The Sunday Intertitle: A Filthy Messe

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , on August 12, 2018 by dcairns

MESSE NOIRE is a vintage porno I discovered shortly after making NATAN — it seems to be one of the few surviving stag films that Professor Joseph Slade did NOT atttribute to Bernard Natan. My source says 1928, but the IMDb doesn’t even admit the film exists, so who knows? From the hairstyles, the date seems possible, but often these movies seem older than they are — porn films stayed silent for decades after their respectable counterparts started gabbing.

Maybe Prof Slade hadn’t seen this five minute black mass orgy, or maybe it struck him as an unlikely fit for the Jewish Natan, but then that didn’t stop him attributing other films with Catholic-baiting themes to the mogul, whose porn conviction dated from almost two decades before this — personally, I think it’s extremely unlikely he had any further dabblings in illicit film-making, and we don’t know anything about the extent of his supposed involvement in porn since so few smut films survive from that era. Also, the actors Slade identified as being Natan in LE MOINE, LE CANARD etc, are a disparate group of obviously different individuals, not one person, and only one of them has a passing resemblance to Natan. But you can see that in later films, aging and going to seed as he continues to cavort unphotogenically, until even that pseudo-resemblance is gone.

I want to be fair: Slade was unable to refer back to the films he wrote about, which were shut away in the Kinsey Institute, so he had to go on his notes and years-old memories. But then he shouldn’t have claimed a positive identification.

MESSE NOIRE has surprising production values — a set of sorts, rather than just sheets draped over walls, though it looks depressingly like somebody’s basement — and a large cast of nudes of various shapes. There’s some solemn moving about with candles, a kind of ceremony, and then some whipping gets started. Jump cuts cause whip marks to appear on the ecstatically writhing victim, which reassures us that they aren’t real. Strange editing causes them to appear and disappear from shot to shot.


The editing throughout is extremely peculiar, with some match cuts and some action replays of the same movements from different angles. Few of these films seem to have been made by respectable professionals who knew what they were doing, which is more evidence that Natan, an experienced professional who knew every aspect of filmmaking from the ground up, wasn’t involved in any of them.

The whipping, curiously enough, is the most appealing bit of the sex action — we then plunge into full-on hardcore orgiastic shenanigans, which appear very grimey and unappealing indeed via the film’s fuzzy, splicey image quality. It just turns into a drab documentary about some sex that some people had in a basement.

But then things are redeemed a touch by the sudden appearance of a THE END card, which looks like it took somebody hours.

A bit depressing how they couldn’t be bothered giving anyone faces, mind you. Almost a metaphor for the whole porn business.

The lies and misapprehensions in the case of Bernard Natan die hard, so I shall repeat for anyone reading hastily: he didn’t make this film.

He didn’t make any porn film extant today. We don’t really know anything about the porn he was accused of making except that it was pre-1910. He spent the following twenty-nine years making legit films but lies were printed in the French press which postdated his porn conviction to after WWI. Those stories have been repeated by people who are not themselves rabid antisemites (Prof Slade, Black Francis, myself, in my first Wikipedia-inspired post on the subject) but who are too fond of a good story, whether it be proven or not.

NATAN the movie can be bought here (UK) or here (FR).


Through the ceiling

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 11, 2018 by dcairns

Last of my short series on moments in TAXI DRIVER.

After the big shoot-out/massacre, Travis slouches onto the couch with a gaping hole in his neck and greets the first responders by putting a blood-dripping finger to his head and miming blowing his brains out —


— and Scorsese retreats to directly overhead, looking down through a slit cut in the floor or the rooms above (the building was condemned, fortunately), tracking away from Travis, across the mayhem left around him, and out the door.

We get surprising and unfamiliar views of a ceiling lamp and a doorway from above. I showed this to a friend one-time who was unimpressed, feeling that since these angles are eccentrically removed from anything we ever experience in life, they were tricksy and essentially ineffective. I disagree with this demand for Fordian austerity, for the following reasons —

It’s fun to see things from unusual angles! Admittedly, “fun” might be a peculiar sensation to be experiencing in this scene of horror, but visual pleasure complicates the emotions and makes the horror sing out.

It feels like an OOBE — an Out Of Body Experience, as if Travis’s consciousness has left his body and is drifting away. Now, that’s not literally what’s happening — unless it is, and the rest of the film is a dream Travis entertains himself with after death, which isn’t likely to be anybody’s FIRST interpretation of what’s going on in those strange scenes. But the feeling of projecting out of the body remains, and seems to be the main thing motivating the camera movement, at first, anyway. It turns into an exploratory move as the scene develops, retracing Travis’s bloody path into the building.

(Fiona points out that you don’t have to be dying to have an OOBE — you can just be so dissociated it just happens. Trauma — like having a chunk blown out of your neck – cn do it. And Travis is already having trouble staying in the moment, as seen in that shot where his POV descends into a glass of Alka-Seltzer.)

