Archive for the Mythology Category

Church and State

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2022 by dcairns

OK, I’m on a Damiano Damiani kick now, so impressed was I by BULLET FOR THE GENERAL. And having liked IL STREGHE in the past. Encountering him via his unsuccessful collaboration with Leone was a false start, and misleading — he’s not a sub-Leone figure like Tonino Valerii, he’s his own artist, which is why they couldn’t work together. I’ll postpone his mafiosi and politziotteschi films a bit as I hoover up some outliers.

THE TEMPTER aka THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN aka IL SORRISO DEL GRANDE TENTATORE (1974) seemed like it was going to be a consolation prize for Glenda Jackson walking away from THE DEVILS after finding out the scene where Sister Jeanne’s severed head is worshipped after her death had been cut from the script, or an EXORCIST knock-off (the first?). It was a sensational, nutzoid Ennio Morricone score which does give it a groovy exploitation feel, but as often with this filmmaker, there’s something else going on.

What it really resembles most is ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. But Jackson’s Sister Geraldine is, though quietly malevolent, also a more complex and sympathetic character than dead-eyed psycho Nurse Ratched, and Damiani’s film eschews misogyny. Sister G is running a hideway for problematic persons — a Polish priest who collaborated with the Nazis, a Prince in love with his own sister, a Bolivian woman who arranged her torturer husband’s assassination, a Cuban priest too sympathetic to communism. Forbidden by the church from conducting confessions, she exerts her power through vicious group therapy sessions…

Claudio Cassinelli is an interloper, a young writer hired to help the Pole (Arnoldo Foà) with his exculpatory memoir. Sister Geraldine comes to regard him as the tempter… we may have similar suspicions of her. In fact, the only quasi-supernatural element is a shadow glimpsed in the chapel at a fraught moment.

Designed by Umberto Turco, the film looks amazing (but badly needs a restoration/transfer) mostly confined to this weird marble living tomb — a good self-isolation movie if you need one. Damiani had been a designer himself, and one way the film does resemble THE DEVILS is in its look — specifically it reminds me of the papal library, ironically one of the few location scenes in that film — Derek Jarman repurposed what was actually a prison.

THE TEMPTER stars Gudrun Brangwen; Jesus; Lizzie Kavanaugh; Emilio Largo; Johnny Spanish; Inspector A; Federico Arturo Von Homburg; and Goya.

THE INQUIRY aka L’INCHIESTA (1987) has a plot that sounds like a good airport novel: in the early years of persecuted Christianity, a Roman consul is tasked with locating the missing body of Christ. Soon put a stop to this resurrection nonsense. And the story is by two greats, Ennio Flaiano (EIGHT AND A HALF) and Suso Cecchi D’Amico (THE LEOPARD).

Keith Carradine is Tito Valerio Tauro and Harvey Keitel is Pilate. A year later he would be Judas for Scorsese. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride… Phyllis Logan is Mrs. Pilate and Sal Borgese turns up to add an echo of spaghetti western days.

It’s a riveting detective drama with a classical history setting. “Ay, Jesus, whaddaya doin’ makin’ crosses for da Romans?” is how a friend caricatured Keitel’s performance in LAST TEMPTATION. It never bothered me, the American accents. Carradine seems to sense that his Californian drawl could be a problem, and tries to smuggle in some Anglo vowels, which is mostly distracting. He still pronounces “stupidly” as “stoopidly.”

A good rule might have been to cast Americans as Romans and Italians as everyone else, but things get a bit mixed up. It doesn’t really do to get religious about these things: cast good actors in roles that suit them and all will be well.

As the investigation goes on, things get intriguing — could Christ have faked his own death? — the Laughing Jesus Heresy (my favourite!) is hinted at, and a miraculous catalepsy-inducing drug is tested — then things get crazy and mystical. Damiani, a Marxist apparently, is perhaps mainly interested in how old power structures can be destabilised by new ideas — Tiberius is right to be worried! — but the Bible stories still exert a hold. Travelling into the wilderness at risk of his life — deep undercover — Keithus Carradinus is at first mistaken for the Messiah — shades of LIFE OF BRIAN — and then momentarily becomes convinced he IS him. Offers to cure a leper or two. “What am I saying? get away from me!”

THE INQUIRY stars Will Rogers; Judas; Lady Jane Felsham; Lucky Luciano; Anna Magnani; Messala; and Henchman.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: A Fistful of Nails

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2022 by dcairns

There are a surprising number of crucifixions in spaghetti westerns: here are some of them.

I wanted to start with teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter because his Calvary was in Spain, like so many of the crucified cowpokes and such pictured here, but Hunter doesn’t say the line I needed him to say, so I resorted to Max Von Sydow for the second bit. Max’s Golgotha is a Hollywood sound stage, but his Holy Land generally was Utah, an acceptable western landscape.

Alex Cox, in his study 10,000 Ways to Die, traces the injury to the hand motif, first scene in the Italian west in DJANGO, to THE MAN FROM LARAMIE and ONE-EYED JACKS, which seems bang-on. OEJ is probably the more direct influence, and as Cox points out, it also introduces the dilatory, Hamlet-like hero who hangs about for unclear reasons until his opponents can get him. Which is one of the few things the hero of JOHNNY HAMLET shares with his Shakespearean namesake.

