Archive for Last Tango in Paris

Cox’s Orange Pippins: It’s not blood, it’s red

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2022 by dcairns

Giulio Questi’s only western, DJANGO KILL, which isn’t a Django film at all and was never intended to be one, is certifiably crackers.

“We need a name for this blood!” Fiona declared, astonished by the fluorescent red of the grue. “Not Kensington Gore, something else…” I suggested, since the film was shot at the FISTFUL OF DOLLARS town built at Hoja de Manzanares, a place which appropriately enough cannot be located by Google Maps, that Roja de Manzanares might be a good name for the lurid paint. There are great dollops of it splashed around in this, probably the most violent and demented spaghetti western ever shot.

Questi was planning DEATH LAID AN EGG, which is also demented — sort of a giallo only built around the theme of headless chicken farming — when the opportunity to make an Italian western fell into his lap. A producer had promised to make a bunch, and had no scripts. Questi saw this as an opportunity to deal with some of his experiences as a partisan in WWII, transposing them from the mountains of Italy to the deserts of the USA — except he had to recreate these in a quarry in Spain.

Questi chose a highly significant collaborator for his script, Franco “Kim” Arcalli, a film editor by profession. Arcalli would later co-writer LAST TANGO IN PARIS with Bertolucci and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA for Leone. Bertolucci, revisiting LAST TANGO, pronounced himself bewildered by “all this frenzy.” So I think Arcalli can be considered a major contributor to the frenzy of DJANGO KILL! (a film with several working titles and several that don’t work at all — Questi’s preferred name was IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT!, but he acknowledged that the film’s spurious connection to the DJANGO pseudo-franchise had perhaps aided the movie’s longevity — “Films are forgotten, but genres go on forever.”

Without the biographical info, it’s hard to know what aspects of Questi’s partisan period are being dealt with here. A “half-breed” stranger, Tomas Milian, is betrayed by his allies after an army payroll robbery and shot. The film opens with his hand apparently reaching from a grave. two itenerant Indians nurse him back to health, and make him some gold bullets to kill his enemies, in exchange for him recounting his experienes of the afterlife. This he never seems to actually do, alas.

The film’s wildest scene, of many candidates, may be the bad guys arriving in the film’s nameless town, known to the Indians only as “The Unhappy Place.” Tracking shots show the usual glimpses of townsfolk from the newcomers’ viewpoint, but these are all wildly horrible and squalid: adults abusing children, children abusing each other, men hitting women, women biting men, weird, crippled animals, a madwoman at a window. A mysterious bit of cloth being dragged behind something. Remember the creepy hand fumbling with milkbottles in the stair in LAST TANGO?

This town might as well be called Bastard. By the time non-Django arrives, all his enemies but one have been lynched by the townsfolk, and the gold is in the hands of the bartender and the storekeeper, who would now be our de facto baddies except there’s also the bandit leader with his blackshirted homosexual muchachos. The two factions of FISTFUL have fragmented further. The townspeople commit random acts of violence on their own, like gorily scalping one on non-D’s Indian chums.

The other most unpleasant moments include a startling, Fulciesque sequence where the townsfolk turn into ghouls, manually digging the golden bullets from a still-living bad guy’s body. Prosthetics and blood capsules are rare in the Italian west, though Fulci himself seems to have used them in his two oaters, and Questi doesn’t hold back here with graphic closeups of digital penetration of a rubber torso or maybe a pork belly, enthusiastic assistants pumping the red red kroovy up from under the table.

Questi, supposedly no fan of Leone, Corbucci, et al, proves adept at cramming his Technicsope frame with leering, sweaty, sadistic, orange faces. I always think of Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross, and I certainly always think of Catholicism’s foundational execution and its crowds of unsympathetic witnesses.

And then there’s a Corman-style inferno, started by the Jane Eyre madwoman in the attic character. Rushing to get his gold, the miser opens a high-up unit and the melted loot pours over his head… all while townsfolk gaup idly outside, chuckling at the property depreciation on fiery display. The inhumanity isn’t just perpetrated man on man, or woman or child, fate or the filmmaker seems to take an active hand in it.

So, yes, this is a fucked-up picture. Arcalli’s editing includes lots of flash-cut PTSD blipvert flashbacks, including upside-down shots. The whiteness of the “desert” becomes a positive boon here, contributing greatly to the violence of the day/night strobe effect.

