Archive for Luis Bunuel

Fear of Falling

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2019 by dcairns

11pm Halloween is when we were supposed to plummet from the European Union but that’s not happening — YET.

Here to mark the non-occasion is Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London, the silent film blog for everybody, not just cockneys. It’s an interesting week for silent film as a major moviemaker just dropped an entirely wordless short film into the BBC2 TV schedule. I can only imagine how this thing affected the unwary — reminds me of reports I’ve heard from those who stumbled on ERASERHEAD or O, LUCKY MAN! after a night at the pub…

Read it here.

Next up, guest Shadowplayer James Silk, who tweets as @afterglow2046, addresses a classic piece of Italian Gothic, a film set on Halloween night and therefore ideal for you to experience RIGHT NOW, knowing that as you do, the ghosts in the story will be going about their business…

For “Project Fear” I chose to write about the 1964 French/Italian Horror film Danse Macabre (or Castle of Blood to use its international title).

Danse Macabre had pretty inauspicious origins. It was made by Sergio Corbucci to reuse sets from a “Toto as a monk” comedy and cash in on the early 60s horror craze. When Corbucci became too busy, his friend Antonio Margheriti (or Anthony Daisies to use his international title) took over.

The film, shot in 12 days, on reused sets, by an affable journeyman, should be a trifle, a piece of hackwork. Yet I find it has some strange and beautiful things to say about time, death and sensuality.

I’ll try and explain why, although trying to explain an Italian horror film is often like trying to describe a lurid & disorganised dream.

Firstly Danse Macabre has one of the best opening credits imaginable “Based on a tale of Edgar Poe.”

Which leads one to ask “Which tale?”

Poe wrote about 70, and the story that unfolds bears little resemblance to any of them. A cynic might claim that the filmmakers were just trying to cash in on the popularity of Poe adaptations, but as we’ll see, there’s no place for such scepticism here…

The film opens with our protagonist Alan Foster (Georges Rivière ) walking down a studio street in what we’re told is London, England. He approaches an inn, where a gently swinging sign reads “Four Devils” (invoking Murnau?)

Foster enters, and beholds Edgar Allan Poe himself (Silvano Tranquilli) reciting “Berenice.”

It’s quite a suprise to see Poe here, both in “London” and in his “own story” (he wasn’t one for authorial cameos).

After Poe has finished, Foster introduces himself as a journalist, one who has been hounding Poe for an interview since he arrived in England. (and considering, historically. Poe never visited England, he must have been quite hard to find).

Foster immediately marks himself out as sceptic, someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. One of the most dangerous things to do in horror film, besides profess happiness.

Poe then remarkably claims that he is the same. He’s not a fiction writer at all, but a reporter like Foster, and every one of his stories are true. Poe is a mere observer of the real world, powerless against the horrors he witnesses. He can’t help it if the real world he keeps witnessing is incredible.

(Foster avoids asking “Then how the hell did you witness The Masque of Red Death??” because the film has the language of a nightmare, and because he is polite).

This is the first of many games with reality played throughout the film. In the film’s world:, fiction is true, reality is a dream, characters will lie throughout about their histories, their feelings, even their states of corporeal being.

A third man introduces himself: Lord Thomas Blackwood (played by the permanently pained looking Umberto Raho).

This being an inn, at night, in a horror film, Lord Blackwood quickly offers Foster a deadly wager: He challenges him stay in his castle that same night, until the morning of November 1st and win £100 for his troubles.

He explains it has to be this night, because during these hours “the dead come back again and re-enact the tragedies that cost them their lives.”

He also warns Foster that many others have tried to win the bet, but none have survived.

The “truth” of this film is everything explained here. Other characters will later question this, call Blackwood a liar, and they will all be proven to be deceivers.

Our sceptic (and cash-strapped) hero quickly accepts and, a brief carriage ride later, he is left at the castle until morning.

What then follows is 10 minutes of pure cinema. Wordlessly, Foster wanders around the house, exploring, finding decaying furniture and the odd piece of discarded clothing, occasionally startled by cats or slamming doors. Autonomous slamming doors are a recurring motif in the film, forcing Foster’s passage through the house, maintaining tension and punctuating scenes.

While watching the film, an accidental moment of utter eeriness occurred during this sequence, when my automatic subtitles interpreted the film’s eerie music as a voice saying “you”

Just as we’re settling into this strange, gentle rhythm, a new character enters: Elisabeth played by the legendary Barbara Steele (perhaps playing a distant descendant of her character “Elizabeth” in Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum).

