Archive for Caligula

The Orphic Triangle

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2020 by dcairns

I hadn’t seen LAST TANGO IN PARIS for a long time but remembered it being interesting. Fiona hadn’t seen it in probably an even longer time and remembered it being boring. We watched it together for the first time and I was right.

But it was a really good illustration of Time’s effects: Fiona now found Brando sexy, whereas before he was just a creepy old guy. She also now found the film really funny, mostly thanks to Brando, who may be trying to take the mickey out of everything, suspecting that Bertolucci wanted to expose his raw inner being on celluloid or whatever: Brando perhaps is half-trying to make the film collapse under an attack of ridicule from within, and walk away from the rubble whistling as he had from so many other films.

He’s met his match.

Hard to imagine what this must have seemed like at the time when we were five and six years old and wouldn’t have been allowed in. Not only would the feigned sex have been startlingly graphic, considering a real movie star was involved, but the level of obscenity Brando comes up with in his improvised dialogue must’ve been an eye-opener. Fantasising about a threesome with a dying pig is… not normal. I believe even Nancy Friday would frown in consternation.

Thing is, despite the grotesque elements, this is an extraordinarily beautiful film. I don’t know if Storaro had sorted out his unique personal colour theories yet, but the variations on golden-brown he produces here are just sensational, and the combination with Gato Barbieri’s sax score is somehow just perfect. I was trying to figure out how Bertolucci came across this Argentinian jazzman whose previous movies as composer are obscure, but it’s the Pasolini connection: Barbieri is in PPP’s NOTES TOWARDS AN AFRICAN ORESTES.

But now — discovering I own a copy of David Thompson’s BFI Classic monograph on the film, I learn also that Barbieri’s wife worked on BEFORE THE REVOLUTION.

Awkward extratextual comedy as Marlon bemoans his spare tyre and his late wife’s lover show him his exercise bar. Years later, Brando would get one of those with the special boots you hang upside down from, but he was very heavy by this time and reportedly almost smothered inside himself. This goes along the story about him padlocking his fridge and then hiring the local burglar to teach him lockpicking, and the story about him making his own hypnosis tapes (“You will still be able to eat all the things you like, but you will eat less of them”) and others. There seems to be a cruel delight in Brando fat jokes, as there was with Welles, because we love to see great talents brought low… on the other hand, Brando’s fat stories are genuinely surprising and interesting.

One of the things about this film is that MB is still incredible attractive but right on the cusp of decay. And fear of aging, embodied in the film’s revulsion at the crumbly tangoists, is some kind of theme of the film, I guess. Images of death and decay. And grief. Brando’s monologue to his dead wife’s body made Dustin Hoffman run and hide behind a pillar when he saw it. I told this to Fiona but I had to repeat it like three times. Something about the anecdote appeared to be ungraspable.

Though Brando and Schneider are incredible presences and sexy people, I don’t find the sex scenes sexy, especially THAT one. Bertolucci’s betrayal of Schneider — adding the detail of the butter at the last minute to humiliate her — probably resulted in her being unwilling to trust filmmakers later on, and I don’t blame her. I think she acquired pretty good radar for when something was going to be a Bad Scene and ducking out of CALIGULA was a good call. Getting fired from THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE wasn’t necessarily a tragedy either — who wants to play an object?

What’s strange is that a distressing rape scene turned into a smutty joke for decades, and nobody used the obvious word “rape” when talking about the scene (the character’s seeming acceptance of what’s done to her obviously confused people but isn’t necessarily unrealistic — responses to sexual abuse cover a wide spectrum).

The British censor originally cut a few seconds from this scene. Bertolucci in interview smiled sweetly and said he had the feeling they did this “just to show… someone cares.”

The film’s obscenity and profanity do serve a necessary balancing function because the film might be in danger of vanishing up its own arse, without the aid of a dairy product as lubricant, if not for its sense of humour, which is mostly supplied by Brando. There’s even an Inspector Clouseau French accent joke: “Do you theenk I am a whirr?” “A what? Do I think you’re a whirr?” Another joke, cutting from the lovers groaning to a duck quacking into a rifle mic, might be one of Bert’s famous homages, to the early porno LE CANARD, but is probably just a bit of silliness. The editor is the co-writer…

Thompson’s book doesn’t offer a definitive theory of what the film really means or is about or why it exists, so why should I? But he does offer up T. Jefferson Kline’s reading of the story as a version of the Orpheus myth, though he’s a bit dismissive of the book it comes from, Bertolucci’s Dream Loom: A psychoanalytic study of cinema, which he calls “convoluted.” This idea does open up interesting possibilities, and if Paul is Orpheus (his bongos tying in with both the Greek’s lyre and Brando’s own musical proclivities) then I may have figured out why the empty apartment is on Rue Jules Verne, which has puzzled critics including Thompson. The association with science fiction, adventure, exploration and impossible voyages seems vague and unhelpful, but if the specific reference is Journey to the Centre of the Earth, then a ready connection to Orpheus in the Underworld may be drawn.

