Archive for Cabiria

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Film Within the Film

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , on June 9, 2019 by dcairns

MACISTE (1915) is an earl meta-narrative, being not only a sequel to CABIRIA, of a sort, but a film which CONTAINS its predecessor. “Here I shall try to explain myself, lest I be suspected of madness or indulgence in symbolism,” as Maxim Gorky is always saying.

We have a damsel in distress, fleeing pursuers. Where better to take refuge than a cinema?

In the movie theatre, our heroine happens to see CABIRIA, which is reworked for dramatic purposes so that the credits claim that Maciste is the tar of the film, rather than a supporting character played by Bartolomeo Pagano:

Great tinting and toning and matting!

Inspired by the heroic antics onscreen, our heroine sends move star Maciste a fan letter/distress call, because when you’re in trouble, you don’t want the police, you want a former dock worker turned movie actor.

We then get a lovely glimpse of the Itala Film studios, viewed with the exploratory moving camera unique to Italian cinema at that time:

And then we meet Maciste Pagano, getting into character by weightlifting three men and a dumbbell. Of course, when he gets the note from “a helpless young girl pursued by powerful evil-doers,” he drops everything and rushes to the rescue.

This wacky narrative device performs two helpful functions: it means that CABIRIA sequels starring Pagano need not be costly (and I mean REALLY costly) period epics, and it means that Pagano can ditch the shoe polish that turned him into a Nubian slave, appearing with something as near his own skin tone as the quirks of orthochromatic film stock will allow. Which maybe made him a more popular or anyway acceptable fantasy figure for audience members like this film’s “helpless young girl,” and had another effect nobody at the time could have predicted: it allowed Pagano to continue playing the role after the rise of the blackshirts.

The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

belle et la bete end

More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.