Barbara Steele, the ultimate gnostic actress: the division of body and voice. So many times we see her in European films, her voice nearly always dubbed by others, yet her ethereal appearance shines through. Her incredible eyes & the spirit behind them always overwhelm these attempts at vocal possession. Steele’s remarkable appearance inadvertently evokes the theme of the film: sensuality as an overwhelming force.

Elisabeth tells him that she is Lord Blackwood’s sister, and that Foster has been deceived. The house is not abandoned, she lives here, hidden by her brother, because of a scandal. However every year, he sends her a visitor for company (and if you believe that, congratulations on your first ghost story.)

However Foster, the great sceptic, is completely taken in, enraptured by her presence.

Elisabeth asks him for news of the outside world, having been trapped here for so long. Foster cynically replies: “There is nothing new. People are born, others die every day, business seems as usual. In fact the world goes on and remains the same.”

A remarkable response.

Firstly this reminds me of Luis Bunuel’s poetic words on his death ”I’d love to rise from the grave every 10 years or so and go buy a few newspapers. Ghostly pale, sliding silently along the walls, my papers under my arm, I’d return to the cemetery and read about all the disasters in the world before falling back to sleep, safe and secure in my tomb.”

Secondly this strikes me as the best possible thing you could ever tell a ghost who has been trapped in a castle for years: basically, you’ve missed nothing.

Foster and Elisabeth are clearly besotted with each other, and as in a dream, within minutes they are confessing their passions and embracing.

As they make love, she cries out:

“Maybe your warmth can save me from this cold that imprisons me hopelessly. Alan, I’m alive only when I love.”

This line is the film’s core. This film is not about horror, but eroticism. The conventions of the Italian Gothic have the living fall in love with the dead (and vice-versa) but unlike say, Poe’s tales & poetry, this love is not platonic, but often an erotic love.

However this eroticism is interrupted by a very different kind of passion: To everyone’s surprise, a big half-naked muscular man bursts into the room and seemingly kills Elisabeth. Foster chases and shoots him, but then finds that both bodies have disappeared.

This big half-naked muscular man will haunt the rest of film, lurking in the shadows, bursting into rooms, attacking victims and stalking Foster with a leering smile. He is like passion personified: powerful, intense, and slightly ridiculous.

Margheriti actually dubbed him “The Macho.” This makes me wish for a whole franchise of “Macho” films, this mute burly figure invading every genre whenever things get dull.

Poor Foster, just as he is beginning to lose all grip on reality, the rational world (or a version of it) tries to reassert itself. The spectral figure Dr Carmus (Arturo Dominici) appears.

He tells Foster that he has just witnessed the presence of ghosts, but assures him that he, Dr Carmus is very much alive. By now you should be getting wise to these games, but Foster gratefully believes this.

Foster asks how Elisabeth can be a ghost when he touched her, felt her warmth Carmus takes Foster down to the library, and explains “the rules.”

“Three forms of life exist together in every human being: That of the body is the most fragile form.

Next, there is the spirit, which is indestructible (Thank you Italian Catholicism). Finally, there are the senses, which are not eternal, but which can survive long after death.

So in this film, if a human being is killed when their senses are undergoing an intense emotion, these senses live on, in a strange form, neither dead, nor alive.

It’s no wonder then, that we see these ghosts fight each other, even squabble throughout the film. Usually in horror films, ghosts are united (nothing to lose but their rattling chains) But here, all that remain of these beings are their senses, their jealousy, their violence, their pettiness are all that keep them in existence. So of course they’re always fighting amongst themselves.

As with any horror film, the good doctor is the voice of reason. Only here, because we are in a nightmare, his rational explanations are weirder than anything we’ve heard before.

This curious explanation accepted, Carmus (obviously dead himself) and Foster then wander through the castle’s empty forgotten ballroom. They stand at the top of the stairs and Carmus looks down, uttering the incredibly cinematic line ~

“It is the hour. Words have no meaning.”

And suddenly, before Foster and Carmus’ eyes, the ballroom suddenly lights up with dancers and (a kind of) life!

This is my favourite scene in the film: a scene where one kind of ghost watches a different kind. Spirits kept alive by their senses watch bodies trapped in time.

When atheist Mike Hodges made his supernatural masterpiece “Black Rainbow” he protested it wasn’t a ghost story at all, but a tale of quantum mechanics. He said that because particles can be in several places in the same time, it was possible to experience time slippage, to see events before (or long after) they happen, and interpret that as an afterlife.

So perhaps what we’re seeing here is quantum mechanics, but witnessed by ghosts.

We see this ball from long ago. Everyone is having a splendid time, saying things like “magnificent party” and “the castle seems so full of life” (irony in European horror often has the force of a guillotine).

