Archive for April, 2017

A Portrait in Gold

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2017 by dcairns

A few weeks ago I had a couple of triumphs — I was able to procure for Chiseler scribe Jim Knipfel three films by his beloved W. Lee Wilder that he’s always yearned to see, and for David Melville Wingrove a copy of LA MESSE DOREE, a movie he’d been fantasising about since he was twelve. Read his report —

“We need to remember that we are still alive.”

Lucia Bosè, La Messe Dorée

The 70s were the decade that looked as if everything was about to change. For most of the much-mythologised 60s, a handful of rich and glamorous people hung out in exclusive nightclubs and talked about changing the world. By the dawn of the 70s, it seemed that people in increasingly large numbers were ready to do just that. Feminism, gay rights, Black Power, anti-war protests and burgeoning left-wing movements across the globe made it tempting to believe that bourgeois heterosexual patriarchy was well and truly done for. But what might the world look like once the end finally came? The cinema of the 70s made some bizarre attempts to imagine. The majority were less a case of Apocalypse Now and more a case of Apocalypse Yes, But Not Quite Yet.

Big commercial movies tried to reflect the anxieties of their audience with overblown epics of devastation and disaster – Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) – where the sheer wretched overacting made you wonder if The End Of Civilisation As We Know It was really such a tragedy after all. The art-house took a subtler but no less apocalyptic view. The single most radical and uncompromising film of the 70s – Pier Paolo Pasolini’s stomach-churning yet wholly non-sensational Salò (1975) – showed the patriarchy fighting back against the threat of annihilation and doing so in increasingly perverse and brutal ways. It may be the one film routinely described as ‘pornographic’ that seems designed to put its viewers off sex for the rest of their lives.

Only one other film of the decade can rival Salò for sheer aesthetic and erotic boldness. It is a film so obscure and so difficult to see that it verges on being ‘lost’ for all time. It was made in France in 1974 by the Italian designer and artist Beni Montresor. Its title is La Messe Dorée. That title translates as ‘The Golden Mass’ and – as one might expect – it is lush, ritualistic and sensual, as mysterious and glowingly over-decorated as a Byzantine mosaic. Its star is the darkly glamorous Italian diva Lucia Bosè, who resembles Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in an unusually perverse mood. Watching from the shadows, in the subsidiary role of her husband, is the French actor Maurice Ronet – whose haunted face seems to hide wastes of depravity of which the Marquis de Sade could barely dream.

The action centres entirely on an orgy in their elegant Art Nouveau chateau outside Paris. Attractive young guests of both sexes are invited, there to indulge in various unspeakable acts. The parallels with Salò may seem too obvious to need pointing out. Yet the tone (and the ideological agenda) of the two films could not be more different. If Salò is the art of protest, La Messe Dorée is the art of seduction. In Salò we see a conservative patriarchal order (specifically, the Fascists of 1940s Italy) defending itself through acts of nauseating sexual savagery; in La Messe Dorée, we witness the defeat and dissolution of patriarchy itself. The father played by Ronet has become an irrelevance in his own house. Unwilling or unwelcome to make love to his wife, he gazes hungrily at the naked flesh of his teenage son and beds down at last (and, mercifully, off-screen) with his nubile 12-year-old daughter.

The real action is downstairs at the banquet. As the guests sit down to dinner, a glamorous lesbian (Stefania Casini) devours a chicken leg as if she were performing a full-on act of fellatio. Flouncing about in a voluminous red-and-gold kaftan, Bosè leads the company in a wild ritual dance. The women swoop and whirl about like Bacchantes while the men-folk, rather sheepishly, join in. Later on, the lesbian and her married girlfriend indulge in some surprisingly hardcore Sapphic action. The girlfriend’s strait-laced husband (François Dunoyer) watches them and masturbates helplessly in the doorway. His only way to join in is for the two women to tie him to the bed and torture him. As the S&M games grow more frantic, he screams out: “I want to die! I want to die!” When the two women leave the room, he is stretched out motionless on the bed. He does not appear at any point again.

Yet even this is not the climax. As the evening draws to a close, a young virgin (Eva Axen) is ceremonially robed and painted to resemble the Madonna. She is carried on a litter to the main hall, surrounded by guests with blazing torches, to the tune of Severino Gazzelloni’s incantatory score. There she is stretched out on the floor and ritually deflowered; as the whole company copulates around her, she penetrates herself with one finger. Orgiasts smear their faces with blood from her broken hymen. All of this proves too much for Bosè, who – as befits a star of a certain age – has presided with elegance over the kinky goings-on but, hitherto, has done nothing indecorous herself. Now, with a shriek of unbridled passion, she runs upstairs and becomes alarmingly intimate with her son. You may be glad the scene that follows is no more convincing than it is.

