Archive for the Fashion Category

Forbidden Divas: The Eyes Have It

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another entirely guiltless pleasure:

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

The Eyes Have It

“It can get pretty dangerous to look your lover straight in the ass.”

  • An anonymous opera-goer, Mascara

It starts with a view of the sea. An expanse of pale blue water, flat and eerily serene. A white Art Nouveau monstrosity stands atop a cliff and looks out upon it. A lone figure comes out of the building, dressed in an all-white ensemble that suggests a sort of 80s designer space suit, complete with shoulder pads. She climbs into a compact but elegant silver-grey car and drives off. As night draws on, the lights of passing cars play across her face. We see in, a sudden close-up, that she is Charlotte Rampling. She looks quite rapturously beautiful, her hair cropped short so she resembles some exquisite androgynous boy. A white and geometrical earring, which looks weirdly akin to a Giacometti sculpture, dangles from one ear. Her mood is abstracted, so much so that she all but runs over a strange man crossing the road. She winds down her window and warns the stranger to be careful. He is a handsome man with a face of angular if slightly overripe beauty and an unruly mop of black and tousled hair. It is clear at once that he is not the careful type.

Our lady pays him no heed and drives on. Her car stops outside a solidly bourgeois apartment block in the heart of the city. She goes inside and comes face to face with a man who is looking, not at her, but at his own reflection (and hers) in a massive antique mirror framed in gilt. He is tall and distinguished and dressed immaculately in evening dress, adorned with a long and flowing white silk scarf. He is played by Michael Sarrazin, an actor best remembered as that most fetching of all Monsters in Frankenstein – The True Story (1973). We realise, with a quick double take, that this man and this woman look almost exactly identical. Their prominent cheekbones, sensual lips and cool blue eyes mean that each one is the other in an only very slightly modified form. Moving and speaking in the mirror, their images are at once their own and one another’s. “Your smile looks more and more like your mother’s,” the man says. “What does that mean?” the woman asks with cool provocation. “It means your mother had a beautiful smile.” We may or may not have guessed they are brother and sister. What we do know is they are two sides of a single self.

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A bizarre and hallucinatory psychosexual thriller, Mascara (1987) is a Belgian-French-Dutch coproduction and one of only two features directed by the poet and visual artist Patrick Conrad. It was dumped into cinemas by Cannon Films and sank almost without a trace. I can still remember sitting, enraptured, through a matinee in a cavernous West End movie house – empty apart from me and three other spectators, at least one of whom got up and walked out before the end. Mascara is that most curious and forlorn of objets d’art, a cult movie that has never found its cult. (To this day, it is unavailable on Blu-Ray or DVD.) To that vast majority of the human race who have not seen it, I can say only to imagine a film by Joe Eszterhas (Jagged Edge, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct) that has been that has been consummately rewritten and restaged by Jean Cocteau. Or better still, a Pedro Almodóvar movie that is played lyrically, poetically and with barely a hint of camp. It is the archetypal Charlotte Rampling movie, the celluloid epitome of Divine Decadence and sulphurous yet seductive doom.

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That unnaturally intimate brother and sister are on their way to an evening at the opera. The sister, Gaby, tells an acquaintance that her brother, Bert, imbibed his love of opera with their mother’s milk. At that night’s performance of Orpheus and Eurydice by Gluck, they are enthralled in particular by a long and rippling white gown that is worn by Eurydice in Hell. It comes equipped with an enormous headpiece of white feathers and is ornamented at the bosom with a glowing red neon heart. The brother and the sister act on their obsession in differing yet strangely complementary ways. She starts a romance with Chris the designer (Derek de Lint) who just happens to be that handsome stranger she narrowly avoided running over. Her brother, on the other hand, wheedles the designer into letting him borrow the dress. Or rather, to bring it in person to his oh-so-very-secret hangout, a place of which his sister knows nothing. This is an underground S&M club with the suitably operatic name of Mister Butterfly. It is a place where drag queens in chain mail masks pass raw oysters from mouth to mouth, where a man performs fellatio on a glistening black leather crotch bursting with lurid red orchids.