You could also relate it to a Hitchcockian God’s-eye-view, a frequent Scorsese trope — these overhead views are present when Travis first gets his job, recur in the boxing ring in RAGING BULL, return in force in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and are back in unheard-of abundance in SILENCE, suggesting that they do have something to do with religious feeling, the idea of a superior, observing force, superior even to us in the audience.

Tonally, the sequence is a kind of numbed lull, a respite from the trauma even while the brain matter is still oozing down the walls. So withdrawing from the scene, which we’ve been almost subjectively involved in, makes sense. Scorsese has found the most distant way possible of filming the action in this relatively confined space.

One other thing adds a kind of resonance. In the following sequence, as the camera continues drifting about Travis’s apartment, picking up items pinned to the walls, we see a newspaper report on the shooting incident, in which an artist has mapped out the scene with an overhead view exactly like Scorsese’s tracking shot, only stationary. They could be storyboard, or production designer’s plans.

The next clipping on the wall, btw, is the obligatory Catherine & Charles Scorsese cameo, as we see a still of Marty’s parents — playing Jodie Foster’s parents — watching the news. (The IMDb cat list, “verified as complete,” doesn’t tell us who voices Foster’s dad in this scene’s narration. I don’t think it’s Mr. S.)

Freud Vs Marx in the World Series of Love

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2018 by dcairns

THE LOCKET is best-remembered for its Russian dolls structure, with a flashback embedded in a flashback inside another flashback. Like INCEPTION, we go in, and in, and in, then out and out and out. But there are more pleasures than that, as any decent marital guide could tell you.

Director John Brahm was great at what animators call “extremes” — he could frame shots in such a way that the composition alone created a skewed, intense emotion — see this shot of Larraine Day, filmed from INSIDE her wedding veil. The ending of his version of THE LODGER seems composed almost entirely of extremes — Laird Cregar brought out the be(a)st in him.

Screenwriter Sheridan Gibney told Patrick McGilligan about writing this one, and being forced to compromise the ending by the Production Code. He wanted it to end with Larraine Day walking down the aisle with new hubbie Gene Raymond. The censors said she couldn’t, as she was a thief who had driven one man to madness and another to suicide. Gibney’s argument was that we didn’t know this — we have only Brian Aherne’s word for it, and he’s maybe mad… An interesting test case: the censor decided that crime must not pay, even when it’s only maybe crime and maybe never happened.

The IMDb lists blacklistee Norma Barzman as co-writer — Gibney didn’t mention her. But it’s tempting to see the two writers as embodying warring stances, the Freudian and Marxist influences on the script. Larraine Day is crazy, afflicted with kleptomaniacal compulsions caused by a traumatic incident in her childhood when she was unjustly accused of theft by nasty rich lady Katherine Emery (maybe the film’s best performance, and a character who’s horribly convincing because she’s so certain she’s in the right). This sequence is buried in the deepest flashback of the set, the primal scene/inciting incident at the heart of Day’s, and the film’s, psychosis.

The Figure in the Carpet is Mitch!

Surrounding this traumatic memory is the Robert Mitchum section, and he plays an artist with a chip on his shoulder about rich folks, so the theme is continued, but kind of reversed, since in this story the rich people are nice and Mitchum is wrong to mistrust them. Mitchum’s story ends with one of the film’s periodic plunges into delirium and hysteria, and this sets up a similar freak-out in the Brian Aherne narrative (do keep up). Aherne’s story is less obviously about class, though he does continued to insist he has no money. He’s a psychiatrist who goes off his trolley as his doubts about his spouse — Day again — eat away at his nerves. At the climax of his breakdown, the art theme from the Mitchum storyline and the madness one from Aherne’s collide, in the movie’s most psychedelic image —

Mitchum’s crap Dali knock-off of an eyeless Cassandra suddenly acquires eyes — Larraine Day’s eyes!

Whew! And then we emerge, gasping, back into the present tense, where Day is about to marry the wealthy Raymond, completing a climb up the social ladder, and it turns out she’s marrying into nasty Katherine Emery’s family. The “stolen” locket that started the whole thing off is now hers by right. But this triggers a mental collapse, signified by flashbacks appearing in the carpet — the film has been so overstuffed with embedded narratives that they’ve spilled out and are now seeping into the furniture. Having swithered* between a cod-Freudian view of the problem, a superstitious one — Day’s madness infects Aherne — and the class-centred argument that social injustice screws us all up — the film now finds mercy for its demoness, with Raymond deciding to stick by her until she can be cured, despite Emery’s aghast reaction (good to see she really is the horrible person she appeared as in Day’s own flashback — but with this beat, the movie closes the door on the possibility of any of our various narrators being unreliable).

The above probably doesn’t make a lick of sense to you if you haven’t seen the movie. So see the movie! What am I, your mother?

*Your lovely Scots word for the day.