Archive for Cabiria

Muscle Mary of Scotland

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2012 by dcairns

Like his Gothic spookfest THE GHOST, Riccardo Freda’s MACISTE IN HELL begins with a witch-burning in Scotland. As is traditional in these affairs (dating back directly to MASK OF SATAN, but beyond that to, I guess, I MARRIED A WITCH) the witch curses the townspeople who are about to immolate her.

A title tells us that a hundred years has passed, and suddenly an outbreak of madness is afflicting the women of “Loch Laird” — no reason why the curse should take a century to come into effect, except that it’s impressive yet inexpensive to say “100 years later” in a film of this kind.

And now Charley Law, a young cavalier, rides up with his betrothed, a descendant of the original witch, planning to honeymoon in the bat-infested ancestral castle. An angry mob of torch-wielding villagers promptly batters down the door using one of the few un-tossed cabers in Scotland, and takes his bride into jolly old custody. It looks like she’s going to become a barbecue like her ancestor –

And then Maciste — former Carthaginian slave in CABIRIA (1914), but since then a fair-skinned righter-of-wrongs in a geographically diverse series of 60s peplums (pepla? what’s the plural here?)  – rides up. Nobody questions the abrupt presence of a bodybuilder in a loincloth in 18th century Scotland, they don’t even ask him his name. They just seem to understand. That’s us Scots — an understanding people.

Since we’re in Loch Laird, I’m going to start calling him MacChesty. He’s a sort of naked Lone Ranger figure, and he promptly descends into Hell (located beneath a local cursed tree) to sort things out. This involves MacChesty wrestling a lot of stuffed animals and quizzing Sisyphus and Prometheus, making inquiries, like Columbo in baby oil.

Kirk Morris, in the lead, brings pecs and an Elvis sneer to the part, along with the towering screen magnetism of a polystyrene boulder.

Most of the animal action involves intercutting fake snakes, eagles and lions with the real thing — the live, but very sleepy lion is actually a lioness in drag, adorned with a fake mane. Freda, who is absolute tops in my list of genius-or-idiot? filmmakers, boldly cuts back and forth between Kirk Morris with his frosted highlights earnestly throttling products of the taxidermist’s art in graphic close-up, to longshots where the animals are slightly more animate. Too animate — after MacChesty “kills” the lion, it can be seen contentedly blinking and flapping its ears.

Freda is a filmmaker who loves special effects, but want us to appreciate just how “special” they are, by lingering upon them until their artifice becomes wholly transparent. See also the car crash at the start of A DOPPIA FACCIA, which quite unnecessarily rubs our noses in the substitution of a toy car for the real thing, and even jump-cuts a few tiny explosions in for good measure. “Audacious” doesn’t begin to describe it — and I truly don’t know if Freda is expressing his contempt for the material, or the audience, or a childlike love of magic tricks, or sheer helplessness in the face of a low budget (he began his career with expensive historical epics in the Mussolini era).

But even more thrilling is the fight with Goliath. Goliath laughs at MacChesty, so MacChesty tosses a caber at him. Then we get a great, audiacious, forced-perspective fight between Goliath, a large-ish actor, and some kind of muscular child or jockey doubling for Kirk M.

All the tricks are bold and cunning, and all of them are immediately transparent — my favourite is this one, where Morris stands far enough behind Goliath so he’ll look smaller, and a pair of small plastic hands pretend to throttle the chucklesome titan.

F Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but I reckon he was really talking about Italian muscle pics. To pad this one out, we get a montage of Maciste’s greatest hits since 1960, which further develops Freda’s genius for overt, eye-popping juxtapositions, since more of the movies sampled feature different actors playing MacChesty.

The original Maciste, Bartolomeo Pagano, bowed out in 1927. In 1960 the character came back in the form of Mark Forest, who relayed it to a variety of similarly-bulbous he-beings — surely there’s a parallel there with the way German cinema after the war revived characters like Mabuse from its pre-Fascist past, as if to forge a continuity that circumvented the problematic era. At any rate, I’m glad they did, and Freda, the one Italian cineaste who truly rejected neo-realism and everything it stood for, was a natural recruit to the genre.

The Sunday Intertitle: Eventide

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2010 by dcairns

Concluding out short series of silent Italian epics with the mother of them all, CABIRIA.

“It had everything but a plot.” ~ camera assistant Karl Brown’s double-edged review isn’t quite accurate: Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone’s script fairly creaks with plot, but it lacks an obvious throughline, since the plight of Cabiria, separated from her rich Roman parents, isn’t the central focus of all the action, and we keep switching to new characters whose importance hasn’t been established. The bit everybody remembers, Cabiria’s rescue by muscleman Maciste from sacrifice to a pagan god, occurs about an hour in and is followed by a whole bunch of new characters appearing and wresting the storyline right off the tracks.