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Technically speaking, the gown is not for him. It is a birthday gift for a beautiful androgynous showgirl named Pepper, who is played by the real-life Italian transsexual Eva Robins. (She had a similar role in 1982 in the Dario Argento film Tenebrae.) Pepper, as expected, wears the haunted gown as if she had been born to it and lip-synchs a scene from Orpheus and Eurydice to the delight of the assembled guests. But back in her dressing room after the show, she unwisely declares her love to Bert. She has slipped off the gown and stands behind him naked, with most of her lithe body plunged into shadow. Yet we see, as she moves slowly into the light, that she has both breasts and a penis. This moment of shock revelation was pillaged more or less wholesale by Neil Jordan in his absurdly overrated The Crying Game (1992). To watch it in both movies is to see it staged, first, by a director with an authentically erotic sensibility and, later, by a director who is largely without one. (Jordan’s one truly erotic film Interview with the Vampire (1994) involves copious and extended bouts of man-on-man action, a thing Conrad shows us only in brief but tantalising glimpses.) It is scarcely a surprise when Bert turns round and strangles Pepper. Sexual confusion has been known to exact a frightful toll.

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The rest of Mascara hinges on Bert’s nefarious scheme to pin the murder on his sister’s hapless lover. The fact he is the chief of the city’s police gives him distinct advantage here. But very wisely, Conrad avoids shifting his movie into full-on policier mode. This is first and foremost a mood piece, dedicated to the purveyance of rarefied if distinctly kinky aesthetic and erotic frissons. He leaves ample time for Rampling to stare at her own exquisite form in the mirror, or out her giant picture window at that vast and seemingly tideless sea. Her wardrobe by Claude Montana appears to be more sculpted than sewn. It is undeniably opulent, but confining and constricting at the same time. Glimpsed above the fireplace in her sitting room is a huge Symbolist canvas of a naked woman with her hands bound by chains. Dare we hope that Chris can set her free of her brother and his clinging, incestuous love? (Among the many novel ideas in Mascara is the one that a man who designs gowns for the opera can be solidly and unimpeachably heterosexual.) Or will those sleazy and sinister denizens of Mister Butterfly get the better of Bert and Chris and Gaby and – who knows – possibly the entire known world?

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There is only one way you will ever know the answer to these and a multitude of other questions. That is to track down and snap up any surviving VHS copy of Mascara you can lay your hands on. It takes only a handful of hardcore obsessives to make a cult. The cult for this movie is many years overdue.

David Melville

Pecs and Violence

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2020 by dcairns

COLOSSUS OF THE ARENA, AKA MACISTE, IL GLADIATORE PIU FORTE DEL MONDO is my least fave Michele Lupo film so far — and in fact it was his first, so he got better. At least I now know his first name is pronounced Mee-Kelly (approx). Maybe it’s just that I’m not a big peplum guy.

Mark Forest, now, he IS a big peplum guy, especially about the chest. And he’s playing, appropriately enough, McChesty, or Maciste if you prefer. Righter of wrongs, puncher of faces. He has a shrill comedy sidekick, as is traditional (at least, it was traditional for Steve Reeves in HERCULES and that’s the tradition we’re following — something to do with the massive box-office takings of that film). This is Jon Chevron as Wambo, whose main job is to say stuff like “Maciste, come quick!” Maciste then waddles up, glistening, and attempts to sort things out using his knuckles. They make a good team.

Nothing about Wamba’s role is degrading, oh no. I get the impression Lupo liked casting black people, he seems to do it in nearly every film, but the roles aren’t particularly progressive. The evil black gladiator, Extranius, is a better character. He’s played by Harold Bradley and he also appears in Lupo’s second McChesty film as a different character, enabling him to be killed by McChesty all over again.

McChesty is described by Wikipedia as one of the oldest cinema characters — meaning he was invented by the cinema, in CABIRIA in 1914, embodied by the hulking Bartolomeo Pagano. Originally Nubian or something, Pagano immediately ditched the blackface and started turning up in contemporary settings. When the character was revived in the sixties, he was a series of white dudes, including Mark Forest but also a confusing swarm of Tarzans, Herculeses, Ursuses, machos and Mae West chorus boys. He traveled in time by simply walking from one period film to another, and encountered or punched vampires, mole men, witches, fire monsters, Mongols, Moon Men, the sheik, a cyclops, Zorro, and Czar Nicolas II.

