venice section of The Tales of Hoffmann.

    As far as GoNY goes, I suppose the brief shot of the Elephant fleeing Barnum’s museum during the Draft Riots qualifies as a homage. Don’t know of other Scorsese films.

  6. Scorsese provided a helpful list of influences including The Bowery, Chimes at Midnight (for the battles) and Satyricon — I suspect he’d have liked his film to be more plotless and more of a ramble through a strange world, like Fellini’s. certainly I think the film shares that quality, and the story world is much more interesting to me that the story, just as the antagonist is more interesting than the protagonists.

    Fellini’s section of L’Amore in Citta features a journey through a Roman tenement which exactly prefigures the one in Satyricon.

  7. Jenny, was thinking lately of Lynch’s casting of Richard Pryor in Lost Highway, which seemed positively motivated and respectful even though Pryor couldn’t do very much and risks appearing as another “weird” element in the Lynch freakshow. And in general filmmakers who featured black characters and camp characters in the 30s and 40s deserve some credit even if the depiction was not always very positive, since so many films pretended minorities didn’t exist.

  8. Fellini called his Satyricon a science-fiction film. It’s all taking place in an alternate universe on another planet.

    It’s quite like the films Garrel was making at that time (Le Lit de la Vierge, La Cicatrice Interieure) but on a much larger scale.

    Also <i.Skidoo as both feature Donayale Luna.

  9. Garrel is right…

  10. With Scorsese, you can never limit a film to one influence alone. Gangs of New York might well have started out as Scorsese Satyricon. There are specific references in the movie to Ulmer’s Bluebeard then Il Gattopardo, The Shanghai Gesture, The Bowery, The Battleship Potemkin, Senso for some of the effects, Scorsese even looked at Bruce Connor’s work. For the film he screened Dovzhenko, Pudovkin’s Dezertir and Eisenstein’s films and also Japanese classics like Harakiri, Rebellion and Pigs and Battleships. In the end, I don’t see the Fellini film as a key influence. Fellini inevitably filtered this fresco of Ancient Rome through his personal mythology whereas Scorsese is creating a punk revisionist history.

  11. Television went far beyond the freak show long ago. It is a terror show.

  12. Both freakshow and reality show are fundamentally conservative and work by reassuring the viewer, “You’re not like that!” If a reality show could implicate its own audience, you might have something.

    Satyricon of course was widely experienced as an acid trip, or along with acid trips. It has a similar effect of cutting the viewer off from the normal landmarks of reality — there is no Virgil to guide you through Fellini’s Inferno. In this, Gangs is very different, because it’s careful to use VO and dialogue to explain and contextualize everything.

  13. Correct. And the overall effect of Gangs is quite untrippy.

  14. It may be untrippy but it’s quite feverish…especially the opening scene bursting out of the catacombs. But the main reason why it’s so different is that Scorsese with GoNY is telling an essentially tragic and despairing story whereas Satyricon isn’t going for that kind of dramaturgical angle. Using voice-over is a common enough Scorsese strategy.

    Closer to Satyricon at least in terms of the grandeur of decadence is Casino which narratively is far less classical mytho-operatic than the one deliberately invoked in Gangs… and more like a documentary almost.

  15. Scorsese’s work generally is more like speed than dope or LSD, and consciously so. Sections of Goodfellas were an attempt to replicate the effect of paranoia and loss of perspective.

  16. What I meant to point out by referencing television—excuse my epigrammatic terseness—was that it has become the constant reference point. In Fellini’s time, even with early Scorcese, it was still something of a background. What I mean is precisely that television is terrorizing, that it uses the ‘freak’ element to persist in memory, and in a kind of tele-engrammic way, never to leave us alone. If Fellini were around today, I think he would recognize this, and make a very different sort of film. Maybe he would concentrate on very very mundane things and relationships, and bring forth the numen in them, like Sokurov’s “Mother and Son” and “Father and Son,” where the players enact strange movements with each other, almost as if they were hypnotically induced, to represent the subterranean level of their ties breaking through the surface into the visual space.

  17. Well, Ginger and Fred shows Fellini adapting to Berlusconi-era TV grotesquerie. Italy got the TV freakshow before most of the rest of the world. Fellini is able to continue his interest in the bizarre, and on the one hand he’s still fascinated and enchanted by it, on the other hand the film is a savage and distressed attack on the callousness and ugliness of the modern media. It still looks very topical, alas.

  18. I’m sorry was the last ah-well bit of sarcasm about being topical a swipe at Sokurov? His films are about dire poverty in the emerging mythology of Putin’s shit-mouthed Russia as anything else. They are not paeans to provincialism, but rather the attempt to retain some sense of humanity in the face of the flattening effects of global capital: intimacy as something fugitive and endangered. But, Ah, I see, all the great masters of politics and cinema have lived and are gone… Ahhh. This seems shit-mouthedly convenient, no?

  19. No swipe at the excellent Mr Sokurov was intended — simply an observation on the enduring relevance of Ginger e Fred. If you read the comment carefully, you’ll see I don’t refer to Sokurov at all. I haven’t seen much of his work so I’m not particularly qualified to pass judgement on him, but everything I have seen and heard supports the view that he’s a major filmmaker. Your vociferous attack seems unmotivated by anything anyone’s said: please moderate your tone in future. Any views on cinema are welcome here if expressed with common courtesy.

  20. […] was inspired to dig this up again after David Cairns’ brief mention of Shultz over at Shadowplay.  I always liked this joke, even if the spelling stops it working as perfectly […]

  21. […] mirroring the popular theatre of Chaplin’s youth, WORK MADE EASY  was a 1907 trick film, KOBELKOFF (1900) documents a limbless wonder, referencing the armless wonder who appears in a deleted scene […]

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