This observation is one of my favourite bits of Cox criticism. Brando’s revisionist western, coloured by his streak of sadomasochism, seems like an ur-text for the Italian west, with its amoral hero and generalized corruption, almost as much as YOJIMBO.

But the crushed or perforated gun-hand also calls to mind the biblical cross, perhaps the one big ur-text of Italian cinema. (Cox also points out that Terence Stamp in TOBY DAMMIT is in Rome to star in “the first catholic western”; and that his payment, a Cadillac Ferrari, is also what Pasolini got for appearing in Lizzani’s western REQUIESCANT: he doesn’t draw the obvious inference that TD is in part a swipe at Pasolini, a former script collaborator of Fellini’s. Fellini we know often resented members of his team when they went to work elsewhere. But Toby is also based on Edgar Poe himself, and on Broderick Crawford, alcoholic movie star who came to Rome for Fellini’s IL BIDONE.)

The Italian gothic cinema, surprisingly, isn’t so crucifixion-heavy, and nor is the peplum, despite the obvious possibilities (but there’s plenty of sadism with the attendant homoerotic element); for all its violence, the giallo doesn’t evoke Christ overmuch; why not? You have to go to the spate of seventies EXORCIST knock-offs to find such an orgy of crosswork.

The Sunday Intertitle: Dawn

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2022 by dcairns

The last scene of MODERN TIMES… the Tramp’s last scene as a silent character… is composed of just four shots, with intertitles.

A lovely view of the empty road — pan onto a hard shoulder and a full-figure two shot of Charlie and the Gamin sat at the roadside. He is making his feet more comfortable for the long walk ahead, and after presumably a long walk behind. She is tightening her bindle.

Match cut on this movement to a medium shot of the G. She becomes tearful. Rather than a cut, a moment after she buries her face in the crook of her arm to sob (Paulette Goddard, despite her showgirl origins and never having been in a silent film before, is more like a silent movie actor in this, as the term is usually understood, than anyone else), the camera pans to Charlie, whistling, and then noticing (it being a genuinely silent scene, her sobs do not travel). Pan back with him as he shifts closer to comfort her. So this one shot does the business of three.

Charlies gives a pep talk and they hit the road — a match cut on their getting up leads us into a heroic wide shot, trucking back as our stars advance down the road at us. The classic Chaplin head-to-toe composition but with a relatively rare camera move (though MODERN TIMES is more mobile than most).

Charlie reminds Paulette to “Smile” via pantomime. Which is the name of the song playing, but it hasn’t received a title or lyrics yet.

Chaplin jumps his camera 180 to show the couple retreat, backlit by the rising sun, up the shining asphalt lined with telegraph poles and scrubby palms towards hazy distant hills.

“There is every sign that he consciously recognised this was the last appearance of The Tramp, twenty-two years after his first appearance at Keystone in 1914. The optimistic end–for the first time Chaplin trots off towards the sunset [sic] not alone but in company with the girl, won at last–taken with the clown’s ultimate discovery of a voice, gave the film an air of finality.” ~ David Robinson, in the 1972 Sight and Sound review I got my hands on purely fortuitously last week.

I guess fortune plays a role here two — while Chaplin was thinking that time was running out for his brand of silent film, despite the box office success of this one. Nobody else was holding out against sound, we could argue that the story of MODERN TIMES simply demanded this ending, regardless of any desire to give the Little Fellow a suitable FINIS. Also, if CITY LIGHTS or THE CIRCUS had been Chaplin’s last appearance in character (we can say that the Jewish barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR, a talking character, is the same guy in costume but not wholly in character) they would gain in significance and also seem like magnificent, timeless curtain calls for the famous figure.

But MODERN TIMES, if you could somehow shuffle the filmography around, would lose out, at least in the pang of its ending. Other Chaplins where he apparently gets the girl, or a stable companion, are different: THE KID and CITY LIGHTS end with a slight question mark — how is this going to continue? Unanswerable in both cases — will the Tramp fit into Edna Purviance’s elegant household, is he going to marry the formerly blind flower girl? The movies stop at a point of beautiful affirmation but, as Walter Kerr noted, they HAVE to stop there, because what happens afterwards is a puzzle. The square one endings seen in THE TRAMP, THE CIRCUS, and many others, totally work in themselves, affirming the Tramp’s essential rootlessness. Only THE GOLD RUSH concocts a finale that seems to set out a forseeable life of ease. What all this demonstrates I guess is that Chaplin was so good at endings, any of these might have seemed a suitable note to end his tramping career on, GOLD RUSH alone lacking a really suggestive evocation of uncertainty.

MODERN TIMES’ last image suggests two contradictory ideas: our heroes walk off into the future, and the past. In 1936 and for some years after, it would surely have seemed possible to imagine them still out there, scrounging a living, Now, of course, that is a hard illusion to sustain. Both actors lived to a decent age, but are both gone, buried in Switzerland. The Tramp is immortal, but he belongs to the past. He’s out there in those hills, maybe, but they’re black-and-white hills, composed of light or celluloid not earth, alive with the sound of nothing.