On its release in 1975, La Messe Dorée managed to shock the few people who saw it – in those few brave countries where it did not get itself banned. I myself first read about the film in a magazine when I was twelve years old. (Yes, I was that sort of child.) It has taken me the ensuing forty years just to track down a copy. That is not too long to wait for a dark and dreamlike fantasy on the breakdown of the heterosexual bourgeois order and the triumph of all things a therapist might label ‘polymorphously perverse’. The look and tone of the film suggest Beni Montresor was a homosexual aesthete in the High Decadent tradition of Oscar Wilde and Barbey d’Aurevilly. Yet, oddly, there is little if any sexual activity between men. La Messe Dorée is defiantly queer rather than gay. Complex and hard to pin down, it may never be reclaimed as a cult movie by one particular audience.

Beni Montresor, a lot like Oscar Wilde, may have lived in sheer terror of not being misunderstood. So we do La Messe Dorée a supreme honour if we do not understand a thing.

David Melville

The (Yom HaShoah) Monday Matinee, Chapter Two: The Thunder Riders

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , on April 24, 2017 by dcairns

At the gripping climax of chap 1 of our Shadowplay serial, THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, our heroes were literally hanging off a cliff, from a rope which broke, plunging them towards certain death. In chap 2, by simply omitting one shot of the dropping figures, the filmmakers cut to them sliding down a slope and catching on a branch. They were never in danger at all! Expect more of this cheating, which was standard practice in movie serials.

Now read on…

Leading man Gene Autry then hauls ass back to his Radio Ranch to give the latest broadcast of his singing cowboy show, a production so lavish and realistic that it features real horse chases and shoot-outs to delight the listeners. We get the latest episode of the serial-within-a-serial, which intriguingly bears no narrative relation to the last episode we “saw.” I like the idea of a random serial. It may be a kind of commentary on the oddness of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE itself, which is after all a singing cowboy / sci-fi show.

I’m wondering whether TPE is going to sustain this conceit that, no matter what desperate adventures he’s involved in, Autry has to go home and do a radio show every episode. I do hope so!

During this exciting show, Gene’s partner, father of the two juveniles, is shot dead! This is the work of the mundane baddies, who are trying to drive Gene away so they can mine radium. I didn’t mention these guys before because they’re kind of dull compared to the Thunder Riders, although Professor Beetson has a great sneery face.

The Thunder Riders come from Murania, the underground scientific city, exiting via a garage door hidden in the rock face. They communicate with their Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy)  via “wireless telephone,” which is basically a Dick Tracy wrist-radio, and also a big screen for Skype calls. But hilariously, when the Queen calls them, the view she has on her monitor is of the backs of their heads ~

This may be why she looks tetchy and suspicious when she hangs up. Is someone taking the piss? Then again, Queen Tika always looks that way. It’s the natural effect of having played a Stan Laurel screen wife, I suppose.

Of course, she also has her big floor screen so she can look at the upperworld and make snarky cracks about it — she does that again this week too, though it’s not as long or insanely edited as Episode One’s tirade. Still, I hope she keeps it up.

The Thunder Riders look set to abduct the singing cowboy star at the end of this week’s installment, and about time. But the real cliffhanger is that an aeroplane containing the juveniles has been shot down. Everyone in it is certainly dead. Tune in next week to view the smoldering corpses of Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross.

To be continued…


The Sunday Intertitle: A Case of Elephants

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 23, 2017 by dcairns

AN ELEPHANT ON HIS HANDS is an inaccurate title for a 1920 comedy short which blatantly contains TWO elephants. The filmmakers are selling themselves short. So at some later point, a distributor has spliced in the more accurate ELEPHANTS ON HIS HANDS, which is clumsier but at the same time somehow funnier.

Very fat man Hughie Mack is the leading man — freaks of nature are very much the film’s stock-in-trade, along with odd sights like a dog with a serving plate strapped to its back, bringing in the bacon. John George, the diminutive thug from Houdini’s serial THE MASTER MYSTERY, also a favourite of Rex Ingram, appears briefly as the world’s shortest policeman.

The only real interest is the sight of elephants walking about inside a large metropolitan hotel. There’s also a dream sequence in which Hughie is tormented by elephantasms in his slumber. A brief double exposure of the pachyderms wafting by in single file dimly anticipates THE ELEPHANT MAN.

Weirdly, apart from the crude main title added after the fact, the intertitles are elaborate things, some featuring little stop-motion figures running (well, sliding) about. They’re not exactly attractive, but someone put some effort into them. Makes me think the deleted main title was probably the highlight of the film.