Everybody in this film is bad or mad or both. Questi describes the barkeeper’s teenage son as “an innocent,” but the film’s main attempt to characterise him shows him furiously slashing his stepmother’s clothing to shreds. Then he’s raped by blackshirts and commits suicide. So it goes.

And oh yes, the music. While AND GOD SAID TO CAIN enjoyed a fanfaretastic, high energy sub-Morricone score by Carlo Savina (LISA AND THE DEVIL), Questi here enlists experimental composer Ivan Vandor (BLACK JESUS), who provides mainly one nodalong horsey trot tune, whose effect, dropping unchanged onto the optical track at regular intervals to comment on the latest atrocity, seems to be to say “Nothing to see here, nothing’s changed, business as usual in The Unhappy Place…”

Much of the violence is curiously un-disturbing, thanks to all that vivid red goop acting as a crimson alienation effect. When non-D is crucified in a cell full of iguanas and fruitbats, it’s more surreal than horrific. But the tabeltop vivisection and the liquid gold facial are authentically horrific. Tonino Della Colli’s cousin Franco shoots the film, and it tends to look overlit, but there’s one great dingy saloon sequence and the slate-blue day-for-night scene’s are unusually realistic.

Questi was evasive and bland when asked about his film’s extreme content, according to Cox’s 10,000 Ways to Die. “The cross has no Christian significance… in a West made up essentially of men, the homosexuality was logical.” If this stuff had personal significance for him, it’s easy to guess why he might indulge in a sort of shuffle between acknowledgement and obfuscation.

Cox’s description of the film as Bunuelian seems apt, though the great Don Luis never made a vision of hell quite as extreme and Gothic as this. Still, for all their shared surrealism and extreme content, Bunuel seems to me more able to genuinely unsettle. DK(IYLS) is maybe too one-note in its parade of abominations to really get under the skin the way the townsfolks fingers do.

Cox: “I find the acting in DJANGO KILL excellent. But it;s a certain kind of acting. There’s a ludicrous, ‘coarse acting’ quality to some of the supporting characters: the ‘mystical’ Indians and the supporting townspeople who look like they’ve been shot from a cannon, through a jumble sale.” Yes!

Cox also notes the aberrant English accents in the dub: even one of the Indians seems to hail from Surrey or someplace, and not the sierras. He envisions some drunken late-night dubbing session in “a low-end Soho recording studio” and admits this madness enhances rather than harms the film’s deeply bananas affect. He’s not wrong.

I can’t quite bring myself to conclude that this film, whatever it’s called, is a GOOD film. But it’s certainly a wonderfully strange one, up there with EL TOPO in terms of crazed visionary zeal and misplaced enthusiasm. Genuine genius and delusions of same rub shoulders and strike sparks. Cox, as a lad in the Wirral, found Italian westerns to be the genre that most captured the insane, brutal anarchy of the comprehensive school playground. I felt more or less the same, though I never achieved temporary blindness through being bashed on the head, though I knew a boy whose vision went monochrome for a day for the same reason.

More pasta with ketchup soon! And more on the fascinating Questi.

DJANGO KILL / IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT! stars Tepepa; Terry Brown, 077’s partner; Odysseus; Frank Rainer; President Madero; Coronel Salcedo; Ernest Hemingway old; and Uncle Pink.

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.

 

Two Deaths

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2018 by dcairns

Bernardo Bertolucci evidently hoped to make more films before getting the cancer that killed him. Nic Roeg, after writing his autobiography, had grown frail in mind and body, and would not have been able to. Still, we wish it were otherwise. The fact that Roeg was unable to make his own projects for so long is deplorable, an extraordinary tragedy to add to the more mundane fact of death. (“This isn’t the worst,” Von Stroheim is said to have lamented on his death-bed. “The worst is that they stole twenty years of my life.”)

To a friend, Roeg freely admitted to trading on his reputation with nonsense like SAMSON AND DELILAH (with Liz Hurley! On the basis that Baby Spice hadn’t been discovered yet, I suppose). He clearly wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who could be a gun-for-hire and still bring his distinctive sensibility into play. His work was cerebral, and if the underpinnings weren’t there, you couldn’t expect a gloss of Roegian affect. Bertolucci was lucky enough never to have to make a biblical epic for HBO, though he’d probably have been a better choice for the task.