Elisabeth is here in the past, with her husband. He has an interesting line about how impressed he was with America “much more vitality than France or Italy.” Considering this film is a French/Italian co-production, this seems to be a comment on the work itself and Margheriti’s decision to ape the “vital” Americans Roger Corman and Poe.

If I can talk about European Horror for a moment., I was always fascinated by how many of the British Hammer Horror films were set in other European countries, and what this said about Britain’s perception of Europe. The continent as “other”, a place of blood, sex and old world mythology. All those RP accents trying to pronounce “Burgomeister.”

But what of this Italian/French horror film set in England? What does this say about their perception of the English?

It portrays the English as prizing respectability above all: Foster instantly believes that Elisabeth would be locked away in her castle because of a scandal. We’re told that Lord Blackwood’s original name was “Blackblood” because he was descended from lowly, overenthusiastic hangmen. Respectability is everything.

It also shows the English as deeply repressed and show what this repression conceals: At the respectable dance, everyone is curtseying & bowing, while the Lady’s lover, a lowly groundskeeper taps on the window, asking for a rendez-vous (the origin of The Macho).

Within minutes, the formal ball descends into an orgy, with seductions interrupted by murder, interrupted by further seductions and even more murder, resulting in 4 half naked corpses.

Foster now finds himself unstuck in time. The film is apparently a linear situation: its supposed to be one night in the castle, but Foster finds himself falling through different time periods, forced to watch as these spirits of passion attack various visitors in the castle’s past.

Foster watches as victims succumb to the half-naked muscled man. He witnesses happy newly-weds killed on their wedding night (shades of Shelley’s Frankenstein).

Dr Carmus, seen long ago, is attacked, receiving a particularly homoerotic bite to the neck from The Macho. Reason has not only departed, it was never really there. The man who explained death, as dead the whole time.

And Foster, once the cool distanced sceptic, becomes the engaged audience of a horror film. He screams at the victims from the past, trying to warn them as they re-enact their doom. But this is like a film, it all happened long ago and he can do nothing. Perhaps this is his salvation: in a world where senses defy death, he’s actually starting to feel something.

This is the real danse macabre, repeating the same murders year after year, a whirling, circular dance “The dead come back again and re-enact the tragedies that cost them their lives.”

And as these people from the past are murdered in moments intense emotion, their senses will also live on as spirits. The ghosts of passion create more ghosts. The castle will soon be full.

Finally The Macho, and all the other spirits of passion come for Foster himself, and pursue him across the castle. They want to feast on his blood, so they can live on, and argue, and watch themselves die for another year.

But Elisabeth returns and breaks the chain. She tells Foster she has fallen in love with him as she never could when she was alive. It’s a hopeful moment-the dead can learn. She shows him a safe passage out of the castle, so that he can escape as the sun rises.

In the end, however, Foster is felled by one more slamming door. He is struck on the head by a particularly nasty spiked gate, just before dawn. It seems all is lost.

Blackwood & Poe arrive to discover Foster’s corpse waiting for them. In a nice touch, Lord Blackwood quietly takes his winnings from the corpse’s pocket.

Finally we get an explanation of the mysterious opening credit as Poe sadly observes, “When I’ll tell this story, no-one will believe me” (and 100 years later, when Margheriti claims that this film is a lost tale by Poe, no-one will believe him either.)

Poor Poe has been trapped in his own story the whole time, unable to act, just to witness.

So was it all for nothing? Did Elisabeth just perpetuate the cycle of eros & death? Are she and Foster like the carnal lovers of Dante’s Inferno, forced to whirl & spin in a circle of lust forever?

I don’t think so. Foster didn’t survive but he didn’t get his blood drunk by the big muscular man either. He’s between two worlds. Hanging on the gate, between the mansion and the outside world.

At the beginning of the film, his attitude to life was “There’s nothing new. The world goes on and remains the same” so he was practically a ghost already, just trapped in a much larger castle.

The image of morning sun and the final lines offer some hope:

“Did you stay for me, Alan?”

“Yes, Elisabeth.”

Now his senses will be united with her Elisabeth. They’ll stay at the castle, and it seems a lovely property in the daylight. Hopefully their senses will be very happy together. “All that is solid melts into air.”

Repetitions in Repetitions.

The film had a middling reception and Antonio Margheriti had mixed feelings about the result. He later said: “When today we rediscover and screen these things of the past I don’t think they’re any good in themselves, they may be good to those of us who experienced them back in their own time.”

Spoken like a true haunted spirit, looking back at his past: it was good at the time.

He remade the film six years later as Web of the Spider (or Dracula im Schloß des Schreckens to use its ridiculous German title).