Bertolucci may have been hopelessly optimistic in assuming anyone in the audience would make this leap, but it’s better for this kind of reference to be obscure, provoking thought, rather than obvious, provoking smugness. Now excuse me while I go off and feel smug.

 

The Sunday Supertitle: Porn Yesterday

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2018 by dcairns

“I believe back in England the papers call you a merchant of death.”

“I know, I keep meaning to write and thank them.”

On the Adriatic private island of a rich arms dealer, a selection of toffs celebrate a “festival of Aphrodite,” justified by a rare astrological occurrence. That’s about it for plot, but the pre-WWI setting gives the coupling a prelapsarian poignancy. And the whole film is out of time: a stylish exercise in period erotica made just a year or two too late to succeed even in its own modest terms.

APHRODITE (1981) is a ripe piece of soft-focus softcore Eurosleaze which happens to be the last feature credit of Robert Fuest (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, THE FINAL PROGRAMME), a Shadowplay favourite. Fuest had his fingers burnt by AIP on his previous feature, THE DEVIL’S RAIN, any mention of which would cause him to become incandescent with rage even decades later. It’s a good thing that the subject of APHRODITE never came up, since this artsy and genuinely quite intellectual, or at least plausibly pseudo-intellectual, smut film suffered even more violence at the producers’ hands.

As well as finishing Fuest off (though he directed a fair bit of TV afterwards), this was the last writing credit for actor John Melson, who also attained screenplay credits on BATTLE OF THE BULGE and Alessandro Blasetti’s SIMON BOLIVAR). Unfortunately, he’s given very English dialogue to a pan-European cast who sound very odd saying it: it’s a film that feels badly dubbed even if it might not be. It’s also the last film of its cinematographer, Bernard Daillencourt, a specialist in “classy” porn (BILITIS, THE BEAST) who also participated in Raoul Ruiz’s THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING: he’s a participant in one of the film’s tableaux vivants. Not sure what became of him: probably rendered obsolete by changing trends in wank-fodder.

The whole thing is so sloppily released that this English-language version begins with a scene-setting text crawl — in French. I reproduce it here for Francophone smut-hounds/historians and so I can spuriously make this post a kind of Sunday Intertitle.

But the film’s quite pleasing in places, even as a ruin of what it might have been if someone hadn’t spliced a lot of grotty porn into the “classy” and “sensual” film Fuest shot. The pretty and pretty debauched people name-dropping Clausewitz while dropping their garments include Horst Buccholtz, a young Valerie Kaprisky, Delia Boccardo and Capucine. What they must have thought of the end product I can’t imagine. To make room for the heavier stuff, presumably those who took it upon themselves to butcher the movie must presumably have ditched plot scenes, since the runtime is under 80 minutes as it is, even with the added toe-sex (yes, someone has sex with a toe). The film as conceived may have been merely EMMANUELLE crossed with a Ferrero Rochet advert with a few historical allusions thrown in, but it was too smart an affair for somebody in charge. A shame: with his fetish for elegant production design and costumes as displayed in the PHIBES films and elsewhere, Fuest could have been trusted to stage a sexy, even kinky film without getting gross.

The, ah, inserts are rammed in willy-nilly, if you’ll forgive the expression, with the original music tracks (Dvorak, Mahler) allowed to continue as the only glue holding the film together. Bob Guccione’s hardcore additions to CALIGULA are comparatively elegantly worked into the narrative by comparison. Vulgarian artistic mutilations can be judged horrible or pleasing only by comparison, you know. Poor Fuest’s relatively delicate but still spicy sequences are interrupted by random organ close-ups, spliced in like commercials for genitalia. We don’t NEED commercials for genitalia!