Oddly, McChesty doesn’t appear for the first twenty-five minutes of this pseudo-epic (big sets, but they’re repurposed from other movies, evoking a dizzying array of periods and places). Lupo spends the whole first act introducing his bad guys, six nasty gladiators and their boss who hires them as mercenaries for some dirty tricks. Seven was Lupo’s lucky number, it seems (SEVEN TIMES SEVEN, SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST ROME, SEVEN REBEL GLADIATORS). The non-magnificent seven (and their pet chimp, which has been dubbed with eeks and ooks of a transparently human origin) seem to interest Lupo more than his musclebound protag. Since he was about to switch over to the spaghetti western genre, this enthusiasm for bad guys and antiheroes seems appropriate. It’s surprising that this bad-guys-on-a-mission show predates THE DIRTY DOZEN. I’m not sure what the influence might have been (hard to believe they invented the trope in this obscure series entry).

Their Asterix names would be Follicles, Grampus, Yulbrynnus, Chucknorus, Dubius and Extranius.

Plus the nicer one, who’s good at dodging. I’ll call him Avoidus.

These guys are hired by a cut-out working for evil Prince Chinbeard and their mission is to kidnap the liberal queen of a mythical kingdom. No sniggering at the back. Only one man can stop them. Clue: it’s not Wambo.

Wambo, First Bwud.

Mee-Kelly made a second McChesty film the following year. I got a little bored of COLOSSUS OF THE ARENA one so I jumped over to GOLIATH AND THE SINS OF BABYLON, which is American International’s title for MACISTE, L’EROE PIU GRANDE DEL MONDO. Then I jumped back and forth, which made no difference. The main distinction seemed to be that the bad guys pass themselves off as gladiators in one film, but in the other the good guys do. Plus the evil prince in the second film has muttonchops instead of a chinbeard.

A great moment in one or other film, where they have to dub some rhubarbing extras reacting to bad news. No lipsync is required here, so the gloves are off for the dubbing artists: “Aw, the Queen is dead, and she was so nice!”

I find, after jumping back and forth between films a few times, I can’t see the wood for Mark Forest. But he’s undeniably skilled at staring into the middle distance and looking like he wants to punch it.

No sign of Wambo in this one. I assume McChesty ate him. Instead of Wambo, and instead of the chimp dubbed with a man’s voice, we have a dwarf dubbed with a woman’s voice.

McChesty sees his first dwarf. He’s delighted! So funny! Or maybe he’s seen lots, and they never get old.

Apart from this one. He’s gotten old. He is Weejimmikrankus.

The films look simultaneously costly and cheap, an interesting feat. You get big sets and exotic locations and elaborately choreographed action scenes and lots of them. On the other hand, the costumes are unwearable and look recycled from every different kind of period movie. So are the sets, but at least those are big enough to contain entire actors. The frocks always have bits bulging out.

Oddly, the first one has more of Lupo’s hyperkinetic style. He’s putting the pep back in peplum. But then he seems to get weary, and stays that way for his whole next feature. Still, not even Leone could muster much brio when it came to sword-and-sandal shenanigans.

“You idiot, I said ‘Avast’ not ‘Aghast’!”

MACISTE, IL GLADIATORE PIU FORTE DEL MONDO stars Hercules; Molly Pink; Oliver Mellors; Zorikan; and Calamity John.

MACISTE, L’EROE PIU GRANDE DEL MONDO stars Hercules; Mary, mother of Jesus; Scott Mary; Cesare Borgia; Iphitus, Son of Pelias; Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith; and another Hercules.

Mambo Italiano

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva!

FORBIDDEN DIVAS 

Mambo Italiano! 

“She’s very young. All she wants is revenge on everything and everybody.”