The story remained the same but was now in colour, with Klaus Klinski as Poe and gratuitous bloodletting. Margheriti regretted this version even more.

The film became like one of his spirits, endless repeating itself, needing more blood to live.

One can imagine Margheriti carrying on. endlessly reliving and remaking Danse Macrabre making it increasingly violent, over and over.

But instead, fortunately, he found peace making Yor: Hunter of the Future.

James Silk

Fever Pitch

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2017 by dcairns

Running a blogathon in early December nicely replaces the childhood excitement of an advent calendar — instead of opening little panels in a cardboard object with a bad painting of the nativity on it, I’m getting articles through email or the comments section, little treats more sweet than chocolate. “And the day Jesus was born, that was equivalent to a double-sized bit of chocolate!” Actually, in my day, the tabs opened to simply reveal more, smaller bad art underneath. So this is MUCH better.

David Melville Wingrove essays the final film of Gerard Philipe below, and finds it marks and end point in more ways than one. Philipe died at the age of 36, like Marilyn Monroe. Like Bela Lugosi, he had himself buried in costume — in his case, as Don Rodrigue, El Cid. Why?

FEVER PITCH

La Fièvre Monte à El Pao has one of those titles that invariably sound better in French. Its literal English translation – “The Fever Rises at El Pao” – sounds more like an idea for a movie that never got made than a lavish international screen epic. This tale of passion and politics on a sweltering Caribbean island was the last film of its star, the French matinee idol Gérard Philipe. Perhaps the most consummate romantic hero in screen history, Philipe is cast (uncomfortably) as an ineffectual bureaucrat trying to reform a corrupt and brutal system from the inside. As befits the perversity of such casting, La Fièvre was also the last vaguely disreputable film by its director, the Spanish provocateur and surrealist Luis Buñuel.

In fifteen years as a peripatetic hack-for-hire, Buñuel had turned out a fair few masterpieces (Los Olvidados, El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz). Yet much of his work was frankly awful and even his most vocal fans fall silent after watching Gran Casino or Cela S’Appelle L’Aurore. Whether for better or for worse, Buñuel lacked the whorish mentality required to handle cheap melodrama as if it were High Art. Unlike the masters of the genre (Douglas Sirk, Teuvo Tullio, Roberto Gavaldón) he made no effort to hide his contempt for his material. He seemed – in his very worst movies – to want to punish his audience for paying money to watch such tripe. In his choice of camera angles and mise en scène, Buñuel did his utmost to ensure a philistine movie public would derive no pleasure from its experience whatsoever. With luck, they might not darken the doors of a cinema again!

A Franco-Mexican co-production from 1960, La Fièvre Monte á El Pao was the last film Buñuel would ever make in this vein. A year later, he returned to his native Spain to shoot Viridiana, a scabrous black comedy that won the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Like all his best work, it was cold, brilliant and almost wholly devoid of conventional entertainment value of any sort. Its success not only garlanded Buñuel as a gilt-edged international auteur, but also ensured that his later films – whether they were great (Belle de Jour) or abysmal (The Milky Way) – would hereafter be venerated as Art. Although it was by no means its director’s last film, La Fièvre marked the end of one career and heralded the start of another. Fitzgerald may have insisted there were “no second acts in American lives.” But movie-makers have as many lives as they can persuade a producer to pay for.

So how interesting is the film itself? The chief fascination of La Fièvre lies in the sheer epic folly of its star pairing. The script would have us believe Philipe’s character – a meek and rather unappetising little fellow – has been nursing a secret passion for María Félix, the voluptuous man-eating wife of the island’s brutal governor. Like other barn-storming divas of her ilk – Bette Davis, Anna Magnani, Joan Crawford – Félix found it next to hard to find a leading men strong enough to hold their own against her. She was cast most effectively opposite icons of Latin machismo (Pedro Armendáriz, Arturo de Córdova) or, failing that, young men so handsome but insignificant that a director might just as well have borrowed a tailor’s dummy out of Wardrobe.

Quite clearly, Gérard Philipe is neither one nor the other. It may be possible, just about, to dream up a more incongruous romantic duo. Jeremy Irons and Carmen Miranda, perhaps? Or maybe Greta Garbo and Adam Sandler? Still, it is hard to picture Félix and Philipe in the same movie – let alone on the same island and least of all in the same bed. But that does not stop Buñuel from trying. When the governor gets assassinated, his widow (Félix) and his secretary (Philipe) promptly become lovers. They set about reforming the island’s penal colony along humane and liberal lines. Well, Philipe does anyway. Félix spends the film prowling about like a bored panther, wondering if Philipe has enough flesh on his bones to make a square meal.