While it’s true the original movie was, in every sense, kitsch — the sapphic writhings have the listless, lugubrious languidity so common to the late seventies, like all the young lesbians were on Valium to help them deal with being letched at by David Hamilton — it at least had a definite and consistent style, from what we can see here. I used to argue with a producer friend about the director’s creative rights. “Why should the director be presumptively right?” he would propose. “Surely others, equally involved, such as producers, have as much chance of being on the correct side of any artistic disagreement?” I kind of lean towards the assumption that if the director is, as Gilliam likes to say, the filteur rather than the auteur, having one consistent sensibility more or less in control of what goes in or stays out of a movie, will give the thing a cohesion it can’t have if a variety of sensibilities are imposed. So that, even when the director is WRONG, she or he is still the best person to make the choice.

At the end, somewhere offscreen an archduke is assassinated, and the rich shaggers prepare to get even richer as the world burns.

“Even in our new world, there’ll always be a place for you, and me.”

Bad Cinephile

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2017 by dcairns

I did get a lot watched on Monday at Il Cinema Ritrovato.

On Sunday there had been a discussion about whether to try the 1917 CALIGULA, since it partially overlapped a later screening I wanted to see, and a friend who shall remain nameless suggested just watching a bit. “You don’t need to see how it turns out,” he suggested. To another friend who had an overlap at the opposite end, he suggested, “You don’t need to see the beginning. What are you going to miss? The horse? You won’t miss the horse.” “Are you suggesting,” I asked, “that we treat CALIGULA like an installation?” But that is sort of what Monday felt like.

(In the event, CALIGULA was sold out to enthusiastic orgiasts before we got back from lunch.)

The day began with two by William K. Howard and one by Tod Browning, at the Cinema Jolly, which meant I could just take my seat and soak up three pre-code super-productions in as many hours. THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE was zippy (Lilian Bond, in her plummiest accent: “I’m going to show him how a warm momma gets hot!” Zasu Pitts: “I like horses, in a nice way of course.”), with rapid-fire patter and frequent whip pans, used to transport us across town, across a room, of back into flashback and out again. TRANSATLANTIC combined swank melodrama and crime with spectacular sets and camera moves. OUTSIDE THE LAW, the second film Tod Browning made under that title, had a strong story but, being a 1930 Browning, lacked pace. “Tod the Plod,” Andrew Moor Charlie Cockey called him. But it did have the bottomless man illusion, and a guest freak in the form of John George from TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS, in the role of Humpy the hunchback. I’m a John George completist so this made me happy. This is likely also the first film in which Edward G. Robinson says “See?” a lot, as a threat.

Then I went to THE TECHNICAL REFERENCE COLLECTION SHOW after lunch — we saw Technicolor reels from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, THE JUNGLE BOOK, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY… quite a range. HERCULES AND THE SLAVE GIRLS featured the line “This day is dedicated to Uranus.” Reg Park didn’t look as pleased as you might hope. Each reel ended JUST as we were getting snared by the narrative, so it was a frustrating as well as beautiful experience.

But these extracts set me off on a regrettable pattern of incompletion. I went to a programme of Russian fragments and saw the surviving reel of KULISY EKRANI (BEHIND THE SCREEN) from 1917, which stars Ivan Mosjoukine, Russia’s top film star, in the challenging role of Ivan Mosjoukine, Russia’s top film star. But the fictional version has lost an arm. It was good to see a younger Ivan, though he looked older than in KEAN. Other than that, I couldn’t tell much.

I’ve been seeing the Helmut Kautner films religiously because Olaf Moller told me to, and he’s bigger than me. But the Mosjoukine fragment made me late for EPILOG – DAS GEHEIMNIS DER ORPLID and it was standing room only at the back. I stayed through the early subjective camera stuff, then the soft-titles disappeared just as Fritz Kortner showed up. I slipped away quietly —

— and into KEAN, where I wanted to see the new restorations tinting and toning, which was indeed lovely. But three hours of Mosjoukine seemed rather ambitious after five and a half hours in the dark, so I slipped silently off to TWO MONKS, the biggest challenge to wakefulness yet.

This early thirties Mexican melodrama has stunning sets, interesting camera moves and cutting, beautiful lighting and some Gothic horror hallucinations which are very striking, but it’s also slow to develop and tells a slightly dull story TWICE. So I did nod off a bit and found myself dreaming more exciting plot developments, which sadly were knocked out of my head by the real story when I awoke.

Then I dined with Neil McGlone and his lovely wife Justine, and hit the Piazza Maggiore, which proved to be ram-packed — no seats, so I sat on the warm stone and saw the prelude to Gance’s LA ROUE with Arthur Honegger’s newly discovered orchestral score played live for the first time in, what, ninety years? That was something. But it was another fragment. And I was too tired to watch more than ten mins of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN afterwards.

A day in pieces. Leaving me feeling the same way, but happy.