–          Shelley Winters on Silvana Mangano, Mambo

 In the 1949 Neo-Realist melodrama Bitter Rice, an unknown Italian girl became a globally famous star by the simple expedient of standing in a paddy field and looking sultry. She had dark auburn hair, thick thighs and the lineaments of a Botticelli angel. Her name was Silvana Mangano and she was the protégée (and, eventually, the wife) of Italy’s most powerful film mogul Dino de Laurentiis. At no point in her first leading role did she make any discernible effort to act – but everything she did on screen seemed weirdly believable, even when the characters and situations were quite patently absurd. This was a skill that would serve her admirably in year after year of Dino de Laurentiis productions. Up until the advent of Silvana, the mass popular audience had tended to reject Neo-Realist movies because they were not sufficiently glamorous. This new star solved the problem single-handed and in one fell swoop. Silvana Mangano could look more glamorous draped in a dishcloth than your average Hollywood actress dressed in a wardrobe tailor-made by Edith Head.

Having triumphantly straddled the Italian box-office, de Laurentiis duly set about turning his lady into a bona fide International Movie Icon. This would obviously involve a complex network of co-productions employing foreign talent – but preference, invariably, was given to foreign talent that was available at a reduced price. By the early 50s, the American writer-director Robert Rossen – who had won the Best Picture Oscar for his political drama All the King’s Men (1949) – had been forced to flee to Europe after a perilous run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Who better – in Dino’s mind – than a director famed for his rather dour engagement with serious social issues to helm a lush and lavish and insanely melodramatic musical epic called Mambo (1954)? Keen to surround his leading lady with the very finest support, de Laurentiis took a quick look at the gossip columns and saw that Hollywood star Shelley Winters had just dumped her (possibly platonic) boyfriend Farley Granger to marry the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman. He swiftly set about hiring all three actors to appear in his new film. Much to Dino’s chagrin, Granger declared the whole production a vulgar circus and refused to play any part in it. He was duly replaced by the British actor Michael Rennie. But as in any de Laurentiis extravaganza – from War and Peace (1956) to The Bible (1966) to Dune (1984) – it is the intention – and not the end result – that actually counts.

Mambo opens lavishly with a rousing Afro-Caribbean production number featuring the all-black Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Wooden shutters fly open and ladies in voluminous flouncy skirts gyrate to the clatter of steel drums, while somehow managing to balance large plates of tropical fruit. Then a door opens at the back of the stage and the lead dancer makes her entrance. She is none other than – wait for it! – Silvana. It appears that nobody involved in this production ever pondered the ethical or practical issues of turning a white actress into the star attraction of an all-black dance troupe. Mercifully, she is not done up in blackface like Monica Vitti in her ‘tribal’ dance number in L’Eclisse (1962). She wears a simple but elegant silk-and-sequin gown and does nothing that is embarrassing or untoward in itself. Her dancing is quite serviceable, if in no way on a par with any of the other dancers on the stage. Yet the overall effect is as awkward and uncomfortable as L’Eclisse. We can only conclude that Cultural Appropriation was scarcely a hot-button issue among Italian (or, indeed, Hollywood) film-makers of the 50s.

Following this sensational success the company moves on to its next stop, Venice. This just happens to be Silvana’s home town and, as she sits on the train and reminisces, we find ourselves in the sort of plot that kept Joan Crawford in employment for most of the 30s. Her character is a poor-but-honest girl who lives in a seedy back alley with her drunken father and her brattish kid sister. (Her mother is long dead, most likely because her home life was frankly unbearable.) This girl supports her entire family by working in a Venetian glass shop and selling overpriced bibelots to tourists. But she nurtures dreams of one day running away to Rome to become a film star. Her boyfriend (Vittorio Gassman) is a croupier at a casino on the Lido; he is also, we soon gather, something of a shady operator. One day, a gaunt and poetically doomed Venetian prince (Michael Rennie) wanders into her shop, sporting the most lethal set of cheekbones since the heyday of Basil Rathbone. He takes a shine to the comely shop-girl and gives her a pair of tickets to a masked Carnival ball. Her boyfriend, spotting an opportunity, sells his ticket on the black market and unwisely allows Silvana to go with the Prince. This is not a decision we might expect from an insanely jealous and possessive Italian male…but hey, the plot of Mambo has to get moving somehow.