Meanwhile ~ which intertitle do you prefer? I have to deplore the tendency to throw away beautiful old intertitles like the one at top, while adding bland and anachronistic-looking translations. Is subtitling that difficult? The marvelous hand-crafted titles of CABIRIA are part of its overall design. And good design is particularly important here since D’Annunzio’s titles are so damn wordy.

The design also includes things like the spectacular (and uncredited) sets, which inspired Griffith’s INTOLERANCE and its Hollywood Babylon, the special effects by Eugenio Bava (Mario’s dad), including a furiously erupting Mt. Etna, and the gliding camerawork, made possible by Segundo de Chomon’s custom-built dolly, the first of its kind.

The previous Italian super-productions we’ve examined have been both much shorter and much more static, from a camera placement point of view. THE FALL OF TROY provides us with a slow pan, sweeping this way and that to more-or-less follow the action, but Pastrone here attempts something quite new. The purpose of his tracking shots was to explore the sets, which were so big they utterly dwarfed the actors. If you began with an establishing shot, the human figures were practically dots, but a shot framed for the cast would exclude the magnificent backdrops. Pastrone’s goal was to somehow combine an extreme long shot with a more conventional head-to-toe framing (he rarely goes as close as a medium shot).

The effect of the moves is interesting. The settings come alive as three-dimensional constructions (no matte paintings here, just the occasional volcanic miniature) which we can move through, almost like players in a big vidgame. Dramatically, on the other hand, the slow steady drift inwards at the start of almost every scene/shot, and the rhyming drift out at the end, have a slightly flattening effect, making everything seem calm and stately. Even though the plot is three hours of war, torture (much of it censored in most extant copies) and frenetic running around, the mood conjured by Chomon’s steady trundle is one of tranquility.

It was a lesson learned by Griffith, whose chase scenes had often been followed by a car-mounted camera as breathless as the action. Perhaps the Italians didn’t notice that this had the effect of intensifying the mood, since the primary aim was obviously to simply keep the subjects in frame as they motored along. When Griffith made his own ancient world epic, with elephant statues cribbed from Pastrone, he shot Belshazzar’s feast celebrations with two cameras mounted on an elevator, mounted on a track. This prototype of the camera crane allowed him to move in on a single figure amid the cavorting multitude, while dropping from a bird’s eye perspective to one of human level. And the effect has sweep and grandeur, perfectly matched to the emotional mood of the scene.

Nevertheless, CABIRIA was there first, and there’s something interesting and soothing about the way the camera movement reduces the sense of danger that the rest of the film is working to attain. It’s a little like being thrust into CONAN THE BARBARIAN after necking a 10 mg of valium.* And this leads to me to a couple of sweeping generalizations: while American films moved the camera to follow the action and European ones used it to explore space, American films used the emotional power of the movement to emphasize the mood of the scene, while European ones used it to complicate, to add something new. But don’t take that idea too seriously!

*Maciste is at one point tethered to a giant millstone, just like Arnie in the John Milius loincloth extravaganza.

The Sunday Intertitle: Borgnetto and Pastrone attempt a pan

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2010 by dcairns

THE FALL OF TROY, from 1911, represents a massive advance in scale and sophistication from NERO, OR THE FALL OF ROME, made just a few years earlier. But what it doesn’t have is a greater sense of real involvement with the action, since it’s still played out in a not-too-elaborate version of the tableau style, where the camera observes from a distance as the Italian cast move about and gesticulate. While other film-makers in Europe were moving their cast in depth as well as from side to side, so as to achieve medium shots while still shooting each scene as a static wide without cuts, these Italian epics more or less treat the action as a view from the front of the stalls.

One difference is that the intertitles are a little less anxious to spell out everything we see — in NERO, they tend to “spoil” every scene by telling us the outcome before we’ve had a chance to see the action. That’s a little less the case here, where using more title cards allows the filmmakers to deliver the story in smaller morsels.

But there’s one big moment (among many spectacular scenes) where Luigi Romano Borgnetto and Guiseppe Pastrone (who would go on to make CABIRIA) break out of the static pattern and attempt a pan. Tremulously, they scan the scene of the Greek armada anchored not far from Troy. A swimmer arrives with the news that the Trojans have taken the bait and wheeled the big wood horsie into their citadel. Oddly, rather than panning across the scene with the swimmer, they start on Agamemnon and company, then begin panning off, without obvious motivation. The Greeks suddenly point, as if urging the camera onwards, and we discover the intrepid spy  swimming past the impressive fleet (I think it’s one or two life-sized ships and some big miniatures). Now we follow him back to shore, and even pan back to the nearest ship as it’s prepared for boarding, then back to the Greek army, then back to the ship as they climb aboard.

It’s a mixture of traditional narrative movement, following that which is important to keep it in frame, and something new. When the Italians really got into camera movement, they moved the camera in order to explore the world of the film, rather than to follow the subjects around or to increase the sense of drama in a moment, which were and are the American uses of movement. I think you can still see this approach to the moving camera in Bertolucci, who likes to move without seeming motivation.

But for real dolly shots, you have to wait a week. That’s not so bad, the Italians had to wait three years.

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