From an audience point of view, the arrival of a new governor (Jean Servais) is a not entirely unwelcome distraction. He soon pegs Philipe as a dangerous liberal and forces Félix to go to bed with him, as a way to keep her lover out of prison. This sexual encounter is the one vaguely memorable scene in the entire movie. A man of somewhat ‘specialised’ tastes, Servais has the bedroom decked out as if for a funeral, with black crape curtains round the bed and a plethora of phallic votive candles. A none-too-subtle strain of necrophilia creeps through many a Buñuel film – from Abismos de Pasión/Wuthering Heights to Viridiana to Belle de Jour – and this scene is nothing if not true to form. Would it be rude of us to suspect that Félix actually has a better time with this monster than she ever has with poor befuddled Philipe?

The rest of La Fièvre Monte á El Pao is flat and rather boring – which is, for a melodrama, the one unpardonable crime. A lesser director than Buñuel would have revelled in the gratuitous sadism of the island’s prison guards. He might, in so doing, have egged on the audience to share in the mounting spirit of revolt among the prisoners – which spills over (largely off-screen) in a bloody and calamitous rebellion. Yet Buñuel seems to have thoroughly digested Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil.” The guards on this island are not sadists, simply bored functionaries doing their job. By the same token, Philipe’s character is not a hero – just a weak and well-intentioned liberal bent on reforming a system that is inherently beyond reform.

Philipe’s position seems ironically akin to that of Buñuel himself. Judging from what we see on screen, Buñuel’s only aim in directing this melodrama (apart, naturally, from the money he was paid) was to display his unalloyed contempt for his material and his own Olympian superiority to melodrama as a genre. That is a deeply unlikeable position for a director to be in – but when did Luis Buñuel ever want to be liked? His promotion to full-fledged auteur status, the following year, would turn out to be nobody’s loss and everybody’s gain. Not least because he could finally leave steamy and melodramatic trash like La Fievre to those of us who really enjoy it!

David Melville

Untaken

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2016 by dcairns

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I can recall my New york chum Jaime Christley, years and years ago before I’d actually met him, expressing dissatisfaction with Bunuel’s penultimate opus, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, arguing that with its endless parade of French stars, it resembles a gallic TOWERING INFERNO. I suggested instead that THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is the Bunuel film closer to the Irwin Allen-John Guillermin group jeopardy nonsense — a bunch of rich people in evening dress attend a swank party and are mysteriously unable to leave.

At any rate, I rather like PHANTOM, preferring it to the follow-up, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, which I really think would be pretty desultory had not Bunuel fired poor Maria Schneider and happened upon the bold idea of replacing her with two unalike actors, who alternate throughout at random. It’s a terrific trick: you know he’s doing it, but it’s really hard to concentrate on the constant substitution, since the continuity of narrative and mise-en-scene keeps telling our subconscious that it’s positively the same dame.

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While OBJECT has a great story idea and a great casting gimmick, PHANTOM, like DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE before it, has a ton of ideas and a ton of gimmicks, many of them brilliant. It lacks the unifying conceit of its predecessor, it’s true (friends try to have dinner; fail) but the way it weaves its fragmented sketches together, and the way some of them return for encores, I find dazzling. Another skeptical friend dismisses it as “slow Monty Python,” but the leisurely pace for me is part of the charm, contributing to the deadpan effect. Skits unfold pedantically, as if nothing odd were happening at all.

The missing child scenario is probably the best — every parents’ nightmare gets played out perfectly straight, save for one rogue element — the missing child is right there all the time. Characters can see and talk to her, and she talks right back. But they still believe she#s missing. Bunuel and his co-scenarist. Jean-Claude Carriere, play this stuff out as naturally as possible, with just the one alteration to the norm which makes the whole ritual of questioning teachers and putting out an All Points Bulletin completely nonsensical.

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Best of all is the unexpected pay-off several sequences later when the detective attempts to explain how the child has been recovered. “This ought to be good,” we think, awaiting the impossible explanation. But some loud extraneous noise drowns the guy out as he reaches the crucial portion (after an incongruous opening about the inhabitants of a small town being awoken by a deafening blast). It reminds me of Leo G. Carroll’s spy plot exposition in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which Hitchcock wisely smothered in aircraft sound to save the audience having to listen to some boring information. Information is not drama.

In Bunuel’s version, we really want to hear the explanation, which seems set to be very dramatic indeed, so it’s hilarious when he frustrates us. Like the hot-and-cold temptress of THAT OBSCURE OBJECT, the film keeps teasing us with narrative resolutions, then crosses its legs tightly when we get close to satisfaction.