The ball is a quasi-Sternbergian fantasy of masked revellers, floating paper streamers and what looks like gallons of confetti pouring down from the ceiling. The evening’s entertainment is provided by the Katherine Dunham troupe, who come cascading down the grand staircase or, in some cases, leaping over banisters with all the savage aplomb of Attila the Hun moving in for his final sacking of the Roman Empire. All this excitement is just too much for Silvana, who has already been tippling on champagne and cannot resist her primal urge to join in with the dance. Soon she is cavorting face to face with a half-naked black male dancer, who is clad in the most obscenely tight pair of leopard-skin beeches this side of a Tarzan movie. This spectacle inflames the hapless Prince with a wave of simply uncontrollable lust. At the end of the dance, he drags Silvana up the staircase and has his way with her. Next morning, in the pale light of dawn, she is acutely aware of having become a Fallen Woman – and feels too ashamed even to go home. That is quite convenient, in fact, because she has caught the eye of Shelley Winters, who plays the (entirely fictitious) manager of the Katherine Dunham troupe. This lady has resolved, on the spot, to build the girl up into the company’s star attraction.

Not that her interest in the neophyte is purely artistic. Shelley Winters has been costumed and styled to look as much as possible like the 1950s stereotype of a Butch But Glamorous Lesbian. Just in case we miss the point, the dialogue drops heavy hints about the lonely and frustrated existence to which “a woman like that” must invariably be doomed. Tellingly, much of this dialogue was eliminated from the Italian release of Mambo and survives only in the international English-language print. As a 21st century audience, we are at once fascinated and appalled – but that is certainly nothing new in this movie. With her undeniable powers of persuasion, Shelley wrests Silvana away from Vittorio and moulds her tyrannically into a great dancer. At this point, Mambo threatens to become a sort of misbegotten remake of The Red Shoes (1948) only with a lesbian in the Anton Walbrook role and a sleazy petty criminal in the role played by Marius Goring. An honest-to-God analysis might well reveal that this film equates being a criminal with being a lesbian and also, indirectly, with being black. Hence it is best to avoid doing one if we are to go on enjoying the fun. Our heroine makes her triumphal return to Venice. She enters a nightclub looking simply sensational in a black beaded gown that looks as if it had been poured slowly, bead by glistening bead, over her curvaceous and near-naked form.

Perhaps it is inevitable that she meets the Prince again. But what we honestly did not see coming is the fact that the Prince turns out to be dying of hereditary haemophilia, as was the custom in all good aristocratic families. No sooner does Vittorio get wind of this than he cooks up a plot for Silvana to marry the dying man, so she can inherit his money and his crumbling ancestral palazzo and share her ill-gotten gains, naturally, with her true love. The plot now shifts abruptly to that of Henry James’ novel The Wings of the Dove, only with the sex roles neatly reversed. Silvana reacts with horror to the suggestion – and then goes ahead and marries the Prince. A rapist he may be, but he is still a more inviting marriage prospect than Vittorio. (Shelley Winters is not an option, partly for censorship reasons and partly because she has unaccountably been run over by a car.) Once she has married the Prince, Silvana comes to realise that he is in fact a decent, caring and thoroughly sensitive bloke. Is it his fault if he got a bit too carried away by the thrill of Carnival night? Mambo now looks set to be a touching tale of a woman who has been raped falling ever so tenderly in love with the man who raped her. We might like to believe this film could not possibly become any more outrageous than it already is. If so, we reckon without those unique talents that Dino de Laurentiis employed in the script department.

There are several twists left to go in the plot of Mambo, which is remarkable given that the film is only 90 minutes long. What is also remarkable is that Silvana Mangano looks serenely beautiful throughout and never once seems tainted by the sheer awe-inspiring bad taste of everybody and everything around her. One day in the late 60s she would wake up, walk out on her crass vulgarian of a husband and make a string of classic films with intellectual left-wing directors like Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini. (Her most famous film was Death in Venice (1971). It may have helped her exorcise some bad memories.) But Mambo, too, is an undeniable classic of a sort. It may just be wiser not to say what kind.

David Melville