I first caught a glimpse of Roeg’s work when Barry Norman, presenting Film 83 on the BBC, showed us what the programme (and he himself) had looked like when it started ten years earlier, and there, startlingly, was a clip of a sodden Donald Sutherland screaming in slow motion, holding his drowned child, a trail of droplets raining from her toe, as a slide of a church dissolved into a lurid phantasmagoria of colours. I immediately knew I had to see this film, even thought (or BECAUSE) I had no idea what the images meant.

I looked the film up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, and surprisingly, if you know Halliwell, he actually managed to capture some of the strangeness I had felt, though I think he also managed to (a) spoiler the ending and (b) render the plot garbled and meaningless in a single two-line synopsis.

   

Then there was a Guardian lecture at the NFT, broadcast by the BBC again, where we saw clips from other Roeg movies including his latest, EUREKA!, which I was able to rent on VHS a bit later. I may need to revisit it to see if I still feel that the beginning is great and the rest, progressively less great. By the time INSIGNIFICANCE came out, I think I’d caught up with the earlier films and been blown away. Even if I didn’t always enjoy or understand the experience first time round, some blowing-away always took place. I used to alternately hate and then love BAD TIMING each time I watched it, and even though half the time was no fun, I couldn’t stop watching it. On VHS!

ARIA screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival but I can’t actually recall if Roeg took to the stage for the intro. Ken Russell was there with a plastic cup impaled on the end of his golf umbrella and that rather stole all the thunder, I’m afraid.

I think the first one I was able to see on a first run at the cinema was CASTAWAY (maybe that’s worth revisiting? It was one he really wanted to make). Barry Norman previewed it, saying he’d seen a rough cut with the director sitting right behind him muttering, gloomily, “It is what it is, I suppose…”

A guy I know worked on a script for Roeg. He said a lot of the script notes were just muttering, really, but then you would get these blinding flashes of brilliant insight. And Roeg would turn up on TV interviews, muttering quite dreamily to himself, the words sometimes completely indecipherable, then snapping into sharp focus. Kind of like what my developing mind would experience when struggling through the denser passages of his films.

Another guy I know worked for years and years to get another Roeg movie made, and he was absolutely certain Roeg was still a master, powers undimmed, if only the right project could be launched. This was a kind of Jekyll & Hyde story, and when the idea of an octogenarian Roeg helming the whole thing came to seem unduly optimistic, the plan became to have one, younger director for Jekyll while Roeg handled Hyde, or maybe it was the other way around. Donald Sutherland was up for starring, and when scheduling conflicts intervened, Ruther Hauer was slotted in. But the financing never came together.

I don’t have such a clear image of when Bertolucci impinged on my mind, but Paul Schrader discussing him on The South Bank Show (ITV this time) would have brought THE CONFORMIST into my ken. I hadn’t even seen TAXI DRIVER at this point, I think, and the interview made me rent that and RAGING BULL and probably AMERICAN GIGOLO but Bertolucci had to wait until BBC2’s Film Club, I think, screened THE CONFORMIST, and then there was THE LAST EMPEROR at the cinema, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS at the University Film Society (but maybe at one of the Cameo’s late-night double features first, with something unsuitable like BETTY BLUE).

Channel 4 (see how television used to play such an active role in cinephilia) showed 1900 over two nights, and I watched it with my parents, treating it as a big miniseries, and my dad summed up the weird, allegorical ending with a quite literal interpretation that turned out to be exactly what BB had in mind. I can only assume that screening was censored at least a bit, because there are SO many WTF images in there that I can’t imagine my parents lasting ten minutes. Fiona’s face nearly fell off when I ran it for her.

While the experimental arm of commercial cinema in which Roeg had been able to work — the very fag-end of British sixties cinema — sputtered out and left him to waste his time on hackwork — Bertolucci was somehow able to keep making personal films. What hurt him, I think, was the end of the arthouse cinema he’d come out of, and the end of the hope for a particular revolutionary change in society which had animated his vision. The man who made STEALING BEAUTY and BESIEGED was still talented, but I think he’d lost key elements of his relationship to the world, so that his talent didn’t know quite where to go. He gamely kept at it.

We saw him in Bologna a few years ago, in his wheelchair with the Mondrian wheels. I was going to say “I love your wheelchair” and then I realized who he was and would have added “and your work!” but he had a big guard standing over him making sure nobody interrupted his chat with the guy from Variety. So I didn’t get to have an encounter as charming as the one I heard about from a friend of a friend on the internet, who had approached him at a cafe and asked, “Those colours in THE SHELTERING SKY… was that what the desert was like, or were they created?” to which BB replied, “They were created… for you.”