Archive for Mario Bava

Chamber of Dreams

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2016 by dcairns

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One after another, the films in out POW!!! retrospective turn out to be far better when seen on the big screen than one would expect — DANGER: DIABOLIK’s somewhat episodic plot seems to flow more smoothly, MODESTY BLAISE’s jarring tonal shifts seem more thought-through, and BARBARELLA —

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I used to assume that of the army of writers on this film (including Hammer scribe Tudor Gates, also credited on DIABOLIK), Terry Southern was probably responsible for the funniest lines, but when I got ahold of the Grove Press (!) edition of Jean-Claude Forest’s comic strip, I found they’d been lifted straight from its speech balloons. (“A great many dramatic situations begin with screaming!”) All of them are enhanced, however, by Jane Fonda’s witty and inventive line readings. How many ways of doing wide-eyed innocence ARE there? An infinite number, apparently. Fonda not only makes the film funnier, she defuses offense in the more exploitative scenes, reassuring us that good taste, and the heroine, will not be violated altogether.

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Embodying a very up-to-the-minute view of the future, 1968-style (the swishy shipboard computer seems like a riposte to 2001, but surely can’t be), the film is also, by movie standards, comparatively generous towards its source, crediting Forest once for co-co-co-co-co-co-writing, and once for design. Combining his art with the craft of production designer Mario Garbuglia (THE LEOPARD) results in wonderfully Felliniesque settings.

In my intro I said that Roger Vadim’s direction was the weakest link, but after watching the film with an audience I would have to retract that halfway — true, Vadim’s marshalling of his resources into camera coverage sometimes seems a bit random, so that you frown at shapeless footage of clearly magnificent environments and crowds — not as bad as CALIGULA, say, but a milder version of that effect — “I know we’re in an amazing set, but we just can’t see it!” As if, having covered his wife/star, Vadim had no clear plan for how to present anything else, and just let the cameramen roam about as if in a behind-the-scenes documentary. But the pacing of the film is really good. Despite their charms, DIABOLIK and MODESTY BLAISE are both peppered with dead spots in their talking scenes, partly a result of rather thin sound design, partly a result of directors who are either not so comfortable with actors (Bava, I’m afraid) or with comedy timing (Losey, unquestionably). BARBARELLA, in front of an audience, really PLAYS.

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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.

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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.

Robinson in Space

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2015 by dcairns

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ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, directed by sci-fi old hand Byron Haskin, is a movie I should really have seen as a kid, but I only just saw it now. Fiona kept insisting that we had watched it already, but that she wanted to see it again, only the second of which was true, apart from the “again” part. I may sometimes entirely forget the details of a film I’ve seen, but I’m generally right about what I’ve seen and what I haven’t.

Fiona likes monkeys. I like them too. Maybe I should say Fiona loves monkeys. So as far as we were concerned, Mona the monkey, billed only as “the woolly monkey” — to protest sensitive young minds to the fact that Mona was played by Barney — a monkey in drag, the obscenity! — was the star of the show.

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Fiona read up on the movie beforehand and was able to point out that when Man Friday is being agonized by his electric slave bangle, Barney/Mona started spontaneously copying actor Victor Lundin’s writhings.

Barney being so charismatic and so adorable in his spacesuit is kind of unfair to Paul Mantee, who holds the film together with a really committed and credible performance. I don’t really believe Mantee knew what oxygen starvation is like, necessarily, but I certainly believe he chose a way to play it which is compelling and disturbing. I do wish Haskin hadn’t introduced him hanging upside down, pretending it’s zero gravity: Mantee’s forehead veins look fit to burst. Mantee being main character, he ought to have been right-side-up, with co-star Adam West inverted. After all, West was good at defying gravity, look at all those wall-climbing scenes in Batman.

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Some really attractive Mars-scapes seal the deal. This is probably Ib Melchior’s finest hour, certainly finer than REPTILICUS! or JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES looks gorgeous and has some interesting sci-fi ideas to boot, but I always struggled with the boring characters and lack of humanity. The leads are so bland Mario Bava was able to replace one of them halfway through filming and hardly anyone notices (thanks in part to the dubbing, I guess). But I must confess I have yet to watch ANGRY RED PLANET, which always fascinated me when I saw stills of it. Old Ib, who passed away this March, had what you would call an interesting career — no masterpieces, but working in a genre if not despised then at least loftily patronised, he contributed to a bunch of amusing or fun movies and made them better than they might have been.

Fiona would also like you to know that co-star Lundin’s bizarre song, which he would perform at conventions, is available to enjoy on YouTube here. Few songs can be said to evoke so many emotions at once, none of which really belong together.

Movie is available with a really nice package of extras (including the song) from Criterion.